We caught up with the wonderfully friendly Jess Harnell ahead of his appearances at Supanova Perth and Sydney.
Even if you don’t recognise his face, you’ll have heard his voice. Jess is an infamous voice actor, whom you’ll have heard as Crash Bandicoot in the Crash games, Wakko in Animaniacs, and even Ironhide and Barricade in the Transformers films.
How did you get into voice acting in the first place?
I always thought I was gonna be a rock star. From the time I was a little kid, I always thought I was gonna grow up and be a rock star. With the hair and the clothes – everything. That would have been great, but I found out there was way more money in studio work, so I became a studio singer. My first demo tape, funnily enough – do you remember that song that Michael Jackson and everyone did in the ’80s? We Are the World? My demo tape was singing that song but with different impressions of people’s voices. So because it was clever – even if it sucked, which I hope it didn’t – they probably thought, ‘Well, this guy’s taken a chance’ – and people liked it. I worked quite a bit as a singer, then I found out through doing singing that you could do voiceover stuff, too, so I did a few commercials. Then a guy I sang for was partly responsible for casting voices for one of the new rides they were doing at the Disney theme parks – Splash Mountain. I auditioned, and I ended up being most of the voices on those rides – if you listen, I’m probably 60 per cent of the voices on there. One thing led to another – I did Roger Rabbit and Animaniacs, and I just thought it was such a great way to make a living. Ever since then, I’m still doing it to this day. I get to work on awesome projects and do some really cool things. Cartoon Network right now is launching a new series of The Wizard of Oz, and I get to voice the Cowardly Lion, which was my favourite character when I was a little boy. I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of the whole thing.
Rumour has it there’s an Animaniacs reboot in the works – what can you tell us?
Remember the old TV show called Mission: Impossible – at the beginning they played a tape that says ‘this message will self destruct’? Basically, if I talk anything about Animaniacs reboot I will probably self destruct. All I can say is – wouldn’t that be something? When we first did it, we knew how great a show it was, we knew how funny it was, and a lot of the people on that show have gone on to do even more great projects. We all loved it – the fact that there is talk in the wind about opening up the water tower and letting them out again… What Wakko and the crew would do if they got their hands on Donald Trump and the Kardashians, now that’d be amazing.
What was it like working with the crew on Transformers?
*minor spoiler alert if you’re not up-to-date on Transformers*
First of all, it’s funny as hell working with those guys, because all they ever talk about is blowing stuff up. Every time I go in there, they go, ‘We’re blowing the coolest stuff up!’, and they show me videos of whatever they’ve just blown up. When I did the audition for that, it was the stupidest audition I ever did; it was in some weird broken down building, with terrible microphones and no headphones. Here’s some food for thought – next time you’re watching a space movie, whether it’s Transformers or Guardians of the Galaxy, or Star Wars even, why are there so many British people in space? I’m a British robot in Transformers, why are there so many British people in space? I auditioned for it, and basically my Transformers voice for Ironhide is essentially my movie trailer voice – you know the movie trailers when the guy goes ‘one man out to save the world’ – but it’s basically like a British accent, and he walks with a stride. It’s basically movie trailer voice, but he’s talking about robots and blowing stuff up. The funny thing is Michael Bay didn’t even tell me that Ironhide was gonna get killed – I went in there to record for the third movie [Dark of the Moon], and he’s like, ‘So this is the scene where you die’, and I was like, ‘What? You could’ve warned me!’ But they’re making Transformers: The Last Knight right now, and I just went in there last week and it looks fricken amazing. I play Barricade again, and he’s really mad again. I think Barricade needs anger management counselling, but they’d have to have an outside office ’cause he’s really tall.
Did you actually provide the voice of The Governator in Cars, or is that an IMDB lie?
Yeah! I was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sometimes I do celebrity impressions – it’s great, ’cause when you talk to me if you don’t like me I can just give you a different version of myself. We’re gonna be doing a thing called Twisted Toonz. What you do is you take a bunch of voice actors, and you give them a script to a Comic-Con movie – like Star Wars or whatever – and you read the script, but you do it in a character voice. We change voices every couple of pages. The best way to imagine it is picturing Darth Vader, but with the voice of Winnie the Pooh. It’s fun, and keeping things fun is the whole point. The best part about my job is that, at the end of the day, it makes more people happy than it does sad.
The nice thing is to bring out the happiness in people, and help people laugh, and my favourite thing that people say to me when they come up to me at cons is, ‘Thanks for being my childhood’. The first thing I tend to say back to that is, ‘I can’t believe your parents let me into your house!’, and the second thing is a very sincere thank you. The best part about my job now – the first big show that I had was Animaniacs, and that was 25 years ago, so you get people coming in saying they grew up with that. Thank god I’ve been working through all the rest of these years, and 25 years from now – I’m doing a couple of kids shows now, one of them is called Doc McStuffins, the second one is called Sofia the First – and these shows are huge with little ones. The best part is, soon enough, if I’m still doing this, people are gonna keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, these new shows were a part of my childhood.’ The best part is experiencing it all over again, and making a difference in a positive way to people’s lives – especially to little kids – and that’s awesome.
You can catch Jess at Supanova Perth this weekend. Tickets are still available.