Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker get to fulfill the dreams of many when they take on the roles of Batman and the Joker respectively, and square off on October 25, 2013 in Batman: Arkham Origins. In the third game in the series that was originally created by Rocksteady before switching over to Warner Bros. Montreal, Origins sends players back to an earlier moment in the Caped Crusader’s life, a time when Batman was little more than a very angry masked vigilante. The events of the game’s story, which spans a single Gotham City evening, pits the future World’s Greatest Detective against a cast of familiar faces, including his arch-nemesis, the Joker.
Although many fans may not instantly recognize their names, they may recognize their voices. Both Smith and Baker have given voice to high profile gaming characters over the last few years, and both have careers that stretch back decades. Baker has been especially busy this year, having voiced Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite and Joel in The Last of Us, while Smith gave life to Master Assassin Ezio Auditore de Firenze in Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations.
Baker and Smith both come to these roles fresh, and they both get to enjoy examining an earlier era in the two characters’ contentious relationship. They follow a trail laid down by a long list of performers that have faced off in a similar fashion: Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill; Christian Bale and Heath Ledger; Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson; even Adam West and Cesar Romero.
Speaking in separate roundtable interviews at New York Comic-Con, both men – who happen to be friends in real life – made one thing abundantly clear: there is nothing fresh for them to bring to these diametrically opposed roles. Arkham Origins doesn’t attempt to reinvent; it simply presents a picture of an earlier moment in the Dark Knight’s evolution.
Note: These were both roundtable interviews in which multiple reporters sat together to interview each actor. We’ve done our best to accurately transcribe the questions asked by other journalists, but some paraphrasing was necessary due to unclear audio.
Roger Craig Smith, the voice of Batman in Batman: Arkham Origins
What are you bringing to this project that’s new?
Essentially, the character is just at a different timeline than we’ve seen previously. There is nothing new that I think I can bring to this. As an actor, individually, it would be very pretentious of me to sit there and say, ‘Well, here’s what I bring to this role.’ Really, a nice part about being a voice actor is being a tool, and being a big, old chunk of clay that a director, a creative director, a producer, a writer, the animators, and everybody that works at Warner Bros Montreal that everybody gets to say, ‘This version of this character, we want it to sound like this. Can you do it?’ And you go in every day and you throw something against the wall, vocally, and hope that it sticks.
In terms of anything new being brought to a role, I wouldn’t be the first to know. For one, I haven’t even played the game in its entirety, or at all really. I am just excited as anyone else about October 25, because then I get to get my hands on it and plug it in, and go, ‘What is this ride? What are people going to experience on this?’ I rarely get a chance to see fully rendered versions of the performances we’ve already laid down. You go in and just kind of play ‘theater of the mind’ in front of a microphone, and then all these talented people take it and stick it in someplace. And you go, ‘Oh, no way! What a trip! I didn’t realize I was flying when I said that!’ So in terms of bringing something new, I think that’s up to [other people] to decide.
It was definitely not a motivation on my part, it wasn’t anything I was intending to do. I just go in and hope that I entertain the people behind the glass, because that’s the immediate nature of what I do. I try not to think too much about [making] my mark with this character. I’m going to do whatever’s right by the character, because there are so many talented creative people out there that have a far grander vision for this than I could possibly have. So I rely very heavily on having them tell me ‘louder, faster, shorter, funnier,’ that kind of thing.
What was it like working on Batman and Joker’s first meeting in the game?
Tons of fun. For one, if you get to work with one of your good friends, it’s always a really fun thing. Knowing that you are the good guy and he is the bad guy is just a blast. All of the relationship-building that takes place in Arkham Origins, to me, is more the fascinating element of this particular story. We have an opportunity. Even Batman and Alfred have an opportunity to define what their roles are with one another. Which, in the past, it’s always just been he’s there to supply you with information. He pops into your ear and tells you what’s going on.
There are some really interesting things that take place in Arkham Origins that were some of the more memorable moments for me. But yes, to answer your question: it’s awesome. It’s one of those things where you’ve always wondered what it would be like. I mean, even some of the trailers we’ve already seen where Joker is his unhinged self opening up that early Christmas Eve present, and Batman’s just growling at him, ‘How many lives did you just take?’ And there’s the Joker just laughing through it all. The Joker, to me, is just one of the most deliciously evil, unhinged human beings that’s out there. I don’t even know if he’s human, because he’s just so wonderfully wrong in so many ways. So yeah, getting to explore that was a lot of fun. Lot of fun.
