Jim Meskimen is an actor who has worked steadily since Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper. He has a varied career, one filled with voice work for animated films and TV shows along with video games. His IMDB page is absolutely stacked with character acting and voice work, quite the dizzying list Chances are pretty great that you’ve seen or heard him somewhere, and you may have seen his fantastic video on YouTube where he does Clarence’s speech from William Shakespeare’s Richard III, lapsing into voice after celebrity voice in a great show of mimicry that Meskimen uses to pitch his stand-up act, Jimpressions, which just ended its run in November and will get back into full gear in February at The Acting Center.
That Shakespeare video went past 700,000 views, and shortly thereafter he started selling out his live show. He hopes to keep releasing new videos until the show starts back up again. He just released a new Christmas-themed video (seen below) with his impressions giving a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” They are excellent marketing tools, since the content is a great display of voices, almost seamless with each change, and walking them through a scene from literature is unique. I love his Jack Nicholson, mainly because it’s not so much a caricature as an actual, honest attempt to nail the voice, and that seems to be his overall philosophy.
We got a chance to talk to Jim Meskimen and he takes us through his many experiences on TV, video games, animation, and film, and about the power of that viral video had on his live show.
The ReelSEO Exclusive Interview With Jim Meskimen
You have a few classic voices in your repertoire (Nicholson, De Niro, Walken, etc.), but you have quite a few not-so-common ones like Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, and Harvey Keitel. Is it important for someone getting into impressions to do the classics to get an audience?
Well, I think the whole art form depends largely on familiarity with the voices, and that typically builds with time. So, whereas it’s vital to have new and contemporary personas, the glue holding it all together is the ones we all share on our “mental desktops.”
Can you be successful doing just the non-traditional ones?
Absolutely. It’d be another approach. But I find that very tough; it means you have to “crack” the new voices, which in the case of many modern figures is a challenge. Voices are also so homogenized these days. The older character actors mainly came to fame thru radio, and they had very distinct voices, since the territories were not knitted together as they are today by TV and the Internet. Whom of our celebs today sounds as unique as a Cary Grant, Henry Fonda or a Jimmy Stewart? The dynamics are just very different today, more subtle, and that requires an audience with very trained ears. I don’t find people are as tuned in to those nuances, particularly. Our stars today are stars visually first, vocally second, if at all.
Who (famous and non-famous) did you mimic first, and when did you feel like you started getting good at it?
As a kid I used to do the Cowardly Lion, Woody Woodpecker, and Nixon, and before my voice changed I did a killer Edith Bunker. I remember doing Marlon Brando as the Godfather, too, to make my mother laugh. But I didn’t feel safe and confident enough about actually performing in front of strangers until I entered the improv world in my twenties in New York city. Then I began to really put together a long list and do regular performances with different companys.
Do you have a favorite voice?
Not particularly… I like being able to just use whichever one suits my mood or the situation. It’s like asking a pro golfer which club is their favorite; he wouldn’t want to use a putter on the first tee. Unless he was trying to make people laugh, and was willing to lose. Which is one of my successful actions, actually.
Like many people who can do voices, you do voice work for video games and cartoons in addition to TV and movies. Are there any particular challenges you face in creating a voice for those media? Do you work with the director to try to “find” the voice or do they have a voice in mind when you walk in?
It’s always different, projects being very specific and varied. For Disney I often have to match a character they’ve recorded in the past, like the mad doctor in Epic Mickey or some of the Goofy shorts they are re-mixing with new, clean vocals. In those cases we are trying to faithfully reproduce earlier voice actors. For Call of Duty IV I did JFK’s voice, which of course is well known. For animation, it is common to have to discover or invent a voice, which is fun to do. I usually like to just read the script and “hear” what the character sounds like in my head, which I guess is based on what character information I can glean from the written words in the script. Sometimes directors say something like, “Can he have a little Woody Allen, but with a Jamaican accent?” That’s fun.
