It doesn't matter that the character has existed for over half a century, or been played (in one form or another) by dozens of actors and performers. Announce that a new actor has been selected to play Batman, and watch as droves of fans line up to either claim that he'll never top a previous actor who "got it right," or state his supremacy in the role before he utters a single line. And an even larger group of mainstream movie fans will stand by, waiting to see the finished result before passing judgement - then deciding not just how strong the adaptation was, but where it ranks in comparison to all others before and after.
That's one gauntlet that Kevin Conroy has never been forced to face. Being chosen to voice the Dark Knight for Batman: The Animated Series, Conroy's idea of showing Batman and Bruce Wayne as two different characters - with different voices and personalities - was an instant hit. Over two decades later, he holds the title of "the voice of Batman" for more than one generation. And with a reputation like that, his thoughts on the current state of Batman carry serious weight.
We had the chance to speak with Conroy about his own time under the (animated) cowl, and his view of the current Batman landscape from the perspective of an actor. Unsurprisingly, his views don't fall too far from B:TAS creator Bruce Timm when it comes to stretching the limits of even the most beloved comic book heroes.
For those making the films and TV shows, one rule seems to rise above all others: you got to keep it interesting.
In the modern era of DC movies, it seems that a lot of actors who are entrusted with Batman tend to speak very self-seriously about the role. You’ve voiced him for so long that you've gotten the chance to actually poke fun at that very idea. Is that a release for you, or are you able to be as in on the joke as the fans?
Kevin Conroy: Oh, I get to be as in on the joke as anyone else. It’s a lot of fun. Like when I did Venture Brothers. I hear people talk about him [Captain Sunshine] at Comic-Cons all the time, and that was years ago, because it was just sort of a poking fun at the Batman ethos, which audiences love. I think the character can stand that without it being disrespectful or without it being considered in poor taste. I think it’s fun. And the fans seem to get that.
You have a very unique perspective on this in the sense that there’s a lot of pressure for any of the casting surrounding any superhero, but somebody like Batman is on a whole other level. Yet you’ve been voicing the character and playing him in different media for probably 20 years at this point…
Kevin Conroy: 23 years. Isn’t that wild?
Well it means you've had the chance to play Batman at the same time as several film actors have. Did you ever feel like you or your projects were competing with others, or that there was some form of 'stepping on toes' as some fans tend to think? The notion that only one person can play him at once?
Kevin Conroy: No, not at all. I think that different actors bring different qualities to the character. It’s such a wonderful mantle to put on that I think it’s a lot of fun for different actors to see how they play it. I think it was kind of brilliant that Warner Brothers had different actors do the live action Batman for each version, because their take on the character was so different. That happens with all characters.
I thought Mark Hamill defined The Joker. He was just, to me, the ultimate Joker. And then I saw Heath Ledger’s Joker, which was absolutely inspired and brilliant in another way. And then there have been subsequent people doing the voice of the joker. Different actors just bring different qualities to a character. No one owns a character. So I like seeing what other people do with Batman. I think it’s fun.
That doesn’t mean that some can’t leave a permanent mark on the character, right? You've spoken in the past about how your approach to Batman was separating the identities of Bruce Wayne and Batman more than fans outside of comic books were used to - a split personality, with one being a performance more than the other.
Kevin Conroy: Well, it just came to me when I was starting to work on the character, because I really didn’t have a background in Batman the way a lot of people do. I had to be brought up to speed by Bruce Timm. When they were describing to me his background, his drama, the tragedy of his life and how he lived these two personalities, I said, “Well, if he’s the wealthiest man in Gotham and everybody knows who he is, he’s the most eligible bachelor. Everyone woman is trying to get him. If he puts on a mask, no one knows it’s him?” I said, “Seriously? That’s what we’re going to do? That’s ridiculous! Let me try doing something with the voice to make it more believable that it’s not him. Let me use a different voice for Bruce Wayne.” I said, “Why don’t I use a voice closer to my own?”
So I decided to use a voice very close to my natural voice, but with a sort of a more of a playboy kind of tweak to it. I used David Niven as my visual guide when I was thinking of the role, just to kind of give it kind of a playful, kind of a lot of sarcasm to the voice to juxtapose it to the dark, brooding depth of Batman. And they loved it. It worked. They subsequently had me tone that down a little bit, the playfulness of Bruce Wayne, because they wanted the whole show to be dark. So they had me actually tone it down a little bit. But coming up with the two voices just made sense to me dramatically.
