Voice Actor Maurice LaMarche on The Boxtrolls, His Impressive Career, and Pinky and the Brain

Voice actor Maurice LaMarche. Photo: Mark Davis/Getty Images

Though he's probably best known for his work on the 1995–98 animated sitcom Pinky and the Brain and for channeling Orson Welles in several other cartoons, Emmy Award–winning voice actor Maurice LaMarche has played everyone from Yosemite Sam to Toucan Sam. LaMarche calls himself a "utility" actor, a pinch-hitting performer who steps in for supporting roles when he gets the call. To aficionados, his voice is instantly recognizable and totally charming; once you've identified him by ear, you'll notice that he pops up everywhere (like on last night’s season premiere of The Simpsons, in which he voiced Rodney Dangerfield). LaMarche is one of several voice actors in The Boxtrolls, a new animated movie about trash-hoarding goblins and the human boy who loved them. Vulture talked to LaMarche about smoking Cuban cigars, filling Mel Blanc's shoes, and dying repeatedly in video games.

You still have to audition for parts, even after winning two Emmys. When you enter auditions and see rival voice actors, do you start formulating a plan of attack?
No, I wouldn't say "plan of attack." Voice actors aren't very competitive. I don't know if you've seen the film I Know That Voice, but if you haven't, I highly recommend it. It paints a good picture of the people who populate our little corner of the business. I guess, because we're less attached to our faces and our on-the-spot recognizability, there's less ego. My wife is an on-camera actress, and she was in one show after another: Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, Young and the Restless. And she'd tell me these stories about auditions and actors trying to trick each other and ruin each other's lives so that they could look better. And I thought, My gosh, that's so actor-y! That's not us! We wish each other well: "If I don't get it, I hope you do," et cetera. So my plan of attack, if I have one, is to go in there and give the best audition I can, for everybody's sake: the casting director, the director, my agent. The less I focus on myself and try to get the job, the better it goes.

Filmmaker Mike Binder once told you that in an audition, you should "always be service-oriented" and not try to ingratiate yourself too much to people at the audition. Sounds great, but how did you practically apply that advice once you had it?
That's true. What he basically said was: Go there to help. That's an almost spiritual approach, of getting out of your own way and getting out of your self, and going there to be of service to everybody else. He told me that when we were both working stand-up. I was at a comedy club out of town, and I was pacing back and forth nervously. He said, "What are you pacing so much for?" I said, "I'm scared I won't have a good show. I want to have a good show!" And he said, "Don't worry about having a good show for your sake. Think of the guy at the third-row table. Pretend you're that guy, and you've had the shittiest day at work possible. You're there to help him forget his crappy day at work. Think of yourself as helping wherever you go." I made that my performing philosophy 25 years ago. Now it's automatic. I never think about getting the job anymore; I think about how I can make this better for everyone.

Don't you have to be a little selfish when you protect your voice, though? Are there any weird exercises or arcane rituals you do?
I don't have any ritual-rituals. I know guys who warm up outside the booth by going, "Mimimi, bababa, kakaka, lalalala." Or some guys go, "Ee-ooo-ahh," and so on. What I do is I don't harm myself anymore. I quit smoking seven years ago. I quit drinking 25 years ago. When I do a character that's a bit of a strain, I ask as a courtesy, "You know, it's getting a little rough, can I step out for a moment, get some water?" Yosemite Sam is a notorious example of that. I've done 80 percent of Sam's voice work after Mel Blanc passed away. To do Yosemite Sam correctly is to really rip your voice to shreds. Mel Blanc said that in so many words in his autobiography. And he said he would always have to record Sam on Fridays because he had to take the weekend off afterwards. It's just that kind of voice. The guys at Warner Brothers know and respect me, and if we can, we try to do it in fewer takes.

