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Interview: Hoon Lee – Splinter from TMNT (2012)

by Mary Anne Butler, Reporter

I recently got to have a nice chat via Skype with Mr. Hoon Lee, voice of Splinter on the newest version of TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) on Nickelodeon. (What follows is a transcription of the audio, since we seemed to have a slight issue with levels):
Mab: Mary Anne Butler from ComicsOnline, talking to Hoon Lee, voice of Splinter on the new animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nickelodeon. How are you doing today?

Hoon Lee: I’m good!

Mab: I’ll totally admit to being a Turtles fan when I was growing up!

HL: Good! We like to hear that!

Mab: And getting to have a little brother who is also extremely into turtles its been awesome I’ve been able to stay attached to the franchise in it’s various versions. The current version that you’re in just happens to be my brother’s favorite.HL: Yeah, right, there have been A LOT. Awwwwe! That’s great!

Mab: Yeah, he’s almost 14 now, and the cartoons and movies were all he watched for a long time, and with the new series, it’s all about the turtles again.

HL: Oh that’s fantastic! That’s so good to hear, I’m so glad.

Mab: SO how did you get involved with turtles? were you a fan of the films or comics?

HL: Heh, well, it sounds like I’m a BIT older than you, and I read the original black and white comic books from WAY back when, its kind of how I first got exposed to them. I didn’t follow the original animated series that much, I did see the movies, I just didn’t really follow the cartoon religiously but I did really like the comic books. When I got involved with this project, I was in Los Angeles at the time, I’d been acting for awhile, and my agent called me and said “well, you know Nickelodeon is doing this reboot of Ninja Turtles, and they want you to audition for Splinter, and I kind of freaked out a little bit because it’s kind of like a dream as a comic book fan growing up and being a turtles fan growing up, being asked to audition was nerve wracking. But everyone was very very nice during the whole process and it just happened to work out, and I seemed to bring to the table what they were looking for.

Mab: That’s fantastic! Being a fan, and then being told you get to audition for that character-

HL: I know! It was really REALLY a thrill. And you know you spend a lot of time telling yourself “yeah, just….don’t screw this up”. And I still think that now, every time I’m in the recording booth. You know, you have that sense of responsibility, not only to the new audience, but to the people who grew up with it and also to yourself; you want to do a good job so you don’t ruin your own childhood. (laughs)

Mab: Yeah, no pressure, no pressure. (laughs) I could not imagine that feeling of “Oh yea, so this is who you get to audition for”, because I love Splinter.HL: I know! Well, when you’re a kid growing up, you play pretend all the time, you know? Like you pretend your Luke Skywalker, or you pretend you’re this and that, and it’s kind of being asked to play like that professionally, and it’s great!

Mab: So did you totally have like a Splinter voice all worked out before the audition?

HL: No! Well….I actually kind of did, I had a sense, but it’s tough! Because you want to bring your own thing to it, but at the same time with these characters that are so iconic, you have that sound in your head already. It’s like asking someone if they were going to rerecord Yoda-

Mab: Oh man.

HL: You know what I mean? Like HOW would you even approach doing something new with it? You’d feel like you were betraying the characters. There was some sense for me that I was, you know, just going to go in and do my best, basically. And in the audition, it seemed clear they were perusing a slightly different take on Splinter and making him a bit younger, in some ways a bit more wickedly funny, he has the sly sense of humor, and more capable. And once they kind of explained THAT, it took a lot of the pressure off of me, because then I felt I didn’t have to pay too much attention to what’s come before and that really helped free things up for me.

Mab: That makes sense, I do LOVE that they’ve given him the humor, because you always get that impression in the comic books, and they gave him one or two moments in the films, but they really let it progress in the new series.

HL: Yeah its great, Splinter is very much in this tradition of mentor/sensei/father figures, and a lot of them have that sort of dry sense of humor that comes with age, experience and wisdom. It’s nice to see that as part of the dynamic, because I think there’s so much camaraderie, that it’s so well handled with the turtles, and so well handled with the acting between the actors playing the turtles, and I’m very thankful my character is allowed to participate in that.

Mab: Awesome, awesome. I’m also going to ask your opinion the upcoming turtles movie, where they’re getting rid of the mutant part of the turtles, I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about that.

HL: I’ve heard SOME stuff, but I’m not super well informed about it. I’ve heard it’s in limbo right now, I’ve heard that it’s moving forward, I really don’t have a line of information, and I would HATE to add to speculation without any firm grounding. From what I have heard about the rumors, I will say I think it would be weird to loose core parts of the origin story, that to me just seems like a strange choice. Um, so that’s all I can really say about it, it confuses me more than anything, because I would think that part of why you’d want to tell a story is to reinterpret that core material as opposed to creating something from scratch, or a completely original story, why not just go with different characters. That’s one thing I feel really great about with this new series, the origin stories we’re doing from Nick, he’s such a fan of the original characters and comics etc., I just feel like he’s invested so much time and energy in not only trying to push things further, but also in really honoring what’s come before. I think that’s such a tricky balance, and hard to do, and you’re never going to please everybody, but I think he’s done a MASTERFUL job.

