British actor Peter Serafinowicz’s chameleonic ability to transform his voice has been the grounding tenet of his prolific, astonishingly varied career, from his breakout work voicing the villain Darth Maul in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace through to giving bombastic, full-throated superhero voice to The Tick in Amazon’s latest live-action version of the popular comic book and cartoon (which is released this Friday).
It’s his voice, too, that’s also responsible for, as it were, probably the best comedic skewering of Donald Trump that exists today. And there’s certainly a lot of competition.
For more than a year, the 45-year-old actor has been posting a series of videos as Sassy Trump.
The conceit’s simplicity underlies its genius. Serafinowicz (who you might recognize from roles as diverse as Aldo in Spy, Pete in Shaun of the Dead, or Denarian Saal in Guardians of the Galaxy) dubs a video of Trump speaking at a press conference with a lispy, sort of petulant, sort of bitchy, well, “sassy” voice, using—and this is the key—Trump’s own words verbatim, save for a few extra breaths or cheeky noise effects.
The latest Sassy Trump video, posted Saturday, for example, gives the treatment to Trump’s off-the-cuff, disastrous press conference on neo-Nazis (and, ostensibly, infrastructure). The result lays bare, somehow, the president’s comments as even more outlandish and offensive than they already were—and they were already pretty outlandish and offensive.
“He’s somebody who’s got so many extreme parts to him physically and vocally and personality-wise,” Serafinowicz says, wearily speaking from Manhattan the day after an exhausting launch of The Tick at Comic-Con. “He’s a caricature. He’s kind of un-lampoonable in traditional ways. The normal way you would make fun of somebody in power is to accentuate something like a flaw or a quirk of theirs and exaggerate it.”
When Serafinowicz first started making the videos, he innocently just thought they’d be funny. Exhausted from the demanding days of shooting The Tick, he’d actually record the videos as a means of winding down.
It’s only in hindsight now that he’s been asked to talk about them so much that he has a better understanding on what exactly he hit on—in other words, why this method of taking the air of Trump is so different (and so much funnier) than all the others out there.
“You can almost start to tune out what he’s saying: ‘Oh, he’s saying something crazy again.’ It becomes normal,” he says. “By putting this extra layer on seemed weirdly to take a layer off and expose the words. Because I always use exactly his words.”
Serafinowicz has also made Sophisticated Trump and Cockney Trump, among other versions, but the Sassy Trump clips are by far the most popular. He estimates that by this point he must have some two hours of Sassy Trump audio recorded.
“That particular aspect of his personality, the bitchy, meanest girl in school, the way that no professional person ever talks ever in any industry, let alone the highest position in the free world. Nobody talks like that,” he says, eventually devolving into a fit of defeated laughter: “Oh God, he’s such an idiot.”
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the other challenge that faced Serafinowicz as he developed his take on The Tick. If Sassy Trump is meant to accentuate the absurdity of a real person—in this case, the President of the United States—Serafinowicz’s goal with The Tick is to embody this almost cartoonish satire of a noble superhero and find a way to make him still seem like a real person.
The Tick, for the uninitiated, was created by cartoonist Ben Edlund, eventually starring in a series of comics that launched in the late ‘80s and surged in popularity when it was adapted into a Fox animated series in 1994.
The square-jawed superhero sits on the fulcrum of lunacy and genre earnestness, just on the fringe of satire. There’s the sight gag of this noble superhero prancing around in a blue rubber suit to resemble a not-necessarily-intimidating arachnid.
And, there’s the almost parodying bass tenor of his voice as he muscularly bellows quizzical, twisty and yet profound maxims. “We’ll cross that bridge after we burned it,” Serafinowicz’s Tick says in the Amazon series, for example, or: “You’re not going crazy, Arthur. You’re going sane in a crazy world.”
It’s the kind of universe ripe for storytelling—self-serious superhero is a fish out of water in a jaded world—that Fox attempted to capitalize on with a live-action TV series in 2001, with Edlund describing the approach as “closer in tone to the comic book, favoring character over action, painting a superheroic portrait of genuine human lameness.”
