By Tyler Aquilina
November 20, 2020 at 04:08 PM EST
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Credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

Talking to Rob Paulsen is like taking a guided tour through an exhibition of the last three decades' most beloved animated characters. One of the most prolific and versatile voice actors of his generation, Paulsen can still slip into his most famous voices at the drop of a hat, from Pinky's (of Pinky and the Brain) Cockney twang to Carl Wheezer's raspy whimper. And after almost 40 years in the business, he's lost none of his love for and delight in his profession.

"Those of us who are lucky enough to make a living doing any sort of performing, we're incredibly fortunate," Paulsen says. "I'm so glad that I get how fortunate I am to do things like this, and to let people know that folks who do this completely understand how lucky we are to do it. And all that does is inspire us to do it better."

His latest stroke of good fortune: reprising his iconic roles in a revival of beloved '90s animated series Animaniacs alongside costars Tress MacNeille, Jess Harnell, and Maurice LaMarche. With the reboot now streaming on Hulu, Paulsen spoke to EW about some of the highlights in his storied career.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1995, 2012-2017)

Paulsen’s breakthrough came when he scored the role of Raphael on the original TMNT animated series. Decades later, he swapped shells to voice Donatello on Nickelodeon’s 2012 reboot.

ROB PAULSEN: At the first recording session [for the reboot], I sat next to Sean Astin, [the new voice of Raphael], and he had a line that was a bit of a tongue-twister, and he had trouble getting through it. So about the fourth try on the line, I said [to the director], “I just want you to know, if he’s having trouble, I can do it if you really need me to.” And everybody laughed, and Sean’s face turned bright red. He goes, “Oh my God. Raphael is here, telling me that he can do Raphael better than I can.” It was great.

Turtles was a total game-changer. It was the first thing I got involved with where I had any tangential celebrity, but moreover, it allowed me to do unbelievable amounts of charity work, stuff that I never in a million years thought that I’d be able to do. Turtles is a big deal to millions of people, and not just kids. That is really what was the glorious aspect — it showed me the power of joy, and the power of these characters. I don’t even know how to quantify what that means to me, [when] somebody says, “My older brother is 36 years old, and he’s going through pancreatic cancer, and he’d really love to talk to Raphael.” And that happens all the time. That is what was such a game-changer, to know that something I would do for free has such a deep connection to millions of people. And I’ve gotten two cracks at it!

Animaniacs (1993-1998, 2020)

The Steven Spielberg-produced series gave Paulsen not one, but two of his signature characters — the mischievous Yakko Warner and the dull-witted mouse Pinky — and became a cultural phenomenon that took his career to a whole new level.

RP: Animaniacs was the only time in my life, before or since, that I was really aware and very cognizant of that axiom that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. I had already had five years of Ninja Turtles, which had changed my career. You get involved with something that becomes iconic and sells a lot of product and gets hundreds of episodes, all of a sudden people pay attention, so you get more auditions and all that stuff. But [with Animaniacs], I really felt like, “Holy smoke. If I can book this gig, this is going to be a big deal.” And I was right. If Turtles changed my career trajectory, Animaniacs changed my life, because it really played to my strengths. Singing, singing in character, working with people I knew, creating new characters — not having to try to do my version of something that was already well-known by millions. It was overwhelming, truly, in the most glorious sense. And personally, the dividends were far, far more than just a nice paycheck.

A Goofy Movie (1995)

Paulsen voiced Max Goof’s best friend P.J. on Disney’s Goof Troop and its big-screen adaptation. Though not a major success upon release, A Goofy Movie has become an unexpected cult favorite in the decades since.

RP: Five years ago, I got a call from Disney about [coming to] their D23 event for the 20th anniversary of A Goofy Movie. And I said, “Oh, sure. I'm really flattered that they're bringing us down there.” And the guy said, “Oh, dude. You don't know? It's huge.” I started laughing, and I said, “You're kidding me.” “Oh my God, no. We have a thousand-seat auditorium, and it'll be full.” And it was! They had to turn people away. I truly didn’t know. It turned out to be a really good movie, and it has really withstood the test of time. I think the reason is because, like a lot of other Disney projects, it really hits people where they live. Let me tell you, [Goofy voice actor] Billy Farmer is one really fine actor, and when you watch the scenes between Max and Goofy, the joy and the heartbreak and the difficulty in understanding one another, all that s--- that real humans go through, is beautifully portrayed. Billy is wealthy in spirit and bank account for very good reasons.

The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2002-2006)

Another of Paulsen’s roles that took on a life he never expected was Carl Wheezer, Jimmy Neutron’s hyper-allergic and much less intelligent best friend. The actor voiced Carl in the 2001 Nickelodeon film as well as its spin-off TV series.

RP: I love Carl, because it's a totally different character for me, and I made some conscious choices that I think helped define the character. I appropriated P.J. and tweaked him a bit [for Carl], but I decided to add that sort of lazy L — Tom Brokaw is a great example, [where] the L is a glottal L, it’s in the back of his throat. It's a subtle thing, but it’s an endearing little vocal hook that played really well. And that was a total choice from yours truly. And the cool thing is that the folks making the show heard it and said, “Let's keep that in.” Also, I'm a fairly good improviser, and I would add things like, if Carl would fall off a llama, I’d say, “I think I dislocated my scapula.” Scapula is a funny word, and it also has an L in it. And when I say “scapula,” it works perfectly for Carl.

Carl's kind of become iconic in a backhanded sort of way. I just joined TikTok six weeks ago; [there are] like 115 million Carl Wheezer interpretations! Talk about the sincerest form of flattery. I’m so incredibly humbled by that. People love that guy. I put my own [Carl voice] on there and said I'm really who I am, and people said, “Oh, you're not really the guy.” I was like, “Why would I lie about that?” [Laughs]

Rick and Morty (2013)

If there’s one project besides Animaniacs that Paulsen knew right away would be something special, it’s Adult Swim’s acclaimed sci-fi series. The actor played super-intelligent canine Snowball on “Lawnmower Dog,” the show’s second episode.

RP: When [co-creator] Justin Roiland called — and Justin is also the voice of both Rick and Morty, in addition to being a remarkable writer — he said, “Rob, I gotta tell you, you, Tress [MacNeille], and Maurice [LaMarche] were people who I grew up watching. And I thought, if I ever,” dot dot dot, “I'm gonna hire [them],” and he did. He lived up to his own commitment, called me and got me in right away, and Maurice too.

The first lines I had on Rick and Morty were, “Where are my testicles, Summer?” I looked up at him and said, “This is great!” That episode is a pretty excellent example of why Rick and Morty is so freakin’ good: it was a really interesting, clever way to proffer that insight into what dogs would do if they had the power that we have over them. And it was a real privilege to be part of it. I hope [Snowball] comes back. I would work on that show anytime, for scale. You can print that. I love that show.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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