STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS - Obi-Wan Talks Darth Maul Return

STAR WARS: CLONE WARS - Obi-Wan Talks

Darth Maul is coming to Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

That (and the video above) really says it all for Star Wars fans that, as a whole, think of Darth Maul as the best thing to come out of the recently re-released Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace. But what does this mean for the Jedi who thought he killed Maul, avenging his master?

If there's one man who knows Obi-Wan Kenobi as well, if not better, than George Lucas himself, it's the actor who has played the Jedi Master for nearly a decade, James Arnold Taylor. As the voice of Obi-Wan, Taylor has lived through the death of friends both Jedi and Clone alike, the gradual fall of his best friend into the Dark Side, and more than his share of hate and a little bit of love to boot.

We spoke with Taylor about what it's like to play this confrontation out, why Obi-Wan Kenobi stands out amongst his multitude of other characters (IMDB currently lists him at 160 roles, almost all since 2000!), his upcoming one-man show, and why voice actors deserve a little bit more respect. [Newsarama Note: The master voice actor frequently slid into other voices, so we tried to denote that as much as possible.]

Newsarama: James, let's start by talking Clone Wars. This big final arc of the season sees the return of Darth Maul. While the initial encounter between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan was of course not played by you in the live action film, this is going to be a big thing for your character. What do you do to build up to something that is this momentous for the character, but is playing off of something you didn't initially take part in? 

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James Arnold Taylor
: Well, you watch that confrontation, you watch the film, you know. I watched Phantom Menace again to reconnect with specifically that scene. Usually when I'm watching the prequels, watching what Ewan McGregor did or studying him in any way, or even studying the original films to study Sir Alec Guinness, I am zoned into the whole character. With this, I felt I really need to concentrate on just that scene and what's happening. The whole thing for me is he didn't kill him! And he cut off Anakin's limbs, and he didn't kill him! He never gets to really get that in! There's all that rage, it's really important for the whole arc of Obi-Wan Kenobi, because it's the one time he really gives in to that more carnal side of himself. He's just going, "that's it, you're done, you're toast."

That scream, when Darth Maul kills Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor did such a great job. A great actor can do so much with very little: he had to say "no." In the script it said "he shouts no." But when you watch him, from that point on, he's filled with that rage, and that's an important moment for a Jedi, because that's not really supposed to happen! I took some of that, and I tried to envision, it's really one of the more specific times during the Clone Wars in the last couple years that I had to go "What would Ewan McGregor do in this scene? How would he have taken this?"

It's been really great to take the character, after over 6 years, well I've been playing Obi-Wan for 9 years now, six for this show, to take it and go this is my space to take and work it. George Lucas has given me that freedom and Dave Filoni has given me that freedom, but you draw from the other actors.

I did that a bit in the Mortis episode [of Season 3] as well. When Qui-Gon appeared. I actually on purpose made my voice more from Phantom Menace, more youthful like he kind of reverted a bit because he's with his father figure, his mentor. In this, I kind of did a little of the same, but with Rage, with Seething. If you've seen the trailer, Darth Maul is out for Obi-Wan. That's who he wants to get. It's quite a showdown, I think, and it's great that we're given this chance to see this character, Darth Maul, get expanded.

That was my one thing with Phantom Menace: here's this villain, but we don't know much about him. He only has one line of dialogue, really; we see this amazing athlete and fighter and Sith but we don't know really what he's about, and this arc in the Clone Wars is going to go much deeper into that now.

Nrama: With the way that Obi-Wan right now is constantly the grounding factor for Anakin Skywalker, and pulling him back away from his drifting to the Dark Side, how would you say this rage-inducing moment plays into their relationship? (Without revealing too much of course!)

Taylor: Good question! Yeah, I'm trying to tap dance around that. I think what it does do is it does link them more as brothers. If you now see all of this that's going on, and by the time we're done with this arc of the Clone Wars we go "okay, you watch Episode 3, you watch Revenge of the Sith," and the opening, when they're in the elevator and they're really just brothers. They've been through the battles and connected on a deeper level, really thanks to the Clone Wars. You watch it again with that in consideration and you'll go "OK, he's felt."

We saw that too with Satine, where we saw that he had a possible love interest at one point in his life. There's been all these levels throughout his life besides just the Jedi he puts up as a front to Anakin. All of that brings them closer, and actually makes Obi-Wan more human. Anakin, I think, is the most human of all Jedi. He's the one that feels the way we feel. Obi-Wan can just be like {goes into Obi-Wan voice} "Oh, don't be silly." He just gets kind of cold if looked at through the wrong lens. This gives him a more realistic human approach to Anakin's plight, and his problems, and his rage. 

