In the spring of 1999, Japanese PlayStation owners bore witness to the birth of a new brand-friendly hero: the legendary Pepsiman. While Western shores never received any incarnation of his refreshing antics, the game starred an actor from Canada of all places. We caught up with Mike Butters to discuss the life and times of the blue-clad boy and what he’s been up to since then.
What’s your background and how did you get into acting?
I grew up a prairie boy in Winnipeg, Canada. I always loved performing. When I was a kid, we would have all my relatives over for holidays and events. During these times, I would do impressions of my relatives and get laughs. I would put on skits with my cousins and it became kind of tradition. I guess it was then that I decided that I wanted to be an actor. I tried out for the school plays and stuff like that. I also made several films for schools projects in both elementary and high school.
My parents had an 8mm camera and let me use it. When I took an interest in it, they supported me. In high school, my drama teacher, Tracey Kennard, inspired me to pursue acting as a career. It was her encouragement that gave me the courage to dive into it. However, I never really got into acting as a profession until my late twenties. I, like pretty much every other Canadian kid, played hockey. I loved it. I ended up playing 8 years of professional hockey after high school. When I retired, I had the opportunity to play professional roller hockey in Anaheim, California. I figured it was fate as I could go to California, get paid to play hockey and get close to the hub of the film business.
I arrived in Anaheim in 1993 and it was right at the time when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the LA Kings. Hollywood went hockey crazy. There were all kinds of hockey productions going on and it just happened that I was one of the few guys in the entire town that could both act and play hockey. It gave me the opportunity to gain work as an actor while I continued to study and take acting acting classes. I ended up booking a national commercial on my very first audition. I booked the lead in a small independent film on my second audition. It was all I needed to give me the confidence to keep at it. I have been working since then.
What were your thoughts on being cast for Pepsiman, and why did a Japanese game want an American actor?
he Pepsiman audition was just another audition for me when I got the call from my agent. By the time I received this audition, I had been acting full time for about 6 years and was auditioning up to 5-6 times a day for various things. I don’t mean to trivialize it but that was my thoughts on it. The producers were looking for a “Hank Hill Type,” from the cartoon King of the Hill. That was the only information I received prior to auditioning.
The audition was in Los Angeles and was one of 4 auditions I had that day. It was the last one of the day. I remember wearing some cut off blue jeans and a “wife beater” shirt with a beer logo on it. I also put my brown steel toe work boots on to give Pepsiman that extra dose of redneck. The audition was full improvisation. These types of auditions were always fun. I had been performing with an couple of LA Improv Groups, the LA Connection and the Pasty White Round eyes.
I remember wearing some cut off blue jeans and a “wife beater” shirt with a beer logo on it. I also put my brown steel toe work boots on to give Pepsiman that extra dose of redneck.
I developed my character as best as I could and simply put out a trailer park kinda guy with a slight southern accent. The producers of Pepsiman wanted what they believed to be a typical American, so I simply tried to give them what they wanted. After all, that’s my job. They have an idea of what they want and it’s up to me to somewhat guess what that is and give it to them. Luckily for me, they were picking up what I was laying down.
The funny thing was that the 4-5 people in the room were not laughing. They were just all holding a constant smile on their face. It was odd, so I kept at it until I finally got one of the producers to laugh. It was about 3 weeks before I received the call that I booked the job and, to be honest, I had completely just blocked it from my mind and was on to other things.
What were the team at KID like to work with?
n a word, fantastic. The entire crew was Japanese. They had an English translator so all of our discussions went through him. The director was really good. He would essentially tell me how he envisioned the upcoming scene and we then took a few minutes and shot it. He gave me so much freedom to improvise and simply tweaked what I was doing to work in a line or something he wanted to see. Whenever I work on a job that is supposed to funny, I make it my mission to make the crew laugh.
Film crews have seen it all, so they can become jaded. If you can make them laugh, you know it will likely be seen as funny as the are the hardest ones to please. At first, they were somewhat in shock at how wild I was coming off. Perhaps it’s because things are a little more reserved over there, I don’t really know. But after a few takes, I had them going, so I figured it was working. The crew was polite all day and since we couldn’t really communicate without the interpreter, making them laugh was my way of doing it. They treated me really well and the day flew by.
Did they specify your character’s exuberant personality or was that up to you?
They left that entirely up to me. Sometimes the director wanted either a tad more or less from me but as far as the nuances of the character, Pepsiman was an empty palette. I simply got to create the character and run with it. Those are the jobs you dream of.
Did you think it weird at the time that a soft drink could have such a huge following, let alone a video game?
Sure. Soft drink companies shoot so many commercials and they are turned over so quickly. When I heard that this spot was for a video game that could not be played anywhere but Japan, I was kind of bummed. I had no idea that the game was going to be a hit and make it’s way over to the US. However, I have a friend, Matt Coohill, who was a game tester at a digital effects house in LA and he called me about 8 months after the game had come out and told me he just played the game and loved it.
Soft drink companies shoot so many commercials and they are turned over so quickly. When I heard that this spot was for a video game that could not be played anywhere but Japan, I was kind of bummed.
His job was to test every game console out there and he had a Japanese PlayStation. He floored me when he said he saw the game and said it was really popular in Japan and other gamers where he worked used to come in on their break to play it. Over the next few years I would get really obscure requests to do interviews about the game. None of them came from the US. Each interviewer told me that the game and Pepsiman had somewhat of a cult following and it remained very popular. That noise died down over the last few years, but a recent GDQ featured the game and my Twitter account literally blew up. I had close to 5000 new followers in less than 3 hours. It was so flattering. Bizarre and flattering at the same time.