Let’s Interview: The Voice of Bowser, Scott Burns!

Here at Gaming Reinvented, we’ve interviewed a fair few people over the years. We’ve talked to video game composers, like Grant Kirkhope and Tomoya Tomita. We’ve chatted with YouTubers, like Mayro, TWD98 and Oddheader.

And we’ve also spoke to video game devs of all kinds too. Including everything from fan game devs to indie devs of all stripes.

But this time, we’ve got something different. Namely, an interview with a voice actor that’s worked with Nintendo on their games!

So who is this mystery person? Who is this unknown being?

Wait, is that him now?

CM30! How dare you ruin my family vacation?

Yep it is! Cause today, we’ve got an interview with the king of koopas himself, or at least one of his most famous voice actors! This time, we’re talking to Scott Burns about his Bowser portrayal in various GameCube and Wii era games, including Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Kart Double Dash and the first two Mario & Luigi games!

Scott Burns Photo
A photo of Bowser’s old voice actor, Scott Burns

So if you want to hear how he got into voice acting, his thoughts on his successor or his opinions on Jack Black’s casting in the upcoming Mario movie, keep reading!

Starting with a bit of personal background. How did you get into acting anyway?

It all started with an elementary school talent show. My friend John Jackson and I wrote and performed a parody of a TV commercial for “Wonder Bread.” I don’t remember the content of the sketch but DO remember getting laughs…which pretty much ignited the flame for my needing attention and approval ever since.

What was your first role?

“Guy #2”

Did you work on any TV shows or films before getting into voice acting?

Despite the tremendous reviews from that one particular Pomeroy Grade School performance I never pursued acting for TV or Film, but instead became obsessed with replicating cartoon voices and recording them into my sister’s toy reel-to-reel tape machine.

And what inspired you to get into voice acting in particular?

Beyond trying to get my pubescent voice to sound like Fred Flintstone, I was drawn to listening to a morning radio show on KJRB in Spokane Washington. The personality was Charlie Brown (no relation to the comic strip…) who would feature a cast of characters that would burst in with funny bits, remind him of things to do and all kinds of nonsense. Little did I know that all the characters were HIM! He was so gifted at interacting with his own voices, a goofy sidekick named Clyde, an old granny who was continually tipsy named Mother of Pearl, plus a character who was nameless but an identical match to Mel Blanc’s Warner Brothers character, Yosemite Sam.

Listening to Charlie became an obsession for me, and later, after I’d acquired a tape recorder of my own would replicate his ‘bits’ for my fantasy radio show performed live my bedroom.

From there I developed my knack for impersonation and would create my own bits, fueled by my passion for parody from reading Mad Magazines and watching Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on TV.

Radio was also pulling me in, primarily because I wanted to replicate what Charlie Brown was doing every morning.

Were there any non-Nintendo games you did voice acting for before auditioning for Bowser?

Yes, a lot of work for Humongous Entertainment including Spy Fox, Pajama Sam, Putt Putt and Fatty Bear. Monolith games include Tron 2.0, The Operative: No One Lives Forever, Blood Two: The Chosen, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. For Bungie I’m in Police Quest: SWAT 2, an EnMasse TERA game as well. Years later I played Myrkridian Pack-Mage and Oghre/Mogbragga, the Trow in Myth III: The Wolf Age. I couldn’t pronounce those names if you begged me to…

Caption: One of Scott’s first roles was as the voice of Fatty Bear in this game

Still, onto Nintendo now. What inspired you to audition for the role of Bowser?

My agent Jamie at the Actors Group was the one who actually inspired me to audition! It started with a call letting me know that Wendi (Wills) had requested I come in to read for the Nintendo guys. Wendi is the studio manager of Seattle’s Bad Animals and was very familiar with my character work. From what I gather, they wanted to keep the auditions on the down low and trusted her call list.

How did the audition go? Did a lot of people audition to play him?

The audition went great! It was just me, the studio engineer and two guys from Nintendo with their laptops. It actually felt more like I already had the job and they were just trying to narrow things down. Very collaborative and super easy. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized what a big deal it was. I told my son Austin, who was 12 years old at the time, that I’d just auditioned for a couple of characters in Super Mario. When I showed him the fierce dragon in a turtle shell his jaw dropped and eyes grew huge, exclaiming…”You’re BOWSER?!” That’s when I realized this was kind of a big thing.

Bowser
Learning his dad would be voicing Bowser was quite the shock for Scott’s son

What were Nintendo looking for in a voice actor there?

