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“You Want to See Yourself in Cartoons”: Animation Pros Talk Inclusivity, Recasting Roles and What Still Needs to Be Done

With Hollywood’s animation ranks loaded with traditional-track hires, 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' director Peter Ramsey, 'Big Mouth' new voice Ayo Edebiri, Sony Pictures Animation exec Karen Rupert Toliver and veteran actress Cree Summer discuss what it will take to ramp up representation: "What's on the screens — that's the artifice."

Amid a wider conversation within the entertainment industry about representation, the past year has seen some signs of change in its animation sector, both onscreen and off. From the recasting of biracial characters with BIPOC voice actors on Netflix’s Big Mouth and Apple TV+’s Central Park, to recruiting more diverse animation artists via Instagram, efforts to be more inclusive have increased in 2020. But what has been the impact? To answer this question, THR invited creative and executive professionals within the animation community to a group discussion conducted remotely Nov. 2. This included veteran actor and director Cree Summer, whose credits include Inspector Gadget and Rugrats; actor and writer Ayo Edebiri, who recently assumed the role of Missy in Big Mouth after Jenny Slate chose to step aside; Karen Rupert Toliver, executive vp creative at Sony Pictures Animation, who won an Oscar this year for Hair Love; and director Peter Ramsey, whose work on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made him the first Black helmer to win an Oscar for best animated feature and whose current projects include Lost Ollie for Netflix. Here’s what they had to say.

How would you describe the current state of the animation community in light of recent conversations about inclusivity?

CREE SUMMER We have a long way to go. How many Black female voice directors do you know? I know one: me. I just directed my first animated show last year. It’s a beautiful crown and it’s a shitty crown, because why is there only one? It used to be that I was the only one in the room, and every now and then, there’s two of us. And let me tell you how shocked we are when there’s more than one of us.

I love cartoons, they’re my lifeblood. I get to be everybody, but what I don’t like is that when I get to be myself, it’s not very often. People say, “Why do you voice white characters?” Well, if I voiced only Black characters, I’d live in a shoe. There’s not enough Black characters to take care of my kids.

PETER RAMSEY That’s so true. It is paradoxical, because when I look back over the last five or six years, it feels like there’s been a lot more projects and people of color coming into the industry — Black people, young people — it really has felt like a sea change. But when you look at a sea change after 80 years or whatever, is it a sea change or is it just another wave lapping up on the shore? This time, it feels like this has some staying power and like it’s latching on, but it really is just the beginning.

We don’t have a deep bench, because this is such a legacy industry, especially when you get into the studio hierarchies, all these people who came up through Disney and Hanna-Barbera and all these other places. For years and decades, it kind of passed on. We were not in that lineage back then.

KAREN RUPERT TOLIVER There’s a lot of new people coming in, but people of your stature of directing, Peter, it’s just not there as much. But at least the fact that it’s a collective conversation, that there’s an awareness, that gives me hope. You see little changes.

SUMMER I agree with you, Karen, it is not as bleak as I made it sound. I do think there are changes coming. I think it’s all in the content. I have two little girls — Brave is 9 and Hero is 7 — and they’re dying to see themselves. My dear friend, creator Chris Nee, who brought us Doc McStuffins — that’s a white woman bringing us Doc McStuffins [a Black girl character] — I love Chris for that, but wouldn’t it be nice if we were bringing our content too?

Ayo Edebiri, Karen Rupert Toliver, Peter Ramsey, and Cree Summer

Ayo, since June, several shows have switched voice actors, and your role on Big Mouth, Missy (previously voiced by Jenny Slate), is an example. How did that change come about, and what’s your takeaway?

AYO EDEBIRI The way the change came about first was internally, even before the protests. It was being talked about internally, and Jenny ultimately was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I think that a person of color should be the one to take on this role.” There was an audition process and I was already writing in the room, so, in my head, I was like, “Dang, this could be cool.” I auditioned and ultimately got the part, which I’m really excited about.

There have been a lot of different conversations about it. To me, it was less about her being white and me being Black, and more just about equity and opportunity and the lack of it in the voice acting space, and for me, as someone who also is up-and-coming. It didn’t go to someone with a really stacked résumé.

SUMMER I think that Asian people should play Asian people and Black people should play Black people and Native American people should play Native Americans and Polynesian people should play Polynesian characters.

It does make a difference when you hear that sound. We don’t sound like them and they don’t sound like us. I don’t think there’s any reason for a white person to be portraying a Black character. I do understand why Black people play white characters, though, because there just aren’t enough Black characters to make a living.

