The end of the Cold War might have been good for the world, but it didn’t do any favors for the spy/military genre. The United States and the Soviet Union made for such great and easily defined enemies that it was never a mystery who the heroes or villains would be in any particular story.
G.I. Joe, while always posited as a “Real American Hero,” never explicitly fought the Russians. Instead, the enemy was Cobra, which the 1980s cartoon series labeled “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.” That, and they loved them some snakes. But with the new times comes a new Cobra. In The Hub’s G.I. Joe Renegades, Cobra is still pretty ruthless, but the world knows it as a benevolent multinational corporation that specializes in medicines and other good-for-you material. This provides plenty of grist for the sly kind of satire not normally associated with children’s entertainment.
Cobra is about to be exposed by the Joes — a hand-picked group of military personnel including old favorites like Duke, Roadblock and Tunnel Rat — before they’re framed for wrongdoing and must go on the run, trying to prove their innocence while still fighting the bad guys.
Among the cast is Clancy Brown, a character actor best known for his villainous roles in Highlander and The Shawshank Redemption. He’s lending his deep baritone voice to Destro, a complicated character who fights on the side of Cobra but is first and foremost out for himself. Brown took a few minutes to speak with us about the new version of G.I. Joe:
How much did you know about G.I. Joe beforehand?
Well, I was the original demographic for the original original G.I. Joe. I had some as a kid, that would be early ’60s. I was there at the inception of the franchise, I suppose, you could say. The previous iteration of the cartoon was probably when I was in college. It was kind of a fun thing to watch to get our minds off our studies. I did not catch the latest movie, but this iteration I was all game for, because it’s kind of like doing another Mickey Mouse.
Did they approach you specifically for Destro?
They wanted me to be Destro, and that’s kind of the one I wanted to do anyway. I wanted to do my faux Sean Connery accent. That was the one I wanted to do, and that’s the one they wanted me to do, and it rarely works out that way. It was a hot property. Everybody wanted to be on it, and they had some tremendous talent involved with it from outside the voice-over world and also inside the voice-over world and I sort of straddle both things, so it was a franchise everybody wanted to be part of. And it looks great.
In the 1980s cartoon, Destro was always a bit of a wild card. You got the feeling he was only with Cobra because their interest happened to match his. What’s their relationship like in Renegades?
It’s kind of informed by the times we’re going through. You have these multinational, insanely wealthy corporations that are consuming everything through their control of currency and finance and everything. Here, you have a character who has a family business that happens to be weapons. It’s still a family business, and he’s very proud of it and he gets himself in a pickle with these financiers and with Cobra who sort of had him targeted from the beginning. He wasn’t sophisticated enough to figure that out, he was still very prideful of his family business and his ingenuity and all the rest of that thinking that’s keeps him on top, when in fact it’s not. What keeps him on top is the pleasure of the powers that be at any given time, and this time it’s Cobra that has the power, has the money and has the muscle. So it’s kind of what happened in 2008, they just kind of pull financing out from under him and get him in this situation where he doesn’t have any choice but to cede control of the company to Cobra, and as much as he fights that, even though they’re his major clients, they’re just determined to vertically integrate M.A.R.S. Industies into their conglomerate corporation of evil or whatever it is. He has to go along with it, even though he doesn’t want to go along with it. That’s kind of what Destro’s mask means. There’s an affectation of what the word “Destro” is. I think he picks his name because it’s a designation of humiliation within his family. I don’t know if that’s true or not, if there’s some Celtic word that means “failure” or “traitor.” I don’t know, they might have made that up. But I like that.
Is he able to play nice with Cobra, or do they know that he’s pretty much out to get them, too?
It’s kind of hard to say at this point. There’s sort of tease him with the Baroness. There’s an idea that there’s a little bit of a hook there, that he might be in love with her. As the season wrapped up, it was clear that Cobra was using their typical intimidation on him, threatening bodily harm and all sorts of stuff, but perhaps they didn’t have anything more than that on him, and maybe Destro had a secret plan. That’s what I got out of it, but the guys wouldn’t tell me anything. That’s kind of the way I played it, is that I’m planning to take control of my company again somehow from these cheaters. The interesting this is it’s really about control of the company, it’s not really about doing the right thing. It’s not about being a good guy, it’s still all about Destro, it’s still all about his family honor and all the rest of that. It’s not about the right side of a war, it’s about his own ego.
So he has no special antipathy toward the Joes. They’re just kind of in the way, right?
At this point he’s certainly battling the Joes. There’s a great repartee between him and Dr. Mindbender, the character Charlie Schlatter plays, about who’s smarter. The Joes are just sort of there. I think maybe it’s dawning on him that he may at least be able to use the conflict between the Joes and COBRA to free up M.A.R.S. Industries, but I’m not sure that plot or that device has been thought out. It’s not important at this point. Right now we’re playing the origin.
How did you go about developing the voice?
I’m trying on my Scottish accent. Whenever I fall out of it, I just go back to imitating Sean Connery. I always thought in the ‘80s it was Russian. Scottish and Russian are sort of similar. The Baroness is Russian.
The animation style of this show is rather interesting. I’ve heard the term “painterly” as a description. Does that have any effect on how you do the voice?
The bosses have an idea of what they want, and they cast people around that. They show us as we come in to record their renderings of the characters and what their thinking is, and of course that informs it to a certain extent. But really what informs it are the scripts. The scripts are strong. The scripts are nuanced and the characters, even though we’re talking about corporation and domination and bizarre weaponry and stuff like that, the more human the characters the better. Destro gets bought out and taken over by Cobra Commander and gets put it in this mask, and if you suspend your disbelief enough to believe that something like that can happen, then you can go on and play the humanity of it, which is what I think they captured in the script. It’s not all just crazy fighting and big heroics and villainy. There’s actual motivation and human reaction, which I get a big kick out of.
Do you consider your voice performances and your live-action performances all part of the same career, or do you really compartmentalize them? You got into voice-over later, is that correct?
I feel like I’m part of both communities. I feel like I’m part of an acting community. I admire voice-over actors immensely. They’re so facile and talented and versatile in what they do. From that group, this has got the best of the best. You’ve got Charlie Schlatter, Kevin Michael Richardson, .. Adler. Lee Majors is in this, so that’s kind of a cool not-from-this-world thing. I feel a part of all communities. I have a great time. Spider-Man they had a lot of other stunt casting as well. I always feel that I’m not a stunt cast, since I do this an awful lot, but at the same time I’m not stunt cast in the live-action world, that’s what I’ve been doing most of my career. I don’t know how I feel about it, I’m just glad to participate in good scripts.
Photo: © 2010 Hasbro