Voltron Hero and Villain Talk The Legend

We speak with Josh Keaton and Neil Kaplan about becoming Shiro and Zarkon in Voltron Legendary Defender.

DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender has no problem playing with the mythology of Voltron. Sven, the oddly Norwegian pilot, famous for being sent to the medical planet, has become Shiro. Now the calm and thoughtful pilot of the Black Lion, Shiro’s traumatized by his year long imprisonment by the Galra.

King Zarkon has now become Emperor Zarkon, ruthless leader of the Galra Empire who has been searching 10,000 years for the Voltron Lions.

We spoke with the actors behind these lead characters, Josh Keaton and Neil Kaplan.

First up is Keaton, best known for his roles in Spectacular Spider-Man, Green Lantern, King’s Quest, and many more. He discusses the lengthy casting process, his rare Voltron collectiable, and how his young children have influenced his portryal of Shiro.

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For everyone who may not know a lot about Voltron, can you describe your character of Shiro?

Shiro is basically the leader of the team. He pilots the Black Lion and he’s a natural leader. He was a star at the Galaxy Garrison academy. Everybody respected him, he was really good pilot. He was captured on a mission and taken prison by the Galra and he shows up a year later. No idea what happened to him. He’s got a big shock of white hair and a cybernetic hand, which obviously wasn’t there before.

He’s kinda almost suffering from PTSD where he gets flashbacks to some things that happened but he can’t quite piece it together. Sometimes it comes back to him in opportune times, sometimes not.

Probably because of what he’s been through he’s got this wisdom beyond his years. The safety of his team and accomplishing his goals are the most important things to him. Out of everyone in the group he’s probably the most zen one.  It takes a lot to get anything out of Shiro, except for butt kicking.

You mentioned the PTSD angle, how much will we be seeing of that?

Oh yeah, he has to try and put that information together. That is information that can directly help him. He’s gotta figure out what it all means.

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You mentioned he’s the oldest one, does that mean Shiro feels a lot of responsibility and these other guys will be looking up to him? 

Absolutely. That goes without saying. He is the leader. Since the Black Lion chose him and it’s the leader, it’s obviously going to go for someone who is a leader.

So for sure he has a huge sense of responsibility. There’s probably a lot of guilt that he couldn’t necessarily save all the people on the mission where he was captured. Shiro will definitely put himself in harms way in order to save any member of the team. And they all will as well. He’s really the one guy who can kinda wrangle all the different personalities and pretty much be a Dad and say, “Alright, enough. This is what we’re doing. We need to figure this out.”

Can you talk about the casting process for this show? From what I’ve read it seemed pretty intense.

It was pretty crazy. I think everybody had a little different experience. With my particular experience, I think I was the second Shiro. I originally auditioned for it, and when you audition as a voice actor you usually submit it via e-mail, you record it in your studio at home and then you submit it and they listen. They call back the people they want to see in person. So I got a callback.  At the callbacks they actually gave me sides for a couple different characters. They gave me sides for Keith and Lance as well but I was originally called back for Shiro.

Then after that callback I was pretty much told by my agent that they weren’t gonna go any further. That I wasn’t going to get the part, essentially. I was like ‘Well, that sucks’. But what are you gonna do? This happens all the time. I’ve not gotten more things then I’ve gotten.

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There was a little sting to it cause man, it’s Voltron! I really wanted to be part of that. Especially because I knew Shrio would be piloting the Black Lion and that’s the one toy I had from my childhood because we couldn’t afford the whole set, but I did have the Black Lion.

So six months go by and I totally forget about the project and an e-mail pops up from my agent which was basically a callback time for Voltron. For Shiro. And my initial impression was that it was a mistake. That it was like an e-mail that got accidentally forwarded to me from the past. I was almost not even gonna go because I didn’t think it was a real thing. So I called my agent and went, “Hey, is this a mistake cause, I got a callback thing for Voltron but I didn’t get that.” They were like, “No. That came in. They’re calling you back in.” And I was like, “Wha?”

So I go back and this time I’m in like in a conference room at DreamWorks, it’s not even in the studio. There’s a bunch of people and a microphone and so I performed the sides. And then they tell me later that week they’re gonna have me come in and record some episodes and see how it meshes with the cast. So at this point, I’m like, “So… Did I get it?” And I didn’t really get a clear answer. It was more, “Well we’re gonna see how it fits with the cast and see where it goes from there.”

Until we started doing press I didn’t believe that I wasn’t gonna be replaced. But I’m still here! It was pretty crazy. Apparently they had been through another Shiro, and they had other characters with different people and they kept swapping them out until it worked. And I’m so thankful to be a part of that final Voltron team.

