It’s breakfast time on a Sunday morning in Chicago, and I’m scouring the tables at the Hyatt Regency’s in-house fine dining establishment for Jeremy Shada’s father, Dean.
Of course, it’s highly unusual to conduct an interview of a 19-year-old actor in the presence of his dad—there are certain areas you can’t really approach in your questions, and every person, adult or child, behaves differently around their parents. But we’re at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, and the combination of the convention’s rabid fans and Jeremy’s iconic role as Finn the Human in the hit Cartoon Network show Adventure Time makes for some potentially creepy interactions—the types of things from which a father is obliged to protect his son, if given the chance.
“He gets a lot of people who come up to him in the restroom, girls grabbing his ass, things like that,” Dean Shada tells me after I’ve located his table. Even at C2E2, Jeremy’s already had to fend off a rather ostentatious fan who pressured him to openly confirm some of the LGBT subtext in Adventure Time and, when Jeremy declined to comment, insisted that the actor prove his support for the gay community by administering the fan’s marriage to his partner in front of everyone. (Shada, for the record, is not an ordained minister.)
The elder Shada is not a physically imposing guy, but he is a veteran, and you can see the military wisdom in his eyes; this is a man who will do what he feels is necessary to secure not just his son’s security, but his future. He handles Jeremy’s PR and effectively serves as his manager. Yet Dean is quick to point out that his son is very much an adult, an established young professional currently looking to buy his first home.
And as he joins us at the table, Jeremy looks the part of a young man in transition—one foot in the grown world and the other in youth. He’s wearing a stylish leather jacket over a black polo, and his hair is slicked back, giving him a suave aesthetic that’s a far cry from the stereotypical, Abercrombie-type-clad teen actors that appear on kids’ networks. But take a look at his boyish face, and you realize he’s still a teenager who’s best known for playing an animated teenager. It’s a face that got him labeled “adorable” in a 2015 Buzzfeed article that essentially consisted of some of his Instagram posts.
When asked if he’s okay with being called adorable, Shada gives an easy smile.
“Sure. It’s a flattering thing. I appreciate it.” And, here, his voice arcs upward in a way that sounds exactly like Finn.
They’ll always be inexorably linked, Jeremy Shada and Finn the Human. That’s what happens when you spend the entirety of your adolescence portraying another person’s adolescence.
Shada auditioned for the role in 2009 in large part because his brother, Zack, had played an early version of Finn (then called Pen) in the original Adventure Time short on YouTube. By the time Cartoon Network decided to pick up the series, Zack was too old for the part. But Jeremy, at age 12, happened to sound very much like his older sibling—a trait the producers thought was just a coincidence until after they selected him to play Finn. Given the way the show has taken off, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Zack harbored any resentment.
“No, that’s not the case at all,” replies Jeremy. “I think at that point it was just a cool thing, like we’re keeping it in the family, it’s not some other guy doing it.”
Today, Adventure Time is still going strong, currently in the midst of its seventh season and continuing to work within the surrealist, heavily philosophical milieu that’s made it so popular among both children and adults. One of the major reasons the show has maintained relevance is because, unlike many kids’ cartoons, it depicts the passage of time. Finn was 12 at the beginning of the series; now, he’s 16. Along the way, he’s struggled with issues typical of teenage boyhood: puberty, hormones, girls, identity. Shada has occupied the unique position of growing up alongside the character, which has granted him a fascinating perspective on not just Finn’s development, but also his own adolescence and the shifting experiences and worldviews his tenure on the series has brought him.
He looks back on the early days of the show, for instance, and sees naught but the blithe innocence of childhood.
“It’s kinda funny because at 12, everything’s slightly more black and white,” he remarks. “You’ve had less happen to you at that point. In the show and in real life, you’re just more happy-go-lucky, it’s like whatever, Finn kinda goes through [things], and fights evil and has a good time and there’s not a whole lot that he has to deal with.”
Over the intervening several years, both Finn and Shada have developed to the point where making an episode with that halcyonic tendency is nearly impossible, though it still comes backs every once in a while.
“There’s always those moments where you’ll be like, ‘That’s very Season One Finn,’” he says. But for the most part, they’ve grown together, learned together and become wiser for it. Shada can even recall a time when his performance as Finn directly informed his own life.
“I had a thing with a girl, in real life, and we had just broken up. And then there was an episode, I think it was post-Flame Princess breakup or something like that, around that time. And he’s going through this weird phase of going on a bunch of random dates with people.”
