STARBURST was granted an interview with the Bat (we like to picture a bright red Bat-phone, although that was probably more Adam West’s style), where we quizzed Batman Himself on The Killing Joke, going dark and, um, Batman v Superman…
STARBURST: You first started voicing Batman over twenty years ago, which makes you the longest serving of all the screen Batmen.
Kevin Conroy: Next year, it will be 25 years!
To many, you are the definitive voice of the Bat. How does that make you feel?
Oh my God, it’s funny, because it’s the kind of thing where you book a job as an actor 24 years ago and you don’t even know how many episodes they’re going to buy. And then there’s a second season and a third season and then Batman: The Animated Series became The Adventures of Batman & Robin, and that became Batman Beyond, and then that became The Justice League and then that became the Arkham games, then movies. You never know. It’s a snowball rolling downhill. You just don’t know how long it’s going to go or how big it’s going to get. There was no way of telling that it was going to be as successful as it was and last as long as it did. I’m the envy of a lot of my actor friends.
So when you took on the mantle of the Bat, you didn’t expect to still be voicing him all these years later?
Oh, of course not. After about three years of The Animated Series, Warner Bros took out a two-page spread in Daily Variety to thank all of the actors who had been involved in the show, because it was on the anniversary of the 100th or 200th episode, and it was amazing. It was amazing who had been on that show, because it came to be known quickly around LA. The booking sessions were a lot of fun. Everyone wanted to be in there. They started getting some amazing actors. I had no idea of knowing it was going to turn into what it turned into.
And now you’re doing The Killing Joke! It’s an iconic story, regarded by many to be the definitive Batman/Joker tale. Were you nervous at all, approaching such a big story?
I approached it pretty naïvely, actually. I’m not as much of a comic book maven as, say, Mark Hamill is, or a lot of other comic book people are. Mark always brings me up to speed on this stuff because he really knows everything about animation. It’s amazing. I always approach these roles from an actor’s point of view, as an acting job. Once I read this story I thought, ‘wow, this is incredibly dark. This is really a dark, scary story.’ I wasn’t surprised when I heard they had to go for an R-rating. The stories are always intimidating, because the characters are so big, the stories are so big, and the emotional arcs are so big.
Any sense of pressure?
It is a little intimidating to approach these characters. The temptation is to overact, and you can’t. You have to resist that, and keep it real.
Mark Hamill has always said that he’s wanted to do The Killing Joke, that it’s always been his ambition. Not being a big comic book reader, was this the case for you also?
I was not as familiar with it as Mark. He actually turned me onto it. Once I read it, I realised why it was so iconic, that it’s a great story. That concept that all it takes is one bad day to make someone evil - and that argument that it’s not the case, which Batman makes - it’s wonderful to work out.
It’s an R-rated movie and, like the Arkham videogames, an older audience than the Animated Series of old. How does such an older audience and ‘darker’ story affect your performance?
The character’s the same. You have to be true to the character. In terms of an actor’s performance, it’s the same. In terms of the storyline you get to play, it’s more fun because there are more colours. He goes to more emotional places than he would in a PG version. I get to flex my acting muscles a little more.
Batman is Batman! Very gruff and stoic, but how have you had to modulate your Bruce Wayne performance over the years? Has that changed much for you?
I did. Early on, the idea to use two different voices. I said to Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, ‘Wait a minute - this is the richest, most powerful guy in Gotham City. He’s the most eligible bachelor. Everyone wants to get at him, everyone knows who he is. And he puts on a cape and a cowl and no-one knows it’s him? That’s ridiculous. Why don’t we mask his voice and make it more of a performance?’ And they liked that idea. Early on, I used the image of a David Niven type of character for Bruce Wayne. It really worked well. He had a lot of sarcasm, a lot more humour. And it worked really well. But over time the show was taking on a very dark past, and they thought it was a little too jarring. So they had me go back and re-record the first five episodes of the show before it went on the air, to tone down the Bruce Wayne voice – to make it closer to the Batman voice. There’s still a difference, but it’s subtle now.
In terms of ‘going dark’ we’ve just had Batman v Superman, which depicts Batman killing people and attempting to actually murder Superman. Do you feel you can go ‘too dark’ with Batman? Where would your Batman personally draw that line?
I personally love the fact that Batman doesn’t kill people. He arrests people and puts them in Arkham. That was always a line that Batman wouldn’t cross that I loved. I found that very disturbing in Batman v Superman. I didn’t think it was really necessary. That’s just a choice that the writers and directors made.
Alan Moore’s original story has attracted a lot of controversy in recent years, as attitudes and mind-sets change. Were you aware of that in the run-up to making the film?
I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t have as much of a history with it as the audience. I was not aware that it had become controversial.
Were you and Mark together while recording your performances? Is this something which had happened in the past?
We always recorded together for 24 years. This was one of the very few times we couldn’t because he was doing Star Wars. But at this point, we know each other’s performances so well that I knew what he was going to do with it.
So now you’ve done The Killing Joke. Are there any other big storylines or books you would like to adapt in future?
Anything that deals with Batman’s childhood and tortured beginning of his oath to his parents to avenge their deaths. Anything that goes into that segment of Bruce Wayne I love playing. It’s the essence of Bruce Wayne. It’s what underlines his passion. So any story that goes into that, I would love to do.
Bearing in mind that it’s another of the big, iconic storylines, did you feel that you missed out at all when Peter Weller took over as Batman in the Dark Knight Returns adaptation?
Well, it’s like the live action shows when they always use different actors for Batman. I think it’s interesting to see how different actors approach the role. I thought Mark Hamill was the definitive Joker. I thought no-one would ever do it as well as him. And then I saw Heath Ledger, and he was brilliant in a different way. He just brought a whole different quality to it. It didn’t diminish what Mark does. Mark is still, to me, the Joker. I don’t own the Batman voice so when they use other actors, I have to bow down to their brilliance and accept that there are other actors who do it as well as me…
Talking of other actors and Batmen, what did you make of Batman v Superman?
I thought the performances were great. It was a little too violent for me. In terms of performances, Ben Affleck was fantastic. Henry Cavill is wonderful.
And the modulated Bat-voice?
It sounded inhuman in a way. I think they did some kind of computer treatment to the voice, which I found kind of odd.
Do you get a lot of people asking you to repeat the ‘do you bleed’ line?
Oh yeah, I get asked to do that one. And ‘I am vengeance, I am the night’. There are certain iconic lines for me.