At last year’s Upfront presentations, Nickelodeon announced a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series that promised to return the world-famous quartet of ninja heroes to hand-drawn animation with a notably different approach to the art style. The voice cast of Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was announced in November, with Omar Miller as Raphael, Ben Schwartz as Leonardo, Josh Brener as Donatello, Brandon Mychal Smith as Michelangelo, and Kat Graham as April O’Neil; Eric Bauza backs the main cast as Master Splinter and John Cena will be the Turtles’ main villain, Baron Draxum.
Kat Graham, Josh Brener, and Brandon Mychal Smith were at this year’s Nickelodeon Upfront in New York City, and while we weren’t able to meet with them in person, we were able to chat over the phone about their new adventures in voiceover work in one of the most popular and enduring superhero franchises in the world. If the chemistry that they had during the interview is any indication, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles promises to be a ton of fun.
TOONZONE NEWS: When you were auditioning for the show, did you know what it was for?
JOSH BRENER: I knew what it was for a new generation of Turtles, but I did not know how different and new and weird and cool and extremely strange this new Turtles would be (laughter).
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: I did know what I was auditioning for, similar to Josh, I didn’t know how cool and exciting and exhilirating and out of this world gnarly this series would be. And now I do, so it’s an honor.
KAT GRAHAM: I knew what I was auditioning for, but I had no idea how big it would be. I knew that the Turtles were big, but I didn’t know that they were going to do action figures and I’d be here doing upfronts. I had no idea it was going to be this big at all. I was just excited to be a part of this cartoon and part of the Nickelodeon family that I feel raised me with their cartoons. So even though it was a big deal to me, I think I underestimated the madness and how people would be so opinionated about it and so invested in this cartoon.
TOONZONE NEWS: I think TMNT is one of those franchises that’s got multi-generational appeal and a lot of people who are really invested in it. For Josh and Brandon, but did you guys audition for multiple Turtles, or did they have an idea of who they wanted you to be up front?
JOSH BRENER: I guess for some reason, they had a very specific idea about me, that I would only be a Donny. It might have something to do with the fact that I’m a huge dork. Frankly, I felt a bit profiled. But I am who I am, and I guess they don’t see me as one of the bigger, more powerful ninjas. But, you know, that’s fine (laughter).
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Yeah, I only went in for Michelangelo. And I was really excited. From the moment I walked into the meeting, I was like a kid in a candy store. I still remember the meeting to this day…it was exciting. They had the action figures kind of lined up inside of the meeting, they had this energy. Everyone in Hollywood was there. But no, I didn’t audition for any other Turtles. I guess that they knew I was a (switches to Michelangelo voice) Michelangelo-talkin’ dude, baby!
TOONZONE NEWS: Josh’s IMDb entry shows some animation VO work before. Kat and Brandon, was this your first time doing voiceover work?
KAT GRAHAM: I had actually done a Nickelodeon pilot when I was a little girl, but I it didn’t go anywhere. I had also done another cartoon on CW. A little guest spot on something, but that’s it.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: I have done animated stuff before. It was similar to what Kat had done. I had a show called The Rules of 57th Street, actually from the creators of Proud Family, and it ended up not taking off either, but the animation space is really hard to get into. It takes a long, long time. I had done some interstitial things with Nickelodeon prior, just like, “Hey, you’re watching SpongeBob!” Or “Hey, you’re watching Hey Arnold!” But nothing as grand and as amazing and as rock-star as being one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A superhero. So this is a game-changer, for sure.
TOONZONE NEWS: How has the experience doing voiceover work for Turtles changed or defied your expectations or forced you to make adjustments as actors?
KAT GRAHAM: An interesting question…I think there’s a couple of different ways to answer it. For me, once they released the art and they made the announcement about April and I saw the feedback that it was getting, it made it really important for me to understand how I want this young African-American cartoon character to be portrayed. I want her to have wit and sass and still be fierce but still come across as intelligent and educated and fun and vibrant. I know that there’s going to be a different kind of audience for this. They’ve definitely expanded their audience with the cast of this Rise series, so it definitely made me feel much more responsible than I had thought a cartoon could make me feel. But I guess the little things could have a bigger impact than I thought I had predicted.
JOSH BRENER: One of the things that’s been really cool is that our director on this series is Rob Paulsen, who’s a voiceover legend of course, and actually was Donatello most recently. Just having his knowledge and his background and his…genius sort of available to us has made it so much fun and so exciting, and also helps makes us feel like we’re doing homage and respectfully carrying on the tradition of TMNT, which as you say is such a special dearly held property to so many.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: This is much different from anything that I do on-screen. I would say my energy level for this character is at a 3,000, and normally I’m at about a 150…
KAT GRAHAM: Really?
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Yeah, really! When I go into the booth, I leave everything on the floor. Everything.
KAT GRAHAM: Even his clothes.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Yes. (Laughter) Again, Kat, with the interjections.
