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Inspired by the Muse – Toonzone Interviews Actor Sunday Muse

by on December 9, 2014
 

The multi-talented Sunday Muse wears many hats in her career, with the first being an actor on stage, on-camera, and in voiceover. She also claims credits as an author (of the book You Can Do Cartoon Voices, Too!), a stand-up comedian (with Toronto Life naming her ‘one of the funniest ladies in Toronto’), and an acting/voiceover coach in demand for her seminars and as a speaker at various voiceover conferences. Her credits include on-camera roles in The Third Eye, Mayday, and in Oscar nominee Deepa Mehta’s Republic of Love. In voiceover, Sunday has been heard in Care Bears direct-to-video movies, Jane and the Dragon, Jimmy Two-Shoes, Rolie Polie Ollie, Arthur, and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That.

We got a chance to talk with Sunday Muse in person during New York Comic Con 2014 and then in a follow-up over the phone, where we discussed how she got into acting, her roles as Ella in Total Drama: Pahkitew Island, and her activities as an acting coach.

Sunday MuseTOONZONE NEWS: I had read this story doing my research but I wanted to hear it from your mouth. My understanding was that your first experience as an actor was performing for your grandmother?

SUNDAY MUSE: Yes, it was. (laughs) For my Nonna, my Italian grandmother.

TOONZONE NEWS: And that’s what got you the bug?

SUNDAY MUSE: That got me going because I spent so much time with her and she didn’t speak a word of English. She was obsessed with soap operas, so she would watch soap operas all day. For a 6-year old, that’s pretty boring, so I ventured elsewhere into her home and spent time making up characters and then performing them for her. I would also do that for my parents…they always found me a bit of a ham…but I think that the real thing came with my grandmother because I spent so much time with her and she couldn’t speak English. So what I did had to be incredibly animated for her to understand, and why would it be funny if she couldn’t understand me? And she used to crack up a LOT. I would just do characters from the actual soap operas that we were watching, and she knew immediately what I was doing because she knew those characters. Funnily enough, I would imitate her Italian. I couldn’t speak Italian, but I would talk to her as though I could, and she thought that was hysterical. I was imitating what I thought it sounded like, which is kind of cute.

TOONZONE NEWS: A lot of voiceover people like to talk about improv and how important and useful that is as a skill, and one thing improv classes do is the gibberish game.

SUNDAY MUSE: Totally.

TOONZONE NEWS: So you were doing that with your Nonna before you were ever an actor.

SUNDAY MUSE: You bet. And you know, the gibberish game in improv — years later when I was actually taking improv — was my favorite of all time because I was like, “I can’t believe this is actually a game.” I loved talking as though I were speaking another language. I loved doing that in French as well as whatever language I could pick up from my environment.

TOONZONE NEWS: I saw there’s quite a bit of training on your resume in terms of acting classes. Was acting something that you always pursued? What was the path from Nonna to being on-camera and in voiceover?

SUNDAY MUSE: From that age, there was no question that’s what I wanted to do my whole life. I wanted to sing, dance, and act. I did that as a kid, but professionally, I didn’t start until I was a teenager because my parents said, “We’re not putting you in the industry as a kid because it will ruin you. If you want to do it when you’re a teenager, go for it,” so I did. I went to arts high schools and theater schools. I trained constantly, did as many plays as I could. I got a sketch comedy series on YTV when I was 20 years old, and that’s where it took off. And then I just kept going. My biggest strength has always been characters, and so that was the beginning of it, because it was sketch comedy so I was always playing something fun. It just went from there.

TOONZONE NEWS: How did voiceover happen for you as an actor?

SUNDAY MUSE: I came out of theater school and I had been told my whole life, “You should do cartoons.” It was a constant thing for me. I was trained as an actor and I had a really good agent and I told him that, and he said, “OK, put a tape together for me,” because that was back in the day when you used cassette tapes. So I went home and I did a whole bunch of voices that I made up and that I had been doing over the years. I was a big impersonator for a long time. I don’t do them as much any more, but I impersonated a lot of people. I put them all on a tape and he said, “If I can’t get you a lead in the next six months in a cartoon, fire me.” And I booked something right away. That’s how it began.

