Brie’s statement in particular troubled Lamontagne. She noted to me that she’s half Chinese herself and understands the criticism, and that while casting the series, she had made the role available to Asian actors, but Brie’s work stood out. “When I first heard about Alison Brie [posting an apology], I was a little torn,” she said, adding that she feels the same way about Henry, whom she worked with on Family Guy. “I’m sorry they feel bad they took [the parts], but believe us, we tried … We did the best we could.”
Although the actors’ decisions aren’t unprecedented—the white actor Hank Azaria stepped down from playing the long-controversial Indian character Apu on The Simpsons in January—the wave of departures has delivered a shock to the voice-acting system. In an op-ed for NBC News, Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker, the founders of the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences, applauded the actors for disrupting a corner of the entertainment industry that, they wrote, “has mostly evaded soul searching” over its casting practices and issues of representation. Naturally, Gaskins told me over the phone, such high-profile walkouts will destabilize the field. “When something like this happens, it creates a big shift,” he said. “It creates a pendulum swing, and pendulums swing widely at first, creating a lot of drama, but eventually it settles somewhere in the middle.”
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For now, that pendulum is still swinging. Members of the voice-over community are divided in their reactions to the resignations. Some, such as the voice actor and casting director Sam Riegel, echoed Gaskins in praising them; he called their actions a sign of the industry “bending towards the right path.” Others had misgivings: James Alburger, a voice-over coach and the author of The Art of Voice Acting, questioned the actors’ intentions. “They’re just playing it safe and they’re protecting their jobs,” he told me. “They want to keep working … I think there are a lot of people who are simply running scared.”
And some sidestepped the question entirely. When I emailed the prolific voice-over coach Pat Fraley, he responded by telling me of an exchange he had years ago with the actor Ed Asner. Fraley had been “grousing” about the British actor Tim Curry being cast as an American for an audiobook series, when Asner stopped him. “I was upset that they got a Brit to do a Yank project,” Fraley wrote. “Ed interrupted with, ‘HEY… it’s acting.’”
When I asked him to clarify whether he shared the anecdote to express disapproval of the actors relinquishing their roles, he demurred. “I offered the anecdote as such, as it gave me a lesson,” he replied. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
Voice acting has long been the Wild West of Hollywood. It’s a frontier where anyone can stake a claim to roles of any kind, be they human or animal or alien or inanimate object. And in recent years, it’s become easier than ever to do so if they have the right skills. (During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been one of the few sources of income for actors.) Lamontagne told me she has often recruited nonactors, such as musicians, athletes, politicians, and business moguls. “I mean, anybody can play a scissor, you know?” she quipped.