MARTIN T. SHERMAN
THE U.S. VOICE OF THOMAS & PERCY
Martin T. Sherman is currently best known as the American voice of the CGI Thomas The Tank Engine. However, you may be surprised to learn that Martin has also acted in various films, such as Green Street and more recently, Captain America: The First Avenger, worked with the late, great David Mitton on his Orsum Island project, written and directed several Video Games, and patented a renewable energy power plant several years ago.
Here, we find out more about Martin’s life, career and plans for the future.
~ with Ryan Hagan, December 2011
DISCLAIMER: All answers and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of Martin T. Sherman, and in no way purport to represent those of HiT Entertainment
Prior to auditioning for the role of Thomas, how familiar were you with the history of the series? Did you grow up with the books or television series at all?
I’d seen a bit of it and found Thomas charming, but it wasn’t something I was into as a child. My particular thing was space and the future. If it had a rocket engine on it, it had my attention.
What inspired you to become an actor, and where did you gain your earliest experience?
My acting career began on the stage when I was 9 in Florida where I grew up. It was something I fell into. The local Jewish community centre was holding acting classes, which sounded fun, but it was by no means a calling. After a couple of classes the teacher pulled me aside and asked if I would be interested in auditioning for a professional show. He was in the play and boy who was in the role that I would be going for wasn’t working out so they were looking for a replacement. The director and I got on and that was the beginning. I enjoyed the process and there is nothing so heady for a youngster as being in an adult world and being taken seriously. As it turned out the experience I gained there was pure gold because of the people I was working with. Many of them were old vaudevillians who were coming out of retirement for the pleasure of it. This linked me into a wonderful tradition that disappeared by the time I was an adult.
You’re an American actor living in London – how did you end up in the UK?
The short answer is that I fell in love. My sweetheart at university and I decided to have an European adventure. Our first stop was London where her family lived. They were really keen for her to stay for an extended period so we kept delaying our departure. During this period a video game company sponsored me to write for them and so we stayed and set up a home. Although the relationship and the job didn’t last, London had its hooks in me. Now, many years later, I am a naturalized British citizen.
Prior to working on Thomas, you’ve played alongside John Lithgow (3rd Rock From the Sun), portrayed Orson Welles, and recorded various Audio Books – can you tell us more about your work prior to Thomas, and how it compares to what you’re doing now?
There really isn’t much difference between my life prior to Thomas and my life now except that I am busier. One of the great pleasures about being based in London is the variety of work that is readily available and much of it is my first love: voice work. You see, as an actor you are often limited by your body to what people will cast you as but with animation or radio plays or talking books you can be free to be whatever you can make your voice do.
Do you prefer voice acting or feel more comfortable appearing in front of a camera?
Camera work is loads of fun, as are plays. You form a little community and the work itself has the thrilling challenge of intense focus while at the same time distractions are being thrown at you.
I notice in your IMBD profile, you’ve written or directed two Video Games, can you tell us anything about them and your involvement there?
IMDB is not comprehensive and sometimes wrong. I play Percy. Bill Hope plays Toby. I’ve directed voice in several games. They’re all different as is my involvement with the game’s development. I try to keep away from violent stuff but that is part of most games for all but the very young. Thrillville and its sequel for Frontier were classic examples of my work and they brought me in fairly late into the development, they knew what they wanted. However, sometimes I get to put a real creative oar in, for example in So Blonde published by Eidos Interactive, with the help of the wonderful writer Steven Ince, I convinced the production company to let the central character play away from the stereotype they had originally envisioned.
So the central character played the dumb blonde because that was all society expected of her and through the course of the story she comes out from her intellectual shell. This meant giving a very specific slant to some of the dialogue. The most challenging project I have undertaken was the ill fated game The Outsider for Frontier. This action, political thriller was to be on the scope of 20 feature films back to back and they had me in about midway though development and I was on it for about two years.
We were very surprised to find that prior to landing the role of Thomas, you were working with ex-Thomas & Friends Director / Producer, David Mitton, on his Orsum Island project. Having seen two of the nearly-completed Orsum Island episodes leaked to YouTube, the reaction has been quite positive from fans – how did you come to be involved with it?
Straight up audition. David (Lane) and David (Mitton) had been working on OI for a couple of years and had made a short to test the technology and some characters. They decided that their new world needed a central character, an everyman, for the audience to identify with and put out a general call to the voice agents. It was my lucky day.
What was it like to work on the project? Were you simply involved with the voice acting side of it, or were you involved with the motion-capture side of it as well?
They filmed us while we were working but this was only for our face. The motion capture was someone else.
How much work was done on Orsum prior to the series being shelved in 2008?
I think we had recorded up to episode nine but I’m not sure where the animation was at.