I think there’s a misconception that it’s easy to get into. It’s not. It is different from acting live and it’s really important to establish that difference. Some actors have no problem in transitioning, but the one biggest thing is that you really have to see the character from a different point of view. I’m not going to say it was “natural” for me, but my first audition, I just kind of understood it. I don’t know how to explain it. Probably from all the over-animating myself to an Italian grandmother, and trying to make her understand me, because that’s what we do when someone doesn’t speak our language. We do a lot of this (waving hands) to try and communicate. I used to have to do that, and you do that with animation. It’s kind of interesting.

Sunday MuseTOONZONE NEWS: I was talking with somebody and the term he used was that voiceover required a lot more indicating, and that’s a skill.

SUNDAY MUSE: That’s right. It’s interesting that great actors sometimes don’t know how to make that transition. I’m not going to name actors because I feel that’s not appropriate, but there’s a couple where I’ve listened to them in animated films and I’ve literally sat there thinking that they’re not meant to do that, in my opinion. Most of them do incredible work, but a couple just are not animation actors. I really believe my Italian roots instilled something in me and about the way that I communicate with the world, because Italians talk like THIS (gesturing with hands) anyway, especially when they get feisty and passionate. Does that make sense? I’m not suggesting that I communicate like THIS, but there’s a way in which as a young child, I kind of had to express myself a bit bigger than I needed to, but it was the only way to fit in. I was with my mom’s family a lot, and that’s what they did.

TOONZONE NEWS: I wanted to make sure I asked about the different “clown” training listed on your resume. Are we talking about greasepaint and big shoes and that kind of thing?

SUNDAY MUSE: Nope, not “birthday clown.” It’s a style of training for an actor. Clown is a form of finding very real and funny and dark characters from your own personal experience. You put on clothes, but you don’t dress up and act like a dork. Lucille Ball and Robin Williams studied clown. Most actors study clown. A lot of comedians study clown. It’s a way to connect with your audience, and it’s very bare bones work from a very vulnerable place. Clown is hysterical. All the great comedians, all of those great comedy duos — those people were all clown. They didn’t have a nose on but I can tell you they studied clown. It’s kind of a way to find your funny. It’s definitely not the big shoes and a honk-honk (laughter).

TOONZONE NEWS: What was the biggest take-away for you in approaching acting, and voice acting in particular, from that sort of training?

SUNDAY MUSE: What I have taken from clown training would be the ability to find an authentic and original character, and to explore outside the lines of a script. And to really find…I guess you could say a kind of wacky? Clown is just so out-there. What I’ll say is that it gives you permission to dive into a character in a way that your imagination doesn’t always even access. I don’t want that to come out like an insult to people who didn’t do clown, do you know what I mean? It sounds like a snobby thing to say and that’s not what I mean.

TOONZONE NEWS: It sounds like it’s kind of a way to get out of your own head and find things that you wouldn’t necessarily think of consciously.

SUNDAY MUSE: That’s right, and to find the whole physical body of the character, not just the talking head. The people who I look up to are the people who are full-bodied actors. They understand the whole body of the character and it comes from a very original, authentic place. In my opinion, clown just helps people access that in a much deeper way. And connect with your audience. Clown is all about that. You have to stand in front of an audience and you have no script. You’re completely improvising.

TOTAL DRAMA: PAHKITEW ISLAND

TOONZONE NEWS: Do you remember what you had to work with for the audition for Ella in Total Drama: Pahkitew Island, or if there was anything that stuck out to you about doing it?

SUNDAY MUSE: What stood out was the joy, the fun, and my die-hard connection to it. It totally stood out. It was one of those roles where you just go, “Oh my God, I instinctively understand this person. I just get it.” That stood out for me. It also seemed to stand out for the casting director, because she got so excited after my first read. “That was A-MAZING!” To be honest, I thought she was kidding me. I didn’t know how to respond to her enthusiasm. I thought, “Oh, she’s just trying to get me out of the room.” Isn’t that awful? I just didn’t know. But she was sincere because I got the part.

So I guess just the ability to just kind of free-fall and be myself and sing. I would underline the singing. That stood out for me. I love to sing. I love it more than anything in the world (laughs). And I got to sing. I don’t always get to sing in an audition. It happens occasionally, but this was an opportunity to have a princess role, kind of like Snow White and I got to sing.

TOONZONE NEWS: That seemed really inherent to her character, too.

SUNDAY MUSE: Yeah. That was huge for me. Huge! I could have sung the whole time and never spoke, and I would have been happy. I could still do it. I could do that role every day for the rest of my life. I would be so happy.

