He’s scaled buildings as Ethan Hunt, kicked ass as Jack Reacher and felt the need for speed as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
No, I don’t mean Tom Cruise — I’m talking about Arturo Mercado Jr., who managed to do all of that without jumping off of motorcycles or hanging off the side of airplanes. Since 1999, Mercado has been the Spanish voice of Cruise for nearly every one of the star’s movies. As a longtime admirer of Cruise, it’s always been a thrill for Mercado to provide his voice for Spanish-language audiences, but to Mercado — who’s also the Spanish voice of Mickey Mouse, Edward Norton and many others — voice acting isn’t just a gig, it’s a family tradition, with his father a legend in the business.
I recently caught up with Mercado to talk about what it’s like to emote as Cruise in Spanish (including capturing his breathlessness when he’s running), what he learned from his famous father (the Spanish Winnie the Pooh and George Clooney, among many, many others) and how he felt drunk after spending a day emulating Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born (yet another Oscar-nominated actor he translates into Spanish).
When did you get into acting?
I’ve been in the voice-acting business since 1979, when I was five years old. I don’t remember what movie I started with, but I do remember that my father had to lift me up so that I could reach the microphone. My father is also a dubbing actor. He’s a huge institution in this business — he’s like the Mexican version of Mel Blanc. He’s been the voice of Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, Speedy Gonzalez and Daffy Duck. He played 10 Smurfs back in the 1980s, he’s been Winnie the Pooh for a long time and he’s still the voice for Jeff Bridges and George Clooney when their films are dubbed in Spanish.
How did you get your start?
I started with dubbing little parts. I was the voice of the friend, Billy Francis Kopecki, in the Tom Hanks movie Big, and I was Bernard the Elf in The Santa Clause. Some of my first starring roles were as Edward Norton, like in Keeping the Faith, Frida and 25th Hour. I’ve also been the voice of Mickey Mouse since 2002.
Mickey Mouse to Edward Norton — that’s quite the range.
I like to say you’re born with that ability. Some people only feel like they can do one kind of voice, but by putting your voice in your throat or nose or chest, you can sound a bit different — you can stretch it and discover more of what it’s capable of.
With Mickey Mouse, there’s a distinct character voice that you’re matching, but how does that apply to actors like Norton or Tom Cruise? Do you have to imitate them exactly?
For those, it’s more about emotion — you really have to get into the feeling of the scene, otherwise it’ll sound false. We try to mimic every gesture and emotion from the original film, and you have to do all that within the range of the microphone, which is a tough discipline to learn. For example, I played Bradly Cooper in A Star Is Born, and the character is basically drunk the whole movie. So when we started the movie, I slowed my voice down and had to sound drunk all the time. By about mid-day, I started to feel drunk, and I didn’t have a sip of alcohol.
How does the process of dubbing a film work?
The project is delivered to the studio and it goes through an adaptation process, but it’s not a direct translation. With dubbing, it should sound and look real with the lip-sync, but if you were to translate a line in English directly into Spanish, the line in Spanish is going to be a lot longer. So, you have to make an adaptation where the lip-sync movement can line up.
After that, the voice director gets all the materials — the translation, and the movie with a watermark on it — then looks to see which voices are already assigned for an actor. People like to see the same actor with the same voice for the sake of continuity. So, for Top Gun: Maverick, they’ll see who’s done Ed Harris and who’s done Tom Cruise. Then the director makes a schedule for the actors to come into the studio in Mexico City, and each character is done separately. For a starring role, it might take a day or two for us to record, but it can be tough because we don’t get the script beforehand, and you have to record a loop in just two or three takes. A loop is one to 25 words in a script, which is less than 15 seconds. We’re paid by the loop.
After the dialogue track has been recorded, there’s a quality-control process to make sure it all syncs up and that all the dialogue is there. Then the audio gets mixed so the quality is the same whether it’s in English or Spanish.
When did you first record for a Tom Cruise film?
