You would never be able to guess that the nondescript, vaguely Canadian voice that Peter Cullen uses from day-to-day is the same one from which the mighty 35-foot-tall robot Optimus Prime emanates, but it is. You might even say it's "more than meets the eye."
In 1984 Cullen originated the role of the heroic Autobot for the Generation 1 "Transformers" animated series and, with a few minor exceptions, finished with the character when Optimus was sacrificed in 1986's Transformers: The Movie.
He went on to voice characters for films like Gremlins, Predator, and as Eeyore in several of Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" features, but the death of Optimus always stuck in fans' craw. So, when bad boy director Michael Bay was launching his mega-budget Transformers live-action movie in 2007, he wisely listened to fans and brought back Cullen to voice the movie's primary protagonist.
Since then, and to much fanfare, the voice actor has portrayed Prime in the nearly $3-billion-dollar-grossing movie trilogy, including the third film Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD. We had an exclusive chat with Cullen discussing the origin of the voice, his thoughts on further installments in the franchise, and some of the interesting things fans ask him to do…
SuperHeroHype: One of the things that always struck me as a fan of the show when I was a child of the '80s was how serious you in particular played the character. Here was something potentially rather silly, more or less a toy commercial, and you were elevating it to this level of almost Shakespearean drama. Optimus always had a haunted, tragic quality to him that registered deeply.
Peter Cullen: True. I've told this story before, but Prime started as an incident in my life. I based the character on my brother Larry who was in combat Marine infantry in Vietnam, a Bronze Star recipient, saw a lot of action. Larry had a very definitive influence on me and especially on Optimus Prime because we were living together the same time I auditioned for Optimus Prime. I used Larry's character traits as my role model.
SHH: Larry recently passed away, correct?
Cullen: Yes he did, last March.
SHH: Was he proud of having inspired such an iconic and brave character?
Cullen: He was a humble man, and at his eulogy in Arlington recently I conveyed that. He was probably the most honest man I've ever met in my life, honest to his family, his friends, his marine corps, his country. When I told him, "Larry, you are Optimus Prime," he said, "Peter, c'mon!" I said, "No, Larry, from the very first day you told me to 'be a real hero, not a Hollywood hero, y'know? Give it your best. If you're gonna be a truck be a good truck. Be strong enough to be gentle.'" That kinda thing. I told him that and it embarrassed him a little bit, but as time went on he saw the effect it had and the genuineness of what I told him. It took a little time, but he eventually embraced it but I could tell he was very proud of his brother and it was probably the greatest compliment I could convey to him outside of love. That was it.
SHH: That's pretty amazing, and it's amazing that they kept you on the character for so long. You're basically the keeper of the flame for this series. Was the phenomenal resurgence of the "Transformers" property over the last four years a shock to you or just one more step in an evolution you've been a part of all this time?
Cullen: I think "shock" would be the better word to describe it. (laughs) Interesting and exciting. From the very moment that the resurgence of "Transformers" became evident to me I wasn't sure whether or not I would be part of it, having to audition for a character I helped create so many years back, 1984 I guess. To have to audition for it again I thought rather strange considering I'd been killed-off back in 1986. I went in with a blend of questions in my mind. This is an amazing business, it truly is. It's very mysterious, you can't figure which way it's gonna go, one way or the other. It's a business after all. It's kinda like the stock market, you never know. I was excited when I discovered the fanbase was responsible for my resurrection and for that I am grateful for the rest of my life. I do not want to hide the fact that I love my fanbase. My fanbase, I treat it as one individual. We're all together like two people. I look at them as they look at me as one individual and my heart goes right out to that core. I'm the recipient at the other end. It's a unique, wonderful experience.
SHH: Were you pleased with the arc of your character over the course of the trilogy?
Cullen: I'm glad that he's maintained his character, although in number three we see another side of Optimus Prime that is unique in its own: His ability to be vulnerable and to show weakness and character. They're very strong human qualities. No matter how good a person can be, at some point or another in their life they're gonna fall. We see that side of Optimus when he loses his temper. There's vengeance and anger, but I think that's a trait we all have in one way or another. I hope in four, and I hope we do four and five for that matter, that we explore the human nature side of a villain. Forgiveness, compassion, and understanding, which is very essential in maintaining the strength of any character.
SHH: It's inevitable at this point that there will be a fourth one, and they'd be stupid not to bring you back, but now that Michael and Shia are presumably through with the series, who would be your ideal director to take over the franchise?
Cullen: That's a really great question. Michael Bay certainly is known as a commander in chief to be able to control so many aspects of a huge production, it's like being a general. There's a creative element, there's the action element. It would certainly require a director capable of putting those huge pieces together. It's quite a challenge. I don't want to suggest anyone in particular, I think to find a director would be just as important as finding an actor playing a certain role that you know will guarantee the character will be successfully portrayed because the entire movie requires that combination.
SHH: I'm not asking for this, but do people ever do weird stuff like shove recorders in your face and ask you for an answering machine message as Optimus?
Cullen: Yes they do, yes they do! (laughs) And I have to be very careful where I am sometimes because people all of the sudden become aware that I'm Optimus Prime, but they're stunned at first because putting a person to a 40-foot Autobot is one thing. Yes, I have to be careful of little cameras going on all the time whether they're taking video or recording, but I've been asked to do little messages and I comply with that under given circumstances if that's okay.
SHH: "I'm Optimus Prime, Gary and Linda aren't home now…"
Cullen: That's true.
SHH: Well thank you very much, Peter, and good luck with the rest of the series!
Cullen: Okay, and one more thing, Max, are you ready?
Cullen: (in character) This is Max's number. He is not here. This is Optimus Prime, I suggest you leave a message.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
(Photo Credit: FayesVision/WENN.com)