Voice Actors Dani Chambers and Zeno Robinson on Early Influences, Anime Representation, and Static ShockPhoto Courtesy of Funimation TV Features funimation
In 2021, we’re done pretending that anime isn’t for everyone. People of all ages are tuning into Jujutsu Kaisen and Fruits Basket, and over half of North America’s anime convention attendees are women. Anime has made great strides in inclusivity for marginalized viewers, but there’s still a lot of work to do, particularly with representation in voice acting.
Paste sat down with two of today’s brightest young voice acting talents Dani Chambers (The Day I Became a God, Ancient Magus Bride) and Zeno Robinson (Horimiya, Pokemon Journeys) to talk about working for Funimation, diversity in the voice acting industry, their voice acting idols, and some of their favorite roles.
Paste: I’m curious how you came up in the industry. What made you interested in voice acting? What were some of your earliest gigs that helped you get your foot in the door?
Dani Chambers: I’ve been acting my entire life. I’m pretty much a theater kid. I love the stage. It’s really fun. I love that I can be different people. In 2013, I was like, “You know what? I want to try the voice acting world.” I love being animated, And I wanted to see what it was like “behind the microphone.” So I did research and figured out what I needed to do, bought this cheapo microphone, and started on my YouTube channel. Looking back at it now, it was really bad. [laughs] But I’m glad I did it because it was a good experience. And because of that, I took classes and found out what I needed to do. I ended up at Funimation two or three years later. I started working with them at the end of 2016, and then everything took off in 2017.
My first role was with Tyler Walker in The Morose Mononokean. I was Zanko Fujiwara. That was a DVD/Blu-ray title. In the meantime, while we were recording that, I ended up booking Ancient Magus Bride. So that actually wasn’t my first role! But because it was SimulDub people knew about me there first. I was like, “Oh my God, this is the dream! I’m an anime girl with red hair and magical powers! But she’s sad!”
It was really awesome. Like, you know, you don’t have to look like the character in order to voice them. I was like, “I want more! Let’s get more POC in here!” So I wanted [to voice act] because I wanted to see more of myself in the industry, because we can do it. I just hope it continues to grow. I’m really excited in what direction it’s going in now.
Zeno Robinson: I got into acting in middle school, with musical theater. Voiceover was something I fell into. I auditioned for a lot of agents at that time, about 10 years ago. My agent ended up sending me out on my first project, which happened to be Ben 10 Alien Force. That was my first voiceover job. That was a character that would come back every year. That’s when I learned voiceover was a thing, so I started taking classes and learned about that world. I was always interested in anime, I just didn’t know [voice acting] was a thing you could do. So I started auditioning at studios in [Los Angeles]. There’s a studio out here named Bang Zoom. They would hold these open auditions at Anime Expo every year. I auditioned in 2015 and 2016—I lost the first year.
Somebody recommended me for Funimation. Similar to Dani, I never saw people who looked like me, especially young, Black men, in the anime industry. So I wanted to be what I never knew I needed growing up.
Paste: Historically, Black voices have been underrepresented in voice acting, especially in video games and anime. Growing up for me, Black characters were often portrayed by white actors. I think it’s really cool that Dani got to play characters that are not Black, because you deserve to play any role. Why do you think it’s important for Black voices to be heard even when we can’t see the actors behind the characters?
Chambers: It’s important because seeing people who look like you can inspire you to do that too. Growing up, I couldn’t name a lot of [Black voice acting] celebrities on one hand. The only one I can think of is Cree Summer. She’s phenomenal, and I love her, but she’s the only one I could think of. Being able to see that in someone’s childhood [makes you think] “They look like me! I can do that too!” […] Also, to show we don’t have “one sound.” Growing up a lot of people would say “you sound like this, you sound like that, you sound too proper.” What does it matter? We’re not defined by the way we stereotypically sound. That irritates me to the bitter end. [laughs]
I wanted to prove we don’t have one specific sound. We can sound any way we want to, any way a character should sound. I wanted to show people we’re more than just a stereotype. We can do it all, just like anyone else.
Robinson: Representation is a reflection. People like to see themselves in the things they consume because they take things away from it. I can always tell if someone is telling a story I can authentically relate to. Telling a story I relate to helps me connect with the material. If someone is inauthentically portraying something I’m consuming, it’s going to feel insulting to me as a consumer.
So, like Dani said, it’s important for people to see themselves in the industry. I have this theory that there’s not a lot of Black men in anime because they don’t know there’s a place for them there. [laughs] Everytime I get a DM from someone who’s Black telling me they’ve always wanted to do voiceover, it kind of just proves that point to me. Space hasn’t been made for them, they don’t think space is there for them. All they see are people that don’t look like them telling stories that sometimes have [Black people] in them!
