Most kids secretly dream of being Batman, so its ironic that the man who played the Dark Knight for the past 18 years grew up having no clue who Batman was.
Still, it seems like a role Kevin Conroy was destined to play. Like Bruce Wayne, Conroy’s unique childhood left him feeling isolated from his peers until he found his true calling and got his life back on track.
For Conroy, that calling was acting. He graduated from Juilliard and pursued a career in theatre and television before landing the role of Batman on Batman: The Animated Series. Since then, he has played the character in a variety of television shows, video games and movies, including the recently released Batman: Arkham Asylum and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.
We recently talked to Conroy about the Caped Crusader, Mark Hamill and Christian Bale’s ill-advised Batman voice.
We have an easy question to start out with – how exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
Well, that’s a more loaded question than you realize. (Laughs.) I went to a very strict Catholic schools when I was in grammar school and then my family moved to Connecticut and I went into the public school system in seventh grade. And I had a really, really tough time adjusting. I was used to uniforms and a strict schedule and no one ever speaking out of turn and reciting that catechism every day. And all of the sudden, kids were talking back to teachers and wandering around the room; it was a very, very liberal, very progressive school in Connecticut.
I just didn’t fit in. I didn’t know how to function at all. I was really lost. They initially were suggesting, the guidance counselor, that I might need some kind of special ed – you know, some specialized courses. And this one English teacher who ran the drama program in the school on the side asked me to make some comments about Spoon River Anthology, which was the play the school was going to do. So I did and she asked me to audition for the play. I did. I’d never even seen a play.
She sort of took me under her wing. She realized that it wasn’t a learning problem that I had, it was really just a cultural problem I was having adjusting to a new kind of school. I ended up being in all A level classes after that and being in all of the school plays.
So then when I went on to the local high school, she suggested that I audition for the high school acting troupe, which was the best in New England. It was kind of a well-known school for acting. And I got in. I started getting the leads in all those plays. And it really helped all my other classes. Again, I was getting A’s in all my classes. So it seemed to be a key for me to really unlocking me and my imagination.
I ended up graduating high school early and auditioning for Juilliard and getting a scholarship and moving to New York when I was 17 and going to Juilliard.
It was the result of a very caring and attentive teacher realizing there was a kid who was having trouble and thinking that theatre might be a way out of it. And it stuck. It became a lifestyle.
That’s great. It’s such a fascinating story.
It’s an interesting story. That’s why I said, it’s a bigger question than you thought. It was actually a lifestyle change and it could have had a very, very unhappy ending if I hadn’t happened to stumble on that English teacher. I was headed for real trouble and I ended up doing great.
From Juilliard, did you go straight into theatre work?
Juilliard is a very traditional, classical training program, especially then. I was the last group that John Houseman – he founded the school and he ran it until about my third year and then a man named Alan Schneider took over and Alan changed the program somewhat. But under John, it was a very, very classical training program with French mask technique and studying the speech book Speak With Distinction and stage makeup courses and stage combat courses and modern dance every morning with Anna Sokolow, who was one of the great pioneers in modern dance. She partnered with Martha Graham when they started training together. So you had these great classical training teachers who were training you to be traditional theatre actors.
So when I got out, I joined The Acting Company, which is a national touring company of graduates from Juilliard. And we performed King Lear, Mother Courage and Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real – real classic Shakespeare and modern classics like Brecht and American classics like Williams. But the theatre that I was trained for was in its waning period. Within a few years of getting out of Juilliard, you couldn’t really make a living in the theatre anymore. Television was taking over big time.
So I did The Acting Company, then I did Broadway – Death Trap, it’s a thriller; I did the national tour of Death Trap for a year. I did a play for Edward Albee, Lolita, which was short-lived. And I’ve always kept in touch with the theatre. I did a season at The Old Globe in San Diego, a season at the Hartford Stage Company. I did a play called Eastern Standard on Broadway that I was very proud of. It was Richard Greenberg’s first play. So I’ve always kept in touch with theatre.
But within a few years of getting out of Juilliard, I realized I had to do television to make a living. The first thing I did was Another World, the soap opera in New York. A lot of theatre people in New York do soaps during the day to make money. My first day on Another World, I was working with Brian Murray and Pamela Payton-Wright and Carole Shelley, all these incredible stage actors and I was so shocked that that’s where they were during the day. Ray Liotta was on that with me. He was starting out there too.
