Over the years, there have been many actors who have portrayed Marvel’s Incredible Hulk on screens large and small. Rick D. Wasserman can now join their ranks as the voice of the Hulk in Planet Hulk, a new direct-to-video movie from Marvel Animation Studios now available on DVD, Blu-ray disc, and various on-demand services. The movie, based on the graphic novel by Greg Pak and Carlos Pagulayan, sends Marvel’s green goliath to the alien world of Sakaar, where he is enslaved and turned into a gladiator, using his tremendous strength to survive the gladiator pits and his confrontations with the despotic Red King and his lackeys.
It is a very different Hulk story, requiring a very different Hulk, but the Broadway and TV veteran was more than up to the challenge. Toonzone News was able to chat with Wasserman by phone on the eve of the release of Planet Hulk about his take on the character and his experiences working on the project.
This interview contains SPOILERS for the movie.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you get the role to be the Hulk in the new direct-to-video?
RICK D. WASSERMAN: I auditioned like everybody else. My agent sent me a little bit of script from it. I don’t even think it said “Planet Hulk” on it. It was just some Hulk lines with the direction that they’re looking for a new Hulk, not the same Hulk we’ve heard before. This one was more introverted, a little sensitive and thoughtful. He’s in an environment where he can’t rely on his strength any more, so he has to use his brain and his heart. I thought, “Well, that’s intriguing. I haven’t seen that before.” So I auditioned, and I got a callback, and the callback wasn’t easy. They worked me (chuckles). They seemed to have a pretty clear idea what they wanted, and I guess ultimately I gave them what they wanted and they booked me.
TZN: I have seen an earlier interview with you where you mentioned that you hadn’t read comics in the past very much?
WASSERMAN: Yeah. I mentioned that at the Paley Center and I thought I was going to be killed (laughs), but everyone was very supportive of me, especially when I said that now I understand why people read comics. I just had never read them before. I was never really exposed to it, but after reading Planet Hulk, after I had booked the job, it became very clear very quickly why people read them. It’s really such a powerful, epic storyline. And, of course, it’s got a history and a lineage and it’s extensive. The Marvel Universe is, in fact, a universe. It’s modern mythology. It’s just gigantic. It’s very exciting to be a part of.
WASSERMAN: I didn’t, because this Hulk was so specific. The only other Hulk I had in my head was the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno 70’s experience, which I loved. I was very excited to hear recently that Greg Pak was a big fan of that series as well, and that he brought some of that into Planet Hulk, because I can feel that. It’s in there, and I love that. I love the tragedy of the whole thing, and I think he likes that, too.
TZN: What other sort of preparation did you do to kind of get into the role? What were you drawing from when you were auditioning or when you were reading?
WASSERMAN: Well, the only thing I could really draw on, since I hadn’t read Planet Hulk when I auditioned, was myself. The Hulk is a guy with a lot of rage and a lot of confusion and he feels a lot of rejection, and in some respect or another…I’m not saying I’m that guy, but I think universally, we all feel some of that, so I just tried my best to tap into my own experience. Right now, I’m working on an animated show with another guy who’s the Hulk, and it’s a very different Hulk than mine, but he, too, is kind of an inspiration. He’s been playing the Hulk for a long time, and I can hear the history of the Hulk in his reads, and I drew from some of that. I drew from the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno show, but mostly, this Hulk is always going to be a little bit Hulk/Rick Wasserman. It is a little bit me, just with all the rage and need getting amped up.
TZN: Is that the other person you’re talking about Fred Tatasciore?
WASSERMAN: Yeah, who is just spectacular. His Hulk is just amazing, and I knew and everyone else knows that I’m not ever going to be that Hulk. That’s why this Hulk is just so different. It’s just a different Hulk.
TZN: Were you recording that show at the same time when you were doing Planet Hulk?
WASSERMAN: There was some crossover. I started Planet Hulk first, and then started doing Marvel Avengers, where I play Thor and Absorbing Man, and then went back and started doign more Planet Hulk as they kind of got a clearer picture of what they wanted. There were some ADR sessions in order to sweeten everything a little bit, so there was some crossover there.
TZN: Did you actually talk to Fred, then, about the role at all? Did you swap Hulk tips with each other or anything?
WASSERMAN: (Laughs) Had a little head to head, heart-to-heart Hulk stuff?
TZN: Yeah, had a Hulk Summit?
WASSERMAN: We never did. I’m kind of a passive observer, just to listen to Fred. That’s pretty much all I need to do. Otherwise, it might start becoming Fred’s Hulk, and they certainly don’t want that. This is an altogether different Hulk. To draw on too many other Hulk resources might have been to a disservice to Planet Hulk.
TZN: One of the things I really liked about your performance was that I felt like there was a whole lot of texture and subtext despite the fact that there really isn’t a lot of actual dialogue. Did you feel the same way when you were recording the part?