People always want to see themselves in things they watch. That’s something I echo from Dwayne McDuffie, because that’s what Static Shock was for me growing up. His whole thing was people, no matter who they are, need to see themselves in the things they consume. It gives them a connection with the superhero they’re watching.
Paste: Dani, you mentioned range in voice acting and being able to portray many different voices. You played Dahlia Hawthorne in Ace Attorney, as well as Iris. Those characters are very different. Dahlia is one of my personal favorite villains. What was it like playing an iconic, multilayered character?
Chambers: It was phenomenal because I, for one, am a huge fan of Ace Attorney. So it was like, “Oh my God!” I walked in for the session and saw her on screen and I was like, “So who are we recording today?” and [my sound engineer] said “Oh, this crazy girl Dahlia.” I was like “Okay, cool,” but on the inside I was freaking out. She’s not a very complicated character, she’s more just straight up evil. She wants everything her way. To play a role where I get to be mean and vicious but also to move between three voice types was amazing. Before that I didn’t play many mean characters in my register. My register is very high, so up until then it was mostly the little sister, the little girl. That’s fine because I enjoy playing those characters, but this time I got to go into the deep recesses of my heart, the dark places, and let it out finally! [laughs] It was a really, really good experience, it made me love this craft even more.
Paste: Zeno, you play Hawks in My Hero Academia. He’s steadily become a fan-favorite character. You also played Genya in Demon Slayer. What’s it like playing characters in some of the most popular shounen anime of the last few years, especially two really different ones?
Robinson: It’s really cool, shounen as a genre is one of my favorites. I just like action! I don’t usually watch anime that doesn’t have explosions and swords. [laughs] Being able to play characters in popular shounen is pretty cool because a lot of what people connect with are the characters. Shounens are told over long periods of time, so the characters have great development arcs. Fans who follow the manga read characters like Genya from where he’s first introduced when he’s this bully and where he goes from there, like with the struggles that come with his specific powers.
Hawks as well. His character develops from the time he’s introduced to where he’s at now. That’s what’s fun about playing characters in shounen. They have a lot of time to grow. That’s the coolest part. And cool powers! You get to do cool fight stuff.
Paste: Are there any voice actors that have particularly inspired you? Any particular performances that influenced your method?
Robinson: I’m inspired, first of all, by my peers. Anairis Quiñones is one of the best actors I know. All her reads are so good. My friend AJ Beckles is amazing. Dani inspires me every day. Phil Lamar. Khary Payton. I got to share the screen with him in Young Justice. I got to play the character he’s portrayed for most of his career, and he plays that character’s father. Seeing the switch is crazy! He plays so many characters in Young Justice. Each character has their own level of distinctiveness, and characterization, and nuance.
Nolan North, Troy Baker, they’re actors that make it look easy. Nolan North will be in a session on his phone, stand up for his turn, deliver a perfect take, and sit back down. I ask for 15 takes every session, I’m like “Can I do that again? I can do it better, I promise!” I’m really, really just trying to keep up. [laughs]
Chambers: Everyone Zeno said. I’m like, I wish I was one of the cool kids! Seeing them win every time, I’m so happy. Growing up, it was Phil Lamar, Cree Summer, and Khary Payton. The main three in my eyes. Cree Summer has a unique voice and you can tell instantly who she is. She plays each character differently. I wanted to do that because I didn’t feel like I had a voice for anime. It doesn’t matter what type of voice you have, you just have to work hard.
My number one favorite role is Cyborg in Teen Titans. And Phil Lamar as Static Shock. I think that was the first Black superhero show I watched as a kid. It was so good, it told a good story, and it had messages that are still important today. That inspired me to do better in my acting.
A recent favorite is Christopher Judge as Kratos in the new God of War. Looking at all the behind the scenes of what inspired him to give that performance just breaks my heart, it’s so raw and emotional. Seeing him work amazing, he puts all this effort into it. Yuri Lowenthal is another favorite.
Paste: What would be your dream role?
Robinson: Static. It’s about time for Static. We haven’t had a show in, what, 10 years? He gave the community something no one else gave at that time. His impact is still felt today. It’s part of Dani story, it’s part of my story. We grew up with that. Even without a [modern] iteration his presence is still felt today.
Chambers: Two for me. I would love to be a protagonist in a JRPG. And I would love to be a big time villain. No doubt Dahlia is a villain, but I mean a superhero villain. Something where she thinks she’s in the right and she causes a big impact on the story. Something like that, whether in an anime or a western animation.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire
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