Star Patrick Warburton’s gregarious, winking performance as The Tick hit the notes of parody, while the characters surrounding him contributed what executive producer Larry Charles likened to a Seinfeld-like character camaraderie, “creating a world that you believe is real” and in which “the characters being superheroes is almost a secondary consideration, so that the characters are more important than their costumes.”
What resulted is one of the most notable “ahead of its time” TV cases in modern memory. Critics raved about the series, but, to put it bluntly, no one watched it. It was canceled after eight of its nine episodes had aired.
Its clever of Amazon to revive the series as its original run’s cult status over the last 16 years becomes a thing of legend. Plus, as the practice of TV reboots has become so en vogue to be practically exhausting—yet the superhero genre remains more prevalent than it’s ever been—The Tick isn’t just primed for a revival but also for making a layered commentary on the genre itself.
While the pilot of Amazon’s The Tick hits on many of the same broad comedic notes as the Fox series, its second episode and beyond takes a much gorier and grittier turn—almost similar to how the superhero franchises since the 2001 series premiered have gotten grittier and gorier in their own right. With its unique shades of satire ever present, the new Tick becomes surprisingly fascinating.
“All these characters are quite lonely in their own way, in that existential way,” Serafinowicz says. “Everyone’s questioning their existence and feeling lonely and reaching out and trying to help each other.”
Serafinowicz and Edlund were blissfully on the same page when they first Skyped—“Is Skope the past tense? We had Skopen.”—to test out Serafinowicz’s take on The Tick’s voice. Beyond that came bridging the gap between this cartoonish superhero and a real person with the emotional intelligence that allows The Tick to connect with Arthur (Griffin Dunne), the troubled Average Joe for whom The Tick serves as a pseudo life coach and, eventually, crime-fighting sidekick.
“The one thing that I got from the script of the pilot was that he’s lonely and he doesn’t know why, but he’s found this guy, Arthur, and he desperately wants him to be his friend,” Serafinowicz says. “I found that very endearing. It reminded me of being at school and wanting that sort of yearning of, ‘I wish Fred was friends with me.’ There’s a childlike quality to this character as well. I don’t know if it bridges that gap, but it certainly kind of helps me get across the river somehow, you know?”
Throughout our conversation Serafinowicz apologizes multiple times for his bleary-eyed exhaustion, having just gotten off the plane from San Diego’s Comic-Con, where he encountered a shocking amount of The Tick fans, many of whom showed up to rally around the Amazon show without having seen any footage. “I hope that I haven’t ruined it for them,” he laughs.
Having born witness to the level of obsession sci-fan fans can drum up since his first convention encounter with them 18 years ago for The Phantom Menace, he’s developed a much-needed sense of humor about the whole thing—especially the amount of pressure someone can really take on when taking part in a new entry of a hallowed property.
“I do this one little voice in this one film that is not well thought of, and still it’s often the first thing that people say to me,” he says, laughing about his turn as Darth Maul. “It’s certainly not the best Star Wars movie.”
But walking around the convention center and encountering just how many T-shirts there still are for that movie and people who stop him to talk about The Phantom Menace, he had an epiphany.
“I noticed another thing about Star Wars, about how brilliant it is, how pervasive the world is,” he says. “It survives so much. Like The Phantom Menace, which was not a good film. Shortly after George Lucas did the first Star Wars, he did that Star Wars Holiday Special, right? You see it now, and you think: what were the decisions that led to this happening? So it survived big kind of missteps like that.”
It’s something that’s perhaps made him feel even more secure about being a part of the effort to revive The Tick. Not that he expects it to be a misstep at all. On the contrary, he thinks the direction the show takes will be quite exciting for fans. But when you’ve spent the better part of a year running around Manhattan wearing a blue rubber suit made to resemble a camp idea of a mini-terrorist, a sense of humor is required.