Legendary Voice Actors Discuss Their Charity Concert ‘Voice Actors Rock’ And The Art Of Being A Cartoon

Tommy Pickles, Spongebob Squarepants, Wakko Warner, Winnie the Pooh, and Jimmy Neutron, are just a few of the many characters that will be performing at Voice Actors Rock, an upcoming charity concert for VH1’s Save the Music. The show (July 17 at the Whiskey A Go Go) features an impressive lineup of legendary voice actors — Tom Kenny, Jess Harnell, Jim Cummings, EG Daily, Debi Derryberry, Robbie Rist, James Arnold Taylor — who will lend their voice talents in the form of a musical performance.

As Jess Harnell assures, “Everybody on this bill is in the industry, and deservedly so because all these folks are very talented, but I can tell you with pride that all of them are amazing musically. It’s not like you’re going to go and say, ‘Oh, isn’t this cute.’ You’re going to go, ‘Wow, these people make great music and they’re really, really talented musicians.’”

Harnell will be performing with his band Rock Sugar, which started as a fictitious band that had been shipwrecked on a desert island at the end of the ’80s. As Harnell explains it, “They had a 13-year-old girl’s pop CD collection, so they listened to Journey and Rick Springfield and Madonna for twenty years. When they finally got rescued off the island and they thought that stuff was metal, so what the band does, they’ll play a Metallica song and I’ll sing a Journey song on top of the Metallica song, but it works. They’ll play an ACDC song and I’ll sing a Madonna song, but it works.”

Debi Derryberry, Jim Cummings and Billy West will form a band performing rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘60s and ‘70s and EG Daily tell us we can expect “a lot of ‘80s energy from her performance.” The night’s MC is James Arnold Taylor, who tells us, “I’ll be doing parts of the show that really explain more of what voice acting is about and I think so many people are fascinated by what we do. It seems that people are always fascinated to see the actors in the studio with the headphones on and the microphone. I really try to show people what it is like to be a voice actor in that little padded room talking to yourself.”

In anticipation of the upcoming show, we spoke with Harnell, Cummings, Daily, Derryberry and Taylor about the the art of voice over and their journey of voicing classic and beloved characters.

Finding Your Voice

Jim Cummings: It wasn’t a moment, it was a knowledge, an acquired knowledge that percolated since the age of four. I didn’t plan on doing [voice over], I just did it because even at the age of four, I was [does dolphin noise]. And driving my sisters and brothers crazy. Then I drove my teachers crazy.

Jess Harnell: I was singing jingles and commercials, in fact my demo tape for singing was originally “We Are the World.” I sang that song and I imitated everyone’s voice on it and I got a lot of work.

EG Daily: I didn’t really plan [doing voice over]. I listened to the little tap on the shoulder saying, “Check this out.” As opposed to being fixated on what I thought it all had to be. Like, “No, I’m a pop singer and an actress,” it was like, “No, no no,” and it ended up blowing up my career. I was doing Rugrats and Powerpuff Girls and so many different shows a week.

Debi Derryberry: I moved to Nashville to become a country singer and I never thought I really sounded like a kid, although it wasn’t a big deal for me to sound like a kid. Everyone always asks for my mom when I’m on the phone. And the only singing gig I got in Nashville, I ended up being a session singer for commercials, but I only sang as a child in my late 20s.

James Arnold Taylor: Most people don’t believe it when I say it, but when I was four years old, I realized. I realized back when I was four that this is what I wanted to do. It clicked on pretty easily. I know a lot of kids don’t get it at that point that, oh there’s a person doing that voice. And I went, I want to be that person.

Harnell: One day this guy that I had done a lot of singing for, he contacted me and said, “Hey, man. I know you do character voices, they’re doing this ride at Disneyland called Splash Mountain, you think you could do some of those voices?” And I said, “Yeah, why not, man?” So I did the audition and ended up doing half the voice on the Splash Mountain ride. And that was the first time I had ever done character voice over…The first big show that I got was Animaniacs that did very well and there’s been no looking back. Hallelujah.

Daily: I was doing a play and in each round of the play, I was a different age so I would age up, I would be a baby to a 5-year-old to a 10-year-old. At that point, other people noticed my vocal talents. People are like, “Oh my god, you’re really good with kid voices and babies.” I didn’t think anything of it because for me it was so part of what I did. It’s like something that is part of you, that you’ve grown up with…Rugrats was my first job ever and the one that blew up my career the most. And I just did a character that I’ve been doing my whole life, that I had been doing since I was a little girl. And then they booked me and I ended up doing Rugrats for 14 years.

Taylor: I was doing impressions as long as I remember. I was doing Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and Abbott and Costello and then Jack Nicholson, all the voices you did at the time that were popular, Rodney Dangerfield, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, all these comedians I admired. I would impersonate them and I loved it. I found myself able to manipulate my voice early and I took full advantage of it…Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars stuff that I did for so many years and am still a part of, that really opened up my world and my fan base. It’s what allowed me to create my stage show and take it all over. So that character is near and dear to my heart.

Derryberry: When I started auditioning and realized that the voice I was booking were these little girl voices, that was what people started knowing me for, is the babies and little girls. When I auditioned for Jimmy Neutron, I was actually a little uncomfortable because I wasn’t experienced at doing little boy voices yet. Everybody who was auditioning for it had these raspy little textured voices and I knew I couldn’t compete because I don’t have a raspy textured voice. So when I did my audition, I was like, well, that’s what I got. And luckily that was what they chose.

The Art Of It All

Cummings: People say, well, you’re doing a voice. And that’s true, there are voices. But we are basically characters, we’re character actors and Darkwing is a character, Pooh is a character, Tigger, they’re characters, that’s just how they sound when they talk.

Daily: That’s the misnomer, that, “Oh, I’ve got a cool voice.” It’s like, no, no, no, it’s not just about having a cool voice. I had someone call me who had a really deep amazing rich voice, he sounded like one of those movie trailer voices, but he couldn’t act. You need to be able to execute a script and a copy and make it believable and feel it and have people feel you because they’re not getting to see you, they’re feeling you.

Cummings: You could sit there and read the alphabet in a funny voice and I guess that would be a voice, but it really wouldn’t be compelling. It has to be driven by character and by the soul.

Taylor: Jim [Cummings] is one of my heroes. He’s an amazing actor and that is the key to it. And maybe that’s why it is so fascinating. He’s not just a guy doing voices in a room on a microphone. He’s an actor and he has the full power of that, of what he does. He knows it and he loves it and to watch that come about is just fascinating and so different from what we see when we’re watching a movie.

Derryberry: People who want to get into animation or commercial, sometimes they’ll just show up and say, “I want to be a voice actor.” And they don’t realize it is not as easy as it looks. There is a lot to it, it’s an acting job. If you can sound like Bart Simpson, that’s great. But guess what? There are no auditions for Bart Simpson sound a-likes because there’s already one.

Taylor: We all have this ability to do one voice or two voices and that’s the part I like with my show [“Talking to Myself”], getting people to see that you may have a voice in you that you didn’t know. You can throw an accent on it or a texture or raise it up a little and find out you have this ability to do voices more than you thought. I like spreading that out and sharing it with people.

Cummings: I’m challenged, but only by myself. I challenge myself and like to keep them all separate. I’ve done so many characters that it’s impossible to completely remove every aspect of one to the next, but that would be it for me, just making sure that each character has its own integrity and own mindset. And I think that way you’re ahead of the game.

Daily: On camera you’re more limited to your face, your body, your size, your height, your weight, your age. Your physicality is more restrictive with on-camera, for the most part. Voice over, I can be a shoe, I can be a talking teddy bear, and the voice can go any way.

Harnell: For voice over you can, instead of doing one show a week, you can do eight or nine series at a time and still have plenty free time. And you can play the dad, the kid, and the dog on the same show on the same day.

Derryberry: Voices that irritate me, or things that people do that rub me the wrong way, is a repetitive melodic voice where, there’s this thing people do when they read for a commercial or read for animation and they milk it a little too much or they think they need to hit every single word instead of doing it naturally. Or they’ll have this repetitive melody. It drives me crazy.

Daily: When I first met my husband — we’re divorced now, but he’s like my best friend and father of my kids — when I first met him, I literally almost didn’t give him my phone number because of his voice. I was like, oh no, it was very gruff. And, of course, I later learned to love his voice. When, at first, I was like, my ears can’t take that voice.

Cummings: People that mumble, people that mumble are no fun [laughs]. But so far so good, I’m pretty easy to get along with.

Daily: Voices are very powerful. Plus, not to mention, you hear everything in a voice. You can hear when someone’s sad, you can hear when someone’s depressed or stressed or sick. You can hear when somebody’s really weak, you can hear everything in the voice, the whole soul of a person comes out in their voice. Voices are super powerful, which is why it was very cool that I ended up getting on The Voice because it honors the whole thing about my career.

Harnell: Nothing really bothers me, sometimes voices are more strenuous to do than others. I find the value in all of it even if I can’t do that.

Daily: When I first started going out on auditions, you’d be in a room with a bunch of girls, like I’d do little girl voices too, but I don’t sound anything like a little girl, the way I talk. And I’d walk in these rooms and all the girls in the lobby would be chatting like, “Oh hi! I really love what you’re wearing.” It’d be all these high squeaky voices that drove me nuts, it was so crazy. I was like, oh my god, I will not talk like that, I will not. And then they all became my best friends and I love them all now, but they don’t talk to me with their squeaky voices. I’m like, “You were putting that voice on,” so it’s pretty funny.

Cartoon Friendship Forever

Derryberry: I love this community. The agents, the actors, the engineers, the directors. It’s all so supportive. You don’t want anything to change because it’s so great. And everyone is so unique and beautiful. I know that sounds really Pollyanna-ish, but I think from the outside looking in, people see this fabulous community and the truth is, they’re right.

Taylor: We are a pretty happy bunch, voice actors. I think because we all get to really do what we love, which is perform and in a single day, you can do several different things, that’s the beauty of it.

Daily: The voice over community is so unbelievably talented that the fact that they can do all these different voices and they can mimic and imitate, so you just know they have their own singing voice as well. Usually they’re inclined to having vocal ability period.

Cummings: We’re a lot more generous than the standard actor because they get a little more jealous, the envy factor is bigger there, the jealousy factor is bigger there. But it’s not like that for us.

Daily: For years and years, we’ve all watched each other go through life, marriages, divorce, parenting, children, it’s a really tight group of people from a long time and we all run the same pack.

Taylor: The voice acting community is a very rare breed of actors, and when I see somebody that I haven’t worked with in a while or even if I saw them a couple days ago, it’s like, “Hey, bud!” We’re all just happy to be there and to be doing it.

Voice Actors Rock will be at the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles on Sunday, July 17.