Voice actor James Arnold Taylor has been working steadily in Hollywood for a full three decades, having started out in the video game industry and steadily worked his way up to becoming one of the most in-demand voices in entertainment. He played Leonardo in the 2007 reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, voiced Ratchet in the popular Ratchet & Clank franchise, contributed to the iconic Final Fantasy series, and eventually landed the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi on both iterations of Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series.
Today I had the pleasure of speaking with James about his storied career, his stints as host of Star Wars Celebration and Star Wars Weekends, his recent role as Lieutenant Bek on the acclaimed Disney Parks attraction Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, and what it was like returning to voice Obi-Wan for the final season of The Clone Wars on Disney+.
Mike Celestino, Laughing Place: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
James Arnold Taylor: [in Obi-Wan Kenobi voice] ‘Well the Force is strong with you, I should say. Hello there!’
LP: Hello there! I’ve always wanted to say that to you [laughs]. First of all, I wanted to ask what your relationship was to Star Wars growing up. How old were you when the original movie came out?
JAT: When the first one came out I was seven years old, and I lost my mind. It was fantastic. It’s always been there [as] a part of my life. Seven years old, everyone pretty much has memories from that [age], and I remember we used to play cops and robbers or whatever before that, and then Star Wars came out and everything changed. We were playing Star Wars from that point on, and I always wanted to be Han Solo– I never knew I’d be Obi-Wan Kenobi someday. It really changed the dynamic of everything within our world. Then also it was the first franchise to have these toys that were modeled after it, too, which made it to where you could become ensconced in that world. It was really a great part of creating an imagination for a kid, and I think that’s what has made so many successful filmmakers– they were affected by the beauty of Star Wars and the stories they were telling.
LP: How did you get into the voice acting field and what have been some of your favorite roles outside of Star Wars?
JAT: I have always wanted to be a voice actor. I started at the age of four years old realizing that there were people in little padded rooms talking on microphones, and I thought ‘I want to do that someday.’ So I’ve always had a desire to do it, and I pursued it throughout my career [and] my life. As a young kid I was looking to do stand-up comedy and get into radio because I knew that would lead me to a life of voice acting, which I’ve been very blessed that it has. Some of my first roles were video games back in the early 90s. Video games and language tapes for Japanese kids learning English– those were some of my first things. Destrega was the name of this one game for PlayStation– fun stuff, but my big break really came with Atlantis: The Lost Empire [the video game]. The film was coming out and I was voice-matching for Michael J. Fox, meaning I had to do basically a doubling of him.
I do a lot of voice doubling in my career, everybody from Michael J. Fox to Christopher Lloyd to Christopher Walken. [in Walken voice] ‘You know, it’s crazy, but I do his voice when he can’t.’ Or Captain Jack Sparrow– I can do Johnny Depp whenever Johnny Depp’s not available. I’m also on How to Train Your Dragon whenever Jay Baruchel is not able to do Hiccup, or Fishlegs as Christopher Mintz-Plasse. I get to do all these various folks, and that’s what kind of led me to doing Star Wars as well. It’s been a fun and amazing journey. I’ve been very blessed to do what I do.
LP: What was the audition process like for Obi-Wan Kenobi and how did you react when you found out you got the role?
JAT: It was funny– this was eighteen years ago. It was for the [Genndy Tartakovsky] micro-series of The Clone Wars, and I had no idea at the time. I thought it was just going to be another voice match for maybe a couple lines in a movie trailer or something for Ewan McGregor. I had done some matching for him in the past, so my agents gave me the copy and they gave me sound files of him from Attack of the Clones, little lines here and there. I approached it very differently than, ‘I’m just going to do an impression of Ewan McGregor.’ I thought, ‘Ewan McGregor is essentially doing a young Alec Guinness, and he’s doing this character of Obi-Wan Kenobi. I know that my voice, as it is, is similar to Ewan’s, because whenever [he] does an American accent, I do his doubling for it. And it pretty much just sounds like this.
So I thought, ‘If I give myself a British accent and think of Alec Guinness doing ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,’ well then just maybe… so I’m doing Ewan McGregor who’s doing Alec Guinness who’s doing Obi-Wan Kenobi. It all kind of comes together into this one version, but when I did it, the casting director Collette Sunderman, who’s a dear friend and a wonderful casting director in Hollywood, she heard it and she just knew right off the bat. She was like, ‘Here’s our Obi-Wan.’ And then my agent calls me and says, ‘It’s for a cartoon.’ I was blown away. I thought, ‘You’re combining my two favorite things into one thing: Star Wars and animation.’ This had never been done before at the time, a Star Wars cartoon like this. I mean they had the Ewoks and the Droids ones, but this was a first– to tell this story of what happened in the Clone Wars.
