Still Learning After All These Years

Darlene Chan interviews nine leading voice actors and finds out what surprised them most after making it in the business.

Let's say you're a successful voice over actor. You run from recording studio to recording studio all around town creating personalities and characters for some of the best animated shows. After all the years of training and classes, you've become the consummate professional with years of experience under your belt. We wondered, could a veteran like that still be surprised by something in the business? AWN talked to nine of the hottest working voice actors and asked, what didn't you realize or what did you learn once you started getting regular work?

Even though Nancy Cartwright has reached the top of her profession by voicing a multitude of characters including Bart Simpson, she still believes there's more to be learned and continues to study her craft. Bart Simpson image rights: Fox.

Even though Nancy Cartwright has reached the top of her profession by voicing a multitude of characters including Bart Simpson, she still believes there's more to be learned and continues to study her craft. Bart Simpson image rights: Fox.

Nancy Cartwright

A native of Ohio, Nancy came to Los Angeles to attend UCLA in 1987 and got her first professional gig shortly thereafter as the voice of Gloria in Richie Rich. Since, she has earned an Emmy for creating the voice of Bart in The Simpsons. Currently, Nancy can also be heard as Chuckie in Rugrats, Earl the Squirrel in Timberwolf and Chip in The Kellys, an Internet show produced by Nancy's company SportsBlast.

To answer the questions I am going to address the general viewpoint of what it means to be a "professional." As the saying goes, "A writer writes." I dont know who said it, but it totally makes sense, no matter the profession. A painter paints. A bricklayer, lays bricks. Simple. Suffice it to say, a voice actor does voices.

Now, I have been blessed with an "arsenal" of characters, if you will. I have never studied "how to do voices." I just would call up these characters that I developed through experience and slotted them into whatever audition I was doing.

In retrospect, what I didnt realize was that there was so much more that I could be doing. I never felt the need to do any more than what I was already doing because I worked a lot. I did tons of characters for as many shows and had a lot of success in doing so. And this was before The Simpsons! It is only now, after 23 years as a professional voice actor that I am opening myself up to actually studying voice work. You, dear reader, might think that perhaps, "Nancy has gone a little bonkers." And that might very well be! After all, why would one of the top voice artists think for one second that she would have to actually study? Why? Because none of us can afford the arrogance of believing that we already know everything there is to know about any one subject. And that is what I learned: that I didnt know all already! And guess what? I am having a ball!

Dionne Quan

A crystal-clear image of herself as an actress led Dionne Quan born almost entirely blind undaunted down a career path beginning in childhood. The fiercely imaginative 24 year-old plays cowboy-booted, spunky Kimi Finster, the newest addition to the Emmy award winning Rugrats cast.

Until I was working regularly, I didnt give much thought to the numerous sound effects that are so necessary in order to convey action in a story. I learned how to do that on the job, and learned all of the incredible nuances from listening to my coworkers. Its a blast!

A microphone is a very sensitive piece of equipment that picks up the softest of sounds. I didnt fully comprehend that until I was called on to read lengthy pieces of copy at an unbelievably rapid pace. Microphones easily pick up the soft sound of my fingers flying across the page as I read.

Sound effects, the role of the microphone and continual character development surprised Dionne Quan, who provides the voice of Kimi in Rugrats. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies.

Sound effects, the role of the microphone and continual character development surprised Dionne Quan, who provides the voice of Kimi in Rugrats. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies.

I also never imagined that the process of creating a character can continue even after you have auditioned and been chosen for a part. Sometimes a character can change drastically, feeling and sounding completely different from the original character on the audition tape. The process involves many people, and can take time. No workshop or book could ever really prepare me for the high energy and intensity of the work, or the joy I will always feel doing it. The sense of freedom the work gives me never ceases to amaze me.

Dom Irrera, who voices Demolition Man in Hey Arnold!, didn't expect voice over superstar attitude. © 2003 Dom Irrera Productions.

Dom Irrera, who voices Demolition Man in Hey Arnold!, didn't expect voice over superstar attitude. © 2003 Dom Irrera Productions.

Dom Irrera

Dom is the voice of Demolition Man on Hey Arnold! In addition, Dom is a noted stand up comic, having hosted his own HBO special, Showtime series and Comedy Central special. He has also appeared as a series regular on Damon.

I was doing a show called Captain Simeon and The Space Monkeys. They asked an actor named Maurice LaMarche if he could do Orson Wells and he replied, "Do you want the 30 year-old or the 40 year-old Wells?" That's how good some of these guys are. Do you remember the hand model episode of Seinfeld? How every aspect of the business has their stars? Well this is true of voice overs too. There are a few voice over royalty who are carted around in limos every day to do jobs all over town. So my biggest surprises have been the extremely high level of talent and the small circle of voice over elite.

Danielle Harris

Voice over artist, actress and writer, Danielle Harris stars as Debbie Thornberry, the trendy teenager on Nickelodeons hit series and feature film The Wild Thornberrys.

