Even if you don't know who Jim Cummings is, chances are he voiced your favorite childhood character.
The American actor has essayed a truly impressive array of characters, on the big screen and on television. He voiced Louie, Don Karnage, and a host of other characters on "TaleSpin," the title character of "Darkwing Duck," and Bonkers D. Bobcat on "Bonkers." He also has played characters large and small in virtually every huge animated feature of the past 25 years, including "Aladdin," "Pocahontas," "Hercules," "Shrek," "Tarzan," "A Goofy Movie," and "The Princess and the Frog."
But the roles that you might recognize him from the most (and indeed the ones that will probably pull your heartstrings the strongest), are the characters from the Hundred Acre Wood -- Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Since the late 1980s, Cummings has provided the voice for both characters across a myriad of projects and platforms. And, this week, the characters take the biggest leap yet, this time in "Christopher Robin," Disney's live-action take on the A. A. Milne characters that see an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) reconnect with his childhood animal chums. It's the kind of movie that fills you with the warm fuzzies just thinking about it.
And you can imagine what a thrill it was to get to chat with Cummings, not only about "Christopher Robin," but also the 30th anniversary of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (one of his first film roles), what happened to the 2011 "Winnie the Pooh" movie, and what the real story is behind him replacing Jeremy Irons on the "Be Prepared" musical number in "The Lion King." Buckle up and grab your honey.
Moviefone: One of your first movies celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. What do you remember about "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
Jim Cummings: Oh, it was great. I got to hang out with Bob Hoskins.
You were one of the bullets, right?
Yeah, I was one of the bullets. There was a whole other segment of the movie that they just cut. We were out until about 4am in Griffith Park, and Bob was in this incredible costume. It looked like 700 rolls of duct tape had been wrapped around him. And he was just sitting out there, being the greatest sport. Robert Zemeckis and the rest of the gang were there. I was two of the weasels and I ended up being a bullet. And that scene stayed. But the weasel scenes didn't stay; they just cut them. That happens all the time. So there was no surprise there. It was a ball. You'd wait for an hour, then work for 12 minutes …
One of the things I took away from that was, "I don't want to do on-camera." I get into my book and then they interrupt me. It was a beautiful thing. I got to sit around and talk with Bob Hoskins for hours. He was a great guy. He told me this amazing story of how he got into show business. I said, "You have about as much reason to be here as I do." And he said, "You got that right, mate."
What did he tell you?
He said that his first thing was, he didn't have a job and he was hanging out at a bar in a hotel somewhere in the East End. And he inadvertently was sitting in a line of people who, he didn't realize, were waiting to audition for a play. So, he's sitting there and they open up the doors to a conference room and the guy hands him some sides and says, "Here you go, you're next." "Oh, am I now?" He told me he had a few and he said he'd go along with this bloke, "And they've got these three geezers and I walk up …" And he got the job.
Can you talk about taking over these characters?
Well, it wasn't an audition, it was really just a job. They hadn't been around in 20-something years. This was 1987. It had been over 20 years since they'd been around. So it wasn't like taking over directly. Paul Winchell was still working at that time. But Sterling Holloway was quite old and he was retired. So they just recast everybody -- Hal Smith, he was the original owl, and he was still around and John Fielder was still Piglet. We went through about 18 Christopher Robins, truth be told, because they kept hitting puberty. Then they started to sound like Bob Hoskins.
Did you ever think you'd be playing these characters this long?
Do you have a favorite short or feature? I love the 2011 "Winnie the Pooh" movie.
Me, too. I thought that was the best we'd ever did up until that point. And this is very different. It's truly apples and oranges. "The Tigger Movie" I was crazy about. "The Search for Christopher Robin" had such good music. "Piglet's Big Movie" was great. It sounds terribly silly, but I do love them all. I really do. "The Tigger Movie" and "Winnie the Pooh" (2011) are probably my favorites. That 2011 movie was released on the same second as the last "Harry Potter." People had been waiting 20 years for the finale. It was like "No, put us up against the Smurfs. We'll kill the Smurfs."
Was there any trepidation about bringing the character into this new setting?
I don't think so. It's not really all that new. He's still in the Hundred Acre Wood, in his mind, no matter where he is. He brought Christopher back home.
Did they bring you in early in the process?
Oh, yeah. We had a meeting and they told me the story and we talked about how it was going to be. Pooh wasn't in a hot air balloon and floating through an electrical storm … It was more sedate and less boisterous. That had to be addressed. But it wasn't anything we had to work on. It was just organic.
Are you in the new "Lion King?"
No. I have no idea. Is it a new plotline? I kind of stuck my foot in it because, obviously, we know who is doing it. And I said, "Well, you know, the only thing that made 'The Jungle Book' live action was Mowgli." And I think that kid should have gotten an Academy Award, because he's just standing around in a green studio for weeks on end, reacting to Bill Murray and Christopher Walken's voice. When they told me it was going to be a live action "Lion King," I said, "Oh, really? Is this lion around? If I had some hamburger, say, and I threw it to this live action lion, where would he be?" So they said, "Okay, it's not really live action." But I can't wait. I just want to hear "Be Prepared."
Okay, let's talk about "Be Prepared." The story is that Jeremy Irons threw out his voice and you had to come in and save the day. What happened?
Well, he does all the talking. Oddly enough, I did six lines in the movie. Something about "the shallow end of the gene pool." There are a few lines that are me. He lived in England and they needed new readings. It was really close to the end and they had to do some looping. But, when it comes to the song, I was already there, because I was Ed. And everybody knew me as a singer. So they asked me to sing "Be Prepared." I always joke that a lot of singers can't act and a lot of actors can't sing. And since I can't do either, I get to do both.
It wasn't really sweetening. In "Hercules," I do a song where they laid my vocal over Danny DeVito's vocal. And a note that might not have been there, they do a little finessing.
But there are whole passages of "Be Prepared" that are me. We go in and out, in and out. I don't think he even ever says "Be Prepared." It's a hodgepodge. But the point is that nobody can tell.
I remember at the premiere, I was talking with Rob Minkoff and Don Hahn, because I hadn't seen it until the premiere. I was blown away. It had nothing to do with me, but the whole thing. I said, "That came off really well." Because you never knew, you're hearing it unmixed and in various stages. They said: "Well, it's funny. We waited until it was completely mixed and we played it for Jeffrey Katzenberg. We asked him what he thought and he said, 'I love it! I love it! What was everybody so worried about? I told you he could do it.' We said, 'Well, it's not all Jeremy.' He said, 'Play it again.' We said, 'It's too late, you already said you love it.'" So, there you have it.
Darkwing Duck has been teased in the "DuckTales" reboot. Is that a character you'd like to return to?
Oh, I'd love to. I'd do it tomorrow. He's one of the characters brought up the most. I'll do comic book conventions here and there, and I'll be signing autographs, and a little guy will come walking up and he's seven-years-old and he's cosplaying Darkwing Duck. It's like, "That show went off the air 15 years before you were born." And there's the dad, standing there with his Darkwing Duck T-shirt, with the DVD, "We're raising right." Yeah ya are!
"Christopher Robin" is in theaters everywhere Friday.