Two days before the North American release of Super Mario Galaxy 2, the latest game in Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario series, I had the opportunity to join Club Nintendo and other members of the gaming press at the Nintendo World Store in New York City. While there, I had the chance to speak with Charles Martinet. Even if you don’t know his name, you have more than likely heard his voice: “It’s a-me, Mario!” Martinet is the man behind Mario, as well as several other notable characters in that gaming franchise, such as Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi.
When I sat down with Martinet in the stock room of the Nintendo World Store, he asked me who I wanted to interview. Did I want to speak with him? Mario? Luigi? Some combination of characters? Since I had only prepared to speak with Martinet, I told him we’d start there, and see what happened. What followed was one of the most fun interviews I had ever participated in, with Martinet spontaneously breaking into familiar voices I’d heard many times before, but never in person.
Many people think your first experience with Mario was in Super Mario 64, but it actually started before that. Can you tell us how you actually began your career as Mario?
I actually crashed an audition about 20 years ago. A friend of mine called me up and said, “You’ve gotta go to his audition! It’s for a trade show in Las Vegas!” And I said, “I never crash an audition, I’m a complete professional. What’s the address?” And so of course I went to the place, knocked on the door, and I walked in. The audition was over, the camera was already stuck in the bag, and, he said, “All right, all right. You’re an Italian plumber from Brooklyn, make up an accent, it’s a game character. Whenever you start talking, that’s your audition.”
I thought, okay, Italian plumber from Brooklyn. How you doin’? I’m under your sink, don’t bother me, you know? But I was going to be talking to kids. It was for a real-time animation system that was going to have contacts glued to my face so that when I moved my face, that was going to translate to a super computer onto Mario’s face to have Mario move. But I didn’t know who Mario was! I thought, video games, I’ve played, what, Pong? Space Invaders? Tetris? Oh, and also, I do confess… wakka wakka wakka wakka!
While describing the few games he’d played before, Charles began making sound effects from the games, an eerily accurate series of boops and beeps.
And that’s all there is, but I thought, there has to be something I can make up. And then I heard “Action!” and I turned to the camera, and in the voice you hear today, I said, “Hello, it’s a-me, Mario! Okey dokey, let’s make a pizza pie together! You a-gonna get some sauces. I’m-a gonna get some spaghetti. We’re gonna put the spaghetti and the sauces into the pizza. Then we’re gonna make lasagna. Then we’re gonna make spaghetti and meatballs! Ooh, mama mia, I’m getting hungry!” I don’t know what I said, but I talked and I talked for thirty minutes or longer, until I heard “Cut! Stop! We have no more tape! Thank you. We’ll be in touch.” Of course, for an actor, that’s the kiss of death: we’ll be in touch. So I went, “Okay, thank you!” And I had a great time. I left the room, and he got on the phone and called Don James at Nintendo and said, “I found our Mario!” And just like that, it was 20 years and I still haven’t really stopped talking, as you can see.
So that distinctive Mario voice that everyone knows, you just kind of came up with that on the fly?
I had played Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew in a 1947 version of the play. Gremio was the mayor of the town, an old Italian guy. So I kind of played him as the oldest man in the world who happens to be Italian. I had gray make-up all over my beard stubble and gray in my hair. So that voice, it came to me, that it could be make younger and more gentle and more fun, and that’s just what came. What I don’t know is how I knew just out of a sense of wonder how brilliant this character is. How brilliant, how wonderful. It was just a great coincidence. I believed in giving full life and joy and fun and animation to it, and I think when Mr. Miyamoto heard that, he said, “Oh, I like that.” Lucky for me.
Mario is a guy who doesn’t say a lot, but the few phrases he does say are really engrained in gaming culture, and pop culture, really. What do you think that is?
I think that’s a tribute to Mr. Miyamoto’s genius, you know? He knows exactly how to make a great game. And every time he comes up with a great idea, he changes whole universes, whole groups of hundreds of thousands of us that do video games and play video games, millions of us. It shifts the whole thing, and he knows the right amount to put in there, and I will always trust in that genius.
How does doing voice work for the Mario series differ from doing voice work for other media?
I love doing all voiceover work. It’s a tremendous amount of fun for me. But I can say, as an actor, you are kind of like… you just pursue. You just do what you’re doing. And what makes Mario so much fun for me to do is that it is so much joy, it is so much thrill and fun and love and happiness and adventure that I get into that completely when I’m doing the game. When I say, “Woohoo!” you know I’m really having fun just saying that, you know? And what a privilege and a joy and what an honor to do it for so many years.
Was there ever a time when you thought Mario should have more to say?
You know, I’m an actor, so of course every actor thinks, Let me play all the parts! Let me talk more! But of course, the right amount is to trust the genius behind it, and I do.
Since Charles does the voice acting for many other characters in the Mario franchise as well, I asked him to tell me more about that. He responded by breaking into character voices and sound effects for Mario, Wario, Luigi, Waluigi, and Baby Mario, and I truly wished I had been allowed to bring a video camera into that stockroom.
How does it feel to voice some of the most recognizable characters in this industry?
Well, it’s fun! I believe that a person should do what they love to do in life, and I certainly do. If you can bring love into your work, and try to bring a little bit of happiness to the people you do the work for, what a fulfilling and wonderfully joyful life you have. And it doesn’t matter if it’s voiceover or plumbing or being a doctor, a lawyer. Whatever it is that gives you joy, if you do it with the motivation out of love and for the betterment of humanity, or the happiness of people, or for a smile, you’re going to have a very happy and fulfilling life.
Of all the Mario games you’ve been a part of, which one is your favorite?
Oh, mama mia, now that’s a tough question! I gotta tell you, I had the privilege to play the first Mario Galaxy. I tell you, it gave me absolute goosebumps when I saw it. And the first time I saw New Super Mario Bros. Wii, watching it—“bah, bah, bah!” I laughed, and I was having such a good time. But I gotta tell you, the new Super Mario Galaxy 2, that game is absolutely amazingly fun. It’s marvelous. You know, there are new weapons, new worlds, Yoshi’s in it, Luigi’s in it, different gravity, different things that you would just never expect. As always, with Mr. Miyamoto, you can expect what you would never expect, and it will bring you so much joy.
What do you think Mario’s favorite adventure would be?
[In Mario voice] Rescuing the princess, woohoo!
Which character that you’ve played would you like to see expanded?
You know, I would love to see a Waluigi game, and in order to win, you have to cheat. [Evil Waluigi laugh]
Has the Mario voice changed over time?
It’s a miracle, it hasn’t, and neither have I! As you can see, I still look like a 22-year-old man. I just put the gray in to look distinguished.
Since this interview happened to take place on May 21, the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, I asked Mr. Martinet for a quote on Pac-Man's 30 years in the industry--as Mario, of course.
At that point, everyone on the room started laughing, and we let Mr. Martinet get back to the Super Mario Galaxy 2 festivities. Getting to spend that time talking to the voice of Mario was like a childhood dream come true, and I was surprised at the ease in which Charles broke in and out of character voices. As he stated many times, he clearly loves what he does, and that joy has touched millions of fans worldwide.
I’d really like to see that cheating game starring Waluigi, by the way. Mr. Miyamoto: please take note.