Peter Cullen discusses playing Optimus Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Voice actor Peter Cullen discusses playing Optimus Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, his time on the set, working with Michael Bay, and more

Transformers: Dark of the Moon took movie theaters by storm this summer, earning over $1.1 billion at the box office worldwide. Like the first two movies before it, Shia LaBeouf is certainly the face of the franchise, but Peter Cullen is undoubtedly the voice. The actor lends his legendary vox to Optimus Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD today, September 30.

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I recently had the chance to speak with Peter Cullen over the phone about Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and here's what he had to say below.

I know how the process of voicing an animated character works, but how does it work on a live-action movie like this? How early in the process are you coming in to do the voice? Can you talk about how that process works?

Peter Cullen: Well, the difference between the animated version, going back to Generation One, and the action version, the human involvement is highlighted and Optimus finds himself communicating on a human level more than ever before. Not that he didn't before, but it's much more obvious now. Certainly in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, he begins to show more human emotions than he ever did before, including anger. These are all factors that create new challenges.

Are you ever on the set when they are shooting this, or when do your recording sessions come into play?

Peter Cullen: Our recording sessions are usually in the studios with the engineers. I did have the opportunity to work with Frances McDormand and Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson on set. It was a very exciting moment for me because normally, as a voice actor, you're stuck in a small room. I had the opportunity to join them in an airplane hangar down in Long Beach. It was really fun. I even had my own chair (Laughs).

Was that the first time you had done that in this series? Had you done that in the first two movies?

Peter Cullen: No, not at all. This was unique. It came about in a funny way, Brian. (Director) Michael Bay wanted Frances McDormand to have a more one-on-one relationship with Optimus Prime, so she could get a better idea of him, rather than talking to a balloon attached to a crane 45 feet up in the air. So we did our scene together, several times. I had a ball working with her. I have great respect for her as an actress. My God, she's one of the greatest, going back to Fargo and things like that. It was great to be with her and look right into her eyes, and it gave her a better sense of what Prime was, on an acting level. Then she could go about talking to the crane, and that made more sense. I wanted to be in the movie myself, at that point (Laughs). I didn't want to go home. It was in the back of my brain. I was saying, 'Gee, I want to play.'

I could imagine. It's hard to top the first two, but the scope of this one was so immense and incredible. I can't imagine to get a little taste of the set like then and then have to leave. That must have been torturous.

Peter Cullen: Yeah, it was kind of torture, it was. It's like watching a game of pick-up football and nobody chose you. You're standing on the sidelines (Laughs).

As Optimus has evolved throughout these three movies, are there things you wanted to do different with the voice, this third time around?

Peter Cullen: No, not really. The most important thing to me is to maintain the character traits and be true to them, as I have in the past. I'm never really presented anything that conflicts with those. There might be questionable areas, like the first time where they wanted Optimus Prime to be funny. I said, 'Well, how do you do that?' You can do it with words or an expression of some kind, but everything is really carved in stone. These are his traits, these are his qualities, this is what he stands for, this is who he is. I don't have to fight very hard for that. The fanbase made that pretty clear from the very beginning. They gave that a thumbs up and I honor that. It's certainly one of the easiest things for me to do, to honor Prime's traits.

Can you talk a bit about the recording process itself? Are you shown any footage during these sessions, or do you go off other things?

Peter Cullen: Well, I see varying forms of animation, from pencil sketches on a big screen, all the way to a finished product, depending on where they are in production. I'm always privy to what is happening, so I can have an idea of the character before or what's going to come after, so the lines can be read with continuity and interpretation to the plot. To answer your question, I have seen just small pencil sketches that are displayed in front of me, and they'll give me the idea of whats going on, pretty much the way it is when I record in a studio for the animated series. We don't have any pictures to look at, we just have descriptions of what the action is. And, I might add, when I see a finished product and I'm standing in front of a microphone, beats would go on in my earphone and I would miss my opportunity to speak because I would be so awed by what I just saw. It would probably take me two or three visual passes before I would be able to speak, because I would just be overwhelmed by the visual experience. As you could understand after seeing the finished product, there are so many moments where your jaw just drops.

I got a chance to see a little bit of it early, and when I saw the finished product, it was really mind-blowing. Michael Bay really upped his game in ways that, I think, a lot of people didn't expect. It was really phenomenal to watch.

Peter Cullen: I think the DVD and Blu-ray... I don't have a Blu-ray player so I just watched it on my DVD player, but even that was a phenomenal experience for me. I'm not a high-tech guy by any means, but I think I'm going to go out and buy a Blu-ray player now.

This movie is definitely one you should experience on Blu-ray, with all of the visuals. That's really the way it was meant to be seen.

Peter Cullen: I've seen a little bit of it on Blu-ray, and that was a great experience for me. I was asked earlier why people should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD and, I don't think I was being commercial at all by saying this, but I said, 'Because Optimus Prime wants you to' (Laughs).

Can you talk about working with Michael (Bay) throughout this trilogy?

Peter Cullen: It's been a unique experience and completely unforgettable. I have to pay tribute to the writers and the creative people behind this, every person behind a monitor or electronic device that they use, right down to sound, every department. It's just an amazing process and to be a part of it from my point of view, has been a huge pleasure and honor, which I will never take for granted, and I'll have for the rest of my life. Hopefully there will be another one, and I can partake in it again, but the memories are there forever and I'm genuinely pleased that a character like Prime has made a difference. It certainly did in my life.

There is a lot of talk about where the future of this franchise will go. I talked to Tyrese Gibson a few weeks ago, and he believes that everyone will come back, but it might take a couple of years, to get some other projects done. I don't think anyone will be able to let this franchise go. Is that how you're approaching the future of this franchise?

Peter Cullen: It's so great to hear Tyrese say that. It was such a pleasure being with him, he's such a great guy. I think they need a two-year rest. These guys work very hard. They can all use a rest, but I would hope that Tyrese's words come true, and I hope for the same thing. It's a unique opportunity to work with a successful trilogy like this, and lets hope it goes to four. I would love it.

Finally, I know it was such a phenomenal success in theaters, but what would you like to say to the four or five people who didn't see Transformers: Dark of the Moon in theaters about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD today?

Peter Cullen: Well, if I'm overwhelmed, I know they'll be overwhelmed. It's an entertainment experience. I can't wait to get a Blu-ray player. I'm going to buy it today.

Thanks so much for talking to me, Peter. It was a real pleasure.

Peter Cullen: Brian, it's been a great pleasure talking to you, sir. Thanks a lot, Brian.

You can check out Peter Cullen as the legendary voice of Optimus Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD today, September 30.