This article originally appeared in Volume XX, Issue VIII of The University Observer and online at universityobserver.ie
Renowned voice actor John DiMaggio talks to Niall Goskerabout the challenges and pleasures of the job, living in the Land of Ooo, and braving rabid Mark Hamill fanboys
There’s a very good chance that if you wouldn’t recognise John DiMaggio by appearance, you’d almost definitely be able to place his iconic voice. It’s a voice that has permeated some of the most popular and beloved pieces of entertainment over the past decade, from animation to video games. What’s even more impressive is how his range has allowed his work to mean so many different things to so many different people.
To some he’s the alcohol-guzzling robot Bender, to others a grizzled war veteran and earth’s last hope against a horde of reptilian humanoids. DiMaggio’s reach is a cross generational one too, with his most recent well-known role as Jake the Dog in the equally enjoyable for kids and adults cartoon Adventure Time.
Most voice actors usually don’t have the luxury of providing the sounds for even one defining pop culture icon but DiMaggio’s already got at least three under his belt.
“I was doing stand-up comedy in New York and I was in a comedy team and I wanted to get out of it,” says DiMaggio of his initial desire to step into the world of voice acting. “I had just got a new manager at the time and I asked her, I said you know, ‘I’d really like to do voiceover.’ I had heard from a friend of mine that it’s a good way to make money.”
Perhaps as equally important, it served as a way to “to do commercials without doing commercials,” DiMaggio understandably wishing to avoid being recognised in the street as the cheeseburger dude. “I did a lot voices in my act,” he goes on to explain. “So I just decided that I’d love to try doing some voiceover and within that week I had a voiceover agent and booked my first audition, so that was in 1995.”
After the successful audition, which was for a Toyota ad, DiMaggio decided to move to L.A. “That was when I started to get into a lot more animation stuff and, you know, the rest is kind of history after doing Futurama. It’s been a good run. I made a conscious effort to get into voiceover, but you know I kind of fell into animation.”
Having been so closely associated with Bender for many years, DiMaggio very much views this now intrinsic connection as a positive; although he’s happy to poke fun at the perils of such stardom. “It’s hard paying for drinks, I’ll tell you that much. I know if I were to come to Dublin, it’d be pint city, you know like, ‘you’re Bender, oh god!’”
“It’s actually pretty cool. You know the thing about it is, that when people find out you’re Bender they know you’re funny, which is good to be associated with that.”
Futurama’s devoted fan base led to its resurrection from cancellation in 2008, five years after it went off the air. For DiMaggio, slipping back into the role after such an extended break wasn’t a problem.
“Like riding a bike it was, it really was,” he says. “It’s just a character I’m really close with and it’s very special to be able to do the voice of a character for a cartoon because it’s always right there, very close to you, you’re really immediate with it.”
The delightfully whimsical fantasy cartoon Adventure Time is what currently occupies much of DiMaggio’s working hours. The show’s massively varied audience is really driven home when he meets its fans in person.
“It’s amazing the amount of people that are on the Adventure Time party train, it’s really something. What’s wild is when I go to conventions and I see the fans of the show, you know, it’s everybody. A whole family will walk up.
“The kid’ll be dressed as Finn, the dad’ll be dressed as Jake, the daughter’s dressed as Marceline, and the mum’s dressed as Princess Bubblegum. Or even a mum dressed as the Ice King who’s gone overboard, you know, ‘We’re seeing John DiMaggio today, we gotta represent!’ It’s just wild. The thing I like about it most is that it appeals to such a broad audience.”
While he may be most well-known for his comedic performances, DiMaggio enjoys more serious, dramatic work just as much. His stint as the Joker in 2010’s Batman: Under the Rod Hood is a particular highlight in this regard. Despite the role’s storied history, both on and off camera, the task of living up to his predecessors left him unfazed.
“I didn’t feel any pressure, but the only thing I did feel was the wrath of Mark Hamill fans,” DiMaggio jokes. “Those people, man, listen I know Mark. He loved my Joker. Mark came up to me and was like ‘John, I really love your Joker, I’ve been meaning to tell you this.’
“I got a picture on Twitter with him trying to get Mark Hamill fans to calm the fuck down, you know, it’s like take it easy. They’re unbelievable; they are rabid, rabid fans. And I get it; he was the Joker for like 20 years, I totally get it. But I didn’t feel any extra added pressure. All I needed to do was show up and blow up.”
With Microsoft recently acquiring the rights to the Gears of War series from Epic Games, it seems all but certain that a new entry is in development. DiMaggio hasn’t gotten the call just yet, but he’d be more than happy to lend his voice once more. “Listen, if I get to play Marcus Fenix again that’s just gravy right now, that’s just the cherry on top. I really enjoyed doing that. Doing voice for video games is the new big thing.”
It’s an increasingly complex task too, with motion capture performance becoming more commonplace as games try to tackle more sophisticated stories. “I just recently did a mocap, my first mocap. I’m not gonna tell you what it is but it’s pretty cool, it’s a pretty big deal.”
Such physicality is something DiMaggio is actually used to, the process of recording voiceover a surprisingly physical one. “I think voice acting is acting just with your hands and feet tied behind your back,” he remarks.
“It’s a very physical job. It’s not just going into a room and talking, you know people think that’s what you’re doing, no, it’s not. We’re performing this, we’re in it. Not only are we performing it, there are certain limits to what we can do physically in a voiceover session because you don’t want to move too much because the microphone will hear that.
“There’s things that you do with your face and there might be something you do with your arms and the way you have to stand to get it out. To me that’s part of your process, you know whatever gets you there gets you there.
“You have to also be conscious of where your face is in front of the microphone so that you’re not moving off mic or anything like that. There’s bad habits in the studio that people that aren’t voice actors do all the time, it’s much different than conventional performance.”
Despite the unsung difficulty of voice acting, it’s clear that DiMaggio very much loves what he does and still has a lot of fun getting the job done. “When your favourite cartoon voice actors are between when they’re recording and when they’re not recording, that’s the show. That’s the show that you wanna hear ‘cause it’s filthy. We’re all deranged lunatics and every class clown that ever existed is in that booth.”
A famous coming together of some of the most talented voices in the industry occurred at the Emerald City Comic-Con convention in 2012, where DiMaggio, along with fellow Futurama co-star Billy West, Batman staple Kevin Conroy, and many others, gathered to perform a radio play rendition of Star Wars.
“It kind of snuck up on us, we didn’t know it was going to take an hour and a half. If you noticed Billy West in the video, he’s so confused and he doesn’t understand why it’s funny when we’re doing it and he wants to get off stage. After the first 15 minutes he wants to leave. It’s really funny if you watch it again. “
Despite having being outrageously successful in his field, DiMaggio is remarkably humble about it all. “I’m blessed, I’m honoured, I’m lucky. I mean, I don’t know. People have trusted me with these characters and I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of people that thought I could do the job and cast me in it. I’ve been very fortunate and I bow to you all.
“If I have to do a video game, great. If I have to do a commercial, great. If I have to do a cartoon, great. If I have to do on-camera, great. I don’t care, as long as I’m working and being creative, I’m happy.”
It’s a dedicated work ethic that has so far yielded numerous memorable performances and one which will surely continue to reap the awards for DiMaggio in the future.