No one knows better than Greg Baldwin that he could never replace Mako Iwamatsu as the voice of Aku—the bombastic, self-aware villain of Samurai Jack—after the legendary actor's death in 2006. "I'm not Mako," Baldwin repeated, over and over and over again, when The Dot and Line sat down with him to discuss his takeover of the role in Samurai Jack's fifth season, which is now in full swing on Adult Swim's Toonami.
"All I can do is try to honor the character and the actor, which I think is what I've done," he said ahead of tonight's episode, which opened with Aku's first full scene and the first true showcase of Baldwin's chops as the character. He himself admits that he hears an "uncanny valley effect" when he listens to his performance. Showrunner and Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky has said it before, "No one can replace Mako." Baldwin's thoroughly aware of that, and he's also thoroughly aware of the fact that in no other industry but voice acting would a "middle-aged, old white guy" replace a legendary, veteran Japanese-American voice actor who he never met once in his life. Read on for a clear-eyed discussion of his role, what it's like to work with Tartakovsky, and what Mako has meant to him since taking over his voice on Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as on Samurai Jack. One thing we learned: despite oft-repeated Internet discussion that Baldwin was Mako's "understudy," they never once met each other, in fact.
You're voicing Aku on Samurai Jack. How did you come to do that?
I came to L.A. in '87 specifically to be a voice actor. Ended up getting side-tracked, did some commercials and other things, and then we had two children. I didn't do a whole lot of acting until around 2000. Then I got back into it, got picked up by an agency. My claim to fame and my stroke of luck — well, I hate to say "stroke of luck" — is when Mako passed away in 2006, I ended up getting a lot of his work.
And the reason for that. In a way I can thank Stephen Sondheim for that. I've always loved musicals, and in 1977 there was a musical called Pacific Overtures. Mako was the lead in it. It was a Sondheim musical. Indeed he was nominated for a Tony. I bought the cast album, listened to it, and loved it. To this day it's still my favorite Sondheim musical. I would sing along with it. I would listen to it so much that when 2006 rolled around and they needed someone who sounded like Mako, I had been singing along with this record for 20 years, and, you know, had it reasonably down. That's really the trajectory in sort of how I ended basically being Mako. He played the Reciter in Pacific Overtures.
Mako Iwamatsu, the original voice of Aku
How often did you work with him before his passing? Were you friends?
I never met him.
Wait. Sorry, what?
I never met him. It's something interesting. The Internet will frequently say that I was Mako's "understudy." I never had the privilege of meeting the great man. I probably would never have been his understudy. And understudy of course is a theatrical convention where you're sick and you can't go on stage that night, then the understudy goes on. On stage, Mako and I would probably never be cast in the same roles. Which is the beauty of voice acting. So no, I never met him.
I did have one of the greatest professional moments of my life. Genndy Tartakovsky's actually alluded to it in a couple of interviews I've read. It was one of the last Samurai Jack recordings. I walk in and you know, there's frequently people in the green room sitting around before we go and record. There's people sitting in here, and I go, Oh, I wonder who they are. And I see Genndy coming and saying, "Oh, hello! How are you?" And he introduces me. It's Mako's daughter and grandson.
So I'm going, Holy crap! I've got to go in there now to record. I hope they like it! You know, I hope they're not offended. And afterwards I walk back out and his daughter gave me a hug and said that I'd made her cry. I think it was one of the greatest professional moments of my life. Period. One of the great moments of my life. Even though they're only getting a pale imitation of their father and grandfather's voice, they're actually getting to hear it. And I thought, Man, I would give anything to hear my own father's voice again. It was a cool thing. That is the closest connection I have ever actually had to Mako himself.
It was a cool moment, I realized as it was happening. Once I got over my initial nerves of not being good enough. Because you know, I'm trying to sound like her father. And then it was like, wow, this is a cool thing. This is a good human thing. This sort of transcends voice acting and is something else now. That was cool.
"[Mako's] daughter gave me a hug and said that I'd made her cry."
That is so special. The cynical way of approaching this whole season might be to call it a cash in, but you had that human moment.
Yeah! And it felt good. I felt like I was able to give them something, when Mako has certainly given me and my family quite a lot. It was kind of giving back. I am incredibly lucky to be voicing not only Aku but Iroh. It's rather ironic. I never would have seen this coming in my life. I'm a fat, middle-aged, old white guy. It's cool.
Tell me a little bit about the character of Aku specifically? What did you do to prepare yourself to voice Aku as opposed to Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender?
My process is pretty much always the same. When I'm trying to find the voice, I go back to literally the beginning of the album of Pacific Overtures and do the lines: [in Mako imitation] "Nippon! The floating kingdom! An island empire which for centuries has lived in perfect peace, undisturbed by intruders from across the sea." Then I can find the voice. Now the difference is Aku is that times 100. Aku is so big and funny and bold. Iroh is much calmer. There's an element of realism to Iroh that doesn't exist with Aku. Aku is just over-the-top insane. I've enjoyed both roles. They're both very different.
Aku in "XCIII"—his first full scene in Season 5 of 'Samurai Jack'
Tell me about the scene that just aired in the second episode of this season, "XCIII." I was struck by it because Aku actually isn't immediately as over-the-top and manic as he was in the original series. In this episode we see him in a more psychological scene to the point where he's literally talking to himself. The character's in a different spot.
Yes, 50 years of Jack has left him—in some ways he's as damaged as Jack is, because he just can't make Jack go away. It's literally driving him crazy. That was a funny scene. What's amazing too is that Genndy storyboards everything. It was so cool to see it, even down to the point of the psychiatrist wearing a cardigan. Then I saw it animated. I don't especially like listening to myself at a premiere, but it was a funny scene. It did make me laugh.
