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Comic Books, Film
Known as primarily as the voice of Dr. Thaddeus S. “Rusty” Venture on Adult Swim’s hit animated series The Venture Bros., James Urbaniak has a had a varied acting career, appearing in such films as American Splendor and Henry Fool, guest-starring on television dramas like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Weeds, and earning a Drama Desk Award nomination for the one-man show Thom Pain (based on nothing).
But in a conversation with Spinoff Online, Urbaniak focuses on his most famous role, the misanthropic super-scientist and owner of Venture Industries, while also touching upon his portrayal of cult cartoonist Robert Crumb.
These days you’re best known for voicing Dr. Venture, but how did you become involved with The Venture Bros.?
Well, Jackson [Publick, co-creator of The Venture Bros.?] was a friend of a friend. In the early ‘90s my roommate was Bob Sikoryak, who is a cartoonist, and through him I met a lot of people in the comic and animation fields. Bob used to do, and still does, a show where cartoonists display their work on stage with slides, or PowerPoint-type things. When there was dialogue he’d get friends to read it out. So it was this live cartooning show where they’d be projected in small theaters or bars. So that was proto-voiceover work for me! (Laughs)
Reminds me of those old Marvel cartoons where there was just a static shot of characters with some narration.
Right, I know. It’s an interesting thing to add your voice to. After one of these shows, I was talking to Jackson at a bar and he mentioned how he was doing a pilot for Adult Swim, when he produced a notebook with some rough character designs and asked if I’d be interested in portraying this Dr. Venture.
Aside from some commercial voiceover work and these live shows, how did you feel about acting with just your voice? Is it hard to convey so much shorn of a natural physicality?
Well, I’ll say this: You have to figure out how to work with Jackson who does the bulk of the directing. Doc [Hammer, the show’s other creator] does some of it, but it’s mostly Jackson, and he has a very meticulous way of working. I remember the first day that we recorded the pilot I went in with an idea of an old professor voice, something a bit more doddery and old-fashioned. I wanted a slightly rubbery quality to the voice akin to something Billy West might do in Futurama. So I was doing that and he said, “Take a little off that.” And I dialed it back a bit but still had that old quality to my voice. Then he said, “You can lose a little more,” and I finally ended up with my own natural voice just with a little added attitude. On the first day we found the character but we did that through him stripping away all the extraneous vocal choices I was making. Dr. Venture is basically James Urbaniak, just a little aggravated. (Laughs)
One of the main hooks for me when I first started watching the show is just how unlikeable as a main protagonist Rusty is. But do you think he has developed over the course of the show, or is he still as amoral and self-obsessed as ever?
Well, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed these last couple of seasons is how the show has been much more revealing of where Rusty is coming from. He’s also become a bit more emotionally vulnerable, and it doesn’t excuse his behavior but it informs a lot of it. It makes him a lot more nuanced and human, which is a funny thing to say about a cartoon character but it’s true. The show is extremely well-written, and with each season they bring a little more depth to everybody. We’ve also seen different sides to the character, especially in his interactions with Dean.
Such as the episode where he’s writing a musical? When he and Dean are in the city (“Bright Lights, Dean City”).
Yeah, exactly. His genuine enthusiasm is quite charming. When he’s really into something his few good aspects shine through. I’m not sure sympathetic is the word but you definitely get more of a glimpse into his damaged humanity.
The last episode of the fourth series, “Operation P.R.O.M.,” was the first hour-long installment, but it had the sense that it could be a fitting last episode. Now we know the show has been renewed but, were there discussions at the time of the episode about the future of the series?
Well. they definitely knew when writing it that more episodes had been asked for by Adult Swim. They told me early on that we’d be getting two more seasons at least.
Actually, it’s funny you mention last episodes. A little while ago Jackson told me some very sketchy ideas he has for the final scene in the last episode, whenever it may occur. A particular musical number he wants to underscore it with, which I found quite amusing. But I won’t reveal it here! Clearly that is part of his imagination, how it’s all going to end. But that won’t be for quite a while.
