Published on February 5th, 2015 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny is one of Hollywood’s busiest voice-actors.
Best-known as the voice of the title character on the long-running family favourite, SpongeBob SquarePants, Tom Kenny has also contributed to animated shows like Ultimate Spider-Man and Futurama.
Tom Kenny finds himself on the big screen in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water, which opens in theatres on February 6th, 2015.
In our Tom Kenny interview, we learned more about the voice acting process, his journey into the SpongeBob realm, and his advice for aspiring voice actors.
Do you want to start by telling us a bit about the movie and how you became involved with the role?
Sure, I guess I’ll start at the beginning.
I got into animation (and) voice-over through the backdoor of stand-up comedy. I had made a living as a stand-up comedian for eight years. That was all I did. I was doing well enough with it that I didn’t have a day job or anything during the comedy boom of the ’80s. But I really wanted to do voice-overs and it was hard to break into and then somebody saw me at The Improv in Los Angeles doing my stand-up and I did a lot of characters – not so much celebrity impressions but people in my family and people I knew… So he said, “Hey, have you ever thought about doing cartoon voices? I’m with Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.” and I said, “Yes. Weirdly enough I’ve thought about it every day since I was six years old.”
Not only have I thought about it, but I’ve probably thought about it way too much. So they said, “Come on down and audition for this cartoon” and I did and the occasional voice-over turned into a lot of voice-overs and auditions and then before I knew it, I was almost exclusively a voice-over actor and stand-up was something that I didn’t do anymore. I was glad to leave it behind.
Then next thing you know, 15 years later, we’re making the second SpongeBob movie, the first SpongeBob movie in 11 years. So this thing has just kept on going. It’s not like a resurgence or reboot. There’s always been the Spongebob being made. It’s never really been out of production. I’ve always done SpongeBob stuff, but the movies are 11 years apart.
For people who are already familiar with the Spongebob character and the show and the first movie, what can they expect this time? What’s going to be different about this one?
Well, when you’re doing the 11-minute TV episodes, I tend to prefer the stories that are small stories. I tend to like those ones better… I tend to like the ones where SpongeBob just is learning to tie his shoe for 11 minutes or he’s trying to come up with an idea for an essay that he has to write for his boarding school class and the whole other minutes are him just having writer’s block. Those are really simple shows, but you can’t do that in a movie. Movies have to be an event now and the first Spongebob movie in 11 years has to be an event, so it’s a much bigger arena and a much more epic-scale story, I think.
Having seen it finally last week, I think that the director Paul Tibbitt and Stephen Hillenburg and the writers did a really stellar job of keeping the characters true to who they are, but put them in this big Guardians of the Galaxy meets Mad Max meets JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, where there’s time travel and alternate versions of the characters. It’s really pretty heavy and complex of a plot and really weird. Like really weird and odd in a way that I really loved and I think kids – at least my kids – they love oddball stuff and this movie, I really enjoyed that it was trying to not be like every other kids movie and I think – no matter what one thinks of the movie, I loved it, but I would think that you would have to give it points for at least taking great pains to make it not like every other movie,when it probably would’ve been easier to make it like every other kids movie… It’s a whole new visual way to experience Spongebob…
I thought it was a perfect marriage of those two schools. It’s gotta be an event. It’s gotta be 3D. It’s gotta be big. But you don’t want to lose track of the characters – especially with cartoon characters. You want them to be the same comfort food you eat. You don’t want Bugs Bunny to change or Popeye the Sailor Man to change. You want them to be the same as they ever were. You don’t want the new, improved Bart Simpson. You want Bart Simpson. I think comedy archetypes in general are like that.
What is it about animated movies and cartoons that make them so long-lasting?
I think part of it is that they’re drawn. There’s all these psychological reasons, I think. The characters that I grew up with, that I had an affection for as a kid – like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Popeye and Betty Boop – I totally loved those characters.
Animation – people just have a special relationship with it that’s different from live action and I think part of it is that the characters don’t change. Bart Simpson is always a 10 year-old boy. SpongeBob is a sponge of whatever indeterminate man, boy, age he is. And Mickey Mouse is always Mickey Mouse. I think that’s it. I think it’s kind of a connection and I think also even though SpongeBob has been on for many, many seasons, you can turn on any SpongeBob episode and know who everybody is. It’s not like Breaking Bad or something where you go, “I have to watch this from the very beginning.”
It’s the over-enthusiastic guy and his not-too-bright friend and the greedy boss and the cranky neighbour and the scrappy squirrel friend. I think it’s very easy to get and I think it helps with the global embrace that SpongeBob has been lucky enough to enjoy.
Are there any books in voice-over or comedy that you studied?
There’s a book called The Last Laugh that was one of the only books about comedians that you could find when I was a teenager and that blew my mind…
I think the best book written on animation was Creating Animated Cartoons with Character written by Joe Murray, the guy who created the first animated series that I was ever on, Rocko’s Modern Life. It’s about what you need to know to sell a show in the animation world. It’s one of the most useful books about what it’s like to work in animation right now in the here and now and what you’ve got to do to, what you’ve got to watch out for, what not to do, what to be careful of, and I think it’s really great.
What would your advice be to someone who wants to get into voice acting?
Voice acting in particular, I would say it’s more about your ears than your mouth. Just listen to people. Listen to accents… One dumb skill that I’ve gotten good at is being able to take disparate voices and kind of mash them up into something else – like kind of mix and match some weird character actor from the 1930s that I saw in a movie and then you mix that with some guy that you overheard talking on his cell phone to his wife at the mall… or some weird regional accent that you heard on the news while they were interviewing some guy and you mash things up.
I think if you’re a listener, then you can be a good voice-over person. Being able to make funny voices is the least important aspect of it and people think it’s the most important. Also, that child-like sense of play of being able to just – the theatre of the mind – get into the oral creation of these characters. Just let yourself go. It’s kind of a weird out-of-body experience. It’s kind of goofy and stupid, but it’s also the only reason that I have a house.