The crazy part is it’s hard to imagine. You have to go back eighteen years ago and imagine where Star Wars was at that time– very different than where we are now.
LP: What was it like getting the band back together for this final season that just wrapped up on Disney+?
JAT: It’s always fantastic. The beautiful thing about our cast is we were brought together during a time when social media was at its beginnings, so we were able to really use that to connect with fans in a way that I don’t think any other cast had been doing at the time. And since then what it did was it allowed all of us to stay together as well. We’re all very close as a cast; we’re very much a family. We still talk on a regular basis throughout all the years. [voice of Padmé] Catherine Taber is like a little sister to me– so is [voice of Ahsoka] Ashley [Eckstein], but Cat and I talk on a pretty much every-other-day basis. [voice of Anakin] Matt [Lanter] and I are always texting and talking. So it was weird because we’ve always stayed connected. [Voice of the clone troopers] Dee [Bradley Baker] and I see each other in sessions all the time; same with [voice of Yoda] Tom Kane.
It was like, ‘Okay, but now we actually get to go back in and finish what we started?’ Unbelievable. We just couldn’t have imagined it. And the best part about it was it was like no time had passed at all. I remember we were doing the scene where Obi-Wan and Rex are outside the door while Padmé and Anakin are in there on a hologram having a conversation. Obi-Wan goes, ‘I hope you at least told Padmé hello.’ We were recording that scene all together in the studio and [executive producer] Dave [Filoni] goes, ‘Look, we got it already, but let’s just do it again three more times because it’s so much fun.’ That was kind of the sense of the whole thing. We were just all happy to be back together. It was great.
LP: Recently you also provided the voice for the Mon Calamari Lieutenant Bek in Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney Parks’ Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. How did that come about and have you had a chance to experience the attraction?
JAT: It was such a joy, and I appreciate you bringing it up because most people will probably go on that ride and they will not know that they’re actually hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi there. It was about three years ago [when] Disney called me. Brian Nefsky is one of the casting people for the Imagineering department at Disney, and [he’s] somebody I’ve known for many years. In fact, he’s responsible for me getting my Screen Actors Guild card and [getting] into the union because he hired me to do some stuff twenty-plus years ago for this little thing they were doing called California Adventure. So he called me up again and said, ‘James, we are working on Star Wars stuff, and I know you’re already covered in the [non-disclosure agreement] of all of this. We just need some scratch dialogue for this character for this ride.’
I was so thrilled [because] I knew [it] was part of Star Wars Land. But ‘scratch track’ means it’s a temporary track– something they’re going to fill in probably with a celebrity’s voice later or something. They just need me there to be a temporary fill-in voice, but I thought, ‘This gives me an opportunity to perhaps come up with a new voice for them.’ They were up for it, so I started with basically my homage to one of my favorite actors, John Hurt, who I’ve doubled for in many places [like] the movie Hellboy. I thought, ‘I’m going to give a John Hurt voice to this and see what happens.’ That’s kind of like [in Admiral Ackbar voice] ‘It’s a Trap!’ It’s a bit Ackbar-y. It’s got that same kind of tone; it could be a cousin to Ackbar maybe. So they kind of fell in love with the voice and they just kept bringing me back in to do it. They decided, ‘It makes sense to have James, who’s already a Star Wars actor, be the voice in here.’
‘He’s coming up with a voice that doesn’t sound like Obi-Wan or Plo Koon or anybody else that he does, so let’s just use it.’ And I was thrilled that they kept it. I’d been coming back in for the last three years to do pickup lines. It’s been a really neat process to see them build this all out. The last session I had with them was a few months before it opened, and they showed me actual footage of Bek and this amazing animatronic– one of the most technologically advanced animatronics ever. Somebody had said to me, ‘You can see him breathing when you’re right there,’ and it’s true! You really can. He blinks and moves and breathes and everything. I just have been thrilled to have that, and then that he’s your [guide] throughout the whole ride.
I got to go before it opened. They had me come out and do it with the press; I got to be a part of it. My wife and daughter and I rode on the ride and afterwards we were sitting next to some folks and I said, ‘Did you enjoy Lieutenant Bek?’ And they did this kind of double-take. So we just had fun. I really hope it all gets back open and people get to ride that because I think it’s one of the most amazing attractions I’ve ever experienced. It really is quite fantastic, and so long and goes through so many different places. It’s really great.
LP: Speaking of Disney Parks, you served as host of Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World for a while. What was that experience like?
