Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack is Back! After 10 years, the four-time Emmy Award-winning animated series returns to TV on March 11. And no one is more excited about the revival than veteran voice actor Phil LaMarr. We spoke about the challenges of reprising this legendary role and why, for fans, this final chapter of “SJ” will have been well worth the wait.
Jackson Murphy: You’ve had an incredible voice acting career. Who were some of the voice actors you looked up to when you were younger?
Phil LaMarr: Well, you have to remember, when I started out, voice acting wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t terminology we used. You were just an actor. Some actors worked on TV shows. Some actors worked on movies. And some actors worked on cartoons. Pre-Internet, most of the people who did cartoons were mostly anonymous. Those of us who dug that stuff knew – obviously everybody knew who Mel Blanc was – but a handful of us knew who Daws Butler were and Don Messick and John Stephenson. Nobody knew what they look like, but you knew their names and their voices. But voice acting was not a goal. It was not a career. It was something that someone did once.
JM: So, were you honestly surprised when it was announced that after more than 10 years of being off the air that “Samurai Jack” was coming back to television?
PLM: Yes, yes. Because it required so many individual pieces to fall into place for this to work, and it had been so long. So, absolutely it was a surprise.
JM: Why do you think so many shows, such as “Gilmore Girls”, and soon “Will & Grace”, have recently gone in the revival/reboot direction?
PLM: It’s a combination of, I think, two major things. One: people are watching things in a completely different way than they used to, and it allows creators to approach shows that they’ve worked on before in a new way. [the “Samurai Jack” creator] was saying in an interview the way we’re doing this new season – these 10 episodes that tell one whole, complete story, would’ve been impossible to do at the time of the original run. You just couldn’t do television animation that way.
The other part of it is: things have become much more corporate, and the corporations that own the entertainment companies now are looking for ways to hedge their bet. And nothing hedges a bet like something people already know and love.
JM: “Samurai Jack” picks-up a whopping 50 years after the show previously ended. How has Jack changed over the course of a half-century?
PLM: He’s changed a lot in some ways and not enough in others. He has not aged the way he would’ve expected to over those 50 years. And really, the story in a lot of ways is about – you’ve got a hero, you’ve got a hero’s journey – but what happens when the hero gets sidelined on his journey and gets stuck? If you haven’t accomplished your goal in 50 years, are you still a hero? Who are you? A lot of it is an explanation of that.
JM: Did you watch some of the original episodes to get back into character?
PLM: I didn’t really have to. It’s a character that has stayed with me over the years. One – just because the show holds up so well. As people have come to it, new, they respond. And people always come up to me: “Oh my gosh, I just started watching ‘Samurai Jack’!” Over the last 14, 12, 10 years, new people have discovered it and loved it just as much. There are certainly things I’ve done that I’ve forgotten, but this show – because it was so special and so well-done – has always stayed with me.
JM: This season is in the Adult Swim lineup, as opposed to the first seasons being under the regular Cartoon Network brand. Would you say the series is darker than ever this season?
PLM: No. I wouldn’t say it’s darker. I would say it’s more adult, but not like in the dirty way “you’re mom’s watching – you can’t watch” way. But adult in the sense that it’s grown up, and as you get older, you see things in a different way and you have different things that you’re concerned with. These episodes are concerned with different things than the original episodes, but still the same guy, still the same hero – still the same heart. But he’s further down his road now.
JM: You have said you consider this show “A Work of Art”. What do you mean by that?
PLM: In the sense that a lot of entertainment is arguably art. Some people will say that, “Oh, all of it is art! All acting – all television!” A lot of it is commerce. I mean, let’s be honest, especially on television. This medium was created to sell soap. Not all of it is art. But to me, this show is inarguably a work of art. If you take it as a whole: the design work, the collaboration involved, the unique perspectives from all the different storyboard artists – all with the same tones – all captained by Genndy in such a way that shows you so many different things, but they all feel one. Plus the music, the sound design, the mode of animation. I know that this show has something that anyone can appreciate. I’m never afraid to recommend it to anyone.
JM: So Genndy has said in a recent interview “This is it. This is the definitive end. And it’s a great end.” Do you honestly believe this is the end of “Samurai Jack”?
PLM: If he says it is, yeah, ’cause there’s no “Samurai Jack” without him.
JM: But you have to be happy with how these episodes turned-out.
PLM: These episodes are amazing. Yeah, it’s the resolution that I always hoped for. Although, you’re never sure…People think they know what ending they want, but they don’t. But it will wind-up being the ending you want.
The new (and final) season of Samurai Jack premieres Saturday March 11th at 11pm on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network.
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