TOTAL DRAMA PAHKITEW ISLANDTOONZONE NEWS: You mentioned Snow White, who’s an obvious inspiration for the character in terms of the appearance and your performance. Was there anything else that was in your head regarding inspirations or things that you were drawing on to do Ella?

SUNDAY MUSE: Yeah. It wasn’t just Snow White. A lot of the interviews that I’ve done thus far have focused in on Snow White, but the truth is that, yeah, it was there, but…I’m trying to remember when I got the script and I was reading it. It was …like an opportunity to show off a part of myself that I had kind of been playing with my whole life. Does that make sense?

TOONZONE NEWS: Sure.

SUNDAY MUSE: Like it’s a piece of me. Because Snow White is not a piece of me, and I wouldn’t claim that. I’m not Snow White. She’s not me. That…sounds hilarious saying that! But I played around my whole life with a voice like Ella. Flitting through the forest and singing and dancing and twirling and loving animals and full of kindness. I always played around with that kind of (click to listen) “Oh my goodness! Oh, yes, of COURSE I did!” Like it’s just always been a voice that’s kind of been there for me. I just never got to play it until now.

TOONZONE NEWS: So it was like that little corner of yourself that you could tap into.

SUNDAY MUSE: Exactly. That little corner of myself that started when I was 8 years old, and I was improvising in front of a mirror and making up voices of girls I saw in cartoons on TV, and singing. Being that kind of heroine.

TOONZONE NEWS: Obviously, a lot of times characters change between the audition and what you do for the show. Did that change very much for you? Was there anything that was appreciably different between the audition and the actual records for the series?

SUNDAY MUSE: Not really. In fact, the only thing that changed was that there was more singing in the actual records. The voice did not change. The personality, the emotional life, nothing of that changed. And I can’t remember what episode it was, but somewhere in the middle, suddenly they had her getting really upset. Which was weird. I remember going, “Oh, this is weird,” because it’s like it wasn’t in her character. But they needed her to go there because she had to have a kind of turnaround with this guy who doesn’t like her back. And it wasn’t that Ella doesn’t get upset, it was that she really had to express quite a bit of it (laughter). So that was the only change.

TOONZONE NEWS: So how did you approach that challenge, exactly?

SUNDAY MUSE: Well, I remember reading the script and going, “Oh, what am I going to do with this?” Instead of going downright sad and miserable, it was like finding a kind of perky and light sadness. So it wasn’t like, (click to listen)“Oh my God, my life is over!” It was more like, “Oh my goodness! My life!” There’s a little bit of bounce and a little bit of light in it, because that’s so much the character. Almost like she’s tearing up through her smile. So I had to think of it that way for me instead.

Total Drama Pahkitew Island Ella Turnarounds

Courtesy of re:fresh blog.

TOONZONE NEWS: It sounds like that’s the kind of thing that that clown training would have been helpful for. Tapping into that kind of genuineness and truth to the character.

SUNDAY MUSE: I agree, and before I was a voice actor, I was a comedian. I mean, that’s sort of at my root before any of this. I’ve been doing voice acting for years, but I trained in theater and acting and comedy and clown, so I’ve drawn on both of those worlds. Comedy and clown. I did stand-up comedy, where you’re talking to the audience. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you do clown. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s terrifying. You’re up against people who might be bored to death of you, or who might think you’re hilarious, and you never know what youre going to get, so clown was extraordinary for that kind of work. And that helped me as well with my voice work.They feed each other.

There was one other change from the way that I auditioned that I’m just remembering. It’s very subtle, but there was a lot of yelling in the recording. Because it’s a Survivor show, right? I’m not a great yeller. I’ve never been great. I don’t like yelling. I find it’s wearing on my voice, so there was a lot of yelling and sometimes screaming. I would ask them if I could record those bits at the end of the session because it would fry my vocal cords.

TOONZONE NEWS: Did you get to do those records in ensemble, or did you have to record on your own?

SUNDAY MUSE: I recorded on my own. They don’t do ensemble very often. I’ve been in shows where we record together, and I love it, but not for this. I believe everybody recorded solo. I saw actors come in after me, and they were coming in alone.