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Nrama: Speaking of love interests for Obi-Wan, this arc brings my favorite relationship of the entire show, that of Obi-Wan and Asajj Ventress back to the forefront. I love the flirtation between the characters, the way they play off each other, and the way it seems that Obi-Wan wishes he could just tweak Asajj the right way to bring her back into the fold. What's it like to play that out and interact with Nika Futterman?

Taylor: You know, Nika Futterman, the voice of Ventress, is just a fantastic actress. She and I have worked together for it seems like decades, it's probably been about fifteen years that we've worked together in animation in one way or another. One of my first big roles was on a Nickelodeon show where she was cast as my girlfriend. But we were playing teenagers. So it's fun to {Obi voice} "be in this grown up part where now I get to flirt with her!" [laughs]

The very first scene we shot for Clone Wars which wound up being in the movie, was the fight scene. So it was Nika and I in the studio, and doing this very flirtatious thing, and I remember thinking "what's the deal with this? This is wild!" But it makes sense. It harkens back to the old school love of film that George Lucas has, and that Dave Filoni is a master of as well: that swash-buckling feel of {Obi} "taunting your villain as you go!" But he does have that desire to bring her back. He has that desire for every one of these villains that is trapped and turned by their emotions rather than the truth. He sees it very much as The Force, the Jedi Code, that's the truth, and these folks have been lied to! So I think he desperately does want to see her come around. There is this great flirtatious thing going on there, and hopefully we'll get to see {Obi} "a bit more of that here."

And boy, the episode that just aired, Massacre, was just fantastic. Nika was just amazing. She was up for an Annie award, which is the only place that voice actors are actually almost honored. It usually ends up still going to a celebrity, but Nika and [voice of the Clones] Dee Bradley Baker were both nominated last year, and rightly so. She's just a tremendous actress and brings such life to that character. It's an honor to work with her and an honor to be in an animated series that has such great characters battling each other but also tempting each other as well.

Nrama: And with these flirtatious moments, you get to be in the studio together and play off each other right?

Taylor: Oh yeah! We're always in the studio together when we record. It's a great thing for the Clone Wars show. it's not necessarily standard for an animated series. A lot of times you go in and you're all alone, or you have just one or two cast members with you due to scheduling. But with Clone Wars, they really do their best to make sure all of us are there together. It's like an old radio play, we're in the round in a big studio.

Nrama: Probably just how George Lucas wants it with the pulpy, old radio show beginnings that Tom Kane narrates!

Taylor: That's right yeah! Of course Tom is in Kansas City so he's usually the only one that's not there. He does that via ISDN. Every once in awhile there have been some episodes I've done from my home studio as well. But for the most part, we are all together, and boy does it make a difference, especially when there's something like a flirtatious moment between the two of them. I might say "well Dave, in the script it says this, but can I change it here and add a little touch there?" Or Nika will say the same, or Dave will be the one who says that to us!

When you're not together you don't necessarily know that because you're playing only off what the director is giving you and what you're reading on paper. So it makes a big difference.

Nrama: Of course, you do many voice on many different programs, but here on Clone Wars you got to stretch your voice a little bit by playing Rako Hardeen. What was the experience of that like, and how did you come up with this completely different voice?

Taylor: You know, again, the best part of being a voice actor, no matter what Chris Rock or anybody else says [laughs], is you do get to stretch yourself and explore many different aspects of a character. Only in voice acting can a 5'4" 115 pound pipsqueak like myself be everything from Fred Flintstone to Rako Hardeen.

Hardeen is a great character himself because he really is the opposite of Obi-Wan as far as looks and voice. The day we did this, I was actually just getting over a really bad allergy attack, so I kind of had this froggy voice. So I had this great resonance to my voice at the time. We had to go back and redo all the Obi-Wan parts because it sounded like Obi had a cold, but kept all the Hardeen parts because it was great. They did lower my voice a step or two I think, so it did give it that {Hardeen voice} "Beefier, deeper bass to it. But Hardeen was just kinda this tough…" We wanted to take him as far away from Obi-Wan as we could, so I started with just a regular American voice, then added… not really New York or anything, but almost a touch of it there. He's just hard.

But the tricky part, when Obi-Wan calls the council (as Hardeen), I'm actually talking as Hardeen, but in Obi-Wan's cadence and the way he would speak. if Hardeen would say {Hardeen Voice} "I can't do that!" Then Obi-Wan would say {Hardeen} "I cannot do that!" So in my head I'd hear Obi-Wan saying {Obi} "This is Ben, come in," but then have to say in the Hardeen voice {Hardeen} "This is Ben, come in." So I had to think how Obi-Wan would hear it in his head, but say it like Rako. It was a challenge and it was fun! That's the thing with voice acting, it's all about creating those different characters. Plo Koon is a different character from Obi-Wan but great fun to do as well. I love it all!

