Interview With James Arnold Taylor (Ratchet & Clank)

The goal of any voice actor is to usually amass a wide selection of roles – or at least become well known for a few key roles.  Often such a thing is achieved by those in the field of acting but it’s very rare to see one actor portray a number of characters that are literally beloved by millions of people across the world – some of whom may be completely unaware that the same actor that voices character X is also the voice of character Y.  Such a thing is the case for voice actor James Arnold Taylor, a man that some of you out there know as the voice of the heroic Lombax Ratchet in the Ratchet & Clank video game series.

For the last twenty-five years Mr. Taylor has supplied his voice to a number of characters that are all but iconic in the field of entertainment and video games. Besides lending his vocal talents in the Ratchet & Clank series, Mr. Taylor has another major role: the Jedi warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi in the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series that airs on the Cartoon Network.  Learning that Mr. Taylor is both the voice of Ratchet and Obi-Wan may be one of those mind explosion situations and such a thing certainly speaks volumes to the talent and skill Mr. Taylor has as an actor.

Mr. Taylor was gracious enough to share some time in his day to discuss his career as a voice actor and what it’s like to portray characters such as Ratchet and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

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Ian Fisher: Bit of a basic question but since everyone has gotten into the business differently can you tell us how you made the jump into acting and then work as a voice actor?
James Arnold Taylor: I think everyone does have a different way of going about going into it and I think most people are interested in that so thanks for asking.  I have always had the intent of being a voice actor, ever since I was four years-old I knew that it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be voices in cartoons, television and radio and the time I had no idea that there would be video games that we could put voices into but now it’s become such a mainstay in the voice actor’s work on a daily basis.
So I just pursued acting I think in the general ways of learning how to perform but knowing that the emphasis for me was voice I did a lot of reading – reading out loud and reading my comic books out loud as a kid. Learning about my voice, imitating cartoon characters from Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo to Transformers and all between. So it’s been an education of filling my head with the various forms of content that are out there now and that has been my school of life way about of becoming an actor and becoming a voice actor more specifically.
It’s a great way to make a living and I think it can also be very rewarding if you really go after it with the thought of “I’m going to have fun and enjoy this”.  There is a competitive nature but nowhere near like on-camera. Most voice actors are very friendly with each other and we all have a good relationship so I think if you go into it with that positive outlook it certainly doesn’t hurt. That’s always been my outlook on the whole thing in a nutshell.
Ian: For you as an actor what is the most satisfying thing about lending your voice to a project? Is it knowing that millions of people are going to hear your voice and
idolize your performance and the character you’re portraying?
James: Well hopefully they will. You know I think as I grow as an actor.  I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, as I grow and learn more and watch from my heroes who are now my friends like Frank WelkerCorey BurtonBilly WestRob Paulson and all these guys that have worked in the business for so long I do really learn so much more and new things to do. Watching Jim Cummings alone on an episode of Clone Wars where he does the character Hondo, and how he goes after a character and he finds little things he can do in the voice to add texture and flavor or little ways to say words there are all these things you can do as a voice actor. That’s the beauty of it, I can be 5’4”, 115 pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes yet be the voice of Fred Flintstone, or Captain Jack Sparrow, and Ratchet who kind of looks and sounds like me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Johnny Test but it’s one of the beauties of being a voice actor.
You can be all these various things if you allow your mind and voice to go there. That’s what I always tell people, you can have no inhibitions as a voice actor and you have to be able to give them whatever they want.  You get a script for a video game and it’s like a phone book, you can go this way and this can happen. There are so many different elements and the writing can be intense so the acting has to then meet that and I think that is something I challenge myself as an actor and do and involve myself in the story, the game or the animated show as that character.
Ian: One of the roles you’re known for the most is your work at the Lombax Ratchet in the Ratchet & Clank series.  Now when you first portrayed the character back in 2002 did you ever think the series would go on for as long as it has let alone become a key role for you?
James: That’s a great question. No I couldn’t have imagined that it would be. I thought it’s a great story, it’s a great game and it’s a ton of fun. I’m just a fan of this type of game in general.  I think I’ve done nine different titles and Ratchet has had cameos in other games and he pops up here and there and they’ve had little off-shoots of the Ratchet & Clank series so I couldn’t have never imagined but I’m so happy about that.  I think he [Ratchet] really is an endearing character.