WASSERMAN: Yes. There was, and that was discussed between the vocal director and the writers and myself. He’s not very chatty. Not that Hulk ever is terribly chatty, but he purposefully doesn’t say anything in this one. It’s not because he doesn’t have anything to say — he’s got plenty to say — but he feels that he doesn’t have anyone to say it to. He’s been rejected by so many people, and so yes, he is largely taciturn in this. He’s quiet. But, of course, when he does have something to say, it’s usually pretty profound. And I love that…well, he does say “Smash” once. I know he does, but for the most part, he speaks in complete sentences and he’s often eloquent in this. No one ever puts that together with Hulk, but he was in this one.
TZN: What choices were you making while you were recording to capture that sense of texture and that sense of nuance?
WASSERMAN: I’ll tell you exactly what we did: I didn’t record with anybody else. To this day, I still have not met any of the other vocal talent. I recorded alone, after a number of the other actors had laid down their parts, so I could actually hear what a character in the scene is going to say to Hulk, so I could more accurately respond to them. The lights were turned down in the studio. I recorded alone in the booth, so that sense of being alone and solitary really helped fuel the performance. It was all very quiet, too, until I had to roar and scream, but when Hulk speaks, he’s very, very soft spoken in this. He doesn’t bark at anyone in this, really. And in those quiet moments, which Hulk previously has few of, I think you can hear his heart speak. That sense of brooding sensitivity, loneliness, and need for family. He goes through quite a transformation in this. It’s a slow one, but it’s a great one for Hulk. As an audience, we might have always put him in that category as “hero,” but I don’t think that the Hulk ever considered himself a hero. And at the end of this, he might start considering that he is a hero, which is kind of a fine evolution for a character to go through.
WASSERMAN: Well, on a technical note, all of the roaring and screaming had to be right, even though a lot of the time, we didn’t have pictures. I didn’t get to see what this thing really looked like until the premiere, and at some of the ADR I got to see some pictures. But they’d have to describe to me, like, “All right, Hulk is leaping 60 feet into the air and grabbing onto a giant metal worm and tearing him apart like a giant FedEx package. Go.” And, you know, I would just give it my best and they’d go, “No no no! Not like that! Like a FedEx package.” “Oh. OK.” (laughs) So, they had a very clear idea in their minds what it should sound like, and that took some tries to get it right.
But I think the more sensitive scenes were the most challenging, only because it’s new territory, and they’re also, consequently, my favorite parts. I really like the fact that we had to stop and dig into Hulk and who he was in order to make these scenes play…these quiet scenes that he has at the end. He has a wonderful line about, “All my life, I’ve gone from one fight to the next, and now I don’t know what to do.” He’s still triumphant in this thing, and yet so lost and alone and just on the brink of realizing that he needs other people.
TZN: I also picked up on the idea that he hasn’t figured out yet that all these other characters around him have already taken him in.
WASSERMAN: That’s right, he’s spent so much time rejecting, because he expects to be rejected. He hasn’t even fully appreciated that he is growing a family.
WASSERMAN: (Laughs) My favorite thing of all time is during his fight with Beta Ray Bill. I’m one of the voices of the UFC, the mixed martial arts competitions, and I’ve been doing that for years and years and years and I happen to really like the UFC and mixed martial arts. I like a lot about it. And there’s this great scene where he’s finally got his strength, and he’s overpowering Beta Ray Bill, and he’s got him on the ground and he’s straddling him, and he’s doing what they call in mixed martial arts a “ground and pound,” and I got such a kick out of that. I was in hysterics in the booth, just the fact that they have all these epic moves where the Hulk throws someone or tears something in half. This time, he gets on top of a guy and starts beating his face in with each fist. It was raw and very human and something I’d seen very often in the UFC.
TZN: Have you gone to acting school or had formal training as an actor?
WASSERMAN: I did. I got my undergraduate theater degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, and then I got my graduate degree, my MFA, at UMKC, that’s at Kansas City, for acting and performance. After that I went to New York and started doing theater and Broadway and television and that sort of thing.
TZN: What in that past work and in that training really helped or hindered you in your voice-over work in video games and now in animation voice over work?
WASSERMAN: The biggest help all the training does for you is that it’s all about vocal control, which is everything. It’s about exercising your imagination and your range, which is all about animation voice over. Finding a voice and where to lay it in your throat. How to survive having session after session of screaming and shouting. I was in the Lion King on Broadway, and I got to play Scar, who’s a big bad villain, and that kind of archetype is found commonly in video games and superheroes, so I learned all that stuff on the job.
TZN: I know we will hear you, hopefully soon, in God of War 3 and the new Avengers cartoon. Is there anything else you can talk about that’s coming up next?
WASSERMAN: Yeah, I just finished yesterday Starcraft II, which is going to be pretty cool. Bioshock 2 is coming out, which is going to be good, and next week I start Diablo III. I’m the bad guy in that. So a lot of video games coming up. And of course, every day, I’m the voice of AMC, so it’s always AMC, Fox, HBO…I do those promos every day.
Toonzone News would like to thank Rick Wasserman for taking the time to chat with us, and also Marisa Vaccari at Special Ops Media and the PR team at Lionsgate for arranging the interview. To keep up with Rick and his current projects, you can visit his official website. Planet Hulk is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc; read Toonzone News’ review of the Blu-ray here.