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Nancy Cartwright Chats with Kath Soucie

In this edition of her bimonthly column, Nancy Cartwright interviews Kath Soucie, one of the top voice-over actors working today.

Nancy Cartwright.

Dear Fans,

For the past several months, I have been branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I have been focusing on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of, and have been getting opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.

So far I have interviewed my good friends Jack Thomas (The Replacements), Mike Scully (The Simpsons), Carolyn Omine (The Simpsons), Ginny McSwain, a longtime voice-over director, and several other wonderful people. This time I spoke with VO pro Kath Soucie.

One of the top voice-over actors working today, Kath began her career in New York as a theatrical actress, followed by featured roles in episodics and movies of the week after her move to Los Angeles.

Soucie's natural acting ability and vocal versatility have created a constant demand for her talents, and she has brought life to hundreds of animated characters. After creating the voices for Phil, Lil and Betty for the series Rugrats, she followed up as the same characters in Rugrats, The Movie and its sequel Rugrats in Paris. Her featured roles include Jetta in the feature Clifford's Really Big Movie, Wendy in Disney's Return to Neverland and Lola Bunny in Space Jam.

Nancy Cartwright: You got your actor training in New York. Tell me about your early years as an actress.

Kath Soucie: I've wanted to be an actress for as long as I can remember... I was completely certain about this from an extremely young age. I was so amazed that someone on TV could say or do something that could actually make me laugh out loud -- and I wanted to do that, too. I really wanted to make people laugh. It seemed like magic to me that a story or a skit could make you feel so many things. When young, I never envisioned myself actually creating or writing the stories. I wanted to be the one to tell them. I spent my Sunday afternoons as a kid watching old movies. I loved the vintage actors... Kate Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn. I thought Lucille Ball was hilarious.

As soon as I could, I started auditioning for plays in school and in the community. My college theater professor told me that the place to go if I were really serious about a career in acting was New York City and that's where I went just as soon as I could. And while I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied for two years in their conservatory-like atmosphere, I also did scene study all over the city and learned different techniques from every avenue that I could. It was an incredibly creative time that still inspires me these many years later. Somewhere along the way I met an actor who was working in voice-over. He was in the commercial end of things and invited me to a taping of a campaign that he was working on, which was my first exposure to this area. Eventually, I was brought out to Los Angeles at the invitation of an agent who had moved there from N.Y. and wanted to represent me in L.A. I made the rounds there, worked in TV a bit and then stumbled on the animation community. I thought it would be a lark to give it a try. It turned out to be one of the most perfect vehicles for my early desires to make others laugh and to just, in general, be a big giant ham. It was perfect for me!

NC: I checked your listing in and you are one of, if not the, most prolific voice actresses working today. What is your technique for creating so many vastly different characters? Do you base them on friends? Family? The quirky neighbors who live down the street?

Kath Soucie.

KS: Once in a while, I'll knowingly add a characteristic of someone I know to a character. More often than not though, it's really unconsciously done and I don't realize that I've done it till later. Sometimes it's just noticing the way a little kid says a particular word or the way they sound when they're full of sugar or overtired that I'll remember in the middle of a session and just add it in -- and the director will like it and it becomes a quirk of that character from then on. I love it when the writers have noticed that and will start writing that little quirk into the script. Lots of times the clues are already there for you in the script and it's up to you to just bring it to life. Or it will be in the way the character is drawn... certain physical characteristics just beg for certain sounds and vocal patterns; you know what I mean? Sometimes I just fool around with a tape recorder and try to come up with something unique... usually for an audition.

NC: Who gave you your "big break" in the voice-over industry?

KS: Well, Manu Toupou, who has since passed away, first exposed me to the art, so I am forever grateful to him for that. In addition, Sandie Schnarr was the first agent that signed me (and who I am still signed with 23 years later). She gave me a great launch into the whole game and provided support from day one. As far as the actual official "big break" -- that would be Michael Hack who hired me -- green as could be and scared to death -- for my very first animation session in a show called Rambo. I no longer remember what that episode's plot was, but I know it had plenty of guns and manly stuff in it. Me? I had three characters to do with one line apiece, who were all ladies in peril and in desperate need of help from Mr. Rambo. I was completely thrilled.

NC: Who are your VO "heroes"?

KS: Heroes? Frank Welker, Frank Welker and Frank Welker. He is hands down my most giant hero in the animation VO community. He is an amazingly gifted genius. He can create every sound that you might hear in a jungle: the drip of the raindrops, the wind rustling in the trees, and all of the inhabitants that you might encounter there. I love animals. I mean I love animals and Frank's great ability is that not only can he make the sounds of the animals; he can give them a true voice. I've done episodes of cartoons that had an environmental bent focusing on things like ivory poaching, global warming. He portrayed a mother elephant being torn from her baby by ivory poachers for her tusks. The mother's cry and the baby's anguish were all there in Frank's voice. Captain Planet did a show centering on puppy mills and what he did in that show... there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I've heard him do dozens of sensitive performances through the years and he always, always delivers something so special and unique and moving.

