It always has to be a great honor for one voice actor to replace another who brought such an iconic character to life. At the same time, it must be a bit stressful to try and give that job your best, because after all, you’re following up after a person who breathed life into that character. Now imagine that you’re voice actor Tom Kenny who has to fill the vocal shoes of Rabbit after a couple of previous actors have done so. It may seem like quite the challenging task, but when you’ve been more or less dominating the field with your skilled voice acting range then of course you can handle Rabbit.
Tom Kenny lends his voice to the wonderful cast that includes Jim Cummings, Travis Oates, Craig Ferguson, Bud Luckey, John Cleese and many others. This is his first time lending his voice to the Hundred Acre Woods, and below we chat with him about the experience, meeting animation legend Eric Goldberg and taking acting notes from the greats.
Tom Kenny: I wanted to be an animator.
ShockYa: Me too!
Tom Kenny: As a kid I always wanted to. Now that I hang around with guys that really do that, no.
Tom Kenny: No.
Tom Kenny: Because they’re so amazing. They’re not even looking and they’re drawing on a placemat in a diner and it’s framable.
ShockYa: So now you’re Rabbit, that’s got to be pretty cool. You can go around saying “I’m Rabbit.”
Tom Kenny: Yeah! It is pretty cool. It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s my first plunge into the Pooh-niverse. Not that I’m like Jim Cummings, who’s the master of the Pooh-niverse, but he was talking to me earlier. He was like “You’re stepping into this franchise and people take it so important, you know?” And here you are, you’re suddenly in it and you’re not the old guy and are people going to freak out? There was a nice support group with Bud (Luckey), Travis (Oates) and Jim (Cummings) talking to me saying “It’s going to be okay, we’re not the originals either.”
ShockYa: In comparison with your Spongebob Squarepants work, was there any point where you had to check yourself and draw yourself back a little bit. Because Rabbit is a short tempered character and is incredibly vocal, sometimes out there.
Tom Kenny: You know, I mean Rabbit he’s so is what he is and they were so clear about what they wanted to be. He’s just all about order, about the order of things and doesn’t like anything to throw off that curve.
ShockYa: Did you get to meet your animator?
Tom Kenny: I did, I did who is the legendary Eric Goldberg. I knew him previously just from me being a geek. But when I heard that he was animating Rabbit it was like writing a song and having Elvis record it. It’s like wow, I don’t have anything to worry about because Eric’s drawing me, or drawing Rabbit. He’s responsible for the physical form. It’s almost like what I’m saying or what I sound like doesn’t really matter. (Laughs) It’s like… he’s Eric Goldberg. I’m an animation nerd so he’s like very much to be worshipped.
ShockYa: Did you do that when you first met him? You just got down on the floor on your knees?
Tom Kenny: I basically did, I basically did. There’s not a lot of guys like that around. He really is like the most legendary — it’s like meeting a legendary horn player or something where you just go “Wow, Johnny Parker I love your stuff!” (Laughs)
ShockYa: What was your take on “Winnie the Pooh” coming into this?
Tom Kenny: I’m a life-long fan. I was six years old when those first ones came out, remembered seeing it very clearly for the first time. Although I remember that Rabbit was a female and I forgot that until watching those three original shorts, before I auditioned for Rabbit. They said “We want to go back to the original a bit.” I went back and watched those and it brought up a repressed memory on where I kept thinking that it was a lady when I was a kid. (Laughs) I remember thinking Rabbit was a lady up until a certain age until realizing Rabbit was a male. I loved the books, read the books to my siblings, they were a family staple to our bookshelf when I was a kid. I read them out loud to my younger siblings, read them out loud to both my kids. My youngest daughter is seven so she’s still very much in the wheelhouse. I was definitely — Pooh is definitely a part of my makeup.
ShockYa: Do you think Pooh was a precursor to Spongebob?
Tom Kenny: You know, I never really thought– I guess in the naive, man-child lead character… I guess there are similarities but I never thought about it. They’re both seem to be grown ups who live alone, have their own houses and things like that but they’re also very child-like and act like little kids. Their friends are also little kids who live alone with no parents. I guess maybe there’s something there, I don’t know.
ShockYa: It’s a trend!
Tom Kenny: It’s a trend, yeah! And the relationship between Pooh and Piglet is the classic comedy team.
ShockYa: When you were talking about Rabbit and how you confused Rabbit being a female, I still to this very day cannot, for the life of me, figure out Piglet’s sex.
Tom Kenny: Piglet is a bit androgynous. He’s very small and–
ShockYa: He’s pink.
Tom Kenny: He’s pink, all pink and his voice is, just like Rabbit’s, is kind of really –
ShockYa: It’s right there in the middle.
Tom Kenny: Yeah, it’s right there in the middle so Piglets are hermaphrodites. (Laughs) Yeah, I’d forgotten about that and subsequently I was talking to someone else who said “Me too!” There are certain stuff that as a kid you’re like whatever, like seeing Mary Martin as Peter Pan with lipstick on and people are going “You’re a real boy Peter!” Then you’re like “Mom, that boy’s got lipstick, what’s going on? That’s a lady, how come everyone else is calling him a boy?”
ShockYa: So now that you’ve done the voice of Rabbit for “Winnie the Pooh,” I’m sure your seven-year-old is probably going to be swimming in wonderful merchandise that daddy’s bringing home between that and Spongebob.
Tom Kenny: I plan on stealing some of the stuff that are in these people’s offices. (Laughs) I brought a bag like my mother would do with Sweet N Low at a restaurant. “Tommy, you’re paying for it, believe me, take a cupcake.”
ShockYa: Does this mean you have to play Rabbit over again in the future?
Tom Kenny: Oh no, it doesn’t mean I have to. I serve at their — I don’t know, who knows. This may be the only time I get to play Rabbit, maybe not, I don’t know. You know it’s an ongoing franchise so I guess anything can happen. I’ve been having great fun and it is an honor to be a part of this thing, this construct that has been going on for decades. It’s kind of neat and it’s also a very different experience for me because with something like Spongebob I was there from the beginning, I was there in the pitch when we created him vocally. I was able to create him from a whole cloth and that tends to be more of the type stuff I do with people like Craig McCracken or Genndy Tartakovsky. These creators are going “I have this character in mind, let’s hear your take on it.” And with this, it’s something that pre-exists and it has this pre-life. You know, it’s a — I worry about it so much! I want to honor them, I think I’m about the fourth guy to be Rabbit. I just want to do right by the three previous guys. It’s almost like an army unit or something where it’s like “We’re the Rabbits!” I want to do right by the character so you want to slap some of your own mustard on it too so it’s got a little bit of what you would bring to the party as well. You want to bring something to it that’s uniquely yours but still keeps it in the world, in this world.
“Winnie the Pooh” arrives in theaters everywhere this July 15th.