Interview: SAMURAI JACK Actor Phil LaMarr Gets Back to the Past
Long ago in a distant land, Cartoon Network abruptly, mysteriously, cancelled one of their most critically-acclaimed series about a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword, who stepped forth to oppose Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness. After a full decade of fans refusing to forget the groundbreaking, Emmy award-winning show, Samurai Jack returns to television to finally put an end to Aku’s unspeakable evil and Get Back to the Past.
Samurai Jack himself, actor Phil LaMarr, from Pulp Fiction and MADtv, and voices of Futurama's Hermes and Static Shock, told me what it was like to return to a very different Samurai after a decade.
The Lady Miz Diva: What is it like to return to this character after a decade?
Phil LaMarr: It’s fun at its core. But it’s different for me than anything I’ve ever done, because one, it’s a character that I’ve been living with such a long time, and Jack has never really gone away. Part of it is just because I was so proud of the show and loved and respected it so much, and over the years, people have continued to come up to me and mentioned how the show resonated for them.
So there are a lot of things I did 15 years ago that may not be quite as fresh, but this one is always sort of been there in the forefront of my mind, so it wasn’t a long way back. And, add that to the fact that Genndy [Tartakovsky,.director/creator] has created this wonderful resolution to the story and the fact that it’s just a great challenge to get back in there and to see that world again. It’s been amazing.
LMD: Between FUTURAMA and SAMURAI JACK, I feel like you must be some kind of lucky charm for brilliant animated series that go on mysteriously long hiatuses and then return.
PL: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t think it’s me so much as people have just realized that you don’t have to stop something, you know?
And it’s not as easy as people think to come back to something. Have you seen any of the episodes?
LMD: I’ve seen the first two.
PL: Ah, yes. As rare as it is for a show to come back from the dead, it’s even rarer for it to come back this good.
LMD: When the original series ended after episode 52, it was on a pretty lighthearted note with Jack and the Baby. It was clear that wasn’t meant to be the end of the series. What was your understanding of the circumstances behind the original “end” of the series in 2007? Was it ever official? Genndy Tartakovsky seemed to be at a loss to explain it when we spoke.
PL: Well, from what I remember, we were doing the show and when we would have come back to do more episodes was when Genndy and the guys working on Star Wars: Clone Wars. And after that, from the actor’s perspective, just no one ever called again.
I don’t know what the conversations between the network and the producers were, obviously. They probably had some calls like “Hey, am I getting paid?” [Laughs.] But my understanding was Cartoon Network sort of got us off-schedule, so to speak, and after that I think things were so up in the air and Cartoon Network was going through changes in terms of their programming at that time, and I think they just couldn’t get the pieces back together for whatever set of reasons.
But there was never – because in a lot of shows I’ve worked on, you’re sitting there and you’re waiting to hear if you’re getting picked up - there was never that with Samurai Jack. It was like, well, we’re going, we’re going, we’re going - now we’re not going.
LMD: That must’ve been so frustrating.
PL: Well, it was. Especially when you have a show that you know is so good and there’s really no reason to not do more. You know it wasn’t like we’ve been running for 25 years and we’ve ran out of steam. Yeah, that was frustrating.
LMD: It’s been 50 years passing on the show, and when we first see Jack, he is pretty unrecognisable. What do you see as his differences pre and post time jump?
PL: He has aged, in the sense that we all age. Now, there’s maturing, which is the growth that you’re supposed to have, and then there’s aging, where time takes its toll on you. That’s what happened to him.
He has lived in this world – and it’s not his world – and we sort of forget that in the original series, cos he is in such command and he is so powerful, we forget that he’s in command of a world that is not his own. He’s not at home. His home isn’t there. There’s no place he can go. Well, there’s one episode where he tries to go to his home; he discovers a place that was his home, and it’s not. And 50 years of that, of not having a center changes you. And that’s the Jack we’re seeing as this story starts.
LMD: He’s a wreck. I genuinely have this feeling of misgiving now. Everything is a lot darker.
PL: Well, it’s funny, because when it moved to Adult Swim, everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be more adult.’ And I think they thought blood, and cutting people’s heads off, when in fact what it is it’s more adult - the problems, the feelings, the things that we deal with as adults, he’s dealing with.
LMD: One of the most remarkable scenes in the second episode is Jack hiding from Aku’s daughters and having this furious conversation with himself – his younger self. I wondered what the difference was for you playing that young, idealistic character where we left him and this aged, disillusioned version that we’re seeing today?
PL: It’s deep, because part of it requires looking back; who was I then? Who was he then? And what’s different about me now? Because in my head, I’ve been doing the same voice for all these years, but then I listen back to it and it’s not the same. It’s changed, and part of it is probably I’ve gotten older, my voice has changed, but also my concept of Jack.
You know how it is, we look at pictures of ourselves when we’re younger, and there is the image we have of when we were younger, like, ‘I don’t remember that haircut looking that bad.’ And the truth is, the younger Jack - and it’s funny because this is something that Genndy and I talked about when we were doing these episodes - is not actually the same Jack from the old episodes. Because if you think about it, look at how much he talks? Young Jack didn’t talk that much, right? It’s his idea of his younger self.