Nrama: Being a prolific voice actor you have other characters that you've done longer or more episodes of… but what's the unique connection you have to this character of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Star Wars universe in general?

Taylor: That's a great question, and a fun question. I think throughout the last four years, as Clone Wars has really developed and fans have taken to it, through facebook and twitter and youtube I've been able to connect with fans more than any other characters I've had. Like you said, I've had characters in things like Final Fantasy and Ratchet and Clank that have connected me with people, but Obi-Wan…

I think Obi-Wan and I live kind of similar lives in that we hope for the best. We really do try to do the best and try to stay positive. He connects to me on a deeper level than any other character I get to play. Also, even though I've played other characters longer than him, Obi-Wan Kenobi has been, throughout my life, growing up with Star Wars, a father figure, a guiding force for me in my life personally. I looked up to Sir Alec Guinness's character as a kid. As someone who grew up without a father, that was a great father figure to me. Much like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. These were my heroes: Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Obi-Wan Kenobi were it! I really had this connection that here is this sage character, someone with wisdom, someone with knowledge that I seek to be, to do those things that he does, to do the right things that he does, and go for the greater good.

So that has connected me to him, and also just the love that fans have for him and the connection with the fans has really made it very very cool to be Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's one of those honors that you just really have to pinch yourself sometimes and go "really? I really get to be connected to this world and be this character? That's just insane!" 

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Nrama: You mentioned your quest for positivity, which is reflected in your social media presence with your daily proverbs and things where you try to share the idea of moving through life in a positive way. However, even for you some things can strike you, including what Chris Rock said at the Oscars this past Sunday night. Is there a danger to someone saying something like that, in how it affects your profession, or is it merely "well it's a passive annoyance, a joke, and was something that probably reflects his personal experience." How does it affect you as a voice actor, and if you can be so bold as to speak for your fellow voice actors as a profession?

Taylor: Sure. I think it's all of that that you said, and well put. It's an unfortunate truth that for Chris Rock, that's what voice work is. I can't blame him, and I know he's just going for a joke. Voiceover for the celebrity is that you walk in to fruit platters and people falling all over you and they just say "okay do it like this" and they tell you you're great and they won't argue with you or demand take after take after take. They're hiring celebrities for what they've already become famous for. I can't knock them for that. As a comedian as well, I've been a comedian since I was sixteen years old, I can understand going for the joke.

However, he does have a tendency at the Oscars to kind of stick his foot in his mouth. The Jude Law comment came to mind. I guess what's most unfortunate about his comment; he talked about "oh, this isn't hard, what a UPS man does is hard." But the average voice actor works about as hard as the UPS man or another person working a daily job, because that's what it is: a daily grind of getting in the car, driving all over town, going to auditions, putting yourself out there, feeling crummy if you don't get a job, hoping. The average voice actor does not make a million dollars a session. The average voice actor, if they're lucky, gets paid a couple hundred bucks for an ad, then hopefully some residuals off that, then they have to do it again, and again, and again. It's a numbers game. It was unfortunate that he wasn't able to turn it more on himself and say "Voice Actors, those guys work hard like anybody else, but for celebrities going in, we just walk in and make a million dollars." If he had done that, I think it would've been better. I don't think it will longterm affect voiceover, but it does reflect what Hollywood's overall impression of voice acting is. It doesn't help the average person that sits there and goes "oh yeah these voice actors sit in a room, talk for a few minutes and makes a million bucks." That couldn't be farther from the truth, and something like this does amp up that perception.

So it did bother me, and I wanted to post something to say that. Again, i don't blame him for his reality, but I just wish he was more educated on it. I've been in the studio with hundreds of celebrities and on-camera actors that turn to me in the session and say things like "This is harder than it looks!" It's not like I'm saying "oh we're so great" it's just that this is a job that requires acting, and he made it sound like it doesn't.

Nrama: Now you're also trying to educate on the voice acting process through your one-man show, "Talking to Myself." Can you tell us a little about that and why you decided to go with this theatrical presentation of it? 

