TMNT's Identity Crisis: Raphael Becomes Donatello?

Everyone's favorite heroes in half-shells are back, and the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features more than just a long list of familiar characters making their return to the small screen – it also features the return of Rob Paulsen, the voice of Raphael in the original series and the new voice of Donatello, the Turtles' bo-wielding craftsman.

A voice actor with almost 30 years of experience playing some of the animation world's most memorable characters – including Yakko from Animaniacs, Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, and Throttle from Biker Mice From Mars  – Paulsen is one of several accomplished actors cast in the new Turtles series. He's joined by familiar live-action actors Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings) and Jason Biggs (American Pie), who voice Raphael and Leonardo, respectively, as well as Greg Cipes (Beast Boy from the Teen Titans animated series) providing the voice of Michelangelo.

After the series' much-hyped premiere in September received heaps of praise from new and old fans alike, Nickelodeon renewed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a second season in early October, ensuring that there will be more TMNT action in the future.

Newsarama spoke with Paulsen about the series' return, his return to the Turtles in a new role, and a few other projects past and future – including that uncredited "Spaceball with Comb" role from 1987 that we couldn't help asking about. 


: Rob, I have to start off by saying that your resume is… intimidating. You've voiced a character in just about 99.9% of the cartoons I've watched over the years…

Rob Paulsen: Who knew that your childhood was a middle-aged white guy with silver hair? [Laughs] I'm writing a book right now and we've been talking about titles and I suggested Your Childhood Was A Middle-Aged White Guy. But seriously, from a personal standpoint, it's an enormous compliment to hear that. I hear it a lot and I can't tell you how gratifying it is, because it's virtually always said with a measure of love and happiness, and it's really an incredible gift to have been part of such happy stuff. So thank you, man, I really appreciate it.

Nrama: So this stuff isn't old hat for you at this point? It hasn't gotten to be a routine for you, doing all of these voices and working on so many projects?

Paulsen: Are you kidding me? It's very gratifying and it never gets old.

Nrama: Well, that's great to hear. With this series, you must have a very unique perspective on things. You were involved in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' original, wildly successful series, and you've been around to see all of the less-successful reboots they've attempted over the years, and now you're a part of this new show, which is off to a great start. What's your take on the arc TMNT has taken over the last few decades?

Paulsen: Well, this series came out of the chute with enormous publicity due in no small part to the fact that it's a Viacom show now, and it just keeps growing and growing. And the juice behind Viacom is huge. It's pretty much the biggest show I'm working on, but talk about a labor of love. And to get another shot at this franchise is amazing. Having been there when it was essentially a clean sheet of paper and then became an iconic franchise, up to right now, when it's already firmly ensconced in everybody's mind… my god. But the big difference now is that we have the juice of Viacom and their incredible enthusiasm behind it, and we have people making the show who are fans of the original show I was involved in. It is a very unusual circumstance, because there's an iconic show everybody knows about and the new iteration is essentially being made by fans of that original series, for fans of that series. When i did the original show, the only people who really knew about it and were really aware of the mythology and ethos and storyline were Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. So it's a very cool, unusual synergy that I'm lucky to be in the middle of.

Nrama: Well, the big question on everyone's mind when casting was announced was why you made the switch from Raphael to Donatello. Was it your choice, the network's choice, or something else entirely? 


: People have been asking me for a while now why I wasn't doing Raphael, and what they need to understand is that it wasn't my choice. I would like to think that I'm good at my job and people know my work, and that I've been around long enough now that I'll be recognized, but the truth is that I'm not a big movie star. I'm not looking at scripts all day long and saying, "I'll do this" and "I won't do this" and so on. I knew Viacom had acquired the Ninja Turtles license and was doing a new cartoon, and when my agent called and said they wanted me to read for it, my first reaction was to ask if they they knew who I was. It wasn't out of arrogance. I just didn't want to embarrass myself or anyone else.

There have been several versions of the show done without the original cast members subsequent to the original series, and I just didn't want to get into the studio and have them go, "Oh, wait – he was Raphael already. Let's throw the old guy a bone while he's here, but we can't cast him in the new show." I just wanted to make sure they understood that I was in the original series. But they called back and said they knew exactly who I was, and that they loved Pinky and Yakko and so many of my other characters. And they knew Raphael, too. They said, "We just think that Rob's sensibilities might be interesting for our version of Donatello." So when I found that out, and that Barry Gordon the original voice of Donatello wasn't involved and wouldn't be competing with me for the job – because I would never do that – I said I'd do it. So I had nothing to do with the decision. They didn't even have me read for Raphael, because they weren't interested in me for that role. And when I see it now, they were right. Sean has a really cool edge for Raphael that is so cool and works perfectly with their choices for the rest of the actors.

Nrama: So what did you change about your voice and mannerisms to make the switch from Raphael to Donatello?