The episode is indeed a memorable one—it’s “Breezy,” and it contains possibly the most overt sexual reference in Adventure Time history.
“And I kinda read through the script and I was like, ‘Finn’s being an idiot right now,’” continues Shada. “And then it was like, well, I’m kinda being similar in real life. It just reminded me of what I was going through, and it was like, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’”
Shada spends his time with Finn in retrospective, though, since the actor and the character differ in age by about two years during production. It’s a gap that has conferred considerable maturity on Finn, who has flashed incredible bits of wisdom in recent episodes like Season Seven’s “Flute Spell.” Much of that stems from Shada’s reflections on his own past, which he brings to the studio with him. He’ll regularly read Adventure Time scripts and cringe at what’s essentially his relationship with his younger self. You can hear some of that self-awareness in Finn’s voice, especially in more recent episodes, to the point that seeing a contemplative Finn is now the rule rather than the exception.
Shada points to the Season Six story arc of Finn meeting, despising, and ultimately forgiving his selfish, criminal father as the most significant growth the character has undergone.
“It was so interesting to me that they set it up in a way that in the show, his dad is not a good person,” he relates. “It had to lead him down this path of acknowledgment that things don’t work out exactly how you want them to, and then even though his dad in the show is kind of a jerk, you start to see a little bit more of those levels to his dad.”
“[But it’s] very funny because to me, it’s very different in real life.” He gestures to his dad, who smiles genially.
And indeed, the Shada family, at least from what I can tell with two of them sitting across from me, seems tight. Jeremy was homeschooled to accommodate his work schedule, graduating high school at age 16; he gets much of his social interaction through his church, which the Shadas attend regularly; Jeremy occasionally refers to his dad as “Pops” over the course of our meal. Now, he and his brother Zack play together in a band with a few of their friends. It’s called Make Out Monday, and it’s as pop punk as the name sounds—another little reminder that Jeremy, though he’s grown, is still a teenager. In the band, he plays bass, an instrument he’s been learning for seven or eight years, and vocals, which he’s honed through both formal training and the litany of songs he’s sung over the years on Adventure Time.
“It wasn’t like my main focus,” Shada says of getting his musical start. “It was more, I think in the early days, just a way to round out my abilities as an actor, ‘cause there’s a lot of projects like Adventure Time that require you to at least be able to carry a tune to an extent, to understand how to sing. But I just never, until later on, had a huge inkling to actually pursue it, mainly because, when I was younger, it was like you could do a solo Justin Bieber type thing, and I didn’t really wanna do that.”
Make Out Monday has become a bigger focus of late for Shada, with the band in the process of recording its debut LP, slated for a summer release. But he’s also currently filming an upcoming Verizon Go90 live-action show called Mr. Student Body President, in which he plays the eponymous role—it’s an atmosphere he compares favorably to the set of Incredible Crew, the Nick Cannon-led sketch show on which Shada starred in 2013 before Cartoon Network canceled all of its live-action programming. And this past Friday, it was revealed that he’s set to star in the Dreamworks/Netflix remake of Voltron. Just about the only thing missing from his plate is a role in a superhero flick, or one of the new Star Wars movies; like many of Adventure Time’s devoted fans, he’s unabashedly into geek culture, with a particular affinity for Spider-Man.
Shada relishes being busy, though, and firmly believes he can succeed in both music and acting. He brings up Jared Leto as an influence, and when I ask him to elaborate, he gets almost breathless in praise of the Suicide Squad star and 30 Seconds To Mars frontman, fixating upon his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
“That was another pushing point for me to do the music,” he explains. “Because once he won the Academy Award and had this massive successful band and is also recognized as this amazing actor, it was kinda like okay—people can definitely do both and definitely be seen doing both.”
And the truth is, Shada’s set up well to do that. Although he’s widely associated with Finn, the fact that he’s primarily worked as a voice actor has tempered his public profile; aside from his stint on Incredible Crew and some small roles earlier in his life, Shada’s essentially a blank slate in both live-action and music. From his mostly backward-looking anecdotes on Adventure Time and the laser focus on the future that he displays in conversation, you can tell he’s well aware of his enviable position on the cusp of adulthood.
To be sure, he’s certainly still excited (as are we) about what Finn will do in coming seasons. “I think we definitely still have a lot of stuff to wrap up, with his origins and what really happened with everything,” he says of the show. But make no mistake: Jeremy Shada is no longer a boy. And as much as we’d love to hear him voicing Finn the Human forever, he’s got a whole world of grown characters ahead.