Star Wars interview: James Arnold Taylor

The voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi on stepping into the shoes of Alec Guinnesss

A veteran voice actor by any standard you can measure him against, James Arnold Taylor has struck creative gold as the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi (hear him introducing the SciFiNow Star Wars podcast here) in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, developing a character with a backlog of seemingly definitive portrayals into something completely fresh and new. We caught up with him to discuss the series, his love of Star Wars and being pumped for information by Mark Hamill.

Were you a Star Wars fan before The Clone Wars?

“I was, yeah. The first film came out when I was eight years old, I saw it in a drive-in in San Jose, California. I think it was more of a spectacle to see it outside, you know? With that state-of-the-art sound.”

Why has it endured so well?

“That’s certainly George Lucas being ahead of Hollywood with technology. If you look at what we’re doing now with the show and some of the animation, they’re able to work it just like a movie set and move three dimensionally throughout. He’s always been in the forefront of all that, I think that certainly is one of the reasons but the other thing to me is the romance of the stories, because of his love for the old serials. I think there is a bit of romance in Star Wars, and thankfully in The Clone Wars, Dave [Filoni, showrunner] and his crew have really been able to recreate that, the same feeling of humour and romance. When I say romance, I mean in more of a sweeping way. Not just a love story but just a love of films. It’s great.”

Is it difficult to take on a character who is so well defined already?

“When I started doing Obi-Wan Kenobi it was…I’ve been doing it about seven years now I think. At first it was just matching Ewan [MacGregor] and what he was doing, very specifically matching his voice, and all his little mannerisms and the way that he would talk. Now with the show they were able to let me make it my own. So I’ve been able to take Alec Guinness’ ‘These are not the droids you are looking for,’ and take Ewan McGregor’s ‘I have a bad feeling about this’ and now I have my own version of Obi-Wan Kenobi which is right there, so they gave me that leeway to do that. And the way that I look at it with the story is that I have to put myself in the position that I don’t know the future. I’m not Doc Brown, you know, ‘Wait a second, Doc, you mean to tell me, Anakin and Obi-Wan are… That’s right Marty! It’s the space-time continuum!’ I don’t have all of that luxury. I’m just Obi-Wan in the middle between Episodes II and III. To me, my Obi-Wan believes that Anakin is the Chosen One, and he’s going to save the day, he’ll save everything, so that’s the way I approach it I guess. And it is great fun to do it that way because you do get to live in your own little world outside of it while still being in the Star Wars universe.”

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Is it weird thinking of the influence you have on young viewers?

“Yeah, what a trip huh? It’s pretty wild, my daughter is four-and-a-half and she’s got her little plush toy of me, and a bobblehead of Obi-Wan that she calls Da-Da Obi-Wan, and  I do kind of think of that when I run into friends and when I run into fans and stuff, their kids look up to this character. Because Obi-Wan is the one character, to me, and obviously I’m biased but we see his whole arc, we see his whole life in these six films and now this one series. He sacrifices himself for the greater good in the end, what great character this guy has, and he is initially that father figure to Anakin and now in he’s even less of a brother and more of just a friend, a cohort, because Anakin’s caught up to him now really. He’s an adult now. So now he’s got to try and balance this…it’s like two friends that completely agree on some things, but they completely disagree on things like politics and religion. Religiously they have different beliefs about the Force, really, and politically they have very different beliefs, we know that ‘Palpatine is a politician, he can’t be trusted’ for instance.”

Do you ever find yourself quoting Obi-Wan in real life?

“Yeah, it’s weird, though, I end up quoting Ewan or Alec more than myself. ‘I have a bad feeling about this’, you know? Actually it’s weird, but I believe I’ve said that line more than any other character. And being Obi-Wan Kenobi as a voice actor, I’ve actually been Obi-Wan in more things, and spoken more dialogue than any other actor.”

You are Obi-Wan then?

“Yeah, it’s very strange. I’ll tell you, that’s one of the things that Dave Filoni said to me when we started the series, and that’s what George had said to him, that Alec Guinness isn’t going to be Obi-Wan Kenobi any more, Ewan MacGregor’s not going to be Obi-Wan Kenobi any more, I’ll be Obi-Wan Kenobi. So of course I was like, ‘Okay… this is great… no pressure…’ But it’s really cool, I’ve been very fortunate in my career as a voice actor to work as some really iconic characters – I’m the voice of Fred Flintstone, I’m Leonardo the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I’m Huckleberry Hound, and then in the video game world I’m Ratchet from the Ratchet And Clank series, Teedis from the Final Fantasy series, all these great characters that I’ve been able to be. But Obi-Wan Kenobi…it doesn’t get more iconic than that you know? That’s pretty awesome, and it’s all just some five foot four guy, so I’m a fortunate individual. I’m no fool, I know that.”

This sounds very rewarding…

Yeah! You know, it’s weird. Obviously, the show is growing and expanding and we’re learning so much more about the characters, and now we get to go deep and see how Obi-Wan Kenobi lives on a day-to-day basis, did he have love interests, did he have other interests outside of being a Jedi? I think that we’ve seen that in the sneak peeks and the trailers and stuff, so I don’t think I’m telling you guys big secrets, as much as I’d like to. One day I’m just gonna snap, right? ‘Whoah, let me tell you everything!’ But I actually don’t know much of it to tell you the truth, but it is pretty wild to be a part of it all and just know that this character…I guess when it really hit me was – Mark Hamill is a friend of mine now, as voice actors, because he’s a very talented voice actor and we worked on a lot of projects together – we worked on a project together when I was playing a younger version of his 60-year-old character and we were talking about stuff, but I’ll often find that Mark will ask me questions about Star Wars now. When Episode III was coming out he was like ‘So what’s… what’s going on?’ You’re Luke Skywalker! What are you asking me for? Come on!”

Do you know what Ewan MacGregor thinks of your impersonation of his voice?

“I’d love to know what he thinks. I’ve doubled his voice in a couple of other things as well, sometimes when he’s doing an American accent, which is funny because his voice is very similar to mine when he does one, he speaks from a different place. It’s like James McAvoy, I’ve done a lot of doubling in that regard, Christian Bale…whenever they’re doing an American accent. A lot of my work is in voice doubling, and I haven’t heard what Ewan thinks, but I know that when the trailers came out a lot of people thought it was him, so I take that as a compliment. But we do hit the same timbre, and when I went to first approach the voice I was thinking ‘What would a young Alec Guinness sound like?’ And I wasn’t so much concerned with just trying to imitate Ewan because we had the same tone.”


Star Wars The Clone Wars – The Complete Season Three is out October 17 on DVD and Blu-ray from  Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, priced £27.99 and £36.49. SciFiNow’s collector’s edition Star Wars issue is available now from all good newsagents and online from the Imagineshop