The joy of Zeb: In conversation with Steve Blum
Dig into the origins of Star Wars Rebels' resident tough guy with the voice of the man himself.
To say that Steve Blum is a prolific voice actor doesn't do the man justice. I literally got tired scrolling through his filmography, and that was before I hit the insanely long section dedicated to his work in video games.
Best known for his roles as Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop, Wolverine in Wolverine & The X-Men and Starscream in Transformers: Prime, Blum joined the Star Wars universe two years ago as Lasat rebel Garazeb Orrelios — aka Zeb — and he's never looked back.
I got the chance to talk to Blum recently in my day job at Bmag (it's a tough gig, obviously) and naturally, it didn't take long for talk to turn to Star Wars.
You might think that, after lending his voice to just about every franchise worth following, Blum would have been blasé about scoring a role in Rebels. You'd be wrong.
"Oh, no," he laughs. "When I found out I’d been cast in Rebels, I squealed like an eight-year-old fanboy. Every day is like that, and hopefully it will be for the entire duration of my career. If I’m not excited about it I shouldn’t be in the business; that’s my philosophy."
As most fans of the show know, Zeb's look was inspired by Ralph McQuarrie's early concept artwork for Chewbacca.
While Zeb's look is vintage McQuarrie, his voice is all Blum.
"We played with it for quite some time," Blum says. "It was a collaborative effort, not only with [Rebels executive producer] Dave [Filoni], but with everybody in the room. There were a lot of ears listening to it. We started, I believe, with a heavy Cockney accent, but it was unintelligible.
"We tried different things — we tried Russian and German and a few different locations in the UK, a little bit of Australian, and we ended up with an amalgamation that, to my ears, just sounds like a bad UK accent."
According to Blum, there's no 'typical' process for developing a character's voice.
"It really depends on the character," he says. "Each one is its own animal, especially with something like Zeb. We didn’t really have anything to base it on, other than the original Ralph McQuarrie drawings, which had never been fleshed out in that form. That was, roughly, the original design of the Wookie.
"We wanted to have something that had a voice, but was something quite different. Because we were introducing a new race into Star Wars canon, we had to do something that would stand out. I always start with the model design for the character, and I do what comes organically. The voice we ended up with is very close to what I started with for Zeb; we just cleaned it up so it was a little more understandable."
Zeb started out as "the muscle", but over the course of the series, he's come to fill the 'big brother' role in the Ghost crew's family dynamic, and even appeared to tap into the Force to find the lost Lasat homeworld of Lira San. These developments have certainly made the role more fun for Blum to play.
"That’s so rare, especially because he began as the muscle," he says. "I play a lot of characters who are the muscle — they’re not always referred to as the muscle, but that’s basically their function. I play a lot of creatures and warriors and that kind of thing.
"To see that kind of character development, where he’s become a sensitive family member, a big brother and a Force user in his own way… it’s been an amazing journey, and to be part of that, within the context of the Star Wars universe, is an astonishing thing. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career."
For Blum, the most satisfying episode so far might have been The Honorable Ones, a virtual two-hander that he starred in with acclaimed actor David Oyelowo (Selma, The Butler, Queen of Katwe), who plays ISB Agent Kallus in Rebels.
"Well, first of all, I’m a fan of his," Blum says. "He is an amazing actor. It’s rare that I get to do an episode that Filoni refers to as a ‘box episode’, where there’s very little going on except a conversation between two characters in a very small place, and to get to interact with an actor of that calibre was an amazing thing. I’ve never really had that experience in a cartoon before, to that degree.
"He’s a generous actor, he’s funny, he’s very accommodating, which is not always the case with on-camera actors, especially the successful ones. They tend to be a little more reserved and inhibited sometimes. And sometimes there’s a huge learning curve for them to do voice-overs. It’s a whole different type of acting. But he fell right into it; he seemed comfortable right away.
"I enjoyed our work together tremendously. I’m still a huge fan of his; I think I had my secret fanboy squeal with him as well."
Unlike most animated shows that require the actors to record their parts individually, Blum says Rebels records with a full cast wherever possible, which has given him a unique opportunity to work with Oyelowo and the other talented members of the cast.
"This is one of the shows that we are able to record like a radio play," he says. "It’s not always that way in animation these days, especially when you have celebrities involved. It tends to be one person at a time or two people at a time.
"In the case of Rebels, they really do make an effort to get everybody into the room at the same time as much as possible. I think that has created an incredible chemistry among the cast members. We’ve all become a family as a result."
Of course, I have to ask Blum the same question as Kallus — what does 'Karabast' even mean?
"Karabast means whatever you want it to mean," he snickers, slipping into Zeb's voice.
"It’s sort of like the F word. It can be very clean and friendly and harmless, or it can be the nastiest curse that you can put on someone, and everything in between. It’s the way we get away with cursing in the Star Wars universe."
You can read the rest of my in-depth interview with Steve Blum — including his thoughts on on-camera actors who say voice acting is easy; the unlikely origin of his voice acting career; his approach to playing iconic characters; and which franchise's fan base is the most obsessive — over at Bmag.
If you're in Australia, Blum will be appearing at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre (November 11-13) and the Adelaide Showground (November 18-20). For more info and tickets, head to supanova.com.au.