The early years on Rugrats were the most challenging for Soucie. © Nickelodeon.

And listen, that's one of the most surprising things that I learned about the animation world: It isn't all pink leopards and goofy rabbits. Don't get me wrong -- I like a goofy rabbit as much as the next person, but I had no idea that I would be able to use every single thing I ever learned in all of the la-di-da serious acting classes that I took through the years. Between the "real action" animation which focuses on a more realistic style of acting, the games -- where the writing and plots are becoming more and more sophisticated, the prime-time shows that require very real "non-cartoony" acting, and the good old-fashioned slapstick farce stuff, you get a taste of playing it all.

NC: What is the greatest challenge regarding your work?

KS: Keeping a fresh approach and finding new twists. It's tempting to get lazy and turn in something that is below your true ability. There can be a sameness that sets in if you're not careful. I remember a few years ago thinking, how many voices can I actually do? I only have so many in me... and with that kind of thinking, I sort of phoned it in for a year or two. And, realistically, there are limits to what sounds you can make. But there is no limit to the level of commitment you can bring to each new character. And that's really the secret, I think. It's great fun to find a new wrinkle, a special new laugh or snort or defining sound or point of view for that new character you are now in charge of, but to really keep things new and fresh, the real quest is to always commit to every single performance 100 percent.

NC: We have had the pleasure of working on no fewer than 10 series together, including The Replacements, Kim Possible, Rugrats, God, the Devil and Bob, Animaniacs, The Critic and, dating all the way back to 1989, Dink, The Little Dinosaur. What was the most challenging job you ever had?

KS: Well, I think the most challenging job physically was probably the early years of The Rugrats. It was being directed by one of the people on the original creative team and he was very focused on getting a certain sound from every scene. In particular, the crying scenes with the babies were excruciating! He wanted to hear you cry for what seemed like a thousand hours on end with absolutely all of the blood and guts you had. He would do take after take of this and since I had to do two of the babies, I had to do it each time twice. And then again. And again. And... again. We were all just exhausted at the end of the sessions. The thing about it, though, was that you didn't really mind because this guy had a vision, you know, and you knew you were helping to make something really special. When that feeling is in the room, you really are willing to give your all.

On the other hand, however, I remember a job that I had committed to, which shall remain nameless. I didn't realize until I got into it that the scripts were so unlike anything I wanted to say. It was a foreign show and the humor was very different in that part of the world. It's the only show I ever worked on where the characters were so... unlikable. Really. And it wasn't anything you could point to and say, "No, I refuse to say that." It was just an overall feeling of these characters are not anyone I would want to spend even one minute with. It was really hard to show up for all 52 of those episodes. I played the lead, which meant I was really in just about every scene. The director was someone I liked, so I wanted to keep my word to him and stay till the bitter end, but I decided never to commit to anything I didn't really believe in ever again.

NC: What advice would you give to some "young pup" who is interested in doing voice-over work today?

KS: Well, you know, there's the obvious: acting training. You can book a job here and there without it by sheer luck, but if longevity in the field is what you want, you need to have the chops to deliver, and you need a solid foundation. Take scene study classes, consider taking an improv class, get with a good group and just work out with them. Watch the current shows to see what's happening. You need to be conversant with the style of the day. Find a really good voice-over class and learn how to make a demo. Find out what your strengths are from a pro so you can highlight them when promoting yourself. Get over-qualified, 'cause there are plenty of qualified people lining up already. I'm not kidding -- there's a huge amount of talented people out there. The key is: be prepared -- and once you are, once you're really ready -- have complete faith in yourself and your ability and go for it. That's so key. When an actor auditions, one of the most appealing things to a casting person is confidence. You can't wimp out in the middle of an audition and start questioning yourself. You have to look at the script, make solid decisions about how you're going to approach it and go! It's so much more fun for everybody in the room that way -- you included! Have a second choice in mind so you can deliver a great "take two" as well.

NC: What is your proudest artistic achievement?

KS: Oh, man. This is such a huge question and I wish I had about a year to think about it. And so, I'm just going to plunk this response down for now... get back to me in a year and I'll have something really fancy for you. But for now: I spent quite a few years in the beginning waiting tables, selling stuff, doing all kinds of little jobs to pay the rent while I tried to turn myself into a professional actor. It's still completely amazing to me that I actually managed to slip in under the radar and become an actual Working Actor. It's such a privilege to me -- and an amazing, amazing thing -- that I make my living as an artist in the company of creative people every single day. I'm really, really proud of that.

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.