And so there’s really a lot of layers to it, and it’s really a wonderful challenge to try and stay true to who this character is. Because he is this good guy, he is the hero that we all want to be. He’s Batman, but without the fetish. [Laughs.] And you don’t want to lose that, but at the same time, he’s in a different place. So what’s really interesting is to try and find where is the old Jack in this new Jack, and where is this idea of the old Jack coming from? Because it really is his mental state talking to him, [In Samurai Jack voice] “You’re not what you’re supposed to be. You’re a disappointment to your father.”
LMD: What other guidance did director Genndy Tartakovsky give you in playing this very different Jack?
PL: He just made sure I knew where Jack was. What’s interesting is I didn’t know the ending until we got to the last script. So, he gave me what I needed to know for where we were in each episode. And I didn’t ask; I don’t need to know. You never want to act the ending of the movie. Like, ‘Hey, hey, wait til you see what’s coming!’ That’s not a good character choice.
But Genndy’s always been a really amazing director in that way. I mean, he directs the way he animates; he gets to the essence of it. It’s simple, but powerful. And I’ve learned to trust him; if I’m unclear on something, I will give him three choices and I know that he will pick the one that serves the story best.
LMD: I always admired your modulation and accent when playing Jack. How did you research playing a Japanese samurai speaking English that avoided the stereotypes?
PL: Well, actually, years ago I worked with a predominantly Japanese improv group called Cold Tofu in Los Angeles, and a lot of the people in the group were second or third generation native Los Angelinos, whose families had come over, and we rehearsed in Japantown. I got a glimpse into Japanese culture, and specifically Japanese-American, cos I make no pretense that we are doing an American cartoon about a Japanese character, and it could I’m sure in many ways be more “accurate,” but the entire nature of this show is stylised. It is an idea of ancient Japan, it’s not a documentary.
That said, I did draw from my observations about what are the vocal qualities that my Japanese friends and friends who grew up in Japanese households have in common? And the native speakers that were in our group, as well, I think I drew all of that in into Jack; like, how do they speak English? How is English different when you hear it with Japanese ears? Or hear it in a house when you are growing up with English and Japanese. So it wasn’t just, ‘Oh, I’ve heard Japanese accents in movies,’ it was informed by real people.
LMD: I often find that over time animation directors often instill the characters with some of the qualities of their voice actor. Is there anything of Phil Lamarr that Genndy Tartakovsky has worked into Samurai Jack?
PL: [Laughs.] Hm, I don’t know. I always look at an animated character as at most a third of the character is the voice, because you also have what’s written and you also have what’s drawn. It’s a three-legged stool, and without any of the three, it cannot stand. Although, in this show, in particular, the voice leg is probably the shortest leg.
I mean, these guys are such amazing visual storytellers and part of what Genndy as the captain of this ship brought to it in the original series, each storyboard artist would tell their particular story, and you have the Chritchellites were modeled after one of the guys on staff. When Brian Andrews did the kung fu monks, that drew on his martial arts background. When Mark Andrews did the Scotsman, they were all pulling from their things. So, it’s an immensely collaborative show, and I feel the character is collaborative. I think if anything, what I brought to it was a through line; so whatever idea, or whatever corner of this world that they’re going to, [in Samurai Jack voice] this voice remains constant.
LMD: The new season begins at episode 92, but the original series stopped at 52. I know this is meant to be the end of the SAMURAI JACK saga, but does that mean there’s talk about filling in those missing years?
PL: I don’t know, maybe there’s a Samurai Jack micro-series waiting to be done. [Laughs.] Honestly, I love this character. I love this show. I’ve been proud of it since we started, and to be able to come back to it and to have it be at this level of quality, it really just makes me happy.
LMD: The first two episodes I watched were heartbreaking because of the turmoil Jack undergoes. He’s tortured every day and all he wanted to do was save his family and his people. Is this inner turmoil and hopeful redemption what this arc is about? Is that we are meant to see as the audience?
PL: Yes, I think so. It’s a question of is it an arc, but it’s definitely what he’s feeling and how he deals with it and what resolution comes from that, that’s the story.
LMD: Okay, I’m scared. I feel like everything I’ve seen in those first two episodes is just telling us “Don’t be a hero. Run!”
PL: [Laughs.] Well, and that’s the thing with Genndy, you never know. You know, he’s not sentimental. You don’t know what the resolution will be. All I can say is there will be a resolution.
LMD: I cannot forget the great talent of Mako, who is sadly not with us to see the return of his incredible character, Aku. I wondered if you had some words regarding him that you might share?
PL: The one shame of the return of the show was that Mako is not here to do it with us. Of course, no one can ever truly take Mako's place, but Greg Baldwin has done a great job stepping into the role of Aku. We were lucky enough to have Mako's daughter visit one of our recording sessions. Meeting her and having her share in the work we were doing on this new season really meant a lot to us.
LMD: I would like to tell our readers what you are currently working on?
PL: Right now, I'm keeping busy with a few episodes on the new season of Veep, we've got a Futurama game in the works. I've been working on the new Get Shorty series for Epix and putting together a really fun animated project of my own. It's still a little too early for details, but I think the fans of my previous shows will be very excited when they see the voiceover talent we've got lined up for that.
SAMURAI JACK Season 5 can be seen on Adult Swim’s Toonami block, Saturdays at 11 p.m.