Josh Keaton Discusses ‘Kulipari,’ Career, and Craft of Storytelling at SDCC

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Josh Keaton has been acting, both as an on-camera actor and as a voice actor, for decades. He’s played Green Lantern, Spider-Man, a paladin of Voltron, Anduin Wrynn in World of Warcraft, and most recently, the leading frog, Darel, on the animated show Kulipari. I met with Josh Keaton at San Diego Comic Con to discuss his role on Kulipari, his career in acting, and the craft of storytelling.

Sean
Could you just give a brief introduction of who you are and your role on Kulipari?

Josh
Yes. My name is Josh Keaton and I played Darel in Kulipari. Darel is a wood frog, who his father was a Kulipari. The Kulipari are poison frogs and they’re the warriors that protect the Amphibians, and their poison grants them the ability to kind of use superpowers. But they also have to be careful on how they use it because they can use it up and run the risk of losing their poison permanently. And so that’s kind of like the drawback.

Darel wishes he was Kulipari. His father was a Kulipari, but he wasn’t born with the poison. So that’s what he’s running into his whole life; he’s kind of living in the shadow of these warriors that he wants to be, but nobody believes that he can be one because he’s not a poison frog. A lot of his journey is really about not only accepting that, but also figuring out how we can be great, what is innate in him that has nothing to do with the poison, that can still have him go down that path and be the fighter that he wants to be. And also to reexamine what his real end goals are. Is he really in the fighting for fighting or is he in the fighting to protect the Amphibians and his tribe and his family and all of that? He’s a really cool character.

Sean
One thing I really liked about the show is the amount of emotion you were able to put into really small scenes. In the early episodes, his argument with Gee, “Well, why are you doing this? Who are you trying to prove stuff to?” It was emotionally poignant while being short. When you’re doing a scene like that, do they give you storyboards to show this is what we’re going for.

Josh
We don’t have anything like that. I did have the benefit though of being able to read the books. Trevor sent me the books before we ever started any of the recording. Love them, well the first one, the second one hadn’t been written yet, so I read the first one and that really filled in a lot of gaps for me.

It made me approach the script in a different way because I… Obviously, they’re going to leave a lot of details out when they make the show just for pacing and time and sometimes things have to be changed just because they animate better, in different ways, or whatever. Story structure is different for animation. But having the details in the book allowed me to just really flesh out what I was reading in the scripts a lot quicker.

It let me hit the ground running because normally I would still go in and if I didn’t know I would ask the director, I would ask the writer whatever questions I needed to really kind of fill in whatever gaps I still had, but I didn’t really have any like. Everything really made sense and I was able to, even if there were details missing in the animated script, I was able to remember what I had read in the book and still bring a lot of that same motivation into those scenes.

So they conveyed the emotional depth in short scenes because I was still playing them from the amount of knowledge that I had, the uncondensed versions of what I read before.

Sean
To that end, when you start a project, do you normally try to read the books or read the material or do you try to go in fresh?

Josh
Well, it depends. If there’s existing canon, unless they tell me that they’re eschewing it and they don’t want it, like, it’s going to be completely different from that, I really try and read as much as I can and even if they are eschewing it, I still like to see, well, where did this character come from and what was he all about? I still like to do as much research as I can.

When I did Green Lantern, I wasn’t really familiar with Hal Jordan, I wasn’t really familiar with the Green Lantern mythos, so I read a couple of things here and there. I had a few friends that were super big Green Lantern fans and without telling them that I was on a new show, I’m like, “Hey, I was thinking of getting into Green Lantern, you know, what should I read? Maybe you know, some Hal Jordan’s stuff, whatever.” They bestowed upon me the gift of all these books and I really did my character research on that.

With Spider-Man, I was already a huge fan of Spider-Man, so I already had a lot of knowledge about that. World of Warcraft, I play the king in that, and I used to play World of Warcraft obsessively, so I knew all of the lore. I like to be a part of the story when I’m in a project like this and more than just playing the scenes in the vocal group. I really like to learn as much as I can about the story. And really, I feel like it gives more depth to the portrayal, the more you know about it.

Sean
In cases where there isn’t an established canon, do you normally read scripts in advance? Do you get as much material as you can? Or…

Josh
I do, but it’s a lot harder because if there’s no established canon, everything is fresh. So, you don’t really have anything to base it off of. But then it’s also a little bit more freeing because you have more of a hand in helping shape that character.

Sean
Is that more fun?