I was on my Facebook earlier today commenting about how All 4 One is coming out and I was getting all these great comments from fans about how great the character is and it’s really in the writing. The folks at Insomniac do such a great job with developing a character and a story and I really liken them to what Pixar does for the big screen, they take a lot of time. Their main writer for the Ratchet & Clank games, TJ Fixman, does a phenomenal job of breathing life into Ratchet so by the time I get into the booth and am ready to voice him there’s so much already there and it takes very little for me to put into it other than just breathing in this character and breathing in this world that they’ve created. I never could’ve imagined that it would look as intense and beautiful as it does now back then too because obviously the animation has changed too. You look at some of those games and even though they weren’t that long ago it has changed by leaps and bounds.
Ian: With a role like Ratchet and the Ratchet & Clank series as a whole was it ever hard for you to keep yourself interested in the material since you’ve portrayed the role ten times or has it always been easy to get into and keep fresh given the material Insomniac provides you with as an actor?
James: Yeah you’re spot on with that. From an actor’s perspective you come in going “what should I expect this time from this game?” and there’s always something new to learn. Our last game we found out so much more about Ratchet’s background and heritage and what happened to the Lombaxes.  There’s so much involved in it and they [Insomniac] have a bible as we say. When you come into the game and learn it the creators give you the bible of the series – the ins & outs of the story.  So I just love that whole part of it and I think it’s paying so much tribute to the fact that this is something to be acted and it isn’t just a game and there are some voices in it.  It’s a story, it’s a film, it’s a mini-series, it’s an adventure and I’m grateful to be involved in it.
Ian: Over the course of the 10 entries in the Ratchet & Clank games has there been anything that you’ve been able to bring to the role that wasn’t originally conceived by Insomniac?
James: Wow, no one has ever asked me that. I think there are certainly aspects in the flavor of his voice and his demeanor. You know we always walk the line where we don’t want Ratchet to come off as smug or snarky but we certainly want him to be relatable but he also has an attitude and I mean an attitude in a good way.  He’s a hero and he saves the universe quite regularly and he digs it. That’s the thing – he’s one of us. When we get behind the controller to play a game like that we’re doing it because we want to be that hero that’s cool and saves the day but is also tough and fights the baddies and does all that stuff. Ratchet does all that stuff yet he still kind of has this “yeah, I’m a young guy” attitude. That’s kind of the process I bring into it – or that’s the flavor I try to bring in.
So when we’re in a session recording we usually go line by line and we do an A, B, and C take.  The first take is always what they’re directing me towards, the B take is going to be something that veers off of that a little or is an emphasis on words, and the C take is going to be my own version of what I’m thinking if it’s indeed different from what they were thinking.  If I’m not thinking differently then I’ll just give them something different anyways so they have it. So in other words if Ratchet is doing something like “Come on Clank, let’s get them” and he’s very intense then the third take might be “Come on Clank, let’s get them” [Enthusiastically] where he’s really kind of big and into it just in case so when they’re animating they can pull from there. I never know what they’re going to use but it’s great that they give me that freedom to voice things that way. So that’s where I think I have my part in it but for the most part they have their bases covered.
Ian: Another huge role for you is your performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series along with voicing the character occasionally in video games.  Now as an actor and someone that’s a Star Wars fan in general what was it like approaching the role of Obi Wan, not only because of how people know the character but because of the performances done by actors Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness. Going into the role did you want to lightly imitate what Ewan did with the role or did you just want to put your own spin on it to an extent?
James:  Yeah it certainly is all of the above. It’s taking from Sir Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor and Obi-Wan Kenobi as a whole as a character George Lucas created and putting those elements in my own thought process and my idea and concept of how Obi-Wan should be portrayed. Certainly George Lucas and Dave Filoni, our Supervising Director, have given me so much freedom to do that and it’s a great honor to be able to do it. I have both Alec Guinness’ and Ewan McGregor’s lines on my iPod so before I go into a session I listen to their lines. Or if we’re in a recording session and Dave Filoni says “this line has that Episode 3 Sith thing” or it’s more of a “I was a Jedi Knight same as your father” from Alec Guinness those are the elements I can pull from but I always go back to the base of my Obi-Wan.