You said that you used to smoke Cuban cigars when you did your Orson Welles impression. But you don’t do that anymore, huh?
That's true. I gave them up. Whatever made me pick them up in the first place ... You know what it was? It was a high-school thing. My friend and I skipped school one day and saw Live and Let Die. And there are two scenes where cigars save James Bond's life. In one scene, he puts a cigar out on a girl's hand, and she turns out to be his ally. And in another scene, a cobra is slipped into his bathroom. And he takes his cigar and a spray-can and makes a flame-thrower out of it, and burns the cobra up. I thought, Cigars are cool: They can save your life! So we started smoking cigars in high school, and it just stayed with me all that time. And at one point, I managed to buy a box of Cuban cigars that were intended for Orson Welles. And I bought them and I savored them. And that was around when I started to do the Welles voice. It sounds mystical, but it's not.

Frank Miller has often said that freelance artists who work for either Marvel or DC Comics inevitably develop a self-loathing complex, because they feel beholden to these companies for allowing them to play with their toys. You've spent decades providing the voices for established characters. How would you respond to Miller's assertion?
That sounds like something Frank Miller would come up with. I don't know if there's a beholden-ness. I'm grateful to be Toucan Sam, or Yosemite Sam, or even [comedian] Sam Kinison, though I mainly do Sam Kinison in my free time. I did do Sam Kinison in one episode of The Tick. I'm just glad I get to step into the shoes of these iconic characters. There's no complex about it at all, about whether I'm worthy or anything like that. I hope that I'm always taking myself close to the level of my predecessors. But I also realized a little while ago that I've now done Toucan Sam longer than Paul Frees, who was the Toucan Sam of my generation. I would say "first Toucan Sam," but Mel Blanc was the first Toucan Sam. He did one commercial; he had a totally different take on [the character], where he almost sounded like Barney Rubble. It was an awful Ronald Colman thing. But I realized: There's a generation that has never heard Paul Frees's Toucan Sam: I'm the only Toucan Sam they've ever heard. I thought to myself, I'm trying so hard to sound like Paul, but I'm the voice now. So all I can do now is sound like me. It wasn't a great struggle or anything, but it was a moment where I realized I was doing a good enough job.

In 2003, you stopped shutting one nostril when you did your Toucan Sam impression, which you'd done as a way of sounding more like Paul Frees. Did anyone notice the difference?
Nobody noticed. That was the really weird part. I thought I had this great nuance of putting my finger at the top of my nostril. Not putting my finger in my nose, but on the outside of my nose, and creating a [as Toucan Sam] "Follow my nose!" kind of thing. Everybody was in Chicago, directing me over the telephone, so nobody really noticed. [Laughs.] That's when I realized I have ownership over the character. And yet when I take ownership of a character, I'm very aware that I could be recast tomorrow. I'm always a little disappointed but never crestfallen when a job comes to an end, because all jobs come to an end. I've learned that in my 27 years in this business — or thereabouts. But it's been my good fortune to always three or four things to do, dovetailing off of each other. I've never had to sit there and wonder, Well, now what do I do? In that way, I've been incredibly blessed.

In the '90s, you said you would "do anything to please." But now that you're older, you know not to push yourself too hard or take on jobs that put a strain on your voice, like your high-pitched, saccharine-y character from The Popples. Can you recall what other roles made you learn you had to stand up for yourself?
P.C. Popple was not only way out of my [voice's] range, he was also obnoxiously sweet. Ridiculous. I might enjoy playing him a little more now, oddly [enough], because I'm [more] interested in stretching as an actor now than I was then. But it was very hard for me to reach that. I really learned what my range was doing video games. I was getting through all the dying, being shot, screaming. I couldn't even tell you what games they were. There was a Yosemite Sam thing where I had 500 lines. And I lost my voice for a month. With video games, there are very few limits of what they can put you through, so you have to negotiate that in your contract. In the '90s, it was [an] all-you-can-eat [buffet], but it was also name-your-own-price. That was the upside, and the downside was that it was all-you-can-eat. The upside was: Whatever you can get for yourself, you can get for yourself. Now everyone works for a minimum. So I made a vow — and I was fortunate enough that I was able to do other work in the meantime — where I said, "I'm not going to do anything where I'm doing a lot of yelling and screaming." I had commercial work going on, and other kinds of work going on, so I wasn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I just wasn't agreeing to be strafed by machine-gunfire.