Josh
It’s just different. I would say that there’s probably a little more pressure if it’s something that has a very established canon because it’s going to have a very established fan base that sees it a certain way and you kind of have to, while trying to give your own spin on it, you still have a certain set of parameters you kind of need to follow to be true to that character. Whereas for something like this, yeah, I mean you can play a little bit more and you can bring a little bit more of yourself and a little bit of your own motivations into it.

So it’s just, it’s different. Like one, you’re kind of serving a canon that already has a life of its own and you’re really kind of just getting to take that car out for a drive for a while. Whereas the other one you’re actually kind of helping build it, and that’s… They’re both fun in different ways.

Sean
You’ve now been voice acting since the early nineties.

Josh
Even before that. I think the earliest one was Charlie Brown. That might’ve been late eighties. But since I was a kid, yeah.

Sean
What is your favorite aspect of voice acting work over the years?

Josh
My favorite aspect of voice acting work is that it gives me the opportunity to play roles that I’d never get past to play on camera because I started in the business as an on-camera actor. I still do on camera from time to time. But I really enjoy voiceover. I mean, I never would’ve been cast to play Shiro in Voltron in live-action, you know, just racially I’m not, I’m not a match. I’m not six foot four and massively thick, you know, so, but I can still portray that character and I can still give them life.

And I mean, same thing of Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan’s chest is like this and his chin is like this and there’s no way I’d ever been cast to play him, but I got to play him in animation. Spider-Man, back in my youth, I would have been a good fit for that. So that one’s really not the same. But being able to play a wood frog who wants to be a poison warrior, that kind of stuff just doesn’t exist in live-action.

And so the amount of fantasy that you’re able to really achieve in animation, it goes far beyond live action. And, yeah, I love being able to play a lot of these roles that I wouldn’t necessarily get cast to play on the live circuit.

Sean
Over the last few decades, the industry has changed. Has anything changed in how you work? Has new technology made it so it’s easier to work remotely?

Josh
Absolutely.

Sean
What has changed that you’ve observed?

Josh
Everything. There used to be a huge barrier to entry into anything in entertainment related because, especially voiceover or music or things like that, because the barrier to entry was the cost of the equipment, it was super expensive. And now it’s gotten so accessible and so cheap. And not only that, the accessibility to the business itself. It used to be something where you had to know somebody, you had to be in the right place, you had to live in L.A. or one of these big industry hubs to be able to do any kind of work, and all the bigger projects were locked down by pretty much who you knew.

And now we’re at a place where, with things like YouTube and online streaming platforms and all that, you can create your own stuff. You can have your own channel, you can build your own audience, and do it yourself. Now granted, it’s getting a little bit harder because so many people are doing that now, you’re having to fight through all the noise of everybody putting out their own stuff. But decent stuff still tends to rise to the top. Regardless, it’s still much more accessible than it used to be. Before there was just a wall of industry around the industry that, unless you were part of said industry, you weren’t breaking down the wall. And now, there’s a lot of holes.

Sean
So while there’s still a system of agents and casting, it’s easier to get noticed because you can produce your own content?

Josh
Yeah, there are people that, I don’t know if this is something that I’m happy about, but you definitely do see a lot more people getting cast in pretty much any kind of role, mainly from social media following. There’s been a trend where people who, and I haven’t really seen it a lot in voiceover, I see it a lot in on camera, where influencers will get cast in something, but they don’t know how to act. So, they’ll have a short shelf life because they’re famous for this, but then when it gets on screen, what are they doing? There’s never really going to be a substitute for craft. I mean, I guess you can have the flash in the pan where you get famous based on just whatever kind of social media stuff you do.

But in terms of longevity, career longevity, it’s going to be about craft and can you really tell a story with your talent? Whatever that is, whether it be on camera acting, whether it be voiceover, whether it be music, or whatever. How well are you at telling a story? How well are you portraying that character? And that’s where the craft comes in. And that’s where I think, and that’s not to just poop all over social media influencers, I’m sure that there’s some that have this latent amazing talent that’ll come out and they’ll really be able to prove themselves. So, it really depends on the individual. But, yeah, there are a lot more avenues to really get in now.

And in terms of new technology, it makes it easier for me to work, it makes it easier for me to travel. Now, granted for animation, you’re still going to be recording that stuff in a studio that I kind of have to be in town for.

But a lot of the other things I do like commercial voiceover or promo voiceover, that’s the kind of stuff like, “coming up next on this network” or whatever. That kind of stuff, the more a day job type of stuff that isn’t telling a story, that is very easy to do on the run. I have a portable bag with all my portable gear in it that I can set up in my car. I’ve done sessions that have gone straight to air from my car. It makes it a lot easier. You’re not stuck in a booth all day.

Sean
You mentioned the day job type of work. Is that the work that’s most common in voice acting?