Which is your Batman? There have been so many over the years, but we all have one – maybe more than one – that we identify with. Which one is yours?
You know what? I really, really did like Christian Bale’s version of Batman. I’ve never seen the Clooney version. But to hear him [talk about it], he’s so self-deprecating on that. Even recently, somebody asked him about commenting on ‘Batfleck’ and he said, ‘I am the last person to comment on that, as I so horribly destroyed the character.’ I hate to hear that from him because I’m sure that was never his intention. And there’s so many variables that enter into any performance. But I really enjoyed Christian Bale. And actually, the voice didn’t bother me. I know everybody hated the [he growls unintelligibly here], but… I looked at it as, if I was this eccentric billionaire that everybody knows, that I’m on news interviews and that kind of thing, and I wanted to go out and fight crime and put on this mask, I’d want to try to disguise my voice to make it hard for people to [recognize me]. I thought it made good sense.
“All of the relationship-building that takes place in Arkham Origins, to me, is more the fascinating element of this particular story.”
Did you draw from any specific source for the role?
No, but we were trying to be very aware of the fact that, with an iconic character like this, we’ve got to cover a lot of bases. It was one of those things where you’ve got to know that the public is very aware of a theatrical version, an animated version, two prior Arkham games. It really always boils down to staying within the realm of the character. That being said, somebody asked me what was it like to work in your lower register like that but have to get a little angrier? Because this is a younger Batman, so he’s a little more unhinged in some ways. Was it hard to do the growl thing? If anything, it was hard to not try to push it to where it starts to sound like I’m doing a Christian Bale impression. I try not to think about what the fans [will think]. I just want to make sure that the director Eric Holmes is happy, and the writers are happy. That’s my job.
Do you have a preference for inhabiting an existing character like Batman, versus doing something that’s an original character, where people don’t have preconceived notions of who they are?
I don’t know, they both have their positive points and their negative points. With a pre-established character, you’re going to have people who go, ‘Well wait a minute. What do you think you’re doing?’ It’s not lost on me that there are going to be a lot of people out there [who compare me to former Batman voice actor] Kevin Conroy. That was never what we wanted to do. I can’t be. You can’t fill those shoes. For 20 year, the guy has been doing this character. So with that, it’s always kind of an interesting thing because you are always going to be put side-by-side with something. But with that comes a challenge. And it’s also just an honor to be able to step into the role of something that is so iconic and so beloved by so many people. I think anybody given the chance would want to take it on.
And with an [original] role, like Ezio from Assassin’s Creed, you come out going, ‘I don’t know if people are going to like this.’ You don’t know. There are already fans of Batman. You know they love Batman. But I don’t know if people are going to like Ezio. So there’s the challenge of trying to create something from nothing that will hopefully be well-received. It’s kind of an equal point. They both have pros and cons, and it’s a blast.
Page 2: The Joker (Troy Baker)
Did you bring anything fresh to the role of the Joker?
Absolutely nothing. What am I going to do? What am I going to do that Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill or John DiMaggio haven’t done in the past? Absolutely nothing. Somebody asked me, what do you add to it? Because it’s a new version of the character, do you add something? Anytime you add, a lot of the time it’s going to be false. You need to take away. You need to peel back and reveal something new. That’s what we’re showing in this. We already know where Joker ends up. We’ve seen it in so many different iterations, from the movies to the comics to games. What we’re showing is this raw, unformed, unchanneled, unbridled passion and power and maliciousness that’s like a firehose.
So if I add to that, that’s Troy now trying to do something cool to the Joker. I don’t want to do that. I have such a reverence for this character, it’s like walking into the Notre Dame Cathedral. There’s a spirit of reverence about the lore that we have. Michelangelo, when he was making the David, he didn’t add anything. He chipped away at that until it was there, and it took him three years. We had 12 months for us to really delve into who these characters are. So there’s nothing I can bring that’s new to this. All that I can simply do is hope that I am honoring a character that has been portrayed so well by so many, and hopefully at the end of the day be counted as somebody who did service to the character.
If you don’t add to it, how to get to the character when you step into the recording booth?
