VOICE OF THOMAS (UK)
In 2014, the production team behind Thomas & Friends decided they wanted to refresh the UK voice of their No.1 engine. The man who landed the role and took over from Ben Small, is a star of stage and screen with around 35 years experience – growing up on camera in Lee Pressman’s CiTV series T-Bag in the role of T-Shirt, John Hasler is a child star turned adult performer – and a genuinely lovely person to boot!
Here, John discusses his journey as an actor with us – and how it brought him to the Island of Sodor!
~ with Ryan Hagan
DISCLAIMER: All answers and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of John Hasler, and in no way purport to represent those of Mattel Creations
Your earliest major role as a child actor was in the Children's Film Foundation film Breakout, can you tell us what made you want to get into acting at such an early age?
It was all rather accidental to be honest. I was about 6 years old. My sister belonged to an agency through her dancing school and one summer she had a casting for a commercial.
Being the school holidays my mum had to take me as well and the casting director said that I should go in to audition. My mum replied that “I didn't do anything”, but I went in anyway and got the role in this McVitie's cakes commercial. The agency signed me up and that was basically how it all started. I've just been incredibly fortunate to carry on doing it from that moment. I didn't really have much of an interest up until that point but from doing that one job I enjoyed everything about it. Especially the film cameras and the studio environment.
It all felt very natural and I think that enjoyment was what carried me forward to continue getting parts. And the film Breakout was a big turning point as not only was it enormous fun to do but it was because of it that I got the role in the TV show T-Bag.
You also worked with Terry Gilliam on an uncredited part in his film, Brazil. Given the nature of Gilliam’s style of film-making and status as a ‘Python’ – what was it like to work with him?
As a child the iconic status of a lot of the people I met was slightly lost on me and such it was with this job. I loved doing it and everybody was wonderful to work with but the realisation many years later of what a classic film it is, to see the cast list and for me to be a part of it in some small way was very exciting. Incidentally this role was my first ever speaking part.
I was thrilled to be given this opportunity but had to check first with my mum that it was ok for me to swear at Jonathan Pryce!
Your big break was when you were cast as T-Shirt in the CiTV series, ‘T-Bag’ in 1985. I’ve watched a few episodes and it’s a total nostalgia trip, but it’s interesting to watch you grow from a child to a teenager. What was it like growing up on screen?
It was slightly strange I guess but I was very well looked after while working on the programme. The producers and writers were so supportive and allowed me to have fixed braces on my teeth and wrote the character in a way that allowed me to become more of a teenager as opposed to just replacing me with a younger model! In the last series there was even a scene with me having a shave! It was incredibly good fun and I got to work with amazing people. In many ways the fact it was on TV was secondary for me to the enjoyment of actually making the series. It was very popular though and recently I was shown ratings of the time and it was one place ahead of Doctor Who which is quite phenomenal.
Was it difficult juggling academic work with filming?
I was supported so much by the production and they provided a private tutor for me whilst filming and rehearsals took place. It was quite hard work having to get to rehearsals early to do some school work and then staying after rehearsals to make sure I did the required hours each day, but the tutor was amazing and made sure that I kept up with what my school was teaching at that point.
The T-Bag series reinvented itself with every new series, and you were the only cast member to do the full run of the show. What made you want to stay for such a long period of your young life?
I wasn't in the very first episode. As I mentioned I was cast in T-Bag due to being in the film Breakout. The executive producer saw me in that and got the writers to write me in as the side kick to T-Bag. But the show was already in production so it wasn't possible to write me into the first episode. So I suddenly just appeared in episode two. I basically stayed for so long because it was so much fun! I was told that Grange Hill was interested in me going into that but I didn't want to leave T-Bag because, as you state, it reinvented itself and kept moving forward so was always interesting. It eventually finished when Thames Television lost its franchise in London but I think it had reached the end of its life anyway. It certainly had for me as, by this point, I was juggling doing my A-levels and still rehearsing and filming which was becoming very difficult. There was a short time where I questioned my childhood and how I'd missed out on so much from working, but this didn't last long as I soon realised that I was incredibly lucky to have been in such a position and got to experience and learn so much from doing it.
Which was your favourite series of T-Bag to do?