You mentioned earlier that you played the Mad Bomber on The Tick as Sam Kinison. Tell me about the "writers' room environment" on that show, particularly after [producer] Art Vitello took over during the series' second season.
I was never really in the writers' room for the show, but Art was always one of those guys that had a unique take on any character. He was always looking for that extra something to define a character. Only Art could come up with, on Taz-Mania, this concept of Taz's dad as this Bing Crosby–esque father figure. Our concept of Bing, that is, not the real guy ... the orange-juice-drinking, golf-playing Bing. Also, the idea of John Astin as a relentlessly cheerful villain (Bull Gator) was a stroke of brilliance. Whether it was purely John, or purely Art's, or a collaboration, I can't say. But I do know that such an original take is the type of thing that happened on an Art Vitello show. He trusted you and allowed you to go in unusual directions as an actor.

The writers and creator of The Critic already knew your impressions and your range from your stand-up stuff at the Comedy Store. How much freedom did that give you in terms of creating your characters? Like, did they know who Jeremy Hawke was gonna be before they met you?
Regarding The Critic, I was very surprised to wind up with the Jeremy Hawke role. Mike and Al told me they read almost every Australian actor in L.A. at the time, including one or two whom you'd know from TV and films. But the fact that I had a fairly decent Aussie accent (thanks to having a good friend who is Australian, so I was constantly picking up nuances within the dialect), plus I did so many impressions, made me a bargain. Instead of having to cast an Australian and utility voice guy, they got two for the price of one. In terms of creating characters, I was obviously locked into doing as funny an impressionistic take on the celebrity voices as I could. As to who Jeremy was going to be, they definitely knew who he was, and it was my task to inhabit the character as visualized by [series co-creators] Mike [Reiss] and Al [Jean] to the best of my ability.

You've described playing the Brain opposite Rob Paulsen's Pinky to be one of the first roles that made you consider voice acting as real acting, since it was a legitimate give-and-take between you two. How hard was it to establish a rapport with Paulsen?
While Pinky and the Brain, and the interplay between those characters, was really rich for me as an actor, I think that, for me, upon examining my history more closely, I realized that good voice acting was, at its core, simply good acting, without the whole hair-lighting-makeup thing, on Real Ghostbusters. In fact, any show where the relationships of the characters are central to the show will bring out the best in a performer, and be more enjoyable to the viewer. But in terms of rapport, I have to say I’ve never experienced it more with a fellow performer than with Rob Paulsen. We had that simpatico of almost finishing each other’s sentences early on, and had a great love for the same types of British comedy. We were like two geeks at a Python or Peter Cook & Dudley Moore Con, and that was all the attendance that was needed. The flow, the give-and-take was there from day one, and we’ve never looked back. And I’m so in awe of Rob in this new, additional role he’s taken on in our industry: While still remaining one of the busiest voice actors going, he has become this quintessential host-interviewer with his podcast, Talkin’ Toons. He puts on a hell of a show, which, if you’re ever in L.A., you must drop in to. It’s almost as if listening is only half the fun, because there’s so much that’s visually provided, which, for copyright reasons, can’t be put into the audio of the podcast. It’s a hot ticket, I’ll tell you, and sells out the West Hollywood Improv most weeks. 

You’re well known for voicing the Brain and Orson Welles. Is there a project you wish more people knew you for?
There was a show in the early ’90s called Captain Simian and the Space Monkeys, created by Gordon Bressack, that I just loved. It had the best of the sci-fi world: Michael Dorn, Jerry Doyle, Malcolm McDowell, David Warner performing, and Trek writers like Dorothy “DC" Fontana and Beth Woods contributing scripts. That show should have lasted. It was funny and it was good sci-fi, with great characters played by great performers. But I’m grateful for Pinky & the Brain, The Critic, and, of course, Futurama. [That’s] some of the best writing in animation — not to mention all the guest shots I’ve gotten to do on The Simpsons! I think I played at least a dozen recurring or semi-regular characters on Futurama, and about 50 additional one-offs and two-offs. And if you want to talk about a show where the writers, these Harvard Lampoon geniuses, let an actor stretch — that was it.