How difficult is it getting into voice work?
I think it’s only as difficult as a person chooses not to confront the barriers! Like any good job, there is competition, but if you just make the conscious decision, as I have done since the beginning, that you are in for the long haul and CAN work in this game, you will have a good chance. You have to persevere, know your skills, and constantly strive to improve your service. To be professional in any craft, you have to keep working on improving your product, which in this case is a vocal performance. So, being on time, doing a better job than is expected, having a broad number of choices and a willing attitude… all these things are valuable to producers. Being valuable to producers helps create a career and keeps you working.
It looks like you’ve worked with Ron Howard (one of your voices) and Paul Thomas Anderson quite a few times. How were your experiences on those movies? I’m guessing you met Howard during your mom’s (Marion Ross) stint on Happy Days?
I did meet Ron Howard in about 1974 on the set of Happy Days and he was gracious enough to befriend me when I was about 13 or 14. When I was 16 he hired me to help out as a gaffer on a 16mm feature film he was shooting with his family and friends on his own dime, just prior to being hired by legendary producer/mentor Roger Corman. Then in the 80’s, when I was living in New York city, I auditioned for him for a role in the movie The Paper, which turned out to be my first appearance in a feature film. I did my first scene with Marisa Tomei! Very exciting for me and a good little scene.
PTA I have done just a couple of small parts for, and I think he’s quite talented. The best things about working on Magnolia was watching Tom Cruise work, and for There Will Be Blood I watched Daniel Day Lewis do his opening monologue about 15 times… it was wonderful. The other plus was reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, the inspiration for that film… up to about page 70. Great novel, largely unknown today.
Your mother Marion Ross has quite the voice resume as well. Is it fun for you having your mother working on some of the same shows? Is she having fun with voice work?
She is, now. At first it was kind of foreign to her, since she is so stage-oriented, which involves the whole body… she was actually kind of unconfident about the first few jobs she got, and spoke to me about it. But she now totally understands the art form and really seems to quite enjoy it! She is quite brilliant at voices, actually, and used to call my attention to accents and vocal peculiarities when I was a kid.
You also appeared on the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Did working in improv help your mimicry skills, and tell me what kind of pressure you feel to be funny on that stage.
As I mentioned, until I got into improv I never felt comfortable performing in front of people, with celeb voices or without. The continual practice, in particular in switching instantly from voice to voice, was very valuable to me and I feel like it’s become one of my specialties.
On the Whose Line show, the British one that I was a guest on with my pal, Christopher Smith a few times, they put a lot of emphasis on “being funny”. I don’t find that especially helpful as an actor, so Chris and I just did what we always do, which generally was sufficiently funny anyway.
I find if you play a character with honesty and fully commit, the comedy will inevitably come out. The technique we trained in was great grounding for that and I am very grateful I got all that training. It is still available and I highly recommend it to any creative person, (not just actors) and you can find out all about it at The Acting Center. Wonderful training.
This sounds like a hit-list of “you did this” and “you did that” but you’ve also appeared on some notable TV shows as a character actor including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and recently, Parks & Recreation. What do you enjoy more: playing a recurring character or doing a main character voice for a cartoon/video game?
Well, I’m a bit mercenary, I guess. Give me the regular gig over the one-shot every time! I think recurring characters give the audience a chance to get to know you and make you more valuable to the public. I am always on the prowl for regular jobs! But the one-offs are fun, too.
What led you to start making videos for YouTube?
Desperation! Also a personal, artistic need to create messages, like I have done mainly with Professor Knestor, my art historian alter ego. I use that character to express some of my more personal feelings about creativity and art and culture that I don’t feel will be as acceptable/entertaining except thru the filter of a quirky, snaggle-toothed brit academician.
Have you seen a better turnout for your shows since you started posting videos?