I think it was around series 4 or 5 when Elizabeth Estensen was T-Bag and Kellie Bright (who now is in Eastenders) came in as Sally. I did enjoy them all really but that felt like when it really peaked.
Funny enough, Lee Pressman now writes for Thomas and Friends – was it a nice surprise to be reunited with an old associate from the T-Bag days?
It was amazing. I had seen Lee a couple of times at a T-Bag reunion and through him writing for Fireman Sam which I also work on, but the way our paths have continued to cross and the thrill it is seeing his name as writer on a script I get to perform is truly special.
It was through T-Bag that you began doing voiceover work, was there something about that which you particularly enjoyed over acting to camera?
I had actually been doing voice overs before starting T-Bag. I worked on many television commercials including a whole series of adverts for the Care Bears amongst others. I have always enjoyed doing them but I wouldn't necessarily say I preferred doing them to on screen acting. I'm very lucky to work in all different areas of acting and I think that keeps things exciting and fresh.
A lot of child actors tend to step away from acting. When T-Bag ended in 1992, you did your A-Levels and returned to acting later. What made you want to keep going?
I didn't really have anything else to do! Is the flippant answer but basically the truth. After completing my A-levels (and working hard on them to achieve good grades) I considered going to university or drama school and also considered taking some time out to travel or something like that. I had told my agent that I didn't want to be submitted for anything while doing my A-levels but on finishing I started auditioning again. I just started working and went from job to job (theatre and TV), started my first proper animation (The Legend of Treasure Island) and didn't look back really. I've been incredibly lucky ever since to have continued working and making a living doing something that I absolutely love!
You made a successful transition from child actor to adult performer, performing as Jim Hawkins in the animated adaptation of Treasure Island (Remember it, loved it!). After nine years as T-Shirt, was it difficult stepping out of the shadow of your T-Bag fame?
It was slightly difficult personally I think. I moved on from being at the heart of a very successful show into being a young actor trying to get a job. The reality was that I was very fortunate that I worked extensively right from that point, and not just any work but incredible opportunities to work with amazing people and learn so much. So, professionally it wasn't that hard to move on from T-Bag. On Treasure Island (where I took over as Jim Hawkins from Dawn French) I worked with Hugh Laurie, Chris Barrie and DavidHolt who were all so supportive and inspiring to watch. In the theatre I worked with AlanAyckbourn who is a genius and he invited me back again on a couple of occasions after that to work on plays at his theatre. I genuinely felt like I served an apprenticeship which,with the calibre of people I was working with, was quite an education!
On top of screen and voice acting, you’ve also appeared on stage as well. Can you tell us more about your stage work? Was it daunting knowing that you couldn’t just go for another take if you fluffed a line?
It is a very different process but largely that is prevented by the long rehearsal process. In that time you hope to iron out any difficulties and make sure lines are thoroughly learned.
Of course being live anything can (and often does) go wrong but that is part of the thrill and excitement of the live performance for both actor and audience. It is an incredible experience to perform in the theatre and I’m doing a new show in October - a punk musical!. The reality is that I have two young children so working evenings and weekends on a stage production is tough. So I haven't pushed getting that type of work as much as I would've done otherwise.
By doing voice overs it is much more suited to being around for the children plus my 4 year old son is a big fan of Thomas and Friends so for me to be part of that and other shows that he watches is such a thrill!
Fast forward a couple of years, you film a coffee commercial in Japan with Ewan McGregor. What was it like working with him?
That was only a couple of days filming but it was a fun shoot. Ewan was lovely and like the best actors is easy to work with despite being a big star.
From 2012 to 2015, you took on the role of Timon in Disney’s stage show of The Lion King. Can you tell us more about the role and the show itself?
I have done many different plays and musicals but getting to appear as Timon in Disney's The Lion King which has audiences of over 2000 people each show was a dream come true! It was a wonderful opportunity and one I was thrilled to be offered. I first auditioned for it about 10 years ago and got very close but didn't get it. I was very upset and disappointed, but thankfully they remembered me and when the time was right everything came together and I got the part. That was an amazing feeling and an incredible show to be part of.
