Rob Paulsen has voiced a number of iconic characters over his 40 years in Hollywood, from Animaniacs’ Yakko Warner to both Raphael and Donatello in various iterations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s also voiced some characters that, in the harsh and just light of 2020, viewers might question—both because they’re birthed from a stereotype, and because they’re of a different race than Paulsen, who is white. The animation practice of casting white actors in non-white roles is one that’s come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks: Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate announced they would no longer play biracial characters on Central Park and Big Mouth, respectively; Mike Henry relinquished the part of Family Guy’s Cleveland Brown (and Wendell Pierce began a campaign to succeed him); Carl and Bumblebee Man joined Apu among the ranks of Simpsons characters in need of new voices; and Alison Brie expressed regrets about her portrayal of Diane Nguyen on BoJack Horseman, a casting decision creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg re-evaluated throughout the show’s run.
And so the following excerpt from an upcoming and updated Random Roles interview with Paulsen felt particularly relevant. While discussing the topic of characters he’s inherited from other performers, The A.V. Club asked about José “Zé” Carioca, the dapper Brazilian parrot from Disney’s Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros originally voiced by Brazilian musician and actor José do Patrocínio Oliveira. What followed was a frank discussion about playing nationalities and ethnicities different than his own—something Paulsen says he no longer does “along with virtually everyone else I know who is a Caucasian actor.” In the video above and transcript below, Paulsen discusses his thinking about his past work and what the animation industry and its actors should do going forward.
AVC: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not Brazilian. You don’t voice José anymore, but has your taking that role ever given you pause?
Rob Paulsen: I’m so glad you asked. In fact, you’re looking at somebody who has also played other characters of different national origin. The first regular gig I got in a cartoon show was on a reboot of Jonny Quest, in which I played Hadji. That was in 1985.
I think now, along with virtually everyone else I know who is a Caucasian actor—when a character comes across my desk that has a distinctive national origin, I take a pass.
In fact, the first time I remember it happening was probably in the early or mid-’90s. It was a Native American character, and I remember saying, “well, wait a minute, Michael Horse is in town and Wes Studi and all these Native American actors.”
I’ve been in Hollywood long enough to see that whole dynamic change. There were many times that I would see Black actors playing Asian folks or white actors playing Black characters when I was a kid, but the whole dynamic has changed. When I was a kid, the only show I recall that had a Black cast was The Cosby Kids or something like that.
I was working on a show called The Boondocks with Aaron McGruder, who created the comic strip. Every time I’d get hired it was usually be to be a redneck racist white guy, which was very difficult for me. It was the only time in my career where I’ve had to do things that were not comfortable for me. [I mentioned that, and] the producer said, “I don’t give a you-know-what if it’s not comfortable for you. This is what I’m paying you for.” And so I had to go to that place—you can imagine, that was very difficult. Because I’m not cut from that cloth to use that word [the N-word] in the context of a show.
All that is to say that your suggestion is absolutely on target. Everybody is way more sensitive about making sure that Asian actors, Native American actors, African American actors, East Indian actors are all working. In this day and age, if there were a Jonny Quest reboot, it would be an Indian or an East Indian or Pakistani actor playing Hadji, and absolutely rightfully so.
I have to say that all of us [voice actors] have taken it upon ourselves—not just me—to say, “you know, there are plenty of Asian actors.” I’m not going to do some stereotypical Asian accent for a character. When I grew up, that’s what happened, whether it was at the movies or in Mr. Magoo. That show had someone they called a “house boy” named Charlie, and he had stereotypical pronunciations like other Asian characters [of the time] or Speedy Gonzales and other Looney Tunes. There was a character called the Frito Bandito when I was a kid, and he was an animated character that would not be accepted today. Understandably so and rightfully so.
To have been part of that and see how [the industry] changes is pretty cool. Now, when I go into work you’ve got Clyde Kusatsu, Keone Young, and all these wonderful Asian actors, all doing all sorts of roles, including Caucasian character roles. So it bleeds over, but all of us make sure we are utterly authentic in giving everybody else a shot, cause you don’t need to just hire one guy or girl to do it all.
It’s an excellent question and I’ve been on both sides of it. So you’re asking the right guy.
AVC: It’s nice to hear that things are changing in the vocal booth, but also hopefully if you remade Jonny Quest in 2020, Hadji would have different, less racist characteristics. He hopefully wouldn’t be a snake charmer, for instance.
RP: And his catchphrase was “sim sim salabim,” which is a throwback to movies from the ’30s and ’40s, very stereotypical stuff.
As you can imagine, I was thrilled to death to get the part of Hadji. I thought, “Oh my God, a kid from Flint, MI is going to be Hadji,” but as things progressed, it became very apparent [that I shouldn’t be playing that role] because it was maybe five or six years after that, that we started saying, “wait a minute, this is an Asian character, call Clyde Kusatsu or Keone Young.” There are all sorts of people. I mean, this is Hollywood. Everybody’s here.
I’m grateful to have been part of that general epiphany in Hollywood, even just with respect to animation. It’d be pretty difficult for me to find a reason to cast anyone who is not an authentic person of the particular heritage of the character that’s being portrayed nowadays. And because everybody is accessible just like this [Zoom chat], even if you’re not in Hollywood and you’re an Asian actor or Native American actor or an Indian or Pakistani or Afghani or Iranian actor, everyone can all be accessed via the internet. There really isn’t any reason not to hire somebody who’s authentic.