Mae Whitman on TMNT, blending into Arrested Development, and acting with Coach Taylor

Mae Whitman on TMNT, blending into Arrested Development, and acting with Coach Taylor

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: To many television fans, Mae Whitman is recognizable for being unrecognizable, having played the bland Ann Veal (“Her?”) for three seasons on Arrested Development. Ann’s ability to blend into the scenery of the Bluth model home is a testament to the 25-year-old Whitman’s ability to blend into multiple fictional worlds, live-action and animated, over the course of her 19 years in showbiz. The daughter of voice actress Pat Musick and set-construction coordinator Jeffrey Whitman, Whitman earned her first gig after accidentally interrupting an audition of her mother’s. Since then she’s played the kind-hearted waterbender Katara on Avatar: The Last Airbender, a member of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’s League of Evil Exes, a wild-child-gone-good on Parenthood, and many, many others. Currently, Whitman can be heard as the voice of April O’Neil on Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles update, which airs new episodes every Friday at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012-present)—“April O’Neil”
The A.V. Club: You started working at a young age. Did you ever have time to watch cartoons when you were a kid?

Mae Whitman: Yeah, I watched a lot of cartoons. I was huge on them. Also, my mom is a voiceover person, so she was actually recording cartoons, so that upped the ante and made me want to watch them even more because my mom would be on some of them. I was definitely a big cartoon watcher. 

AVC: Do you remember her appearing on the original Turtles animated series?

MW: [Laughs.] As Mona Lisa, right? It’s amazing. I can’t believe she was actually on that. The actual, original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I have vague memories of because I was pretty small, but I loved, loved, loved it. I have only those weird, visceral little-kid memories: I remember the extreme flat, two dimensional green that was their skin or the weird pizza with no sauce—it was just like yellow, drippy cheese. I have such extreme, vivid memories of those parts, but the rest of it is just a sort of warm glow of how much I loved the show. 

AVC: What do remember about that series’ version of April? Does any of that inform your performance?

MW: I definitely thought she was so cool and so smart, obviously beautiful and funny. She just really had it going on, and I loved her inquisitive nature and being a journalist. I think all that stuff really does play into it, because you really get a sense of her spirit. This April is younger, because it’s almost like a prequel. We’re not trying to replace, like, “Oh, that version of April is now this.” It’s like, this is exactly who that person would have been when she was younger. Spirited and smart and independent and curious and brave. When I was a little kid I was like, “Wow, she’s really cool,” and I definitely take all of those things and try to put that into this younger version.

AVC: If anything, making the character younger heightens her sense of curiosity.

MW: Absolutely, because it’s not really channeled into anything specific yet. She’s younger and the world is sort of wide open. She’s got such a bright, vivacious nature. 

AVC: How do you feel about Megan Fox taking on the role of April for Michael Bay’s live-action Ninja Turtles?

MW: Man, I just heard about that. I don’t really have that strong of an opinion on it because I don’t really feel connected to that project. I don’t really know what his plan is, but I’m not sure about live-action Turtles, so that whole side of it is not really connected to my Turtles, because I don’t really understand what the plan is there. I’m just sort of like, “Hey, whatever happens, it’ll happen. I’ll look at it and I’m sure I’ll have a great time watching it.” I don’t really have a strong opinion on it either way. It’s a different world, I think. [Pauses.] But she’s really pretty! So that’s exciting. And I’m definitely not hoarding the April O’Neil-ness. “Let’s all do our own April thing!” So it’s definitely more of a big, communal attitude coming from my end. 

Arrested Development (2004-2006, 2013)—“Ann Veal”
AVC: So what was the casting process for Ann like? Were you asked to act as blank as possible?

MW: Yes. When Alia Shawkat, who plays Maeby and has been my best friend since we were 11 years old, went in to audition for Arrested Development, she said, “Man, I had this weird audition today. It was really fun, but it was weird improv and the sketch was weird—but it was amazing.” You can’t really understand what the voice of Arrested Development is going to be until you really understand it. I remember going into the audition and being like, “This girl has one line and the rest of the time she’s just like standing there. What is this going to be like?” I just tried to be as at one with the landscape as possible. Just nothing going on in there. [Laughs.] The audition process, like the shooting process, is fun and interactive and there’s such smart, creative people around. I was in this room with Mitch Hurwitz and Jim Vallely and a bunch of other really amazing people, and we played around, we tried different things, we’d add lines, we’d do this and that. It was really about finding it and having fun with it. I think we all connected to each other because it’s such a fun process to find out who this girl was going to be. 

