The voice synonymous with Batman in his animated form for nearly two decades is back again this week in Warner Bros. latest Direct to DVD release, “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.”
Kevin Conroy, who first voiced Bruce Wayne’s iconic alter ego in "Batman: The Animated Series" from 1992 to 1995, reprises his role in the Bruce Timm-produced adaptation of the first arc from Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ best selling series of the same name. The DTV feature goes on sale Tuesday, September 29.
Since 1992, Conroy has voiced Bruce Wayne/Batman in every episode in the DCAU shared universe, including “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Superman: The Animated Series,” “The New Batman Adventures,” “The New Batman/Superman Adventures,“ “Batman Beyond,” “Static Shock,” “The Zeta Project,“ “Justice League“ and “Justice League Unlimited,“ as well as the feature films and DTVs, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,“ “Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero,“ “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” and “Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman.”
He’s also voiced the Dark Knight in DC Universe Original Animated Movie, “Batman: Gotham Knight” and the top-selling and critically video game, “Batman: Arkham Asylum.”
In the previously released DC Universe Original Animated Movie, “Justice League: The New Frontier,” Batman was played by Jeremy Sisto of “Law & Order” fame, and in the upcoming “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths,” William Baldwin, most recently seen in “Dirty Sexy Money,” takes on the role.
CBR News spoke with Conroy about his long run with the iconic character and the veteran television, film and stage character shared news that while he certainly doesn’t hope so, this could quite possibly be his last chance to answer the Bat-Signal.
CBR News: Batman is a character you’ve been playing for a long, long time now. Does it ever get tired and old, or do you relish every chance you get to play The Dark Knight?
Kevin Conroy: How could playing Batman ever get tired and old? He’s the most extraordinary character to play. No, I never get tired of it. I’m the luckiest actor in the world to have the opportunity to do it over and over again.
Growing up in Westbury, New York, were you a Batman guy or a Superman guy? Or maybe Spider-Man was your guy?
I was into Batman, but to be honest, I really wasn’t that into comic books. My family was very strict and conservative and Catholic. I went to Catholic schools and I just didn’t have comic books. My only real exposure to Batman was the Adam West TV series. So when I went in to audition for “Batman: The Animated Series,” I told Bruce Timm that and he said, “Oh God, no. That’s not at all the direction we’re going. This is based on the original ‘Dark Knight’ series. This goes back to the Bob Kane tradition. It’s very dramatic. It’s very noir.”
And he described to me the whole history of the Batman legend, which I was really completely ignorant of. I think that was actually in my favor, because I had no pre-conceptions at all. I went in with a really blank slate. I mean, I’d love to tell you that I was raised on it and I always had this fantasy of playing Batman but I was just an actor going in with a really clean slate in terms of playing the character. I think that’s what gave me the opportunity to come up with a very unique sound, which I did just improvising on the spot. I just put myself in a very dark, personally painful place and the voice changed [delivers line as Batman]. It just went to a very husky, what to me was an appropriate sound for someone living in that kind of intense pain.
Has the voice you improvised that first day you auditioned transformed at all over the years?
The sound hasn’t. The way I produce the sound has. I have a lot of stage background. I trained at Julliard. I did a lot of Shakespeare, so I’ve done a lot of vocal training about how to support your voice on stage. And when I came up with this sound in the booth, it was the first time I’d ever done animation. So I just kind of improvised it on the spot. And I produced the sound by crunching down, really pushing down on my vocal chords. And it was a great sound but it was being produced in a very bad way. It was a very unprofessional way to make a sound. And I thought I won’t be doing it very often. It’s not like I’m doing this eight times a week on stage. It will be once every couple of weeks in a sound booth. I’ll be able to do this. Interestingly, after about a month of recording, we’d done about four episodes at that point, I started losing my voice. And Bruce [Timm] and Paul [Dini] weren’t happy at all [laughs]. “We’ve already established this sound in four episodes. We can’t just change it. You have to figure out a way to come up with this without hurting yourself.” So the way I produce the sound is different, but the voice is very consistent. It hasn’t changed.
Nowadays, it’s commonplace to bring big name Hollywood talent in to play the leads in animated productions. What was it that brought you to a voice casting call, almost 20 years ago now, when these types of projects were in their infancy?
It was really lucky that I did it, when I did it. This is in 1991. I had done commercial voiceovers in New York to supplement my theater career. I did mostly Off Broadway and Broadway. I worked for Joe Papp a lot. It’s very high quality and prestigious work, but it doesn’t pay a lot of money, so in order to do that, most New York actors supplement their theater income with commercial work. That’s very common to do.
Anyway, I was in L.A., I’d just finished doing “Tour of Duty,” and I was doing a TV movie, and my agent said, “Look, they’re casting a new animated show at Warner Bros. You do commercial voiceovers in New York. Why don’t you go in and see if you can come up with the sound you want?” So it was really a fluke that I happened to be in L.A., shooting something else. I did commercial voiceovers already, but I’d never done animation. But also, what was very lucky, it was just a couple of years before Hollywood started stunt-casting. It’s very unlikely now that they would listen to an actor that they’d never heard of to do lead role in a major series. All the studios now tend to stunt-cast, which is using film stars or television stars, just to give the show marquee value. It’s not like the audience can really tell whose voice it is. Usually, they can’t recognize the voice at all. But the clients, or the studio executives, love the fact that they have a star doing that sound, so there are a lot of stars now doing animation and doing voiceovers in general. So it’s become much harder for people to break into the field, and really hard, virtually impossible, for someone without a major marquee value to his name to walk into a role like Batman. It was very lucky that I happened to do this in ’91. A couple of years later, and it wouldn’t have happened, probably.