"In some ways [Aku's] as damaged as Jack is, because he just can't make Jack go away."
What can we expect for the future of the season? What are you allowed to tell me without spoiling too much?
I'm in seven of the ten episodes. I was barely in episode one. I don't think I'm in episode three? Don't quote me on that (although you can since I just said it). Aku is the shape-shifting master of evil. He does stay true to his form. I don't want to say a whole lot more. All right, I'll give you a spoiler, I'll tell you how the whole thing ends — you really want to know?
I actually do want to know.
It's a Christmas episode, and there's a big, big musical number. It's very exciting.
Very, very exciting stuff. You heard it here, folks! [Laughs.]
You're definitely bullshitting me right now, but I'm OK with that.
Yes, yes, I am. I will tell you this: The ending is perfect. It could not be more perfect. I think the fans will be absolutely appreciative of how Genndy has ended the whole thing. Of course I thought like "Oh, cool, I get to play Aku, that's like one of the most iconic characters." And then I heard we were only doing ten episodes: "Aw, d'ohhhh!" Aw man, I thought I could get four years of voicing this character — nope, ten episodes, done.
But it ends beautifully. I have to say, seeing it at that premiere, on the big screen with the sound. It's like nothing else. Ever. I can't think of any other show that has the style and look of Samurai Jack. Visually, it's remarkable.
I've watched cartoons since I was probably a 1-year-old. It's the most visually unique thing on TV. There are plenty of cartoons out there that do amazing stuff, but Samurai Jack does something no one can touch.
You don't see it. It was in the early 2000s. I had had some success as a voice actor, but I was starting to get my foot wet. I remember my son and I would watch that show. I loved that show. It was something that we would watch together. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Hey, it's gonna come back in 2017, and you're going to be voicing Aku. It's cool. The whole thing has just been magical, and I could not be more happy.
Samurai Jack, Season 5
Are you the big hero in the family right now?
Uhhh, well, no. [Laughs.] The kids — it's a different place. I remember I was on an episode of Clone Wars, not Genndy's Clone Wars, but the other Clone Wars. I played a very old Jedi named Tera Sinube, really really old. They told me Yoda was a little bit older than me, but I was a freshman and Yoda was a senior. That's how old I was. But he had a lightsaber in his cane. He's this doddering old fool until the end. And then he pulls his lightsaber out of his cane and he kicks ass.
And I saw it and I was like, "Kids! Kids! You gotta come see this, look at your old man, he's a Jedi! Check this out!"
And the kids were like: "Yeah, so what? Can we go back to our rooms now?" When you grow up with it, you know. Although, it is funny, both of my kids are away at college, and they do say that it doesn't come up in conversation, but when it does and they say, "What does your father do?" When they find out that I'm Iroh and Aku, their classmates just freak.
Did you always love cartoons specifically? Or do you like all other types of voice acting?
One of the reasons I love it is that you're not confined by how you look. In L.A. if I'm going to an on-camera audition. I've done some on-camera work. I was in Hail Caesar! by the Coen brothers. That was another real treat. But, if I go to an on-camera audition, all I have to do is go to a grouping of fat, old, white guys, and I know that that's where I belong. Whereas in voices, voice acting, you can be anybody. You can be anything. You are not literally contained by how you appear to the world. That's what I always felt liberating about it.
Again, [on camera or on stage,] Mako and I would never be cast in the same role. Never in a million years. But here I am, building on his legacy. I would never have been allowed to do that. In some ways I think it's a more pure form of acting. And I gotta tell ya, having done the on-camera thing when you're on set for 15 hours as opposed to being in a booth for an hour and a half, it's easier. The work itself is easier.
How is this season of Samurai Jack different from previous work you've done?
Phil [LaMarr, voice of Jack] is wonderful. I think he could sense my nervousness about stepping into these very, very large shoes. He was just so supportive the entire time. It was also interesting, I've never before [worked] where the voice director is actually the creator of the show. It was fun being directed by Genndy himself, who knows exactly what he wanted because it's all in his head.
It'll be interesting. Now I'm notorious. I love to Google myself, and I love to see what people say about me in message boards and forums. I'm sure especially after this weekend, it won't all be nice, but I think mostly the fans are going to be OK with.
"Personally, I think there's a little bit of the uncanny valley to it."
It's definitely not something just anyone can do.
It's not. I'm not Mako. I'm the first to admit it. Mako was nominated for an Academy Award. Mako was nominated for a Tony. Mako was a great actor. I am not that. I'm a voice actor. I'm an actor, but I'm not anything like in his league. So there's nuances that I just don't get. And I think some of that is because I'm trying so hard to sound exactly like Mako. It's an interesting line, because I have to honor the character, but I also have to honor the actor who originally played the character.
Two positions to fill when normally you'd just be filling one.
Well, yeah, normally I'd just be looking at the script and thinking, How do I interpret this line? Mako is in the back of my mind all the time when I'm doing this. And he has to be. I think that some people will go, "Oh he's not Mako," to which I'll go, "No, I'm not Mako. I'm the first one to admit it." When I listen to my voice doing Mako, personally, I think there's a little bit of the uncanny valley to it. The voice is there, but it's not quite live. That's just me criticizing my own work, but I also think there's some truth to that, because I'm not Mako. I'll never be Mako. All I can do is try to honor the character and the actor, which I think is what I've done.
That's all you really can do, ultimately.
Yeah, I've done my best, and I hope people can appreciate the work. Genndy has said he seriously thought about going another direction with it altogether. I think, that — for a character such as this — it's best to get someone like me to finish it up. I think it would have been far more jarring to fans of the show if the voice had just come out of nowhere and was not at all what they were used to hearing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.