AVC: It’s a unique dynamic for that show, because every other character on Arrested Development, even Michael Bluth, is kind of a live-wire, heightened personality.

MW: Yes, very much so. So to have one that’s just completely blank… it’s just so funny. What a hilarious thing to have that nobody can remember, or every once in a while they pan out and she’s been there the whole time. It was a real blast to shoot that kind of thing, hiding in little spots or always wearing all beige clothing. On the series I have a fat suit on, but it was just for my hips. [Laughs.] So that was always something I thought was really funny. Just two huge hips.

It was just a fun, totally weird, unspecific character. What an adorable thing to see little Michael Cera all wound up about this blob, and everybody’s like, “Is she funny? What’s the deal there?” It’s so funny. It’s such a smart concept. 

AVC: What kind of effect does playing a role like that have on your self-esteem?

MW: You would think something, right? I learned a long time ago A) not take things personally and B) it’s fun. I prefer to be the girl who’s being camouflaged the whole time and can play anything and can do different things and saddle up into roles. I remember seeing Missi Pyle, I worked with her and I thought, “Oh, she’s so beautiful and funny and smart,” and then you see her in some other role and she’s got all this fucking ugly makeup on and fake teeth and it’s hilarious—you don’t even know it’s her. That’s what’s fun. We do this so we get to be different people all the time, not to be the same beautiful person who goes from movie to movie. I’m just glad I have a path where I can explore all these different and weird characters. I think that’s the ultimate gift.

AVC: We won’t press for any specific details about the Netflix season—because those are being so closely guarded—but what has it been like to step back into that role and that world? How would you describe the vibe on-set?

MW: Man, it was amazing. It really was a trip, too, because some of the people I’ve kept in touch with and some of them I haven’t. You love everybody so much, so it was so exciting to see everybody, but it was really weird being back in the penthouse that was completely rebuilt. I’m looking around and seeing everybody sitting there in their same wardrobe and being back with those same characters. I’m such a huge fan of the show. I’ve seen every episode a jillion times, so it’s also simultaneously exciting to be sitting there with all those characters again and watching them do their genius thing. Watching Tony Hale turn into Buster is just—who comes up with that stuff? The mannerisms of each of the characters are just so funny and specific and nuanced that I was just totally nerding out with excitement, so it was a weird Twilight Zone thing. As somebody who’s a huge fan of the show, you get nervous that they’re going to try new stuff, “What’s it going to be like?” I saw some of the funniest stuff that I have ever seen working on this new incarnation of it. It’s really, really good. 

Parenthood (2010-present)—“Amber Holt”
AVC: So you’ve seen every Arrested Development multiple times, and you told Salon that you watch Parenthood every week. Do you typically watch the shows and movies that you’re in?

MW: It depends. I don’t really have an aversion to watching myself. I think I’ve been doing it for long enough that I have a system of separating it in my brain from my egotistical neuroses for the most part. I mean, I’ve definitely seen things where I’m like, “Ah! I don’t know how I feel about this,” but for the most part it doesn’t really affect me in my sensitive, self-aware ways. Especially lately, every project that I’ve been a part of has been something that I’m a huge fan of in one way or another or really respect the other actors or really invested in the story. It’s stuff I really care about, so in a way I’m just so happy to be a part of it. I learn stuff watching episodes of Parenthood that I’m just like, “Whoa, this is important for me as an actor to be learning.” You don’t get to see that when you’re shooting it, so it’s always a real treat for me. 

My favorite show is Friday Night Lights. It just has a similar tone of being really honest and straightforward and raw. You really see the real stuff coming out and that’s invaluable for me as an actor. I love to be able to watch people doing stuff like that. 