I love the role and got to sing Hakuna Matata which was fun but the whole show is an amazing spectacle. I also had to learn a very specific style of puppetry which takes an awfully long time to master but I had an eight week rehearsal process. I managed it but the great thing was through the couple of years I was in the show I continued to learn and improve which kept it very fresh and exciting. Getting to perform at the 15th anniversary show in London was also a real highlight.
Was also quite impressed to learn you did voices for Pixar’s Brave. What was it like working on such a big project?
It was amazing. The energy and enthusiasm with which it was produced and directed was quite astonishing and yet another fabulous learning opportunity. I only have a few bits in the finished film but to work with Pixar was quite an honour, and one I'm hoping to repeat if they give me the opportunity! I did have to pretend to be Scottish though for the whole time I worked with them!
You've ranged from shows aimed at children to radio plays and films aimed at an adult audience. Which do you enjoy most and, if possible to choose, which shows have you considered to be your favourites to work on so far outside of T-Bag and Thomas?
That's such a difficult question to answer. As I mentioned already it is a great position to be in to work in different genres and different mediums as an actor. I played a very nasty character in a true crime story and it was very difficult as the things I had to portray had really happened but I did relish the opportunity to play such a character. That was obviously for an adult audience, but I've also loved family friendly things I've done. I presented CITV live for a short time which was very much outside of my comfort zone but hugely enjoyable.
I think I most enjoy things that challenge me as a person and as a performer and, hopefully, I rise to that challenge and make it out the other side. I did a promo film for Mercedes called Magic Garage that involved lots of stunts and that was a fairly scary shoot but ultimately a huge amount of fun! I think one of my favourites was a TV drama for the BBC I did called Against All Odds. A true life story about two young guys that bought a trained a race horse. It was beautifully made and I'm very proud of that.
In more recent years, you’ve become more involved in children’s TV as a character voiceover on shows like ‘Get Squiggling’ and ‘Fireman Sam’. Has it been a conscious decision to do more voice work or just something that’s happened due to your ability?
It has been a case of life finding its course and then actively pursuing and focusing on that. It does fit in incredibly well with being a father to two young children but it's also a type of job that I hugely enjoy (I hope that comes across) and a position that I know that I am so grateful to be in. Even while doing The Lion King I continued to record voice overs so it is something I have worked hard at and I'm lucky to have such a great voice over agent to help me in this aspect of my career. If I'm getting to do something I love and making a living then I truly feel like the luckiest person in the world. Getting to voice such an iconic character as Thomas is both a massive responsibility and a huge privilege so while Mattel Creations want me I'm very happy to continue doing it. There is a famous saying that “if you find a job you love you never work a day in your life”. That's pretty much how I feel about doing the voice work I'm doing.
Did you find you enjoy the creativity and freedom that this style of acting brings? Have you always had a knack for voices and accents?
It's wonderfully freeing - not being limited just by what you look like. I've provided voices for animals, space aliens, people from nations all over the world, pretty much most things really! I did use to do impressions as a child and enjoyed playing with different voices so I guess I've just carried on with that really. I find myself now really listening and studying different speech patterns and accents when I hear them. You never know when you might use something that you've encountered.
Are the voices you create for the characters based on anyone you know or have heard?
I think as an actor (writers are worse!) you are always soaking up things around you that may in some way influence something you are working on. I wouldn't say that the characters are "based on" individual people necessarily but different aspects can be muddled together to create something. I once followed a man down Oxford Street in London who had the most fantastic walk with a cane and I knew that I had to have the character I was portraying in a play at the time have that walk! I think actors are like the Borg. We assimilate.
Shortly before joining the cast of Thomas and Friends, you were playing Toot the Tiny Tugboat. How do you feel about playing two well-known pre-school characters?
I'm extremely happy! Toot is such a wonderful show. I auditioned for it about two years prior to getting the call saying it was going to happen so it was a very pleasant surprise. I also learnt a great deal from recording that series that I've been able to bring to Thomas. I'm certain that I wouldn’t have approached the audition for Thomas with such confidence if it wasn't for Toot, so I'm very grateful for that as well!
How did you find out about the role of Thomas becoming available, and what attracted you to audition?
