Phil LaMarr on Futurama and getting shot in the face for Pulp Fiction
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Although he got his first voice-acting job when he was still in his teens, Phil LaMarr built an onscreen career in films like Pulp Fiction and Free Enterprise and as a regular on the Fox sketch-comedy series MADtv before transitioning into his current status as one of the most in-demand voice actors in the business. LaMarr can currently be heard as a regular on several series, including the new Hub series Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Masters, which airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Masters (2012-present)—“Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Wallace”/“Carny”
Phil LaMarr: Gabe is the best friend of Ray, the main character, and ends up getting taken along with him to this world of the Kaijudo, with the monsters and the fights that they have. And he’s really not prepared for it. Gabe is basically—if you weren’t this way in high school, it’s the way you sometimes felt you were: overweight, unattractive, out of sorts, socially maladapted, and, you know, smarter than everyone else, but nobody recognizes it. [Laughs.] It’s funny, though, because in moving into this crazy world, [Gabe] actually starts to find confidence and all those things that he couldn’t find in his own real world. And Carny is… To say that he’s the school bully doesn’t do him justice. He’s a total schmuck. He’s mean, he’s angry, he’s abusive, he’s possibly racist. [Laughs.] No hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold here. He’s just mean.
The A.V. Club: Kaijudo is a reinvention of the Duel Masters franchise. Did you have any familiarity with any of the previous Duel Masters material?
PL: No, sadly, I was a little too old for Duel Masters when it came around the first time. But it’s interesting, ’cause they’ve really just used it as a jumping-off point to create this intricate, cool world. It’s not like, “Wow, the cards are much bigger now!” [Laughs.] They’ve actually taken it and created a whole bunch of new stuff. Also, the design work is—I think they’re using a lot of the designs from the original game and bringing them to life.
Mister T (1983-1985)—“Woody”
PL: That was my very first professional job. That was over 25 years ago, and it was a really crappy Saturday-morning cartoon from the ’80s. I’m not ashamed to say it. It was bad. The premise was that Mr. T is the coach of a gymnastics team that travels around the country solving mysteries. Come on! [Laughs.] It’s like, “Let’s take the general premise of Scooby-Doo and jam in somebody who’s popular! Okay? Let’s do the math. This’ll work.”
AVC: How did you find your way into voice acting in the first place?
PL: Total happenstance. I did plays in junior high and high school, and a friend of my mother’s, a woman named Phyllis Tucker Vinson, was the highest-ranking black woman ever in television–actually still is, I believe. And she knew I had done plays and knew they were using real kids for this Mr. T cartoon, so she said, “Do you want to come audition?” I auditioned, and it became my summer job for three years. I didn’t really think of it as being in voice acting, ’cause when I was a kid, voice acting wasn’t a job classification. [Laughs.] It just—you could’ve said that or “IT person,” and people would’ve been like, “I don’t understand the words you’re saying.” That’s because they didn’t exist. There were people who did those things, but they weren’t jobs. So that got me into the business, but it really was MADtv, when we did the “Raging Rudolph” Claymation pieces and those sorts of things that got me into animation and doing voices in a conscious way. As opposed to [monotone voice], “Well, they told me to show up here, and I’m 16 years old, so I’m gonna stand in front the microphone and talk.”
AVC: Did you ever actually get to meet Mr. T?
PL: Never did. We worked on it for three years and never got to meet him. The first year, they said, “He’s a little embarrassed about his reading skills, he doesn’t want to do it in front of the kids.” The second year, they said, “He’s so busy. We have to fly to Chicago to record the cartoon with him. There’s no way we can get him here.” And by the third season, nobody really cared. [Laughs.] So they didn’t bother. Interesting trajectory of popularity.
AVC: The first season of the show is now on DVD, courtesy of Warner Archive.
PL: Is it really? Wow. I’m curious. But only enough for someone else to watch it and tell me how it holds up. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you end up in the film?
