For Black History Month, The A.V. Club will be rerunning Random Roles with Black actors from recent years. This week: the prolific Cree Summer, who is best known for portraying A Different World’s Freddie, Rugrats’ Susie Carmichael, and Tiny Toon Adventures’ Elmyra Duff. She talks about those roles and others in this 2021 interview.
The actor: A working actor since she was 14, Cree Summer was born into entertainment. Her father, Don Francks, had appeared in shows like Mission: Impossible and Mannix, and, though uncredited, provided the voice of Boba Fett for the Star Wars Holiday Special, the character’s first appearance. In 1983, Summer went along with her dad on a voice audition for Inspector Gadget, stepped behind the mic to test for Penny, got the gig, and has continued to work since. She’s appeared in both live-action and animated projects, and is best known for portraying A Different World’s Freddie, Rugrats’ Susie Carmichael, Tiny Toon Adventures’ Elmyra Duff, and Numbuh 5 in Codename: Kids Next Door. She also played what she and others insist was the first Black Disney princess, Atlantis: The Lost Empire’s Princess Kida.
More recently, she’s popped up on Nickelodeon’s The Patrick Star Show, which follows the zany life and family of Spongebob Squarepants’ beloved Patrick. Summer voices Star’s air-headed mother, Bunny Star, along with Squidward’s Grandma Tentacles. The A.V. Club sat down with Summer to talk about her return to the Sponge-iverse, as well as how her career has ebbed and flowed over the years.
Cree Summer: I got this job just like I get any other gig: I auditioned. Luckily, my dear friend Tom Kenney, who plays SpongeBob, is the voice director on this show. So I guess I got a sweet spot.
I got cast to play Patrick’s mother, Bunny Star, who is about as sharp as a sea sponge. I also play Squidward’s grandmother, Grandma Tentacles, and she is about as sweet as a baby piranha.
The A.V. Club: Have you always done voices? How did you start figuring out that there were a million characters in you?
CS: My father, Don Francks, who has passed on now, was the very first voice of Boba Fett and was a premier voiceover man in Canada. And so I got started by pure nepotism.
I was always in the studio with my father and one day he was auditioning for Inspector Gadget. I was just hanging out in the lobby and he said, “Why don’t you let my daughter read for Penny?” And that was it. It just took off like a spaceship after that. I was doing so many cartoons that I really wasn’t going to school.
I don’t know if I would say that I was great in the beginning. When you’re a kid, I don’t think you’re really concerned about whether you’re good or not. But I do know that by the time I moved to Los Angeles at 17 and booked Steven Spielberg’s Tiny Toons, and I was sitting in that room with all those exceptional talents, I knew that I wanted to be good at it and that just changed everything.
AVC: When I’ve talked to other voice actors in the past, some of them have talked about training with other voice actors, and classes they did and so on. How did you hone your craft?
CS: I just absorbed it. You know, [at Tiny Toons] I had Charlie Adler on one side and Tress MacNeille, or “Stress MacNeille” as her beloveds call her. You hang out with these people long enough, and if you’re paying attention, it will come to you. I never took a voiceover class or anything like that. It was just being surrounded by incredible talents.
AVC: You mentioned that you know Tom Kenney. It does seem like the voice community is very supportive of each other. People call each other and they help each other out.
CS: I think it’s probably one of the only genres where an actor will refer you for a part they’re auditioning for. You know, I grew up with Tara Strong. I was there when she did her very first cartoon, Hello Kitty. We did that together. And Tara and I have been sweet soul sisters for a million years coming from Toronto together. And sometimes she’ll be in an audition and she’ll say, “This would be really good for Cree Summer,” or I’ll be in an audition to play a princess or something, and my voice sounds like a thousand miles of dirt road, mentholated Kools, Jack Daniels and regret, so I’ll suggest Tara Strong or Grey DeLisle.