What were your memories of the original Voltron when you were a kid?

Keep in mind I was a very young kid at the time. Like really young. It was almost certainly in reruns. I have some vague memories of that. But I loved it. The imagery was incredible. The freakin’ five lions forming this massive multi lion structure was awesome. Really a lot of it was the fights. Honestly, the character dynamic I didn’t really capture a lot of. When you’re a kid you want to see big robots fighting.

I also watched the Vehicle Force Voltron, which, you know, I didn’t like it as much as the Lions, I still thought it was cool. I actually still, somewhere in my parents garage, have a Gladiator Voltron toy. That one of my father’s students gave him to give to me. He teaches English as a second language to adults. It was Voltron II. Gladiator Voltron. That was something that my friends didn’t even believe was a real Voltron thing, like it was some kind of knock off. And I’m like, “No, it’s real. It’s Voltron, it just didn’t come out here.”

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In the original series the character of Sven, who’s now Shiro, spoke in a heavy Norwegian accent. How would you feel if you had to do that the whole show?

Well I’d definitely have to get a dialect coach and really brush up on it so that’d it be spot on. But hey, I’m up for anything. If they said, “Hey, Shiro’s now gonna be Norwegian and you gotta do this accent” then challenge accepted, let’s do it. It definitely would be different because I’ve never played a Norwegian character in that big of a capacity, so it would take some work on my part. I’m up for anything.

You better get ready, cause some fan at some convention will ask you to say Shiro lines in the Sven accent.

Hahaha, I guess I should probably find some Shiro lines to practice with. 

What do you as an actor bring to the role of Shiro?

Well, I’m a new Dad. I have a six month old kid and a two and a half year old kid so, that feeling of overwhelming responsibility for the life and death of a living being is pretty much at the forefront of my consciousness right now. And that’s Shiro. He’s totally, totally 100% committed to looking out for his team and making sure they’re okay. 

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I’ve grown a lot in patience. I was not a patient person for most of my life and I’ve kinda mellowed out with age and with kids. I think there’s a lot of that focus in Shiro and a lot of that centerness, an almost zenness. I do a lot of Yoga, I meditate. That’s all stuff I can completely see Shiro doing. I expect Shiro does it in times where you’re not seeing him on screen.

I’ve also played a pilot before. I’ve played heroic roles before. There’s some knowledge to that. I wouldn’t have die hard fan knowledge of all the inner workings of the original Voltron but I feel like I’ve done enough research to where I can really bring whatever I can that would have been original with this. I would say mostly my life stuff, being the leader of my own family. That makes you approach leadership from a different way. It’s not so much a brute force and forcing people to do what you want. It’s about working with them and is this the best way to get this done?

What was it like going to that Voltron art show?

That was incredible, man. I saw some stuff there that I didn’t expect. Who would have thought to carve Lion heads into crayons? It’s amazing! I’m sure you saw the mini recruitment posters for the Galaxy Garrison with each of the cadets faces on them. How cool is that? I could totally see that being part of the world! There was a lot of art that was art for arts sake. Like a scene of something, but there were pieces of art that I could see being part of the world of Voltron. I look at those and think, “those would totally be there.” It was really really cool to see.

Favorite Lion and why?

My favorite lion is the Black Lion cause it’s the only one that I had growing up. It’s the one toy that I had to play with. I didn’t have any of the other toys, but I did have the black lion. I’m beyond stoked that I get to pilot the Black Lion that I grew up playing with.

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Check out the next page for our chat with Neil Kaplan, who plays the role of Emperor Zarkon.

Neil Kaplan is no stranger to the voice acting industry, especially for fans of anime and adaptions. Kaplan has voiced roles in such shows as Digimon, Naruto, Transformers, and Power Rangers. He discusses the psychology behind Zarkon, the raise from king to emperor, and whether Zarkon will be serving up some Sprite in the first season!

(Art by David Moscati)

In the original series the character of KING Zarkon was very pompous wherein this version you can tell from the trailers that Emperor Zarkon is much more serious and intense. Is that to reflect a more powerful hold he has over the galaxy?

You know, I think the approach to the character this time around that Joaquim and Lauren took was perhaps a little bit more complex. Storytelling has changed since the 1980s. I don’t think audiences just want a cardboard cut out of a villain that’s just kinda paint by the numbers. They want a character with shades of gray and more question marks, shall we say? And just more depth.