AVC: At what point in the process of making Parenthood did you start watching Friday Night Lights? How did you tell Jason Katims that you had started?

MW: Oh my God, such a good question. Most of my other castmates had watched it already or were in the middle of watching it while we were shooting, and I couldn’t do it because I knew from the reactionDax Shepard is one of my best friends, and he just couldn’t stop talking about it. It was a huge deal. Occasionally he’ll wear a Panthers shirt he loved it so much, and I just knew that I didn’t have it in me. I don’t even watch that much TV because I have an addictive personality as far as movies and stories and that stuff is concerned. I just give everything I have to it. I knew that I didn’t have the emotional capacity to get so invested that all I would want to do is come home every single second and watch Friday Night Lights. I was like, “I’m not ready to give that part of myself yet.” I probably I started watching it last year, I guess, and have tried to go super slowly because it’s my biggest fear. I still have four episodes left, and I’m riddled with anxiety. I need to start therapy afterward because I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it when there aren’t any more. So I’ve been really trying to dole them out slowly. And I held off for the longest time waiting for all the East Dillon stuff to happen because Matt Lauria was on [Parenthood] and I was like, “I think the second that I see Matt Lauria on this show, I’m going to become even more obsessed with him than I am now and it’s going to be terrible. I won’t even be able to look at him. I’ll just be blinded with excitement about it.” So I waited to start that until we finished this last season. That can’t be right—it must have been close to the finish. I thought that it was just so good. And I did become unhealthily obsessed with Matt. “I can’t believe I was kissing Luke Cafferty this whole time, and I didn’t even know it!” [Laughs.] I love it so much. It is my favorite show in the entire world. No doubt about it.

AVC: With the final episode hanging out there, you’ll have no idea how those emotions could have affected your performance in this season’s Parenthood finale.

MW: It’s true. It’s probably for the best. I probably would have gone blank being that close to him. Like, “I have nothing to say to you. Get out of here.” So I’m glad I held off. 

Early Edition (1996)—“Amanda Bailey”
AVC: So what to you remember about working with FNL’s Coach Taylor, Kyle Chandler, on Early Edition?

MW: Oh my God, how cool is that, by the way? I love Kyle Chandler so much. He is the king, to me. Watching his face, I just can’t even believe how incredible he is. I genuinely remember him being so nice. The most stand-up, cool, nice, funny guy. I was a little kid, and we were shooting in Chicago. And I was really nervous and really small. He just made me feel so comfortable. I probably have a massive, weird, inappropriate crush on him. He’s so gorgeous. He puts you at ease. He just takes away any feelings of me being nervous at all and I’m forever grateful. I’m so glad that there are pictures! That makes me so happy. [Laughs.] 

AVC: You can just look at those pictures and imagine that he’s saying, [in a Coach Taylor voice] “Gentlemen.”

MW: [Laughs.] I can look at the picture and imagine him holding me being like, [Coach Taylor voice] “You are going to be o-kay.” As I’m, like, dying he’ll be, [Coach Taylor voice] “Are you okay? Are you okay? You’re okay.” [Laughs.] “You gotta be okay for me! Pull through!” Give me some angry, tense, inspirational talk. It makes me very happy to think about. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)—“Katara”
AVC: Katara was frequently the moral compass of Avatar, but the writers also allowed her to indulge in the occasional animated goofiness. Which was your favorite side of Katara to play?

MW: That’s a really good question. That whole series was incredibly important for me, as a person, and in my career. I met Jack De Sena, who I love more than anything in the world, who played Sokka and we became really good friends. And Andrea Romano, who voice-directed it, is a really good friend of mine. So it was a really special experience. Also that there was a story—the episodes don’t stand on their own. They’re part of a story. They all go together. They fit into place, they tell a long beautiful arc, and it’s all based on balance and nature and energy. I think it’s a really good message for kids. A way to bring those Eastern philosophies into their lives. 

