Interview with Jim Cummings

Jim Cummings is a voice actor who had done hundreds of character voices. Some of them include Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Darkwing Duck, Tasmanian Devil, Ray from “Princess and the Frog” and many more. Movie Mikes had a chance to talk with Jim and he told us about how he got started in the business and his love for what he does.

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Mike Gencarelli: Wow, where to star Jim…let’s start with a hard one, almost 300 movies and TV shows combined, any idea how many characters you have voiced over the years?
Jim Cummings: You know actually no, I don’t.  I am afraid to say. I just kind of do them and move on. I try not to think about it too much so I don’t bogged down. If I put a number on it then it would be finite. I remember hearing about Mel Blanc when he was hospitalized for a few weeks and he was going to figure out all of his roles. He went through all his voices and then added in each dialect for other languages German etc. I have never done that. Hopefully I never have a proper answer for this number because it will be always expanding.

Mike Gencarelli: Besides Winnie The Pooh, do you have a favorite character that you have voiced?
Jim Cummings: I got to tell you the latest one Ray from “The Princess and the Frog” is way up there. He is great. He’s got a heart of gold and he is funky looking dude. He is not the best looking guy you are ever going to run into. What can I tell you? [laughs] but he has a heart of gold and he is sincere. He also like his zydeco music. I was a deck hand on a river boat in New Orleans when I was a kid. I was born in Youngstown, OH and moved there in my late teens. I was immersed in the Cajun Creole culture. You would be on the boat for two or three weeks or even a month and you are surrounded by people who English is there second language. Even though they are born in Louisiana they came up with the Creole French. English they learned after. It was like moving to a foreign country. You are out there on the boat and there are six or seven guys and they are all Cajuns and it took me three weeks to understand what anyone was telling me. The captain once told me “Hey lookey boy, I need to get out on the boat…(Speaks fast in Cajun)”. I said “I am so sorry what did you say”. Ray was way up there as a favorite. I got to tell you Don Karnage from “Talespin” and “Darkwing Duck” have always been up there. Darkwing, he was a cool dude. He may be a superhero but it is not like he can fly. He is more Batman than Superman. Don Karnage from “Talespin”, he was like a Monty Python character in a Disney cartoon. He was so out of place that it worked (Spoken in the voice of Don Karnage). He is like half Russian/half Caribbean.

Mike Gencarelli: How did you first get involved with Disney?
Jim Cummings: When it comes to getting involved with Disney, it was my very first real job in 1984. I made my demo tape while I was working in an Anaheim Hills video store. I was a manager and one of our customers came in and he was a movie producer and since I just made my first demo tape, I didn’t know what I was doing when I gave it to him. His name was Sal Romeo and he said I got buddy who does animation. A few months later I get a phone call and it was Don Bluth office, who did “The Secret of NIMH” but he wasn’t hiring at the time. Next thing I know I get a phone call a few weeks later from Frank Brant, who were gearing up to do 120 episodes of “Dumbo’s Circus” for Disney Channel. He asked me to audition and I got that job. I had to quit my job and got into voice-over full-time. I did two shows that took maybe six hours out of the whole week, I made more money than I did working like fifty four hours at the video store. i didn’t even have a agent, I wasn’t in the union. But the time “Dumbo’s Circus was over, I had an agent and I was doing radio and TV spots and then I was off to the races.

MG: How was it taking over for Sterling Holloway for Winnie the Pooh?
JC: Once a character has already been established, the trick is to stay true to the character. As far as the audience is concerned it has to be seamless. From the sound of the voice, to the character, to the acting, to the point of view, it is just like you are carrying out a tradition. When it comes to Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Woods and Disney, it has always been the gold standards. You have to bring the A-game and keep that consistency going for the kids. It is an honor and a privilege. You will make it your own eventually overtime. At this point I have done tons more Winnie the Pooh projects than original Sterling Holloway did or Paul Winchell, who are now both deceased. God rest there soul. The trick is to keep true to the heritage.

MG: In “Family Guy”, Seth MacFarlane’s character of Brian is basically his normal speaking voice, after any of the character you play just your regular voice?
JC: I actually did one Family Guy a couple of months ago. Seth is a wonderfully sick individual. Not really, not many of them. I do a lot of radio and TV. So the line “On the next Hallmark original channel movie”, that is a little closer to my voice. As far as the character themselves, when I do animation they tend to be a little more flamboyant and bodacious. My friend Pat Frehley says “Cartoon voices should be like Hawaiian shirts: colorful and loud”.

MG: Do you prepare for each different character that your voice?
JC: No not really. Like Winnie the Pooh, I do those recordings before I do the Tigger’s recordings. Tigger is a little tougher but Pooh is higher pitched. I like to keep it clean in that regard. If you get a little raspy when you do Tigger, that’s fine because he is already raspy. You get used to it, like an instrument. If you are a baseball pitcher, you have to take care of your arm.

