A new season of Star Wars Clone Wars is starting shortly. So it’s time to bring the Dispatch back in circulation. We start our ‘second edition’ with James Arnold Taylor, who has been the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi since Genndy Tartakovsky’s micro-series back in 2003.
How long has James Arnold Taylor been a Star Wars fan?
“Since I was seven years-old, when I saw the very first Star Wars, although they now call it the fourth,” says the accomplished voice actor. “It was the first one we all got to see, I guess. I saw it at a drive-in theater, no less.”
“When you were a seven year-old kid, the film just answered all of your dreams. You could fly space ships. You get to fight the bad guys. It was magical. It’s a classic realm, comparable to the best of the fairy tales.”
So was the man thrilled when LucasFilm tapped him for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi? You could say it put him into hyperdrive.
“The one thing I never mentioned before is, when I did the audition, I didn’t know who I was doing,” Taylor recalls. “When I booked it, I thought it was going to be a one-shot thing for a voice match and I would get a line here or there. That’s when they told me that it was for the micro-series and I was going to be Obi-Wan Kenobi. All I could say is ‘You’re kidding!’ All the way home in my car I pretended I was piloting a cruiser. I was really flying high, even if Obi-Wan never liked flying.”
Considering his love of the series, this then left Taylor with one problem. Who would he base his performance on, past (live action) performers Alec Guinness or Ewan McGregor?
“What’s funny is most of my bigger roles tend to come in threes,” says Taylor. “I’m the third actor to voice Fred Flintstone. I’m the third to play Obi Wan, if you count Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor. I’m also the third person to voice Leonardo of the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“Originally, I was voice matching Ewan McGregor. That’s what they were looking for. That was also because they were doing the game for Episode III as well as the micro-series. So I was (switching to McGregor’s voice) just trying to do my best doing Ewan McGregor being Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Back to his normal voice) Of course, Ewan is doing Alec Guinness. So it ends up being me doing Ewan McGregor doing Alec Guinness.”
That’s when supervising director Dave Filoni felt the need to step in.
“Now, I’ve found a place where I’m very comfortable doing the voice,” recalls Taylor. “Dave Filoni, our director, has also been great and saying ‘let’s just take it in this direction.’ So over time, Obi-Wan has become more refined in the series. He’s definitely the straight man.
“So now I take a little of the Alec Guinness and a little of the Ewan McGregor (back to Obi-Wan voice) and I end up with Obi-Wan, even if now it sounds a little like John Lennon or Ringo Starr. (Again, back to his own voice) In fact, one time Dave gave me a comment where he literally said, ‘Don’t Ringo it up too much.’
“To be honest, I’ve had the ability to see that I was making him almost too refined in places,” Taylor adds. “I wanted to make it more relaxed, so I now come into sessions with the scripts almost completely memorized. This way it doesn’t sound like I’m reading off the script.
“You know, in voice over, we have the luxury of working with the script always in front of us. So we act it a little bit different than we would if we were in front of a camera. Now I try to do it ‘off book’ if you will, not necessarily looking at the script, paying a lot more to what the person next to me is saying.”
One can see how Taylor has developed his performance in the upcoming two-part season opener. It isn’t enough that Obi-Wan has the bounty hunter Bane to contend with. Now the antics of his former padawan, Anakin, and Anakin’s padawan, Ahsoka, are trying the Jedi Master’s patience at every turn.
“The reason for this is we do go places where Obi-Wan never has gone before,” says Taylor. “We will see scenes of a possible love interest. Anakin and Ahsoka will really test his patience, too.
“Let’s say it’s safe to say that without getting in trouble. It’s not all fun and games for him. There will be times when he has to say to those two, ‘I now have two of them to deal with.’ It will be too much. By the end of season two, Ahsoka will become such a hotshot, and Obi-Wan and Yoda realize they have their hands full, and will have to do something about it. They will have to pull both of them back.
“There’s always that line for Obi-Wan. Is he older brother or father figure? He’s now walking that line for both Anakin and now for Ahsoka as well. It makes you realize that he’s really a very complex and giving character. It gives me a lot to live up to when playing him.
“The cool thing about Obi-Wan Kenobi is he’s the only character that’s been through ever chapter of the Star Wars series,” says Taylor. “He’s kind of like the glue. He also always does the right thing in the end. Even when he sacrifices himself for Luke, he saved everybody. Now with all six films out, you really get to see that.”
And how does Taylor feel about the upcoming season? His enthusiasm is darn near impossible to contain.
“I had the privilege of going to the (Skywalker) Ranch and seeing 4 ½ episodes recently,” says Taylor. “I was blown away. Every time I see Dave Filoni these days, I keep telling him he just doesn’t know what he has done. The storytelling and the acting provided by my fellow actors is now on par with the best of “Heroes” and “Lost.” Pick your favorite prime time show! It’s like a mini-movie every week.
He’s also over the top when it comes to the introduction of Bane.
“I think Bane is a good counterpoint to all the good characters,” says Taylor. “He’s also voiced beautifully by Corey Burton, who’s one of my heroes.”
In the meantime, Taylor is keeping way busy as he’s also the voices of Green Arrow and Guy Gardner on “Batman: The Brave & The Bold,” Johnny Test and Fred Flintstone, just to mention a few. Still, it seems that the one job that gets his heart pumping is Obi-Wan.
“I mean I’m one of those guys when I hear someone say the word ‘Star Wars,’ my ears just perk up,” says Taylor. “I want to know what those other people are talking about. The other day I was at a restaurant and sitting next to me was a kid in a Clone Wars t-shirt. I couldn’t help but think, ‘if only he knew.’ I wanted to tell him I was Obi Wan, but I just decided that my ego needed to keep in check.
“You know what’s funny? It’s when kids find out that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Johnny Test are the same person. They tend to freak out a little. At last year’s Comic-Con I was giving out autographs as at the Star Wars booth. So I’m taking pictures with them and doing the Obi-Wan voice and they are all excited. Then some ask me what else I do, and I go (in voice) ‘Would you believe Johnny Test?’ (Back to normal) That just blows their minds. It takes them a while to figure it out.”
NEXT COLUMN: We talk baseball with Ashley Eckstein…and her roll as Ahsoka Tano, too.