Then I was presented with the idea of, “Well, wait a minute. If Batman is the brooding, dark soul of the character that comes out of the pain of his childhood, maybe that’s the real voice. Maybe that’s the real character and Bruce Wayne is the performance that he puts on for the world. That would be an interesting way to approach it.” So that when I’m in Batman, which is 90% of the time, that’s the comfort world. That’s his. That’s not the disguise. That’s who he is in his soul. And the disguise is when he has to put on a suit and go to work. So those are the things that actors find to be clues and sort of keys into characters for them. And that was a key into Batman and Bruce Wayne for me.
I got a chance to speak to Bruce Timm recently about Justice League Gods and Monsters, and he mentioned how Elseworlds stories from the comics always tend to be favorites - people love that kind of experimentation and imagination. But there’s a harder time translating that into a broader audience because everyone wants to see the Batman that they recognize. You’ve seen that up close at countless comic conventions and talking to fans. Have you gotten any perspective on that, and if imagination is something that people should be more open to?
Kevin Conroy: Boy, that’s a hard one, because there’s so much expected of the character that they know, and yet you want to experiment and you want to stretch it. I know Bruce gets frustrated by that a lot. Honoring the legacy and, yet, also being an artist and experimenting and stretching. I found, for me, a lot of the trick through the years has been honoring the legacy and keeping it fresh, not letting it get stale, keeping it real. Because if I lie, I’ve found, the audience nails me. They do.
And when you record these games now, like the Arkham games, there are 34,000 lines of dialogue in Arkham Knight. 34,000! And I feel like 30,000 of them are mine. But it took two years to record. You are in the booth four hours at a time alone just doing line, after line, after line, after line, after line. “OK. Now try it with a smile…” Line, after line, after line. “OK. A little irony…” Line, after line, line. “Can we get a little grittier?” Line, after line…I mean for four hours! And then you get a break and then you’re in there for four hours again. And this goes on for two years.
Keeping the character alive and fresh in that situation, that to me is one of the hardest acting challenges I’ve ever had—not having that become a machine. So there’s lots of challenges to playing this role through the years. And now the biggest challenge is keeping him spontaneous and keeping it real without losing the character.
So when Zack Snyder comes out and says, “We’re going to do an older, angrier, more no nonsense Batman than you’ve ever seen before,” are you sitting there thinking, “Oh, thank god!” just for the change of pace?
Kevin Conroy: [laughs] Yep! You got that!
Is there any jealousy that another actor gets to take such a new take on Batman, playing an older, darker...
Kevin Conroy: Well I’ve done that, because I did… remember, in Batman Beyond I did 80 year old Bruce Wayne. So I have done the older, and darker, and grittier Batman. I’ve done that. I did it for a few years. Zack Snyder should go and look at the Batman Beyond shows.
I also ask because, generally - voice actors are probably a very different game - but actors seem to show a hesitance to get tied down to just one role. Now a lot of actors are realizing the superhero impact that voice actors of the past have with fans. You seem to not only accept that you are the voice of Batman more than anyone else, but are able to poke fun to that. Did you ever think you would be at this point?
Kevin Conroy: Oh my god! I mention all the time that John Lennon song line: “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” I had no idea this is what I would end up doing. I still can’t believe it’s what I do. But, you know, life deals your hand and you play it. I’m very grateful to have had this job and to have this character to play. He’s an incredible character to be a part of. But it would be nice to do other things, to try other things. The theatre, which is my most comfortable place, unfortunately it’s very hard to make a living in, as you know. So few people do it now because it’s so hard to live on that. So I’m very lucky to have landed where I landed.
Well, and moving into the video game space now probably just cracks open an entirely new audience….
Kevin Conroy: The audience has realized how much money the studios make from games now. They’re making more money from games than they are from feature films. I mean this is a massive industry. It’s still in its infancy. So I really feel lucky to be a part of it. The nice thing about a game is that you can explore the dimensions of a character so much more deeply than you can in a television show or even in a movie. You know, 34,000 lines of dialogue? That’s massive! That’s like War and Peace. You can really explore the character.
So two years of voice work on Arkham Knight, I’m assuming when they said this is the end of Batman, you were maybe not as disappointed as some fans were to hear that?
Kevin Conroy: Oh, no! I’m hoping they can figure out some way to… I hope they figure out some way to have it segue into something else. But I haven’t heard anything. I can’t believe they are going to leave it like that.
As even more actors line up to play Batman in a brand new era of animated series, video games, feature films and TV shows, it's hard to predict if any will carry the same fan base or influence Conroy has spent two decades acquiring. But if fans can take one lesson from the veteran voice actor, it seems simple enough: let the scarred and hardened Bruce Wayne who takes everything so seriously.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be in theaters on March 25th, 2016. LEGO Batman opens in U.S. theaters on February 10th, 2017. Batman: The Killing Joke is set for release sometime in 2016.