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Interview: Steve Blum

by Bamboo Dong,

We had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Steve Blum at Otakon Vegas. Blum has voiced some of anime's most notable characters, like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop, Makoto Shishio from Rurouni Kenshin, Orochimaru from Naruto, and many more. He also provides the voice for Toonami's TOM.

A lot of anime fans have grown up listening to your voice. How does it feel to be a part of so many people's lives?

I take it very seriously. It's a humbling experience to say the least. When I hear those kinds of stories, I feel almost a fatherly, nurturing responsibility to say the right thing or at least be of service to them in some way. So it kind of changed me a little bit, when I would start going to conventions and hearing about Toonami and Cowboy Bebop and all these shows that people literally had grown up with. It gave me a sense that I was actually doing something of a little more importance than just belching and farting into a microphone. It was stuff that was affecting people's lives and I take that very seriously, so that changed me as a person, I think.

Do you think there was a specific moment when you realized that the stuff you do every day was actually changing people's lives?

I don't know that there was one defining moment, but the one that was the most powerful for me was several years ago in New Zealand. There was a man who came up to me, looked like a Samoan guy, big with lots of tattoos. He got to the front of an autograph line and said that his son was autistic, non-verbal, and would sit and rock in the corner most days. One day, he went bolting over to the couch, where the TV was on, and just sat transfixed in front of this cartoon show. It turned out to be Digimon, and he was identifying with something my character, Guilmon, was doing. The father said he'd never seen this kind of reaction from him before, so he asked "What's going on?" and the kid said "Ssh!" He said that "ssh!" was one of the biggest responses he'd ever had to anything in his life, and at that time he was about eight years old. At the end of the show, the kid turned to his father and said "I liked that, Daddy." The father said those were the first real words that he had spoken clearly.

So I'm standing across from this giant man I've never met before, and as he's telling me this story, we started sobbing together. Something about Guilmon had unlocked something in his son's brain, and he was able to start having conversations with other like-minded people. Eventually, his parents let him start going online and connecting with other otaku. He knew so much about this show at that point that they just couldn't believe the detail of the conversations he would have about it after being silent for so long. Now he's fully verbal and his father had actually brought him to the convention, which I didn't know. He, his son, his wife, and his sister came back to my autograph line the next day, and I see the guy standing at the back, and quickly excused myself to go get him. So we all stood around the table and just hugged and cried together.

It was transformative. I think that was probably the defining moment that made me realize there was value in what I was doing. We weren't just sitting in a rubber room making funny noises; we were actually doing stuff that affects people in profound ways, and life-changing ways in some cases. In the last couple years, there have been several people who have contacted me and said that they were on the verge of suicide when they watched an episode of something I was in that stopped them. If anything in my life can have that sort of effect on people, then I want to keep doing it. Then there's also the fact that it's really, really fun! But I think about that stuff every day, I wake up in gratitude, I go to sleep in gratitude, I come to these conventions in gratitude. I just wonder, who at these conventions has been through a hardship that anime has gotten them through. Even if it's just loneliness—that people have gotten through that loneliness by feeling connected in the world of anime.

A lot of the characters that you've played over the years are complex, and have interesting things to say. Do you think that any of the characters that you've played have changed you in some way?

Oh, absolutely. They've changed me in ways that I just didn't expect. There are characters like Spike, for instance, where I loved his bad-assery, and I sort of wished I was like that. But on the other hand, playing a character like that made me grateful that my life is a happy life. It's not like Spike's, sort of living in a dream, in and out of his own existence. I play a lot of tortured souls, and all of that makes me a lot more grateful for the way my life actually works. Playing the fantasy characters is just fun. It's like going into a virtual amusement part in my mind. I get to just let it out and play around and explore those things in ways that I couldn't necessarily do in normal society, not if I had a desk job.

Do you think that anything has really changed over the years for the anime dub industry or the convention scene?

It's changed so much. When I first started, back in the late 80s, early 90s, I did my first convention in San Jose, California. I was sitting on a panel with some of the guys from Streamline. Back then it was big-time "subs vs. dubs" stuff. Wars were going on, and I had no idea. So I walk into the room with these other guys who are working on some really interesting shows, and I'm like, "Wow I feel like a little mini-star in here, people are looking at me and listening to what I'm saying. This is really weird!" But so many people in the room were angry. They were there just to tell us to stop doing the work. They said that we were ruining the art form, they said that we were blasphemous, and they actually threatened my life and my family's life. I had people show up at my house and sit there, waiting to scream at me as I was coming down my driveway. I had to change my e-mail address too. It was the weirdest thing, and I thought "What have I stepped into here?" I thought I was just making cartoons, and that it was supposed to be fun! So I stayed away from the con circuit for about ten years.