It’s really been a great honor to actually be the actor who has voiced more Obi-Wan and portrayed him more than any other actor. After nine years of doing it it’s kind of amazing because everybody still associates all the on-camera actors. Ewan McGregor did so much for that character because he made him young and cool. Regardless of what people’s thoughts are on Episodes 1-3, I think pretty much everyone was like “yeah, Ewan McGregor is awesome.” Obi-Wan Kenobi is now this awesome young Jedi Knight that really knows how to kick butt and that’s really a cool thing. So I kind of have a great responsibility there to uphold that, vocally at least.  I always try to give the flavor of Ewan McGregor’s voice in it but they have given me the freedom to make it my own now as well. It’s just a great honor and a privilege to wake up every morning and go “Wow, I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Ian: When playing the lead role in a project that is very earnest to an extent, like Spider-Man, is it hard as an actor to know what notes to hit and how to properly convey certain character traits without it being too contrived or similar to what you may have done in the past?
James: That’s a great question too. It is one of those things where certainly you rely on the director and them keeping in check where you’re going with it.  The writers and producers are generally in the room with you as well and that can be an advantage and a disadvantage sometimes when you got the whole too many cooks in the kitchen. That’s pretty rare to have that happen nowadays but for the most part you’re kind of there going I got to make this character my own but I can’t make it me so much so that every time I get behind the microphone people go “it’s James Arnold Taylor doingJames Arnold Taylor again.” You got everything from Tidus in Final Fantasy X, to Ratchet, Leonardo the Ninja Turtle and all three of them kind have my voice – my regular speaking voice with just different elements to them and different flavors.
When I’ve been fortunate enough to play Spider-Man a few times in games it’s been one of those things of what element am I going to give it? Am I going to go a little Michael J. Fox here and a little Tobey Maguire there? Am I just going to be myself here?  So you try to kind of pull from all of those different places as a voice actor and then you hope that what you’re really doing, just like I said when I’m doing Obi-Wan, is picturing just the character ultimately.  When I’m voicing Spider-Man I am picturing him in my head. Growing up reading all the different Spider-Man comics I’ve been such a big fan of his I’ve got so many different versions of Spider-Man in my head so when I’m voicing it I’m just like “this is so cool.”  So you have that element where you’re freaking out because it’s so cool and then the other element where you’re going I got to pull it together and be an actor portraying this. That’s kind of what Spider-Man is like anyways, he’s Peter Parker and he’s Spider-Man but when he puts on that mask his attitude completely changes.  It’s kind of like the different between meeting James in the lobby voicing something or like how we are here and then I get behind the mic to voice the character and I put on this other thing – I put on the Spidey mask and become that character. You have to have that kind of a belief and a love for all things sci-fi, comic, and adventure when you go in and feel that you are becoming those characters because the voice is all you have to portray it.
Ian: Over the last few years a lot of gamers have praised the work Insomniac Games has done with the Ratchet & Clank series praising it as near Pixar level quality, not only in the visuals but in the story. So with that being said at what point do you think we’ll see games officially become the go-to way for how people experience entertainment thanks to the improved technology and developers becoming better at writing compelling stories?
James: I think you’re spot on with that. I’ve been saying that for years as a member of the Screen Actors Guild and dealing with all of these different elements of media coming together. I’ve always tried to tell people “look this is entertainment; this is the way younger generations are now going to grow up in going this is how I experienced my entertainment – I interact with it.” I think we’re very close and I’ve said for the last couple of years that in ten years we’re going to see so much more of an acceptance of that. You’re going to start seeing movies coming out where it is interactive to where you are able ensconce yourself through the film, the game and they’re all one and they blend together more than what we’ve been able to do.
You know they always come out with a game based on the movie and it’s just kind of meh. I should say rarely that they’re like “that’s wasn’t good as the movie.” At the same time it’s those games not unlike Ratchet & Clank that I think there are so many opportunities there to see a motion picture instead of them worrying about making games based on motion pictures. Once Hollywood gets that I think you’re spot on in what you’re saying, that’s where the flip is going to happen and they’re going to go we got to stop doing that and look at what these gamers are doing, what these companies are doing in how they’re creating these amazing characters, these huge story arcs and hours, and hours of gameplay and storytelling combining it. I think we’re on the crux of it and when it happens I think it’s going to change things quite a bit.
Ian: Do you think there will ever be a period in which people don’t assume that video games are just for kids and instead look at them the same way they do as movies or well produced TV shows, or at least have that same level of respect?
