When you think about Batman there are any number of faces that might come to mind, from Christian Bale to the classic comic book renderings of Dick Sprang and everything in between. But as many faces as there are to choose from, there’s only one voice: that of Kevin Conroy. Conroy has been voicing the Dark Knight on a regular basis since 1992, most famously for the various series that make up the DC Animated Universe, but also for countless video games and animated movies.
Ahead of the recent Blu-ray release of ‘Batman Beyond’, we had the opportunity to speak with Conroy. Our conversation included discussion of his now-legendary Batman voice, bringing a live version of Bruce Wayne into the ‘Crisis in Infinite Earths’ crossover, his thoughts on Robert Pattinson, and more!
I like the beard. Are you growing it for a job?
Well I’m doing a job right now…
I’m playing Old Bruce Wayne. With a beard.
Are you shooting it yet?
Yeah, I flew in from Vancouver last night. I’m in the midst of doing it now. The producers let me come, isn’t that cool? It’s awesome. Ruby Rose is so great! She’s really such a generous actor, you know? I could just fall into her eyes, really, when I’m working with her.
Were you happy with the script when you got it?
Yeah. It’s surprising. The audience is going to be, I think, pleasantly surprised. It’s very complicated. Very complicated. And they’re really sparing no expense. The sets are phenomenal. The cast is huge. The production team is huge, it’s like a military operation. It’s massive. I can only imagine it’s going to look beautiful.
What is it like to play the character in live-action after all these years?
To finally be playing the character… You know, when you do a voice performance, voice acting is acting. People always think it’s somehow different than acting. It’s not. It’s acting. You’re portraying a full character, but you only have your voice to tell the story. To suddenly be doing it on camera, you then have to be aware of the camera angles and the lighting. There’s a physicality to it. When you’re in a sound booth you can just live in your imagination. There’s a liberation to being in a sound booth because no one’s watching you. But suddenly there’s a hundred eyes watching you around the set. Sets are not intimate! There’s hundreds of people there! So there was a moment of readjusting to being on camera, which I hadn’t done in over twenty years. But I’m loving it.
One of the things that you brought to the role on ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ was a sort of duality, drawing more of a distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne than was common in earlier portrayals. Do you feel like that element was still present in ‘Batman Beyond’, given how much time had passed and how much the his circumstances had changed?
Well my sort of secret to playing the role… Actors always look for a key into a role, that kind of gets them in. What they call a hook. And my hook was always that Batman was not a disguise. Bruce Wayne was the disguise. Batman was what happened to him after his parents got murdered in front of him. The only way he could cope with the world was by transforming into this dark vigilante. But he disguises that by being Bruce Wayne, by putting on a suit and being charming. Everybody has a public and a private face, his public face is Bruce Wayne. So that way when I went into the Batman sound, it never sounded like a phony voice because I was playing it like the genuine voice. That’s who he was. So when I was doing old Bruce Wayne, I used that as my launch. Because that’s who we really is. But it had to be aged down into an eighty year old version. “Get off my lawn!” [laughs] To be this cranky old Bruce Wayne, it was the Batman voice graveled down even further. But then when he’s with Terry’s mom, for example, he charms her. So it was a slightly lighter version.
Do you use that same hook for ‘Crisis’?
Yeah, I’m playing him as the same character, but he’s in an entirely different situation.
Did it take some time in the beginning to find your Batman voice?
You know, that’s what’s bizarre. When I went into the audition in ’91, I had done commercial voice overs and I had done theater. I was a theater actor in New York. And I had only done commercial voice overs to supplement my income, which a lot of theater actors do in New York. So when I went in to audition for ‘Batman’, it was the first animated role I’d ever auditioned for. I was not one of those Hollywood voice guys who does animation, you know? It happened to be a time when the studios were looking past that pool of actors. There was a small pool of actors that did Fred Flintstone, ‘Looney Tunes’, all of that. And they were looking past that pool to film actors and stage actors. They wanted to get a more diverse group. So I went in in ’91 and I only had my stage experience and I only related to him as an acting exercise.
So I met Bruce Timm and he said “What do you know about Batman?” I said, “Well, I know the Adam West show from growing up.” And he said, “No! No! That’s not what we’re doing! We love Adam West but that’s not what we’re doing!” And he asked, “Don’t you know the Batman legacy? That his parents were murdered in front of him as a child and he’s lived a life to avenge their deaths?” So he told me that story, but because I knew nothing about it, I was so naïve, I was completely free to improvise a little.