There’s a generosity in animation that I can only attribute to the possibility that maybe it’s because we’re not seeing [the actor]. You really have this autonomy, and I think it takes away from that competitive nature. Everybody knows their lane and what they’re good at. That breeds generosity and it makes for some real authentic friendships, too, which is pretty beautiful.
AVC: How did you find the transition to live-action then? Was working on something like A Different World a shock?
CS: When I started voice acting as Penny at 11 years old, that actually led into a lot of on camera work. I was working on camera all the time when I was in Canada. I moved to L.A. by myself at 17, and I booked A Different World within six months. I’ve always done both, but probably predominantly animation.
I’m back on camera now. I’m working on a beautiful show on FX called Better Things. I’m also a writer on that show now.
AVC: How do you like working with Pamela Adlon? You came into the show on the third season, so was it hard to get into the swing of things?
CS: Well, this totally plays into what we were just talking about. Pamela Adlon and I have known each other almost 20 years because we’ve done cartoons together. When the opportunity came, I just jumped up and down because I was already a diehard fan. I already watched the show on purpose. And so when the audition came along, oh, boy, there’s nothing worse than auditioning for a show you really love because you want it so damn bad.
I call Pamela “Jupiter The Generous” because she really has changed the trajectory of my life. She’s made me a junior writer and been so kind to me and really honed me. I feel like a better actress after working with her. She’s really an exceptional talent and it’s a beautiful thing.
AVC: Going back to A Different World, you came in on that show on the second season, when it was already established as well. Did you have that same feeling then? Were you thinking, “I like the show and I want to be on that show?”
CS: The funny thing was, I remember being with my family in North Richmond, California, and my family used to call me Canada because I talked different than everybody else. I remember A Different World coming on the TV and my grandma said, “Canada, you should be on that show.” It was a prophecy. She was very witchy, so she probably, unbeknownst to herself, was voicing an incantation. Thank you, Grandmama.
AVC: There are so many voice actors from Canada. Why do you think that is?
CS: And comedians, too. I think cold weather weather breeds a sense of humor. I really do. I think you’re freezing your ass off so you find ways to be funny.
AVC: My theory, for the voice actors at least, is that the Canadian government supports so much amazing children’s television, so there’s a sort of breeding ground there.
CS: They support the arts in general. You are exactly right about that. The arts are government supported in the way that we will have incredible artists that perform for free in Canada all the time. And it’s very easy to get a grant to forward your own career. So thank you for bringing that up. Canada is very, very supportive of the arts.
AVC: I was listening to a podcast interview with Seth Rogen recently and he was saying that in Canada comedy is really respected and lauded much more than it is in the U.S. as well. It’s seen as a good profession.
CS: I think he’s right. That is true. There’s a certain respect for the intellectual aspects of comedy. It’s held in very high position of esteem.
AVC: When we recently talked, it was for Rugrats, on which you play Susie Carmichael. You came into that show as the only character of color amongst a very white group of babies, and you even mentioned in some recent interviews that there still aren’t a lot of characters of color in cartoons. Do you feel like Susie has grown, in terms of her character on the show?
CS: When she first came on, first of all, I was struck by the animation. I thought, “This little brown girl looks like a real little brown girl, not like a white girl colored brown,” which is how we often occurred before Susie came along. Susie was allowed to exist in the complete authenticity of Black culture, and her family, the same. I was elated when Susie came along.
Rugrats has been very progressive about how they treat all kinds of different aspects of human beings. I hope that Susie’s made a difference in the world to encourage more people to make brown characters and Indigenous characters. I just joined the cast of an incredible show called Spirit Rangers that’s an all-Indigenous cast that I hope you talk to me about when that comes out. Things are changing, albeit very slowly, in my opinion, because I still think that there’s a grave inequality in who creates the cartoons. That’s still all white people, and I would like to start to have more Black creators. I have become a voice director myself, and that will further things. We need more and more directors, more animators, but mostly show runners and creators.
Look, I’m very sentimental and I love cartoons with all my heart because as a kid, it’s really one of the first times in your life you see yourself, and if you can see yourself, you can imagine yourself as all kinds of things. So when there is a disparity and there aren’t enough Black and brown characters, it’s not good.
