He’s brought life to a beer swilling, cigar chomping robot and twice saved the world from a horde of underground locusts, but now John DiMaggio faces what is perhaps his most difficult challenge – making Aquaman cool.
DiMaggio is known for his role as Bender the robot on Futurama and Marcus Fenix in the Gears of War video game franchise, but now he can be heard as the voice of Aquaman on Batman: The Brave and The Bold. We recently had an opportunity to talk to DiMaggio about portraying the king of Atlantis, the joys of playing a video game that you star in and the impending robot apocalypse.
You are originally from New Jersey. What was it like growing up there and where do you call home now?
It was great growing up in Jersey because it was so close to the city. I grew up in kind of an interesting suburban neighborhood. And now I live in Los Angeles. I lived in New York for a couple of years because that’s what you do when you’re from Jersey. But I live in Los Angeles now and I love it.
You originally began your career as a standup comedian.
Well actually I was acting and then I went into standup and then I went back into acting. I had a good couple of years – a good six years.
What attracted you to comedy and what was it like starting out? Is it terrifying to get up there in front of the crowd the first time?
Well, I was in a comedy team; we were called Red Johnny and the Round Guy. We were on MTV for a while. So it was a little easier getting on stage with somebody with you. But we came up with Dave Attell and Dave Chappelle. Dane Cook, his first gig was opening for us on the road at this little crappy club in Vermont. It’s pretty funny. I came up with all of those guys. It was a good time and we did well too, but comedy teams just don’t work out.
So I started going back and doing voiceover in New York when I was there and then I auditioned for a show out here, I got it. I did a pilot and then I got fired from it. Then I auditioned for another show and I got it and I came out here to do Chicago Hope. I’ve been out here ever since ’96.
How did you get into voiceover work? Was that something you were always interested in?
It’s interesting because I asked a friend of mine who is an actor, “How do you pay your bills, man?” He said voiceover. I was like, “Really?” He was like, “Oh yeah.” And I had always done a lot of voices in my act and a lot of accents and all that kind of stuff, so I said that’s a natch. That’s easy. So I got my new manager to get me a voiceover agent and she got me one and I booked a job within the first week. It was a Toyota ad for radio. I remember it was an ad campaign. Then I started doing that and when I came out to Los Angeles, instead of it being mostly television and radio commercials, it was more animation. That was a lot of fun, it was a great change.
How do you come up with the voices that you do?
You just kind of have an ear for it. There are people who just have a certain ear for voices. It’s kind of similar to having an ear for music. When you can mimic the cadence of someone’s voice or the pitch of someone’s voice, it just happens. I’ve been making voices since I can remember. I can say that I think everybody who does a lot of voiceover stuff can say the same thing. You just pick up on stuff. I would always be the guy who would imitate teachers or people that I work with. It was just a mimickery thing. What you hear, you incorporate into what you do. That’s all.
Many people know you because of your role as Bender on Futurama. What was it like working on that show and what has it been like to go back and do this recent series of direct-to-dvd releases?
Well anything Futurama, I’m all for. I love the show. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done – that we’ve done, that everybody on the show’s done. It’s just a great group of people and an extremely, over-abundantly talented writing staff; the most overeducated in Hollywood. Really, they are. They’re ridiculous. But working with that cast and getting that gig – I mean, I had been doing voiceover before I got that job, but that job just really opened up doors. It was just phenomenal.
And to be able to do it again doing these DVDs is spectacular. I just love it. The more I can work with those people, the better off I am in my life because they’re just a great bunch. It’s been a wonderful experience.
It seems like a lot of people discovered that show on cable once it hit syndication.
Pretty much. That’s because Fox hadn’t really promoted it.
So you think it just wasn’t promoted well?
No, it wasn’t promoted well at all. And that was their decision. But good for them, they’ve been kind of slowly coming around and we got to do these movies. And Comedy Central, who picked us up for our second syndication run, has agreed to air the DVDs as original episodes on Comedy Central, which is great. So we’ve got an avenue; we’ve got a place for this stuff to go. So that’s great.
