Sunday, 23 February 2014

interview: Loren Lester

Loren Lester contacted me about my review of the animated version of Five Weeks in a Balloon, for which he supplied the voice of Oliver, the main character’s teenage, American nephew. He very kindly agreed to answer some questions by e-mail - and in return I sent him my copy of the film, which he hadn’t seen in thirty years.

What do you recall of recording the animated version of Five Weeks in a Balloon?
“I was 17 and it was one of my first jobs (my first in animation). I had done a few commercials (both on-camera and voice-over) and had never even considered that I would have a career in animation. My agent at the time handled every aspect of the business: commercials, TV, movies, voice-over etc and so I was very lucky because I was given the chance to make inroads in all these areas at a young age. We recorded in the hallowed halls of Hanna-Barbera (the historic building is still there but now it’s owned by a different company). When I was a kid, my favourite cartoons were made by Warner Brothers, Jay Ward or Hanna-Barbera so every time I worked at HB I really had to suppress the ‘wow’ factor. (I would record other shows there later in life, too.)

“The voice-director of Five Weeks was a tough old guy named Alan Dinehart who was a legend. He did not mince words. If he wanted more energy in a read he wouldn’t say, ‘More energy,’ he’d say, ‘You sound like a lox!’ He did not hesitate to give line readings either, even to veterans on the show, and I would find out later that this was actually common (although other directors would ask. ‘Can I give you a line reading?’)

“I remember Laurie Main, who played the main character, and it was my first time working with a distinguished British actor (face it - the Brits set the ‘gold standard’ for all of us in the acting profession). It was also my first time working with John Stephenson (who is now a friend) who will always be a voice-over legend. When the show aired - it was an ‘afterschool’ special - my friend threw me a little party at his house and we watched it. I remember feeling total confusion at hearing my voice for the first time (on a broadcast) and thinking that it didn’t sound like me at all. I waited in horror for the final credits to see if I had been replaced because I was convinced that it wasn’t me.”

Your most notable 'cult' role is probably Dick Grayson/Robin/Nightwing: what were you able to bring to this character and how has he developed over the various series, films and games in which you have voiced him?
“Again, I have to go back to my dreams as a little boy. The TV series Batman (with Adam West) was an absolute obsession. I wanted to be Batman and had a small shrine erected to the show next to my bed (a nightstand covered with Batman toys etc). I still have most of these toys but, fool that I am, I actually played with them and so they have no worth except as memories. (My mother used to tell me to keep the packaging - boy did she have foresight - but who listens to his mother at seven?) Robin was an essential and invaluable member of the team but I didn’t dream of being the Boy Wonder - I wanted to be Batman. Fast forward - I think it was in 1991 - I auditioned for the pilot of the new Batman animated series. It was just one of many auditions at the time and I didn’t seriously consider that I’d get it. But when I was called back, I have to admit that I got pretty excited. The voice I’d chosen was essentially my own voice but ramped up in pitch and urgent energy - no doubt Burt Ward was lurking in my subconscious.

“One of the happiest days of my life was coming home and hearing a message on my answering machine with my agent saying, ‘Hi, I’d like to leave a message for Robin...’ This huge emotional high continued through the taping of the pilot episode, which included two other great British actors, Tim Curry and Clive Reville. I would not record another episode for an entire year and thought that I’d been fired. Later I learned that they had decided not to go forward with a Robin character at all. I was devastated.

“Then suddenly I was on the show again and I learned that this was at the insistence of the Fox Network (which was airing the show at the time). My appearances were only sporadic, though. In recent years I have read several books about the series written by the producers of the show and I have come to realise that the producers really liked me and had great respect for my talent but they truly wanted Batman to be a dark loner and thought that the Robin character took away from that. I worked with a truly extraordinary cast of ‘regulars’: Efrem Zimbalist, Bob Hastings, Bobby Costanza and, of course, Kevin Conroy as Batman. And there were some amazing guest stars - almost all of whom where celebrities like Ed Asner, Tim Matheson, Paul Williams (brilliant as the Penguin) etc etc.