MG: Do you feel more comfortable behind the screen voicing a character, then in front?
JC: I did a couple of things early on like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was the first feature film I did in ’85. We were actually one the set. I did a couple of the weasels, I was the bullet in Yosemite Sam’s gun. As much fun as it is, we spend like forever sitting in our trailer. I was put just off screen and wrapped in black velvet so I didn’t reflect light. There would be a giant cut-out and Bob Hoskins on set and he would focus on it and right before they shoot they would remove it and I would do the voice off set. He would be standing there yelling at thin air with me off-screen. Then we would just go and sit for three more hours. I have some A-list star friends and they tell me I have a great gig.  I make a good living but more importantly, I can still go to 7-Eleven for a slurpee. I jokingly refer to myself as a stealth celebrity. Pooh, Tigger, Ray and Tasmanian Devil and all those guys, they are famous but I am not.

MG: You have a very broad range for singing voice, Be Prepared in “The Lion King”, Savages in Pocahontas, of course the “Winnie the Pooh” series and most recently “The Princess and the Frog”, do you enjoy singing?
JC: Singing is one of my things I love. Basically when I got started in show business it was singing and drums. I have been playing drums all my life. When I was a kid, I guess I wanted to be Bruce Springsteen. I think I am a half-decent singer. I was the lead singer for “The California Raisins” also. I have also done a few other soundtracks. What is fun is that I call myself a stunt singer because a lot of actors don’t sing and a lot of singers don’t act. I can’t do either one, so they let me do both. I think that makes sense. I have sang for Danny Devito, Ed Asner, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Irons and it is a fun gig. In the old days someone would start singing and you would go “Wait a minute that is not the same guy”, the more you can stay on point and the more you can stay in character the better. That was what was also nice about “The Princess and the Frog”, everyone did their own singing, which is rare these days. I loved it. The singing is my favorite. We even did an album called “Bayou Boogie: Songs Inspired by The Princess and the Frog”, we each had like three songs each.

MG: You voice Ray in “The Princess and the Frog”, you steal the show with your character and specifically your songs, tell me about how you got that gig? How did you prepare?
JC: You know it was kind of neat, the first thing for me is you have to see what he looks like. If he is a big barrel chested guy, (in a deep voice) then he will have a little more depth, but if (speaks in Ray’s voice) he is just a little guy like that you have to make it a little smaller because it has to come out of that little small self. You have to make it appropriate to the character. You take the personality traits that the producers, writers and directors are giving you and filter it through your own sensibilities and in case this out came Ray. They said they didn’t want him extremely cartoony. The thing about a Cajun accent, a lot of people think it is just a southern accent but it is really not. It is not like he is from Texas or has a Gomer Pyle accent or anything like that at all. It was Harry Connick Jr. and I who were up for the role originally. I said to myself, I guess I lost that one since he is kind of famous. I lucked out and I am so grateful. As for as preparing for it, it was all those days on the boats. I can say this when they put out the casting call they said this character is a singing role, so have the talent has to bring with them some music, more specifically to bring a cajun love song. I thought well there are a lot of them out there. I kind of dug Leon Russell and way back when we had an album called “Carney”. One of the songs on there was called a “Cajun Love Song”. I said I think I’ll bring a “Cajun Love Song”. When I did the audition it went well and then they asked me what song I was going to do and I said “I think I am going to do a “Cajun Love Song” and they said “Great, which one?”, I said a “Cajun Love Song”, I was playing with them. I did it a cappella and in the movie they actually kept the very first thing out of my mouth as a little humming working song when Ray meets the frogs and crawls in and unties their tongues. They used the audition in the movie. All I can tell you is I need to look up Leon Russell because I think he owes me a dinner at least, maybe Ruth Chris Steakhouse. I got one of his songs into a major Disney feature film [laughs]. Disney is known for using  a slight caricature of the actors face who’s playing them. Let me just say for this, that is not carved in stone.

MG: Tell me about the new “Winnie the Pooh” traditional 2D feature film set for released in Spring of 2011?
JC: We are very very very happy. What happened was it was perfect timing. Right about the time “The Princess and the Frog” crew was winding down their production, all those world class animators became available. They just finished up and switched over to “Pooh”. Andreas Deja is doing Tigger. Mark Henn is incredible, he did Princess Tiana, Ariel and Jasmine. He is doing Pooh. These are the best guys on earth who do this. Everyone is going through the roof. The music is great, it is by Robert Lopez and the guys who did “Avenue Q”. Wait till you hear the music, it is soooo beautiful. It has everything you like about “Pooh” with a new updated sound.

MG: Any other voice projects you are working on in the upcoming future?
JC: There is one coming out called “Gnomeo and Juliet”, It is a Romeo and Juliet told through the eyes of a Lawn Gnown. It is pretty cute. It should be out in about a year. I am the only non-celebrity and actually the only American, everyone else is British. Ozzy Osbourne, Patrick Stewart, Emily Blunt, James McAvoy, Michael Caine and it goes on and on. Another thing I have been really excited about is that I have been able to sneak in and out of the “Star Wars: Clone Wars” show as Hondo Ohnaka, the space pirate. I am also doing “Super Hero Squad”, I play Thanos with Captain American and Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and the X-Men, it is really a great great show. I am also getting ready to do the Nickelodeon show, “Fanboy and Chum Chum” and of course the new “Winnie the Pooh” movie.

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