Finally, I saw that some of my friends were posting and sending me e-mails about how fun it was to get out there and meet the fans, that they'd really changed and I should get back out there and see what it's like. I dipped my toes in the water again and realized it was almost nothing but love out there. By that time, enough stories had gotten around and enough people had grown up a little bit that the industry did change, to the point where I felt like I was doing something of value rather than ruining people's lives. That was the biggest change.

As for the industry itself, I'd never been able to make a living doing just anime, and you still can't. It's almost the same wage now that it was back in the early 90s. But I love working on anime because it is still the same great group of people, both the people creating those dubs and fans supporting the shows after all these years. Working on something like Toonami, I get to see firsthand the impact that anime has on people and how there is still a market for it, even in the wee hours of the morning. So it gives me hope that the art form will stay alive. Many of us were worried about it for a while there.

It must be nice seeing a parade of fresh faces even for shows that you did ten or fifteen years ago.

Absolutely. We did a behind-the-scenes interview for Bebop, for the newest release. (And thank you, Funimation, for putting that out on Blu-ray!) They did interviews with us individually and then we had a little round table dinner. We were talking about how amazing it is to get this kind of attention for something even ten or fifteen years later. None of us knew this was going to happen when we were sitting in the booth. We knew it was a good show, but we had no idea it would have this much lasting power, or this kind of impact on our whole industry. It's heartening to know that we've all been a part of something that has stuck with people for so many years. At conventions, I see fans from childhood age to all the way up in their nineties. They watched these shows with their children or their grandchildren, and they're fans just as much as anybody else. They even cosplay, it's amazing!

I imagine after this much time, even though you and the other actors recorded separately, it must feel like family. It does, especially with the Bebop crew, because we're all really good friends. We all live in L.A., but we don't see each other very often because we all work in different areas of the business now. But even back then, we would see each other in the hallway, and start to develop little relationships there. Even back in those days, I remember how nice it was to talk to people in a casting situation where they're actually nice, and not killing each other for a role. We refer each other for the roles, we take care of each other, we care about how each other is doing. That's not always the case in entertainment, and I remember that from way back when, being one of the most attractive things about the anime community. So we bonded back then, and the friendships have just gotten stronger with years. We're sitting around the table looking at each other and it's just like, "This is my family." We really feel like it has bonded us as tight as any family could be.

If you were a fresh-faced, aspiring voice actor now, do you think it would be harder for you to land a role these days than it was back when anime dubs were still a new thing?

I don't know if it's harder to land a role, honestly, because there's so much more of it. My son and his girlfriend do some voice acting, and they have a whole group of friends who are newbie voice actors, too. So I get to counsel them a lot, hear their stories, and hear about their process, which is really interesting. Most of them seem to be booking things here and there. It's not any huge roles, necessarily, but it wasn't for me in the beginning either. They get to do what they love to do and that's the point. As long as that's available to young voice actors, I think it's no different now than it ever was. It was always hard.

In fact, beyond anime, when I signed with my agency here to try and get work that would actually pay my bills, the very first thing they said to me was "Welcome to the world of voice acting. You're coming in at the worst time in history, so good luck." It's always been tough. I went through years of living on credit cards. It's just what you do as an actor. So if you really, really want it, the opportunity is there. There's stuff happening. You have to broaden your horizons, you can't just be an anime actor and live, but there is stuff out there. So I always encourage people to do it. Just do what you love, period.

Between all the work you've done in anime, American cartoons, commercials, video games, all that stuff, is there any work that you find to be the most challenging, or the most enjoyable, in terms of the recording experience?

They're all distinct animals, they're different. Anime, of course, has the technical aspect where you're matching the lip flaps and you're concentrating on three things simultaneously, but that's where I grew up in this business, so for me that's an automatic process. It's not a terrible hurdle, but we're still bound by script, so the new challenge there is to really flesh out the characters as much as we can within the context of what's been created for us. For original animation, I would say the biggest challenge for me is just getting there, because traffic's so terrible in L.A. The second biggest challenge is just keeping up with all the screaming. I get hired a lot for creature work and soldiers and things like that. I have to be very careful to make sure that my sessions are short enough and I'm not overdoing it, so I can go on to the next thing. It's vocal stress that I'm worried about, as much for myself as all the newbies coming up through this business, because they have to do it too, and they have to do it for much longer. I can make my own hours. For commercials, it's getting the work. For every commercial we're going for, there are probably 250-500 other people. Those are the biggest challenges. As far as the work itself, if there's a challenge presented to me in the booth, I welcome it. I love it. That's what keeps me alive, keeps the blood flowing.

