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Veteran Voice Actor Jim Cummings on Returning to the Hundred Acre Wood for ‘Christopher Robin’

July 31, 2018Ben MK

Pick any cartoon series or animated film from the past three decades, and there's a good chance that Jim Cummings has played a role in it. From The Transformers to DuckTales, The Smurfs to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you name it and the 65-year-old actor is likely to have lent his considerable vocal talents to one of the characters.

Now, in Disney's Christopher Robin, Cummings is reprising one of his most famous roles — that of Winnie the Pooh — where he joins the likes of Brad Garrett, Toby Jones and Peter Capaldi in bringing such classic characters as Eeyore, Owl and Rabbit to the big screen, as the gang from the Hundred Acre Wood reunite with a grownup Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), a family man in need of a reminder about what is truly important is life.

I sat down with Cummings to find out more about what it was like returning to the Hundred Acre Wood, and to discuss his very impressive and lengthy career as a voice actor, including his creative process, his favorite characters, and his advice for those just starting out in the industry.

I believe you've voiced Winnie the Pooh on over 40 different occasions, from animated features to TV shows and even video games, and now with Christopher Robin. Was it easy to get back into character, and has your approach to playing Pooh changed or evolved over the years?

Cummings: It was very easy to get back into character; I probably never left. And as far as any approach, I just clear my mind and — om — go back into my inner Hundred Acre Wood, and [it's] just full speed ahead. I'm just excited for the project; I hope everybody's as happy about it as we are.

How do you jump from playing one character to another, in general?

Cummings: People ask me that so often, and I wish I had a really good answer, but I don't. [laughs] Cuz I think it comes from being slightly schizophrenic, and so am I, and we are too. So, with all of us put together, it's not that big a deal. [laughs] I think I just tap into different little areas of the brain or heart or whatever it is and [slipping into Tigger's voice] "then the next thing you know, Tigger's bouncing out there." So I don't wanna over-analyze it too much, in case I break it. [laughs]

What, in your opinion, makes Winnie the Pooh such an endearing and iconic character?

Cummings: I think he represents everyone's inner child. When you even hear him speak or look at him in any animated form, I mean, is he two years old or a hundred? There's a timeless quality, and I always say that he sees the world through honey-colored glasses, and I'm sure that helps. It's just that inner child that everybody hopefully has, and I think that's part of the magic that is worked upon Christopher Robin. Because he's lost it. And getting back in touch with that inner child, I think that's one of the most endearing things about the character.

And there are no fads involved; there aren't skateboards or baseball trading cards, or something that can come in and go out of style — no Transformers or zombies — so I think it's just that timeless quality. For the same reason that fairy tales — Little Red Riding Hood and whatever — they'll endure forever because they're timeless. And I think Pooh and the gang are in that same Hundred Acre Wood.

Since you've played Pooh over so many years, have you been able to put your own kind of spin on the character?

Cummings: I ad lib a lot, and as long as it contributes to the story and adds to it and doesn't detract from the storyline; and if it's funny, that works. So, yeah, if it's in character. You bet.

You also do double duty as the voice of Tigger, as you've done before on many occasions. And, of course, Pooh and Tigger share a number of scenes together. What's it like acting opposite yourself?

Cummings: It's a piece of cake because I know what I was going to say, when I was going to say and how. And I've got both characters in my head at the same time. [laughs] It's probably indicative of some terrible mental health problem, BUT too late now. [laughs] So I just bounce back and forth, and in Tigger's case, literally.

As we all know, the first actor to voice Pooh was Sterling Holloway. So this was a role that you stepped into. But when you're creating a character from scratch, how do you come up with the voice? And how do you make it unique from the other characters you've played?

Cummings: That's a good question. I've always thought of it as almost a molding process, doing a sculpture that you can hear. I guess Darkwing Duck would be an example. Ginny McSwain was the voice director and Tad Stones was the guy who created the character, and they both had thoughts in their head. They'd call upon me and we'd all kind of collaborate. And he wasn't super big, so he didn't want to sound overly large, and he wasn't small, and they wanted it to sound animated but not cartoony in the [slipping into Goofy's voice] "guh-guh-guh" Goofy sort of way. No slam against Goofy, per say.

And you put these different aspects together, like for instance he was kind of a sarcastic guy and very full of himself and thought his capabilities were far greater than they were. And that all blends together in terms of the personality, and it affects the performance, the voice, everything altogether. And that plus the animation equals a fully-blown character.

Has a character ever caught you by surprise?

Cummings: Different characters, like Ray from The Princess and the Frog, and actually Hondo Ohnaka would be another one, from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I think he was in one or two two-or-three storyline arcs, and the fans responded to him. I don't know that he was originally planned to be as big as he was. I do know that he wasn't even supposed to be in Rebels after being in Clone Wars, but they found a reason to bring him back, 30 years later.

And so, I can tell you that he was a surprise, and a very good one, in the sense that a character from two or three shows at most ended up on all these different seasons and different shows, and they're still not done with him. But I can't tell you anything else, or else you'd have to kill me. [laughs]

On a similar note, of the many, many characters you've voiced over the course of your career — too many to even try to name them all — which ones have been your favorites, aside from Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too?

Cummings: Actually, the ones that just popped up. Ray, very much so, from The Princess and the Frog, and Hondo Ohnaka. I always get a kick out of Taz — I say I'm Winnie the Pooh and the Anti-Pooh, Tasmanian Devil — and good old Darkwing.

And a lot of characters pop up from people that I don't know are really affecting them, or even are that memorable. One was from a video game, Baldur's Gate, and I played the character named Minsc that everybody seems to love. And another one was a bad guy, Sonic the Hedgehog's Dr. Robotnik. Everybody loves to hate the bad guys. [laughs] So I'll take that too.

What advice would you give to aspiring voice actors trying to break into the industry?

Cummings: First of all, you're an actor, don't forget that. And I've always said, if you do a great impression of somebody that's famous, that's good, you never know, you may need it; if you do a horrible impression of somebody that's famous, so bad that nobody even knows who it is, that's a new character; and if you do a perfect impression of somebody that nobody knows, that's a new character.

So you get all those out there and you have different influences — maybe somebody's got a French accent or a Russian accent — and you mix them all up, and be a sponge. Be a sponge, and for young kids that are starting out, I would be in community theatres — try out for the play. Like when I was 12, instead of being the little prince or whatever, I wanted to be the hermit or the ogre that lived in the cave. So in other words, stretch. Stretch what you're shooting for and you never know.

Christopher Robin is in theatres everywhere August 3rd, 2018.

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