“My favourite episodes were the two-part ‘Robin’s Reckoning’ and my absolute favourite ‘If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?’ It was the only episode during the series that Robin was a step ahead of Batman and was key to solving the show’s mystery instead of just going, ‘What should we do, Batman?’ Sub-Zero, the feature film we did with the Batman characters, is also a personal favourite and Robin was finally allowed to rise to the level of heroism.

“I remember getting a call from Batman’s director who called to tell me that in the final season of the show, I would no longer be playing Robin - that it was going to be voiced by a young boy as the Tim Drake Robin - and I was getting a promotion to ‘Nightwing’. I thought long and hard about what voice I would use and there is no doubt that I was ultimately influenced by the talents of Kevin Conroy. Since Robin graduates to the level of ‘superhero’ and since Robin had been mentored by Batman, it only made sense that my voice should take on some of the gritty, smoky qualities of Kevin’s Batman.”

Your biography on your website says you recently worked 'again' with John Cleese - what work have you done with him?
“John has done a series of commercials for Titleist golfballs in which he plays a crazed Scotsman, furious at the way Titleist golf balls have changed the game of golf (making it faster etc, which he opposes). I’ve played John’s dentist in two commercials. In the first it was just the two of us, and what a thrill.

“This was my first experience being in the presence of a true genius. And I’m not just referring to comic genius, which goes without saying in the case of John Cleese. He knew exactly how to make each moment funnier and funnier. But he is a bona fide genius outside of comedy and can discuss just about any subject in a scholarly fashion. We had some nice chats about history, sociology, psychology (one of his favourite subjects). Then last year we did another commercial and they reprised the dentist character. I appear with other ‘family members’ in an attempted ‘intervention’, trying to get John’s character to stop his mad obsession trying to destroy Titleist golfballs.”

One of your earliest roles was in Evilspeak, which rapidly became notorious for its many different censored versions and was one of the 39 'video nasties' famously banned by the British government in 1984. When you were making the film, did you have any inkling of how controversial or extreme it was going to be?
“This is news to me. I had no idea there were censored versions. Where can I see some of these? For many years I could often get a laugh saying, ‘I was in a film once where I was eaten by Satanic pigs.’ During the filming the actors referred to it as ‘the pig movie’. One of the producers was a nice guy from another country with a thick accent and we used to imitate his voice. We’d pretend to be this producer and say things like, ‘If this goes over-budget I pull the plug on this pig movie.’

"Some great character actors on that film: RG Armstrong, Charlie Tyner, Joe Cortese and a great, great actor named Claude Earl Jones (who played the coach). I’m still friends with Claude and with Don Stark (who continues to work a lot). I remember one scene where the director (Eric Weston) felt we weren’t scared enough. So he shut off all the lights on the set (and it became pitch black because we were in a kind of basement) and he went around trying to scare us in the dark. This was also my second cult-film-in-a-row with Clint Howard (we had done Rock’n’Roll High School the previous year).”

Did you really provide the voice of the cartoon incarnation of one of the New Kids on the Block in their cartoon series? That must have been a bit weird...
“The boys were busy doing concerts and had no time to voice a cartoon series so a group of VO actors were recruited to double their speaking voices (obviously they used the New Kids to sing their own songs). We had to match voice samples that the boys recorded but they weren’t actors, so the samples were just ’slice of life’. We had to then translate those voices into plots that were frenetic and energised. Quite a challenge. That was my first network cartoon. An interesting bit of trivia: one of the actors in the series, Scott Menville, would later go on to voice the role of Robin in Teen Titans.”

You recently worked for Wes Craven on Red Eye: what was that like?
“With Red Eye, Wes Craven finally broke out of the box imposed on him by the film industry. Wes is a master film-maker but has not been allowed to do anything other than horror. The brilliance of this film is that it created enormous suspense without any blood or gore. I knew the ending of the film because I read the script (obviously) but I was still on the edge of my seat during the screening. Wes knows how to create tension but he also knows how to break it with comic relief. That’s why my part grew as the filming went on. My part started out pretty small but became something memorable and substantial because Wes saw a chance to use me for comic relief. Very Hitchcock. I also admired Wes for his quiet demeanour on the set - he created a wonderful working atmosphere. Yet under the quiet you could always see the mischief-maker at work and he would often break up the set with a perfectly understated wry observation.”

interview originally posted 21st April 2006

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