If you’re a frequent flyer of film and television, you’ve most likely heard some version of David Sobolov’s voice. As one of the premiere voice-over actors in the world of animation and video games, he has been a pop culture mainstay without you even realizing it. Bringing life to Drax the Destroyer in Marvel’s various immensely-popular cartoon lines, as well as Shockwave in “Transformers Prime,” Sobolov has brought character to many characters, though it is his turn as Gorilla Grodd in the CW’s “The Flash” that has us slapping him with the TrunkSpace Memorable Roles designation.
TrunkSpace: There seems to be a lot of traditional actors now working as voice actors, particularly on mainstream, big-brand shows. Is that a new trend and is it worrisome for someone like yourself who has been working as a voice actor for 20 plus years?
Sobolov: It’s not really worrisome. The shows have to publicize themselves and to do that, having celebrities is helpful. There are often opportunities for people like me that continue on because the celebrities are busy doing movies and TV shows. For instance, with “Guardians of the Galaxy” that I do over at Marvel, they don’t always know if that celebrity is going to be available for those years of work if a show continues on. So, that allows people like me to continue to have a future. (Laughter) And, small roles too. There’s not enough celebrities to fill in all of these roles, so there will always be a place for what they call, the journeyman actor.
TrunkSpace: What’s interesting is that as a voice actor, you bring character to your characters, whereas a celebrity will often sound like that celebrity’s regular voice, and we wonder if that is also because, from a publicizing standpoint, they want the celebrity to sound like themselves?
Sobolov: Well, they don’t even say that to them. I’m sure they’re hoping people will recognize them, but often times the celebrity will come in… like Mark Hamill… and he’s going to massively change his voice for the character. His name is enough.
TrunkSpace: And it’s a name that the parents will be drawn too… not just the kids.
Sobolov: Yeah. They have to sell a product, so I understand. I have never been threatened by any of that.
TrunkSpace: Because animation is easier to make these days, at least in terms of the time table of it… are there more available jobs than say, in the mid to late 90s?
Sobolov: Well, I don’t think there’s more jobs because it’s easier to make. I think there’s more jobs because there’s more outlets. There’s so much content that’s needed to fill up all of these cable channels and all of these online portals, so there really is more work than there has ever been.
TrunkSpace: Why is it that a cartoon doesn’t always maintain the same shelf life as say, a live action series? And even when a cartoon series is still popular, it still seems to go off the air or it will be rebooted.
Sobolov: Well, if it’s for children especially, there’s certainly been studies showing that children will watch something many, many, many times. I don’t even think you need a study for that. Any
parent can tell you that. If your four-year-old decides that he or she likes something, they will continue to watch it, won’t they? It doesn’t have to be a different episode.
TrunkSpace: Exactly. They will watch the same episode over and over and over again.
Sobolov: There you go. That’s part of it. And another interesting thing too is, that because it is less expensive than live action television, they can produce more of it. And you know, if your show only runs like two or three years… the same group of people can just move on to produce a new one.
TrunkSpace: And if you’re geared at a particular age demographic, those kids eventually grow up and move on to new interests.
Sobolov: Yeah. That happens. Or, in the case with SpongeBob, the new generation wants it too, so it just keeps going and going and going. You never know when you’re on a show how long it’s going to last. Some might last a year. Some might last three or five or rarely it’s more. The Marvel shows that I’m working on, lately they seem to be running three to five years. But, you just never know. You don’t really jump into this business with any expectations of even to make a living, and if you can make a living it’s a wonderful surprise.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned the Marvel shows. What’s cool about those is, even though they may last three to five years, the characters you’re playing stretch beyond that into other shows.
Sobolov: They will do that with Marvel. They’re pretty good about keeping you on. Other companies not so much, but that company… they’re pretty loyal to their talent.
TrunkSpace: With animation, a lot of times a series will take off that is based on an existing brand or character. When you take on a role that falls within those parameters, do you look at the source material to find your sea legs? For example, you portrayed Robocop. Do you try to stay loyal to what the source material was?
Sobolov: Only to a point. I have to serve the current producers and the current production and sometimes that current production has a different canon than the original. Or a different feeling. When I did “Transformers Prime,” that Shockwave character had a very different feeling when it was created earlier on… years earlier. And they wanted a more theatrical approach, so you really had to just throw out what happened before and start over again. Often times I’ll look back to the source material just to learn a bit about the character, but I don’t dig into it too deeply. I have to kind of concentrate on what’s in front of me.
TrunkSpace: When it comes to a new character that hasn’t been established in any additional platforms, how do you self-explore and find that character’s voice? Is there a process that you go through?
Sobolov: Well, a lot of it… you can come up with a couple of ideas at home. A lot of the auditions are done from home now and you send them in. Once you’re in front of the producers then you want to hear what they want. They obviously heard something they liked in what you did and it becomes a lot more collaborative. Years ago when I did “Beast Wars,” there was a 40 minute audition, and in that 40 minutes we were layering the character… finding the different aspects of him to the point where they were happy. So, there’s definitely a lot of give and take there. I can’t just do it on my own. I have to serve the project.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned doing it from home now. We’d imagine the industry has changed quite a bit as the technology aspect of it has advanced?
Sobolov: Oh yeah. Way less expensive. Compatible with broadcast. You can do something of broadcast quality with a thousand dollars worth of equipment at home. So yeah, it’s changed dramatically. And it makes it so much easier to have access to projects too. Say there’s something really last minute and you only have an hour to do it, well now it’s possible.
TrunkSpace: There’s that famous episode of “Seinfeld” where George becomes a hand model and then has an accident and injures his hands. Its played for jokes in there, but we’d have to imagine that protecting your voice is serious business.
