The Iris Interview: Voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, speaks on his connection to the character, and more

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Supanova is back again to give fans the chance to meet their heroes. Meredith McLean got to speak with one such hero touring for Supanova this year. Optimus Prime, who has been voiced by Peter Cullen for three decades. He shared his experiences over the past 30 years as well as his own relationship with Optimus Prime. His connection and understanding of the character is heart-warming and intuitive to what is going on in the world right now.

For anyone who might be catching up or hasn’t seen the film give us a quick run down of the synopsis for Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Well let’s see. The bad guys and the good guys… (laughs). So, really we have government agencies that are trying to sabotage in many ways. Mark Wahlberg plays a character that discovers the old Generation 1 Optimus Prime. But I don’t want to give away too much. It is non-stop action and adventure with the autobots. It’s to be witnessed in blue-ray. I saw it in blu ray recently and I was just knocked out by it. I also saw it in the theatre. But to see it on blu ray in your own home was a thrill. It’s something I can see again.

Excellent. That’s what fans love to hear what’s it like being the same character for 30 odd years?

It’s a thrill. I have to tell you when the character was resurrected prior to the first Michael Bay paramount feature it was maybe years since Id done the character. We did the feature animation film back in 1986 with Orson Welles. Of course, I was killed off in that picture which created quite a storm with children and parents. Though I was unaware of that at the time to tell you the truth. I had no idea. So to come back twenty odd years later and to slip into those lines again; I described it Meredith as finding an old pair of shoes that you threw in the back of your closet years and years ago. And you realise how comfortable they still are and you wonder why did I ever hide them? These are the most comfortable shoes! And that’s pretty much what it was like to put on Optimus’s character again. It was a very easy transition.

If Optimus Prime were a human how would you describe him to people?

He’s a very noble, courageous, trustworthy, loyal character with great integrity; a toughness that allows him gentility as well. There is a sense of leadership about him. It’s pure. Its not a fabricated leadership, it comes from his heart. His passion comes from his heart and his strength comes from his heart. He’s modeled after a real person in my life: my brother Larry, a former marine who was in combat and saw a lot of action. He received a bronze star and purple hearts. I modeled the character after him.

Optimus Prime commands a lot of respect. I suppose you have a lot of respect for your brother as well.

Yes, I did. Larry passed away coming up three years now very suddenly. But his memory and certainly his friends’ share the same feelings like I do. I was just fortunate enough to be his brother and grow up with him. We were 13 months apart so we did everything together. In late high school in college days we drifted apart.

As you do.

Yeah, that’s normal for brothers at that stage of their lives. But we were back together again after a brief absence.

You bring children a lot of joy. I just remember, speaking of brothers, watching the old TV series and the films with my brothers. Do you think Transformers means as much to kids today as it did mean something to children back then?

Well Meredith, I judge it not so much by the feature films. But I judge it by the recent television series that came out of the former network of Hasbro Toys. The first series was called Transformers: Prime. Now its called Transformers: Robots kn Disguise, and there’s even a series for younger kids called Rescue Bots. There’s definitely an outlet there for children to get attached to the autobots as they did in the early 80s.

What was the response you got from people when you announced you were coming to Supanova?

A very warm sense. We haven’t done Brisbane yet but Adelaide was a wonderful experience. I’m lead to believe Brisbane will four times the size of Adelaide. But personally I never had been to Australia before but now I’ve discovered there’s a whole new country that surprisingly reminds me of places I’ve been in my life. Yesterday we were going through a hailstorm and I’ve never seen hail that size. It was like the size of an American baseball coming at me out of the sky. The sound bouncing off these metal roofs outside our hotel was incredible. It’s a very interesting arrival for my first time in this wonderful country. The people, I just opened my heart to them and once anyone does that you really feel the kindness of the Australian people. It’s just a great experience.

Did you imagine back in 1986 that you’d be here now?

No (Laughs) No I didn’t. As a matter of fact when I was killed off and I realised I was no longer on the transformers show I was very disappointed. I not only had to stomach the fact I was killed, I didn’t understand why and I thought how I was going to make my car payments and mortgage payments. I had no idea it would resurrect so many years later in a feature film. The fans from back in the T1 days, I meet so many of them, and its really a wonderful experience being able to shake their hand and talk with them. And really become aware just how important Optimus Prime was in their lives is a real honour.

I just want to point out the Transformers movie from 1986 was set in a futuristic world where people occupy space in 2005. But 2005 was nearly ten years ago now.

Yeah, (laughs) you would think maybe that they’d set it for 2045. To go into the future from 1985 to 2005 is not very much an imaginative jump I would think. But who knows the way toy companies think.

The two worlds are very different. The one in the film and even the world of today, were still not occupying space just yet. Do you think a world that Transformers has mentioned is possible?

That’s a very heavy, loaded question Meredith (Laughs) I certainly think the advances of science and technology are capable of anything and in the future it would be silly of me or anyone to suggest we’re going to stay the same. I have always been inspired by the efforts of NASA and the scientists around the world who are coming up so quickly with new discoveries. Coming back to the black holes etc, even the idea of time. And now these telescopes we’re sending up to space will perhaps open up new avenues of intelligence no human being could ever have imagined. I think we’re on the brink of that so it’s a very exciting time. Transformers, when we talk about the planet Cybertron, it may not be so far fetched that there are planets like that, that may exist. But who knows, we’re going to find out wont we?

Yeah, I can’t wait. What do you hope to impart with fans while attending Supanova?

Well I certainly enjoy the opportunity to shake hands and be with people. It means a lot to me and the fact that it means a lot to them is special, it’s a special bond. Optimus Prime is not your run of the mill character and to be able to be with people who feel that way is truly wonderful. And I look forward to it.

The Michael Bay series of Transformer films has had highs and lows of popularity. How do you think this installment has faired with audiences?

Difficult question because it was such a giant leap from the original Autobot inception to the main screen of cinema. Everything is on a grand proportion so beyond animation from television. It’s shocking in some ways to a lot of fans that were disappointed in going so far. For a lot of them, when they understand the characters have not changed, they remain the same but its just a different style. It’s like Autobots. Autobots, they stay the same. They change their designs every year but the name and the car remains the same. I think that’s generally true too when coming to terms with accepting the Autobots in their ability to change. Hopefully that’s the case and for all the generation one fans I’d say hang in because change is the future.

So what does the future have in store then for Optimus Prime?

Well as long as I am breathing, kicking and able to talk and I don’t sound like a 90 year old man; I’ve still got it into me to kick out ten more features if they want and two more series of television. As long as I remain popular, as long as people want Optimus Prime, it’s going to be a privilege to keep it up.

Well it’s been excellent talking to you, Peter.

Thank you, Meredith. You too.

Transformers Age of Extinction is out now on DVD & BluRay.