Kevin Conroy barely knew who Batman was when he walked into a voice-acting audition in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago.
Now Conroy has spent half his life voicing the iconic hero in a universe of interconnected Warner Bros. animated television shows, movies and video games, starting with “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-95) and continuing into a new “Justice League” film that was released last month. His version of Batman has been praised for its film noir style and more sophisticated stories.
Conroy, 63, will be a featured guest this weekend at the Lexington Comic & Toy Convention. He recently spoke to the Herald-Leader in advance of his visit.
You started as a stage actor. Were you surprised to end up voice-acting a superhero for so much of your career?
Oh yeah. I started out in the theater in New York. I trained at Julliard, I worked for Joe Papp at The Public Theater. It was a very traditional theater route. But I was in L.A. doing a pilot for a series. And my voice-over agent — I had done some commercials — suggested that I should go do an audition for Warner Bros. They were trying out a new Batman animated show.
I had no idea about animation, I had no experience in this area. I simply approached it as an acting job. But interestingly, given my background — a lot of Greek drama, a lot of Shakespeare festivals around the country — I stumbled right into this audition for Batman. Because he, of all the superheroes, is probably the most classic. He’s like a Greek tragic hero. And I approached him that way. He has no superpowers. He’s flawed, he’s mortal, he’s trying to save the world. It’s so much like a Hamlet or an Orestes.
He fit me hand-in-glove. Which is good, because they’d already seen 500 people for the role. I came up with the one voice for Batman and another voice for Bruce Wayne — because, to me, these are two different people — and they loved it. And that was 27 years ago.
How familiar were you with Batman when you auditioned? Had you read the comic books or watched the 1960s TV show?
Bruce Timm (the series’ producer) asked me when I came in, “What’s your background on Batman?” And I told him, “All I know is from watching the Adam West show from the ‘60s, growing up.” And he goes, “No! No! That’s not what we’re doing!” (Laughs.) “We love Adam West, but that’s not what we’re doing. This is going to be noir, his parents were killed when he was a child, he’s avenging his parents’ death.”
Well, I didn’t know any of that back story. I only knew the “zap, pow, wham” stuff. Bruce Timm wanted this show to be a dark, gritty psycho-drama, a deep dive into the mind of the Batman, which is what I love about the character. That’s what makes him so much fun to play. He’s so complex. He’s so flawed. That’s also why I think audiences love him so much. Batman is the ultimate outsider. When we did the Justice League series, of the seven members, Batman was the one who couldn’t really fit in. People can relate to that.
You must have caught up on your comic book reading at some point. In 2017, when the city of New York dedicated a street in the Bronx to Batman co-creator Bill Finger, you showed up for the ceremony. Not many people have heard of Bill Finger.
Exactly. I think it’s so important that attention is paid to people’s work, that respect is paid, no matter how obscure they are or no matter how few people may know. I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up that morning. As it was, we got a nice little crowd.
So we can assume you have now read all those old Batman comics?
Let me put it this way. You cannot work with Mark Hamill (who voices the Joker opposite Conroy’s Batman) and not get filled in on comics and animation. He is the guru of Hollywood. He knows everything. He has an amazing collection, and he can tell you, like, what character appeared for the first time in what issue of what comic book. He’s kind of a comic book madman. He brought me up to speed on so much of this stuff. I love him. We work so well together.
Do you and Mark Hamill and the other cast members record your lines together in the same booth? I always thought voice actors worked alone.
That’s the wonderful thing about Warner Bros. Uniquely, they insist on everyone being together. At least 90 percent of the time, anyway. Given the complicated schedules that actors have, it’s not always possible, but they make a huge efforts to get everyone together.
You get such a different performance out of people when other actors are there feeding you lines. Acting is as much about reacting as it is about acting. You’re only as good as what you get from the other actors. And when you’re surrounded in the booth by these wonderful actors giving you these incredible performances — I mean, Mark Hamill, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (as Alfred), Adrienne Barbeau (as Catwoman), Roddy McDowall (as the Mad hatter)— it’s just incredible.
Your show and others produced by Bruce Timm aren’t really aimed at children. They have violence and even some adult themes. Does that create problems since they feature DC Comics superheroes traditionally meant for little kids?
The show originally — I don’t think a lot of people realize — was on Fox, and it was on at prime time. It was not a kids’ show. It was never designed to really be a kids’ show. And the writers never wrote it, and the actors certainly never performed it, talking down to the audience. Our biggest audience, it turns out, was college students. That’s the level we were connecting at.
There was always a real respect for the characters and the storylines. They spent twice as much per episode as had been budgeted for animated shows before. A lot of money was put into them, which is why they look so rich and so sophisticated, and they still look fresh 27 years later.
Now, it had to be kid-friendly, yes. There were standards-and-practices that couldn’t be crossed. So you can never endanger the life of a child. A character can never die. He can fall off a 30-story building. But after he hits the ground, he has what we call the ‘stay-alive groan.’ (Laughs.) So you know there’s still the possibility of life in that guy, you know what I mean?
That’s a difficult bridge to cross for the writers — to keep it intelligent, to keep it sophisticated but to also keep it kid-friendly. And they managed to do it on our show. They did it.
If you go: Lexington Comic & Toy Convention
When: March 21-24, 2019
Where: Lexington Convention Center, 430 W. Vine St.
Who’s coming: Val Kilmer, “Batman Forever;” Billie Piper, “Doctor Who;” Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Zach Morris on “Saved by the Bell;” Ryan Hurst, “Sons of Anarchy;” Tom Kenny, “Spongebob Squarepants;” Kevin Conroy, “Batman: The Animated Series;” Mike colter, “Luke Cage;” Dog and Beth Chapman, “Dog the Bounty Hunter;” Leslie David Baker, “The Office;” Creed Bratton, “The Office;” Oscar Nunez, “The Office;” Kate Flannery, “The Office;” Holly Marie Combs, “Charmed;” Walter Koenig, “Star Trek;” and many more.