Going Back to the Past with ‘Samurai Jack’s’ Phil LaMarr

‘Samurai Jack’ is back after 11 years and we chat with Jack, himself, about bringing the journey to a close

Samurai Jack slashed its way onto Cartoon Network 15 years ago. It was one of the most visually striking, creatively exciting programs to hit the channel then, with the same being true now – nearly twenty years later. Following an extremely simple premise, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack chronicles the journey of a time-torn warrior who is desperate to get back to his origin point to take down the villainous Aku. Each episode of the series would manage to transport Jack into a new world, with the show’s influences in both storytelling and style truly challenging the medium. Now, 11 years after the show’s untimely cancellation, Tartakovsky’s brilliant gem of a cartoon is back, with the show’s star, Phil LaMarr back along for the ride with him.

With Samurai Jack’s new season debuting on Adult Swim this week, we drew our swords with Phil LaMarr, the voice of Jack, about the series’ humble beginnings, how the show has matured, and why nobody wants to give 2D animation a chance anymore.

DEN OF GEEK: What were your initial impressions when you first saw the series fifteen years ago, and then again when you saw what the new batch of episodes looked like?

PHIL LAMARR: Actually, I haven’t seen the new stuff yet!

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Oh man! They’re great!

I’ve seen the scripts, obviously, and the storyboards. But I haven’t seen the finished animation. Apparently only the journalists get to see that! But when we first started on the show, there actually was finished animation, even before we started recording. That’s very unusual. Genndy had done this test piece to show Cartoon Network what he was thinking because it wasn’t like other shows. A proof of concept sort of thing, and I got to see that before we started recording. And that was amazing because I was like, “Oh…Oh!…OH! And that’s why the script is only three pages long!” 

Yeah, so coming at it this around was a very different process. Genndy and I have remained in touch over the years and I knew that he was trying to bring it back. So it wasn’t a case of, “What’s it going to be this time around?” It was more, “How are we going to do it? Oh, on Adult Swim? Got it. Tell me when to show up.”

Well, on the topic of this return finally materializing on Adult Swim, there was talk for a long time to get a Samurai Jack Movie happening in the years after the show ended. How close was that to coming together? Did it ever get so far that you ever saw a script, and if so, how close was the story to the direction that these final episodes are going in?

I mean, actors are usually the last part of that puzzle. The gap between getting financing for a feature film and pulling in voice actors is pretty massive. As far as I know, there was never a deal in place to get it done, so I don’t think there was ever a script. I certainly never saw one.

That makes sense. I would think that doing it as a movie would inevitably lead to a different story though since these final episodes have such a huge scope to them.

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Yeah, I don’t know if you could fit this story in two hours. It would have to be truncated in some way. Although, maybe he had a different concept when he was thinking about it as a feature. I suppose we’ll never know, which is sort of a shame because you have a show this good and a character this fertile and still you can’t get people to do 2D animation. You can get them to do bloody talking CG trucks for days, but you can’t get this made. I think it’s just some sort of weird entertainment company mentality now: “You can’t do flat animation. You can’t! You can’t!!” Well, yes, you can, and in a lot of ways it actually looks better, communicates better, and tells a better story than the CG. Maybe I’m biased though.

No, I mean there is such a beautiful look to it all, even if it is flat. It’s stuff that seemed ahead of its time 15 years ago and actually feels more appropriate with today’s sensibilities. Like of course it’s coming back now. It makes perfect sense to return.

It’s interesting because when we first did the show everything was still pretty much analogue. It was all painted backgrounds. Each storyboard artist also came up with each story—they were writers. There was no separate writing staff and artistic staff. It was all one. That in itself was incredibly unique. It’s interesting because the problem with digital animation at this point is that you don’t get the personalization anymore. An artist can’t get his style in there because it’s not his hand. It’s a keyboard, or a mouse, or a Wacom pen. The computer sort of takes the individual style out of it, or, you need to be incredibly proficient to get your personal essence through all of that technology. Nowadays, very few people have that. However, if you’re a creator it becomes much easier to stay on model because you make the model and then you hand it off. It’s not going to change.

Were you thinking about this property a lot during the time that it was gone? Was it the sort of world that you were missing and wondering what Jack was up to every so often? Did you have any idea the fandom and love for the series was so severe?