Fox has kind of come around. But it was difficult. The show was on at six o’clock in Chicago on a Sunday during the fall and winter. Everybody’s watching the Bears or the Packers or the Kansas City Chiefs or St. Louis. It was kind of mind boggling because they buried it. But it’s the show that won’t die.
How many Futurama DVDs do you have left?
We have one more that’s going to show up in March, I think, 2009.
One of our theories has always been that robots are eventually going to enslave us all. Having played a robot, did you get any insight into their plans? Do you think you’re prepared?
(Laughs.) Nah, I’m not, but none of us are prepared. We’ll never be prepared for the takeover, man. It’s all coming down, bro. It’s all coming down, man. The robots are going to come and get you, man. Especially old people.
Speaking of apocalypses, we also wanted to ask you about your work on the best video game franchise ever, Gears of War. You are the voice of the main character, Marcus Fenix. What is it like making those games?
A lot of fun. Great gig. Again, the guys over at Epic are a fantastic bunch of people. And the other voiceover actors on the game are really a good bunch of guys. And it’s fun. I love playing the game. It’s really kind of sad because I paused the game to do this interview, so I’m waiting to get back into some hordes, man. I’m going to kill some stuff off before I’ve got to go see my trainer because I live in California; that’s what we do. We fat guys go get a trainer.
Is it surreal to play the game and hear your own voice as you’re going along?
Yeah. You know what’s weird though is when I get angry at the game and I start yelling and I start realizing that I’m actually saying the lines from the game during the game and if anybody is listening outside my apartment, because the windows are open, they’ll be like, “What the hell is that guy doing? Is he talking to himself? Why is he talking so much and saying the same thing over and over and over again?” I don’t know. It’s pretty funny, but it’s a good game and everybody at Microsoft too, they really do a great job promoting the thing.
Doing the voice of Marcus Fenix, does that give you any insight into how to beat Gears of War 2? Does it help you when playing the game to have done the voice?
Nah, when you do the game, when you are doing the voice for the stuff, they tell you what you’re doing. It’s not like you’re just making boring noises and grunts. They’re like, “This is what you’re doing …” They describe it in full. “Okay, you’ve got to pick up a Gatling gun and put it down, so give me that.” So you do that. And it’s for every little thing. There’s a lot of prompts. So it’s interesting. It’s kind of tedious, but it pays off in the end if you get it right. And I think we got it right.
So have they talked to you at all about Gears of War 3?
Nah, I haven’t heard anything. If you hear something, you tell me.
Most recently, you played Aquaman on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Aquaman is a character that’s had a rough history – he’s not the most liked superhero. He’s been a punching bag at times.
Listen, listen – this is the story about Aquaman, okay. Listen, Superman controls the earth, whatever, right. Well, the earth is made up of 75 percent water. So Aquaman rules that kingdom. That’s huge. Nobody gives him any respect for that. None whatsoever, except himself, which makes him seem so gregarious and egotistical. He’s the king of Atlantis, for crying out loud. You can’t mess with Aquaman. I will break out some hammerheads on you. Forget it. Aquaman, he’s the man.
I’m really excited to play him. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a very broad, broad character. And the way the show is done is really great. It’s gorgeous. It looks great. It’s fun; it’s a lot of fun.
You and Batman already managed to stop your brother from overthrowing you in last week’s episode. What else can we expect from Aquaman in future episodes?
I’m not sure I can really tell you what’s in store, but I can tell you this – “Dawn of the Deadman” is coming up and Michael Rosenbaum from Smallville is playing Deadman. We’re also introducing Speedy, played by Jason Marsden, which is kind of cool. Then there’s some other characters that have been leaked. Green Lantern is James Arnold Taylor. Wildcat, that’s R. Lee Ermey, the sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. That’s pretty heavy. Gary Sturgis is the Bronze Tiger. Plastic Man is coming up. This is pretty cool – Tom Kenny is Plastic Man, which is pretty awesome. Of course you know who Tom Kenny is; he’s Sponge Bob for crying out loud. And Will Friedle, who is a good friend of mine, is playing Blue Beetle. Will and I worked together on Kim Possible, he was Ron Stoppable and I was Doctor Drakken. We got to work together a lot; we had a lot of fun.