I think, just as people, you really watch the characters grow. In the beginning, they’re younger and by the end they’re older, after everything they go through. It was really fun for me to see any of the times Katara was having fun or letting loose. I remember there was one episode where Katara tries to tell a joke and it just doesn’t work at all because it’s not her thing, but she has such a fun sense of humor. I think my favorite episode of hers is probably the one where that crazy old witch teaches her how to bloodbend. It was so dark and she had to do it to save someone, but once you do it you can never go back, you’re controlling somebody’s blood and making their body do whatever you want. I remember her being so broken down at the end because she had had to do this awful thing. That, to me, was an amazing turning point. 

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AVC: Was there any talk of you reprising Katara for the Avatar sequel series, The Legend Of Korra?

MW: We talked a little bit about the idea of me coming back and doing something on Korra. I don’t really know what it would be, or if it’s a complex role or anything like that. But I love those guys with all my heart and Avatar, for me, was so important. It’s such a beautiful show—so spiritual and nature-based—so I would love to come back and work with those guys in any capacity again. I’m here if they need me or want me, and I would love to be a part of it.

AVC: How did you feel the first time you heard Eva Marie Saint speaking as that character?

MW: Honored. What a beautiful, beautiful woman, and iconic, incredible actress. To have someone with that much grace and wisdom—she’s an absolutely stunning person, so that’s exciting to me that Katara would turn into that kind of person. It makes me feel happy and warm knowing that Katara had a wonderful life and learned a lot and became such a beautiful, strong, inspirational woman. 

AVC: Did you feel like she captured what you built for the character on Avatar?

MW: I think so. The main thing about Katara is her strength—she’s graceful and beautiful and feminine, but also really brave and strong and curious and is a warrior. And I think she definitely captures all those things about Katara.

Tinker Bell (2008) / Pixie Hollow Games (2011) / Secret Of The Wings (2012)—“Tinker Bell”
AVC: Tinker Bell was a silent character for decades—what was it like to be the person who spoke her first words?

MW: It’s crazy. It blew me away—the idea that I would even have that opportunity to me was mind-blowing. She was such an iconic character for my childhood. Peter Pan is my favorite Disney movie, so for me to be able to do that, it still really hasn’t sunk in. I mean, how many years has it been at this point? But I still can’t really believe that it’s true. And I feel so honored and happy that they found something in my voice and my spirit that they liked for hers as well. It’s such a cool character, too, because she’s very headstrong and smart and resourceful and all of these qualities that I really value in the women that I respect. I love the morals of Tinker Bell: It’s based on appreciating nature and making things work and growth and change and friends and love and the environment. I love being a part of it because I really believe in what it stands for.

AVC: Between the compassion of Katara, the curiosity of April, and the adventurousness of Tinker Bell, do you feel like you’ve been able to play a whole slew of animated role models?

MW: Absolutely. I feel like I just keep getting luckier and luckier. From an early age, my parents taught me to always do it for love, never do it for money. You can find the money, you’ll be okay, but the things that you choose to invest your energy in, that shapes your life and your path and where you go from there. I find that when I’m a part of things that I believe in and I love, it leads to more things like that. I feel like that’s what’s happening to me lately. [With] every single project, I just love it so much and I believe in it and being able to portray strong, smart, funny girl role models, in voiceover and otherwise, that feels like a real gift. Because ultimately what we’re doing is communicating with people who are feeling alone or feeling different or confused or whatever and you’re communicating and saying, “Hey, I don’t get to know you, but here’s a piece of me and you’re not alone. We’re in this together.” Hopefully that communication has maybe made some people feel less alone.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)—“Roxy Richter”
AVC: How familiar with the Scott Pilgrim books were you before taking on the role of Roxy?

MW: I was not into comic books or graphic novels at all. I didn’t really know anything about them before Scott Pilgrim, and then the second I read Scott Pilgrim was like, “I love this.” I found my new medium, because I love reading and I love art, so graphic novels were like poetry. There’s something about the way the words and the art goes together that has to create this symbiotic vibe. That’s just so amazing to me that you get to have both those things in stuff like that. I got super-into graphic novels. I read them all the time now and I’m good friends with the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley, and his wife, Hope Larson. I was immediately super-into it and now I’m a huge comic-book nerd. It was amazing. The second I knew that I had an audition I went out and bought them all and started reading them because I wanted to know everything about it. It’s such a specific tone and I really wanted to understand the thing as a whole.

