Brenda Song on Coming Back to Disney, Going Animated, and Seeing Her Thai Heritage Reflected in Amphibia
For fans old and new, Song's turn as an animated Thai-American teen lost in a magical swamp world is not to be missed.Photo Courtesy of Disney Channel TV Features Amphibia
From Phineas and Ferb to Wander Over Yonder to Gravity Falls to Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Disney Channel has been giving creators free rein to push the boundaries of animated storytelling for years. This summer, Gravity Falls alum Matt Braly’s magical talking frog swamp comedy, Amphibia, expands that oddball animated legacy by one. In a real coup of Disney magic, it also brings The Suite Life’s Brenda Song back into the Disney Channel fold. Stepping into the single, sodden sneaker of Anne Boonchuy, Amphibia’s lone human protagonist, she takes on her first ever gig as voice acting lead.
In preparation for this weekend’s Thai-themed episode, “Lily Pad Thai,” Song got on the phone with Paste to talk all things Amphibia, from how physically extreme (and fun!) the voice acting experience has been, to how gratifying it is to have found a role in which the Thai half of her heritage is being reflected on the screen.
Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity
Paste: What drew you to Amphibia?
Song: When I first saw Anne, the leaves in her hair, missing a shoe, I just loved her. And then I read it, and it was also like this dry comedy that I’ve never really seen, especially in a kids show. [But mostly] it’s because I fell in love with Anne and what she represents. I love the message of the show. I love that it’s a show about a girl who is so independent, and so fearless, and, in a sense, so headstrong, [a girl] who knows herself so well, but at the same time still struggles with peer pressure and feeling like she’s not good enough.
I didn’t even know that she was half Thai until I started working on the show. And Matt Braly is also half Thai, and I’m half Thai, it just felt so meant to be. It felt so representative of who I was and the stories I wanted to tell. I just think it’s a great representation for kids—and even just people—in today’s society. [Matt’s] just got such a clever way of going about introducing this young audience to those issues. I feel very, very proud and honored to be part of that.
Paste: You’ve done so much live-action comedy, was voice acting something you had been wanting to move into, or was it just a happy coincidence?
Song: You know, I’ve done some voice acting here and there over the years, and it’s always been so much fun, but I actually don’t love the sound of my voice. Which I know is really silly because I’m doing a voiceover show, but you know, it’s just one of those insecurities about yourself you have growing up. But I think they just saw it come through and thought it would be a good fit—I don’t think they even expected me to respond the way I did to it. And I don’t even really audition for a lot of voiceover, so I knew [Amphibia] really did call to me. It wasn’t like someone was like, ‘oh, you want to do an animation show? Here you go!’ It was something I felt really strongly and passionate about.
Also, I really love Matt Braly, our creator. He’s so wonderful, and I think his writing is so clever, and that drew me in. Then when I went in to read for it and started working with him, I loved his sense of humor, and the animation is so beautiful, that I felt like this was the first time in a long time I wanted to sort of put myself out on a limb and be like, alright, let me try something different.
I’m so fortunate that it worked out, because working on an animation show is so fun, it’s so different from anything I’ve ever done. I get to be creative in such different ways, in ways that I’ve never had the opportunity to do in being an on-camera actor. I get to try silly voices, silly accents, I get to crazy fight scenes almost weekly—I get to do a lot of things that I, Brenda, would never get to do. That being said, I feel like… this [voice] is all you get. So I don’t know how far my animation career will go. But as far as Anne, I feel like she and I are one at this point.
Paste: We know different animated shows work differently in terms of how the voice actors are recorded, like, how many people are in the booth at once. Do you generally record alone, or do you have your costars in there with you?
Song: On this show, we all record separately. Everyone has such crazy schedules—like, we’re working with Bill Farmer, who voiced Goofy. I think his schedule is probably a bit tight.
Paste: A bit!
