Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a Turtles fan. Now as an adult, I enjoy passing that love of everything Cowabunga on to my son (or Booyakasha as they say now). This week, I was given a chance to have an exclusive interview with Hoon Lee, the man behind the voice of Splinter on Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was the best thirty minutes of my week and we talked everything from Turtles to comic books.
GeekMom: How did you get the role of Splinter?
Hoon Lee: It was pretty straight forward auditioning process. I was contacted by my agent that Nickelodeon was re-launching the franchise and they were looking for Splinter to be a bit younger, a bit saucer and they were interested in listening to me. I jumped at the chance, because I’m a fan as well and it was kind of a dream. But it was pretty nerve wracking because you kind of want to be responsible for your memories.
GM: How did you come up with the voice for the character?
HL: That was interesting. When I first started the audition I was going for something a bit graver, older and wiser and they actually pushed me in the other direction. They said that this character is more vital and has a sharper sense of humor and once they kind of did that, it came to me quite clearly and quickly and I think it is very much on the page. So much of what we do as voice actors is led by what is on the page and the writing is very strong, so I felt that the voice kind of found itself. It’s not something I’ve ever used at any other job or anything.
GM: So, you were a fan of the Turtles before you auditioned for the role then?
HL: Yea, I grew up reading the original black and white and I remember thinking at the time that I had never seen anything like this a the time and they kicked off this wave of imitators. In many ways, I feel like they were this crystallized moment in comic book history. When they made the leap into television and film, I think that’s when people started to realize that the characters were really iconic and that they were relegated to a particular medium.
So, hearing that Nickelodeon was going to re-launch it was incredibly exciting for me and the more I heard about Ciro Nieli’s (executive producer) vision for how it should play out, it was just the perfect marriage, I thought, for bringing the contemporary and the legacy together in a compelling way.
GM: Will we get to learn more about Splinter’s life before the Turtles in season 2? Will the Turtles learn more about who he was before he became Splinter?
HL: Well, you know, I can’t actually say too much about season two. I don’t want to ruin the surprises for people. I will say that the foundation is being laid in this first season for a lot of what is going to come forth. I think that a lot of the seeds that are being planted in the upcoming episodes will grow fruit in the second season.
GM: Is there anything you like more about voice acting than stage acting and vice versa?
HL: I love voice over work. I find it to be a very specific kind of challenge to try and distill all of your meaning and all of your emotions into the voice without the aid of your face or your body or anything else. It makes things very focused in that way.
In acting, it’s a really special kind of work. I also really like how you are helping to contribute to the creation of a character that can’t really exist in real life and is a cartoon. Growing up, so many of my memories are of cartoons and comic books and these characters that lived in a very heightened world and in an imaginary place, so being able to contribute to the sound of that character is amazing to me. It’s a very different kind of work and a different kind of challenge, but one that I enjoy a lot.
GM: I heard you are a comic book addict. Do you have a favorite series or a favorite book?
HL: When I was growing up I was more into the main stream superhero thing. I was really into the X-Men, Alpha Flight and some more of the mainstream stuff. Now that I’m a bit older, I’ve started to get into comics that when I was growing up would have been considered “alternative” comics.
I’m a big fan of Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples work and Sean Murphy’s works, especially his work on the American Vampire series I think is great. Scott Snyder’s work on Batman I think is fantastic. I’ll try anything and see what they have to offer. These days more and more I find myself gravitating towards specific artists and writers. Have you checked out Saga?
GM: No, but I’ve heard it’s amazing!
HL: That is an amazing book. I mean it’s just beautifully drawn, very original and very fresh, but that’s Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples work, two of my favorites so it’s a bit of a no brainier for me. Oh and I really love the new Hawkeye series. It’s great. It reminds me a lot about Batman year one, the drawing style, its’ got to be deliberate I imagine, but I’m so happy to see that book every month or so.
GM: Me to! I love how, so far, Hawkeye doesn’t have any cliff hangers at the end and you can pick up any issue without having to know what’s happened so far.
HL: They feel like little novellas or something and it has such a great swagger as whole. What are you reading?
GM: I’m a newbie, so I’m reading a little bit of everything actually. I’m really enjoying the Justice League and the The All-New X-Men series and of course the Teenage mutant Ninja Turtles.
