With Batman: The Complete Animated Series out now on Blu-ray, we continue our celebration of BTAS by catching up with one of the show’s mainstay voice talents: the brilliant Loren Lester. Whether as Robin or as Nightwing, Lester delivered a multi-layered Dick Grayson throughout BTAS and beyond, and we were lucky enough to grab some time with Loren to discuss a whole host of fun and fascinating topics.
STARBURST: When did it become clear to you that acting and voice acting was a realistic career for you?
Loren Lester: I started at a very young age – I was sixteen – and I was very lucky, because the agent that I had covered all of the different areas where actors worked. Now it’s very specialised – you have a voiceover agent, you have a commercial agent, you have a movie and TV agent – so this agent I had, my very first one, he had departments for all of the different areas. I started working immediately; I worked with the great Hanna-Barbera studio, I was very fortunate to do that, and the rest is history. I’ve been doing voiceovers, I’ve been doing commercials, I’ve been doing movies, I’ve been doing theatre. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve just passed forty years as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which I’m very proud of. It came to me as a bundle – wherever we can sell you, wherever we think you can work you’ll work – and I was very lucky.
Until the mid ‘90s, it seemed as if voice acting was almost a closed shop of sorts – as in a lot of the same people did a lot of the shows out there.
It was very small group of people, and I was lucky enough to be embraced by that small community. Now, of course, it’s wide open, and especially a lot of celebrities are doing the work. They all have kids, so they love the idea that they’re going to be doing animated shows and their kids are going to hear them. It’s very, very fulfilling to them. Back then, it was kind of unusual. We had tonnes of celebrities do our show, but it was kind of the beginning of that. It was really the breakthrough of that. We had some incredible people, people who’d been working in television for many, many years. Especially a lot of them had been in radio. Bob Hastings, who played Commissioner Gordon, actually had a big radio career. He was familiar with voiceover, but he was also a TV actor. I remember him from McHale’s Navy. It was exciting for me to be working with all of these people I’d grown up with on television.
You have a background in stage work, much like Kevin Conroy. Do you feel that there’s something about stage performers that translates perfectly to voiceover work?
Voiceover actors are simply wonderful actors. The best acting that people can get is in the theatre. Most people agree with that. A lot of people don’t get a theatre career anymore, they just say, “I want to be a voiceover actor.” But the best ones are people who are well trained actors, and the best training is in theatre. So yeah, that helped me. Kevin was a theatre actor, Mark Hamill, Bob Hastings, we were all theatre actors. And the celebrities, too. They all had had starts in theatre. So that was a big, big thing.
When BTAS was being cast, there was some major A-list competition for the key roles. How was the audition process for you, and do you know who you were up against?
I don’t know for certain, because I’m not on the other side of things, but I don’t think there were any celebrities. I know that every colleague of mine was up for the part, everybody wanted it; everybody really, really wanted the role of Robin. That was my pool of actors, all of my colleagues who I knew from auditions and work. I don’t think that there were any celebrities that they auditioned for it. Now, of course, that’s the first thing they do; they go for a celebrity. It’s too bad, because we have such a fantastic cast. We’ve become the icons of Batman and Robin and Nightwing. We are the icons of that, and it’s too bad that they say, “Well, let’s get a celebrity the next time we do a Batman or Robin show.”
It’s testament to those involved in BTAS that your voices have become synonymous with these characters. To this day, people hear your voices when they’re reading comic books.
I hear that so often, I hear that all the time. I’m at Rhode Island Comic Con and I know that I’m going to hear that at least a hundred times. And I’m saying that in a good way. It’s really an honour to hear a lot of people saying that to me. I have a very good friend who actually wrote a series of Nightwing comic books, and he said, “While I was writing it, I was hearing your voice in my head.” It’s just an honour and it means a lot.
Were you a fan of DC Comics and the whole Batman mythos before you became involved in Batman: The Animated Series?
I had a real passion for the Batman series of the ‘60s. I was a very little child. Now I look at it and I see that it’s a spoof, it’s funny. As a kid, I took it very seriously. It would play on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Tuesday they’d leave a cliff-hanger. Tuesday, I’d say, “Oh my god, Batman and Robin are going to die! They won’t be back on Wednesday!” Of course, they would be. Everyone else who was older was just, “Of course they’re going to be back!” But to me, it was very, very serious. I had every possibly piece of memorabilia I could find. I had everything you could possibly get; the utility belt, there’s the Batman you threw up in the air and he’d land with a parachute. So I was a huge Batman fan. I wasn’t necessarily a big fan of Robin. I didn’t hate Robin or anything, but I was a Batman fan. So, when the opportunity came for me to audition for this, I was pretty excited about it. “Oh wow, I have the opportunity to be the voice of Robin!” I think only one other person at that point had been the voice of Robin, so it was an opportunity to kind of recreate that voice.
As someone who grew up reading comics, I always took Robin as a big deal – whether that was Dick, Jason, Tim, Stephanie, Damian…
No, no, no. There’s no other Robin, there’s just Dick Grayson [laughs].