PL: It’s funny, because I got the audition because I had done an improv show with Quentin Tarantino something like a few months before they started casting the movie, and he remembered me. He’d done an improv show at The Groundlings because he was friends with Julia Sweeney. So I went in to audition, and it was a wonderful audition. I got to audition with the Jules/Brad scene. [Samuel L. Jackson voice.] “What does Marcellus Wallace look like?” Oh, it’s so wonderful to be able to speak those words. It was just great. I still have the costume somewhere.
AVC: It must’ve been pretty awesome to see the end result of Marvin’s demise play out onscreen.
PL: [Laughs.] I just wish I could’ve played my own corpse, ’cause then I would’ve gotten to work with Harvey Keitel. But alas…
The Weekenders (2000-2004)—“Carter Descartes”
PL: I think that was my first lead in an ongoing animated series. And that was great. I mean, it was Saturday-morning Disney stuff; it wasn’t, like Futurama, an adult cartoon, but it was such a good show. Doug Langdale wrote and created it, and it was just these three kids, and the stuff was funny. To me, that’s one that should be on DVD, and that people who make things should watch. You don’t have to curse to be funny. You can make something about three kids that’s not fantasy and have it just be cool and fun and resonate for people. And Carter was a cool character because—well, he was the first of my young characters with little dreadlocks. [Laughs.] And he was really into his shoes. He was metrosexual before the term was coined.
AVC: How did it change your career to get a full-time series gig as a voice actor? Or did it change it?
PL: It didn’t change my career. It just changes your mentality a tiny bit, because you can say, “Oh, great, let me look 13 weeks down the road instead of 13 days, and say, ‘Okay, this amount of money will be coming in, so I can start to plan.’” Basically, you just plan to put it in the bank until you’re out of work for two years, which also happens. [Laughs.] But it gives you the opportunity to start thinking that you might someday be a regular person.
The George Carlin Show (1994)—“Bob Brown”
PL: Ah! That was a very small part—not a good part—on a very small, not very good show. But it did change my life, because I got to meet George Carlin, and he was someone I’d grown up listening to. I had his albums and stuff. It’s interesting, because meeting him and seeing how he approached things has probably had a greater effect on me as a person than his work had on me as a performer. He was just so sweet. I remember we were sitting around, shooting something and just talking, and he mentions a guy named Lord Buckley, this ’50s spoken-word guy, and he says, “You ever hear of Lord Buckley?” “No, never heard of him.” And he starts describing him to me, and he’s like, “He had the jazz thing and the black sound and rhythms, but he was a white dude…” And the next day, George came in with a cassette tape of his Lord Buckley albums that he had made for me. Now, this is ’94. There was no digital. This was all analog. He dug through his albums, got his tape player, and made that thing. And he did it after he came home from doing rewrites and producing the pilot that he was starring in. The fact that someone of his stature—he was already legendary at that point—the fact that he would do that for me, this kid he barely knew, just to share something? That just blew my mind. And it also set the bar for how, as a performer, you have a responsibility to perform and how to act as a person. You don’t have to be a schmuck just because you’re famous. In fact, it’s all the more reason that you shouldn’t be.
AVC: Talking to Alex Rocco a few months back—
PL: [Gasps.] You talked to Alex Rocco? He’s a fantastic guy. That reminds me of another great thing about that show. One of my favorite movies is The Stunt Man, so every time I would see Alex, I would just imagine him going, “Camera on! Camera on!” [Laughs.] Yeah, he was just so talented and so cool. A buddy of mine was really into The Godfather, so for his birthday, I asked Alex if he would call him and do the Moe Greene thing. And he did, and they wound up doing the entire scene, ’cause Alex still knew it. Of course.
AVC: Rocco touched on the whole issue with executive producer Sam Simon behind the scenes of The George Carlin Show. Were you witness to any of that turmoil?
PL: Not a lot of it. But we all knew Sam was crazy. He seems to have gotten better. It’s interesting, because I’ve worked with people who are just not nice people, and I’ve worked with people who are crazy, and the difference is: crazy is much worse. With the people who are not nice, you know what you’re gonna get. “Okay, here goes So-and-so, he’s gonna yell at me, I’m gonna leave.” But with crazy, you don’t know. Like, “Okay, he’s sitting there on set. Should I say ‘hi’? Or if I go past him without saying ‘hi,’ is he gonna yell at me for ignoring him?” With crazy, you just don’t know.
Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law (2001-2007)—“Black Vulcan”
PL: That was interesting, because I hadn’t seen the show before I did it. I mean, I knew the character from the old Super Friends, and I just laughed when I read it. [Black Vulcan voice.] “In my pants!” And then I laughed even more when I saw the show. And the people I got to work with, Gary Cole and Peter MacNicol, were phenomenal. All the guys who worked on that show were really talented. I just wish I’d known it better when I came in, so I could’ve appreciated it even more.
Futurama (1999-present)—“Hermes Conrad”
PL: Ah yes, Hermes, who almost cost me a potential livelihood. [Laughs.] When I first auditioned for the character and first started doing the character, he was not called Hermes. He was called Dexter. He was not Jamaican, he was just an overweight accountant. And the character didn’t work. Like, a couple of episodes in, it was very clear that this wasn’t really adding anything. Which, when you’re on an ongoing series, if you don’t add anything, eventually you will be eliminated. But I had the good fortune of having Matt Groening walk up to me in the hallway after one of the table reads and say, “Hey Phil, can you do a Jamaican accent?” Now, given the fact that the character wasn’t really working, had I said “no,” we probably wouldn’t be talking right now. Unless I was serving you a Mocha Latte Grande somewhere. [Laughs.] But fortunately, I was able to do a Jamaican accent, we changed the character, and then it sort of clicked. The writers found an angle for him. And here we are, 13 years later, and I’m still doing it.
AVC: Do you have a favorite aspect of Hermes as a character? They’ve certainly added to his backstory over the years.
PL: I know, yeah. All the weed stuff has been built up considerably. [Laughs.] I guess there was some of that in the beginning, but you couldn’t really play that up very much on Fox at 7 p.m. But the thing that tickles me most is his almost-psychotic hatred of Zoidberg, which also wasn’t there at the beginning. But it’s just gotten more and more virulent as the series has gone on. [As Hermes.] “Get away from me, ya crab!” [Laughs.]
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2007)—“Pharmacist”
PL: That was great, ’cause I spent something like three years auditioning for the show with every improviser in L.A. It was so much fun. I was petrified, because I knew some people who worked on the show, but none of them were there the day I worked, and I’m stuck doing the scene with Larry David himself. I’m like, “Oh dear God, he’s got however many Emmys, however many millions of dollars; he could shoot me in the head and drop my body in a ditch, and no one would do anything.” He’d be like, “All right, moving on…” [Laughs.] But he turned out to be so cool and a really generous improviser. I was afraid that he was going to, like, not let me say anything. “No, no, say this!” But he was really open and cool, and we got to play. So I was surprised and happy. Especially not to be shot in a head and left in a ditch.
Samurai Jack (2001-2004)—“Samurai Jack”
PL: Sounds like an awards show. “And the award goes to… Samurai Jack in Samurai Jack!” [Laughs.] That was a phenomenal series, and I’m so happy to have been a part of it. I wish it had continued more. I don’t know, I feel like it hasn’t gotten enough recognition, because it was just so, so good. I mean, it’s one of the few things I’ve been a part of that I feel pretty confident I can sit anybody down in front of it, and they will find something to enjoy about it. Grown-ups, kids, old people, babies—you respond to the colors, to the action, to the epic mythological underpinnings. Whatever it is, there’s something there that will blow you away. And I have, like, four lines in each episode. [Laughs.]
Free Enterprise (1998)—“Eric”
PL: Ah, that was actually a fun role, because that is what introduced me to the full-on geek culture in America. I mean, I’ve been a comic-book guy for a long time, and I thought I was a geek until I hung out with Rob [Meyer Burnett] and Mark [Altman] and the guys who made Free Enterprise. These Star Trek people took it to a whole other level. [Laughs.] In fact, Rob had to give us all reference videotapes, so we’d get the references in our dialogue, because the stuff just went so, so deep. And the character I was playing was based on a real person, who is now a really successful writer. He’s writing Mr. Terrific for DC, and he was on Eureka for years. Eric Wallace. And Eric cracks me up because—I had to tone the character down to play him. [Laughs.] He’s this black dude who talks really loudly and loves Yes. I mean, he seemed like a sketch character. He really did. And when I did it the way he is, people didn’t believe it. “Dude, no, that’s the real guy!”