The show has become so continuity-heavy and intricate. Did that surprise you?
Oh, yes, I can’t keep up with it. I would fail a Venture Bros. trivia contest. My contribution to the show is just so incremental that by the time the episode airs I’ve forgotten what’s going on. There’s a whole year between when I record my parts and when it goes on television so sometimes I get lost in the narrative. That’s the best quality of the show, though, the dense universe they have created.
With the show name-checking so many influences and genres, do people expect you to be well-versed in whatever the show is referencing or parodying as the case may be?
Yeah, it’s funny, I’ve never been particularly fanboy-ish, so a lot of the nods to comic or geek culture do go over my head. Although I was the one who coined “Spider-Skull Island” within the show, so I’m quite proud of that! They had all these “spooky island names” and amongst them were Spider Island or Skull Island, so to up the pulp quotient I suggested putting the two together, because that would be really stupid! One of my rare contributions to the writing of the show. The show is so tightly scripted that only every so often I’ll feel brave enough to throw in an ad-lib. It only very rarely makes it to transmission, but when it does it greatly pleases me.
Just to discuss your work outside The Venture Bros., your most iconic live-action role would have been that of cult cartoonist Robert Crumb in the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor. How did you approach that role? Was there much research?
It was back in 2001 when that audition came through and, even though as I said I wasn’t too into comics, I was aware of figures like Crumb and Harvey Pekar and those in the underground scene. I was so excited to get that audition, and obviously I go into every audition doing my best, but when I was up for the role of Crumb I went in there with laser-like focus, intent on totally annihilating the competition. I really wanted that part!
So I watched the Terry Zwigoff documentary on him — an uncomfortable viewing experience but a masterpiece of filmmaking. I found it interesting that in that film Crumb is putting on a performance. He is very aware of the camera and is portraying himself as a very aloof and distant person. I also sought out other sources, and this one in particular really helped flesh out the man for me. It was a radio interview he did in the ‘80s and he’s discussing his time in San Francisco in the ‘60s. His tone of voice is very wistful and there’s a sweet quality to it, which is very different from what you see of him elsewhere. He really loved his time there.
One must remember that in American Splendor, it’s not the real Robert Crumb, it’s a role loosely based on him, and the filmmakers wanted a more archetypal quality. I did try to infuse it with a more natural side ‘cause the film shows Crumb hanging out with a friend. He wouldn’t be performing as much in that situation.
So the film as a whole was a good experience?
Oh, yes. Harvey Pekar, the late, great Harvey Pekar, was very kind to me, a nice man to meet. Crumb himself has acknowledged the performance a few times. In one interview he was asked what he thought of it and he said that his wife hated it and she told him if he had been like I was in the film she never would have married him! (Laughs) He didn’t really offer his opinion, which I took as a good thing. He’s famous for not standing on ceremony, and there was no reason for him not to denounce it if had hated it. So I took the fact that he sort of recused himself from commenting as a high praise. However, I did meet Sophie Crumb, and she was lovely to me about the film. But again, I was a small part in it. I was there for the audience to find out something about Harvey Pekar. It’s drama, so you have to let it go and not worry too much about being exactly like the person in question.
What other projects are you working on?
Well, I have a fun little role in the new Showtime TV series Homeland, which I’m really enjoying at the moment. Been auditioning for a few plays, and I’ve been posting these videos on YouTube, Topic A with James Urbaniak. It’s a concept I work on with my friend David Avallone, a sort of mock chat show where I interview someone and discuss a social problem or random subject. I think the web must be utilized by artists. If you’re an actor or writer, or both, you can’t ignore this platform, which is easy to use and is so immediate. I have a few ideas for web series, and it’s a great way to see people react to something you’re creating instantly. So I want to do more of that sort of stuff in the future.