Like so many industries battered by the ongoing pandemic, the entertainment industry has been heavily impacted by the coronavirus and forced to pivot in unexpected ways.
But as companies slowly ramp up production again under a myriad of safety precautions, a Scarborough, Ont., man has spent 2020 charting new territory by bringing to life some of the most iconic fictional characters.
“(In a) 2020 world, the only thing we have is nostalgia to keep our spirits up,” Eric Bauza told Global News during a lengthy interview.
While the movie, scheduled for release in 2021, stars NBA star LeBron James, it might be surprising for many to learn that his co-star is Toronto-born voice actor Eric Bauza, who has also spent this year debuting as the voice of Bugs Bunny in the HBO Max show Looney Tunes Cartoons produced by Warner Bros. Animation.
“To know that I grew up on this stuff, something that’s widely received as Space Jam, to be able to contribute to the next version of it is something else — another Willy Wonka golden ticket for me,” he said.
“Some kid from Scarborough is the voice of Bugs Bunny? What the heck is going on? Now I know it’s the end of the world.
“At the end of the day, these cartoons are for kids. We’re making them for kids. I’m a big kid, but I’ve got a kid — a four-year-old — and it’s all for him now.”
Bauza, who lives in Los Angeles now, makes no secret about his love of Canada, specifically Toronto and the community of Scarborough. The Cardinal Newman Catholic High School and Centennial College radio, television and film graduate proudly boasts about his Midland Avenue and Eglinton Avenue East neighbourhood where his parents still live today.
“In a non-pandemic year, I would be there every three to four months. I would always make it back — always, always, always,” he said, adding he misses stopping into places like Aunty Mary’s Fish and Chips on Lawrence Avenue East or chains not available in L.A. such as Swiss Chalet.
“This will be the first time in 41 years that I will not be in the same room as my mom and dad on Dec. 25. I’m not the only one.”
The journey for Bauza to his current position has been one he described as a “slow build.” For the final year of his college program two decades ago, he went to California eager for an internship.
“I was so Canadian I was wearing like a three-piece wool suit for a job interview in L.A. in the middle of August,” Bauza noted, adding he ultimately decided to come back to Toronto to graduate.
However, he said he kept getting messages from contacts — some of whom have gone on to become great friends — encouraging him to come back to work. A brief stint at Sheridan College in animation helped lay the groundwork for a graphic designer’s job, the means to get a trade visa to work an extended period of time in the United States.
He eventually began to take on voice acting jobs and was able to work in the industry full-time in 2007. Bauza’s first entry into the world of Looney Tunes came roughly 10 years ago by becoming the voice of Marvin the Martian. In that time, he said there have only been two openings to take on the signature role of Bugs Bunny.
“That just goes to show you how often they’re willing to open it up to new blood and if there is a new idea, which was Looney Tunes Cartoons,” Bauza said, noting the latest iteration of the franchise takes a back-to-basics approach.
“It’s just going to Elmer trying to get Bugs and Bugs putting one over on Elmer. Daffy is going to be crazy, he’s not going to be the greedy Daffy like the ’80s.
“It’s the formula of what’s funny is funny … and Bugs Bunny just might happen to be holding an iPhone, but we’re not going to make it the focus of the cartoon. It’s just going to be part of the short.”
And it isn’t just Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian that he voices. Bauza is also the force behind Daffy Duck and Tweety.
“Once you’re in the pocket with one, it’s not hard to get into another one,” he said.
The roles have seemingly been decades in the making for Bauza. He said his earliest exposure to the characters came as a youth.
“Global had the Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show and that’s what I would watch — me and my brother — every Saturday. That was my training, my introduction to Mel Blanc,” Bauza said.
Blanc, a 60-year veteran who was best known as the “man of a thousand voices” and an original voice of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters, was a strong source of inspiration for Bauza, as were the men who followed him.
After Blanc died in 1989, he recalled a film festival at the Cinesphere at Ontario Place where Jeff Bergman picked up voicing the beloved characters. While it was not the exact same, he said it was “damn close.”
“In those performances, I hear a guy in a booth exactly doing what made him fall in love with the character. He’s bringing all of his best memories to this character to make it come back to life,” he said.
“You can put yourself in a box so tightly just to try to make the voice sound exactly that you lose the acting, you lose being daring to do out-of-the-box stuff.”
Fast-forward to March, when Looney Tunes Cartoons premiered on HBO Max as well as Teletoon, which is owned by Global News parent company Corus Entertainment, in Canada. He said there was a lot of pressure in debuting a signature series of characters.
“When it came out, I thought, ‘end of my career. They’re going to rake me over the coals for not being Mel Blanc’ … but with this, there really hasn’t been a lot of negative reaction. Of course, there’s going to be diehard fans (who scrutinize the voices),” Bauza said, effortlessly speaking on occasion in the voice of Bugs Bunny.
“Any time I’ve been doing this, you smile and there must be something right I’m doing because it just brings you back to when you heard that voice for the first time as a kid and even when you revisit the ‘toons now you’re kind of just like, ‘Oh yeah, shoot, there was something to that show.’”
As Bauza’s role on Looney Tunes Characters has made headlines, fans on social media shared a sense of pride in the Scarborough actor’s rise in the industry, especially as someone who is a Filipino-Canadian taking on a position that has been held by older white men throughout the franchise’s tenure.
“I hope we can also look at ourselves and still be able to laugh at what makes us unique, and laugh at our differences and also respect our differences and really pay attention,” he said.
“If I can do it, you can do it.”
Bauza also fondly recalled those times in his early years watching Looney Tunes with his brother and parents while looking back at his career.
“It’s amazing. My parents can watch (the show) without having to subscribe to anything,” he said.
“It’s fun to see it all kind of come back now, but with me part of it. I left home. I left my home. I left family. I left a lot of things.”
Meanwhile, when not in front of the microphone, Bauza is an integral part of Retrokid, a 1980s- and 1990s-inspired store that has clothing lines inspired by famous Canadian institutions and shows such as Mr. Dressup, Inspector Gadget (a Canadian co-production) and BiWay, to name a few.
(Ed. Note: A previous version of this article stated that Bauza would be voicing Bugs Bunny in the upcoming ‘Space Jam’ movie. While Bauza is voicing Bugs Bunny in the ‘Looney Tunes’ franchise, he is not the voice actor for the movie. This has been corrected.)