Beyond the Booth: Maurice LaMarche (Part 1)
by Sherry A. Moore
Voice Chasers staff member Sherry A. Moore sits down with two-time Primetime Emmyģ Award winning voice actor, comedian, and impressionist, Maurice LaMarche to discuss his career in this two-part interview. You know him best as the voice of The Brain in "Pinky and the Brain," Kif Kroker, Mobo, and Calculon in the animated series "Futurama," Egon Spengler in "The Real Ghostbusters," Dizzy Devil in "Tiny Toon Adventures," the official voice of Lexus cars, and many, many more.
Maurice LaMarche: [As Ted Knight narrator voice from Super Friends] This is the interview with Moe, take one. Meanwhile, back in the Hall of Justice...
Sherry Moore: [laughs] Letís just start really generally. When did you realize you wanted to pursue something in the entertainment industry?
ML: Wow, thatís a good question. I was just thinking about this today.
SM: Starting off great, yay.
ML: I was a very little kid, and we used to have a show in Canada called Tiny Talent Time. It featured 5 to 11 year olds doing whatever their little talents were. It was a local show, very small station. I told my grandmother, I think I might have been 8, ďI want to go on Tiny Talent Time and I want to tell jokes.Ē She said, ďOh my God, I canít imagine anything more silly, a little boy being a comedian. You donít go on television. Sing! Sing or dance or something like that.Ē So you know [laughs], that sort of crushed my spirit for a minute.
She ended up being my biggest booster because Ö I fell in love with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when it came out. I guess I was around 11 or 12. I used to sing ďRaindrops Keep Falling on My Head" around the house. She used to follow me aroundÖwell not follow me around but she used to make me, she would put on the instrumental of the record, instrumental version of the song, because we had the album of the soundtrack, my family were all huge Burt Bacharach fans. And she would make me sing. She even bought me a little microphone, like a primitive version of Mr. Microphone. She would just sit there, and I'd sing to her like a crooner. [Laughing] Only one song, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." So, I think that was the beginning part of that.
[In] sixth grade I had the lead in the Christmas pageant. I had a monologue, everyone else sang protest songs because it was in the middle of Vietnam. That gave me a love of performing because I got a standing ovation. My teacher, Mr. Dickinson, he was very socially conscious, socially aware monologue; I played this grey-haired sophisticate. I think it was all done in silhouettes, I had this helmet of sprayed-on silver hair, a smoking jacket, a pipe. Iím this older man talking to the audience about the ills of the world. So the standing ovation there, my grandmother, and then what really cemented it was the 10th grade variety show.
There were two guys, Harry Van Bommel and Steve Barton, who were seniors, who wrote my act with me. And I did, like, five impressions, and celebrities as waiters, which is something I never ever threw out. It was such a good little bit. We tweaked it a little bit as we went along but I loved the idea because everybody starts out as Ö every actor we love, know, and worship started out at a shit job, you know.
SM: Like a regular person, yeah.
ML: Yeah. They are a regular person.
ML: Weíre all regular people.
SM: You know what I mean.
ML: Weíre the lucky waiters. I didnít know that back then. So those three things Ö again, standing ovation. Doing something for the first time and getting such a huge reaction because youíre in a situation with such a low expectation. Like a high-school variety show so that if youíre even just a little bit better than average, they stand up for you, you know. So I did stand-up comedy in the high-school variety show and I was hooked. I was hooked on the adrenaline of watching people stand up at the end of my act. A point now that I make it compulsory, people must stand up when Iím done. Otherwise they canít leave the theater. So thatís where it all started for me.
SM: Were you certain as of that moment what you wanted to do? Did you consider anything else?
ML: I considered the priesthood at one point in my life. I considered, um, "chefing," getting involved in cooking, and doing that, the restaurant business. I always loved to cook but for no more than 6 people. So I think I wouldnít have done well as a chef but I still love food, as you can tell from looking at me. I love the preparation of it. I love when I make something successfully and I can tell people are enjoying what I make. That gives me a different type of gratification than getting off a good joke in front of a crowd or a good impression. Again, I was thinking of this the other day. If I hadnít done this, oh goodness, and itís so funny. It was only a moment, but I think I could have gone so completely the other way. I guess i thought about studying psychology and being a therapist for a minute. Thatís not the one I was thinking of but that was the other way I was thinking of going. And I think I was told that by a couple of people because Iím a good listener and I can be somewhat empathic for a narcissist. So those were my other career choices. This kind of took over.
SM: Iím glad that it did.
ML: Yeah, me too.
SM: You said in the past that you backpedaled into voice acting from stand-up. How do you think stand-up prepared you for the voiceover field?
