Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
May 25, 2016

In the '70s and early '80s, it was not uncommon to see animated properties from Japan repackaged and redubbed for import to American audiences. One of the most notable and enduring products to come out of this trend was Voltron: Defender of the Universe, a sci-fi series featuring giant transformable robots. This hit show was actually a heavily edited composite of two unrelated animes: King Beast GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV.

The first season of Voltron that was derived primarily from GoLion made the biggest impact on stateside viewers, and now forms the basis for the Netflix original Voltron: Legendary Defender. Executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos, co-executive producer Lauren Montgomery, and story editor Tim Hedrick, who were all instrumental in the brilliant and beautiful series The Legend of Korra, spearhead the effort to reimagine a beloved and nostalgia-laden franchise for a new generation, and the result is a spectacular action adventure that is heavily driven by its compelling characters and storytelling.

Voltron: Legendary Defender focuses on five members of Galaxy Garrison, a spacefaring exploration and defense force: tormented team leader Shiro (voice of Josh Keaton); volatile wildcard Keith (voice of Steven Yeun); mechanically-inclined gentle giant Hunk (voice of Tyler Labine); precocious child prodigy Pidge (voice of Bex Taylor-Klaus); and ace daredevil pilot Lance (voice of Jeremy Shada). With help from Altean survivor Princess Allura (voice of Kimberly Brooks) and her right-hand man Coran (voice of Rhys Darby), the quintet are thrust into the unlikely role of heroes, each piloting a giant mechanical lion, which combine to form the titular robot Voltron, a powerful alien weapon and symbol of hope. With the odds stacked against them, they battle the 10,000 year old Galra Empire, led by the tyrannical Emperor Zarkon (voice of Neil Kaplan) and his witch Haggar (voice of Cree Summer), whose techno-organic magic creates all manner of monstrosities to carry out their evil agenda.

In this exclusive interview, veteran voice actor Josh Keaton (whose credits include Transformers Prime, Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and Disney's Hercules) talks about his experience of working on Voltron: Legendary Defender, and offers a glimpse as to what audiences can expect from the show's debut season.

The entire first season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is now available for streaming on Netflix. One of the bigger changes that fans will notice in Voltron: Legendary Defender is that your character Shiro displaces Keith as the traditional team leader. What were your initial thoughts on that new dynamic?

JOSH: Well, from what I was able to read, Shiro was actually based a little bit on the Sven character, and they're using his original name from GoLion, from the anime, which was Shirogane. So I know that he technically still has a history in there. I know that there's probably going to be some diehards that are like, "Well, he didn't really pilot [the Black Lion]..." But at the end of the day, Voltron was an amalgam of two completely unrelated animes. So if you want to argue authenticity, you could kind of take it really far back. [laughs] But I was excited about it. I was excited because ultimately, the core of the characters are consistent with their original counterparts. And I was happy to see that they were doing new things with it, but I was also really happy to see that they're still making it a point to honor a lot of the original canon that was established with the '80s series.

Were you and your castmates able to record most of your sessions together, radio style, as you did with Transformers Prime?

We usually would try as often as possible to do it radio style, but it wasn't always possible just because of schedules--you know, Steven was out of town a lot because of Walking Dead, and Bex with Scream, and then Tyler. Basically, a lot of people had a lot of on-camera projects that they had to be out periodically for. But it was a pretty long process. A lot of times, you'll do an episode a week, and do that until the season's done. These were a bit more spaced out. And I think that they were really trying to get as many days where they could have the cast together so that they could really get that chemistry. Our director Andrea Romano, who's one of the best voiceover directors on the planet, made sure that all of us were together [for] the first session for the [pilot], which we did record as a chunk. And after that, sometimes we would do a half cast, sometimes it would just be me, sometimes it would be me and "insert cast member here." But after having that first session where all of us were together, we instantly established a rapport, just as actors, amongst each other. And we instantly got to see what everybody was doing with their character. And that helped us so much in the other records where we weren't necessarily all together, because now, if I'm acting out a scene with Hunk or Lance, and Hunk or Lance aren't there, I already know in my head what Tyler or Jeremy, or whoever I'm playing the scene opposite, [are] going to do--I have a vibe for that character, and it makes it much easier to act in that same context even if the person's not there. So even though we didn't do everything radio style, we still had a lot of that feel because we established it early on.

I understand that Andrea will frequently give actors specific emotional directions, such as, "Give me a take as if you just lost your best friend." Is that a common tool amongst voiceover directors, or something that is unique to her style?