Originally I went out for Kim Pine—Edgar Wright [director of Scott Pilgrim] called me later and was like, “I think it would be so funny, but I think it would really be a fun character for you to check Roxy out.” So I got the audition for that, and it was so fun because, in the part where she first attacks Scott, we set up the camera to where I jumped into frame from a desk that was off-camera—and it was fun because it was so action-y, and I’d never really done anything like that before. 

That’s what was really cool about this movie: Edgar chose people that you would be like, “What? That person isn’t in shape! That’s not a fighter! They can’t blah blah blah.” I was like, “I am so far from being in-shape or muscular or an action star,” but then we really committed to it. Michael Cera trained every day for so long, and worked every day so hard. They really spared no expense teaching us all the real basics. It wasn’t a cheat—we were really working as hard as we possibly could and doing all the things you see in the movie. It was really fun to be so committed to learning as much of the stunts as we could.

AVC: Having a feel for O’Malley’s dialogue and knowing how Roxy is written in the books, were there any lines you were particularly keen on reciting onscreen?

MW: To me, the classic is, “You punched me in the boob!” [Laughs.] I thought it was so funny when I first read it. But all of the lines are weird classics in their own way—“Bi-furious.” The one that is really funny and disgusting is “Your BF’s about to get F’ed in the B.” [Laughs.] The other line that I love that actually wasn’t in the book was the one where I say, [adopts Southern accent] “I’m sorry darlin’, I’m gonna have to take a raincheck,” and Scott goes, “Oh, what’s that from?” And I’m like, [angrily] “My brain!” [Laughs.] That was something that Michael Bacall and Edgar came up with while we were sitting on the floor trying to think of funny things to add. We thought it would be so funny, because her whole thing is that she’s so angry, but isn’t really together and makes these big threats. [Laughs.] They’re not the most frightening threats because she doesn’t always make sense. So we thought it’d be really funny if she quoted something in a Southern accent—but it’s just coming from her brain. There were a couple of times when we were doing that one where Michael [Cera] couldn’t stop laughing.

Duckman (1996)—“Baby Rose”
AVC: Were you allowed to watch your appearance on Duckman, or was this a part of your mom’s body of work that was off-limits?

MW: At the time, I probably wasn’t. My mom was doing some weird cartoons at that point. Not all of them are terribly appropriate. My mom was also on The Tick, and she was a Smurf, she’s done so much cool stuff in her career, so it was really fun for me to go back and watch all those things and hear my mom in them.

But I was exposed at an early age to bad language. One funny story: My parents, when I first started to work, they knew I was going to be around a lot of cursing on a set. I was probably about 3 or 4 years old and they sat me down and were like, “All right. You’re going to be exposed to some things, and there’s going to be some grown-ups, and they’re going to use some words. You can never, ever say these words. We’re going to run through them and say what they mean.” And I was like, “Okay.” And they said they came out the next day while I was having a pool party with my next door neighbor who was also 3 or 4, and I was sitting on the pool step explaining to her and her little brother, “Okay, never ever use these words, but here’s what they are and here’s what they mean.” And I was teaching them in a very studious, respectful way all these horrendous, vulgar words. [Laughs.] It can be weird for a kid to grow up acting, but when you have parents who are aware of those things and can communicate in a clear way with you, it takes the mystery out. I was lucky to have parents who were really good at communicating.

Johnny Bravo (1997-2004)—“Little Suzy”
MW: It started off as a little piece where I was playing someone who was just walking by—it was even for Little Suzy. And they were like, “Oh, wow, she did a really good job—maybe we should have her for this character.” That show was an amazing experience to me because I was 5 years old and it was the beginning of my endeavors into the cartoon world. I’d done other small pieces, but to be a regular at that age on a show, there’s just so much room for learning. And the cartoon world is so fun and exciting and when you’re doing group reads the people in there are so nice and kind and funny. You get to go there and it’s like a gift—all this time you get to spend with these incredibly loving, funny, and smart people. I would get to be with my dad on-set and he would sit in the other booth and wait for me, so I was able to hang out with him. And I became friends with people who I’m still friends with: Seth MacFarlane worked on that show as an intern and now he’s one of my best friends. Kara Vallow, who was a producer on that show, is now on Family Guy. It was a lasting thing.