James:  I hope so. I think there’s always going to be a certain group of people that kind of say “look, those are just video games.” At the same time guys in their 30s and beyond are spending so much time playing video games now too that over the course of the next 10 to 20 years you’re going to see it become a greater percentage. I don’t know if it will ever take over completely but I think it certainly will grow leaps and bounds because it has to.  You have so many actors putting their voices into games; you have so many great music composers and writers putting their time and effort into video games instead of movie and television because for one television is inundated with reality TV now.
I’m such a believer of fantasy and storytelling and imagination and being inspired by these things and if you take all of that out of movies and TV where do you go but video games because this is where we still have that last source of getting true fantasy storytelling where anything can happen and still have a happy ending too. I’m kind of bummed out that Hollywood is just constantly putting out all these movies that are like “it’s so real” but if I want reality then I’ll stay at home. I go to the movies so I can escape.
I just went and saw Real Steel and regardless of what people might think on the surface, Real Steel was just fun, it was an adventure and it did it. As I’m watching it I was like this is about video games really if you see how the guys were controlling the robots and this is the kind of tying together that we need to start see happen more so and that fantasy coming into play . Video games are the one place where we still have that and I do see it growing indeed.
Ian: I’ve asked other actors this question and am interested to hear your thoughts: do you think voice acting is in a way underappreciated by the mainstream audience or even amongst certain gamers? There are video games out there such as Ratchet & Clank which are boosted by the acting of people such as yourself and David Kaye, but as a whole acting in games and animated projects seems to have a somewhat small following compared to the old days of Warner Bros. animation in which people such as Mel Blancwere beyond respected for their contributions.
James: It is one of those things that I’m certainly trying to get people to see.  On my Facebook page you can see that I have all these fans from the video game work and I really try to connect with people there and on my Twitter.  I think people are really starting to grow and so many young people nowadays are saying “I want to be a voice actor” and that’s brand new really. It’s kind of this whole discovery of “oh this is the one pure form of entertainment here.” I don’t know if there are a lot of people that appreciate it for what it is yet but the small group that does are so loyal to it and so kind and accepting of all of us. I think that goes a long way and I hope to see that grow and grow. That’s my hope and I hope that people go to my website or Twitter and follow other voice actors like David Kaye and Phil LaMarr. We see that this is true entertainment and I hope it grows and grows.
And certainly through your website as well you guys get a lot of attention and you do great pieces, and that’s not me buttering you up, it’s just me being honest since there’s certainly is a group of people that acknowledge this.  These communities are formed because there is a common goal so it’s a pretty cool world and I hope it grows and grows and more people get to see that voice acting is a true art because it really is and I think it’s a shame when Hollywood decides that it’s not.
Ian: Now you’re known for being into comics and Star Wars but are you much of a gamer at all or is that something you prefer to watch other people do?
James: That’s a great point, I do love watching someone who is really good at a game because for me it is an entertainment source, and I can just kind of kick back and watch the story. But I enjoy playing games and I can become very addictive if I’m not careful. I will say that we used to have an arcade in our house at one point and now it’s down to just one machine but we had five machines, the old stand-up arcade machines I grew up with but now we’re down to one that has 28 different games in it.  So I spend a lot of time playing those but those are the classics like Frogger, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. I get copies of games so a lot of times I’ll either play it myself or have a friend play it so I can just watch and take it all in and enjoy the performances too.  You know as a voice actor I’m watching and listening for that, I want to see what happens. In the studio we see it one way in our heads and they finally put the game together you go “wow, this is what their vision was.” So I do a little of both but if I had more time I would play games more intently.
Ian: As someone that has been so many different characters ranging from Marvel and DC heroes to completely original characters, is there a franchise or character out there that you would love to portray, whether it’s in an animated project or a video game?
James: I have been able to be so many different ones but growing up I was a Spider-Man, Green Lantern and Flash fan. I got to play a couple Green Lanterns in a few different shows and movies but I never got to play the Flash. Someday I would love to play The Flash because that’s one of my favorite characters growing up. There are some new shows like Young Justice and I’ve been other characters that have surrounded The Flash but I never got to be him so I’m always kind of bummed about that. So that’s one that I think I would love to go after and anytime it comes up I always take a jump at it.
Ian: Earlier this year you started a show called Talking to Myself in which you discuss your career and various other things. Can you talk about how that concept came to be and was it something you always wanted to do?
