Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Interview with Rob Paulsen, the Voice of Donatello

Voice actor extraordinaire Rob Paulsen discusses what it's like to voice one Ninja Turtle in the 80's and another in the now!

An actor for over 30 years, Rob Paulsen’s notable works include the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon (Raphael) and the 2012 series (Donatello), Animaniacs (Yakko), Pinky and the Brain (Pinky), and The Tick (Arthur). He also hosts Talkin’ Toons with Rob Paulsen, a podcast recorded before a live audience featuring Paulsen and other voice actors.  

Rob’s constantly working, but we were able to chat with him while traveling to a convention.

Den of Geek: How are you?

Rob Paulsen: Well I’m breathing and I’m not in jail but the day’s not over yet. So far so good.

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We’ve heard you’ve been having adventures in the airport.

Due to no small part of the fact that Ninja Turtles being so huge I get invited to a lot of events. My plane leaves at noon LA time and I can chat with you for as long as I can until they tell me to shut up and get on the plane.

Where are you headed?

This is for a convention. Week before last I was at another convention and I’ll be at another one next week. I’ve been going all over the place and I’ll tell you what man, the Turtles have been as big or bigger than they’ve ever been and I’m just incredibly grateful to be a part of it.

You’ve been involved with the Turtles since the 80s. How did you become involved with the newest incarnation of the series?

Fortunately I do a lot of work at Nickelodeon and I’ve been working on a number of shows with them for years and when Viacom, who owns Nickelodeon, bought the Turtle franchise years back it was clear there’d be another show, but never in a million years did I think I would get another crack at it.

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However, one thing led to another and I got a call from my agent who said “they’re casting for the new TMNT and the producers would love to have you come in and read.” And of course my first reaction to her, not out of arrogance but out of concern for the franchise was, “Do they know who I am?” The reason I asked was because there had been several iterations of the Turtles which had nothing to do with the actors from the original series in which I played Raphael and I didn’t want to get in there and have them say, “Oh s***, that’s right, Rob was Raphael 25 years ago. Well he’s here, let’s throw the old guy a bone.”

I didn’t want to embarrass either them of myself. But she called back and said, “No, no, they know exactly who you are. They dig Turtles, Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, the stuff you’ve done for Nickelodeon, Fairly Oddparents, Catscratch, Jimmy Newtron. They think you’d be right for their vision of Donatello.” I said sure and four or five callbacks later here I am. I’m a two time turtle baby and I figure if I live to be a hundred I can knock all four of them out.

They made a great call; you’re doing great with Donatello.

Thank you, I’m very flattered you say that. They said, “We love what you did as Raphael and you were a part of our childhood, but we think your sensibilities as an actor would lend themselves better to what we want in Donatello” and I have to say, I think they were right. (laughs) I think that Donatello works really well in the context of the other characters and the way they direct me and what they want me to do. I think they nailed it.

Like, this weekend, I’m not going just to sign autographs for a bunch of eight year olds; trust me, there will be a lot of thirty to thirty-five year olds to that are freaked out about Ninja Turtles in the coolest way and they all love the show. There’s a real cross generational appeal which is very unusual, especially for something that’s been around this long. SpongeBob a lot of grown-ups like and there’s Family Guy and all of that, but there are very few shows that have gotten another breath of fresh air a quarter century, a generation later, and arguably are as popular or more popular than they’ve ever been with parents and children.  It’s a very cool circumstance and thank you for your kind words about Donatello; I’m having a ball.

How was the transition between being “cool but rude” to having a way with machines?

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I’d like to think it was fairly seamless. Raphael was kind of a smartass and Donatello has the machine vibe going on and luckily, so far, I get to have this unrequited romance with April O’Neil which is really fun. So to get to be a ninja turtle and get the girl, well attempt to get the girl, has been fun and Mae Whitman, who plays April, her work speaks for herself. I’ve known her since before she was born! I know her mom and dad very well. I don’t feel like there’s been a difficult transition because it’s a different vibe on another turtle. So far it hasn’t been bizarre, just fun.

When working on the two shows, did you identify with any of the characters specifically?

I was a grown up when we did the original one, but there was certainly a lot of me in Raphael. I have a tendency, not to be rude but, to be sarcastic and kind of a smartass and that was definitely part of the character and maybe one of the reasons that it worked. Also, mind you, the lines were written to convey that vibe of the character, so with my sensibilities to go that way I would sort of jump on those opportunities and improvise a little bit more and expand on that assholiness as it were.

You have an episode coming up soon where the current version of the characters meet the turtles of the 80s; how was it working with your previous castmates?  

It’s really exciting, I’m so looking forward to that [episode airing] because I got to see my buddies. I see them anyway because we live and work in the same town, but it was a huge thrill for all of us to bring that back. And again, the resurgence of the show via this iteration has done nothing but help it. They released a ten season collection of the original show which, trust me, I know because I sign lots of them, and they’re bought by people that are twenty-five to thirty-five years old.

You have a son; was he around the age for when the series was first on? Did he watch the shows you were in?

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Yes, [at the time of the interview] he’s 29. Of course! Especially Turtles. Turtles, Animaniacs, and Mighty Max. Mighty Max was probably his favorite out of all of them when he was a kid, but he loved the fact that his daddy was Raphael. I did too; it was the coolest thing in the world. When you have a little boy and you’re playing this sort of superhero and your kid is watching the show and having Turtle birthday parties and is as much in to it as anyone else, yeah it was really cool. I’m an incredibly blessed guy, man, it was great.

What’s really cool is that he’s the sort to reserved judgment and he’ll tell me if he thought something sucked. He said, “I heard this new thing is coming and I’ll take a look at it and give you my opinion.” He watched four or five episodes and he called me. “I’m telling you what dad, this is EXCELLENT.” And now he’s completely hooked and it’s like a whole new version of the turtles. And he’s not afraid to tell me that it sucks and everything he’s told me is that he absolutely loves it and frankly, so do his buddies.

Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got to get on the plane here.

Thank you so much and enjoy the con.

Thanks for talking with me!


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