I would say that there is a commonality to that. A lot of voice directors will give you examples to kind of push and pull you, because voice directors really don't want to give you a line reading. There are some that do. Most don't because they don't want to really take the process away from you, because at that point, they're just kind of feeding you a musicality and a phrasing--there might not be any feeling behind it. It might not resonate because it might not be true to the way the actor's playing the character, but it's just a music that somebody heard in their head. So a lot of directors don't want to do that. But not every director is as apt at that whole "giving somebody a motivation" thing. She's fantastic at it. She instantly knows what to say to get you to where it has to be. And it doesn't even have to be something specific. Sometimes she'll give you something that's completely off-the-wall, you kind of trust it, and then when you hear it back, you don't even hear the reference she gave you in the read--it's just exactly right for the context of the scene. She's a master at that.

Voice actors often find themselves collaborating with the same pool of talent over the years. Had you worked with any of the Voltron cast previously?

Actually, a lot of them were new to me! A knew Kimberly from voiceover, and I had seen Jeremy around but hadn't really worked with him ever. I think we did a convention once and we were both on a panel, and it was one of those panels where they give everybody a script and then you just call out funny voices for each one, and then everybody's reading the script in totally unrelated voices, and hilarity ensues. And we had a great time on that panel, and [Jeremy is a] super, super nice guy. But this was the first time that we actually got to work together. And then Bex, Steven, and Tyler, they're completely new to me. I had never worked with them before. Voltron was my first time meeting them and working with them, and we've all since become pretty close. I mean, we're all very friendly with each other, we all text all the time, and chat, and we've kind of become like a little Voltron team outside of the show. [laughs] So it's been really cool. I got introduced to new faces. And you're right, it tends to be a pretty small business in voiceover, so I end up working with a lot of the same people over and over. There's nothing wrong with that--I love my colleagues. But it's always nice to see some new faces in the mix, especially ones that really bring their A-game to every session and work as hard as they do.

Even as a huge fan of the original Voltron, I still found it funny that the battles were so formulaic: Voltron would go through a huge fight with a Robeast, get his butt kicked, and then break out the blazing sword and do an instant kill...

That was every episode! [laughs]

[laughs] That was every episode...

[laughs] They would try a bunch of things, and then it would always end with forming blazing sword and owning the day!

So will the blazing sword constantly be a go-to weapon that always wins the fight, or will Voltron's victories be a little more earned?

Voltron, in our show, is not going to have an "I Win" button. There's going to be much higher stakes than that. And not every battle is going to be best fought with Voltron formed--they might need to stay in lion form, or they might need to not even be in the lions and do more "feet on the ground"-type stuff. So there's going to be a lot of the team improvising. Because you have to remember, they're also, at this point, still learning how to work together. Even though they were all in the Garrison, there's still competing personalities. So they're going to have to learn how to work with each other. And yeah, Voltron coming out and forming the sword is not always going to be the best way to handle what's happening.

Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, and Tim Hedrick did a lot of great work on The Legend of Korra, which is particularly noted for addressing social issues and themes of identity. Does Voltron exhibit that same sensibility, or is it aiming to be more of an action-oriented show?

It's definitely aiming to be more than just an action show. There is plenty of action in it, and the action that's in it is spectacular, but ultimately what I think the appeal of our show is going to be is how Voltron ties into not just humanity, but life in general in the universe, and the preservation of that. So yeah, absolutely, there's going to be a lot of episodes dealing with social issues and things of that nature, because that's ultimately the point of why Voltron exists: to help create a better society, and to fight against evil within that. And so I think it would be amiss to forget that. I absolutely see our show tackling more issues than just being an action show.

Having recorded the first season, how do you feel about what you've seen of the final product?

I really think that our show strikes a great balance of honoring the original mythology and updating it for today--you know, for pacing and backstories and really fleshing it out. And I really hope, and I also believe, that this will ultimately be seen as the definitive Voltron. I'm really, really proud of this. I think I can say that safely for everybody. And it's really a love letter to the old Voltron, and hopefully we can keep making more episodes...Ultimately, it's going to tell stories about all life in the universe. It shows the importance of that, and it's going to emphasize a lot of great themes and teamwork and compassion and bravery. And these are all stories that I think need to be told in whatever format they can be told in. And Voltron is a fantastic way to tell them. So if nothing else, I think that our show is going to tell some great stories about sacrifice and working together and coming together for the greater good. And we're going to tell it with a badass, big, huge robot.

Nice! I hope we'll see a second season very, very soon...

I do, too!

Thanks for your time this afternoon, Josh...

Absolutely! Thank you!

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