MHA’s Colleen Clinkenbeard Discusses Her Boundaries-Breaking Career in Animation

Colleen Clinkenbeard has been bringing fan-favorite characters to life for years. A staple of the anime genre, her voice has been critical to shows like Fruits BasketMy Hero Academia, and One Piece. Clinkenbeard has also been a part of beloved video game franchises and movies, leaving her mark on everything from Borderlands to Wolf Children. While her talents as an actor have helped to shape the industry, she’s also active as a director and producer at Funimation. Clinkenbeard has been sharing her knowledge with the next generation of voice-over actors and helping to shape the industry as a welcome space for women.

In an exclusive interview with CBR, Colleen Clinkenbeard dove into her voice acting career. She broke down what characters have stuck with her and the joys of being involved in the anime community. She also explained a trick she uses as a director and how she introduced her son to My Hero Academia as bedtime stories.

CBR: You have recorded voices for hundreds of different roles at this point. I’m curious, are there any characters that sort of stick with you, that are hard to shake?

Colleen Clinkenbeard: Of course! I mean, you’re always gonna have your favorites. I’ve been with Luffy from One Piece for 15, 16 years now. So that one’s just always gonna be a part of me. I think there’s gonna come a point where I’ve been recording him more than I have not been recording him.

I just recently did Akito in Fruits Basket. That one is gonna stick with me, I think. That one was extremely emotional. Same for Wolf Children, playing Hana in the movie Wolf Children. I was pregnant while I recorded that one, so it’s kind of stuck in my psyche along with all of the pregnancy, everything. Screaming for your kids when you’re pregnant with your first child, it’s like, «Ahhh!» [laughs] Anything that touches your emotions like that will kind of stick there.

It becomes a really personal experience at that point.

Yeah, it just winds itself into your life in some ways.

You’ve touched on some of my favorite characters, along with your roles in Fullmetal Alchemist and Borderlands. Because of this varied work, you’ve also touched on a lot of different fandoms with a lot of really invested participants. How has the fan response to these characters been? What’s it like to be the voice of characters that people love?

Our fans are so great. They always have been. We’re in an industry where the fans are more of a family… I think fandom is generally so spread out that you feel like you’re a fan of this show and you’re a fan of this show for most media. When it comes to anime, people are fans of the genre. So it becomes a family. You have this lingo that you use when speaking to other people in the family. It’s a tight-knit group.

It’s always going to feel like you have those people to talk to you when you want to talk about the show that you want to talk about. Whatever it is, you’re going to have an immediate reaction from the people that you’re talking to. It’s awesome to go to conventions and get to chat about all of the shows that we all love.

Have you been able to go to conventions recently? Have they picked up again?

I’m back! I came back in October of 2021 and did like two or three. Now I’m doing one a month. It’s kind of harrowing. It’s just difficult to get back out there and feel safe, but it’s also this huge relief because that was something that I was kind of taking for granted. It’s like, «Oh, yeah, my family! I get to be back out there.»

Do you also get to watch the shows or play the games that you’ve been a part of? Is it sort of weird to be confronted with your own voice in that way?

I’m definitely not weirded out by hearing my own voice anymore. I’m judgmental, but I’m not weirded out. I do sometimes get to watch the things, but if I tried to watch everything that I’m in it would be a full-time job. So I stick to the ones that I am really interested in and close to. A lot of the time, that ends up being the ones that I’m directing as well. So I guess My Hero [Academia] is the one that I’m bathing in right now. Half my year is My Hero Academia, and I just love that show. Then Fruits Basket and things like that, trying to keep up with One Piece. I try to keep up with it, but there’s a lot.

Just a few more questions on your VO work and then I promise we’ll move to your directing. How does your voice-over work differ for different formats, say for video games vs. tv shows or movies? 

Right? It is a lot of hats. With just the voice acting hats, I haven’t done any — or much, I haven’t done much — pre-lay where you put down the voice and then they animate to that. I’ve done a little bit, but not much. So mostly it would be video games and anime. To me, anime is more like a logic puzzle. You’re kind of engaging your right and your left brain at the same time, trying to figure out how to fit the words into the mouth that you’re already given because the finished product is in front of you. I have to figure out a way to make the read sound organic, and still come out of the mouth looking like it’s coming out of that face. So that’s definitely both sides of your brain engaged.