AVC: Even in just the past couple of years, it does seem like the animation community has been realizing more and more that if there’s a brown character, it should be played by a brown person, and so on.
SC: How about that audacity? I mean, just the nerve. Well, I mean, sometimes I’ll be on Twitter and somebody will say, “well, Cree Summer plays white girls,” and that really gets in my craw, man. That pisses me off, because if I didn’t play white girls, I’d be living in my truck. I couldn’t support my kids. If I only played brown characters, I wouldn’t work very often. There aren’t enough brown characters.
The truth is there are so many white characters that they don’t need to play ours. And, you know, there is a difference. There’s a difference in interpreting a Black character if you’re a Black person, an Indigenous character, an Asian character and so on. Slowly, I think that’s being honored. I hope that it continues. It’s just about awareness.
AVC: Speaking of awareness, it’s the 20th anniversary of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and I know that a lot of fans think that’s Disney’s first Black princess, even if the company doesn’t recognize it as such.
CS: How about that snub?
AVC: What do you think is going on there?
CS: Atlantis was not a huge success in the box office, and I think that is just typical of not only Disney, but all of these monoliths. If something is not a huge success, it just doesn’t get very much attention. But Atlantis was beautiful and deep and a really magical film and also so racially diverse. Somebody needs to check it out. But the fans acknowledge that she’s the Black princess who became a Black queen. But she doesn’t get as much love as I think she deserves.
AVC: Speaking of Disney, you were in a few Star Wars shows as a kid: Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids. You came from a Star Wars family, but what was it like to enter that universe?
CS: I’m a die-hard Star Wars fan. One of the things my father and I used to do in Toronto when I was a kid is go to a triple feature every year. They’d show A New Hope, Empire [Strikes Back], and Return Of The Jedi. I’m a classic snob. Those are my favorites and it’s such a delight to be friends with Mark Hamill. Oh my God. I still get weak in the knees because he’s Luke Skywalker forever to me. And getting to play Princess Kneesaa of the Ewoks was a profound honor.
AVC: IMDb says you were also in a show called Star Wars: Detours that was never released. What happened with that and what were you doing on that show?
CS: I don’t remember. You might have to do some research and tell me. You know, when you start to approach 400 characters and you get up there, some slip, slip, slip out of there.
AVC: What’s your work routine? Especially now, I have to imagine you have a studio in your house?
CS: Well, I work in my bathroom that my daughters Brave and Hero endearingly call Mama’s toilet office. I’m in the toilet for hours every day. Charmed, I’m sure. There’s a couple of studios that have opened up that I feel have really beautiful COVID restrictions and guidelines that I feel safe to go to. That is a new thing. But otherwise, I direct from my toilet and I act from my toilet.
AVC: You have done a number of projects that I don’t know if people would know were you. For instance, you have done the voice of the green M&M for over 20 years. Was that just an audition?
CS: I think I’ve been doing that character for almost 22 years or something crazy like that. Yeah, that was an audition. It was such a big deal, too. I remember everybody was saying, “Oh, God, there’s going to be a chick M&M, white go-go boots, hot number.” And I did my Mae West, who is one of my favorite brilliant genius she-roes. I think that was what got it. Me putting a little bit of Mae in there put it over the edge.
AVC: You also auditioned for the role of Phoebe on Friends.
CS: You’re like the third journalist to remind me of that. I did.
AVC: Well, that would have made it a much different show.
CS: Yeah, because now I think it could be called White Friends, so yeah, it would have been very different.
AVC: I love Lisa Kudrow, but I would like to see this alternate universe that exists where where they have some Black friends.
CS: It’s so funny. I barely remember that because when I left Different World, I had a rock band on Capitol Records and we were just about to go on tour. So I think that time in my life is more consumed with music. So when I when someone says “you auditioned for Friends,” I just have to go “I did? I did!” I mean, it couldn’t have been a good audition, because I didn’t get the part...