Josh
Yes, because there’s a lot more of it. I mean there’s always commercials, all the time. And they have such a much shorter shelf life than something like an animated show. You do that animated show that’s going to be on streaming networks now for decades to come. Whereas commercials? I mean, if there’s a car commercial, it’s usually going to be only run for a certain amount of time because it’s going to be advertising a certain special prize for whatever new model. There’s a much quicker turnaround on that. So, they’re always recording new stuff, new commercials, new this, new that. And with things like promos those change every day.

You know, one of the jobs I do is Extra and it’s “Coming up on Extra.” Those topical stories change every single day. So the sheer amount of work is much bigger in terms of that kind of more technical voiceover work. So, there’s a lot more of that. But I’d say that the stuff that’s really like play would be the storytelling stuff.

Sean
You mentioned, in regard to the storytelling work, the craft of it. How did you develop your craft? Did you go to a specific school that covered voiceover? What was your training like?

Josh
No. I took acting classes when I was younger and I’ve been in and out of them, just in my own life up until now. You always have to be learning, but there really wasn’t anybody teaching voiceover when I was really young.

The only two people that I knew of were Kris Zimmerman, who is an amazing voiceover director, I’ve worked with him for much of my career, and Charlie Adler who is also an amazing voice director and voice actor. And so they had a class that I took when I was, like, nine years old. It was the only voiceover class in town, and now there’s a lot more.

But I took that class and I loved it. And aside from that and some acting classes here and there, there really hasn’t been a lot of training, per se, to speak of. A lot of it’s been kind of self-imposed, where you know, you watch a lot of stuff, you consume a lot of content, you watch a lot of movies, watch a lot of TV, follow actors that you really like. Just see what they do and see how they do what they do. Try to break down what works and what doesn’t.

Sean
So who did you follow when you were trying to learn the craft?

Josh
Oh man, I mean I’m still, there’s all the greats, you know. I love watching Al Pacino and Robert De Niro…

Sean
So not just voice actors, but traditional actors as well?

Josh
Absolutely, because where I started was on camera, so it was watching people like Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. I mean, these aren’t who I was watching when I was really young, but this has been, even up until now, a lot of my favorite actors. When I was young it was all the people that I was listening to, that I would listen to in the shows that I would watch, you know?

Those were people like Frank Welker and Peter Cullen and Rob Paulsen. And back then I didn’t know about a lot of the stuff that Charlie Adler had done. It’s not until you really start meeting a lot of these people that you’re like, “Oh my God, you were this, you were this, you were this.” And then you kind of start putting all this stuff together. But, yeah, all the early voice over greats. It’s weird because I’ve worked with a lot of them now, so I’ve met my heroes, and fortunately enough, they’ve all been fantastic people, because I know they always say never meet your heroes. That’s the other thing I love about voiceovers. For the most part, the people in voiceover are wonderful people.

One of the things that I would listen to all the time was, you remember those little read-along storybooks for, like, kids, just learning how to read? Where it’d be the Disney stories or whatever. and it would have the tape that it would come with, and you would listen to the story tape and then it would have a little ring or a boop, and then you would turn the page and follow along. I loved those. And they were just these little mini 15-minute stories and even into my teenage years, I still had those tapes. I would just listen to them. Sometimes I’d listen to them and would go to bed.

Another part of my training was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Salas. He was my favorite teacher that I’ve ever had. One of the things he used to do was he would read after lunch when all the kids had just coming in playing and all of that, he would read a chapter from a Roald Dahl book. He was not an actor, but he did all the voices he could think of. And it was amazing. It got me to love Roald Dahl’s books. It reinforced my love of reading. But the highlight of my day was getting to listen to him read a chapter from this book and act out the stuff, and that was also my training. You know, it wasn’t formal training, but here’s somebody who’s really committing to this story and reading these things and giving these characters life.

While he wasn’t a professional actor or anything, he took me on that journey. And that’s really what I try to do. When I read to my kids now, I always do the voices. Hopefully it’ll inspire that same love for the story that I had.

Sean
And to that, have you ever actually gotten to narrate like, a children’s book or a story like that?

Josh
I’ve narrated a story. I did an audio book for World of Warcraft called Before the Storm. Christie Golden wrote it, and I narrated it. It was the first audio book that I’ve ever done.

Sean
What was that like?

Josh
It was weird because I was literally three days out of having shoulder surgery. If you listen to the first few chapters of the book, you can hear the scratchiness in my voice because my throat was still sore from being intubated, and I was still on tons of painkillers when I told this story. But it was, man, when you just have to keep reading a book because you don’t have a lot of time in audiobook narration. You have to get through a ton of pages. You can’t be there for two weeks reading this book. You’ve got to do it in a few days.