You also get the benefit of getting to watch the finished product before you record, which isn’t something that you get when you’re doing pre-lay or video games. I get to see what they did in Japanese when Hana is screaming for her children in Wolf Children and tear up and get emotional about seeing that. Then that guides me, leads me to my read. So it’s kind of a cheat. [laughs] There’s the good and the bad — or I’ll say the challenge and the benefit there.

Then with video games, there’s a lot more freedom. You get to come up with what that voice is gonna sound like. If you want to add in a laugh, if you want to take it a little bit wild and fast and then slow down for something dramatic, you can do that. You don’t have that freedom when you’re matching flaps, but it is all up to you to come up with that original sound. There’s no chichi.

So a lot of pressure, but a lot of freedom.

Yeah, there’s good and bad for both.

How much do you base the voices that you do on the look of the characters if they already exist?

I do a lot, actually. I tend to listen first, if it’s a dub, because I want to be true to what the original intent was. I’m assuming that the original intent is what they got. If I lack any kind of information, then I will base it pretty strongly off of what the character looks like. I feel like it’s pretty jarring if you see a character and then what comes out of their face is not what you would envision. There’s a disjointedness that happens. There’s kind of a disconnect.

Sometimes that’s really helpful. Sometimes if you deliberately disconnect it, then it can be very interesting. If a big character… There’s a character in One Piece recently that’s really huge and monstrous, and then has this tiny high voice. That’s awesome. That is what makes it hilarious in that moment. For the most part, what you want to do is make it feel seamless so that there’s no moment where you’re watching it and going, «Oh, that’s what it sounds like.» You just want to watch it and think, «That’s the character.»

I’m very curious about how you transitioned from being «just» a voice actor to taking on more roles in voice acting, to becoming a producer and a director.

It was a lot easier back then. I’m old. I started this 17, 18 years ago. Voice acting back then was… There were four rooms in the Frost Bank building where we worked. They didn’t have any female voice directors. When I came on the scene and I was working with Justin Cook, I got to talk to him a lot about the process of it all because he was the one who was explaining it to me. He was teaching me. He could see how interested I was in how everything worked. I’ve never been [the type of person who’s just] here to do this job. It’s like, «Oh, and then how do you do that? How do you do that? How do you do that?»

So actually he became a producer midway into recording Kiddy Grade, which was my first ever show that I acted in. He asked me if I wanted to direct the rest of that series since I was already so close to it and I was interested. So I ended up getting the job that way. I don’t know if it’s true or not –I’ve never asked him this — but I feel like Justin was looking for a way to add a woman into the mix so that there were more voices represented. He’s really good about that. So I feel like that might have had something to do with it, but I’m not sure.

That’s really awesome. So were you really the first woman to take on this type of role?

At Funimation. There had been one other female director who did just a little bit before me. I never met her and she was gone pretty early on. She did some Dragon Ball Z directing, I think. I’m not sure how many episodes. When I got there, it was dudes all the way around. [laughs]

That sounds like Hollywood. 

Yeah. I don’t even know if there were any female writers at the time. I could be wrong about that. It definitely felt like we were expanding. This is awesome. It’s nice to get some new voices in here. I never felt like it was being shut down in any way by anybody, which was also very nice.

That’s so good. Have you noticed that the industry has been changing in recent years? Have you noticed it opening up to more women?

Man, it happened so fast. I don’t know that it was like, «Oh, now it’s happening!» It was me and then everybody else. It was just me at Funimation, [but] there were other companies that were already adding women. It’s not like I was the first. I was just the first in Texas. I get to look up to people like Wendee Lee and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who’d been doing it for a while. I think that it’s more noticeable when we go back looking for it. It just felt like a natural continuation of what’s happening in society, where now we’re just we’re talking more about women in media. We’re talking more about the female viewpoint. It felt like it was just a natural extension of that.