Since this was going to be the first time Bowser ever spoke actual English words, they were open to all interpretation. Up until now Bowser just did grunts and growls performed initially by internal staff! Later of course Rob Wallace, Bruce Robertson and Marc Graue provided those sounds… but this was a first time Nintendo was calling on the King Koopa to emote!

Regardless, your first role as him was in Super Mario Sunshine. What was it like voicing Bowser there?

Any time at a microphone inside a recording studio is a joy. All inhibitions are left at the heavy sound-proof door and it’s, ‘Game-ON-Let’s-DO-This!” We recorded in the “Red Room” too, which boasted a history of legendary musicians and singers who performed in the same spot as I was occupying. (The pressure to obtain a gold record out of this was palpable.)

In subsequent recording sessions I was able to work with video of Bowser, matching his feet stomps, chest thumps and laughing. Adding physicality to the voice lends to the character becoming even more 3 dimensional… not to mention an exhaustive cardio workout from the multiple takes.

And what were Nintendo going with for Bowser’s voice in that game? Did they have a specific style of voice in mind?

They told me that while Bowser was technically the bad guy who’s only goal in the game is to mess up Mario, they didn’t want him to be TOO scary because kids would be playing the game. I thought about it a moment and applied my version of a Santa Clause voice with a bit of growl to it. They liked it and the first English speaking Bowser was born.

Either way, it was… controversial to say the least. Why do you think fans were so mixed on it?

I think some fans probably would have liked to have the voice be more fierce, and I’d have to agree with them. If I could do him now, I’d like to put a bit more nuance into the performance as well. They also told me they were going to alter the pitch on some of the lines so, “go ahead with what you’re doing.”

One must remember that doing voices for video games is a technical feat as much as acting. Each line must fit into a certain time frame. For instance, they’d tell me, “OK… Bowser’s yell has to be exactly 3.8 seconds long, let’s do it again.” Or, “Can you make him growl, but then have him morph that into a laugh?” This one needs to come in at 4.5 seconds.”

Caption: Which is especially true of Nintendo, since they only record one set of voices for all regions

All I can say to the fans who weren’t so keen with it is I’m happy they weren’t on the phone with the Nintendo guys during the audition! I’m just grateful they were pleased with my “Santa/Kraken” choice.

After Sunshine, it seems Bowser’s voice acting was toned down significantly. How did Nintendo announce that decision?

Well, here’s where the very complicated untold story comes in. I’m not sure if Nintendo ever made an ‘official’ announcement, they were just forced to find a new voice actor!

At the time I recorded Bowser, my status with AFTRA was ‘financial core’…meaning I could perform for both union and non-union work. I WAS a full-fledged member of SAG however, choosing to retain that status should I ever want to move to Los Angeles, where practically every job was union.

Little did I, my agent or Bad Animals realize that the Screen Actors Guild would be seeking jurisdiction over Video Games.

That came to light in the form of a letter from the Vice President of SAG advising me that it had come to their attention I had done work for a non-Signatory entity… Nintendo. The message included requests to basically explain my actions and informed me the board would decide if I would be fined or even expelled from the union. SAG didn’t mess around, much to my dismay.

While all parties involved were equally dumbfounded over SAG’s seemingly sudden interest in video game jurisdiction, the decision was mine as to whether I continue working for the Mario Games franchise or risk losing my SAG membership. Despite my love of working with the great folks at Nintendo, I very reluctantly opted to keep my union status intact should I ever decide to work in Los Angeles.

Do you wish they didn’t? Or that Bowser actually spoke in more Mario games?

Well of course I wish Nintendo would have jumped through all the hoops necessary to become a signatory with SAG to KEEP me as Bowser! But alas, they tasked Wendi at Bad Animals to recast, and she discovered an amazingly talented and relative newcomer to voiceover, Kenny James.

I’ve had the extreme pleasure of meeting and having lunch with Kenny when our mutual friend Bobby Sheldon arranged the gathering of the Double Bowsers. The topic of why Nintendo curtailed Bowser’s speaking came up, but Kenny didn’t have any explanation for it either! He said there’s been may four words total where Bowser speaks… but even then they don’t want it to be quite that clear. It’s a mystery.

I will add though that Nintendo DOES repurpose the lines I’ve already recorded for subsequent games… so there are times where Kenny and I are in the same game! (I’m not compensated for them, which is why SAG was not too keen on me working non-union in the first place…)

Caption: For example, both voice different Bowser lines in Super Mario Galaxy 2

Many people don’t know this, but you also played other characters in the series, like Toadsworth and the Piantas. Are there any other characters you’re responsible for voicing that fans may not know about?