For those who were only familiar with Robin from the Adam West and Burt Ward TV show, they often saw Robin as a joke character. In that regard, Batman: The Animated Series had such an important role in making people realise just how much of a fascinating character Dick Grayson is.
What they did was very smart. They started the Robin character in college, so that he was already older, he wasn’t this naïve kid. He was at a crossroads. He’s still young and naïve in some ways, but ready to transition. Later on, when they transitioned him to Nightwing, it was perfect because he was already on his way to getting there when they started him as Robin. By the time they got to Nightwing, he was ready for that. Interestingly enough, when I do these conventions and panels, I learn things that I never ever knew that were going on. Bruce [Timm] and Eric [Radomski] said they had no plans when they started the show of having Nightwing, which was interesting because it seemed like they were headed in that direction. Maybe it was subliminal or something, that they knew they wanted to go in that direction. And it was great, because he became his own man, he became his own superhero, and he was important as opposed to just being a sidekick.
Had did you approach that transition, from the Boy Wonder to a full-blown hero of his own?
It was very exciting, because when the show ended I thought that was the end of it. I didn’t know that they were going to go on and create The New Batman Adventures. Andrea [Romano] called me up and she said, “I have some good news and some bad news for you. You’re not going to be Robin anymore…” I was just, “Oh my god, why?!” “But, you’re now going to be Nightwing.” I was just so excited that that’s where they were taking the character. I think the show ended far too soon, because I think they really had plans to go even further with that, even create a Nightwing series at the time, but it never happened. If they ever made this Nightwing movie that they’re talking about, then maybe they will make a Nightwing series – and, y’know, I’m available. When they make the live-action Nightwing movie, there’ll be some young hunk in spandex, but then they’ll turn around and make an animated series. That’ll be me.
When you’re so synonymous with a role, how is it to see other people voicing that character?
It’s not great. Every time they’ve done a new version of the show after our version of the show, they’ve actually made me audition for the role. They said, “We want something different, different than it used to be.” The fans don’t want it to be different. The fans want that. Every time I do these comic cons, they say, “When are there going to be new episodes? We want that show, not these other iterations.” Every time they do a new version, when they try to create something new from the ground up, it’s not really what the fans want. The fans want the show that we did. And you still have Kevin, you still have me, you still have Diane Pershing [Poison Ivy], you still have Paul Williams [Penguin], Mark Hamill. We’re all still here and we can all still do these voices. We could do this show again, and please not just one generation but two generations of fans. Every time I do these comic cons, I have people come in who watched the show originally, so they’re in their 30s, and they’re standing there with their kids who are 10, and they watch it together. Even the last show I did, which was Alamo City Comic Con, I had three generations. I had the grandfather, his son, and the grandson. That’s three generations that love that show and ask, “When is it coming back?” Hopefully after they release this Blu-ray, people at DC and Warner Brothers will say, “Hey, let’s do this again.”
It was, and still seems to be, a rarity to have an ensemble cast brought together for rehearsals and performance.
Nowadays, when you work you usually are by yourself. Especially with interactive games, you’re totally by yourself in a booth. So this was a great thing, and Andrea was very responsible for that. The group ensemble, it’s like doing a mini play, a mini radio play. We were all there, even the celebrities. Now, you’ll do a job and hear how so-and-so will do their own stuff when they’re available. With this, the celebrities were always there. We never had anybody be a prima donna; they were all there.
With BTAS, Dick Grayson didn’t turn up straight away, instead being introduced later down the line. Do you know what the thought was behind that?
What happened was I did the pilot episode. The original concept was Robin was going to be there from the beginning, but then they decided they wanted it to be a darker show, they wanted it to be like that first Batman movie with Michael Keaton. They wanted him to be a loner, very dark, and they drew the cells on dark paper, and the music was very dark and foreboding. They wanted a dark show, and they didn’t want it to be lightened up by the presence of Robin. After however many episodes it was, FOX Kids said, “Hey, where’s Robin? You can’t have Batman without Robin.” They started to put me in a few episodes, then they did this two-part episode called Robin’s Reckoning, which was a turning point. After they wrote that and after we recorded it, they saw that Robin was a really important part of the story. Things changed and Robin became a really important part of the show. That was an episode that won an Emmy, which was very nice. That was a great two-part story. I remember getting those scripts and thinking, “Wow, he’s really going to become part of the show.”
Audiences were instantly in love with BTAS, but, as someone who was involved in the series, when did you realise you were on to something truly special?
Remember, we record the voice first and then they animate to the voice. So, we didn’t see anything for six months to a year after we recorded it. Only then when we came back in for ADR, where we have to replace some of the dialogue, did we say, “Oh wow, this is really different.” It wasn’t a cartoon, it was truly a cinematic experience. That’s what Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett and all of these people, they were creating a cinematic experience like a movie not like a cartoon. It was at that point, after we’d recorded many, many episodes, that we started to see the show being completed. There was a richness and a subtlety. Cartoons aren’t very subtle, but you think about Robin’s Reckoning, one of my favourite moments is that you don’t see the death of Dick Grayson’s parents. You see a rope swing out of frame and then swing back broken. You know exactly what’s happened, and the drama of it is just as powerful, it not more powerful, than if you’d seen them go splat.