There is a 12-year-old kid and there is a 37-year-old man that steps into that booth, and everything in between. From the time that I first picked up a Batman graphic novel to the first time I read Arkham Asylum [the comic], the first time I read The Killing Joke, the first time I turned on [the TV] at 4:30 in the afternoon and saw Batman: The Animated Series and heard that theme song and saw that Joker. I would videotape it on my VCR, every episode, and freeze-frame the end so I could see who the credits were, who played everyone. All of that time period, 25 years, is in that booth. Through all that time I’ve all of these different sources of inspiration, all these different wells to draw from.
Intrinsically, Mark Hamill is my Joker, and intrinsically that’s going to come through. Fortunately we’ve got the framework of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Batman: The Animated Series where people recognize that Joker. We would be remiss and we would do ourselves a disservice if we didn’t point to that. So that is definitely the star on the horizon that we’re steering the ship toward. But that doesn’t mean we do impressions of that. Within that framework, we find the freedom to show you a different side of these characters, to show you a rawness to Batman, to show you a rawness to the Joker. And that relationship, how it came together and how they’re just two sides of the same coin. That’s the freedom that we’ve got. It really comes down to having a good story and having a good team behind you to support whatever choices you make.
How much of that is direction you receive in the booth versus something imbuing into the voice recording itself?
50/50, man. I can bring a wonderful, amazing actor choice that is going to blow your mind… but if it doesn’t fit within the character, if it doesn’t fit within the story, they’re like, ‘Ummmm… no?’ You have to trust your team to be able to check that ego and not [let you] add something, or do something different or cool just because you want to. Just because I have a gun doesn’t mean I gotta use it. So definitely, [voice director] Amanda Wyatt was my eyes and ears. She really helped Roger and I both make sure that we were doing the proper service to these characters.
Is it more challenging to have a character that has so much history versus creating one like Joel [from The Last of Us] where you’re coming at it from scratch?
“What am I going to do that Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill or John DiMaggio haven’t done in the past? Absolutely nothing.”
We have got a wealth of knowledge with these characters [in Arkham Origins]. When he first finds Jason Todd, [the alter-ego of Robin in Batman: A Death in the Family], how did he deals with that? You have all of this information that helps you make these decisions, or at least helps you to go, ‘I”m going to make this decision now because when people know he’s going to make this decision [in the future] it makes it all the cooler.’ You see why he reacts differently. I wouldn’t say it’s more challenging, it’s just a different challenge.
You’re establishing a first meeting between Joker and Batman. How was that?
What an opportunity, you know? This entire process has been with celebration, adulation, and trepidation. We’re so excited to show how these two came together. But man, if we screw this up?
With a graphic novel, I can go, ‘Ehhh, I can’t get behind this.’ Geoff Johns, when he did Earth Zero, I love that story of completely juxtaposing all of the Batman characters. You can accept it because you go, ‘Well I’ve still got this over here that can be my mainline story, so I’ll accept this kind of offshoot.’ For some reason with games, it could be [a gamer’s] only entry point into the Batman universe, there’s people that probably have seen the movies but never read the graphic novels, so their knowledge of the Batman lore comes from Arkham City. I don’t ever want to do anything that does a disservice to the Batman lore.
You’re starting to build up a resume of high-profile games. As a performer, are you concerned that people are going to start thinking, ‘Oh, it’s Troy Baker’ when they hear you?
Every day. Even with this, I was like, ‘Maybe we don’t say that it’s me, and we find out when the credits roll.’ And people would go, ‘Oh my god.’ I would love that.
Are you afraid of being like a Nolan North?
No, because first of all… I would love to be that talented. We have scratched the surface of what Nolan is capable of doing. A little bit of proof of that was when he did Penguin in Arkham City. He is a chameleon. He is absolutely a master of disguise, and he is single-handedly the most talented voice working in video games right now. But I understand what you’re saying. To me, it’s not ‘I don’t want to be the next Nolan North.’ It’s, ‘I don’t want to be the next Nate Drake [from Uncharted].’ It wasn’t Nolan North that was cast in every game, it was Nate Drake. I don’t ever want it to be about me. A friend of mine told me: the difference between fame and notoriety is, fame is when people know you and notoriety is when people know your work. The first one is not respectable, but the second one is, because that’s the one that leaves a legacy. And that’s what I want to do. I want people to see the Joker, I don’t want people to see Troy Baker. And hopefully that’s what people see on October 25.
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