What was your reaction when you heard that the series would not be continuing in production?
Great sadness. David Mitton was so passionate about the project. I thought it would be nice to carry on. But the loss of the project is nothing compared to the loss of David.
We’ve had a lot of very positive and happy memories from people who worked with David Mitton over the 25 years he spent associated with Thomas – do you have any fond memories of him or anecdotes from working with him on Orsum that you’d like to share?
He loved his classic rock and had been to some of the great concerts of the 60’s and 70’s. I remember sitting in the sun at Shepperton Studios, eating sandwiches and listening to him talk about seeing Jimmy Hendrix and Led Zeppelin with a far away gleam in his eyes. As far as working, he was really positive and engaged. He had a great vision for the series and knew how to keep it true to that development.
Were you familiar with David’s work, other than Thomas, prior to working with him, and did he ever mention them to you?
No. But one day we talked about it and then I realized who he was. He said what great fun it had been to work with the models. He loved the ‘hands-on’ nature of the way it was being made which was in contrast to the process for OI.
Not long after Orsum folded, you landed the role of Thomas the Tank Engine for the USA territory. How did you land the role? Which characters did you audition for? And did you have a rough idea of how you thought they should sound?
Again, straight up audition. I had ideas for most of the characters but Henry, Percy and Thomas all came the most strongly to me. The relationship between Thomas and Percy I saw as being the key to defining their voices. This is a big brother who is idolized by his younger brother. Thomas himself should be earnest, guileless and positive which means that Percy is trying to live up to that. The watch word in my mind was “helpful”.
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 play him?
I was nervous but Greg (Tiernan), Sharon (Miller) and David Peacock were all so welcoming that they helped me through it. I felt very lucky to be given the part.
Are the voices you create for the characters based on anyone you know or have heard?
I like to think that Thomas is me at the age of fifteen at my most innocent and Percy is the little brother I never had.
The US cast record the voices before the animation is done, whilst the UK cast redub once it’s done. How much creative freedom are you guys given with regards to direction, motivation or ‘feeling’ of the character? Are you guys allowed to ad-lib or improvise to a point?
Sharon generally has a very strong idea of what she is looking for but this is a collaborative art form and so we work though every moment as a group and make choices from everyone’s input. Ad-libbing is part of it but not a big part.
Keith Wickham mentioned that the American voice cast record together, whilst the UK team record individually. Do you feel this aids the creativity of the voice team?
Yes, most of the time we do record together and I think it does help with one actor “sparking” off another. However, coordinating the schedules of the cast is difficult so often one or two cast members is missing.
Out of the characters you play for the series, who would you say is your favourite to voice?
I really enjoying voicing Thomas but Percy is a treat. He is so sweet and earnest. He really comes out of his shell in Day of the Diesels unfortunately he gets things a bit wrong.
You have quite a broad range of accent and dialect abilities, which have not yet been fully showcased on Thomas & Friends. If you could play any other character from the series, past or present, or indeed, one which could appear in future, who would it be and how which accent or voice would you give them?
I would love a stab at Sir Topham Hatt. I wouldn’t change the way it’s being done. I just find it fun to speak in an operatic voice.
In 2011, you were cast alongside Thomas’s US Narrator, Michael Brandon, in Captain America: The First Avenger as his assistant. Was this pure coincidence or did the Producers know that you two also work on Thomas & Friends and do it as an ‘in-joke’? Had you met Michael prior to this?
Pure coincidence. Although, once the producers found out I could tell they were chuffed with their good fortune. Michael and I knew each other from passing conversations in the studio. He doesn’t record with the cast but often would do so before or after the rest of us. He and I would chat in the interchange. However, during the filming of Captain America we got to know each other very well and cemented our friendship. After our last scene together, which was filmed in LA, we went out for frozen yoghurt. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.
Would you say that your involvement with Thomas and Friends has had a positive impact upon your career as an actor?
Definitely, I have learned an awful lot from Greg (Tiernan), Ian (McCue), Sharon (Miller) and David Peacock and from the cast its self, and I think it has made me a better actor.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment, or in the future?
I recently created a company called Gnu Audiobooks Ltd. The first five books will be unabridged and read by me. These are classic stories for children of all ages and they are L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales and Johnny Gruelle’s Friendly Fairies. They will be available from Audible.com, Amazon and iTunes in the new year. My other major project is to promote the renewable energy power plant that I patented a few years ago. For details please go to www.seavac.org.
Finally, do you have anything you’d like to say to the fans of the series who enjoy your work?
Thank you for welcoming me. Thomas is so iconic that there is a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations to be met. However, the vast majority of the feedback I have received has been very positive and so I’ll do my absolute best to keep Thomas fresh, fun and on track!
Featuring clips from Orsum Island and Thomas & Friends (US)