AVC: Staying friends with people you’ve worked with has been a refrain of this conversation. To what would you attribute being able to maintain those relationships across projects and across the years?

MW: It depends on the people. I’ve worked with just as many, if not more people who you have a wonderful experience with while you’re working and then you part ways. There are no ill feelings—it’s just that in an industry like this, you work with so many people and you’re constantly working and you’re in this pressure cooker of people. Luckily I’m just a naturally open person, so it’s easy for me. You have to tough it out in the moment, and if everyone is feeling it, you draw the kinds of people that you like to you. There’s usually at least a few that you really connect with and stay friends with. I’ve worked with Johnny Simmons probably three times—it’s almost like the working is an added bonus. If you can enter into the situation, like they say on Friday Night Lights, with clear eyes and a full heart, then you’re definitely not going to lose. [Laughs.]

Independence Day (1996)—“Patricia Whitmore”
AVC: Going into this movie, was there any sense of how huge of a production it was going to be?

MW: Definitely not. My parents were very cautious about what I did when I was little. They’ve been cautious this whole time. I’ve been the headstrong one that’s like, “I want to do it!” They’ve always been like, “If you don’t want to do this anymore, than don’t.” They’re very aware of that sort of thing. I think when they first heard of the project they were like, “What? I don’t know about this—aliens taking over the planet?” I think they were turned off by the concept, but they read the script and they really liked it and talked to the people, and everyone involved sounded like they would know how to be respectful of kids. Because a lot of times in movies, if it’s the wrong team of people, kids can get swallowed.

I remember people going, “Were you scared of the aliens?” And I was always like, “No. I thought it was cool!” But none of us had any real clue of what it was going to be. It definitely was a huge production. I only have weird, small memories of it, but I remember being down in the Area 51 set with the giant space ship. Things are much bigger in the world when you’re a kid anyway, but to have it be a huge-scope alien ship. The fact that it was so huge and so awesome was sort of an exciting, huge, trivia bonus—but the experience to me is what sticks out in my mind as being really fun.

AVC: And you did it at the right time, because if you were a kid making that movie now, that spaceship would be lines of code in a computer and the set would be a green screen.

MW: I actually had this weird, alien-y playground to hang out on. I did Chicago Hope, and it was so fun: Everything was built, and we used to just run around in the hospital while everybody was at lunch and explore every desk and find old medical files and lay on the tables and go to the prop house and steal weird bloody babies and arms and hands. [Laughs.] It was stuff like that—it was such an amazing craft that special-effects teams work a jillion hours on, so I’m glad that I was around in that period of moviemaking. And I’m glad I was that age, too, because that really was a mind-expanding situation.

Friends (1996)—“Sarah Tuttle”
AVC: Your scenes bookend “The One Where Rachel Quits”—was that because you could only be on-set for a certain number of hours?

MW: I don’t think so. I think that was just the layout of the episode. I still don’t quite understand multi-cam and how that format works—but I was still there every single day rehearsing. That’s the thing that’s funny about that: You rehearse the whole week and you just film for one night. So I don’t think that mattered, I think that was just the concept: To be out there with Ross to see what the Girl Scout would be going through, just how difficult it is. I remember being a Girl Scout very briefly and trying to sell cookies—those things are like gold, you would think people would be beating down your door, but I think trying to sell anything is just unpleasant sometimes.

I watched every single episode of that show, even at that age. Ninety percent of the jokes must’ve gone over my head, but there was something about it that I just loved so much. That was one of the most exciting jobs for me. I remember where I was when I got the part—I was at some arts-and-crafts festival. And they made me feel like part of their family immediately. And I had never had that experience, with a live audience, so that was fun. It’s a little bit like theater, because you’re getting this immediate encouragement from the crowd and it feels good. It peps you up a little bit. I didn’t get to be on 7th Heaven like I feel every other human in the world did, but I did get to be on Friends—so that’s something.