The first time was for Eyes Wide Shut. With that film, there was a little bit of an experiment. There had been an actor who had played Tom Cruise two or three times before, and another that had played him twice, but the producers asked the studio to voice-test a group of people. So the actors who had played him came in, and the producers asked the director for a new proposal as well.
Director Francisco Colmenero thought I might be a good match for Tom Cruise, so I was called in for the voice test. I didn’t know who I was coming in for, but when I saw that this was a Tom Cruise film, I got very excited. I then recorded a little bit of a scene for that movie and I was chosen by the producers.
Are there any particular memories you have from Eyes Wide Shut?
It was a really slow movie, and the dialogue was very down. I would record a little bit, then the engineer would fast-forward to the next part and the director would have to tell me what’s going on in the scene. That one took a long time.
Is that when you became the regular voice of Tom Cruise?
No. A few years later, there was War of the Worlds, and the producers wanted one single voice to play Tom Cruise in each region. The actors who dubbed Tom Cruise in the past were all called in for a voice test, and because I’d done Eyes Wide Shut, I was called in. From that pool, the producers chose me and, since then, I’ve been the voice of Tom Cruise.
How did that feel?
I was excited. He already was a huge star by this time, and I was a big fan. It was overwhelming.
Are there any particular challenges when you’re doing Tom Cruise’s voice?
With Tom Cruise, I’ve dubbed him in so many movies now that I know his expressions, and I know what his tone is going to be like. That’s very useful. It’s not that he always plays the same character — he doesn’t — but he has the same range, and I know his rhythms. I know the speed at which he’s going to speak. That’s different from a guy like Edward Norton, because he’s like a chameleon — he’s very different between films and doesn’t remain in the same range from role to role.
A bigger challenge with Tom Cruise is to keep up with the energy and emotion. A lot of people ask me if I have to run like him. I don’t, but I do have to sound like him running and I have to be out of breath and shout like he does when he’s out of breath. Like, in the Mission: Impossible movies, he’s always yelling at Benji — “Vamos Benji!” Those movies are so much fun to do.
What was it like to record for the voice of Maverick in the Top Gun movies?
Well, recording the original Top Gun was a surprise because it had already been done years before. After recording one of the Mission: Impossible movies, I was told by my director that we were going to re-record Top Gun for the remaster. I was excited because I was 12 when the original movie came out, and it’s one of my favorite movies of all time! “Háblame, Goose!”
When I did it, I was told by the director, “You have to go to a higher pitch to sound a little bit younger.” The good thing about Tom Cruise is that he’s almost 60 years old, but he looks 40, and that holds true for his voice too.
I really like the change of the character between these movies. In the first one, he’s more childish — he liked to play a lot. But after his friend dies, everything changes. That’s who he is heading into the new movie, and it’s great. It was the same character — he’s still a pilot, he’s still a tough guy — but he doesn’t joke as much as he used to, and I liked that.
Are there any other roles of his that are favorites of yours?
I’ve liked each one of them. I really enjoyed Lions for Lambs because he was a politician, and it was a very different way of seeing him. He was not jumping from a plane, he was an arrogant senator. I would have loved to have recorded The Firm or A Few Good Men because he was in very different situations.
I also really like War of the Worlds. There was one scene in particular that stands out to me in that movie — it’s when Tom Cruise sings to his little daughter so she won’t be scared. The little girl asks him to sing a song and he doesn’t know it, then she asks him for another, and another and he doesn’t know any of them. Then, he starts to sing Little Deuce Coupe, but he’s not exactly in tune. Tom Cruise sings quite nicely — he was in Rock of Ages — but, in that scene, he was making us believe that he was not a singer. The emotion in that scene is very powerful.
Have you ever had the chance to meet Tom Cruise?
No. The closest I’ve ever gotten was at the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick in Mexico City. I was a special invited guest to that, but it’s difficult to meet someone with the press around. I would love to meet him once. It’s kind of a dream of mine.