Toonzone Interviews Voice Actor Debi Derryberry
Multi-talented Debi Derryberry has had quite a ride to get where she is in the voiceover industry today. After graduating with a pre-med degree from UCLA, she traveled to Nashville with aspirations of being a country music singer, and while she soon got work in Music City, her distinctive voice meant it was primarily getting work doing commercial jingles singing as a child. Her diminutive stature also led to work as a body double for child actors in TV shows and movies, including Free Willy (where she did stunts with the killer whale playing the title character) and Ernest Goes to Camp. It was in the latter movie that she worked with actor Scott Menville, a name Toonzone fans may recognize as the voice of Robin in Teen Titans. Menville’s mother heard Debi on set and suggested that she send a voice reel to Los Angeles to work as a cartoon voiceover actor.
Debi did so and the rest is history. She moved from Nashville to Los Angeles and was soon booking work in TV series like The Addams Family, Taz-Mania, Life with Louie, Jumanji, and Fillmore. Her best-known roles include being the title characters of the Japanese anime series Zatch Bell and Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron. and her current roles include stints in the Curious George and Monster High TV series; video games like the God of War and Final Fantasy series; movies like Despicable Me 2 and Wreck-It Ralph, and a recurring on-camera part in iCarly. She has also provided the voice of the animated Speedy Alka Seltzer characters in commercials for the past several years, and has also become a successful kids’ musician starring her “Baby Banana” character (which she is currently shopping around to be an animated series).
As if she doesn’t have enough already, one more professional credit Debi Derryberry added relatively recently is as a voiceover teacher and coach. We sat down with Debi Derryberry right before the afternoon session of her New York City voiceover intensive to discuss her career as a voice actor and how she approaches voice acting.
TOONZONE NEWS: You went from pre-med at UCLA to Nashville as a country singer to a voice-over actor in Los Angeles. Did it hit you when you were in Nashville that you wanted to be an actor, or was it something that you wanted to do before?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: I’ve always been an actor. I did my first stage play when I was 8, actually, and I continued in community theater throughout high school, when I was in drama all four years, and I continued drama through UCLA. So I’ve always done acting. It was just my dad saying, “You can’t make a living as an actor…guffaw, condescending chuckle” (laughs), so of course I knew that it was a poor move to pursue acting as a career, which is why I did the pre-med preparation. I didn’t have anybody to tell me how important passion was, or if they told me, I didn’t listen, but that’s the key right there: the passion.
But I always wanted to entertain. Whether it was singing in front of people, or acting in front of people, or acting up in front of people. As long as they were laughing at me because I was funny, or applauding me because of my performance. I live for the applause, whether I hear it or not. I know it’s there. I *love* performing. And when I found that there was actually a way to make a living when you sounded like I do, that made it even better.
DEBI DERRYBERRY: Oh my God, yes! You have no idea. Especially with Jimmy Neutron scripts. He had so many big words to say and he was so scientific, and certainly as a premed I had to take biochemistry and organic chemistry and physical chemistry and calculus 1/2/3, and all these upper-division hard classes with these ridiculously syllabled words. So it helped a lot, actually. And this just came to mind, as early back as the first grade, reading out loud, to me, was so easy for me. I never understood how people could stumble on the words or not pronounce them because it always came so seamlessly for me. I think that, without me knowing it, it was also a segue into voiceover that made it so easy for me, because there is no stumbling block on getting the words off the page and with the multi-syllabic words. It’s just not a problem. But for other people, it is a stumbling block. Not that it’s not surmountable. I tell people to read their copy seven times through before they even think about acting it. It’s just like some people can do splits. You can practice for six years and you can do the splits, and some people are just limber. I think it’s the same with your mouth.
TOONZONE NEWS: How much formal training or classwork or training that wasn’t on-the-job did you get before you started voice acting, and how much did you get throughout your career?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: As far as training goes, I think my acting training was in place already because I had been doing theater for so long and I had been singing for so long. I got my first guitar when I was 9, and I’ve been writing songs ever since, so singing was never an effort. My granddad was a professional singer, my mom sang, my dad could sing, everybody could sing. So super easy there. Learning to play guitar was not a struggle at all. I just taught myself and boom! As far as performing, I guess the theater and the guitar and the singing all my life in front of people all my life was the self-taught thing. When I went to Nashville, I did take formal guitar lessons and I sort of learned on my feet in the studio, because I started booking these gigs as a kid’s voice, when I did move back to Los Angeles and got the voice agent, I did start training with Sue Blu and Kris Zimmerman and Charlie Adler. At one point I almost had a node and I trained again with a voice specialist that got rid of it. Pretty much from there it’s been on-the-job, which you learn so much from.
I think now, teaching…I have a lot of private students, and I’m actually learning a lot about all the things that I’ve learned in the past. Re-iterating them is reminding me of them again. And I’m impressed at my students’ tenacity to learn. They’ll set up an appointment with me and will appreciate all the stuff that I’ve gathered over the years to share with them. Not only with animation , but being able to differentiate commercial, promo, animation, audiobook, all the different types of VO…which to me, it was just on-the-job learning, trying to figure it all out. But I certainly had awesome tips from the people I spoke of, and I’ve also guested and sat in on so many of my co-worker’s classes, like Bob Bergen or other classes like that. I always learn something from everybody. There’s a lot to learn. And when I’m at conventions and Comic-Con, people will come to my table and say, “I can do Porky Pig’s voice, and everyone tells me I should be in voice over!” “Are you an actor?” “No. But I can do voices!” And it doesn’t really have anything to do with that. It’s a business. It’s a beautifully fun, fun business, but it’s a business.