Then that led to doing primetime work. The first thing I did on primetime was Dynasty. Then I did a series called Tour of Duty, about Vietnam, and then a series with Christine Ebersole called Rachel Gunn, R.N. and a lot of TV movies in the midst of all that. But always going back to the theatre in between jobs.
So I was doing what most stage actors do now, which is theatre when I can, but sort of sandwiched in between jobs that make money, which is television. While I was in LA, I think it was right after Tour of Duty, my voiceover agent suggested I go in on this new thing that Warner Bros. was doing, this Batman animated show, even though I’d never done an animated voice before.
I had done some voiceovers, commercially. I’ve never done a lot of commercial work. That seemed to be a whole other career to me and I didn’t go down that road. But I did do voiceovers, which were easier to do. You could sort of fit them between stage plays and stuff. But I’d never done animation voiceover. Batman was the first animation I went in on.
I really wasn’t familiar with the character even. I only knew the Adam West late 60’s, kind of campy series. I wasn’t familiar with the Dark Knight. We didn’t have a lot of comic books when I was a kid. As I said, I went to a very conservative Catholic grammar school. We weren’t encouraged to read comic books. (Laughs.) So I didn’t have a lot of exposure to that before. That was all new to me, which I think is part of possibly why I got the job because I came with no preconceptions.
When I told them my only experience was the Adam West show, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini immediately said, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t go that way. That’s a whole different thing.” Then they described the film noir quality of it, the drama, the kid losing his parents and avenging their deaths, lives in a cave and has an alter ego. It was a whole different, much darker, much more substantive show than I had understood.
So I came with no preconceptions at all really; sort of a clean slate. And I just used my imagination when I was in the booth to come up with what I thought would be an appropriate sound for the character. And they loved it. So it was kind of a fortuitous meeting of my training and background and total ignorance about the character. Then, just using my imagination to fulfill what they were looking for in the audition. It was just a very usual combination of events happening at the same time that led to my getting that job.
Was there a period after you got the job where you brushed up on Batman comics?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And who was great about that was Mark Hamill. He is kind of a savant about animation. He’s brilliant and that’s his thing. He has an amazing cell collection and comic book collection. He’s kind of like a teenage boy. He’s never gotten over that period in his life. He’s completely addicted to everything about animation and comics and everything. So he was a real source of information about all of that.
Speaking of Mark Hamill, who plays The Joker, you two have worked together for quite some time now, working in a room together recording your lines like a radio play. What has it been like working with him and having him as your foil for all these years?
He has a stage background too. He loves working on the stage. So when you get actors like that together in a booth, there’s always a lot of improvisation and a lot of give and take. We have a lot of fun together when we’re in the booth together.
Warner Bros., unlike the other studios, likes to get all of the actors together for the bookings of animated shows so that we record them kind of like radio plays. There’s a great deal of give and take between the actors because they do that. Even though it makes editing much harder for them – like Disney and stuff, they like to get actors separately in the booth because then they have a totally clean take and they can technically control what happens with the sound completely. When you have interaction of actors in the same studio together, you don’t have as much technical control, but you get much better performances, much more interesting performances. And that’s what Warner was looking for.
So when you get stage actors in a situation like that, which is what Andrea [Romano] always tends to prefer, you get a lot of give and take and a lot of improvisation and a lot of fun. The bookings are always a very, very entertaining session. Guest actors love to come in on our bookings because they always heard that they are a lot of fun and they are. So when Mark and I get in there together, we just go crazy because his character is so insane.
He really becomes The Joker. His face transforms. He practically devours the microphone. He becomes physically very animated. He can’t sit down while he’s recording. He has to stand through the whole thing and he’s very physical. We have a lot of fun together.
As you said, you didn’t have a background in Batman and we would imagine early on you didn’t really know what the show was going to turn out to be. When did you start to get any indication this show might be something special?
We do the voices first. We get the scripts and we do the voices first. Then those tapes are sent off to the artists. Then about six months later, the artwork comes back and you do a process called ADR, which is syncing up the soundtrack to the artwork and filling in any extra mouth flaps that they need dialog for or changed lines they decide to change because it doesn’t quite fit the artwork, the mouth flaps. So that ADR process is the last thing that happens before it goes on the air.