Sean
You’re reading an entire novel in just a couple of days?

Josh
About three days. We finished it in two and some change, but they booked about three days just for overage and all that.

Sean
How much studio time is that per day?

Josh
It was probably an eight hour day. But it was really fun because, when you don’t have the time to really sit with the character and think of a voice, just weird stuff starts coming out.

And, the other thing was that was a little embarrassing… I can’t do a Scottish accent to save my life. And there’s a lot of dwarf characters that have very Scottish sounding accents. And they told me there was going to be somebody there that would help me with the accent, and there was not. So that’s the only thing that was not so good. But you know, I’ll learn one, and the next time I do a Scottish accent, it’ll be on point.

But everything else I was happy with. It was a beautiful story and it was a lot of fun. It makes you think on your feet. I’ve never had that kind of experience where I had to tell that much story in that short of an amount of time, and while I had read the book ahead of time, I was on a ton of pain killers when I did, so I didn’t remember a lot of it. I mean you just don’t have the time to really flesh out really distinct voices for everybody, but you still have to. So, it’s definitely a challenge, especially in this book that had a ton of little characters, a ton of side characters that maybe had two or three lines. But you know, they can’t all sound the same. So, you’ve got to figure out some way to differentiate them. It’s super challenging.

Sean
Is there any particular character that you voiced in that book that you’re proud of that was one of those “think on your feet, it just came out like that” moments?

Josh
Yeah, Anduin’s caretaker was this old guy named Wyll, and then there was another character, Archbishop Alonsus Faol. There were these two… not two goblins. Grizzek was the Goblin and Saffy was actually a gnome and they totally opposite factions, the Alliance and Horde, fighting to the death. And all that. But they fall in love, and it was a beautiful little side story in this book, and I really, I enjoyed the voices that I came up with for them. I really liked them as characters.

Sean
Because I know we’re approaching time, I want to shift us back to Kulipari. What are you most excited for with Kulipari?

Josh
There’s a lot of things that are going to be talked about in this panel, the future of where Kulipari is going to go, that I am not privy to, that I have not been told about. I know that I’m going to be watching some new trailers today. I was part of one and the other ones are new. So, I’m really excited because I know that I really liked the books that I’ve read so far. I really like how the show has been coming out. I’m so happy that it still has legs—frog legs. It’s still hopping around and I’m just excited like, I’m not quite sure what to expect to be honest. Trevor always seems to pull some magic out so I’m excited.

Sean
I’m curious, how often do you go into these panels without knowing what’s going to happen?

Josh
Not very often. Usually they kind of give us the rundown. And they did give us a rundown for this panel, but there’s still a lot of details I’m not so sure about.

Maybe he wants to see the look on our faces because we’re all excited about the project and it’s been something that I’ve enjoyed. I’m just about to start showing it to my kids because, you know, now they’re starting to be old enough to start watching some of these shows that I’ve been in. Some of them are a little mature for like really, really little kids, but this one’s going to be a cool one.

Sean
I have two final questions. First, when Darel is pretending to be a sandpaper frog, he does this amazing Gollum-like voice. Was that you?

Josh
Yes it was. We actually had to go back and forth on that because the voice was originally even more distinctive from Darel’s voice, and the voice director, Charlie Adler, I remember telling me, “No, no, it’s got to be… the voice can’t be that good. Darel’s not a voice actor.” So, I had to dumb down the acting and make the voice not as different from his.

Sean
Have you had cases like that before where the voice director says,”No, no, no, that’s too good?”

Josh
Well… I mean… no, that was the first time. It’s always nice to be told that it’s too good. You don’t really hear that very often.

Sean
It’s a good thing to be told.

One last thing. Is there any character that you’ve seen like, from a book, from a movie, that you would want to play?

Josh
Oh man, that’s a tough one.

Yeah. There always are. But, you know, it’s like when you’re at karaoke, and when it’s time to choose a song and you can’t think of what song you want to sing. That’s where I’m at right now. There’s tons of characters that I would love to play and I just can’t think of one to save my life right now. I’ll email you if I think of one.

Sean
Sure. And thank you so much.

Josh
Absolutely.

We’ll have our interview with Kulipari writer and showrunner Trevor Pryce out shortly—stay tuned!

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This post was last modified on July 25, 2019 11:24 am

Sean Z: @https://twitter.com/Sean_Z_Writes Sean Z stumbled upon internet fandom in the early 2000s, and has been reading fanfic and liking fanart ever since. When he’s not researching fandom, he enjoys listening to video game music, playing boardgames, and writing code.