JAT: It was great. Star Wars Weekends was a celebration of all things Star Wars that they did for many years, and I was there for seven years, but the last five years [it] happened I was the host of the whole thing. I got to come up with shows and write shows and I brought my own stage show. It was an amazing experience because I had worked in Star Wars all these years– I knew people like [Luke Skywalker actor] Mark Hamill and such through our work as voice actors together. Mark is just an amazing human being and a wonderful talent. But then I got to meet so many other people through that event as well: [Yoda performer] Frank Oz, who I get to now call friend, because he’s just a wonderful, giving man, and so gracious and humble. [Darth Maul actor and stuntman] Ray Park has become a dear friend from that, Jeremy [Boba Fett] Bullock, Warwick [Wicket] Davis, Anthony [C-3PO] Daniels even joined us.
Anthony and I had some fun times on stage. There’s just so many people that I got to meet in that world and experience a whole new part of it. Ashley Eckstein, who of course hosted things with me there for so many years, she said the other day in an interview we were doing, ‘There’s Star Wars fans, and then there’s Star Wars Weekends fans.’ They’re all Star Wars fans, but it’s its own thing. It was such a great adventure and time because you really got ensconced in the world of Star Wars for that time period and [could] interact with the characters in ways that you never could any other place. I really hope they might bring that back at some point; it’d be great.
LP: Along the same lines, you also twice served as the main stage host for Star Wars Celebration, and I was impressed at how you create intros for each guest and even produced a short film paying tribute to J.J. Abrams. How did all that come together?
JAT: I had hosted the one in Orlando and that was great. That was because of Star Wars Weekends– they had known that I could host these things and they were excited about that. I always got to bring my own things; I wrote my own material in the interviews and such. I worked with Mark Renfro, who’s the director of all of these shows, and he and I became very close in being able to produce these things. So for Celebration Anaheim I wanted to go above and beyond, and so I created all these little music video intros and stuff. We just had a lot of fun, because I have a production company I was working with.
A partner of mine, J.C. Reifenberg, came into the office when Celebration was happening and we knew I was hosting and he goes, ‘You know, I’d love to do some type of tribute to J.J. Abrams as a thank-you.’ He’s just very aware that I’m aware of all the work that these people have done, from George Lucas, the creator of all of this, to J.J.. [It was] a way of saying thanks. He had this vision in his head of this kid playing with Star Wars toys back in the 70s and then as we pull back we realize, ‘Oh, it’s J.J. Abrams. He’s one of us.’ That’s really what the whole story was– here’s the guy that’s about to take on Star Wars with The Force Awakens at the time, and he’s just a Star Wars fan like you or I. That’s what we wanted to convey in that.
We just had a lot of fun doing that. We shot that over the course of a weekend and we hired a young man that had this great look of a young J.J. and we hid all sorts of things in there. There’s everything from the blue VW van, which was actually just absolute blind luck. We did three drone shots that were the opening shot of the drone coming down and shooting the house. And we got really lucky: the third take was the only one that was usable and it just so happens that right at that time, and I really believe that this was a little God wink for us, God smiling down on us [at] that moment, where he made the VW bus that you would see in the show Lost, the same color and everything, drive right through the frame of the shot. It was perfect.
We also had all sorts of little nods to J.J.’s career and other movies, from Cloverfield to Lost and his childhood with the ‘Magic Box’ that he had given to him, if you’ve ever seen his TED Talk– it’s a brilliant one. We just had fun throwing all those little nods in there. I felt like that was a way for me to be like Billy Crystal when he would host the Oscars– I’m old school, I grew up with all that. He’d do stuff different. Now, the folks at Disney weren’t so thrilled when I cut myself into The Force Awakens trailer [laughs], and I haven’t been asked back since, so maybe I pushed it a little too far, but I had fun doing it.
LP: But you do still get to go and meet fans at Celebration. Weren’t you at Chicago last year?
JAT: Yes, absolutely. We had a great time. That was so fun because everybody knew Clone Wars was coming back, so we really had a great experience with the fans in a new way, and getting to see people that now have truly grown up with this. Every day now we’re seeing people say, ‘I was seven when this came out and now I’m an adult.’ It’s hard for me. It’s so wild, and they’re watching this in a new way and with new eyes. It’s very exciting.
LP: You also had a one-man show about your life and career called ‘Talking to Myself’ that I saw at Celebration 2015. Tell me about how that came to be.
JAT: It was a show that I did about ten or eleven years ago– I wrote it and I was going to do it for a series of USO tours that I had done, and it was kind of too big of a production for the USO to put on, on the fly like that. I eventually did end up doing it for a USO tour in Japan, but I had written it and produced it and then Disney asked me if I would host Star Wars Weekends. And I said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact I have this stage show that I do as well.’ I sent them my rehearsal that I had shot at a friend’s little home theater, and they loved it. They were blown away by it and they said yes. And so I would do a half-hour version of it at Star Wars Weekends every year called ‘Obi-Wan and Beyond,’ but once I started hosting Celebration I could do the full version, which was the hour-long version called ‘Talking to Myself.’