So I came up with that voice on the spot, just using my imagination. Because I had no preconceptions. And as I was putting myself in the situation of that character watching his parents get murdered I just came up with this very broody, dark sound. Pretty sexy too [laughs]. But they hired me on the spot. And they had seen five hundred people. And that’s not because I was better than five hundred other actors, it’s because probably, they were all coming in with anticipation and trying to do something, you know? Whereas I just came in and felt totally free to improvise. So it was a lucky day for me. A very lucky day.
Speaking of the voice, in ‘Perchance to Dream’ you alternated between four or five characters without stopping recording. How did you manage that?
Well, there’s Batman. Bruce Wayne. There’s Drugged Batman. Then there’s Bruce Wayne as a teenager. And then there’s Thomas Wayne. So five. So being the AC-TOR that I am, I said to Andrea (Romano, voice director), “Let’s do it in realtime.” She said no. [laughs]. But she let me run through it once in real time and then she made me go back and do each character consecutively because they needed to be sure that they were distinct but related. But they had to be distinct. And it was a real challenge. I loved doing it. It’s one of my favorite episodes.
What was it like working with Will Friedle over the course of ‘Batman Beyond’? You were the guys who were there for every episode.
I was in a unique position in ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ because I was the constant and Andrea brought all these amazing actors in. She said she could get anyone she wanted because word got out that there was this great show going on. And people would come in, often, who hadn’t done animation before. There were television people, film people. Teri Garr came in. And I was, uniquely, the constant. So I felt that I was in a position of responsibility and I would try to put them at ease and make everyone realize that it was okay to screw up. And Andrea said to me – because I would invariably make a fool of myself early on and then crack everyone up doing something completely ridiculous – she said to me at one point, “I know what you’re doing. We all know what you’re doing. And we appreciate it. You’re breaking the ice for the new people.” I said, “Yeah! I just want everyone to know it’s okay to be a fool.” And she told me, “It’s great, because it’s setting an atmosphere of fun.”
Well, suddenly I was sharing that role with Will. He was the constant. And he picked up on it. We never talked about this. He’s a good guy. He had the same instinct that I had. When you’re in that position, it’s not your show. It’s the producers’ show, it’s the studio’s show. But you’re the constant. And you feel a sense of responsibility to other actors coming in to help them, to pave the way a bit. Because you know you’re all going to look better if everyone’s good. And it was fun to watch him instinctively take that role on too.
Do you have any thoughts on the casting of Robert Pattinson as the new live-action Batman?
I think it’s better not to prejudge anyone. Because when Ben Affleck got the role, my Twitter exploded. People were furious. “Oh, he’s gonna screw it up!” And I said, “Wait a minute. There’s a reason this guy gets these huge roles. He’s good! You may not always agree with what he does in a performance, but he’s a really good actor. So wait and see what he does.”
And sure enough, he hit it out of the park. People loved him. And so suddenly… It’s funny, everyone who thought was going to be terrible were all, “Oh, I always knew he was gonna be great.” You know? Suddenly no one ever thought he was gonna be terrible. So I feel the same way about Robert Pattinson because there’s been a lot of criticism too, that he seems like an odd choice. He’s a really good actor. There’s a reason he has the career he has. I bet he’s going to do something really interesting. Because Batman is complicated. Yes, he has that big heroic strength aspect of him, but he’s also a damaged, damaged young man underneath all that. So anywhere in that range, you can cast him.
How does it feel to be the guy that several generations now think of as Batman?
It feels undeserved and incredibly awesome. I can’t understand why it happened. But when people scream out at me from a car going by, “Hey Batman!” I go, “Yes!”
You’re a Julliard alumnus with a background in theater, and I believe at one time you were a roommate of the great Robin Williams, is there anything you picked up at Julliard or even from Robin himself that sticks with you as an actor?
Well, Batman is a Shakespearean character and that’s why I think it was so fateful that I would get it. That’s absolutely what trained me to do it. And Robin? He taught me to be… I was always jealous of his ability to make a fool of himself, to risk all. To dare to fail. I always heard that phrase, “dare to fail”. “You can’t be great unless you dare to fail,” but I never was able to do it. With my Catholic upbringing, I was always too scared to fail. I wanted to be the good boy. Robin taught me you don’t always have to be perfect. You can dare to fail.
‘Batman Beyond: The Complete Series’ is now available on Blu-ray.