Paulsen: In terms of what I did differently, my take on Don is a little different in that I wanted to make him a little more edgy than the original Donatello. Donatello in the original cartoon is the nerdy machine guy. But in our version of the show, Don has a little more of an edge. When they get on him and have to go, he gets pissed about it and is like, "Get off my back!" He's also not the best fighter of the bunch, but he has his own cool, ass-kicking mode that I think was not in the original one. And I like that. Also, because April O'Neil is a teenager now, Don has a huge crush on her. It's incredible how many people have responded to that, too. I love Mae Whitman [the voice of April O'Neil] and have known her since she was born, and the love interest between Donatello and April in our show is something that I got a kick out of because it's really fun and a cool aspect of my character that I love. I'm a hopeless romantic, and the response has been great. People love that forbidden, interspecies romance thing that can never be requited. Don loves April and April loves Don, but it's silly. It's like a reptilian West Side Story, and it's really sweet. 


: What was fascinating to me was that I went into the new series knowing you'd voiced Raphael, but I didn't hear the old Raphael in Donatello's voice or mannerisms...

Paulsen: That's a huge compliment, thank you. That was a bit of a concern for me, as you can imagine. Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion, and I understand folks being concerned about that…

Nrama: …And given your resume of characters, it's safe to assume that you know better than anyone how powerful nostalgia can be.

Paulsen: Exactly. And I completely get that. I also understand that, respectfully, even though you're going to be able to watch the show, it is designed for 6-12 year-olds. That's a whole new generation. The Turtles and certain other cartoons transcend generations, but I think that can be measured in the way people are very excited at both ends of the age spectrum: from 6-7 year-olds all the way through 35-year-olds. Because the Turtles are such a powerful icon. People can watch the show they grew up watching on DVD with their kids, then switch over to Nickelodeon and watch the new show with their kids. That only happens to a small number of shows, and it's a very, very special thing.

Nrama: So let's talk about your fellow cast members on the show, because it's an interesting mix of well-known movie actors and voice actors and some lesser-known voices. How does that dynamic play out behind the scenes? Did Jason and Sean come to you for any advice?

Paulsen: Well, it's not too different for me on this show, because I've been fortunate to work on some high-profile shows in the past. When we did The Tick, there were lots of people who would come in for parts. I've had lots of projects working with Tim Curry, and then Bernadette Peters was on Animaniacs, and lots of others. A lot of the shows I've been on have had celebrity guests, so this is nothing new.

Nrama: So everybody's on the same level while you're recording?

Paulsen: Everyone's great, yeah. Everybody's been doing a great job, and we've had lots of time to get it just right. There are so many fans of the the Turtles involved with the show. In terms of the other guys on the show, the two who are going to be standout characters and knock it out of the park are Greg Cipes as Michelangelo and Hoon Lee as Master Splinter. He's got the gravitas that Peter Renaday had in the original show, and commands respect because of his incredible skill and voice. But he's also got a sense of humor and an edge that's so fantastic. And Jason and Sean could not be nicer. They're so deferential, too. When we first started working, I walked into the room and we did a script reading of the initial show, and on cue they both started genuflecting in my direction. They came up later and said, "Hey man, you've done a lot of stuff. We know Pinky and Raphael and The Mask and Mighty Max…" and it was flattering. There's been zero – and I mean zero - pretense or attitude. We all love the hell out of each other and I believe that's ending up on the screen... The same thing happened with Pinky and the Brain between Maurice [LaMarche] and I, and the same thing happened on the original Turtles. We're all still very good friends, and back then we knew when each other was having trouble, and when we each had something going on outside of the show that was good or something that was difficult. It all worked its way into the relationship between all of us, and I think that's why it works. At the risk of sounding too mystical, I really believe that's part of it. 


: So I have to ask you about something on your resume that caught my eye. Back in 1987, you played an uncredited role in the Spaceballs movie as "Spaceball with Comb." I know the scene that's from, so what's that about?

Paulsen: [Laughs] Years ago when I was first starting, I was doing a lot of on-camera stuff, and I started meeting producers and directors who hired me to come in and provide Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) and looping. So it wasn't me visually, but I think that was one of the parts I did.

Nrama: So you weren't out in a desert wearing a Spaceball uniform and dragging a comb?

Paulsen: I don't remember it exactly, because it was 25 years ago, but I did work on that one. I did some ADR work on some pretty high-profile movies, actually – like E.T. and Revenge of the Nerds and lots of others. I don't do it so much anymore, but yeah, that was me in Spaceballs, but it wasn't me dragging a comb across the desert. It was my voice, though.

Nrama: And what about all of this talk of a new Biker Mice From Mars series? Is there really something planned for 2013?

Paulsen: Your guess is as good as mine. I saw that news, too. I've  had lots of people asking me about it because people really liked that show. But I haven't heard a thing about it. I don't know if it's somebody doing a PR thing, floating it out there to gauge interest, but as far as I know there aren't any plans to do a new show. If they are planning it, I just assume someone would call me, since I've been on two different iterations of that show. If I do become involved with it, I'll certainly get the word out – but as you and I know, sometimes producers float things like that to drum up some interest. But if they do it, I would love to be a part of it, because I still talk to all of the cast from that show quite a bit. We're all good buddies. Nothing so far, though!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs every Saturday at 11AM (EST) on Nickelodeon.

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