Song: Yeah! So, when we’re in production, I record weekly, a few hours every week, and I don’t get to hear or see anything put together until almost the very, very end. Like, in the beginning, I’m literally recording to nothing, and then I’ll maybe see sketches, and then [only] at the very end do I get to see even a little but of it coming together. I read with our voice director, Eden Riegel, who is incredible, but what’s really amazing is that the writing is so wonderful, the characters are so defined, that it’s all literally on the page. There’s not much prep work, [the writers] do it all for me. But I’m going to tell you a secret—sometimes I’ll still be like, “Eden, can you read me in?” I don’t need her to, I just love hearing her do all the voices!
Paste: Your previous Disney roles have been big, but we know that voice work is a different beast. (Eden Sher, for example, has talked about how there rarely seemed to be a ceiling for how big they wanted her to go with Star Butterfly.) What’s the experience been like for you?
Song: Oh, it’s always BIGGER. I’ve never had the opportunity to be so animated! Even though I’ve been on Suite Life and all these live-action sitcoms, animation is another level. Like, I thought I had a lot of energy until I got into that booth and [came out] literally depleted afterwards. It is more physical, at least for me, than I think a lot of people think it is. I feel like most of the time [on Amphibia] I’m getting so crazy that I feel like whatever sport or whatever physical activity I’d do [outside of work], I’m probably doing it in the booth to get myself there. I’m kicking and punching and playing air tennis and fake sword fighting to emulate the motion that I want to portray, and then I have so many yelling/screaming/fight scenes where afterwards I’ll come out and like, guys, I think I’m light-headed, I feel like I actually went into battle. And mind you, the whole time, I’m in sweats or pajamas or something silly like that!
Paste: It sounds like a dream job, honestly!
Song: Honestly, it really is. I am very, very fortunate. I get to go in there in my pajamas, not have a stitch of makeup on. I get to go and play pretend and do things that every kid, every person would only dream of getting to do on a daily basis.
Paste: Disney Channel has been pushing a lot of storytelling envelopes in the decades since you last were on—focusing on adding more cultural specificity, and a greater diversity of characters and family situations. What has the return to the network been like?
Song: Well, here’s the thing. I think Disney has been ahead of the curve for a very long time, in the fact that they’ve always been so diverse, they’ve been so great with representation on all platforms—they’ve always been that way. I’ve been on their channel now for, gosh, I think the first thing I did with them, I was fifteen, and I’m thirty-one now. And I think at that time, even for me… I’ve always said that when I grew up, I didn’t have a lot of people that looked like me on TV. And it’s really hard when you’re a young actor, wanting to be on TV. The fact is that with Disney, those opportunities were there for me when I was young, and now sixteen years later I feel like Hollywood is [only] finally catching up to what Disney was doing fifteen years ago.
And even now, they are dealing with issues that are so serious but doing it in such a smart way, introducing it to their audience at such a young age to [help] normalize it, it’s so clever. Because where we are today, our society is not ‘traditional’ anymore. We’re a melting pot of different people, different cultures, different sexualities, different heritages. And Disney has been able to introduce those stories in such a clever and organic way to help kids know that it’s okay to be exactly who you are, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, how you feel, what you look like—we’re all uniquely our own person, and we should be proud of that. They’ve been doing that for a long time, and they just continually refine the way they go about it.
So, it’s been nice to come back and to see the fact that they are still being so progressive and still pushing the envelope on a kids network. They’re doing things that people don’t want to do on network TV because they’re not afraid to push that envelope. And doing that for such a young audience? I think that’s just really smart.
Paste: With the official pick-up of Season Two, does that mean we’ll be seeing more of Anne’s family history? We imagine, especially with Matt Braly’s Gravity Falls background, that the magical mystery behind her situation will definitely be deepening, too.
Song: We start recording Season Two soon, but you’ll just have to watch to find out!
Amphibia airs on Disney Channel weekend mornings at 10 a.m., and is available on the Disney NOW app. Episode 1.09, “Lily Pad Thai,” airs Monday, July 1.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.