TOONZONE NEWS: On top of which, it’s great that you can do Porky Pig, but, you know, Bob Bergen’s been doing it longer than you.
DEBI DERRYBERRY: Yeah. “I can do Goofy!” “Great! Let me let Bill Farmer know!”
TOONZONE NEWS: Let’s say you get brand new copy for an audition. How do you approach it? Is there a process that you have, or how do you think about it? How do you approach something new?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: I guess there’s about three things that I do. I will read the specs, of course, and that will let me know the age, the personality, what’s involved, what are they thinking. I’ll look at the picture, and maybe they’ll be buck-toothed, or heavy or skinny, or have long hair or braces or disheveled, but I look at them. And I’ll try it a couple of different ways with my voice and I’ll go into my bevy of characters that are living within me like a schizophrenic, and maybe I’ll choose one of those and morph it accordingly. So those are the three specific things. Overall, as a VO artist, I don’t smoke, and I make sure I get a good night’s sleep and I drink plenty of water. Just the normal things that anyone would do in their career. If you’re a doctor and you’re doing surgery, you’re going to be on your game right before it. You have to take care of things.
DEBI DERRYBERRY: I do remember, because as I walked in…it was a typical pilot. We audition for hundreds of pilots. They’re little bitty shows and you don’t think twice about them, but as I looked at who had come in before me on the audition list, it was Nancy Cartwright, and Pammy Adler and E.G. Daily…EVERYBODY was reading for this thing. Everyone who was scaring me. They’re all so good. But as I’m looking at the list, I go, “Wait a minute, they all have texture, and my boy voice…” I wasn’t even comfortable with my boy voice completely, in fact. That’s what Charlie Adler helped me the most with, and Kris Zimmerman. I could do it, I just didn’t have that confidence yet, and I had to go training for that. So I decided not to use texture in that audition, and for someone who’s not familiar with that, “texture” is “it’s like it adds a little gravel to it” (click to listen). And I don’t naturally have that gravel. It’s painful and it’s dangerous, if you do a voice that’s painful, so I didn’t include that. So that may have been it, but from then on that’s how I approached that voice and I booked it, but I do remember being …not scared, but intimidated, I guess? Because there were a lot of biggies.
TOONZONE NEWS: What would you say was the hardest earned lesson from your time in the business?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: Oh, boy, do I have an answer for that. I train people this now, that when they go into a session, and you’ve got your script. No matter who is in that room, whether you’re sitting with, you know, Robin Williams or Miranda Cosgrove, whoever is in that session that you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve wanted to meet them since forever!” There are important people to meet and it’s not them. It’s the writers. I would say that was the most important lesson for me, that I feel I could have done so much more had I realized that at the beginning. Because those are the people who are in charge of your career, next to yourself. So I think actors need to bring themselves down and realize how important writers are. You know, the producers are great and the engineers, but these are the people you have to befriend and you have to respect and listen to, and just not take them for granted. I used to just walk right by the writers. Going “Hi! How are you, what are we going to record today?” with my friends, and just forget about the writers. I wouldn’t know who they were. Bad move. Bad form. Not good. So now I know.
DEBI DERRYBERRY: That is a really good question, but I’m going to answer it a little oddly. I was in this session once with Chuck McCann, who you wouldn’t necessarily hire to do a kid’s voice, and they needed a baby cry. They asked, “Can you just throw in a baby cry, Deb?” And I had no idea…I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And he pulls me aside and he says, “This is how you do it.” (At this point, Debi put her mouth in the crook of her elbow and cried like a baby). So I tried it, and it was fine and it was kosher and it flew, and they liked it. So now throughout my career, it has become something that I do, the baby cry. It just kind of came up to me. and it comes up. Frequently. More often than you’d think. I know that’s not a specific role, but it just came out of the blue. And you know, in Screen Actor’s Guild and AFTRA, you get two voices for the price of one, and three for a 10% bump, so it pays to have somebody who is a little versatile and can do your boy, your mom, and your baby voices. (laughs)
TOONZONE NEWS: You can do a whole family having a little conversation with each other! What else can we see or hear you in coming up?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: Well, I’m not doing the Baby Banana concerts right now, but all my kids’ CDs are online and at Amazon or iTunes. I took my son to see Despicable Me 2, and I forgot I was in it (laughs). I really enjoyed the movie, and at the end I’m looking at the credits and my son says, “There you are mom!” And I’m like, “Oh!” Because it had been so long, since it had been done in France or something. So there is Despicable Me 2, finally. I guess Wreck-It Ralph was a big one that’s on DVD now, that was super-fun to do. As soon as cold and flu season comes around again, there will be more Speedy Alka Seltzer, waiting for more cold and flu season. I think Jumanji just went to DVD.
TOONZONE NEWS: Jumanji the cartoon series, not the movie, right?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: Yeah, right. I’ve been busy working on something that sounds like a famous video game franchise, a lot, but I’m not supposed to talk about it.
TOONZONE NEWS: New video game?
DEBI DERRYBERRY: Yeah, but there’s a lot involved. So that’s been good. And of course, Monsters High has been going really good.
Toonzone would like to thank Debi Derryberry for taking the time to talk with us; Lau Lapides for bringing Debi to New York City for a voiceover intensive; and the staff and intern crew of the Lau Lapides Studio for keeping things moving smoothly throughout the class. Fans can keep track of Debi Derryberry at her official website, at the My Baby Banana website, or through her Facebook fan page.