Would you rather have a challenge in voice, or a challenge in a complex character?

I would say the complex character is a bigger challenge for me than voice, unless it's a dialect that I'm unfamiliar with. I think the biggest challenge for any actor is to make a character real, and if you come upon a character that has so many layers of complexity that I may not understand the full context of it, I basically put myself at the mercy of the director and ask them what the big picture is. Then I can dive in and see if I can create the nuance they're looking for. That's the greatest challenge, especially for the quieter roles—the ones who are more introspective, and healing from pain. Or not healing from pain! I want to make them interesting, and I also want to bring the vision forth that the director had in mind, because they've been working on it a lot longer than I have. In some cases, it's a labor of years, and I go into a booth for four hours and take the credit for it. So I want their vision to come through onscreen, and that's the biggest challenge for me. If I've done that, then I've succeeded.

Have you ever watched something you were in, years later, and discovered something new about the character you played?

Well, I feel like every day is new for me, because I have a terrible memory. I don't tend to watch things that I've worked on for a while. I only saw Bebop about three years ago, for the first time, and even then out of sequence. So I just started re-watching it now, on the Blu-rays, and I'm seeing things that I never knew existed in the show. It was so out of context for me, and it was so long ago. Only now am I starting to watch some of my older shows, but there's still a lot I haven't seen. Most of them are still in shrink-wrap for me.

Is it awkward watching yourself?

In some cases, yeah. Especially the older shows, because I think, "Oooooooogh. THAT'S who I was back then. Well okay. Part of my autobiography now, nothing I can do about it." It's a little bit awkward. Mostly it's funny, but all that really comes to mind is what I would do differently now. But I don't judge myself too harshly, because that's who I was back then, and that's what made the show what it is, so when I watched Bebop, just the first couple episodes that I saw, there were a few lines here and there that I felt were awkward, and could have been smoothed out better. Maybe I could have made them more palpable to normal American speech. But that's the way it was written, and I needed to honor that. I wanted to keep it close to the original Japanese and the director's vision, and I think we did a pretty good job doing that. So yes, it's awkward, but it's not something that I worry about, like I don't waste sleep on it or anything.

What words of advice do you have for those getting into the business?

Number one, do it because you love it. It doesn't matter if it's anime, it doesn't matter if it's video games. You can read to kids in the hospital, you can read to the blind, or you can sit around and read a script with your friends. Do it because you love it, and it doesn't matter if you're getting paid for it or not. It doesn't matter if there's animation involved. Whether it's voiceover or anything in your life, do it because you love it. That's the number one piece of advice I can give. Never do it for the money or the fame, because chances are, neither of those will happen, and definitely neither of those will make you happy. Beyond that, if you do start into voiceover, be kind. Be one of those people who actually supports your friends rather than coveting what they've got and worrying too much about what you don't. Chances are that the person who booked that role ahead of you is going to be in the booth with you at some later point. Even if you don't know them now, they're going to become your friend at some point, or become your colleague. It'll happen if you stay in the business long enough. Wish them well. Hope that they land that big role. No matter what happens in the business, don't have any regrets, because it's all building you up to who you are in this present moment. This present moment is all you have.

Are there any roles that you wish to someday play?

Ha ha, this question is asked a lot! I've been so blessed in my career to play characters that I never thought I would get to play. My standard answer is usually Batman, because I thought it was near my natural voiceprint. Growing up and reading comics, I always thought about how fun it would be to voice Batman, but then I hear guys like Kevin Conroy or Troy Baker or Roger Craig Smith, who are all my friends, play Batman and it's like, I've got nothing to add to that. These are my buddies, they're doing a brilliant job, so I'm just going to do it on my own time when I'm reading the comics.

Wolverine's not bad!

Wolverine ain't bad! And for the record, I did get to play Batman in Lego Batman. Non-verbal. He was just going "Ooh! Argh! Grr." But I got to play Batman, and I got to go to the store and buy the action figure, and I took the little Lego Batman home and stuck him on my wall. So that made me happy. I couldn't ask for anything more. I've had such a wonderful career and I hope I get to continue in it for a long time to come.

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