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Star Wars: The Clone Wars season 7 brings Dee Bradley Baker back to the battlefield

The voice actor reveals his "magic trick" for playing countless identical-but-different troops in the CGI animated series, which has returned on Disney Plus.

Clone troopers in The Clone Wars

Clone troopers Cody, Kix, Rex and Jesse are voiced by Dee Bradley Baker in The Clone Wars season 7.

Lucasfilm

The seventh season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars kicked off on Disney Plus Friday with The Bad Batch, the first of 12 episodes that'll bring the incredible CGI animated series to a close. The show's original run lasted from 2008 to 2013, but never got a true finale, and fan demand led to its revival on Disney's streaming service.

It reveals the conflict in the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, with an army of clone troopers helping the Jedi defend the Galactic Republic against the Separatists' droid forces, and ties into live-action series The Mandalorian.

If you'd only watched the movies, you might think the clones (based on the DNA of slain bounty hunter Jango Fett) were a pretty characterless bunch. Across its six seasons -- all of which are available on Disney Plus -- The Clone Wars' infused each one with a distinct personality and sense of individuality. I rooted for Rex, Cody and their brothers as much as Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka Tano.

Much of the credit for this attachment lies with American actor Dee Bradley Baker, who voiced dozens of clone troopers throughout the series and in the followup show Rebels. I spoke to him about how he got involved in the show, his techniques for bringing the clones to life and his excitement about bringing the series to its conclusion.

As we come to the end of The Clone Wars, I'd like to go back to the beginning and ask you about your Clone Wars origin story and how you got involved with the show?
Originally I was brought in to audition for the project and we didn't know what it was. It soon became clear it was Clone Wars. Dave Filoni [the show's supervising director] brought me in, with casting director Andrea Romano. She was working on it as a voice director initially, and they both knew me from Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was utterly different from what they were thinking of for me in Star Wars. 

I do a lot of comedy and weird animals -- that was my focus and brand. To bring me in to play a whole bunch of soldiers who are a little bit different from each other ... I didn't think I'd ever have booked that. As a voice actor, you approach work with an improvisational stance, and whatever ball they throw over the plate [you] take your best swing at. So that's what I did.

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Rex teams up with the Bad Batch's Wrecker and Crosshair, all voiced by Dee Bradley Baker.

Lucasfilm

And then the next questions were: Do these guys seem different? Do you care about them? Did you connect with them? Because that was never something that was dialed in when George Lucas made the prequels -- you weren't really connected with the personalities and the humanity of the clones. 

It was George's choice to devote some attention to these clones and flesh out their humanity. And suddenly, the stakes of The Clone Wars become much more compelling and much more fascinating. 

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Why was now the time to finish off the Clone Wars after it had been off the air for seven years?
The fan love for Star Wars has been accelerating and growing. The Clone Wars found love and popularity, I think, once it jumped to Netflix, and it just exploded from there. As Lucasfilm Animation changed hands when Disney took over and started with Rebels, it just became clear that this is a very good thing.

Dee Bradley Baker

Dee Bradley Baker is also voiced by Dee Bradley Baker.

Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic via Getty Images

In the first Bad Batch episode, when Rex's team is introduced to a new group of clones, there are eight distinct personalities, all played by you. How did you differentiate between the clones?
It seems like quite a magic trick, doesn't it? I can see them. And they feel like different people because they're written … with specific characteristics and different functions. If I can get the image of who they are … and how they relate to each other, I can jump to that. 

It's like jumping from rock to rock in a stream, where the water is just flowing past you -- the story is flowing past you. But you can jump from rock to rock because each rock is defined as its own specific entity. And so, if the rocks are below the water, if the writing isn't very good or the director doesn't know what they want, then it's hard to make your way upstream through the rushes of water.

It's the specificity that the writers and the director already have built into the script that ultimately shows me the key to unlock that visualization. It's just such an odd acting assignment. Voice actors sometimes talk to themselves, but I've never had anything like this. And I don't think I ever will again, I don't know if anybody ever will!

The Bad Batch four-part story arc, which starts off The Clone Wars' final season, it's really one of my favorite Clone Wars arcs of all. There's a lot of fun and good humor to it, which is a bit of a relief despite Palpatine's planning and manipulation of everyone. 

