This week we bring you an individual who voiced one of the most iconic anime characters of all time- Tetsuo Shima. However, the work of Jan Rabson goes far beyond Akira in film, TV, and videogames. Also the voice behind Larry Laffer in the videogames series Leisure Suit Larry, Jan talks to us about his career, his motivations, and his take on some of his more memorable characters.
Jan- I live on a small island with no stop lights, no malls, and no fast food restaurants, off the west coast of Canada. Mostly I work in Los Angeles, Vancouver or from my home studio. I live with my wife and 2 boys and we usually take a month or more off every year backpack through Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, etc.. I’m an avid sumo fan and I’m craving a trip to Japan. I’ve ridden over the Rocky Mountains on a roof-rack, been attacked by wild dogs in Colorado, stranded in the middle of nowhere in Turkey, surrounded by a mob in Morocco, and actually have good memories and survived them all.
Retroplayer- When did you decide that acting was your call in life?
Jan- I was the youngest in my family. The only way to get attention was to make everyone take notice and laugh. I had relatives from all over the world (France, Russia, Mexico, Austria, Australia, etc). Growing up in NY, I was exposed to all sorts of different dialects, personalities, and characters. I imitated them all, got laughs, and the rest is history.
Retroplayer- Tell us about your work ethic. While every acting role is vastly different how do you approach your work in general?
Jan- The hardest part of acting is getting the job. The audition is where you need to stand out, impress the producers/directors and get them to select you. Once that is done the rest, for me, is easy. I put myself in the “mind” of the character I’m doing. Voice-over is really voice-acting. It’s not the voice – it’s the acting behind it. Animated or not it needs to be real and have a substance and personality that is real.
Retroplayer- You’ve acted on screen in TV and film, as well as voice acted in projects such as Akira, Toy Story 3, Leisure Suit Larry and countless commercials. Are the skills needed for voice acting the same across the board, or does each medium require its own skill set?
Jan- They are all basically the same with slight differences. In general, I’d say anytime you don’t see a character (radio, educational records, etc) then you need to give the character a little more to make it present. If the character can be seen you don’t have to “push” as hard. That being said, there is a world of difference in how you approach a TV commercial and a theatrical movie or a game.
Retroplayer- Your first venture into the gaming world was in the 1993 video game Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! as Larry. What was your first impression of the videogame voice acting world?
Jan- I’m not sure if “Larry” was my first venture into the gaming world. Frankly, I can’t remember. None the less, my first impression was “damn, this is fun”. I love voicing Larry and working with Al Lowe. The gaming world was pretty new then and I had never heard of “Larry” before. When I booked it they told me it was a big deal – who knew? Al Lowe was wonderful to work with and let me ad-lib until I was blue in the face. The sessions were a blast. There are rumours that we might do more – I’m hoping.
Retroplayer- Was videogame voice-over always something you wanted to get into or did you just happen upon it?
Jan- Frankly the pay for video gaming at that time was awful. There were no residuals so if the game was a bomb or a hit you made the session rate and that was it. I didn’t actively pursue it, it just came to me…although I’m glad it did.
Retroplayer- You played Larry in four Leisure Suit Larry games. What was it about the franchise that interested you?
Jan- The truth is I had never played the game prior to booking Larry. But I do love the character. He is one of my favourites to play. Again, with Al, I can ad lib or say anything I want. He (Larry) is such a quirky nerd and such a near do well that he’s always fun to voice. He’s essentially the failure in all of us.
Retroplayer- Much like Larry another major character that you have played in your career was Tetsuo Shima in the classic Anime film Akira. How did you land your role as Tetsuo and, as an actor, did you respond well to the material you were given for his character?
Jan- I auditioned for Tetsuo like a few hundred other actors. I had no idea, at the time, that it was such a huge film or even that it was anime. I had only worked with Wally Burr (the voice director) once or twice before with no problem but he had a reputation for being difficult – I didn’t find that at all. It was just Wally, myself and the engineer. I think we recorded for 2 or 3 days. As the film went on I was surprised to see all the changes and places it went. The scene where Tetsuo morphed was a huge “throat killer” with a lot of screaming and gnashing of teeth. I had a lot of fun doing the film and I’m glad to hear it became a classic.