Danielle Harris, who voices Debi in The Wild Thornberrys, was surprised by the size of the voice over community. She expected it to be as large as the on-screen actors' world. Image courtesy of Paramount /Nickelodeon.

Danielle Harris, who voices Debi in The Wild Thornberrys, was surprised by the size of the voice over community. She expected it to be as large as the on-screen actors' world. Image courtesy of Paramount /Nickelodeon.

What has surprised me the most about working in the voice over business is the size of this part of the entertainment industry. I have been a television and film actress for a number of years and I thought that the voice industry was just as large! I had no idea just how difficult it was to break into. I just got lucky and landed The Wild Thornberrys with absolutely no voice training or workshops. All I had under my belt was years of on-camera acting classes and I guess that has taught me enough! This part of the business is small and everybody wants to be part of it because it is one of the best jobs in the world! I mean how many jobs do you get to come into work for a few hours once a week in your sweats and pretend you're a talking elephant or a 16 year-old high maintenance drama queen with more issues than a newsstand!

Charlie Adler, who provided both title characters' voices in Cow and Chicken and is a voice director in demand, finds that voice actor work challenges every acting skill he has. Courtesy of Cartoon Network.

Charlie Adler, who provided both title characters' voices in Cow and Chicken and is a voice director in demand, finds that voice actor work challenges every acting skill he has. Courtesy of Cartoon Network.

Charlie Adler

Starring in the primetime Emmy nominated series and international hit Cow and Chicken as the voice of Cow, Chicken and The Red Guy, Charlie has over 100 regular characters in over 80 animated series, features and specials to his credit. He can be heard an average of 20 times a day all over the world. Most notably as Buster Bunny in Steven Spielberg's Tiny Toon Adventures, Ickis in AAAHH!!! Real Monsters and Ed and Bev Bighead in Rockos Modern Life. Adler's vast experience in the voice over industry has led him to direct the voices for both the Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys series, as well as their respective motion pictures.

The initial thing that really struck me on my first animation job was, "Wow! I really belong here!"

I am completely lying...I was terrified! I was in a room full of the most versatile, skilled, free falling, improvisational and technically adept actors that I had ever worked with. I shook for the first season of The Smurfs, and every day that we recorded, I became more of a fan of the medium. Frankly, coming from the starring role of a hit Broadway show and the National Tour, made me feel in my arrogant ignorance, that cartoons were beneath me, and that, except for the income, they would be a cakewalk! What an idiot I was! The theatre training and background I came from helped enormously, but it was rounded out by the improv company I was in for a year in New York and the character repertoire that I had evolved over the years.

Animation, is an actor's medium, and what surprised me and still does, is the skill, the fearlessness, the energy, the commitment to character, the imagination, the willingness to free fall and take chances, the ability to listen to other actors and respond quickly, the ability to turn on a dime and shape shift and an overall willingness to appear foolish.

Now that I also direct, it is evident every day the actors who are right for this medium and who are not. And don't let any arrogant jerk in any interview pass this medium off as anything less than amazing! What surprised me the most, was how much of my energy and talent this medium uses, and how it pulls the best of my skills as an actor, not just a voice or noise maker, but ACTOR!

Voice recognition surprised Kyla Pratt of The Proud Family. Photo credit: Cliff Lipson; The Proud Family © Disney.

Voice recognition surprised Kyla Pratt of The Proud Family. Photo credit: Cliff Lipson; The Proud Family © Disney.

Kyla Pratt

Kyla Pratt lends her voice to Penny Proud, a 14 year-old embarking on the trials and tribulations of bad hair blunders and fashion faux pas in Disney Channel's The Proud Family.

I have been in the business for a while and what still surprises me is the fact that people actually recognize your voice from a character you play on a cartoon. What I realized by doing The Proud Family was that doing voice over is very difficult. You have to create the characters personality with your voice. You can no longer rely on what you are doing physically, i.e. facial expressions and body language.

Debi Derryberry, who is the voice of boy genius Jimmy Neutron, realized that being a good on-screen actor doesn't guarantee that you'll be good at voice over work. Photo credit: Chris Ameruoso; Jimmy Neutron image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Debi Derryberry, who is the voice of boy genius Jimmy Neutron, realized that being a good on-screen actor doesn't guarantee that you'll be good at voice over work. Photo credit: Chris Ameruoso; Jimmy Neutron image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Debi Derryberry

Possessing one of the most unique children's voices around, Debi is the voice of the precocious Jimmy Neutron on both the big and small screens. She has racked up an impressive list of feature and TV credits, including the original Toy Story and its sequel as Weenie, and Catrina on Oswald the Octopus and Betty in Clifford.

I have been in the voice over business for 15 years. When I first began to work in voice over, I did office work to make ends meet. As I became more established and started working more in VO, I was able to quit the part time office jobs and was surprised to find that I was able to make a really good living working in voice over. In fact, I have little time to do anything else since I have auditions almost everyday and need to be available every weekday just in case a job comes up.