Yes, I provided voices for Noki, where they requested gibberish that come close to sounding like words. I’m also provide Piantissimo’s laugh, voices for Toadstool plus the Judge AND Lawyer in one scene. I’m also the announcer in Mario Tennis Open and assorted others in the Olympic Games series.

Mario Tennis Open

Still, what do you think of his current actor? What are your thoughts on Kenny James’ portrayal of him?

I think Kenny James does a fantastic job as Bowser! His portrayal of the King Koopa is envy worthy. It comes with a price I’m afraid as he said sometimes his voice gets so rasped-out that it feels like he has a mouth full of copper!

How about the movie casting? Are you looking forward to Jack Black’s version?

Jack Black as Bowser
Jack Black’s casting as Bowser has been mostly well received

Oh man, am I! I’m a huge fan of Jack Black to begin with, and his intensity and craziness just epitomizes Bowser! I’m curious if he’ll have Bowser sing…

Any advice you’d give him for voicing the character?

Yes. Go financial-core with SAG.

Speaking of the movie, were you offered a role in it? Perhaps as a cameo?

No, they didn’t offer me a role in the movie, quite possibly because I’m up for a role in a Spielberg film. (Not that I’ve been offered one, but if Spielberg offers… I’m up for it!)

And if you were offered the role of Bowser in the film, would you have taken it?

Well, let me think about tha…… OH HECK YEAH!

Still, how’s your career been after leaving Nintendo? What roles have you taken in recent years?

I’m fortunate that my career hasn’t depended solely on voiceover, so I can count my blessings and say it’s been going great! My revenue streams have all been voiceover related though, starting with radio, which is what I was doing when Bowser came along. For the past 13.5 years I cast, recorded and produced OTHER voice talent in my capacity as Audio Production Manager with a local advertising agency. I also coach others in voiceover as well as produce demos. Meanwhile I still audition and work in the industry voicing commercials, narration and the occasional character roles that come along. I often get asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing games like you used to?” Well that’s not by choice! [A little history lesson if you please…]

It used to be with so many gaming companies based in Seattle the majority of casting was done locally. Then if you were lucky enough to land a role or two they’d have you come IN to their studios to record. And what studios they were! I remember Surreal Software having the most incredible office spaces! Definitely surreal, somewhat open space, but dark interior with neon lighting. They’d escort you through a labyrinth of work stations where you could see developers working on computer animation, and the recording sessions themselves were always so collaborative. Even though the process could border on tedious at times, I always left wanting to do more.

Somewhere along the way though, things shifted to where the developers discovered there was a larger talent pool in Hollywood and started casting there. Auditions dwindled! Monolith sold to Warner Brothers! The Internet opened the door for seemingly EVERYBODY to call themselves a voice actor! But times change and you have to put yourself in the path of new opportunities. Fortunately I’ve amassed some fun roles since Bowser, playing Captains, Runes, Snarky Attorney’s, and Scientists. Ironically the scientist role was for… Nintendo! It wasn’t considered a SAG job however since it was a marketing promo for Splatoon. At least I didn’t have to move to LA to do the job!

Have you worked on any notable video games, whether indie or triple A?

Do you want me to lead with another gut punch? Yes I’ve worked on other notable games but this one was HUGE… and it never came to be.

I got cast to play the role of a lifetime… a loudmouth Casino Boss in the game, “This Is Vegas.”

Caption: Aka a now infamous GTA competitor that sadly never saw the light of day

The lines were incredibly funny and chock-full-of-sass. All written by the former editor of cracked magazine, Jay Pinkerton.) We recorded at Surreal Software too, which even FELT like a casino with all the neon lighting! I waited for something like a year for its release and finally scrolled through tons of emails to find the guy who hired me to see what the status was. I was crestfallen (yes crestfallen) to learn that Surreal had sold to Warner Brothers who for whatever reason, pulled the plug on “This is Vegas” after already spending something close to $60 million dollars on it already! I felt like the guy who loses it all on the craps table and is forced to wear nothing but a barrel for clothing. Luck NOT be the lady tonight.

Meanwhile my obnoxious character voice didn’t go to total waste though as I landed a role with playing a sarcastic Lawyer named David Douchee in “Devils Attorney” by the Swedish company 1337 Game Design. I also voiced assorted characters for the creepy F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, used my natural voice for Dante in Police Quest SWAT 2, and put on a bit of an accent for Esmond Baza in Tron 2.0.

Internationally I played a Professor, TV Reporter and others for Mad Head Games based in Serbia, and the role of Regan in Altered from Kapowe Collective in Australia.

