Transformers: Peter Cullen and his Long History With Optimus Prime

The star of Transformers: Titans Return discusses his three-decade career as Optimus Prime.

Forgive me for saying it, but Peter Cullen has still, er, got the touch. Since debuting the role of Optimus Prime (still the best Autobots leader ever, sorry Hot Rod apologists) on The Transformers in 1984, the voiceover great has reprieved the role repeatedly over the past thirty-some years, most notably in Michael Bay’s Transformers films.

Proving that you can’t keep a heroic robot down, Cullen once again reprises his most iconic character in Transformers: Titans Return, Hasbro and Machinima’s latest installment in their Prime Wars trilogy.

Currently airing on Verizon’s go90 network, the series is a bold extension of the brand that deftly mixes the kind of “more than meets the eye” action that the franchise is known for with contemporary storytelling that appeals to longtime fans and new recruits alike. Den of Geek recently had the opportunity to speak with Peter Cullen about his 34-year year association with Optimus Prime, the challenges of voiceover, and more. Here’s what he had to say:

How did you first get involved with The Transformers?

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I responded to a call from my agent saying they were auditioning characters for a new animated series called The Transformers. He didn’t know very much about it, as I can recall. He said “it’s toys that turn into different things, and they want you to audition for a character — he’s a leader of these guys and his name is Optimus Prime.” I said “wow.” So, still in a daze by the time I got to my audition, I had no idea what I was getting into until I arrived and saw the pictures of the characters on the wall and on the table, where you could pick out as many characters as you wanted to audition for, plus the one you were called in for.

All of us auditioining went one by one for a series of days, until we all got together and had it explained to us what it was all about, and saw more detailed pictures. I knew early on that we were involved with something that was totally revolutionary in the children’s entertainment world. And of course it was.

What’s so amazing about the Transformers is that it has endured for over 30 years since Hasbro created them. Why do you think it has resonated with people so greatly?

It’s a great question. The conception of a toy that a kid can get involved in was certainly the way to go. They had Mr. Potato Head, the interaction with assembling puzzles, etc. But this was based on feelings, on relationships, on good and evil, and plotlines. So it took it to a brand new dimension.

I was a 1980s kid, and I remember seeing Transformers: The Movie and just being devastated by the death of Optimus Prime. How did you first find out about this plot point, and after Optimus died did you find yourself grieving for the character?

I was stunned when I first read about it. I was reading the script, getting ready to go into recording. I was with Frank Welker and I got to the page, and I just read it and when the dust settled in my brain, i said “wait a minute, this is it, I’m not coming back. Oh damn.” Or whatever curse words were available at the time, I chose those that were appropriate.

It was disappointment for sure. As an actor you either learn to put up with rejections or disappointments or you’ll break, you’ll succumb. I’m used to that. Most actors are used to that, getting hired for something that means a lot to them. You hope, you hope, you hope. Your hopes shouldn’t be dashed because you didn’t get the part. But in my case I was a little disgruntled because there was no explanation, there was no intended meaning behind it, other than years later to find out they were just trying to create a new character to sell more toys. But at the time you interpret that as being “my character sucks, God I must have been terrible in this role.”

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We didn’t get fan mail. I never received a letter of fan mail although I was told it did come. And we didn’t have the internet so there was no thermomenter to judge how popular or unpopular something was. So move on, go on to the next job.

Of course now you realize how beloved Optimus is. Jumping ahead a few years when you were first cast for the Michael Bay Transformers movie, was your approach to the film version of Optimus different than his cartoon counterpart?

I think the answer is a two-fold answer. The character traits were ultimately for me going to be the same, but how to enact them and make the change from a small television screen with painted pictures to a full-on, blown up 45-foot character who is talking to human beings in real-life form in a believable way, that was something that had to be contended with. And I might add that Michael Bay and the people in his department were very concerned whether or not Peter Cullen could act. In other words could he act in a real-life situation and the way they were going to conceive it and portray it?

I had to audition a total of three times, they weren’t quite convinced. I don’t blame them, because at the audition Michael asked me if I played any other characters and I said yes, I played Ironhide and Ironhide had a scene with Optimus Prime. There was a girl reading Ironhide not giving it any dimension. I assumed that Michael Bay was at least aware of some of these characters so I said “if you don’t mind I’d like to read that part, I did him two and half years on the television series.” She said ok.

(Cullen breaks into the Ironhide voice) “aww come on Prime, lets kick some butt!”

Going back and forth between the two characters, I could see Michael Bay was going to be a little bit concerned. “Is this guy gonna give me a cartoon interpretation of this new multimillion dollar movie, or is he going to be able to act the part?” So in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have done Ironhide, because I did have to go back the next time and prove I really could act. I haven’t told that story in awhile.

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Do you have any advice to aspiring voice actors?

Well, never give up. And if it’s specifically voice over, as I started with cartoons, don’t be limited to one voice. The human voice is an instrument. Like any musical instrument youjhave to learn how to play it. It’s a question of controlling the air, it’s a question of resonance, how do you get high, how do you get low, how do you get nasal, how do you get hollow, and practicing that. And never give it. Do it until you drive people nuts the way that I did when I was a kid. That means doing sounds too, whether that means animals or mechanical noises or sounds.

Frank Welker and I hang around on occasion, and he is the king of voiceover and sounds. He is a magician, its almost like going to a concert hearing Pavarotti sing. Hes just brilliant and you just end up with a smile on your face. People like that are the most important people in the world to me.

Remember you’ll never work a day in your life if you’re doing something you love, so learn how to use it. And go for it, never give up.

Transformers: Titans Return is now showing on Verizon’s go90 network.