I realized that the voice over community is very small. The women that I seem to work and audition with for children's voices, are the same small group over and over again. In animation, there seems to be this core group of people who book most of the work. Hundreds of people audition for each cartoon, but the fact remains, that there is almost always the same group of people that get the jobs. This is interesting since when we audition, the producers and casting directors don't usually know who we are since they only hear the recorded audition and don't see us.

I also realized after having worked with dozens of on-camera celebrities as guest stars on cartoons, that being an "on-camera" actor doesn't guarantee that you are going to be a good "voice over" actor. Some actors who do both well that I have worked with are: Tim Curry, Patrick Stewart, Larraine Neuman, John Astin, Fred Savage and Mark Hamill, to name a few.

Shayna Fox, who is the voice of Reggie in Rocket Power, learned that a good voice actor gives her whole heart, and not just her voice, to a character. Photo credit: Atilla Azodi; Rocket Power image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Shayna Fox, who is the voice of Reggie in Rocket Power, learned that a good voice actor gives her whole heart, and not just her voice, to a character. Photo credit: Atilla Azodi; Rocket Power image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Shayna Fox

A freshman at UC Santa Barbara, Shayna balances college with voice work as Reggie in Nickelodeon's Rocket Power. A naturally gifted athlete in tennis and karate, Shayna chose to pursue on-screen acting and voice work. She has also found time to produce and direct two videos, the award-winning Ten Minute Run and On Growing Older. Shayna's vocal work will be featured in a full-length TV movie, Reggie's Big Break, airing July 26, 2003 on Nick.

When I first started doing voice over work, I didn't know how much commitment it entailed. The more time I spent in the studio, the more I realized how important it is to put my whole heart into every recording session. It is my job to give the character life. I learned that the audience's ability to feel the character's persona depends on how much energy and fervor I invest into the line readings. Also, if I am hesitant in how I deliver a line, the character will appear hesitant and her emotions unclear. Therefore, I try to be specific in the emotion my voice is conveying. I also find that it is better to be over the top and have the director bring me down, as opposed to under-acting in voice over. Most importantly, when I walk into an audition or a job, I bring three things with me: confidence, a positive attitude and my voice!

Money-lovin' Mr. Krabs is voiced by Clancy Brown, who found that working with the animation community was like attending one big fun family party. SpongeBob SquarePants image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Money-lovin' Mr. Krabs is voiced by Clancy Brown, who found that working with the animation community was like attending one big fun family party. SpongeBob SquarePants image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Clancy Brown

Crossing over effortlessly from on-screen work to voice over acting, Clancy Brown is identifiable to viewers as the crusty Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob SquarePants. On the big screen, he's known as Rawhide in the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and Captain Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption.

Well actually, I took a workshop once. It was very illuminating and not easy. Our teacher told me I had a speech impediment that would limit my future in the VO world and she may yet be right. The difference for me was I was already acting. In fact she forgot all about my speech impediment after she saw me in something. Before that moment I was learning a lot. After that I could do no wrong and the class became useless to me.

What surprised me about voice over work in animation was how welcome I was made to feel. I had always been a big cartoon fan so I was awestruck when Jim Cummings, Frank Welker, Tress MacNeille, Rob Paulson, Jeff Bennett or Jess Harnell would be in the same room. I probably should have been intimidated but I was too busy laughing to get too self-conscious. It is a terrific environment a party really. I am just glad to be invited every now and then.

I don't think I can over-emphasize how talented these people are. Charlie Adler, Jennifer Hale, Phil Lamar, EG Daily, Rodger Bumpass, Tom Kane, Tara Strong, Tom Kenny and of course, My Man Kevin Michael Richardson can turn any over-paid on-camera superstar into a quivering puddle of flop-sweat. There's nothing malicious about it. On the contrary the directors and talent that I have worked with (with one ridiculous exception) are supportive and patient and immensely generous. It's just that worlds are brought to life by these people and, with the exception of perhaps Robin Williams, there isn't a movie star out there that could keep up. I sure can't. But I have such a good time hanging on by my fingernails that I've developed a craving for it.

I'm an animation-session junkie. Some actors dream of dying onstage in the final scene of King Lear. My hope is that I am in the room with Rob, Tom, Jeff, Kevin, Tress, Tara, Jess and Jennifer laughing so hard I can't breathe and Charlie sticks his head in the door and delivers the knife-edge-of-tasteless coup-de-gras.

I am 100% sincere. Getting into animation is the best chance I've ever taken with my career.

Darlene Chan is managing editor of Animation World Magazine. After receiving a bachelor's degree from UCLA, Darlene happened into the motion picture business and stayed for 14 years. She served as a production executive for Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Davis Entertainment and Motown. She produced Grumpy Old Men (1993) for Warner Bros. In 2001, she joined Animation World Magazine.

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