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Winnie the Pooh – How Tom Kenny got to the roots of Rabbit

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Winnie The Pooh - Concept Art, Rabbit
Winnie The Pooh - Concept Art, Rabbit Model Sheet © 2011 Disney Enterprises

Tom Kenny has created some of most recognizable animated voices on TV, including the iconic SpongeBob Square Pants. He now lends his talent to bringing the character Rabbit to life in Disney’s new feature Winnie the Pooh.

I spoke with Mr Kenny at Disney Animation Studios about this new chapter in his career.

How immersed were you with Winnie the Pooh as a child and did you have a favorite character?

Winnie the Pooh - Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny during the voice recording session © 2011 Disney Enterprises

Great question. I’m sure I saw it when I was six, when it was new. Then those things continued to be shown on TV, as specials and they are really crazy and charming when you look at them now. The three shorts are so great.

I always loved Pooh and the books were always in our house during my childhood. We have five kids in my family and I read the books to them. They stand up so remarkably well. It’s more biting than you’d think in a very gentle way. The characters are very well delineated.

It’s so British when you read it, and it always amazes me that Disney was somehow able to Americanize those [characters] with American-accented voices, without taking away the vibe of it, the British heart of it is still very much there, I think.

Did you listen to the original voice of Rabbit for this?

When I auditioned for it they were not really looking for a direct voice match, they were looking to change him up a little bit, but still be redolent of what he’d always been. The fussbudget guy, always freaking out, doesn’t like people dropping over unannounced, is anal about his garden and his things.

I never thought about the similarities between him and SpongeBob, but I guess they both are very orderly people, they are both yellow, kind of, so it was very interesting. So it was just a straight up audition for Rabbit, where they were looking to do something a little different, because they were rebooting the franchise.

I went back and looked at the original three shorts and didn’t worry about anything that happened in the intervening 45 years. (he laughs) I went right by to the roots.

I auditioned and was very surprised when they said that I got it. It’s fun to just step into this ongoing world. I just wanted to do a good job and as corny as it sounds, honor those who have come before.

When you come into record, you’re coming in as yourself, is there something you do to get into the character’s voice?

Winnie the Pooh
Piglet looks down on Kanga, Roo, Owl, Tigger, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Rabbit © 2011 Disney Enterprises

It’s not so much a physical or vocal exercise, it’s more of a mental exercise where what the voice actors do is just inhabit this character and make it live.

I know whatever it is, both Jim (Cummings, who voices Winnie the Pooh) and I work on a whole bunch of different shows and types of shows, the different audiences in mind and you just want to do what’s appropriate and commit to that and just be that person for the duration of the recording session.

It sounds totally trite and corny but it’s what you see kids do. Any improv class you took it says you’ve got to be a kid again, you’ve got to be comfortable with playing. And that’s one thing I love about voice over, as opposed to camerawork, it doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re not a prisoner of your body. And some of the stuff voice over actors do while they’re making the voices is scary to look at. (he laughs)

Are there voiceover heroes for you?

Winnie the Pooh
Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Owl, Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore © 2011 Disney Enterprises

Yeah, guys like Mel Blanc, Stan Freberg, for me as a kid I didn’t know anybody else who thought this way, and now when you start working in voice over and you talk to people you realize that all these guys like Jim were having the same experience.

Those people were bigger than movie stars to me. The character actors were the people that I was most interested in from a really young age and just wanted to be.

I didn’t care about Robert Redford that much, but, ‘Wow, who’s this Mr Whipple guy that squeezes the Charmin? I want to be that weird guy who squeezed the toilet paper on TV for twenty years.’

You’ve done so many iconic voices, when you come to do this one do you have to listen back to a recording before you start?

Yeah, I’m getting older so my short term recall is disappearing daily. This is still very new to me. If it’s a show that you’ve been doing for a long time you come in and you don’t have to listen to a guy you’ve been doing for 12 years.

Even on those shows, when you do a lot of incidental characters, they’ll say, ‘Remember that fish from season 3? He came in and ordered a crabby patty,’ I sort of remember it but I don’t remember what I did. And they say, ‘We figured you wouldn’t so here it is.’ So they’ll bring you up to speed on it.

With Rabbit I always felt like a needed a little calibration when I would come in, because I did so many takes on him when I did the audition hoping they would like one of them. So sometimes you forget where you landed.

Did you ever lapse into SpongeBob?

(he laughs) Well, I guess only in that every character that you do starts with your vocal DNA. You can hear Mel Blanc in all those characters he did, but they’re still different characters. So yeah, probably there’s some Tom Kenny in all of them, which means there’s probably a little bit of SpongeBob in all of them.