KAT GRAHAM: They try to keep me out of their voice sessions.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Yeah, by the time I finish these sessions, I’m sweating, my shirt’s off…no, just kidding. I just go in and I let it all hang out. I let it all loose. I have a good time, I make sure that Michelangelo’s energy is jumping out of the screen. So yes, I think that the work that I do for this character is vastly different than my on-screen work just from an energy perspective. Michelangelo, he’s a lightning bolt of energy.
TOONZONE NEWS: Speaking of Rob Paulsen, he was in the original 80’s Ninja Turtles series, and he was in the series that just finished. Has he given you guys any specific advice about what you’re about to experience?
KAT GRAHAM: I kind of got geeked out when I found out that Rob was directing, because Rob, very famously, was the voice of Pinky in Pinky and the Brain. For months, my voice mail was Pinky greeting people that would call me. But for me, this is a whole new experience. I was just excited to be on Nickelodeon, but he just told me to have fun. I know that sounds kind of basic, but he really just wanted me to enjoy the experience and have a good time. I always get kind of sad when our sessions are done and there are no more episodes to record because I have such a great time. He makes everything so fun and he’s a veteran actor but he also brings so much of this freshness and this new inspiration to every single episode. You don’t feel like he’s jaded or “over it” at all. He’s still just as enthusiastic as he’s always been, which is why he’s such an icon in the animation community.
JOSH BRENER: Yeah, he said something really cool when we were just starting to record. He was saying you have no idea how much Ninja Turtles means to people, and you’ll have this moment where a Dad with his son or a Mom with her daughter will come up to you and say, “Look, this is Donatello, this is Michelangelo, this is April…” and just to see the reactions of the kids and how excited they’ll be, and how equally excited their parents are. I know all 3 of us grew up with Ninja Turtles. One thing I think he’s excited for us about and trying to impart to us is how cool that feeling is, of being a part of something that means so much to so many people.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Yeah, Rob was such a leader. Just from the moment we started working. Somewhat to what Kat said, I was just the biggest fan of Rob. I loved Pinky and the Brain, so to have Rob leading us, essentially to the finish line each week, I think added so much value to the project. Rob is a living legend. Let’s be honest. He gave us a lot of really great advice and similar to what Josh said, letting us know how big of a franchise we were joining and how this journey would impact so many families and people around the world trying to find their voice. And I think that’s the cool thing about Rise, from April to Donatello to Ralph to Michelangelo to Leo, you have a unique representation of each different quality of turtle, of a human, of life, and that’s really what makes Rise so special and Rob so special, because he really gave us that light. That vision to go, “You guys are about to do something really cool. Enjoy it. Take advantage of it, and really understand the impact you’re going to have on people’s lives.”
KAT GRAHAM: I mean, if they want to (laughs). I feel like I’ve always kept everything separate, and if it makes sense, then great. They know that I would do anything for Nickelodeon and for the team and the producers, and if they thought it would benefit or elevate what they were doing, then absolutely. It may sound weird, but I don’t even think about connecting the two really much in my life.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Like Kat said, I’m willing to do whatever Nickelodeon and whatever Rob wants me to do. Everyone at Nickelodeon has embraced me with such warm regard and such warm intent…it’s just such a family environment here. So if they need me to pull out Little Richard and hit one of them notes, we gonna do it! We gonna BRING it baby!
TOONZONE NEWS: Is there anything else that you guys are working on that you want to plug or you want to talk about?
KAT GRAHAM: Josh has, like, 20 movies coming out.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: Yeah!
KAT GRAHAM: So we can talk about that. You want to talk about all the movies you have coming out? (Laughter)
JOSH BRENER: I just want to draw attention to my work as the president of the Kat Graham Fan Club. Yeah, just visit us at welovekat.edu. And my IMDb page will link you to the Kat Graham welovekat.edu website. We have a lot of cool stuff going on there that we want to let everyone know about, and people involved in loving Kat…(Laughter)
KAT GRAHAM: We all have great projects coming up. Definitely we’re going to talk about Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but we all have very cool things that we’re working on. This is a very unique experience and totally different than anything. We’re actors and I thought that everyone else was going to be these voice animation heavyweights and I was going to be like, “Hi, I don’t do this normally and hopefully I’m OK and I don’t suck!” And when I saw that Josh was doing it and Brandon was doing it and Omar and even John Cena, I was like, “Are you kidding?” It just got even more intimidating, but it’s nice to be among really incredibly talented actors that I get to share a cartoon with.
BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH: TMNT for life!
Toonzone News would like to thank Kat Graham, Brandon Mychal Smith, and Josh Brener for taking the time to talk with us, and to the Nickelodeon PR team for setting up the interview. Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will premiere later this year on Nickelodeon. In the meantime, you can follow Kat Graham on Twitter and on her official website (which the journalist in us insists on declaring is NOT welovekat.edu), Brandon Mychal Smith on Twitter or Instagram, and Josh Brener in, like, the 20 movies he has coming out.