Are these changes tied into the industry changing as a whole? Have you noticed more social cognizance, I guess, in the community?

Yeah, I think we all have. Because of social media, we all end up talking about the same things. It’s this echo chamber of, «What are we talking about today?» Women and minorities have been doing a good job of just getting voices out there so that at least we’re talking about the fact that we aren’t talking about something enough. That in itself will create a new echo chamber where maybe eventually we end up talking too much and we have to pull it back so that it’s not the focus of everything. That’s the rubber band effect, I think. It’s always going to be like that. You have to push it too far in order for it to snap back to a new normal.

That’s kind of what it is with female empowerment in media. I think you’re eventually going to see that it’s majority-female because we’re going the other direction. It’s like, «Let’s get that viewpoint in.» It’s been years and years and years. Let’s try to start looking at things from a different angle and giving opportunities to the people who haven’t had the opportunities. Then if it starts to feel too weighted in that direction, I think the rubber band will snap back and it’ll just be equal.

The dream, really.

The dream. That’s what we’re after.

As you’ve noticed the people behind the microphone changing — the actors and the producers and the directors — have you noticed the types of roles available are changing as well? Are there more women to voice?

That changes more slowly, I think. We’re so used to, as a society, the stories that we are all able to be interested in being led by a male voice. I think girls have an easier time seeing themselves in the male hero than boys have seeing themselves in the female hero. That’s changing, but it’s changing slowly and in certain sectors of the industry. That’ll trickle down. I think anime is maybe one of the later versions of that. [laughs] I don’t know that we have seen that completely in anime just yet. I’m hoping in the future we will.

If you see American animation, it’s happening a lot more. Even my son, he watched She-Ra and he had no problem seeing himself set in She-Ra’s place and all sorts of… I don’t want to name specific shows, but he has no problem with that. I think that’s because representation has started to become more normal.

 Does he recognize your voice in shows?

He wants to see them, but he’s so young! Most of the shows that I’m in are really big fighting shows. They have some language in them that I’m not comfortable with him hearing yet. So instead, I tell them as bedtime stories. His bedtime stories are whatever is happening in One Piece or My Hero Academia. He gets really excited. He’s so excited about what’s going on in the manga of My Hero right now. He loves to point… At random times in a conversation, he’ll be like, «But Luffy’s the strongest» and «Nobody could beat up Luffy.» He’s very into a character that he doesn’t get to watch. [laughs]

That is so cute. I don’t want to keep you too much longer. I have just a couple of questions here at the end about a topic that I’m very fascinated with, which is effort noises in VO. Do you have a secret for eliciting these really embodied noises in a way that comes across well in sound and comes across well as different characters?

That’s a hard thing to teach, and everybody has their own theory. I have had a lot of actors talk about going to the school of Colleen efforts. [laughs] When I direct, I have a very specific sound that I like. I try not to overuse it, but we get those big, open mouths that hang on for a long time. In order to fill them, it will sound weak and ineffective if you use just a gasp. You’re not going to get a lot of [gasps] because that’s short and it doesn’t cover much ground. The out-in… [laughs]

Can you do an example?

I’m gonna do it. So if you have a big open mouth, and you go [gasps out then in], it covers more ground and covers the space more. You can do it in a shy way or you can do it in a totally upset way. You can add shakiness into it. [demonstrates the out-in possibilities] It’s more versatile. I think it’s funny how often the voice actors claim that that’s a Colleen thing. [laughs] I certainly didn’t invent it. I’ve just co-opted it.

I love it. Thank you for sharing that with me.

Sure! Out-in.

Can you tell us what you have been working on recently and where we should look out for you in the future?

I don’t get to do a lot of voice acting these days because there’s so much Luffy in my life, and I still have a job. So I am directing My Hero Academia. That’ll be coming up at some point. We know Season 6 is coming. Then I’m Luffy-ing my little heart out. If you see the new episodes that are coming out, which we are trying to get you so quickly, that’s just me screaming at my clothes in my closet for the moment. I do that every single day. So that’s pretty much it. Watch Fruits Basket!

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