Billy West as himself
MSN chats with voice actor Billy West (Futurama).
20th Century Fox
You wouldn’t recognize Billy West if you passed him on the street. But if you heard him talk, well, that’d be a different story. A veteran voice actor who was the original voice of Stimpy on The Ren & Stimpy Show, West currently plays half the 31st century on Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s Futurama. He’s the cranky mad scientist Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, the Borscht Belt medic Dr. Zoidberg, the craven adventurer Zapp Branigan … and the show’s noble-idiot hero, Philip J. Fry.
Doing a round of press calls to promote the launch of a new Futurama season collection on DVD and Blu-ray, West sounds a lot like Fry – he’s got the same chirpy, upbeat speech pattern. But as you’ll discover, he spends a lot more time thinking about stuff than his animated alter ego.
Now 62, West has spent decades establishing and refining his status as a versatile voice performer – versatile enough that he originally auditioned for all the characters in Futurama.
“I even auditioned for Bender,” he laughs. “Which is pretty funny, because I was doing it like a construction worker or somethin’, and then John DiMaggio came in and he just nailed it. He sounds like a punch-drunk boxer or somethin’: ‘I want a shot at the champ!’ ‘You are the champ.’ ‘Oh.’
“But I did not go up for Fry per se,” he continues. “I remember reading for it, but they told me I had these other characters first, which I was over the moon about. ‘I’m gonna get to work with Matt Groening. Holy god!’ So they called me back after I had gotten those [other] roles and they said, ‘Do you wanna try Fry?’ I came in and did a couple of test runs, and next thing you know I was doing all these characters.”
The rest is (future) history. The show debuted in 1999 on the Fox network, was cancelled in 2003 but refused to die; a series of successful made-for-video features led to Comedy Central reviving the series. Thirteen years later, West still doesn’t know quite how to account for the show’s goofball appeal.
“It’s like a Ouija board,” he laughs. “Everybody’s got their hand on that thing, and we’re all, like, pushing and looking up in the air, wondering which direction it’s gonna go, and part of it’s just the wind blowing us around. We try to exert some sort of influence or effort, collectively, to see where these characters go.”
And they’re still going.
“We have another season that’s already done,” West says – though he’s quick to add that after that, things get murky. “This is that magic time when we wait to find out if they’re gonna renew it. We usually don’t start hearing anything until July.”
West is keeping himself busy developing his own projects and doggedly auditioning for commercials and other animated series.
“Oh, yeah, I gotta get up and go out and work every single day,” he says. “I work, like, 10 hours a day; it’s just that since nobody sees me, you know, there’s all these people who think, ‘Ah, what does that guy do, sit around until Futurama calls him?’ No, man, I’ve been in this business 30 years; I’ll audition for stuff. If you wanna work, you gotta audition, and that’s all part of every single day.”
West does get serious when it comes to the habit of certain animation studios to recruit big-name movie stars for their high-profile projects, rather than casting professional voice actors.
“If I was a celebrity and I kept getting hired to do voices because I was a celebrity,” he says, “I don’t know if I could live with myself. You know, seriously. When I was growing up, my heroes weren’t celebrities; my heroes were artists. I was a painter. I drew. I played music … celebrity didn’t matter to me. Being famous meant nothin’. I never dreamt you could make a living doing this stuff; all I wanted to do was express myself.”
With the best voice artists, West believes, “there’s magic there. I mean, you listen to these people talk, they sound like everybody else. And then when they do these voices, there’s alchemy. There’s a transformation, and you’re watching art being created before your very eyes. If you’re a person that’s famous and they hire you ’cause you’re famous, and all you gotta do is be yourself and sound like who and what you are, you never transform.”
West says he’s not worried about his own position within the industry, but fears that a shift towards hiring established stars will keep studios and production houses from developing new voice talent.
“There’s 19-year-old little firebrands out there that I’ve seen and witnessed that could knock your head off with voices,” he says. “Multiple characters that are fully developed and consistent. And what’s gonna happen to them? You know, they’re gonna have to either win an Emmy or an Oscar or a Grammy, and then they’re eligible to be in an animated feature?
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m all broken up over it, because I’m not,” he says. “I made my mark, I’ll retire happy, it doesn’t get better than that in a person’s life. It’s because I don’t wanna see the craft go down the drain.”
Futurama: Volume Eight is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.