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Wrecker, Hunter and Rex -- a trio of Dee Bradley Bakers -- make a mess of the Separatists' plans. 

Lucasfilm

The visuals in the first episode are incredible. There's a one-shot action sequence that follows the Bad Batch as they go through a hallway and into the control center, taking out all the droids.
It reminds me of the cinematography you see in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. It's not something that most viewers would notice, because it's just done so beautifully. 

These are made with cinema-level expertise, artistry and sophistication. I wish anyone watching [could] see this on the biggest screen possible, with full aspect ratio. This is a quantum leap from what we've seen before.

When did you record these new episodes? We saw an early version of The Bad Batch arc when Lucasfilm released the unfinished story reels a few years ago.
A lot of The Bad Batch is lifted from the original sessions years ago. And then we came in and they made some spot changes and tweaks to the story. So part of it's old and part of it is new. The resolution and how it plays out is different too. It's gearing towards the grand finale. 

I rewatched The Clone Wars recently, knowing where Rex's character goes in Rebels. I was struck by his independent streak; he thinks a little more for himself than some clones. Could you comment on that?
His story arc is one where he starts more by the book. Then he bumps into Cut Lawquane [a clone who fled the army and started a family, in season 2 episode The Deserter] and starts to loosen up a little bit. And he hangs out with Anakin Skywalker, who's more improvisational and less by the book than most Jedi. Tragically, ultimately. 

But there's this kind of dawning humanity and openness that I like about Rex. He's not just a soldier, he's actually able to roll with it and is ultimately a survivor because of it. He makes it all the way to Endor, and that's the best of all -- I know at least one clone made it to Endor.

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Wolffe, Rex and Gregor return in Rebels, older, wiser and still played by Dee Bradley Baker.

Lucasfilm

Seeing that Rex survives to at least Return of the Jedi made me think there must be other clones out there, doing their thing or living their lives.
I absolutely love that idea. And I love the idea too that Cut Lawquane shows that can happen. These guys, if they had to, walk away. Or if they had to go out on their own, they can do that -- they can sustain themselves, they can start a family and they can move into some sort of a satisfying life. 

That just feels good because I lament the demise of any clone. And the further we got into The Clone Wars series, the more tragic and anguish in it. You get into the Umbara arc and the Fives arc, and it just brings me down that these guys have to endure this. 

Which clone do you identify with the most?
Perhaps Cut Lawquane because he's a family man. And he's a thoughtful, competent guy.

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Clickedy-click! Dee Bradley Baker gives Separatist villain Admiral Trench his creepy spider voice.

Lucasfilm

You also voiced the villain for The Bad Batch arc, Admiral Trench. Can you speak to that performance?
They threw me that villain back in the show's early days; there were a few Trench episodes. I added that little clicking thing because I do a lot of feature and animal voiceover gigs. And so I wanted to give the animators something that suggests the mandibles of the spider. 

It's something you always try to do as a voice actor. You want to bring things to the performance that give the animators expressive life to the story.  

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It is telling that each time you mentioned a clone, I can hear them and see their different appearances.
As a voice actor, I don't want anyone to think about me doing any of this. I want them to think only about the clones, and I want them to think about each clone as a different person. 

There are a lot of projects, feature films where they hire famous people. And the idea is that you're supposed to think of the famous person while they're performing, which to me makes no sense whatsoever. That's like a marketing person's mindset. 

As someone who enjoys watching movies and TV … I want to think about the story, the characters and the emotional reality of what's playing out. And as a creative person who makes these things, I'm exactly in the same zone. I want people to think only of the story and the individuality of these characters and how they relate. 

So an actor's ego and vanity is short-circuited by the real mission of voice acting: to tell the story effectively, beautifully and expressively, but to be invisible while doing so. It's like special effects -- the best special effects are the ones  you have no awareness of whatsoever. You're astounded by what you see, you're convinced of the reality of what you see, but you are utterly unaware of this technique or what's behind the creation of it. It's seamless and invisible; that's what you want.

Can you offer us a little more hype for the remaining episodes of The Clone Wars?
I think everyone's really gonna love where this goes; it's really spectacular. And the fans are gonna be over the moon with the way it's been handled.

If you want to know more about Baker's craft, his website is full of tips and tricks for aspiring voice actors.

Originally published Feb. 21, 6 a.m. PT.