You might not recognise his face, but you’d almost certainly recognise his voice. Well, at least one of them.
With countless voice-over roles to his name, Steve Blum’s intimidatingly long filmography looks more like a Russian novel than a CV.
Perhaps best known for playing Wolverine in various animated incarnations of the X-Men, bounty hunter Spike Siegel in anime classic Cowboy Bebop, and traitorous Decepticon Starscream in Transformers: Prime, Blum has played more heroes, villains, tough guys, robots and creatures in more animated movies, TV shows and video games than you can imagine, and even holds the Guinness World Record for being the most prolific video game voice actor ever.
For the last two years, he’s starred in Disney’s fantastic Star Wars Rebels animated series as Zeb, a fearsome alien warrior with a heart of gold.
Blum is headed to Brisbane to meet his fans at the next Supanova Pop Culture Expo, so we thought we’d catch up with him and find out what life is like on his side of the microphone.
There’s a lot of excitement right now around Star Wars Rebels, where you play Zeb. You’ve played so many roles across so many different franchises — are you a bit blasé about it at this point?
Oh, no. When I found out I’d been cast in Rebels, I squealed like an eight-year-old fanboy. Every day is like that, and hopefully it will be for the entire duration of my career. If I’m not excited about it I shouldn’t be in the business; that’s my philosophy.
What was your earliest experience with Star Wars?
My very earliest experience was in 1977. I was coming out of high school and saw the movie on its opening weekend. I think I saw it four times in a row. I’m a Star Wars OG!
How did you arrive at Zeb’s voice? What sort of direction did you get from [Star Wars Rebels executive producer] Dave Filoni?
We played with it for quite some time. It was a collaborative effort, not only with Dave, but with everybody in the room. There were a lot of ears listening to it. We started, I believe, with a heavy Cockney accent, but it was unintelligible.
We tried different things — we tried Russian and German and a few different locations in the UK, a little bit of Australian, and we ended up with an amalgamation that, to my ears, just sounds like a bad UK accent.
Is that typical of the way you’d approach a role? What sort of preparation usually goes into voicing a character?
It really depends on the character. Each one is its own animal, especially with something like Zeb. We didn’t really have anything to base it on, other than the original Ralph McQuarrie drawings, which had never been fleshed out in that form. That was, roughly, the original design of the Wookie.
We wanted to have something that had a voice, but was something quite different. Because we were introducing a new race into Star Wars canon, we had to do something that would stand out. I always start with the model design for the character, and I do what comes organically. The voice we ended up with is very close to what I started with for Zeb; we just cleaned it up so it was a little more understandable.
Zeb started out as ‘the muscle’, but he’s become much more than that. Have you been pleased with his character development?
Yeah, that’s so rare, especially because he began as the muscle. I play a lot of characters who are the muscle – they’re not always referred to as the muscle, but that’s basically their function. I play a lot of creatures and warriors and that kind of thing.
To see that kind of character development, where he’s become a sensitive family member, a big brother and a Force user in his own way… it’s been an amazing journey, and to be part of that, within the context of the Star Wars universe, is an astonishing thing. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career.
There’s an absolutely incredible episode, The Honourable Ones, that’s virtually a two-hander with you and David Oyelowo. He’s an amazing actor on stage and screen, what was it like to work with him on that?
Well, first of all, I’m a fan of his. I think you’re quite right, he is an amazing actor. It’s rare that I get to do an episode that Filoni refers to as a ‘box episode’, where there’s very little going on except a conversation between two characters in a very small place, and to get to interact with an actor of that calibre was an amazing thing. I’ve never really had that experience in a cartoon before, to that degree.
He’s a generous actor, he’s funny, he’s very accommodating, which is not always the case with on-camera actors, especially the successful ones. They tend to be a little more reserved and inhibited sometimes. And sometimes there’s a huge learning curve for them to do voice-overs. It’s a whole different type of acting. But he fell right into it; he seemed comfortable right away.
I enjoyed our work together tremendously. I’m still a huge fan of his; I think I had my secret fanboy squeal with him as well.
How does the recording process work with Rebels? Do you get to record together, or do you record all your parts separately?
This is one of the shows that we are able to record like a radio play. It’s not always that way in animation these days, especially when you have celebrities involved. It tends to be one person at a time or two people at a time.
In the case of Rebels, they really do make an effort to get everybody into the room at the same time as much as possible. I think that has created an incredible chemistry among the cast members. We’ve all become a family as a result.
Is there any friction, within the voice acting community, between guys like yourself who are voice actors first and foremost, and guys like David who are movie stars who also do some voice acting on the side?
There’s… I wouldn’t say friction. I would say that there are misunderstandings sometimes, I think, especially on the part of on-camera actors coming into our world. They think it’s an easy thing. You go up to the microphone, you talk, and you get paid for it. You don’t even have to put on make-up! They don’t realise that it is very much the same acting process, but without the benefit of body movement and facial expressions. You have to be able to portray the character with your voice alone.
So I think there’s a big adjustment there, and sometimes that… I wouldn’t say it causes friction, but sometimes there might be an intimidation factor, and egos sometimes get involved. I haven’t experienced too much of that, fortunately, but it does happen and occasionally an on-camera actor will go into the public media and belittle our community by saying it was an easy gig and anybody can do it. That’s really the only time our hackles get raised.