My voice agent informed me that they were auditioning for the part and at the time I was on holiday. So I had to find some time to hide in the hotel room with the air con off and windows shut to block out extraneous noise and then record a demo on my phone to send to HIT Entertainment. After that they called me in to the studio to do another test and this was followed by another session where they assessed how well I could dub the American voice as this is such a key part.
Then I believe there was one final audition which was a record of The Adventure Begins (if my memory serves me correctly) which they were obviously happy with, and then I formally got offered the job about a week after that. In terms of what attracted me I think that's a no brainer. There aren't many more iconic characters than Thomas and the chance to voice him was, and is, a dream come true!
Were you nervous about auditioning for such an iconic and important character, and how did you feel when you were the one they chose to take over the role?
I wasn't initially nervous. It was more a feeling of excitement that I was getting to audition for such an amazing role. It was as the process proceeded and I realised that I was in with a shot that the nerves ramped-up. I became aware that I was getting nearer and nearer to the job and the nervousness made me realise just how much I actually wanted the job. But nerves are definitely part of the job and are just proof that you care!
Can you tell us about the audition process for the role? Was it a matter of keeping the voice as consistent as possible or trying to put your own stamp on it?
I think there's a certain expectation about what Thomas will sound like but, from my point of view it, was a case of not worrying too much about a "voice" but more attempting to capture his joy, excitement and cheekiness. Through the audition process I was guided and supported by Sharon Miller with regards to performance. Having someone that you can trust completely.
You made your debut playing Thomas in a recreation of his earliest stories in The Adventure Begins – were you familiar with the original stories before joining the cast? Did you read the books as a child?
I wasn't so familiar with the books but did watch the original television series when I was younger. I have subsequently read a lot of the books but I think at that time it was more instinct and being guided by Sharon and Ian (McCue) that got me through the initial recording sessions.
The Adventure Begins saw you playing Thomas when he first arrived on the Island. By comparison with Series 19 and Legend of the Lost Treasure, Thomas sounds ‘younger’. Was it a conscious decision to play him like that, or just you trying to find your feet as the character?
In all honesty I think it was a combination of both. Thomas in The Adventure Begins is obviously a lot more naive and wide eyed which inevitably led to a younger feeling sound.
But when it came to recording Legend of the Lost Treasure (which was the second thing I recorded) Ian had already decided that he wanted a slightly more settled Thomas that led to a more grounded vocal tone. I think we actually went back over some of the early recordings for LotLT to rerecord with the older attitude we had discovered on the way.
This was when I was grateful to be working on a project that was so cared about. To redo a chunk of the film very subtly was expensive and time consuming for HIT. But it's all credit to them that they took the time, care and effort to make sure it was as good as it could be and I personally am so incredibly proud of that movie. I think it was a fitting celebration of Thomas's 70th birthday.
When we met you at the Legend of the Lost Treasure premiere, your children were enthralled by the fact that their “Dad is Thomas!” – are they fans of Thomas and the other shows you work on?
Being at the Odeon Leicester Square that day made it all very real to me as well as for them. It was a truly special day and having them with me to experience that made it all the more exciting. It was also an incredibly nerve wracking day as I hadn't seen the finished film at that point so it truly was a premiere! The fact they were so enthralled was just magical. I had some friends with their children there as well which was also lovely.
My daughter understands what I do and is very proud. Her teacher told me recently that she had told them about my job and they didn't believe her! But then they had googled it and was surprised to find out she was telling the truth.
My son is a big fan of shows like Thomas, Fireman Sam and Go Jetters and my daughter is old enough to take to work with me and get to enjoy the fun of being at the studio while I record them. So it’s lovely to be able to share my work with them, and for them to enjoy it too!
In your first year recording for Thomas, you got to work alongside big name stars like John Hurt and Eddie Redmayne, as well as debut in the 70th Anniversary feature – how was it coming in at such an important time in the history of the series?
I certainly felt the pressure of coming in at such a key time, but the great thing was that, being a big relaunch and anniversary, a lot of care and attention was taken and I'm incredibly proud of Legends of the Lost Treasure. As you say the guests they managed to get to provide voices were first rate and it's that level of quality that shines through. I truly hope that fans of the show love that movie as much as I do. The premiere in Leicester Square was a memorable day, even if I turned up and nobody had a clue who I was!