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Personally, I like the title Emperor a lot better. I certainly feel a lot more comfortable. King is like, a king of a planet. A small area. Emperor kinda lets you know we’re talking galaxies here. We’re talking a grand scale, an empire. I think just the word empire conjures up something different. Kind of a power that is spreading as it were as opposed to a kingdom. Kingdom feels stationary when you think about it. By the very nature of the word, emperor just is a lot more foreboding. A lot more imposing. So, I appreciate the raise.

You say expanding and emperor. Do you think that makes Zarkon more of an ancient Roman kind of figure with that long reaching power?

That’s an interesting comparison. It’s apt. The empire was always thinking to expand. So in that way very much it would be along those lines.

Is Zarkon a totally sinister emperor, or do some of his subjects really like the guy?

They’d have to, otherwise how does an empire proceed forward? An emperor has to be charismatic. You can’t rule strictly from fear and intimidation. The empire spreads too far to be effective. Unless of course you build the proper structure of evil. Evil management as it were. The implementation of evil is taken over by appropriately talented henchmen or henchwomen in the case of Haggar.I think he has to devoted followers, people who believe what he’s told them.

A quote unquote evil leader is essentially just somebody who we the outside viewer have a disagreement with. I mean, one stories destructive rebel is another stories hero. So of course we don’t know at this point what Zarkon has done to take power or take control or have an empires worth of subjects and militaries following him. He certainly has enough, for lack of a better term, people on his side, that believe in what he says to keep an empire running, functioning, and expanding.

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So there’s a slight similarity between your Zarkon voice and the voice you did as Diabolico in Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue. What’s the difference between those two voices in your mind?

First of all, as much as I would love to make every single role I’ve played sound completely different, there is a limit to the human voice and the structure of the larynx. So every now and then you’re gonna have some characters that sound the same. In the case of an actor like James Earl Jones, who obviously has played two very iconic roles without doing much to alter his voice, in playing Mufasa and Darth Vader, the difference is the character he created and how he played them.

In this case, yes, vocally there’s a bit of overlap between Diabolico from fifteen years ago and Zarkon now. But the main difference is in how I play them and their energy. Their immediate goals and what they’re after. Diabolico was a captain, a loyal captain, but still an underlining and somebody who lead a group behind him and also follow orders from above. There’s still a subservience at a certain level to the power structure. There’s an uneasiness in how the character feels. He fits within that structure, versus Zarkon who’s at the top.

The guy who comes up with the ideas, the guy who implements the plans, who makes the call, makes the decision, and really has that strength of knowledge in his mind. He doesn’t doubt, he doesn’t worry, and he doesn’t fear. With characters like that a lot of times they don’t have to get loud because they know they’re right. There’s certainly an ease with Zarkon whereas Diabolico had to be a bit more assertive whether it’s to gaining favor with Queen Bansheera and move up the power structure or in the case of Lightspeed Rescue, just stay alive. Zarkon doesn’t have to worry much about kissing anyones boots in order to stay alive.

Your insight is so delightful! Here’s an obscure fun question for you. In the 90’s, Sprite did a series of commercial featuring Voltron, where King Zarkon stated, and I quote, “You haven’t experienced real playa hatin’ until you’ve felt the wrath of King Zarkon. HAHAHAHA!” Will we be seeing Emperor Zarkon shilling Sprite in the new series? 

Look, there may be ADR coming down the line but no, I don’t see Emperor Zarkon slinging any soft drinks in the middle of an episode.

Well there’s our one spoiler.

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Well, I said I don’t see it happening. I did make the addendum, there is always ADR. So there may be a scene Zarkon has his back turned to the camera and somebody rewrites it and we put it in. I don’t think that’s gonna happen though.

What is your favorite Lion or Robeast and why?

Well I don’t have a favorite Robeast yet, because I need to see them in action! I haven’t seen it yet! (NOTE: At the time of this interview.) As far as a favorite Lion? I’m a San Francisco Giants fan so I gotta go with the Black Lion. But I’m just glad you didn’t ask for a favorite Paladin. Cause that would be way too tough. I’m just so impressed with this cast and how well they fit the characters and how well the characters fit them. And how well their voices compliment each other. How they’re almost like the gears of a clock. They sync up so well. Thanks for not asking me my favorite Paladin.

We would like to extend a huge thanks to both Josh Keaton and Neil Kaplan for taking the time to interview with us. Want more Voltron? Be sure to check out our interview with Voltron Executive Producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery.

Not enough? How about our chat with the voice actress for Allura and Pidge?

Thanks to Nerdist for their photos from the Voltron Art show at Hero Complex Galaxy.

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DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender is streaming now on Netflix.

Shamus Kelley is glad Zarkon is keeping it tight and obeying his thirst with Sprite. Follow him on Twitter!