Improv and Voice Actor Phil LaMarr Comes to Terrificon At Mohegan Sun

Phil LaMarr (Credit: Allan Amato)

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Terrificon is returning to the Mohegan Sun Expo Center in Uncasville on July 29, 30 and 31 and will feature comic book artists and writers, Q&A sessions, a costume contest for cosplayers, over 350 comic, toy and art vendors — even a kid-friendly convention within the convention.

Also appearing is Phil LaMarr, a cast member on the Fox sketch comedy series Mad TV, and the voice and personality behind a number of animated characters.

Ahead of his appearance, LaMarr talked to CT Examiner about his connection to Connecticut, his path from improv to voice acting, and how the two relate, and his current involvement in a Sherlock Holmes series.

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RD: When you attended Yale, you helped found the improv comedy group Purple Crayon which is still in operation today. What inspired you to get into improv? Was it Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, stand-up comedy, or something else?

PL: Actually, Yale was my introduction to improv. A friend of mine, Eric Berg, was from Chicago, we did plays together and then one summer he was in Chicago taking classes at Second City and with Del Close at ImprovOlympic. Then he came back that fall saying “Hey guys! You guys wanna do some improv?!!!” and we were all like “Um…what? Ok, sure. Why not?”. This little grouping of theater pals turned into a decades-long running institution and not only did it help change the entertainment world at the university, it definitely changed all of us. Being in your early 20s and being introduced to the philosophy of improv shows that life is about collaboration and agreement, that’s how you achieve things.

If you do that together, you can make up amazing stuff of your own without ever having to think it through and that just blew my mind. The interesting thing about it is that I consider that the touchpoint for my career even though I had actually gotten my union card back in high school and had been doing plays since I was 13. Touching into improv has led to so many of the high points of my career.

RD: How did you make the transition from improv and sketch comedy into voice acting? How did that particular door into improv and sketch comedy lead to the opening of the door into voice acting?

PL: Well, the funny thing is all of those doors were opened by other people. I started taking improv classes at The Groundlings’ theater when I got home to L.A. after graduation and not for my career but because I needed to do improv. I needed it for my soul. I took my day-job money and I paid for these classes because I wanted to take them. The Groundlings is an improv and sketch company so after you take two levels of improv they’ll have you start writing, which opened the door for me writing sketches. Inevitably after doing that for years alongside incredible people like Kathy Griffin, Will Farrell and Jennifer Coolidge, you see what’s possible.

Then I wound up on Mad TV using characters that I’d done on stage and then during the second season of Mad TV they started doing animated pieces. They said “Hey, we’re already paying you guys for these episodes so you’re going to voice these characters. We’re not going to bring anybody else in.” So I then began to voice these animated characters. I realized this is fun and it sort of winds up with sketch & improv because you have to play a lot of different characters when you’re doing sketches and you have to take the words off the page to make them do something just like improv. Everything sort of lined up without any idea that was going to happen on my part.

RD: Out of all the characters that you’ve done voice acting for such as Samurai Jack, Static from Static Shock, John Stewart as the Green Lantern and Hermes Conrad from Futurama, do you have a favorite?

PL: I consider my inability to answer that question a blessing because I have on my resume, both on paper and mentally, a handful of once-in-a-career opportunities. Being part of Samurai Jack, which is a work of art. Getting to play a Green Lantern, because I grew up as a DC Comics kid and now, I’m part of a comic book universe. Working with Matt Groening for goodness’ sake on Futurama now in our third decade and getting to play Jedi Kit Fisto and be part of the Star Wars universe that was absolutely foundational to me as a child. You want me to pick between one of those? No, I wouldn’t let any of those go.

Any one of those is the sort of thing you can wear as a hat in your career for the rest of your time. The fact that I have multiple of those, and I’ve gotten to work with creators at that level of genius, multiple ones, I got a lot of favorites.

RD: I can totally see why. When it comes to voice acting & improv, how does your creative headspace shift between the two mediums? Do you find a lot of similarities or do you prepare yourself differently between doing a voice acting session and doing an improv performance?

PL: The big crossover between the two is the requirement to be able to do a full, complete, well-felt performance immediately without tons of preparation. I remember on Justice League, they would sometimes cast a lot of great on-camera actors, people who had blown you away on movie screens, and they weren’t very good. Then you realize that it’s because this person is used to having a week or a month of rehearsal, memorizing the lines and putting on a costume before those words turn into a performance. Now, they just stick a piece of paper in front of this guy’s face and say “Go! Make it alive!”, and that’s not easy. For most of us, if you’re sitting in your office, someone says, “Here, take a look at this” and you start reading it out loud then immediately it flattens out.

That’s just a natural human trait, you go from your eyes to your mouth. While doing a voice over, you have to go from your eyes, to your brain, to your heart and back to your mouth. I feel improv definitely helps with that because the biggest part of improv is making a choice right away and committing to it, that’s the only way you make a scene work.

RD: Do you have any projects you’re currently working on that we should be on the lookout for in the near future?

PL: It’s so strange, I started out in show business in the ‘90s back before studios and things started acting like The Pentagon. Back then, they were happy if somebody talked about something before it came out but nowadays you have Disney mercenaries who will track you down and put a red dot on your forehead if you mention something. Actually, there’s a project I’ve been working on that recently dropped. It’s an Audible audio series called Moriarty and it’s set in the world of Sherlock Holmes — but in this one Professor Moriarty, who is Sherlock Holmes’ legendary nemesis, is the hero. He’s the protagonist while Holmes is the villain, and Dominic Monaghan from Lord of The Rings and Lost is playing Professor Moriarty and I’m playing Sherlock Holmes.