HL: That’s one thing that’s been amazing, it does make me feel old, but the old original black and white that I saw in the original printing being taken from color to digital and see how well the story holds up. To have that as a compliment or a companion piece to the TV series is a real trip. I have a young son and I’m hoping that another year from now, when he’s really watching a bit more TV and reading more that he will enjoy it as much as I do.
GM: I have a seven year old myself and we are getting into the whole thing and we just heard him say “Booyakasha” for the first time the other day and my little brother was quick to correct him and say “No! It’s Cowabunga!”
HL: Ha ha, that’s good, because sometimes I even have a hard time saying that word. The booyakasha / cowabunga debate rages on.
GM: So, I know you can’t give us any spoilers for season 2, but is there anything that you would like to see your character accomplish this season?
HL: I think the promise of Splinter, which will continue through this season of being more capable. He’s in a position that he makes different decisions than he has made before. When he decides to accompany the Turtles there’s a reason behind that. When he decides to step in and intervene, there’s a reason for that.
In one of the previous episodes (“It came from the depths”), we saw him defend the lair when an intruder shows up and to have that be part of the fabric of the show, that opens up a lot of possibilities. For me, the most interesting part of Splinter is his role as guardian and the role model for the Turtles and now April in a slightly different capacity.
For me, as an actor that is the anchor for me to keep that firmly in mind that this is the rock that those characters depend on. When you have that kind of foundation it opens up dramatic possibilities when that foundation is jeopardized. So, I think that they really have expanded the dramatic possibilities with Splinter and his role and his relationship to the Turtles and that is exciting for me.
GM: How does the role of Splinter compare to other roles you have done? Is there anything unique about Splinter that you like verses screen acting?
HL: You know, a lot of the time, I think partially because, my appearance and the way I sound, I’m often cast in the roles of heavy. There are a lot of gangster auditions in my past. It’s nice to be able to play someone who is at his core a nurturer, but is also funny and also has kind of sharp sense of humor about him.
I love being able to play a father figure and being a father myself it hits home particularly hard these days, so it’s a nice change of pace. It’s also an indication that as I become older as an actor there are new roles that open up to me. So, being able to play a father that is also so unusual and such an interesting character is a special combination.
GM: What role does the character play between the Turtles and Shredder? He’s Shredders enemy but he’s also the Turtles guardian.
HL: The shredder being such a strong presence in the mythology show itself it’s sort of an unavoidable situation that this dark force kind of comes in and can not only create havoc in the city outside, but also a disruptive force in the family and his boys. Since he’s tied so strongly to Splinter, it makes this more than just a good verse evil kind of conflict, but also more than just a combat based fight, it’s also sort of an internal struggle within a family. How does a family deal with adversity that could cause some mortal harm and also harm to their unit?
That is a very interesting point as playing Splinter, because in many ways, Shredder represents the return of the past, the sort of struggles and conflicts that you can’t leave behind you. Whereas the Turtles represent the reality now and the future moving forward. So when Shredder comes into the situation, it’s as much about being haunted by your past as it is dealing with the issues and problems in the present. That’s always a very powerful fanatic for me in general. It’s something we can’t really get around or leave in the shadows and that’s what gives the Shredder his potency.
GM: Is there another character in the TMNT universe you would like to see on the show or is there another character that you would like to voice on the show?
HL: I can’t really imagine myself voicing any of the other major players, because I associate those characters with the people playing them now and I would feel like a cheap imitation.
Weirdly, one of the voices I really enjoy is the Krang. I really chuckle whenever they talk and just the way they are written and the way they speak. The way they talk and the way their eyes bulge out of their heads is a combination of hysterically absurd and genuinely frightening.
As for other characters on the show, I think we are going to hit a lot of them, so I’m just going to say that I’m just as curious to see who else makes an appearance.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles return with a “Total Turtle Takeover” on Friday, January 25th at 7pm (ET/PT) and the premier of the all-new “I, Monster”. During this episode, the Turtles must face their newest enemy, the Rat King, who threatens to not only take control of the city, but Splinter as well.
You can check out the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as they return to their regular Saturday morning time slot on February 2nd at 11am.