So when we had started recording these in ’91, it wasn’t until close to ’92 or halfway through ’91 that Mark and I went in together to do the first ADR session on the first episodes. We were sitting in a booth on this lot at Warner Bros. and there’s this huge screen the size of a wall and suddenly this incredible score comes up and brilliant color on the screen and this dramatic noir cityscape comes on. I looked over at Mark and said, “Did you have any idea that this is what this was going to look like?” He was just blown out of the room. We both were. We were both speechless. We were both supposed to say our lines and we were just sitting there with our mouths hanging open. We were blown away by how beautiful it was.
Because remember, no one had spent that much money on television animation before. Warner Bros. doubled the budget basically. And at first, the show aired primetime on Fox. It was a primetime series. So they spent a lot of money on that show. It was a full symphony score. No comics had used that before. It was amazing. I’ll never forget that moment – both of us just sitting there in silence.
I said to him, “This is going to be a blockbuster. This is going to blow people away.”
He said, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s going to be a huge, huge hit.”
That’s when we knew. That’s the day we knew. It was before it even got on the air. We both knew. We said: “This is going to be a huge hit.” Neither of us knew it was going to go on for 18 years and four different shows, different incarnations, but we both knew it was going to be a huge TV hit.
When Batman: The Animated Series came to a close in 1995, at that point did you think you were done playing Batman or did you know there was going to be another incarnation coming along?
I had no idea. I really didn’t. You know, it’s funny how animation is done. Every day you go in for the booking, and I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of episodes over four different series now and lots of TV movies. Every day I go in, they have a complete set of contracts to sign. Every single episode has separate contracts. Isn’t that amazing? You have no guarantee of ever going on to another show. Even another episode.
That’s a crazy way to make a living.
Isn’t that wild? But think of the paperwork that the studio goes through. Every single episode is contractually separate. So I have no hold on them, but they have no hold on me.
So are you surprised at the length it has gone on since it has been one day at a time?
Well yeah. I mean, wouldn’t you be? (Laughs.) I had no idea that this would go on – just because the quality of the work was so high, the artwork and the writing, and I think a lot of it had to do with the loyalty of the fans too. The audience just kept demanding more.
The audience was demanding more of the first series that was on Fox, and then it went to the WB, but they wanted more. The reason that show stopped wasn’t because it fell off in the ratings or anything. It was because Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were wrung out. They needed a break. They just couldn’t do it anymore. Warner Bros. wanted to have more.
So that’s why they came up ultimately with Batman Beyond and Justice League. They had wanted to use the character more, they just ran out of ideas, story ideas, and they were just kind of wrung out. So they needed a fresh take on it.
For you as an actor, have these different incarnations of Batman – Justice League and Batman Beyond – felt any different to you? Does each project feel unique or does it all fall under the same Batman performance category?
To be honest, it’s both. They do fall under the same Batman because the producers and the writers are largely the same and the director, Andrea Romano, has been consistent. And she knows the character as well as I do. So she knows exactly where I should go in terms of performance. And she knows how to work with me in terms of how to make me come up with what she thinks the character needs or the writers need. So in that sense there’s a lot of consistency. And I think that consistency is important for the story and for the fans. It’s what they tune in to hear.
But, on the other hand, each ensemble has been different. And every time you bring in a different chemistry, it does make it a different experience. So even though a lot of what I bring may be the same, the experience is very different. With the Justice League, it’s a whole different group of actors; totally different group of actors. The Flash and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. And Batman in that is the outsider. The way they worked him into that, he’s the strong, silent other – he’s the other guy. He’s the guy who doesn’t quite fit in. So I was always the outsider in that show. So that was very different.
Then in Batman Beyond, of course I’m old Bruce Wayne and I have to pass the mantle on to Terry McGinnis. So that was a real stretch for me. But mentally, it’s the same character. It’s the same man.
One of the brilliant things you did in your portrayal of the character was creating two distinct voices – a Batman voice and a Bruce Wayne voice. How did you develop the two distinct voices and where did the idea for that come from?
In the beginning, it was actually my idea and it was much more pronounced in the first few episodes. I thought dramatically it would just give the story more color, make it more interesting if there was an auditory difference that would make sense why people don’t recognize him when he’s in this mask and this cowl who know him as Bruce Wayne.
And it was fun to do. Actors are always looking for ways to complicate their jobs. They’re always looking for ways to make it more interesting and more complicated and more challenging. So for me as an actor it was a lot more fun to do that. We did about three episodes that way, maybe four, and then they called me in and said, “Look, we’ve decided the color palette of the show is going to be even darker than we thought. It’s going to be very film noir. And the score is going to be very dark. The voice you’re using as Bruce Wayne is just too light. He’s having too much fun.”