And it’s so hard to do that adequately in a cartoon I would think. And I get the feeling he treats it more as a real series and not much as an animated thing

HL: I think that’s true. I mean it’s funny, that people look at comics and animation and manga, and all of these things have come so far into the mainstream, I feel like everyone has some understanding and awareness of what that world is. And I think for people who really grew up with those mediums there is still a very different sort of appreciation for them. And I think when you do grow up with those, you don’t really make the distinction between them, you don’t really say “oh, this is a cartoon, therefor it plays by these different sets of rules”. I think you just kind of accept that, the medium change and the technologies used to tell the story may vary, but at the end of the day you’re capturing people’s imagination with the character, plot, drama and stakes, things that are commonalities between the best cartoons, the best comic books, Alfred Hitchcock movies, great literature, music, digital art, all these things have so much in common. I feel like when I see Ciro [Neili, executive producer for TMNT 2012] he thinks of himself like a film maker, and he has this amazing love of animation, and it’s a style he applies into film making, and I said that’s what really comes through. I was reading the script, looking at the story, I was so impressed in the quality of the writing and the quality of the execution of the story telling. That’s often given short shrift, in this sort of high pressure quick turn around media, but I just think they’ve done such a great job. The highest complement I can really pay them is I watch this show as a participant, and I also watch it as a fan. If I wasn’t involved as a participant, I would still watch it as a fan.

Mab: That’s pretty awesome, that right there is one of the best reviews of a product that someone involved with it can give!

HL: Yeah, and you know, as an actor it’s often hard to shut out public reaction to things. It’s necessary to do at times, in order to concentrate on what you’re doing, and not contaminate what you’re doing. But this is one of those stages where as soon as I saw even the trailer, I knew right away I didn’t care what anyone else thought, and that is such a good feeling. Its like you suddenly have that mainline connection to your 10 year old self, who is watching the show and not listening to the critics, or to what your friends said, you just think it’s cool, where you think “Wow this is great!” and it felt like that as soon as I saw it, I don’t care what the public reaction is, this is really special. It’s such a great feeling, really gratifying, to be a part of that.

Mab: Do you have a Splinter action figure?

HL: I do, I do! And I have a young son, he’s a little young for a lot of tv watching right now, but I’m kind of hoping if we get enough seasons under our belt, he can start watching. He may not care, that would be the really sad thing, if he’s totally into something else and not into turtles at all. I’m hoping I can spring the action figures on him at some point. It would mean a lot to me if he’s interested in it at all.

Mab: That would be wonderful! A whole other generation of turtles fans!

HL: Oh my gosh, yeah! Totally.

Mab: Do you find that doing the voice work for the animated series is harder, easier, more enjoyable than you know, not doing voice work as opposed to doing on camera acting?

HL: Um, they’re really different things. Part of why it’s been an interesting trend, you see more actors at work their medium is doing voice work. I don’t have a huge amount of experience doing voice compared to someone like Ron Paul, but the thing I like about it is it’s very focused. You’re really trying to convey as much of a story as you can through a single aspect of your being, through your voice. And you’re really, basically, just trying to hone in on that. It’s a difficult challenge, a lot of the time when you’re on stage or in front of a camera, you’re trying to coordinate things at once, and that’s what you’re trained to do. Your vocal inflection is important of course, but the physical choices you’re making, your body language, expressions on your face etc., all the things play in simultaneously, you can use them and play off each other. And you’re using that to try and convey some kind of story. When you only have your voice available to you, you’re trying to do that with a singular instrument, and you kind of have to trust that creative team involved, the animation directors, everybody, are going to have you safely in hand, and you take the material you give them and marry it into the appropriate visuals. It’s a really exciting way to work for me because it’s so focused. I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier, just the hours are better (laughs) doing voice work. I will say it’s a difference challenge and different mind set.

Mab: Is the animation already completed when you go in and do the recording or are you doing the recording first?

HL: No, no, generally no. They have some of the work done, but it’s certainly not finished, and we aren’t voicing to animated sequence. I’m not an animation expert, but from what I understand that was always one of the big distinctions between western style and eastern style. Eastern style they would do the voice work TO the animation, and western you animate to the voice work. It’s just two different approaches to it, I don’t know if it’s very different now or if I’m totally dating myself by saying that’s how it’s done. But what’s great about it for us is we can focus and concentrate on making our choices as actors, and again, you trust that they’ll pick up on that and take their cue from some of the things you’re doing. But they have a really clear vision of how they feel the scene is supposed to go, our voice director is very clear when they want something specific from you, and at the same time very open to allowing something you interpret as well. It’s a very fun and free environment, which is great.

Mab: That’s awesome. I think that just about wraps up the time you had for me today, I want to say thank you so much, and I can’t wait for the second season.

HL: Yeah, it’s going to be fun, we can’t really say too much about it obviously, but I think the first season of any show you’re doing a lot of introducing, but once that ground work is laid, you can really go with it and it’s exciting. Thank you!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles [Blu-ray]

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About Mary Anne Butler

Photographer, costumer, writer, and mom.

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