Moments like that were just so cleverly constructed, covering some rather serious topics and dark moments but still managing to work within the restrictions of a kids cartoon show.
They were up against restrictions. No one ever died in that series, they couldn’t show blood. It’s just like in the golden age of Hollywood they couldn’t show sex or real violence. They could show a guy getting shot and dying, but the violence that we’re used to now, they couldn’t show any of that. But they created fantastic atmospheres, and that’s what this show did – it created a fantastic atmosphere even under the restrictions.
When we see Dick become Nightwing in The New Batman Adventures, was that still like putting on a familiar old slipper, or did you approach it a little differently?
In a way, but also the scripts for my character were much richer. When I got those scripts, there was so much more for me to sink my teeth into as an actor. It was very exciting coming back and seeing those scripts. At the time, and I don’t know if it’s still the case, but there was a policy where when you reach a certain number of episodes for syndication, you stop making the show and make a new show. Which is too bad, as I think there was a big audience then, and there’s a big audience now for it. The fans didn’t want it to end, we were hugely popular, yet they still ended the show because they felt that they had enough for syndication. It’s not like we jumped the shark – we didn’t have enough time to jump the shark!
The quality was definitely still there in The New Batman Adventures…
My favourite one from The New Batman Adventures was Old Wounds. I got to play both characters; I got to play Robin because they did a flashback, and then in the present I got to play Nightwing. They told the whole backstory of how Robin fell out with Batman and his conflicted moralities. He wasn’t going to put up with that anymore, so he punched Batman and he left to become his own man. That was a pretty thrilling episode from The New Adventures. We can see it again, they just need to pull the trigger.
That would be brilliant to see, although there’s the fact that Andrea Romano and Alan Burnett are now retired, and Paul Dini and Bruce Timm no longer seem to have a working relationship. Given that the crew of Batman: The Animated Series was just as important as the cast, it could prove tricky.
When we did Batman and Harley Quinn, that was Bruce’s film. I don’t know if he’s interested or what’s going on, but I think he could pull the trigger. Actors are the last people to know. When I did Batman and Harley Quinn, I got a call out of the blue. I had no idea they were writing it or doing it. So, I have no idea what they’re planning or what’s on the drawing board, be that DC or Warner Brothers. I think if they wanted to, they could definitely do it. We had a perfect reunion last year, so we could do it again – Kevin and me and Bruce, and it was terrific.
Why do you think that Batman: The Animated Series is still held up as so special by so many people?
People love comic books because comic books create three-dimensional characters with backstories and reasons for what they do, including the villains. They have reasons for what they do, and the show was very concentrated on that. All of the villains – except for The Joker, who’s just insane and we don’t know what his story is – everyone had a backstory for what they did and why the did it. It was three-dimensional characters, living, breathing human beings. That’s what makes a great comic book, and that’s what makes a great animated series. Nowadays, they don’t always follow that rule.
Was there ever a preference for you between playing Robin and Nightwing?
They were both incredibly fun, but I do have a special love for Nightwing. Nightwing really became his own man, and the scripts really became very multi-faceted for him. Robin was a sidekick in many, many of the episodes, but Nightwing was his own man – so I have a great affinity to that character. People tell me when they come up to me, “Nightwing is the coolest!” And I say, “You know what? You’re right!” He’s just a really cool character.
It might be like asking you to choose a favourite child, but is there a specific favourite episode, moment, or scene for you?
It’s three things. Mostly, it’s Old Wounds because I got to play both Robin and Nightwing, both sides of Dick Grayson. And then, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. That was a terrific movie. I’ve done a number of on-camera films, and that was like doing a really good on-camera film. Then, of course, Robin’s Reckoning.
As an actor, do you have a preference between live-action or animation work?
No, not at all. I’ve been very lucky to have a 40-year career doing all of this. When it’s a really good script and a really good director and everything is going terrific, it doesn’t matter if it’s animated or it’s live-action. Those experiences are unfortunately pretty rare. There’s usually a factor missing, like the script is good but everybody involved isn’t so good, or just other different variations of that. I did a movie called Red Eye that was directed by Wes Craven. That was a great example – a good script, a great director, the cast, everything was spectacular. Here [BTAS], I’ve had many, many episodes having that experience.
Is there a particular dream project out there for you, either Batman or not-Batman related?
I would love to take the next step. As you know, in the comic books Nightwing becomes Batman in Knightfall. It would be interesting, not to necessarily do it that way, but to have Kevin and I existing together as competing Batmen. With Kevin and myself, we love working together. I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m assuming that he feels the way that I do, that he would really love to do that.
Batman: The Complete Animated Series is out now on Blu-ray.