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!
The head, the Mario head...
Oh, now it's full-bodied, too.
It reminds me of the start of Mario 64, when you could pull the ears and the nose and stuff...
I was maybe 11 or 12, but it changed my entire childhood. There was before that point, and after Mario 64. It was phenomenal...
It is remarkable, isn't it? I think that's the great thing about Nintendo - one of the many things that I love so much. I think Mr Miyamoto is such a creative genius, and has so many great people working with him that get into the wavelength of his ideas. Every once in a while something comes along that revolutionises gaming: Mario 64 going into three dimensions, the voice, the playfulness, the different villains - the adventure of it was just so magnificent! And then Super Mario Galaxy completely revolutionised gaming to me, again, and then now with the New Super Mario Bros Wii, I don't know, to me it's like a revolution in gaming because there, you know, you have this co-operative mode. You can play completely co-operatively, [in the Mario voice] "okie dokie, c'mon Luigi, get the Yoshi, here comes the Yoshi!" [in Luigi's voice] "I got the Yoshi" [back in Mario's voice] "Careful, you can't jump across, I'm gonna help you! Here we go!" Or you can play completely competitively, and things just go insane when you do! I love it.
I told my cousin I was coming here today, to speak to you, and he was so upset - he's like 4 or 5 - when he found out he wasn't coming as well. How does it feel knowing the character affects children that much?
I have to say, I think it's such a profound honour - and a joy as well - to be able to play the character, to do what I love to do in life, and to just know that people really enjoy that. What I do is so small compared to the rest of the company! It's remarkable how much work they do, and for me to come in and do the voiceover and get so much recognition for that, it's really very humbling.
I took a peek at your Twitter account and noticed you'd said you were playing Mario Kart. Do you always pick Mario?
You know, it's so funny, I really do! And I don't know why. I love that character so much.
He is a good all-rounder...
Oh, he's the best! But I have to say, remember Mario Kart: Double Dash?
You could pick the two babies, and put them in their crib, and their secret weapon was the chain chomp. That made me laugh so much. I love Mario Kart.
What do you think the Wii has given gamers?
That's a great question. It's given gamers so much because, oh, so many reasons! It's opened gaming to whole worlds of people that were never gamers before - Wii Fit, and different games that are not Mario games. But it's also made the space for Mario games to be even better and, for gamers, you know, think about it, you're really interacting, jumping into the game now like never before. It's fantastic. Everybody wants to emulate it - and why not? It's brilliant. What has the Wii brought the world? A massive number of wonderful, great games. And for people that develop games it's given them an amazingly creative platform to do it on. And there's more to come!
No doubt. Why do you think other developers can't do it? If you look at Microsoft, they make some great games, but they've tried family-friendly and failed.
You know, I don't know anything about that sort of thing. To tell you the truth, I'm a voiceover actor who plays videogames. In my world as an actor there's no competition. I can go to an audition with 100, 200 or 500 people, but if I go there competing with them I'm not going to get the job because I'm going to be looking for what the producers wants, or what the director wants to hear. So I come and I bring myself. The better I express myself, and the joy that's in me, or whatever I see in a character, then I can get the part more readily. I have no idea if that applies to business. What I can say is that Nintendo makes wonderful games - that's their focus.
How do you see the whole family playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii?
Oh, it's going to be so much fun! When Mum and Dad and Daughter and Son are playing the game, you know, [voice of child] "come on Mum, get that Yoshi!" [voice of mother] "I don't know honey, I don't know how to do it!" [voice of Dad] "Let me show you, do it like this." It's gonna be sweet. Crazy fun [laughs].
Finally, any tips for anyone aspiring to get into the games industry?
Do what you love to do. Follow your passion. Find out - explore your world, you know? You can make the map to your own future. If you want to make videogames, you can do it. Find the passion for it, and then pursue it. Once you're actually doing it you leave the self-consciousness behind. Life is short, and it goes by so quickly - you should be having fun.
Our thanks to Charles Martinet, who managed to help us out by taking a backup recording of the interview that proved essential later on. Phew. New Super Mario Bros. Wii is released on 20th November.