This won’t translate well for readers, but can you say a line as Batman, as Bruce Wayne and as yourself, because I hear Bruce Wayne in your actual voice.
Get into the Batcave now [delivers line as Batman]. And you’re right. Bruce Wayne’s voice is just very much my voice. It’s pretty close to me. When I started doing the show, I did more with Bruce Wayne, making him almost a dilettante. Just to give it more of a range from Batman. So I used more of my higher register and there was a lot more color to it [speaking higher], it was a more animated sound. They decided they wanted the show to be much darker. So I went back and re-recorded a lot of the early episodes making Bruce Wayne’s voice much closer to just my own. I thought it was fun having Bruce Wayne be more colorful than Batman. Just to give it more range. But they wanted the whole palette of the show to be darker, so I toned all that down.
Do people ever hear your voice and it just clicks that you’re Batman?
I remember once there was a kid standing in a line at the movie theater. The kid almost went into shock when I asked for two adult tickets. And he turned around with these saucer eyes, staring at me. His mother was saying, “Johnny, what’s the problem?” This kid went into a trance. And he’s staring at me and just pointing at me. And I had to explain to the mother, “I think he recognizes my voice. I do Batman.” And he started screaming, “It is Batman. It is Batman.” So that was funny.
You’d be surprised, actually, how many people follow animation and how attuned they are to who does what voices. I always assumed this was a completely anonymous job, and I’m always surprised. At Macy’s in New York one time, someone just walked up to me and said, “Aren’t you Kevin Conroy?” I thought it was someone I might have known. He said, “You’re Batman.” I said, “How did you know that?” And he said, “Oh, everybody knows who plays Batman.” So I’m always amazed when someone recognizes me.
Recently, I was bringing my car in to get serviced to a garage I’d never dealt with before. And I gave him my name and the guy said, “Oh, that’s funny. You must have a hard time with that name. That’s the name of the guy who does Batman.” And I said, “That’s me.” And they he didn’t believe me. So I had to do the voice in the garage for everybody. And then they believed me. I’m standing in the middle of a garage. I am Vengeance. I am the Night [delivers line as Batman].
You’d be surprised at how many people know the names of who does what characters.
Well, I remember when it was rumored that you weren’t going to be doing “Batman: Gotham Knight,” there was near pandemonium on the message boards and in the talk-back forums.
[Laughs] That was so cool. It’s such a privilege to be a part of something like this. This is a hugely high quality show. Aside from Batman being an incredibly cool character, what Bruce Timm and Paul Dini created with the original show was just head and shoulders above what any other studio was doing in L.A. at the time in terms of animation. It just blew the lid off anybody. I had a friend working at Disney at the time, an executive, and he called and said, “Well, I’ve just seen a screening of your new show and you’ve just screwed all of us.” He said the bar had just been raised. So that’s a real honor to be a part of something like that. And that’s Paul and Bruce. They were really responsible for setting a very high standard.
You get to don the cape and cowl once again this week in “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.” It’s not set in DCAU proper, but you’re still back as Bats.
Interestingly, I don’t really have a lot to do in this one. It’s really Clancy Brown’s show. He has the most to do of anybody. Neither Tim Daly nor I have much, but in every show, somebody gets a chance to shine a little more. And this is Clancy’s turn. He’s a very good actor. And he gets to really give a good performance in this.
Did you enjoy being back on the soundstage with Tim Daly, someone who you’ve played off of so successfully in the past?
Oh yeah. The nice thing about so many of these things and working with people like Mark Hamill [who plays Joker in DCAU] and Clancy; these relationships span so many years. And you only [get together] maybe once or twice a year to do something, but there’s all that time and all that history. There’s a real relationship there, so the second you’re in the booth together, there’s a lot of unspoken understanding of how each other works and the give-and-take in a situation. There’s a lot of trust that’s been established. The longevity of the relationship really pays off for the show in terms of knowing how to work with each other. And enjoying working with each other.
You weren’t voicecast in “Justice League: New Frontier,” and then you were back for “Batman: Gotham Knight” and this one. But now I see William Baldwin is Batman in “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.” Do you ever think about the possibility that you may never get a chance to do the voice again?
You never know. I don’t have any claim on it. It’s really a question of whether the studio wants to use me. I know I’ve given a good performance. I know that the fans think so. So, as to the frequently as the studio wants to use me, I’ll be happy to do it. I love doing it. But you can’t get to possessive of these things. There’s always someone who comes along with a different idea. They just want to hear a different sound, so you never know.
Do you know if there’s a next Batman project for you?
I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. They never tell the actors until the very last second. We are just pawns in the game [laughs]. They almost don’t want us to know, in case they want someone else to do it. The actors are literally the last thought on anybody’s mind. Isn’t that terrible?