Because I made Bruce Wayne really like a playboy with a lot of fun, a lot of rye sense of humor, he was laughing a lot, to contrast him with Batman. They said, “You’ve got to tone all that down.” So we went back and rerecorded just the Bruce Wayne lines for the first few episodes. So there was a slight difference in the characters, but it was believably the same guy and it was a more serious version. It’s much closer to my own voice. The Bruce Wayne voice is pretty much my voice. Then, the Batman voice is that other sound that I go to to get into that character. So there’s not as much of a difference, but it’s still distinct. And yes, I came up with both sounds.
Speaking of Batman voices, Christian Bale has obviously taken a bit of flack for his growling Batman voice, which was a bit too gruff and different. How would you rate his performance?
He’s a wonderful actor. He’s a terrific, terrific actor and he really captures the Batman character. I love those films. They come the closest to me to capturing the magic of the animated show. I think that Batman, since it is an animated show, it is a cartoon, that’s the genre that it belongs in. It’s very hard to do live action of any animated show, so I think a lot of the Batman [films] have seemed kind of odd to me. And that one, the Christian Bale one, is the closest to capturing that magic of the Bob Kane and the Dark Knight series and that stuff.
On the other hand, I think that someone should have stopped him from doing that voice that he was doing when he had the cowl on. It just sounds so forced. It’s too extreme. It’s exactly why the producers had me go back and rerecord those early episodes. If it’s too extreme a difference, it draws attention to itself and it makes the audience pull out of the movie. You never want to do something that’s so jarring that it reminds the audience that they’re watching a movie. Once they’ve been sucked into a story, you want to keep them sucked into the story. You don’t want to do something that’s so jarring that it makes them go, “Oh, wait a minute, this is a movie.” And that voice that he was doing was so different that it jarred people out of the movie and it was unbelievable. I think that’s why it didn’t work.
But when you’re an actor and you’re in it and you’re doing it, you really rely on other people to tell you that, if something’s not working like that. I don’t think, he obviously didn’t have any idea that it wasn’t working.
It’s a shame because like you said, the movies are so brilliantly done, but that is the one flaw.
Oh, beautifully done and his performance is fantastic and the camerawork – everything about those films is beautiful, it’s just that voice. It’s like – why didn’t someone stop him? (Laughs.) And it’s the one thing that every critic has criticized it for. It really hurts the movies. It’s a shame.
You have also been a part of the two Batman related shows that don’t have you voicing the lead character –Batman: The Brave and the Bold and The Batman. What was it like being part of a Batman show without playing the Caped Crusader and what do you think of Diedrich Bader and Rino Romano’s performances?
They’re terrific in their own way. Everybody does what they do. It’s like when I met Adam West, he did The Gray Ghost on my show. You’re gracious to the next person doing the role. Everyone does their own thing. Adam West was great as The Gray Ghost. Everyone brings their own quality to the character. No one owns Batman.
One of your most recent projects was the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum which featured Mark Hamill and had Paul Dini writing the script. What was that like because in a way it is similar to your animated work, but it has a completely different look and feel?
Well, any kind of computer game is so hard to record because you’ve got to record every variable that the game can go depending on how it’s played. So, you’re literally in the studio for four hours at a time, alone, just recording lines over and over and over and over again. And each line, they want three or four different takes of depending on what kind of take they are going to want to keep. And you’ve got to keep each take fresh. This goes on for four hours. Then you break for lunch, then you do four more hours. They get you eight hours a day. This goes on for two or three days. (Laughs.) That’s doing a computer game.
It’s a totally different experience than doing an episode of the show. An episode of the show is like doing a little radio play. You’re really acting in real time with the other actors. It’s a lot of give and take, a lot of fun. It takes about two hours to record. It’s easy. It’s a lot of fun.
The games recordings are grueling. And there’s a real trick to it because you’ve got to keep it fresh and there’s no one else to bounce off of, to get energy off of. You’ve got to keep it fresh for eight hours a day.
Have you played the game at all? Is that something that interests you?
To be honest, I haven’t. I have it, but I haven’t played it yet.
It’s fun, you should try it.
(Laughs.) I know. I’m a little 20th century in my computer abilities. I still don’t find the computer a real friend. (Laughs.) I’m getting there.
You are also a part of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, which came out on DVD on Tuesday. What was that experience like and what can fans expect from that film?
