Auditioning with director Michael Bay for the role of Optimus Prime in 2007’s live-action movie adaptation of the beloved animated series “Transformers,” Canadian-born vocal artist Peter Cullen was aware that his previous accomplishments hardly guaranteed his place in a big-budget Hollywood movie.
“It’s kind of surreal to audition for a character that you basically created,” said Cullen, who originated the Autobot’s stentorian voice in TV performances from 1984 to ‘87. “But I didn’t expect Michael to know what I knew about ‘Transformers.’ I was ready for anything.”
Bay, of course, appointed him Optimus in that blockbuster film and two other hit “Transformers” sequels that have combined to gross a staggering $2.7 billion worldwide.
Come June 27, Cullen will return in his role as fandom’s favorite alien-born Kenworth K100 truck cum sentient battle-bot in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” In this go-round, Mark Wahlberg replaces Shia LaBeouf as the Autobots’ primary human bulwark against the marauding Decepticons. But don’t look to Cullen for advance intel.
“I never get to see an entire script,” he said. “I don’t really have to. Because Prime is Prime. He’s going to react to whatever he’s reacting to without knowing what’s going on in the future.”
Turning up in “Transformers” video games, toys, TV reruns, DVDs and amusement park rides, Cullen’s vocalizations have made him something of a star, with his own Twitter following to prove it.
At personal appearances at fan events such as San Diego’s Comic-Con International, the 72-year-old grandfather (whose career also includes gigs narrating film trailers and TV commercials as well as parts in the animated “G.I. Joe” and “Winnie-the-Pooh” series) still finds himself stunned by the attention but always obliges Optimus aficionados’ requests to recite cherished dialogue.
“One of the most popular is, ‘Autobots transform and roll out!’ because it was said so often on the series,” the soft-spoken voice actor said. “But I always come up with another one” — Cullen lapsed into Optimus’ commanding battlefield growl — “ ‘One shall stand, one shall fall!’ And then they go, ‘Jeez!’”
Contractually obligated to continue voicing Optimus in at least two more “Transformers” sequels, Cullen has no plans to retire his robot-in-disguise alter ego anytime soon. Moreover, having based the characterization on his older brother, a decorated Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam, the actor feels a sense of responsibility to the franchise’s faithful.
“My brother said, ‘Peter, be a real hero. Don’t do all the bravado stuff and pretend to be tough. Be strong enough to be gentle. Be understanding — and calm,’” Cullen said. “When I began the audition, his voice came right out. I read the lines the way I could hear my brother doing it.
“Now, maintaining those characteristics — courage, trustworthiness, integrity, loyalty — you’re responsible for something to the kids who watch Optimus Prime. I want to be a positive influence rather than just fighting and sock, bang, boom!”
– Chris Lee | @LATHeroComplex