After “Shakespeare in Celebrity Voices” went viral, we had shows selling out in Hollywood, full of strangers who had come in from the film. It was heaven. It was like blowing a whistle at a fire and having three engine companies of firemen show up. I’m so glad I did it, and am trying to continue to keep content rolling out to promote the next run at The Acting Center, which starts in February of 2012.
Do you think online video is the best way for new talent to “get noticed” or do they still have to knock on a lot of doors and expect rejection like always?
Any and all ways to attract attention are open and available. I think it all will depend on your dedication and resources and willingness to reach out. The online video phenomenon just makes it affordable and practical to become visible to the world.
“My Celebrity Alphabet” went viral in Australia, and I was able to turn a previously scheduled trip to Sydney into several performances onstage and on their Today Show, and made a lot of new friends and, I flatter myself, fans.
Is there a voice you wish you could do, but can’t?
Jeff Bridges. I’m trying, but that is a very specific instrument. Interesting placement, deep register, delicate tones… like a fine wine. (Not a fine whine…)
Do you feel in any way strange when you imitate someone like Kevin Spacey, who is also known for his mimicry?
Not really. He’s terrifically talented, but he doesn’t really need to play that card to have an incredible career full of marvelous performances. My wife, Tamra did plays with Spacey in Junior High school in L.A. I have actually done many recordings for his Honda campaign in his voice, preliminary “demo” tracks early in the production of spots he later recorded. We will meet someday, look soulfully into each other’s eyes… and hurriedly separate.
After looking at your credits and seeing who you’ve worked with, you have to have some funny stories. Tell me one of your best experiences working in TV/film/video games.
Wow. You know, The Grinch comes immediately to mind as one of the most prolonged, enjoyable times I’ve had in film. I was on that job for four months, which is definitely the longest job I’ve had as an actor, and as part of a huge group of very, very talented filmmakers, make-up artists, actors, acrobats, clowns, comedians, stunt people, little people… it was quite a group. The sets were sculptural masterpieces, the costumes were artistic creations, the makeup was extraordinary… it was like being in another world.
Rick Baker, the multi-Oscar winning effects genius, was the leader of the makeup army, and on Halloween, when we were only about halfway through principal photography, he ordered all the makeup artists to paint their faces once they finished doing their assigned characters. The only caveat was “no prosthetics.” That day, Stage 27 at Universal where Whoville was located, was full of nearly 100 actors in full Who makeup and 50 or so makeup people in fantastic makeup of every kind, expertly wrought. It was like going into Fellini International Airport!
Of your contemporaries in voiceover/mimicry, who stands out to you?
My friend Josh Robert Thompson is the world’s best Arnold impersonator, and has many others… he’s an up and comer. A new guy, Ross Marquand, another friend, is terrific; look for them on YouTube. Among the old guard, Corey Burton, Jeff Bennett, Fred Tatisciore, who are in every significant game and series in the last twenty years, are stellar voice chameleons.
I had the opportunity of directing many of the very best in the business for a series of audiobooks of pulp fiction stories from the 30’s and 40’s by best selling author L. Ron Hubbard a few years ago, which taught me so much about what amazing talents there are in our industry and what they can do. Find out about those eighty audiobooks at Golden Age Stories. Wonderful, fully produced multicast stories.
Frank Welker is a god of animal noises as well as some very fine human impressions, and one of the sweetest guys ever. Ditto Rob Paulsen, a total genius. Jess Harnell, who also sings great. Oh! Phil Lamarr!
Man, once you get started, there are some really amazing guys out there! I’ve been fortunate to work with many of them.
What is next for you that you are excited about?
RIGHT THIS MINUTE I am at a session for the next Jibjab “Year in Review” animated short, about which I am sworn to secrecy. But you’ll see it soon. AND I will be releasing another Celebrity Jimpressions video on YouTube for the holidays… with a Christmas theme.
Here’s that video:
We’d like to thank Jim for his time! And go see his show “Jimpressions” if you can.
You can contact Jim Meskimen with questions, comments and job offers at his website: http://whywebpr.com/jimmeskimen/