It’s a great show and I wish I had more to do in it. It’s really Lex Luthor’s show, but everyone gets their own show eventually and this is his. But Tim [Daly] and I have some fun interaction as Batman and Superman. And I’ve known him for I guess about 15 years now, so we interact well whenever we do work together. And Clancy Brown has been doing the voice [of Lex Luthor] for probably just as long. So it was great getting the three of us together. Andrea was responsible for that.
Because we’ve known each other for so long, there’s a lot of interaction that happens. You know how each other works right away and there’s a lot of mutual respect there. They save a lot of time when they hire actors who not only know the characters, but know each other. We know how each other likes to work, we know what to expect from each other, that kind of thing.
How often do you get recognized in public and do you get recognized by voice alone?
I’m always amazed. I always think it’s a totally anonymous job. I’m always amazed when people recognize the name. I recently had to get some work done on my car and I took it to a garage that I hadn’t used before and they asked for my information and I gave them my name.
The guy looked up and said, “That must be a weird name to have. That’s that guy in animation.”
I said, “Well, which guy?”
He said, “The guy who does Batman.”
I said, “Well, that’s me.”
He said, “Get out of here.”
I said, “No really, that’s me.” So I’m standing in this garage and I went, “I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman.”
He said, “Holy crap! You really are Batman.”
It always amazes me when people know who the name is, but I guess I’ve been doing it for so long that some people know the name. But the only people that ever recognize the voice, it’s happened with kids sometimes, like little kids might pick up the voice. Then they freak out and I have to explain to their parents that the child isn’t having a heart attack, the child is recognizing my voice.
But no, people don’t usually pick up the voice because it’s a different voice.
We would imagine you would probably have to be rather tired if you’re hitting that low register in your daily life.
When I first started doing the sound in ’91, as I said, I’d never done animation before and I figured it would be an easy job to have; I just really pushed down on my vocal chords and just shoved my throat down. Being on the stage, I knew that that was a really bad way to produce sound, you don’t do that on stage because you’d have to do it eight times a week and you couldn’t do it. But I figured half an hour every couple of weeks, that’s not going to be a problem – two hours, whatever it’s going to be.
And I started losing my voice after a few weeks. Bruce Timm was not happy. He said, “Look, we’ve already established this is the sound. You’ve got to come up with a way to make this sound without losing your voice.” So I had to go back to working it through by figuring out how to do it by supporting from my diaphragm rather than producing the sound the wrong way. So there are no shortcuts. I thought I could use a shortcut and I learned the hard way that there are none.
You have played Batman for 18 years now, which is far longer than any other actor. As you mentioned before, you have no idea how much longer they will keep coming up with projects for you, but how long can you see yourself playing the character?
I love doing it and I would love to do more of it. It’s really up to Warner Bros., how much they want to use the classic Batman sound as opposed to the younger actors. It’s really up to them. The reaction at ComicCon was huge to the screening of Arkham Asylum and I know Warner was really happy about that. So hopefully they’ll use me into the future, but there are no guarantees in this life, as you know. (Laughs.)
Is there another side of you that would like to branch out and do other things?
Well, everybody always wants to stretch and do other stuff. I do a lot of commercial voiceovers and I haven’t actually done any theatre in a while. Eight shows a week is hard. One of my best friends is an actress, Christine Ebersole, who does a lot of Broadway. It’s amazing to me when I go to see her, because she does musicals – I’ve never done musicals – eight shows a week of that is tough. So I love doing it, but I haven’t actually done it in a while. Now I’m doing almost all commercial voiceovers and animation voiceover.
Considering your unique circumstances getting started, what do you think you would be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
Boy, I have no idea to be honest, since I started so young. I do not have a clue. I really might have gotten into trouble. I was lost and acting was really what focused me.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I love to restore old houses. That’s my hobby. I did about four of them in LA before I moved back to New York and I’ve done two of them here. I love working with my hands. I love working outside. I love installing gardens, working in the earth. I love doing physical work like that and I do a lot of it. And I have paint on all my clothes. (Laughs.) My sneakers, my jeans, you’ll find paint everywhere.
What does the future hold for you?
Nobody ever knows that answer. Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, right? I have no idea. I just finished redoing another house. I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m open to all possibilities. I’m not afraid of the future, but I don’t know what it is.
Hopefully there is more Batman in that future.
I sure hope. I want the fans to remind Warner Bros. that they want lots more Batman.