The Voice of a Hundred Faces: Dee Bradley Baker’s ‘Star Wars’ Journey

For “Star Wars” fans who have seen only the theatrical blockbusters, clone troopers are peripheral figures, at most recalled as the title menace in “Attack of the Clones,” from 2002. But over the past two decades they have become essential to the franchise, the pillar of animated “Star Wars” series including “The Clone Wars,” “Star Wars Rebels” and most recently, “The Bad Batch.”

And in that time one man has been essential to the clones: Dee Bradley Baker, who has voiced them all.

Not all of the shows — all of the clones, hundreds of them since getting cast for “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which debuted in 2008 with a feature film and an animated series that lasted for seven seasons. Now Baker’s incredibly prolific gig, which also included plenty of non-clone roles, has finally come to an end: “The Bad Batch,” the “Clone Wars” sequel series, concludes its three-season run on Disney+ this week, and there are no plans for more clone shows.

“It’s been wonderfully gratifying to go on this journey,” Baker said.

Baker, 61, has been a voice actor for nearly 30 years, working on series like “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “American Dad,” “Codename: Kids Next Door” and “Space Jam.” Before “Star Wars,” he almost exclusively played funny parts: He voiced every animal in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Perry the Platypus in “Phineas & Ferb” and creatures in live-action projects like Sebastian the rat in “The Suicide Squad.”

“I would get cast as more young, energetic and comedic because that’s how I thought of myself,” Baker said. The “Star Wars” shows “pulled so much more from me as an actor because it asked things of me I wouldn’t even think of.”

“Nothing can be more fun than to play in the universe that captured your imagination as a kid,” Baker said.Credit…Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Many of the dramatic and emotional stories early on in “The Clone Wars” involved the clone troopers. After all, it is easier to kill a replaceable clone, one of millions, than a Jedi who also shows up in the theatrical movies.

Though the series was on Cartoon Network and aimed at kids, the war stories were intense and put the increasingly hard-bitten clones through one wringer after another. One story arc channels the novella “Heart of Darkness”: The troopers are led by a ruthless Jedi General in a jungle planet, until the general’s constant sacrifice of lives leads to insurgency. One episode was directed by Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning sound designer behind the Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now,” itself inspired by “Heart of Darkness.”

“Voice acting is acting, you need the same skill and the same talent,” said Ashley Eckstein who played Ahsoka Tano. (This central “Clone Wars” character last year became the center of a live-action show, “Ahsoka,” starring Rosario Dawson.)

“It can even be harder and more difficult to do voice acting,” Eckstein continued. “Dee and I had to do some deeply emotional and action-packed scenes, and we had to stand still behind a microphone. You can’t act it out or move around. You have to convey all of it just through your voice.”

“The Clone Wars” was followed by “Star Wars Rebels,” which follows a small Rebel crew that eventually includes a group of surviving clones, and “The Bad Batch,” centered on a squad of “defective” clones with even more distinct personalities.

Baker voiced a menagerie of creatures in “The Clone Wars.” He said his improv background prepared him for the odd sounds “Star Wars” shows require and for moving quickly between characters.Credit…Lucasfilm/Disney+

One obstacle to making clone troopers compelling is the challenge of differentiating them. (They are, after all, clones.) There were small attempts from the beginning to make them distinct from a design standpoint. The creators gave them colorful armor and insignia to contrast them with the Empire’s more well-known stormtroopers, according to Dave Filoni, who was supervising director and an executive producer of “The Clone Wars” and is now the chief creative officer of Lucasfilm.

“They were able to express their individuality, where stormtroopers are individuals taken into service and stripped of their personality and identity,” Filoni wrote in an email. Still, a look is little without the voice and personality that goes with it, and Baker’s performance was a big reason the characters became so central.

The first test to see if Baker voicing all the clones would work came in “Rookies,” the fifth episode of “The Clone Wars.” The episode came from an idea by George Lucas, who wanted to do an episode of just clones, and follows a group of cadets who come together as a squad and stave off a droid invasion.

As Henry Gilroy, the show’s head writer, recalled, “That recording session was actually a revelation, for we realized that we could write anything for the clones to do with story and character and Dee would execute to perfection.”

The clones soon went from being one-off characters with little personality to proper members of the expanded cast, with their own emotional and dramatic arcs that carried on throughout the show’s seven seasons and into “The Bad Batch.” (The character Echo is the last surviving member of that rookie squad.)

Baker comes up with one or two defining qualities for each clone to help differentiate them.Credit…Lucasfilm/Disney+

All the clones are based, fittingly, on the same voice: the one Baker created to play Captain Rex, the second-in-command to Anakin Skywalker and his closest friend in “The Clone Wars,” after Obi-Wan Kenobi. Baker would settle on one or two defining qualities for each clone — rank, age, attitude, quirk — to guide his performances. He used to record one clone at a time, going through an entire script with one and then doing the same with the next and so on until an episode was done.

But as “The Clone Wars” developed more complex arcs, he took a faster, more daunting approach. “I would start to play all of them and just jump back and forth,” Baker said. “I just read through the scenes straight through as if they’re characters playing out a scene, but it’s just me going from one voice to the other.”

Michelle Ang, who stars in “The Bad Batch” as Omega, is amazed by this process. “He can not only perform the different personalities, but hold five different viewpoints of all the ‘Bad Batch’ characters and argue for each one,” she said. “It feels like there are four distinct people I’m working with.”

Eckstein called Baker a mentor, comparing their relationship to that of Ahsoka, her young Padawan character, and Baker’s seasoned Captain Rex. “He taught me the ways of the Force, the ways of voice acting,” she said. When she too was asked to play multiple characters in the same episodes, “I learned from Dee, who is brilliant at doing that.”

Baker, who started out in comedy, said improv helped train him to embrace the odd vocalizations “Star Wars” shows can require and to move fluidly between characters.

“I am not so much prepared as I’m ready,” he said. “You want to be open and available to steer this and configure that in a way that the writers you’re working with want things to go. You can’t prepare for it. You get that in the immediate human connection of now, and that is inherently improvisational.”

The end of “The Bad Batch” is the end of an era, even if other “Star Wars” roles eventually come Baker’s way, like the upcoming video game “Star Wars Outlaws.” Though characters like Ahsoka Tano live on in live-action, and Captain Rex made a cameo in “Ahsoka,” “The Bad Batch” characters were the last characters that Lucas, the “Star Wars” mastermind who is no longer involved with the franchise, had direct input on. The significance of this isn’t lost on Baker.

“I’ve loved ‘Star Wars’ since I was a kid,” he said. “Nothing can be more fun than to play in the universe that captured your imagination as a kid.”

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