In his 2012 Academy Award presentation speech to Gore Verbinski for the best animated film Rango, Chris Rock described voiceover work as no more complicated than, stepping inside a booth, to be fed lines and recite them back. “And then they give me a million dollars!” he quipped, grinning impishly.
Angry voiceover actors worldwide took to Twitter and the internet to chastise Rock for trivializing their art. They asserted that voice work is a nuanced, specialized and sought-after skill set –not a matter of breezily parroting lines in a booth for a hefty salary. Big-name actors often lend their recognizable voices to help big-budget animated films generate a bigger revenue. This is far different from true professional voice actors who, chameleon-like, disappear into the unique characters they create.
Canadian actor Sunday Muse, who has a distinguished body of voice work within a prolific acting career, can certainly weigh in. A graduate of the National Theatre School in Ottawa and a seasoned performer on stage, screen and TV, she has earned renown as a voice actor with a diverse array of roles, like Cheer Bear (The Care Bears), Saffi (Jimmy Two Shoes) and Baby Binky from Disney’s Emmy-Award winning Rolie Polie Olie, among many others. She is proud that no two of her characters sound alike—or sound like her— but that all are authentic to the characters: “Voice acting is about what you sound like, not what you look like. You stand on the spot when you record; you don’t move around the space looking at other characters like in film or theatre acting. You emote big time, over the top, to express the line of dialogue.”
The voice actor’s work is anticipatory . . . and can be lonely: “Nobody reads the other person’s lines, or plays off of you,” Muse explains. “You have to imagine how the other character might say the line. That is one of the biggest challenges that people have while adjusting to doing cartoon voices. The advantages are that it is incredibly freeing to do a character with your voice. You can contort your face, fling your arms around, scrinch up your nose, and nobody finds that odd because it’s [all] about what you sound like.” Unlike screen work, where the audience can ‘see’ you as the character, “you have to internalize the feelings more, and you have to work off the (imagined) other person, based on what is going on in the scene.”
So voice work is much more complex than Chris Rock acknowledges. …The true voice actor must find source material for the character inside. Muse’s near endless inspirations for her array of characters stems from her long-time work in theatre. “My cartoon characters all came from the stage. That is where I get to explore the full body of the person I’m playing. There’s so much space for that in the theatre.” Muse also devotes a significant amount of time preparing for each cartoon character that she portrays, cultivating a range of skills necessary for an authentic and unique depiction. For instance, her latest characterization, Ella on Total Drama: Pahtkew Island (Cartoon Network) is a parody of Disney’s Snow White, who sings and has an affinity with animals. When Ella breaks into song, birds often join in, and she frequently wakes up covered with baby deer and rabbits. To prepare, Muse took singing lessons every week, so that her voice was open, clear and versatile. “I stepped into the body and the mask of the character from my imagination,” she said, “and moved like she would while I was recording. She is very graceful and flowy. She dances around the forest, so I had to do that with my body, too, while I was speaking.”
With her range of talents and experiences, it is no surprise that Muse has no shortage of work. When reflecting on what she considers an essential ingredient in her success and longevity, she credits a deep passion for making up characters, not putting all her eggs in one basket in terms of getting a role, and having other things in her life that she loves to do. And though she still loves voice work, her interest is now extending more towards screen acting and doing character work there. Muse is currently starring in her own comedy/webseries Backseat with P and J, co-starring Rick Howland. It satirizes the ups and downs of prepubescent teenage life from the backseat of a car. Here, both performers draw from all their experiences – in film, television, voice over, stand up, stage and improvisation – in order to portray hilarious interactions between the high-strung Precious Stemming and her seatmate, the happy-go-lucky Jake Goodchild, as they travel to and from middle school.
Muse’s obvious passion for her work and her desire to stretch herself have made her not only a sought-after performer, but also a voice-over coach who is in high demand. Her clients’ requests for coaching handouts have led her to pen a how-to book, You Can Do Cartoon Voices,Too! For those aspiring to success in her industry, a “must do” is to “train, draw from your life experience, practice imitating characters in your own life or on TV, take improv classes, [and] learn how to use your voice properly– for instance, singing and breathing techniques so you don’t hurt your vocal chords.” In terms of a “must don’t”, she warns, “don’t go to an audition unprepared; don’t expect that this is ‘easy’.”
For all aspiring actors (voice and otherwise), she offers pithy advice: ”For anyone who is interested in acting or voice acting, just remember to always strive to truly be who you are…to work from that place, instead of outside of yourself. From the time I was a little girl, I was told that I was SO weird. It confused me to no end because people found me so funny, but I thought my ‘weird’ was a negative part of me, so I tried to be somebody I wasn’t for years. Your uniqueness, your ‘weirdness,’ your bizarre sense of humor, your bitterness or anger or sadness can all serve you as an artist. Everyone’s world view is different, and that is what we want to see or hear when you perform. We want to see all the elements that make you, YOU.”
Who: Sunday Muse
What: Total Drama: Pahkitew Island (Cartoon Network) and Backseat with P and J (Rick and Sunday’s Comedy Channel)
Check It Out: “Watch Cartoon Voice Actor Sunday Muse” (OwlKids.com)
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya 2014