Sobolov: Yes. Definitely. For me it’s vocal rest. If I do an episode or a game that’s really vocally taxing, I just try to take a day off if I can. And I look at my scheduling too. I make sure that I don’t put a screamy video game right up on top of an animated series. I just make sure I give myself some space.
TrunkSpace: Do you try to stay away from certain beverages or food? We have heard people say that they shy away from coffee, for example.
Sobolov: I love coffee, so I can’t stay away from it. (Laughter) I think you kind of have to treat yourself like an athlete. You don’t go into anywhere smokey for any length of time. You don’t go into a loud environment for any length of time and if you have to work the next day. And in terms of things that you drink… I don’t know. I can’t really think of anything offhand that would be damaging, but also, I think everybody’s different. Everyone’s physiology is different, so they’re going to react differently to different things. For me, I can’t go too high on the heat level with like pizza or something with spice in it. I have to kind of keep that down because my vocal chords are definitely a little more tender than they used to be. So, if a little flake of pepper hits the vocal chords, I’m seizing up pretty fast.
TrunkSpace: I read that you play the French Horn. Did learning that craft sort of build the foundation for being able to control your breath, and in turn, apply it to what you do as a voice-over actor?
Sobolov: What it helps me with now is the interpretation of the characters because there’s a musicality to characters and my music work has definitely contributed to that part of it. I studied acting with Sanford Meisner and that training helps me bring reality to the characters. I was once doing “Robocop” and I was doing the day when the family shows up… this happens in every incarnation of “Robocop.” My character knows that it’s the family, they don’t know that it’s me, I have to save them. I spent a little extra time… not five takes a line, but a little extra time to finesse it. And, one of our guests was there and he looked across and I think he had something he wanted to do rather than be there. (Laughter) He just said, “David, it’s just an f’n cartoon.” And I said, “Man, it’s got my f’n name on it.” You have to care about the things you do. I don’t think cartoon acting should be done with any less professionalism than any other type of acting. You must do it with integrity. If it’s a child watching, they’re going to see right through you if you’re lying to them. You’ve got to live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances. That’s the catchphrase that we used at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and it really applies today. That acting training is still being used.
TrunkSpace: It seems like animation is a different ballgame now than it was when we were kids. There are expectations attached to it. The quality of the content has risen to the same level of live action features and series.
Sobolov: Personally I specialize in more realistic characters anyway. But even if I’m doing something that’s whacky and zany, you have to tell a story. You can’t just say the words. You have to bring life to the character so that it’s a real life that people will enjoy. And there’s a lot of study of human nature in that… in creating a villain or creating an insecure little girl even. You see what happens in life and you reflect it.
TrunkSpace: For fans of CWs “The Flash,” you portray a very memorable character in the form of Gorilla Grodd. What was so cool about the introduction of the character is that they teased the reveal and it was your voice that set the tone.
Sobolov: It’s always good if you can set the tone with your voice. For that particular character, he’s very menacing and I do him very quietly for the most part… unless he’s getting in a fight… and they just turn the volume way up and it’s very, very effective. Also I add as much humanity to that character as I can, which I think also helps.
TrunkSpace: Absolutely. Obviously he is a menacing character, but as a viewer, you also feel bad for him. You sympathize with him.
Sobolov: I tried to add a level of sadness because he really doesn’t know his place in the world in the first couple of years of the show and I hope that that comes through. I think people can somewhat feel sorry for him. We actually, at the very last minute in the second season, completely redid the final scene of the episode that he was in because you were feeling so sorry for him that it made Barry Allen look like an animal abuser. And, he’s still a villain. He’s still a bad guy. He can have some personal issues to work out, but it can’t be so much that we feel like we want to help him. Caitlin may feel that way a little bit, but the audience as a whole still has to feel like there’s a bad guy there. But, if they were rooting for him a little bit… that’s not so bad either. Just not all the way.
TrunkSpace: So often comic book villains have that mustache twirling vibe, but here’s a character who is not human, who actually has some of the more human traits we’ve seen in a villain.
Sobolov: He doesn’t know he’s a gorilla. (Laughter) He just knows that he exists. I was trying to find the word for this… I don’t even know if there’s a word for English in this… I was trying to evoke his humanity, but he’s not human. We couldn’t find a word for that. You will know it if you have a dog that dogs have emotions. People know that animals have emotions and that animals have opinions. For instance, say you step on your dog inadvertently. You don’t mean to, but you stepped on your dog. The first thing they will do is look in your eyes to see if you meant it. If you didn’t, they will immediately forgive you. If you did, I would never do that, so I’ve never seen it, but your dog will act accordingly. Be afraid of you or be angry with you. So, I found the humanity that you would find in a dog or any animal.
TrunkSpace: Is the process different voicing a character like that in a live action series as opposed to an animated series?
Sobolov: Animated series you have no picture at all, for a year sometimes, so you’re completely on your own. We’ve done things a little differently here and there. They’ve been developing ways to do Grodd more efficiently… more cheaply. Not to make it look cheap, but just so that it’s possible to do it more. And as we’ve gone through that process, things have changed a bit. We were sometimes doing it without any picture the same week that they shoot the show, and then coming back again when I get picture to just fix some things up and make things make more sense with the picture there. These coming up episodes… I’ve already been working on them… and they had picture for me. Although, of course, the animation is in a fairly crude form… just beginning… and there’s someone on set as a placeholder for Grodd, so the actors have someone to react to. So you see that and you act to that. So, luckily in the third season here, I got to see their performances and react to what I was seeing.
TrunkSpace: Are you able to tease any bit of what Grodd will be up to this season?
Sobolov: Not much. It’s coming up fairly soon, so I think the waiting is almost over. (Laughter)