Charles Martinet talks Mario
At 54, Charles Martinet strikes me as the perfect embodiment of Nintendo's family-friendly image. He's more commonly known as the voice actor behind Mario, and also most of the supporting cast, but the silver-haired actor speaks in his own voice with the same kind of impassioned animation and total reverence for Nintendo's games as a hyperactive child opening an N64 for Christmas in 1996. His admiration for Mario feels completely beyond genuine - and so much more than just a begrudging respect for the figure that's kept him in steady work since 1995. He speaks quickly, and he speaks a lot, but his enthusiasm and passion for Nintendo is nothing short of infectious: the first thing I wanted to do after meeting him this week was go home and find my copy of New Super Mario Bros.
How did you land the role?
Well, that was twenty years ago - the only audition I've ever crashed in my life - for a trade show. A friend of mine called me up, I think I was at the beach hanging out, and he said "you gotta go audition for this thing." and I thought, y'know, there's absolutely no way that I ever crash auditions. I just don't do that. I'd been an actor for.... 20 years! No, 15 years. Something like that. But anyway, I just didn't do that sort of thing.
But I said "okay, what's the address." I went over there and I opened the door, except they've already put the camera in the bag. And I'm like, oh no! And I said "can I please audition for this?" and he looked at his watch, and he goes "ugh" - this is Ralph Miller, who was the producer - he goes "alright, alright, come on in, you're an Italian plumber from Brooklyn, so make up this video game, make up a voice, make up an accent - because you're going to be talking to people all day long. So you start talking, and when you stop talking that's your audition."
So I'm sitting there and I'm thinking great - and they're setting up the camera - and I'm, okay, Italian plumber from Brooklyn, you know, a harsh, coarse voice - [in a Brooklyn accent] "ey, how ya doin? don't bother me, I'm under ya sink here!" - and I'm thinking, I have these rules about comedy and things: if you're going to interact with people, be nice! So I'm thinking I must be able to do a nicer voice than that, and I had done Gremio in Taming of the Shrew some 20 years before in the theatre. No, 10 years before! Two weeks before? In theatre. And I just remembered the voice - [Italian accent] "eh, Gremio, nicea old Italian guy." We did a 1947 adaptation, so Petruchio was a GI going back to Italy to find a bride, and it was a tremendously fun production. That voice always stuck in my mind as very joyful, you know, the happiest guy in the world. That voice is spinning around in my brain and I'm thinking "what are you talking about make up a video game?" I'd played Pong, I'd played Space Invaders, I'd played Tank, and that was it. That was when I was in college - that's how I made my way through college. At that point I'd never heard of Mario, or the idea of plot in a videogame. The genius of Mr Miyamoto hadn't touched my life yet!
All of a sudden I hear "Action!" and what came out of me is exactly what you hear today - [as Mario] "Hello, I'm Mario! Okie dokie. Let'sa make a pizza pie together! You get some sausage, I get some spaghetti, I'ma gonna put the spaghetti and the sausage inside the pizza and I'ma gonna chase you with the pizza! And then you chase me with the pizza..." And I just kept talking and talking and talking and talking and talking until the tape ran out. And I hear "that was nice. We'll be in touch." I'm thinking "that's the kiss of death, that's the last I'll ever hear of this." I left the room and he called Don James at Nintendo and mine was the only tape that he sent up there.
Yeah! Which was kind of neat.
The next week I was down in Los Angeles getting fitted, because what this real-time animation system was, was I was wearing contacts on my face, and the way I would move my face would translate through a supercomputer the size of a big coffee table to the head of Mario. So I'd see someone, I had a spy camera there, and a spy microphone, and I'd see them and I'd say like [in Mario voice] "Oh look, it'sa you! Hello Martin! How're you doing today!" and you'd say "how did you - how can you see me? How did you know it was me?" [back in the Mario voice] "Oh, you know it's on your bag." So you'd start this dialog up, and people were just so wonderful - they responded so beautifully, and they still do today. Now we have the whole system set up on two laptops!