But for the most part, it’s a very, very friendly community. That’s why I like working in voice-over, personally, because rather than killing each other for the job, which occurs quite often in on-camera, the voice-over community is open and accommodating and friendly and we actually refer each other for work, even if we’re doing it against our own interests.
How did you become a voice actor in the first place?
It was a very happy accident. I was a struggling musician in the ‘80s, playing in an R&B band opening for metal bands. That wasn’t going so well, and I needed a day job to support that, so I found myself working in a mail room at a low-budget film company.
I happened to have the deepest voice in the mail room, and the head of the mail room was casting for a ‘Japanimation’ project, and offered me free breakfast and lunch if I would come in on a Saturday and audition. The only thing that I heard out of his mouth was ‘free breakfast and lunch’, and that was enough to pique my interest. I was a starving musician!
I came into the booth, and it was the friendliest group of people I’d ever met. Some I’d known from before, some were new to me. But the level of talent of these actors was an incredible thing to behold.
Generally in anime — or, as they used to call it at the time, ‘Japanimation’ — we go in, one person at a time, to record. It’s just much more effective that way, because of the technicalities of the recording process. But back then, we didn’t know any better, so everybody came in at once, and I had the benefit of learning from 20 of the best actors in Los Angeles. I would sit at the back of the room and watch them until it was my turn to get on the microphone, and I emulated what they did.
It worked out, because they hired me for 26 episodes, and I haven’t stopped working ever since.
You’ve been in more video games than anyone. Do you play a lot of video games, and if so, does hearing yourself in them add to the experience or take you out of it?
Sadly, I do not play any video games. I have a brand-new PS4 that is still shrink-wrapped upstairs. I don’t have time! I used to play video games back when the controllers were much simpler, and I had the kind of personality where I would sit in front of the console for 12 hours at a time. Now that I have to provide for a family, I’m not allocated that kind of time for doing anything but work.
So unfortunately I’m not a gamer. In fact, my kids usually have to play me to the levels where my characters appear, just so I can see how things turned out. At least I can look up clips on YouTube now.
I don’t know if it would be distracting for me, honestly. I’m the type of person who can go to a crappy movie and get absorbed in it. I’m pretty forgiving that way. So I think I’d be able to let it go.
Can you pick a favourite character you’ve played?
Well, right now, it’s Zeb, for sure, because he’s currently on my mind. But they’ve all held a place in my heart. I’ve always approached every character, whether it’s a character like Zeb or Starscream or Wolverine, I’ve always approached them with exactly the same enthusiasm as I do ‘Soldier A’, who has a three-minute lifespan.
If I don’t invest myself fully in it, I just feel like I don’t have the right to be playing that character. I find enjoyment even in the most mundane characters. But as far as picking out one particular character? That’d be a very difficult thing to do.
One that has influenced my career, probably more than any other, would be Spike Siegel from Cowboy Bebop. That particular show led to so many other things in my career.
How does your approach change when you’re working on a character that you’ve created a voice for, as opposed to something like Wolverine, where everyone already has an idea in their head of how that character is meant to sound? Do you try to emulate the actors who have already played the part, or do you try to put your own stamp on it?
I’m a very organic actor. I tend to go with my gut instinct and the first thing that comes out. Most of the time, the producers tend to agree with me — or they hire somebody else.
In the case of a character like Wolverine, that’s the voice I heard in my head when I was reading the comics. My grandfather owned a bookstore and my uncle ran the comic book department of that store, so since I was very young, I’ve always had voices in my head when I read any kind of material involving characters of that nature. Something like Wolverine… it just happened to be what I heard in my head, and it just so happened that the producers heard the same voice. So, in my mind, I’m just lucky.
In the case of somebody like Starscream, I did listen to the actors who have portrayed him before, and I think Chris Latta set the standard and a very high bar. But I also love the other actors who have played Starscream, like Tom Kenny and Charlie Adler, and I tried to take little nuances from each of them. But they wanted a different approach, so I started with a much darker version of him. And again, they showed me what the character model looked like, and I basically gave them the first thing that popped into my head. We didn’t alter that very much at all in the process of developing the character.
But that’s the approach I take with every character – I start with my gut instinct, and then I let the director guide me.
Are there any characters of yours that you feel possessive over; that you can’t imagine anyone else voicing?
Ha! I know this industry too well to feel that way. We don’t own our characters. I’ve had to audition for Wolverine every single time I’ve played him over the course of 12 years. And happily so, because it’s always a new production team and it’s always somebody with a different idea of how they want their project to go. I can lay no claim to these characters. I am just there to be of service to their vision.
I think that’s a trap a lot of actors fall into, actually. If they do voice a character that becomes iconic, they get too attached to it, and if it is cast with someone else, it breaks their heart and it eats away at their soul. I don’t want to live like that. I just move on to the next thing.
Chances are, in this business, it’s going to be one of my friends who plays the character anyway. So I cheer them on, and if it comes back to me someday, that’s great, and if not, I’ve moved on to something else. And that has happened, many times.
Which franchise has the most enthusiastic, or obsessive, fans?
Wow… currently, I would have to say the Star Wars fanbase is the most obsessive of any that I’ve worked in. Followed, in a very close second, by the anime community in general. People fall in love with these characters, they memorise every line of every episode, and in those cases, they all know more about my career than I do. I’m grateful for them.
Steve Blum will appear at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre from Friday 11 November to Sunday 13 November. For more information and tickets, visit supanova.com.au.