It’s nice. The show is really cool because the way it’s drawn up, the way it’s illustrated, all of the character designs and the storyboards, it’s in the style that we grew up with or at least I grew up with – 50s, 60s, 70s. The 70s stuff, that’s what I grew up with. It’s still kid friendly and that’s the thing. Batman, you’ve got to fight some crime, some heavy duty stuff goes down, but it’s not as dark as the other Batman stuff we’ve seen in recent years. It’s like the stuff that we grew up with. We want kids to see stuff that’s a lot of fun, has a lot of action and can be funny, but isn’t as crazy as the stuff that’s on right now.
Diedrich Bader mentioned that for The Brave and The Bold, all of the actors record their lines together as if doing a radio play.
That’s usually the best way to record.
Is that typically the way it’s done?
Well, sometimes you come in and you record alone. But the thing is is that they animate to your voice. So that’s the key thing. If you’re not there with everybody, then you know how to work it out. But when you’re there with everybody, it’s interesting because there is a lot more flow to it and you can react off of what’s going on. But also, if you want to hear what the other actor did before you do your line; you can do that as well. It’s not like you’re in the dark on something.
An ensemble record is a lot of fun if you have the right cast. Right now, I’m working on Penguins of Madagascar, a show for Nick, I’m Rico, one of the penguins, and we all record together and we have a blast. We laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. That’s a lot of fun. Those days, when you get to record like that – remember when you used to go to school in like fifth grade and you had a substitute teacher and it was just the teacher that was like the biggest ball busting teacher that separated you from your friends because they didn’t want you to talk and you come in and it’s a gorgeous day and it’s like springtime and the teacher’s gone and you’ve got this substitute teacher and you get to sit next to the kids that you don’t get to sit next to and you laugh all day and you have a great time and gym class is great; it’s just a great day. That’s what it’s like sometimes when you record. That’s the only way I can compare it. It’s like that.
Were you a comic book guy? Did you read Batman stuff growing up?
Not really. No. I did get a subscription to Spider-man Team-Up when I was a kid. Spider-man teams up with The Falcon was one and Tigre was one. There was “Spider-man and The Not-Ready-For- Prime-Time Players,” that was my favorite. That was awesome. Peter Parker goes to Rockefeller Center to go see Saturday Night Live with Mary Jane and this thing breaks down. It’s Silver Samurai, I think. Something gets sent to John Belushi, it’s like a sword or something like that, this samurai sword. It’s awesome. I don’t have it anymore though. I need to find it. I’ve been to so many Comic-Cons and I haven’t tried to find it. This is killing me. But yeah, I loved that one because I was huge into Saturday Night Live when I was a kid.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
Well, if I had graduated college, I could have taught because my family is all teachers. So I could have done that. I could have been a cop. (Laughs.) Yeah, right. But I probably would have worked in the restaurant business. I was working in the restaurant business when I was younger. I worked all over – front and back, cooked in the kitchen, worked in the dining room, bartended, the whole nine yards. Yeah, I’d probably work in the food service industry.
Are you a good cook?
Yeah, I’m a pretty good cook. I can cook.
What is the best thing that you make?
I make a pretty mean chocolate chip pecan pie. I do sausage and peppers, Italian style sausage and peppers. I can sauté all kinds of vegetables. I can do it all. It’s fun. It’s whatever. Give me some ingredients and I’ll make something.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
That’s why they don’t know it, because maybe I don’t want them to know. (Laughs.) Man, I’ve got to keep that to myself. I’ve got to have something for me. I like that answer. I’m going to stick with that one.
What does the future hold for you?
The future? I don’t know. I guess if all goes well I’ll just be able to continue doing what I’m doing, hopefully. As long as nobody gets sick of me. I really like what I do and if I could keep doing this, I would be very, very happy. I’m in a good place. I’m in a very good place. I’m a very fortunate individual. And I try and be humble about it and try and do the right thing. As long as I stay on this track, I’ll be fine.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Batman: The Brave and The Bold airs Friday nights at 8 p.m. on The Cartoon Network.
You can listen to audio highlights of our interview with John DiMaggio by clicking on the play button below or by subscribing to our Hobo Radio podcast: