The Heroes in a Half-Shell are thriving once again thanks to Nickelodeon's new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, but let's face it: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello would be nothing without their mentor and father-figure, Splinter.
In the latest incarnation of the series, actor Hoon Lee (Premium Rush, Banshee) takes over the role of mutated ninjutsu master Hamato Yoshi, whose life was irrevocably changed when he and his pet turtles were exposed to a mysterious mutagen. Now living life under the streets with his teenage wards, Splinter finds himself caught up in a secret war with the brain-like aliens known as Kraang, and a bitter rivalry with his old nemesis, The Shredder.
With the new series earning heaps of praise from new and old fans alike, Newsarama spoke with Lee about stepping into the role of Splinter, how this new incarnation differs from previous versions of the character, and what we can expect when the series returns with new episodes this month.Newsarama: Let's get things started by hearing about your background when it comes to comics, cartoons, and the Ninja Turtles, because you and I are about the same age, and I'm guessing that these characters were on your radar long before this project came along…
Hoon Lee: [Laughs] Yeah, like a lot of us, I fell in love with cartoons and was a bit of a nerdy kid. I watched a lot of cartoons. I devoured them. In fact, I remember I had a strict time limit on watching television, so I'm not sure how I saw so much television. It doesn't seem mathematically possible. I must have been sneaking in more TV.
Nrama: And what about comics? Were you familiar with the TMNT comics?
Lee: Comic books were a big thing for me. I saw Ninja Turtles in the original black-and-white printings, because a friend of mine had one. He told me that it was a neat comic and I read it at his house. I may have tried to steal it. He didn't let me. He was bigger than me, and we're not friends anymore. [Laughs]
I remember that it was so different and so interesting. When I first heard the title I thought it was going to be ridiculous, but then I read it and was like, "This is awesome!" I was drawn into that world and the uniqueness of it -- the strangeness of it.
Nrama: Yeah, it feels like we're at a nice point right now where everything old is new again…
Lee: And it's nice to be at a place now where you feel ownership of a character because you were there at the beginning. Our generation has had more than its fair share of that sort of thing, with Ninja Turtles and Star Wars and things like that. We were there from the inception point of these things that now define sci-fi and fantasy and pop-culture.
Nrama: Voice actors always seem to have different ways of getting into character, whether they imagine themselves doing a live-action version of a scene or picture the character saying the lines… What's your technique for becoming Splinter?Lee: It starts with a very vigorous stretching routine.
Honestly, I approach Splinter like I would any role on stage or on television: I start with the script. I take what they give me. That's always worked for me. I think sometimes actors aren't willing to trust the material, but I've been fortunate enough in my career in general and in this project specifically to feel very much at ease with the material. So I let that lead me. I feel like if I pay attention to what's on the page and think about it and keep open to it, the voice of the character and what the character is doing just presents itself. I don't have to do too much or go looking for it.
Nrama: I spoke with Rob Paulsen a while ago about voicing Donatello, and he mentioned that he and Michelangelo actor Greg Cipes like to do a lot of improv with their characters. Do you ever find yourself adding some touches here or there to Splinter that weren't in the script?
Lee: They're always open to it, but I really haven't felt the need. The most I've done in the recording sessions is to throw in an extra chuckle here and there or put a slightly different tack on the inflection of a word or line. I think it's true for everyone in the show that we're pretty happy to stick with the scripts, because the scripts are very solid. I like improv as much as the next guy, but it's really nice to feel so cared for and taken care of by the script.
The thing is, you know the signposts and the character's arc in the script pretty well, so that gives you a lot of flexibility -- because once those anchor points are established and they feel secure to you, that's when you have some room to move and you can bounce away from that point, knowing you'll be snapped back by the script itself.
Nrama: There have been some different takes on Splinter in the various incarnations of the series. In some, he's more of a background character, offering advice when needed but keeping to the shadows. In others, he's been like just another member of the team, on equal footing with the Ninja Turtles. How was this version of Splinter described to you, and how do you see his role in the group?
Lee: One of the first things they told me is that they wanted a Splinter who was more vital and younger. They wanted a Splinter who was physically capable. There were a number of reasons for that, and it told me a lot of things, whether they meant it to or not.
One of the first things it told me is that this is a different kind of teacher. It's one thing to go into a learning situation with a teacher who can only teach you theory. That's different from a teacher who can show you technique. When you see something demonstrated for you at the level of proficiency you're expected to achieve, it means something different and tells you something different, and it gives you something different to shoot for. In some ways, by making Splinter more capable and physically demonstrative, it also raises the game for the Turtles, and changes their level of proficiency. That was something that came to me as I saw more of the episodes. You believe that these Turtles could've learned a high level of technique because their master is capable of a high level of technique. And by making everyone more dangerous, you allow the villains to become more dangerous to match that. So the stakes go up.
Dramatically, it also changes things, because it allows Splinter to go above the surface and take a more active role from time to time. And because he can do that -- because he's capable -- it begs the question of why he doesn't do that all the time. And those are questions that can be explored now instead of answered by his physical state.Nrama: This might seem like a ridiculous question, but have you picked up a Splinter action figure yet? I only ask because whenever I speak to actors doing their first big animated series, they always rave about the experience of getting an action figure of the character they voice…
Lee: [Laughs] Yes! Yes, I have one! I'm keeping it in its box right now, though. I have a young son, and I'm waiting for -- and somewhat dreading -- the day when I give it to him and he either embraces it or throws it aside.
And yes, this is one of those moments when I wish for a time machine -- not for any noble purpose, but just to go back and tell my 12-year-old self what I'm doing right now.
Nrama: So what can you tell us about the next batch of episodes and what we can expect from Splinter in the future?
Lee: No spoilers! [Laughs]
Nrama: Well, feel free to speak in vague terms. It keeps things mysterious…
Lee: [Laughs] I will say this: When it comes to the thematics that surround Splinter, the most powerful one for me and the one they're exploring with the greatest depth is his position as a father figure to the Turtles, and to April. That's one of the things that, by making him younger, he ceases being primarily a mentor figure -- that aloof master figure on top of the mountain -- and he becomes a much more immediate father figure. Once you've done that with him, the emotional bond between Splinter and the Turtles becomes more palpable and I believe, much richer. In one of the episodes that already aired, when the boys are in danger in the lair itself, you see a different side of Splinter and his level of concern. You see how great the loss would be. And by strengthening that bond of family, you open up a lot of dramatic potential.
So I would say that a lot of what is going to be compelling about Splinter moving forward really plays off that central theme of fatherhood.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returns to Nickelodeon with a “Total Turtle Takeover,” this Friday, January 25, at 7PM (ET) featuring a brand new episode and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles marathon that continues through 9PM. The series will then return to its regular time slot Saturdays at 11AM, beginning February 2.