AVC: Has there been any further movement on the long-discussed sequel?
PL: They’re trying to get one done. [Conspiratorial voice.] Although from what I understand, it may be in a different time frame, so I may be aged out of my role. Hmmm. But as long as they invite me to Comic-Con, I don’t care. I mean, I got to be in a scene where William Shatner raps. [Laughs.] I can cash in. I can’t really ask for any more than that.
Static Shock (2000-2004)—“Static”
PL: Yes! I guess [Static Shock] wasn’t my first lead; I’m pretty sure The Weekenders was, but it was still great, because I got to be a comic-book hero for the first time. And the guys who worked on it, Alan Burnett and Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan, just really made a great show. Again, it’s one I feel ended too soon, but [mock-annoyed tone] apparently nobody wants to buy toys of a black superhero. [Laughs.] Or at least that’s the conventional thinking. But, we did some really good work, and I got to work with some fantastic people. Kevin Michael Richardson and Jason Marsden and Danica McKellar. Hello! Winnie Cooper? [Laughs.] And we had some cool guest stars. And as the series went on and Justice League began, that was my personal favorite moment: when I got to talk to myself, as Green Lantern talking to Static. That was just a blast.
Justice League (2001-2006)—“Green Lantern (John Stewart)”/“Steel”/“S.T.R.I.P.E.”
PL: Yeah, you’re right, I did Steel and Stripesy, too. Oh, sorry, he’s S.T.R.I.P.E. now. Because “Stripesy” is apparently just a little too ’40s. [Laughs.] Again, a show that was a blast, although I wasn’t really a big Green Lantern person growing up. The character never really tickled my fancy. I couldn’t really relate to him. And I certainly couldn’t relate to the comic-book version of John Stewart. “Okay, you’re an angry black architect who wears a vest but no shirt? What?” But I loved what Bruce Timm and the writing staff did with John Stewart for the series. They threw out all the junk that didn’t work, made him the Green Lantern, and created a whole new persona for him that I think personally helped to give the Green Lantern character a credibility that made the stuff that’s happening with him now more possible. It’s like, “Okay, he’s not just somebody who makes weird shapes with a ring.” He’s a soldier in an army, a police force, that keeps the galaxy safe and has a mission.
AVC: Are you able to look back and pick a single favorite episode of the series?
PL: Thank God you waited to ask that question until you got to Justice League, because for most of the shows I’ve done, I don’t. [Laughs.] It’s “Starcrossed,” at the end of the second season, where the Thanagarians invade Earth, and John Stewart finds out that his lover is part of an alien invasion force. And she’s got this boyfriend, and [Stewart’s] like, “What? You never told me that your boyfriend’s the head of the force that’s invading Earth?” And it was great, ’cause it was all the danger of Independence Day, but there’s also this horrible broken love triangle in the middle of it. That was just so fun to play. Especially because they didn’t give it a happy ending at the end. “I wasn’t really on their side.” “Yeah, doesn’t matter, baby.” [Laughs.] “We’re done. You lied to me about your boyfriend, and you tried to take over the planet. Not really gonna let that go.”
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010-2012)—“JARVIS/Wonder Man”
PL: I was part of the Avengers before it was cool. [Laughs.] Well, it was cool, but just not worldwide-blockbuster cool. It was a great cast, though, and I dug being part of Team Stark along with Eric Loomis and Dawn Olivieri. Plus, I got to play the original bad-guy Wonder Man… but without the lame cowl.
AVC: Can you offer any insight into the possibility of a third season?
PL: Sorry, but questions about more seasons are way above my pay grade. [Laughs.]