It’s just a journey of my life as a voice actor, and I do about two hundred voices in it and tell the stories of various parts of my life working in entertainment. It’s just been a fun thing; I’ve done it all over the world now, from Ireland and England and Japan and all over the United States. I’ve just had a fun time doing this show, and in fact I’m putting together a home studio version of it now that I’m going to put out on my YouTube while we’re all at home. It’s going to be a version that goes a little more in-depth into my story but also allows me to do it in a studio on a microphone the way you might normally hear all these voices. I created all the animations with some very talented animators– Joe Hogan, a friend of mine and great Star Wars artist– and I’m working on some new things for it as well that hopefully will be out on the YouTube channel soon.
LP: You do seem pretty active on your personal YouTube channel and via your ‘Talking to Myself’ podcast. How would you describe this content to fans who haven’t discovered it yet?
JAT: It’s kind of like my career: it’s always been hard to describe, because I’m five-foot-four and about 120 pounds. I’m a little guy, I look more like Barney Rubble, but nobody would guess that I’m the voice of Fred Flintstone. So that’s been kind of the whole thing of how do you describe this weird adventure that I’ve had as a character actor being all these wonderful characters? As a voice actor I spend my days in little padded rooms talking to myself. And so I thought, ‘Why don’t I come up with some new characters?’ So there are a bunch of characters on the [podcast], and it’s all done in real time, there’s no edits, I just switch back and forth from the voices. I have my [fictional] engineer on the show Hank, and then there’s Billy the intern, and then Mr. Announcer Guy announces the show. These are all the characters that join me on my show.
We talk about my life as a voice actor, I talk about my faith. I just have fun and I try to encourage people to pursue their dreams, because as a kid that grew up a latchkey kid and not [having] the greatest childhood, I found that my voices were a great escape and I know that there’s so many people out there that have found escape in Star Wars, and movies, and pop culture, and fun. And it’s okay to escape and find ways to dream in all that. So that’s really what I try to do with the show.
LP: The last project I wanted to talk to you about is Kenobi: A Star Wars Story. This was a recent fan film, correct?
JAT: It is, but I’ll tell you– it was made with a great budget thanks to the wonderful producers Danny [Peykoff] and all the other folks that produced this film. [They] just did a great job. They teamed up with Jamie Costa, who is an incredibly talented actor, writer, producer, and impressionist, as well as a wonderful human being. He plays Obi-Wan Kenobi. I don’t play Obi-Wan; I play the bad guy in this, and that was great fun. Jamie asked me if I would do a cameo in it, and then it turns out it was really the main bad guy in the film. It was wonderful for us to spend a couple days out in the desert shooting where they actually shot A New Hope. So it really is Tatooine; we really are on Tatooine there, and it is awesome.
I’m sure most people have seen it, because it’s got over four million views now on YouTube, [but] the film is basically a day in the life of Owen and Beru and Luke and Obi-Wan on Tatooine while Luke is about three or four years old, and some of the adventures that they may have had. I love it because it doesn’t interfere with canon; it fits right in and it doesn’t change anything. It just adds to the story. It’s really beautifully shot– we just had a great time doing it. An amazing group of filmmakers got together to tell a Star Wars story in a new and exciting way. I play Leegus, who is an Imperial. I got to create a new British voice. I’m all British voices in Star Wars, it’s funny. Various versions of my own voice with a British accent [laughs]. A lot of fun.
LP: And finally I watched D23’s Clone Wars Cast Reunion Challenge, and it seemed like you were getting most of the trivia questions right and you also have an X-Wing pilot uniform behind you in the video, which leads me to believe you’re a pretty big Star Wars fan yourself. How does it feel having been such a big part of a franchise you clearly love?
JAT: It’s really pretty wild, it really is. That X-Wing fighter pilot suit was made for me by Disney for the last year of Star Wars Weekends, and they also made me a stormtrooper outfit which I have, but I haven’t put that up in the office because [in Obi-Wan voice] ‘I don’t want the Dark Side represented.’ But to be a part of this world in this way, as somebody that’s just a fan of it, is really a dream come true. It’s very humbling and I’m very honored and thankful to Lucasfilm, to Dave Filoni, to Disney, and all of the folks involved that have made my career in Star Wars as long as it has been– eighteen years and still going strong. I’m very blessed and honored to be a part of it all.
This interview will be presented in audio form as part of next week’s episode of Laughing Place’s newly launched Star Wars-focused podcast “Who’s the Bossk?” Be sure to visit James Arnold Taylor's official website for more information about the actor and his many projects.