Taylor: Yeah, "Talking to Myself" is basically my story of a voice actor as a person, but also it has a positive message of what has happened to me in my personal life. At one point I lost my voice due to a house that had toxic mold, and wasn't certain I would be able to regain the range that I had. I also dealt with issues with my family and growing up in a home that was filled with abuse and drugs and all these things, no father around as a figure to grow up with. Those parts are the serious - the touching and the moving parts of it. I think it's important to touch on those to show people I didn't just grow up and suddenly start making cartoons and making money. It's not to pat myself on the back, but to show people "Hey, if this little guy can do all of this, well you can accomplish so much in your life."

That's what I hope to do, by entertaining people throughout it, showing them what it's like to be a voice actor, showing them what we do on a daily basis. Having them go, "oh, I saw that commercial, I didn't know that was him!" Also the connection of all of us who do voice work, how our voices connect us. It's hopefully a fun adventure, an entertaining show, and something you get to see live and go "wow, this guy did all that live!" I do some cartoons live, some tributes to Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness live. Throughout the show I do about 150 different voices. A lot of the people are voices that I voice double on a regular basis. Another little secret that Chris Rock wouldn't mention is that when he isn't able to come in and redo a voice or his acting isn't right, they hire a voice actor to come in, do his voice, and correct it. So, that said, that's one of the things I get to show in "Talking to Myself" as well, that we do a lot more than you think, and that's one of those that if we do our job right, you never know we exist! And that's a lot of fun.

I like to show people too, because there's a growing amount of young people, through video games primarily but animation as well, that are seeing this as a possible career for themselves. I do want people to see that yeah, this is something you can do! The show isn't so much to inspire people to become voice actors as much as it is to inspire them to see what they've had implanted in them since they were born, as a dream, and pursue it!

Nrama: Where and when will people be able to see this show?

Taylor: Well, we do have some dates coming up! I'll actually be in Dublin, Ireland, which I'm really excited about. I'll be there for Invasion Ireland, a huge Star Wars convention. That's in May. When I get back from there, I have some other performance that I'm not able to say what they are yet, but I'll say there will be many opportunities for people to see the show this summer.

Nrama: Okay… if you're getting back in May, end of May, Magical place on Earth, some "weekends" that happen at the end of May… (to the uninitiated, I'm hinting at Star Wars Weekends at Disney World)

Taylor: Huh, I really don't know what you mean. Your ways frighten and confuse me. I'm a humble voice actor. [laughs] There are possibilities that I could show up in very warm climates and perform this show.

There's that, there are other possibilities. I'm thinking about renting a stage and doing the show at Comic-Con in San Diego this year, I also want to do it at other cons after that. Hopefully people will see it, see the trailer online and grow some interest in it and then we can take it on the road! But I would like to do one or two performances at each big con throughout the country. So be looking for me on that and tell those folks at your local con that you want me to come and do the show!

Nrama: Bringing us back to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is there any limit to a character like Obi-Wan Kenobi in your mind, and a point where you'd ever say you're ready to move on, or is this a character that you're with forever, if they wanted you to do this ten years from now for a video game or something like that?

Taylor: You know, the beauty of being a voice actor is hopefully ten years from now I would still sound the same and that's all that matters. Yeah, I would hope to be with Obi-Wan for quite awhile, because it is a character that is so near and dear to me, and a privilege that he lives in this animated world and video games as well.

As long as he's not in that world of on camera and they're looking for a big celebrity to play him, I'm happy to do it! I really do see {Obi Voice} "much in the future for Obi-Wan Kenobi. I have a good feeling about this!"

Hopefully we'll have many more seasons of Clone Wars as well! I think we just completed our 100th episode not too long ago, but I know that Mr. Lucas has said he wants to do many many more after that.

Nrama: We definitely look forward to much much more from the Clone Wars!

Taylor: Yeah, we all have to find out what happens to Ahsoka, come on!

Nrama: I know, we need to know how exactly Lucas and Filoni destroy the hopes and dreams of millions of children out there. [laughs]

Taylor: [laughs] That's right! What a happy note to end on. And Darth Maul's back!

Nrama: Any last teases or things you'd like to say to the fans?

Taylor: To the fans I'd just like to say Thank You. It's been so great to get to know so many of you and have you be so kind on Facebook and Twitter. I'd encourage you to follow me there, you can ask me questions and I will answer them!

As far as The Clone Wars goes, this arc, this season end, is not to be missed. It's really great. I'm excited, I haven't gotten to se the final product yet. But I know from the storyline what's happening, and boy… I sound so much like a promo, so I should do this in a promo voice {Monster Truck Promo Voice} "You don't want to miss it!" It's going to be great.

{Obi-Wan Voice} "May the Force Be With You, my friend."

The final arc of Season 4 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars continues tonight on Cartoon Network at 8pm EST, and Darth Maul returns March 9, 2012!

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