The Pee-Wee Herman Show On Broadway (2011)—“Cowboy Curtis”
PL: Yes! That was like getting to play Donald Duck up against Mickey Mouse. [Laughs.] That opportunity just doesn’t come along. But thankfully it did in this case. I was actually less worried about filling Laurence Fishburne’s shoes than I was about filling Phil Hartman’s, ’cause in the original Pee-Wee Herman Show, the plot involved Captain Carl and Miss Yvonne, and Paul Reubens basically put Cowboy Curtis into that Captain Carl role in this new version. And that was a little daunting, because Phil Hartman was such a big part of that. He co-wrote the show, and he was just a huge part of it, both literally and spiritually. So I had to get past that a little bit to really do it, but it was such a blast.
It’s Pat: The Movie (1994)—“Stage Manager”
PL: Uh—let’s just say I don’t really know how those performances turned out, because I still haven’t seen them. [Laughs.] The director of Bio-Dome, Jason Bloom, was a good friend, and we’d done stuff together in college. Although when we did that movie, it wasn’t really clear who was doing who the favor. He was like, “Hey, I got you a part in my movie!” “Hey, I’ll do this part in your Pauly Shore movie, so, uh, you’re welcome?” But it’s always fun to work with friends. And It’s Pat was actually a real blast, because Julia Sweeney is one of the nicest, most talented people in the world. I’d show up in anything she does.
MADtv (1995-2000)—Cast Member
PL: Well, that was great. That was my first on-camera series as a regular, and with some really talented people: Will Sasso, Nicole Sullivan, Mo Collins, David Herman. Actually, there were some enormously talented people who came on after we left, too, like Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Nicole Parker, Alex Borstein, Michael McDonald. I just wish the show had been as good as the people who were on it, you know?
AVC: When you did the IAm thing on Reddit, you said, “I really enjoyed the work we did in the first two years of MADtv. Unfortunately, I was on it for five.”
PL: [Laughs.] Uh, yeah. I had a great time the first two years, and I thought they weren’t really—the people who were behind the show—weren’t really that committed to quality. They were committed to longevity. And they got it: The show ran for 14 years.
AVC: Were there any particular sketches that didn’t make it on the air that you wish had?
PL: Um… no. There are probably more that made it on the air that I wish hadn’t. No, seriously, they didn’t leave much on the floor. And certainly nothing that was even halfway decent. I’m trying to think, though, because I can’t believe there’s not one. Well, Patton Oswalt and I kept trying to pitch superhero sketches or comic-book sketches. And we actually did get one on after he left. We got a Black Justice League-in-the-’50s sketch on when Pam Grier was the host, and that was a lot of fun. They made all the black heroes meet in the broom closet. [Laughs.] Hey, it was the ’50s! It was segregated! What are you gonna do? Super Jim Crow!
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-present)—“Bail Organa/Kit Fisto”
PL: Oh yes. I was such a Star Wars fan. That was my generation. And to get to be a part of that? I do the voice of Kit Fisto. I got to be a Jedi! [Laughs.] And the show’s just gotten better and better. Dave Filoni has done an incredible job of building that world. And it’s amazing, because he’s got this finite amount of space between the second movie and the third. We don’t know exactly how many years, but you know where everything’s gonna end up, and that makes it very hard. I mean, as the prequel trilogy shows, it’s hard to play toward an ending that everyone already knows. But he’s managed to keep everything so fresh, so alive. And Bail Organa was fun, just ’cause, really, who the hell else does a Jimmy Smits impression? [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have any other favorite semi-obscure impressions in your repertoire?
PL: On MADtv, I discovered I could do Billy Crystal. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 68th Annual Academy Awards!” Surprisingly, there’s more call for that one than you’d think. Who else? Chris Rock is a pretty obvious one, I guess. My Will Smith comes in handy every once in a while. “Yeah! That’s how you do that! Uncle Phil! Come on, man!” But now you’ve got Jay Pharoah, who’s stealing half my impressions. [Laughs.]
AVC: On a related note, you did a pretty spot-on Axel Foley on Clerks: The Animated Series.
PL: Yeah. And that one, I stole from Aries Spears. [Laughs.]