I’m willing to wager that before the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon, very few people outside of comic readers were familiar with the character of Cyborg. But twenty years after that seminal animated series, not only has Cyborg reached new heights in the comics by becoming a member of the Justice League but has achieved greater mainstream recognition amongst the general public. Much of this can be attributed to actor Khary Payton who voiced Cyborg in the Teen Titans series and still continues to play the character to this day in the Teen Titans Go! cartoon which has now become the longest running DC animated series.
Teen Titans Go! is set to reach the 400th episode milestone when Season 8 premieres on Cartoon Network later this year. Before that however, Cyborg and the rest of the Titans will be encountering the Super Hero Girls in an all-new crossover adventure with Teen Titans Go! & DC Super Hero Girls: Mayhem in the Multiverse animated film. We had the pleasure of chatting with Kary Payton not only about his long tenure voicing Cyborg but also his recent venture into writing for animation.
Taimur Dar: I think it’s safe to say that Cyborg is a character near and dear to your heart. I’d go far as to argue that your performance and that original Teen Titans cartoon were instrumental in bringing Cyborg into the limelight. His rise as a major character almost parallels your own career when you just starting out and now you’re one of the most sought after actors both in animation and live-action. How does it feel to look back from where you are now?
Khary Payton: The thing that’s cool to me is to meet people who love the shows and the cartoons and to see how it’s affected them. At the end of the day the reason I get most of my enjoyment out of this is that connection to people. Obviously you’re connecting with your fellow actors and the people that you work with on set and in the recording booth. But at the end of the day you want the story to really affect the people watching. I feel really lucky that we’ve been able to affect so many people. There are millions of people who have watched the shows but there is a smaller percentage who really needed it. It’s a refuge that people needed at a time in their life. People have come up to me and said that when they were kids this show gave them a place to feel safe when they didn’t feel safe in other places. That’s just humbling and gratifying to know that all the stuff that some stuff that people find silly that it really does help.
Dar: A large part of the magic of Teen Titans Go! is due to the fact that all five actors record in the same room where so many gags and jokes have been improvised. Obviously that hasn’t been feasible due to the pandemic. I know virtual group recording sessions still take place, so I’m curious for Mayhem in Multiverse or the latest seasons of Teen Titans Go! if you’ve been able to record together virtually or if you’ve had to record by yourself?
Payton: I think we had one session that we recorded together and then other sessions that we recorded by ourselves. The Titans crew still tries to record together if we can even if it’s virtually. We try very hard because that interaction between the five of us and our voice director Lisa Schaeffer and producer/director Peter Rida Michael really does make a difference in how everything gets played. For the most part it’s really hard to do these days.
Dar: It’s clear that the producers of Teen Titans Go! value your input and you’re not simply a cog in someone else’s truly machine. How creatively fulfilling has it been playing Cyborg?
Payton: It’s been an awesome journey. I feel like I’ve had the pleasure of working with writers and directors and producers that always appreciate my input. Sometimes they’re like, “Nah, Khary. That’s not a good idea.” And they’re probably right! [Laughs]. But I’ve come to find that for the most part they’re really excited to have that exchange of ideas.
Dar: Another DC Comics character you play that is also near and dear to your heart is Kaldur‘ahm, the former Aqualad and now Aquaman in the hit Young Justice animated series. You made a big splash this season of Young Justice: Phantoms writing your first episode. So I gotta ask how that opportunity came about and what was your experience writing your first script for animation?
Payton: Greg Weisman and Brandon Viettithe showrunners of Young Justiceactually asked me to write an episode in Season 3 but I had just gotten on The Walking Dead and I was feeling like I needed to focus on that. So when Season 4 came along they asked again and I was so excited that they asked me again. And man, I absolutely loved the experience. I feel like I learned so much from those guys as far as storytelling. I had a very unique perspective from having played Kaldur’ahm for so many years. [I had] so many thoughts about what was going on inside his mind and the minds of the people around him. I think I was uniquely qualified to write this story. And at the same time, learn on the fly some of the structural components of writing for television in this genre.
One of the reasons that Greg asked me to do it was that during the first two seasons I would always talk to him about my perspective of where I thought the character and story might go. The thing is, Greg and Brandon already have a very specific outline because it’s such an intricate story. But he was always really interested in what my thoughts were as far as moving the story forward. He would tell me, “Khary, I think you’re a writer.” I’ve written and produced a film and I’ve written a couple of scripts on my own. But I guess he just saw something in those interactions. And I just had the best time writing with him and we’re continuing that partnership in writing other things. So we’ll see what happens with those.
Kaldur grabbing his pens. Thanks to @Greg_Weisman and @BrandonVietti for the mentorship and opportunity. I’m incredibly grateful and more than a little proud. Can’t wait for you to see it. #youngjusticephantoms #youngjustice #byfootorbyfin https://t.co/E2SX0sD9Ln pic.twitter.com/h6adeuKhj8
— Khary Payton (@kharypayton) April 6, 2022
Dar: Your Teen Titans Go! co-star Hynden Walch also wrote her first animation script for a Teen Titans Go! episode a few years ago. Now that you’ve gotten a taste of writing for animation, I don’t suppose you see yourself writing an episode of Teen Titans Go! in the near future?
Payton: You know, I think that’s entirely possible. I throw out a lot of ideas to those guys and there have been several ideas that they’ve come back with just from our silly interactions. I might want to see if I can jump in there and contribute a couple. That would be a lot of fun. This show is so crazy and so much fun! The possibilities are endless.
Teen Titans Go! & DC Super Hero Girls: Mayhem in the Multiverse is available now on Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and Digital.
Fans can also catch the movie event on Cartoon Network premiering Saturday, May 28 and then on HBO Max beginning June 28.