ML: Well, it taught me my way around a joke. And so, of course having an act that was mostly impressions forced me to stretch those muscles, the voice-altering muscles. Stand-up doesnít teach you to play with others, though, and thatís something where iI wish Iíd done a little more Groundlings, or any Groundlings, or Second City or something like that, where I was still working with other actors. I mean I love it, but I guess it prepared me for those jobs, for instance the Disney feature jobs where they tend to record you by yourself. Putting myself in my own little world and playing the character without the other actors there. The director is always there playing the other parts with you and you create your own reality as you go through the scene. I always sort of picture the rest of the cartoon happening in front of me, you know, on the sort of blank parts of the script. When we were doing Pinky and The Brain, I donít see The Brain but I do see Pinky on my script, not related to Rob Paulsen, whoís right next to me, but I am looking at the script treating it like a projection screen.
SM: Or sometimes you were given storyboards to help you, too, right?
ML: Yeah. But I make my own storyboards in my head.
SM: Do you find improvisation to be more important for voiceover work or acting classes?
ML: Well, you know, sometimes itís so much about the written word I would never dream of improvising on a Futurama script or a Pinky and The Brain script. So for me improv, what little improv skills I have, have not been as useful as pure acting work. Getting into a character, getting in the characterís skin, that stuff has been more helpful. Candi Milo yesterday at the voiceover panel ["Cartoon Voices" panel at WonderCon], her improv skills are unbelievable. I think that really helps in the audition process, for sure, especially when they say ďimprovise something.Ē So for me, though, Iíve just found that the pure acting work, the pure acting studying Iíve done has been more helpful. I tend to freeze up a little bit when I hear that word that begins with an ďIĒ and ends with ďprovĒ: it just scares me. Of course the key with improv they tell me ďdonít be scared,Ē ďlet go of your fear.Ē
SM: ďGet out of your head.Ē
ML: ďGet out of your head and just be in the scene.Ē But you know Iíve always thought, you know, hanging out Ö first real improv I really got to spend any time around was The Comedy Store players [in Los Angeles], which was Robin Williams. He was so brilliant and always there with the great lines. And they can tell me 'til theyíre blue in the face that itís not about the great lines and how to hit the punchlines; itís about being in the reality of the scene. I watched Robin and Jim Stall and Jim Fisher and Lucy Webb and they had great jokes, they buttoned everything with a great joke. Iíve always been intimidated by improv. [Mock whining] Poor me, poor meÖ
SM: What do you think the key difference is between voiceover and live-action roles, other than the obvious?
ML: Hair, lighting, and makeup. In voiceover, no one can hear you get fat. Thatís my little cute line, thatís true. I think thereís much more attention paid to the performance itself rather than the whole package. So it certainly allows an actor greater access to parts within that little corner of the industry. So thatís really the main difference, the whole prejudice of, you know, the physical package doesnít exist, really just being taken on the strength of your vocal performance alone. Thatís whatís great about it.
SM: Do you believe you can be more creative because that pressure is off, that no one can see you and [you] can just go balls to the wall?
ML: I think so. I think playing different characters within the same scene the way Billy West does so brilliantly on Futurama is a very freeing thing. If they were to cast a live- action Futurama film, we might be able to supply a few voices for a few CGI scenes or something but we couldnít be human characters so itís limiting. On-camera work can be very limiting but with animation anything can happen.
SM: I remember you played Rod Sperling from The Facts of Life, which of course was a parody of Rod Serling from The Twilight Zone. What was that whole experience like?
ML: Well at the time I was still doing standup so I was still pursuing on-camera work. My career at that time was a little: was quite a balancing act. I had stand-up comedy at night, I was going after some on-camera work during the day, and doing animation. And, you know, they called my agent, they said we need a Rod Serling impression, and the theatrical department knew me from coming down to see me at the comedy store, and I was the first call. I had the part by the time I got home, so that was kind of cool. Iíd never really watched the show, we didnít have TiVo or YouTube or anything in those days, so I just went with, ďI will learn about the show when I get there.Ē And here I was with Cloris Leachman and this great script. It was so funny because it was [a] surreal episode, it was a nightmare episode. So a little free-er with cultural references, that type of thing. So it was interesting because the script was much joke-ier when we started. At the table read, I was astounded by how big the laughs were. There was this very nice young man who was in the episode with me, who played their neighbor George, his name was also George: George Clooney.
ML: He was just an extraordinarily nice guy, and, you know, itís the way it is on any show: youíre there for a week, youíre the guest star, they treat you very nicely, treat you like a guest. I did all the girlsí answering machines, they all brought me their little tape recorders on show day, and I gave them, they just loved all my impressions. Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, and Nancy McKeon all came down to The Comedy Store to catch my act. They talked me up to the others and so I was doing all their answering machines by the end of the week, including Georgeís, so it was just really funny to stage the thing and be Serling. At one point we couldnít have a real cigarette so we figured since itís a novelty store, weíll put a candy cigarette in Serlingís hand. And then we had to lose that so Iím just gesturing as if I have a cigarette. But everybody was just unfailingly nice, and Cloris especially was just great. And there was this brilliant Frau Blucher joke in there that got axed. It was heartbreaking to watch what happens as a show gets on its feet in terms of editing.
SM: And itís not what you remember it being, the brilliant thing it could have been.