Jan- I would definitely put Tetsuo in the anti-hero category. He didn’t set out to transform into a monster – it came to him.
Retroplayer- Since the release of Akira the voices have been re-recorded for the 2001 version helmed by Pioneer. Have you heard the new voices, and do you think it was even necessary to re-record them entirely?
Jan- I had no idea they did a 2nd recording until a few years ago. It was fun to see there is a controversy between “my” version and the new one. Frankly I didn’t see any need to re-record but someone must have had a passion for it and that’s their choice. I was once asked to dub the voice of a serial killer on a German film. I did the job and a few years later a producer called me asking me if I wanted to dub the voice of a serial killer on a German film… they didn’t realize they were asking me to redo my own voice!!! (I declined).
Retroplayer- You’ve been involved with many Disney projects including Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wall-E and Toy Story 3. Are you yourself a fan of Disney? Also, do you have a good relationship with them?
Jan- I have been extremely fortunate to work with Disney and Pixar. Disney is a pleasure to work with, I love going to their lot and I usually work with “Doc”, one of the best recording engineers in the business. Going on to the Disney lot is like home for me. I love it there. Pixar is now part of Disney and I can’t say enough about them, their producers, directors, and product. I’d work for free for Pixar (don’t tell them that!!). When I worked on the 1st Toy Story in ’89 or ’90 I told my wife I’ve just worked on an animated film that will be the “Steamboat Willie” of the 90′s, it was that new and innovative.
I have always loved Disney’s animation. So full and round with great, fun character voices. With Pixar in the picture they have only become that much better. The fact that I am a small piece of sand on their beach is truly an honor and a thrill for me.
Retroplayer- While many gamers associate you as Leisure Suit Larry and many Anime fans instantly see you as the voice behind Tetsuo, are there any roles that you’ve done that don’t get much attention that you think our readers should check out?
Jan- The irony is I don’t really remember or know a lot of the stuff I worked on in Anime. I haven’t done anime in years. The pay was always lousy, many of the producers were cheap and difficult, and it was usually done in bad studios on off hours – with a few wonderful exceptions. For me they were sort of a side job for extra money. I do remember “The magical world of Gigi”. It was a fun show and I did 3 different characters in it. Also “Ketchup Vampires” and “G-Force”. I’m sure I’ve done a few dozen others but usually I used my pseudonym – Stanley Gurd Jr.
Retroplayer- At this point in your life what is your main source of inspiration?
Jan- I am madly in love with my two sons. They inspire me to be a better person, to show them ways to cope with life with a sense of humour, a positive attitude and compassion for our fellow human beings.
Retroplayer- Tell us about the speeches you and your wife give to students across North America, Jan. What message do you hope they gain from it?
Jan- The truth is I (we) give seminars on acting (voice-over and comedy improvisation) to students every year. Of these people only a small handful will “make it” as actors. Personally I am certainly not a big star but I’m making a pretty good living doing what I love. That is the message I like to give kids in school – don’t give up. You may not become a “star” but you can be successful in doing something you love as long as you are willing to be adaptable and let it lead you where it takes you. Follow your passion and good things will happen if you are willing to be malleable.
Retroplayer- What advice would you give to any young people who wish to become a voice actor who are reading this right now?
Jan- Follow your passion (see above)! Take classes, join workout groups, keep in touch with everyone, take chances, follow your gut, work hard, make connections, hone your skills, keep you eyes open for any opportunity and keep moving forward.
Retroplayer- How do you want your portrayal of Tetsuo Shima to be remembered?
Jan- The truth is I’ve never been to an anime convention (I don’t feel right about selling my autograph) so I’m not contacted or in touch with much to do with Akira. It was a long time ago. I hope my portrayal will at least be remembered as “good acting”. Anything more than that would be an all expenses paid trip to Japan for an anime convention… and so I could see sumo in person as well.