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Nancy Cartwright Chats with Grey DeLisle

In her latest column, Nancy Cartwright finds out about Grey DeLisle's first musical performance, how she comes up with the voices and her biggest challenge so far in v.o. work.

Nancy Cartwright.

Nancy Cartwright.

Grey DeLisle has voiced many popular characters including Daphne on Scooby-Doo, Vicky the evil babysitter on Fairly OddParents, Azula on Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mandy on The Grimm Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Queen Amildala on Star Wars: Clone Wars, Wubbzy from Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and most recently, she voiced the inimitable Riley Daring and infamous Buzz Winters from The Replacements.

Nancy Cartwright: Tell me about your early years. I know that you started singing gospel songs when you were in your late teens. What did that lead to?

Grey DeLisle: Well, to be quite honest... I think my sheltered, religious upbringing saved me from listening to a lot of crap! I don't have a lot of bad influence clouding my brain. I was raised primarily by my grandmother who used to sing with the great Latin bandleader Tito Puente in the 1940s. She had a huge collection of jazz records -- Stan Getz, Keely Smith and Nancy Wilson (not the gal from Heart!). I used to stay awake late into the night learning those tunes, not to mention the stuff in Spanish. The first song I ever sang in front of a crowd was an old bolero called "Sabor A Mi" -- translated "A Taste of Me" -- pretty grown-up for a 6-year-old, not to mention a tad unsettling! Thanks, grandma! I remember singing it at my aunt's wedding and the whole audience erupting in laughter! I was terribly offended! How dare they laugh at my bared soul!

My mom was a recovering addict who had become "born again" so at her house I listened to Mahalia Jackson, Elvis and The Carter Family. My dad turned me on to George Jones, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. High School leaked a little Morrissey and The Cramps into the mix, and The Beatles somehow snuck into my subconscious along the way too! I suppose it lead to me recording a very eclectic catalog of work!

NC: From your filmography, it looks like your first professional job was back in 1992 with Kureyon Shin-chan. How did that come about?

GD: Ah... never trust Wikipedia! My first big job was Reptar on Rugrats! I had been trying to get a cartoon job for ages and couldn't even get in front of any actual casting folks! I had to audition from my agent's office! I was cleaning houses and hostessing at a Chinese food place on Ventura Boulevard when I got the news that I had booked that part! I was so excited on the way to Klasky-Csupo to record it that I looked down at my script again to make sure this was all really happening (and feel extra prepared!) and nearly hit the car in front of me -- thus overcorrecting and spinning out of control to the side of the 101 Freeway! My tire was popped and I was sure I'd never get another chance like this so I flagged-down an oncoming car and asked if they'd drive me to the studio! The guy must've thought I was a little wacky (good judge of character!) but he drove me [to the studio]. Thank goodness he wasn't Ted Bundy [laughs]!

NC: You have one of the larger libraries of voice-over work of anyone in the industry with 198 credits to your name. What is your technique -- aka "secret" for creating so many different characters? Are they based on friends, relatives or the guy who lives down the street?

Grey DeLisle.

Grey DeLisle.

GD: Well, I come from a regional theater background. I completed my formal training with the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts which is a school that also operates as a working reparatory company. They have about 10 actors they hire as the core group... two ingénues, two leading ladies, two comic types, male and female. Those actors are then cast in the upcoming season and the smaller roles are filled in by guest artists. That's sort of the way my brain is -- filled with two little girls, two little boys, two old ladies, two leading ladies -- of course with the layering on of accents, speech impediments and mucus! All of these "cast members" can sound like a few different versions of themselves, but they are already very fleshed-out characters, so I suppose my auditions are a bit more confident! I just sort of "cast" whatever audition material I'm given with the rep company in my head [laughs]!

NC: Your career is so impressive because you are balancing on-camera with voice-overs and have recorded four CDs as a singer. Add to that a 2-year-old son; I'd say you are pretty busy. How do you balance all those art forms? What criteria do you keep in mind when deciding what part to take?

GD: Oh, boy, I sure wish I was better at turning things down but I'm pretty much a human whirling dervish! I never turn down work! I keep thinking of the phrase "Can I start y'all off with something to drink?" and it turns my blood to iced water!

NC: What is your greatest challenge regarding your work?

I get a huge amount of satisfaction from my work but I'm kinda of the mind that if you're doing the work you were put on this earth to do, it's not so much of a challenge, but a thrill! Sometimes I get a bit intimidated by an accent or trying to come up with something completely original that no one has ever heard me do before, which gets hard when you've been doing the same job with the same 12 folks for the past 15 years! -- but I just laugh and jump in the water head-first! There have only been a few belly flops! As far as the music goes, I suffer from debilitating stage fright!

NC: We've had the pleasure of working together on Kim Possible, Rugrats: All Growed Up and The Replacements. What is the most challenging job you have ever had?

GD: Doing the Sith warrior, Assaj Ventress, for Cartoon Network's Clone Wars was pretty nerve-wracking. My butt tightened up a little thinking of all of the Star Wars fans I might anger if I screwed it up! In the end, it turned out to be one of the characters I'm most proud of! No one recognized my voice and I was able to pull off the androgynous quality I was going for (and I'm pretty darn girly!).

NC: What advice would you give some "young pup" just starting out in v.o.?

GD: There's always room for talented people! Don't let anyone discourage you by telling you what a "small world" it is! I mean, it is a tight circle but if you're good enough, the circle will widen! Also... be nice to everyone! The gal who's setting out the sandwiches may be casting something in five years! You should be nice just 'cause your mama raised you right... but still!

NC: If you were producing/directing an animated series, what would you do differently than is done today?

GD: I'd let the actors improv a lot more. Things sound so fresh and funny when the actors are just allowed to play! Then again, this would probably result in me going way over-budget on recording time and losing control of the cast and crew, thus getting fired -- so maybe I'd better stick with acting for now [laughs].

NC: Your animation fans might not know that you actually received a Grammy for "Willie We Have Missed You." I saw "the making of" on YouTube and it is a truly a piece of art. Can you tell me more about your music?

GD: I play an Appalachian instrument called the autoharp and my music has been dubbed "Gothic Americana" -- whatever that means! I write most of my own music and love experimenting with vintage ribbon mics and analog recording equipment! I adore the private side of my music but my battle with stage fright makes touring a very precarious situation!

NC: What is your proudest artistic achievement?

GD: Without a doubt it was being asked by John Carter Cash to perform one of his mother, June's, songs for a tribute album called "Anchored in Love." It was released early last year and featured some of my greatest heroes -- Loretta Lynn, Billy Joe Shaver, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson! I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw my name written next to theirs in the liner notes! It seemed like one o' those fake magazine covers you can pay to get your picture on at the fair! Such an honor! Speaking of an honor -- this interview was a big one too! Thanks for thinking of me, Nancy! Can't wait to see what fantastic shoes you're wearing when next we meet!

NC: I feel the same about you -- especially regarding the shoes [laughs]!

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy.