"I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman!" declared Kevin Conroy at the outset of The Kevin Conroy Spotlight panel held at this weekend's inaugural Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo.
The panel, hosted by Panels on Pages, opened with Conroy providing some background information on his history as a Julliard trained actor. After starring on stage and in television shows such as "Dynasty" and "Matlock," Conroy eventually had an opportunity to audition for the starring role in "Batman: The Animated Series," a character that would ultimately define his career.
Before auditioning, Conroy said that his perception of Batman as a character and franchise was a lot lighter than the noir style proposed by casting director Andrea Romano and producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Once he got past his preconceived Adam West-era notions, Conroy related to the Caped Crusader's plight by likening it to a modern version of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The actor explained that he went into the recording booth and tapped into "a very dark, husky place" that he thought would sound like the desired version of Batman. After the audition, Conroy said that producers on the other side of the recording booth started running around back and forth. At that moment, the actor knew he had either done something really right or really wrong.
"This is just the perfect sound," the producers eventually said. "It's exactly what we're looking for."
Conroy discussed how he utilized two different voices on "Batman: The Animated Series," a lighter tone for Bruce Wayne and a darker one for Batman, with Wayne being the "performance." Initially, the light-and-dark distinction between Wayne and Batman was much more pronounced, but his character came off as too bubbly when pitted against the Joker, initially played by Tim Curry. Conroy said that Curry's take was "so dark and menacing" that Warner Bros. was worried about his performance terrifying the audience, leading to the decision to recast the role with Mark Hamill. Conroy praised both actors, but distinguished their performances of Joker thusly: "Mark is psychotic with a smile. Tim was just psychotic to give you nightmares."
According to Conroy, Warner Bros. insisted on having voice actors record the series with one another during the same recording session, which isn't a typical method on animated projects due to scheduling difficulties. For "Batman: The Animated Series," having actors react to one another created for an exciting environment akin to an old-fashioned radio play.
"You get these wonderful actors in the studio and you get a great bouncing back and forth of performances," described Conroy of the process. "When you only have your voice to tell the story, you have to be able to use your voice to color and sell it without selling it - without making it too cartoony."
Asked to recall some of his personal favorite moments playing Batman, Conroy remembered an episode of the series titled "Perchance to Dream," during which a hallucinating Dark Knight visualizes himself as a young adolescent having a conversation with his late father - two characters Conroy played in addition to his normal duality between Batman and Bruce Wayne. In fact, Conroy insisted on playing all of the voices in real time, meaning that he would have conversations with himself in the recording booth. Conroy was very proud of the performance.
Conroy, asked to describe working with Hamill, said, "Mark is an extraordinary Joker. He's scary, watching him record. His face transforms and he kind of devours the microphone. It's something to watch. The two of us interact really well since we've been doing this for so long."
The conversation shifted to the critically acclaimed "Batman: Arkham Asylum" video game. While Conroy acknowledged the game's financial success and support from fans, he also said that recording the voice work on "Arkham Asylum" was not unlike "some kind of homeland security torture." Conroy would go through several hour stretches where he would have to record a phrase - "Get out of here," for example - with three different inflections and three different takes per inflection. "When you're alone, it goes on for days and by the end of the week, not only can you barely talk, but you're ready to run [home] screaming," he said.
For now, Conroy's Batman plans are focused squarely on video games, specifically a sequel to "Arkham Asylum." The actor expressed some disappointment over the fact that other voice actors have been tapped to portray Batman in the recent DC Universe Original Animated Movies, saying that he's now referred to as the "classic" Batman. "Classic Batman [sounds] pretty cool, but it also means… old," he joked. "There's a lot of ageism in Los Angeles. When they want classic Batman, they call me."
A fan asked Conroy who he preferred between Tim Daly and George Newbern as the voice behind Superman. "I'm so diplomatic because I have to work with them," he laughed. "There's a little more of an edge to Tim just by his nature - it's a little less 'aw shucks' and wholesome than with George, but they like that with George. They're both great."
Another fan tricked Conroy into revealing that Two-Face was a character in the upcoming "Batman: Arkham Asylum" sequel, causing a moment of silence from the actor while the audience laughed and cheered. "There's a very complicated cast," he laughed after collecting himself. "A lot of villains are in it. I'll just leave it at that!"
Conroy said that the "Arkham Asylum" sequel's tone would be reminiscent of "Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker," a famously dark project. "It's really, really dark," he said of the game in relation to "Return of the Joker." "It involves a lot of the villains and it goes to that area - it's that dark."
Later, an audience member asked Conroy if he was ever approached by producers of "The Dark Knight" to redub Christian Bale's voice, prompting laughter from the crowd. "Christian Bale is a damn good actor - he's an excellent actor," said Conroy. "He just got steered wrong. Obviously someone should have stopped him and said, 'You sound ridiculous!' But no one did, so what are you going to do?" While he wasn't a big fan of Bale's Batman voice, Conroy blamed the result on a lack of oversight.
Conroy concluded the panel by recalling a story he's told many times now. In the days after September 11, 2001, Conroy volunteered as a late night cook for workers at ground zero. After an architect recognized his voice from "Batman," Conroy was flooded with praise and conversation from surrounding workers. The architect later asked Conroy: "How does it feel to be Santa Claus?"
"I called Andrea [Romano] the next morning and said, 'You know, we should never ever, ever, ever trivialize what we do,'" he said. "It really makes people happy."