Lisa Bonet directed a music video for me, and Lenny Kravitz produced one of my albums.
AVC: I know that your seasons of A Different World didn’t overlap, but did you and Lisa meet around that time?
CS: Lisa and I did not know each other. I joined the cast in season two and she had already gone back to New York to work on Cosby. But Kadeem Hardison and I became very close. He actually was my first real grown-up boyfriend. And he, of course, after working with Lisa—who’s changed her name now legally to Lilakoi Moon—he was working with Lilakoi and he said, “You guys have to meet each other. You are birds of a feather. You are kindred spirits.” And I’ve got to tell you, it was love at first sight. I became godmother to my beautiful Zoë Kravitz, her daughter and Lenny and I fell in love with our deep musical connection. A Different World gave me a lot of beautiful friends that I’ll cherish forever.
AVC: You never can know what will come out of a job. Sometimes, the connections are forever.
CS: Yeah, sometimes it’s “Baby, hit it and quit it,” and some relationships are so damn good you just won’t lose them.
AVC: Another show that didn’t get the acclaim at the time but could be interesting in hindsight is Courthouse.
CS: I love this interview. You’ve got your stuff together, sister. Courthouse was groundbreaking because Jenifer Lewis and I—Jenifer Lewis, who’s now the grandmother on black-ish—Jennifer Lewis and I were the very first lesbian couple on primetime television. We went to the GLAAD awards for those characters and boy, things have changed. It was so uptight, man. We weren’t even allowed to have a real kiss. I remember it was a big deal that we slow danced. We played live-in lovers and life partners, and the network was like, “Well, slow dance, but don’t put your leg on her leg. Don’t grind like that and don’t do this.” It was quite absurd, but it was the baby steps that got us to where we are now.
AVC: It was important that it existed so that then the next time it happened, they didn’t have to talk about slow dancing. They could start at holding hands, or whatever’s next.
CS: You could start in the bedroom, for the love of Jesus.
AVC: I love Jenifer Lewis, too.
CS: We worked together on A Different World! She played the dean of the school. So she went from being my dean to my lady. I just did an episode of Queen Sugar where I played another lesbian professor, and let me tell you, we did more than slow dance.
AVC: Let’s talk about Drawn Together.
CS: Let’s talk about the Foxxy. Foxxy Love is a chocolate-colored, freaking habit-forming, mystery-solving musician.
AVC: You have done all these characters for kids shows and that is not one of them.
CS: Nobody was safe. I think the very first episode there was this “Glory, glory, hole-alujah” moment where God was poking a glory hole. So, irreverent? Check. I love that show. I still love that show. Every now and then someone will post a clip of Foxxy saying “Thems ain’t yo’ Funyuns, thems Foxxy’s Funyuns,” or “Everybody loves the Foxxy, except maybe Papa...” I love it. You know, that is such a stereotype and a caricature. But when my people, Black people, make fun of ourselves, that’s kind of the thing we do. It’s funny shit to me.
I love Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein for creating that show. I love it so much. Tara Strong was on that with me as well.
AVC: Are there people that you’ve worked with more than anybody else, whether or not you were ever in the same room with them?
CS: Oh, yes. I’m always with Grey DeLisle. I’m always with Tara Strong. I’m always with Charlie Adler. I always find myself with Rino Romano. I find myself with Will Friedle all the time. Kevin Michael Richardson. There’s this little group of people that you’re always beside, and the good news is I hang out with them on purpose. This is the best gig. I love cartoons. They don’t hurt anybody. I go to bed with a clear conscience, and not a lot of people can say that in 2021. This is a beautiful place to be. I never take it for granted.
AVC: And all that coming from Inspector Gadget.
CS: And nepotism! How about that? Speaking of nepotism, Brave Littlewing, 10 years old, and Hero Peregrine, my daughters... they’ve already started. They’ve been doing little incidental characters on Vampirina for Disney Junior. So may the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by. Let’s keep this family business going so they can take care of their old ass mama one day.