ML: Well, I was just so surprised that this was The Facts of Life, this very hip, culturally-referential script, and it was still pretty funny but by the end of the week: it was probably about three quarters as funny as it was. Still, you know, a fan-favorite episode because it all takes place in a dream world. And I get a particular thrill because Iím in costume playing Serling all the way through, a great character, and at one point Iím in the same shot with George Clooney before he was...
SM: "George Clooney"
ML: ...a big deal, you know.
SM: Are you interested in pursuing live-action roles again? I think I remember your once saying quite some time ago that you were considering developing a one-man show?
ML: Yeah, I mean itís not as important to me as it was because I think a lot of it was out of ego gratification. When I started my career, you know, I think I started because . . . itís that thing of wanting to show my grandmother that I could be that little kid telling jokes. You kind of want to . . . I was a bullied kid, teased a lot. You have that thing where you want to show them. Thatís gone away a lot. I donít feel the need to do that anymore, itís not important. So, I mean, if on-camera comes to me, I happily will do it but Iíll do it for a different reason. I will do it because it will be good for the project, it will help somebody. I donít necessarily care if I ever do on-camera again. As long as I keep working in voiceover: it really is the best-kept, worst-kept secret in all of show business. Itís why so many celebrities want into it. Itís freeing, itís done very quickly, and it can be quite lucrative, make no bones about it.
SM: What would you say the best aspect of your job is?
ML: Variety, Iím not stuck in the same thing.
SM: What about your least favorite?
ML: Least-favorite thing: the driving. Itís a lot of driving, a lot of ping-ponging, from the west end . . . [Los Angeles] is a massive city, and to get from the west end, Santa Monica, to Burbank, it can be an hour and a half: a long, slow slog on the freeway. Just bumper to bumper traffic and itís really my least favorite thing about it. I do understand why a lot of people put in home studios. The only problem with home studios is you can be kind of out of sight, out of mind in the audition process and in your agent's process. I like going into my agentís office and reading with the director, the booth director whoís on your side: she wins too if you book the spot. So I still go in, I donít send in my auditions very often. I mean, I'm sort of set up for it at my house, Iíve got a makeshift . . . I can do it from my closet, but I donít want to be one of those guys who has a full studio in his home. I like getting in front of an engineer who will let me know if itís me or if it's them, why itís not working or why itís working. It just feels good. If I can have Scotty and his transporter, that would make the job perfect. It would be absolutely perfect. I could get from Santa Monica to Burbank instantaneously, and so all the best aspects of the job are there.
SM: So you would say you do more than one session per day and thatís why thereís so much driving back and forth?
ML: I tend to, yeah, Iím one of the lucky ones and I never lose sight of that. I work a couple sessions a day, maybe three, some days four, which is just a jam-packed day. Four sessions is a big day. Especially if itís animation because youíre coordinating with other actors, making sure theyíre all there at the same time, doing your two-block of script or whatever, so yeah.
SM: Because of the proliferation of the Internet, there are so many people who are now auditioning through YouTube, their iPhones, iPads, etc. So how much of that creates fiercer competition? Do you agree with that or is that just with respect to newer talent?
ML: Well, there's two markets. There is the union market, people who are actually auditioning for actual union work, with TV networks and feature films. Then thereís the non-union work, with people getting paid $10 a page of dialogue or something like that. A lot of people in the Midwest [are doing that], people I correspond with. And so I donít really consider those people my competition. I donít really look at it as a competition in any event. Weíre all on different paths and weíll get what we get based on what we give them, based on how much of ourselves we put into the work. Youíre either right for a job or youíre not. Itís not a question of whether youíre good enough, or whether so-and-so is better than me and Iím better than the other guy. Itís just a question of whether youíre a better fit. So I try never to look at it as a side-by-side competition anyway. As Iíve said thereís two different markets, and the people in the non-scale, non-union market, theyíre doing their own thing and I wish them well but I hope they join the union and compete for real quality work.
SM: Iíve always wondered this. Over the years as you accumulate a bigger body of work, do you find your demo to be just as important or is that just to get your foot in the door?
ML: You can always update your demo and Iím actually due to update mine. Your demo is to the voiceover actor what the 8 x 10 is to the on-camera actor. It says, ďhere I am, hereís what I do.Ē So on-camera actors have a series of 8 x 10 photos and maybe a demo reel online of their on-camera work. And the voiceover actor . . . they donít really want to see a picture of you. They want to be able to blank-slate it, they do want to hear you. So yes, absolutely, itís always important to keep it updated.
About Sherry A. Moore: In addition to being a staff member of Voice Chasers, Sherry A. Moore, Esq. is an attorney in Las Vegas, Nevada specializing in the default servicing industry representing lenders in a variety of matters, including creditor rights, foreclosure, litigation, mediations, and bankruptcy. She is also a PADI Divemaster who frequently dives throughout the world. Whenever she is not doing those things, she can be found ďgetting her nerd onĒ at various comic cons.
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