James: Talking to Myself originally is a 70 minute show that is about my life as a voice actor and I have been working on the concept of it for around 8 years. So I get to tell that story but also hopefully I’m showing people a behind-the-scenes look of what goes into the process.  I did a half-hour version at Star Wars Weekend this last year in Florida and that concentrated more on Star Wars in some elements for obvious reasons. But in the actual full show I go back and forth and I concentrate more on video games and I tell stories about becoming Ratchet, Tidus from Final Fantasy and even Gabe Logan from the Syphon Filter series, which is one of those ones where no one would expect Ratchet to be Gabe Logan.
So I get to kind of open those up and of course also talk about being Fred Flintstone and give that kind of behind the scenes. When you get a DVD of a Pixar movie or any of these animated films and you get to the Special Features and see the people in the studio with the mics and the headphones doing the voices I find that most people are fascinated by that. So I thought this was certainly a good way of showing that from the voice actors perspective and not just Johnny Depp or some big actor where you already know what they look like and you already know how they sound like but rather somebody like myself that if you saw me on the street you wouldn’t know that I was the voice of all these various characters. That’s one of those things as a voice actor, we live in anonymity and we can walk down the street which is nice but on the other hand there’s part of us that would love to go “hey, we do all of these cool things.” So that’s kind of my outlet to show that to people as well and encourage other people who have always had a dream.
In anything that I do I always try to encourage people to pursue their dreams since this was my dream as a kid.  I’ve had a lot of obstacles and at one point I even lost my voice due to some toxic mold poisoning I had in my home. I really had to redefine who I was and my lifestyle in order to keep my voice and get it stronger than ever. We’re always to going to hit these challenges and you never hear about the athlete losing his voice, you hear about him losing the ability to use his arm or his leg. So it always seems to happen that way  that in whatever our main dream is we have struggles in it so I want to try to help people see that even though they put a dream on hold they can still access it.  That’s what I hope the show ultimately does, I hope it entertains them but encourage them.
Ian: Is there a place people can purchase a DVD copy of Talking to Myself or view a tour schedule?
James: What we’re doing now is that I’m working with a production company to get feelers for where we can take it and how to get it out.  But really I think the more people I get showing an interest on Facebook and Twitter and see what I’m about and get more of a buzz on it that it’ll help me get more sponsors. But I’m sure there will be some elements of that pop up throughout the coming few months at conventions if I’m there but ultimately the goal is to take it on the road like any concert.  As long as I get a following of people wanting it then we’ll do that.  Hopefully we would put out a DVD as well.  The trickier part with some of the DVD elements is making so that I won’t go broke in licensing fees. As you said getting to be the voice of so many different things I have to get all these permissions from all these different companies to be able to use clips since I do use a lot of multimedia in it. Those are the goals but if I got enough demand from people of wanting to see it I’m sure we would find a way to get around all those things.
Ian: Besides hearing you as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Ratchet, what can people expect to hear you in next?
James: With video games it’s always hard since you sign all these non-disclosures. But I do have my show Johnny Test which is on Cartoon Network and we’re looking to do another season which should be a lot of fun.  There’s some other TV shows and there’s one I’m going in the studio for but I don’t think I can say what it is. But I am doubling a celebrity in it so sometimes it’ll be the celebrity and sometimes it’ll be me and it is based off of an animated film.
As far as the games go, here’s one thing that people have asked about: Final Fantasy X is coming out in a HD version and I have not heard anything yet as to whether or not they’re going to do any new voice work on it. But if they did I’m sure that would be a lot of fun to get back into the studio and do that. One thing that you can hear me on a daily basis is on the Fox Network, I do all the Sunday night promos for Animation Domination. As far as all the games go I’m really not allowed to say but when they come out you can always call me up again and we can talk about it. There’s more JamesArnold Taylor and I’m constantly working on new projects but whether or not I can say them that’s always the trick.
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Talking to Mr. Taylor and learning about his process as a voice actor was very insightful and only made me appreciate his talents even more.  Like other voice actors in the field, Mr. Taylor is an actor that truly cares about the subject matter he portrays and cares greatly about expanding voice acting as a recognized form of acting instead of it being looked at as a one-off or something that celebs do every now and then.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Mr. Taylor for taking the time out to chat with me since it was a huge honor.  If you want to stay up to date on what Mr.Taylor is doing then head over to his Facebook or Twitter pages.
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Originally posted on October 27, 2011
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