TOONZONE NEWS: That’s interesting because it’s a comedy series and a lot of comedy is about timing. I know some series will really try to get people together so they can get the kind of reactions that come more naturally when you’re talking to another person and you can react to them. How did you deal with needing to record these on your own?

SUNDAY MUSE: You know, I wish they recorded together more often, because it really is a different experience. You really have so much more to go from. What I do for anything, not just for Ella, when I have to record alone…it’s like a rule for me, anyway…I scan the line that comes before mine in my head, because otherwise I don’t know where I’m jumping in. I will record 1 through 20, let’s say, and I’m doing lines 1, 5, 10, and 15 and 20. So other people have lines in between, and the scene dramatically changes from line 1 to 20. If I’m not scanning the line that comes before me, I’m totally out of the picture. I have no idea what’s going on, and for me, that’s a bad move. My lines can run the risk of being very flat. So that’s all I do. Sometimes, occasionally, I will ask the director, “Can you read me in?” and they will. They’ll read the line just to give me something to feed off of.

That’s an important one for all actors, but everyone has their way. I’m sure when people record alone, they’re reading the line that comes before theirs. I think they have to.

TOONZONE NEWS: I think it’s a particular challenge for voice over because there are a lot of times when you are recording on your own, and you don’t have the benefit of an audience like you do in theater, or of other actors. There are a lot of times where it is just you and a booth, and you still have to bring the emotions and all those things, but you’re really doing it all on your own.

SUNDAY MUSE: Yeah. You’re just drawing from nothing (laughter). You really are. You’re pulling it out of thin air. You’ve got to be engaged in your imagination. There’s no question. I read the whole script before I record. I don’t just go in and look at it fresh. I can’t do that, because I have no idea what is going on. Some actors can do it. They don’t read the whole thing. They just show up and record. I don’t work that way. I feel that’s not fair for me, or the role. I’m not doing it justice if I haven’t read it and I don’t know what’s going on.

TRAINING AND COACHING

TOONZONE NEWS: When did you start doing your training seminars and the coaching?

SUNDAY MUSE: Six or seven years ago.

Sunday MuseTOONZONE NEWS: How did that start happening, exactly?

SUNDAY MUSE: Well, I guess I have a whole bunch of tools from doing my own work as a voice actor, and I had this desire to share. Before I taught voice, I taught improv. I call it character improv, and it was all about the development of characters. Every class, I brought costumes. I used to have a huge box and I would carry it around with me, and people loved it. It was so much fun, and everybody would create characters and I guess it just kind of went from there. That was very part-time. Because I was busy crazy auditioning, doing theater and doing comedy and all that stuff. It was a couple of times a week.

I remember coaching an actor here in Toronto who needed help with getting a couple of characters out of her for an audition. She looked at me and she said, “You got to market that. Whatever that thing is, you have something to offer to pull that out of me. I don’t know how you did that, but you did it and now I have these two characters.” That was kind of where it started, and I pitched it to a voiceover company. I said, “Look, I do a lot of cartoon voices, can I teach a workshop?” Because a lot of people want someone who does voiceover work to teach them. They want someone who’s actually doing it. So I started doing workshop here and a workshop there, and then it skyrocketed. It was just insane. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it just came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, I had kids wanting to work with me, and that became a huge market. Now I would say primarily, it’s adults. And I just shared what I knew. That’s all that I did.

TOONZONE NEWS: Could you identify the biggest mistake or misconception that you get from your students, either artistically or professionally or in terms of the business? Do you feel like you’re constantly repeating something in your classes?

SUNDAY MUSE: Yes. There’s one misconception that it’s easy to be a voice actor. That I’ll take a workshop and I’ll become one. I’m talking about people who have never done it before, they’ve never done an acting lesson in their life, and they’re like, “My dad tells me I have a great voice.” Great! That’s fantastic. Can you act? Huge misconception. “I have a great voice. I’ve been told my whole life. And I know I can do this. I have six weeks, can you help me?” And I can help someone, but if they’ve never done it before in their lives, six weeks is really pushing it. Some people, the rare exception, are very natural. It’s very, very rare and they don’t need a lot of lessons, but it’s really a misconception that “I want to be a voice actor, therefore, I go to take a course and I become one.”

And they don’t realize that there’s an investment of money in it. I’ll have people who will find out how much it will cost and then they’re not interested any more. So Voice Acting is acting, but for some reason, people think voice acting will happen overnight, where other acting, they understand it’s a journey, and you’ve got to study for the rest of your life, you know (laughs). But there’s this bizarre thing with voice acting that it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s just about your voice. It can’t be that hard!”

TOONZONE NEWS: I’ve talked with other actors who coach and teaching, and they’ll talk about some of the education that flows upstream. What would you say is the biggest thing that you’ve learned from doing your classes?

SUNDAY MUSE: The biggest thing I’ve learned…as a voice actor, or as a person?

TOONZONE NEWS: Either one, actually.

SUNDAY MUSE: The biggest thing I’ve learned as a person is how incredibly fulfilling it is to be able to share tools that you struggled to find as an artist with other people. And, by sharing them, they take off with their career. That’s incredibly…I don’t even like the word “fulfilling.” Gratifying? It’s empowering. It’s like you’re giving someone tools to launch their career. I’ve really helped people completely launch and work full-time as voice actors, and that feels pretty amazing. Because that is the quality time that we spent together.

There is one other thing, which is an acceptance that I have gained of my own unique process. I’ve watched 80 million people in front of me bare themselves and their weaknesses and their strengths. It’s hard to be a student, and I’m a student too, so I watch them and I think I’ve become so much more accepting of my uniqueness. Everybody is so unique, and the worst thing you can do is trash it. The best thing you can do is find your process and honor your process. Not someone else’s process. It has to be your own. That, in my opinion, really makes someone successful. So being a coach helped me accept mine. I’ve been allowed to grow as a result of witnessing all these other people, because I was always the student before I started teaching. Then when I started teaching, I became aware of myself very differently. It’s like suddenly, you have another camera looking at you.

Sunday MuseTOONZONE NEWS: Seeing the different ways people take to the top of the mountain.

SUNDAY MUSE: Yeah. And it’s freaking hard! It’s not easy. I used to beat myself up because I couldn’t get it. “Oh, no! It’s terrible! Come on!” You watch a student beat themselves up and all you want to say is …I do say…is stop. Stop it. You’re getting in your way. Just let it happen. Enough of that (laughs). It’s not going to help you to judge yourself and make yourself feel like crap. So let’s get on with the fun and the joy and trust your own process, and let the self-consciousness step aside. When something is self-conscious, you really have to go over the top and be willing to be a complete and utter idiot. Clown is like that, too. Really really willing to bare it all. When people are beginning with voice, they get self-conscious, and they have to get past it. So it helps me get past mine, because I’m watching them.

TOONZONE NEWS: What are you working on now that you can talk about? Where can we see or hear you next?

SUNDAY MUSE: I am working on a web series, with Rick Howland. He plays one of the leads on Lost Girl. We’re working on this web series called “Backseat with P&J,” on Rick and Sunday’s Comedy Channel on YouTube. So we’re just diving into that weekly. We’re shooting new episodes. We’re getting a little bit better. He and I are not big hotshot editors. We’re doing it ourselves, and we’re starting that way. I’m interested in the characters and improvisation. I’m a character actor. I love doing characters. I enjoy Precious. She’s complicated and dark and weird and funny. So this is just the beginning of a whole bunch of characters that we’re going to be playing. This is only one series of that. That’s where my focus is right now. The web series has taken up a lot of my time (laughs). Even though they’re only 1 minute, we’re doing a lot of shooting.

TOONZONE NEWS: I can imagine a lot of film goes into making that one minute.

SUNDAY MUSE: Yeah. And then sitting with it afterwards and figuring it out. Other than that, in terms of what I’m working on, I am auditioning for television and film, like, a lot.

Also, I just got invited to St. John’s/Newfoundland, to do a workshop. At the end of February, I’m in Toronto at another conference as the keynote speaker for a company called Talent Inc. It’s an acting school for kids teens and adults, and they’ve asked me to be their keynote speaker. I’m also going to be at Voiceover Atlanta in March 2015. I will be heading up the learning and kind of the design of the youth department. I can’t remember the exact title. Looks like I’m going to be traveling a little bit (laughs) which is fantastic. So those are the most up-and-coming things. I will be offering a one-day workshop in the spring in New York City. It’s going to be the end of April, but I don’t have a date for it yet. I’ll announce it on my website as soon as I know.

Toonzone would like to thank Sunday Muse for taking the time to speak with us! Follow Sunday Muse via her official website and via her Facebook and Twitter feeds.

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