Absolutely. I’m trying to remember when it started. I mean, I always knew that the show was good. There was just no doubting that. There was a period maybe four or five years after it had been off the air that people began to mention it to me. I’d be at a convention or meet new people and when people found out I had worked on their eyes would just light up. That’s how I knew that there was a “market for this” and fandom. People were still responding to this show even though it wasn’t out there in a significant way. People were still finding it and just diving into it wholeheartedly. Whenever Genndy would talk about bringing it back in some form, I’d be like, “Absolutely! People want it!” Also, how could it never have an ending!? We need to find out does he defeat Aku? Does he get back to the past? What happens!? 

Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting because Futurama is another one of my favorite shows, and it also went away and came back. It feels like there’s much more urgency with Samurai Jack though because there is that feeling of needing a conclusion to this long, long battle that’s been going on. 

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Well, the premise itself has a question mark in it! It’s a quest. It’s The Odyssey. If Homer stops on Cersei’s island you’d be like, “What are you doing!? You’ve got to get back home!” Does he get back to his wife? You need to know these things. That’s the story that we set up. There’s a man that’s on a quest to get back and defeat this demon. It’s a question. Futurama isn’t really a question. It’s just a life. An exploration of a world, and you’re right that it’s certainly less urgent in that way.

These new episodes do a lot to shatter the foundation of who Jack is at his core, which is a great way of re-entering this material. How is Jack, or the show, different in this return?

Well I don’t know if it shatters things so much as it raises questions—

Okay, fair enough.

And those are the big questions that he’s asking himself. It’s funny because people have gone to me, “Ooh, it’s on Adult Swim. Is it dirtier? Is it bloodier? Is it darker?” Well, it’s darker in a sense, but to me it’s really just more adult in the sense that the show has grown up. It has different concerns. It’s looking at things from a different perspective than it is originally. One of those big questions is, “This is who I thought I was. Now all these things have happened. Am I still that person? Have I changed?” And those are the questions that Jack is asking himself, which is very unusual for a hero. A hero is unquestioning and does what’s right. He doesn’t go, “Is this right? What is ‘right’?”

Yeah, it’s a really nice touch to throw into the mix. The show definitely gets a little harsher and sees Jack dealing with the repercussions of his actions.

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And for me, that’s what makes this show a continuation rather than a reboot or a sequel. It’s not like we start with Jack defeating Aku and then another bigger baddie comes along. Oh no! That’s the “sequel-itis” version of it. This is the story down the line and it’s been amazing to play. 

Do you have a favorite episode from the original series?

Oh gosh, there are so many…I love “Jack Learns to Jump Good.” I mean, the first episode – 

The movie?

Yeah! We did it as three individual episodes put together. “Aku’s Fairy Tales” is another favorite. We did so many that are just really, really great—All of the Scotsman episodes!

“Jack and the Haunted House” has such a beautiful design style to it, too. It’s great. Superheroes are really hitting a fever pitch right now, and you’ve been fortunate to get to voice a number of characters like Green Lantern in Justice League Unlimited and Aquaman in Young Justice. Was it nice to sort of get to put your stamp on these characters before they’re played around with in feature films?

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At least for providing the voice of John Stewart—Green Lantern—I think that was the first time he had ever been voiced and animated before. Aquaman, he’s been around a while though. Doing those voices is a very different sort of thing. To me, with Samurai Jack, I’m just a part of it. I’m a third of the character at the most. There’s the voice, the design, and there’s the writing. And no one of those can stand without the other two, and with that I feel a little more ownership than with these established superhero characters. As a big comic book head though, it’s really cool to get to be a part of that legacy. I used to watch the Aquaman cartoon as a kid and to now be voicing the character—arguably a little cooler version of the character—is a blast.

On the topic of Young Justice, that’s another cancelled program that’s going back into production.


Has any work begun yet on that? Can you say anything there?

Not for me, but of course my characters aren’t central to the story. But I hope that I get to come back and play in that world. I think Greg Weisman is such a good writer. It’s always great to voice characters and be a part of his world. 

Lastly, what are you most excited for people to see in this return to Samurai Jack?

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Hmm, I don’t think I can say. I mean, I have an answer, but if I were to say what it was it would be a huge spoiler. There’s something in the story that Jack experiences that I can’t wait to see people’s reactions to.

Samurai Jack’s fifth season premieres March 11th at 11pm on Adult Swim