Most recently I was cast to play different characters ranging from zombie teens, school bus driver and even Mike Wallace in an animated TV series called, ‘The Great AdVenture’ from Hyper Hippo Entertainment.

What’s your dream role and why?

To be some intergalactic commander of a racy looking star ship of course! Why? Because I’d get to COMMAND things and WOO pretty space aliens! Please forgive me… I was having Captain Kirk moment there.

Is there a certain type of character you like to play as in a video game, TV show, movie, etc?

In all reality I love portraying comedic characters. The best buddy…the clueless nerd… the guy who really thinks he’s got it together but clearly doesn’t quite have a grasp on the situation.

I was cast once in an independent feature film called G-Sale for a character similar to that. My character was named Ed LaSalle who was REALLY into collecting old board Games. It was fun because they shot it in mocumentary style where the actors were able to improvise through their scenes. It was my first feature length film and won a bunch of festival awards. (There’s a Collector’s Special Edition DVD of G-Sale available on Amazon if you’re interested!)

Has the job changed since you started? If so, how?

Well, they’re certainly utilizing motion capture technology more now than when I started. I’d say too with the advent of actors having their own home studios, the opportunities for performing in games has widened for sure. There’s certainly the “celebrity factor” where casting is done with name familiarity in mind. More so in major motion picture animation of course, but there are big names within the voice industry that producers covet for their titles. What hasn’t changed though is the requirement to have some acting chops!

Finally, what advice would you give someone looking to get started as a voice actor and why?

What a great segue! My advice for anyone looking to get started as a voice actor is to acquire some basic acting skills. Truth be told…it’s not about your voice! It’s all the things your body and mind are going through in the moment you’re speaking, yelling or whispering your lines that makes your delivery special.

The definition of Act is, “To do something, take action.” So, for example… if the script reads, “Hand me that piece of paper over there for me would you please?”

Rather than just read the line, add some physicality to it by stretching your arm away from your body as if you’re trying to reach for the piece of paper yourself. By adding that little bit of exertion in your voice places you in the scene and helps the listener “see it.” This method really helps in auditioning for roles, as the producers and casting directors can get an immediate grasp of your acting abilities. The wider range you can display in a short amount of time will help keep them engaged and hopefully keep their finger off the “NEXT” button. And oh yeah, they’re going to want to hear how you fight, yell, and perish in a game so be prepared to get physical.

I would highly suggest taking an improvisation class to begin with. There’s no memorization involved for one thing, plus you’ll gain the experience of reacting to situations in real time. I learned from the late great Gary Austin (founder of The Groundlings) that you don’t always have to “go for the funny.” It took me years to realize that until one day to relieve pressure on myself I’d just LISTEN to what was going on and react accordingly. Amazingly those scenes got laughs. To this day I don’t remember what caused the audience reaction, but SOMETHING sparked a nerve. My takeaway was that just being “real and in the moment” works WAY better than over-thinking it.

My other advice for aspiring voice actors is to know there’s going to be some capitol outlay involved. You’re going to eventually need to purchase recording gear, find a quiet place in your dwelling of choice and treat the room with sound absorbing materials, build a website, have a demo made, get professional coaching/training, enlist the brains of a great accountant, acquire a business license, and develop a marketing plan. Then…on the second day!

If you treat it as a marathon though and not a race, you’ll be better off. I think so many people believe if they “just get a demo” then jobs will parachute from the sky! There’s so much more involved. I can most certainly help with the coaching and demo production side of things by the way! All the information you need and then some can be found on my website, www.bookscottburns.com

Thanks for the great advice Scott! We agree entirely, success in any field is more of a marathon than a sprint. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was anyone’s successful voice acting career. Whether it’s Scott Burns or Kenny James, Jen Taylor or Charles Martinet, none of their careers sprung up overnight with a single demo online.

So take it slow, and learn your craft through and through. Do that, and stick to it for the long run, and success will finally be yours.

Still, hope you enjoyed the interview folks! If you want to hear more from Scott Burns check out his social media or get an autograph at the Midwest Gaming Conference this November.

And if you want to hear what he might have sounded like in a more modern Mario game, check out the video below!

It’s a clip of the final boss cutscene in Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, except with Scott Burns voicing Bowser and Dark Bowser. It’s pretty neat to see, and we’re very grateful to Scott that he was willing to record it for us specifically for the purposes of this interview!

So yeah, we hope you enjoyed it, and we hope you enjoyed the interview as a whole too. It was amazing fun to record, and Scott’s answers were really interesting to read as well. If you have any questions or thoughts, leave them in the comments below, and if you’ve got any more interview suggestions for the site, post them to us on our Discord server today!

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