TOLIVER I think you’re right, Cree, and the legacy thing that Peter said is true: that there’s been mostly white people doing animation. It’s gotten more diverse, [but] people tend to just write what they know, and so if white people are writing, it’s going to look like their world. And these movies and the TV shows take so long to make; three years is a lifetime in our world. The way people were thinking three years ago is very different from how we were thinking six months ago, and so I feel like there’s some catch-up to what’s happening.

When I came to Sony, Peter was working on Spider-Verse. I could see that they were doing something different. I was really excited to be there, and we continue to rethink what we do and what we consider normal, because that’s the place that kind of gets you into making the same decisions in the same way.

There are challenges: We need to make sure that we find leadership that is ready and we need to figure out how to make them ready. The quick thing is, just go get the person who did it before. The thing that takes longer is, how do we make sure that we are being thoughtful about this, how do we be intentional and do things that are different? I’m excited about the things we’re doing there.

Ramsey was one of the directors of the Oscar-winning 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.'

SUMMER I’m excited that you’re there doing it. I brought up Chris Nee earlier, and there is also a new series coming out called Spirit Rangers, [one of the first] all-Native American animated cartoon[s], which was just announced. I get chills thinking about that. I grew up on an Indian reservation.

You know, you want to see yourself in cartoons. Maybe people will start to realize what a big deal animation is. That’s the first time you start to dream about being more than yourself, that’s the first time in your childhood life. It becomes the tangible fantastic.

EDEBIRI Every single character that I pretended to be as a kid, Cree, you voiced. It’s very interesting and both inspiring and exhausting hearing you guys talk, because it’s been your careers, fighting for representation on all fronts. I’m starting my career and sometimes, I’ll be in group chats with other people who are staffing animation rooms. We have to uplift each other, but we’re able to have these conversations and even talk to our bosses about stuff like this, because of you guys continuing to do this. Not [just] for us, but also for everybody else with kids, and the people who are going to come after.

SUMMER I love that you said that. I mean, I’m inspired when I see all the stuff that Carl Jones is doing, and it’s not just for kids. Grown-ups watch, I watch cartoons. The stories that animation can tell are limitless, and I think that’s why it’s so imperative that everybody’s voice is represented and heard.

That was the delight I had working on Lazor Wulf, the cartoon I just got to direct. There were so many women, Black women, writing all those scripts, and all the actors I had never worked with before. It was so exciting. I remember when it was over thinking, “Oh, I want to go into a room like that again.”

TOLIVER One hundred percent. When there’s a screenshot and I see all the people of color, it’s really welcoming and warm, and it’s just something we waited a good couple of decades for in this career, to have that experience. It’s really wonderful and it just makes me hungry for more. So we’re going to make more rooms like that for everybody, like you said, the Native American, the Latinx. That’s the work we have to do. It will take a minute, but you know we’re in it.

RAMSEY You start to realize this is what the world is actually more like. It’s not what’s on the screens or how the studios or companies or whatever have always [made it] tend to look — that’s been the artifice. What we’re seeing now is not the weird thing, it just feels weird and new and different because it’s actually a little more of an accurate representation of what the world is like.

I’m really interested in moving the ball forward in terms of representation, telling more nuanced, character-driven, imaginative stories that feature Black people in leading roles. There’s one at Netflix that I’ve been involved in as an exec producer; it’s been announced. It’s set in Haiti. It’s a really cool story that’s very specific to Haiti, and yet it’s universal at the same time. I’m [also] working with Karen on some stuff. There are a bunch of things I can’t really talk about yet.

'Lazor Wulf,' created by Henry Bonsu with Summer voice directing season two, debuted on Adult Swim in April 2019.

How can the animation community broaden, for instance, in terms of mentoring and hiring practices?

TOLIVER It’s all those things. Part of my goal is to demystify animation. Peter coming from live action is a perfect example of that, [Hair Love director] Matthew Cherry coming from live action. When I think of people who want to be in entertainment, I want them to think about animation because there’s so many entry points. You don’t [have to] know how to draw. I think people are surprised [by that] — they think you have to be an artist. It’s mentorship, it’s recruiting. We’re online, we’re on Instagram. It’s really finding entry points where people can come in from unusual places.

The features are harder sometimes. Because these are big-budget movies, you need to be at a certain level to come in, [but] Sony is working on television also, and sometimes those entry points are a little bit quicker or easier. We’re trying to find opportunities where we can test people and bring them in, let us get to know them and then maybe start a relationship with them.

RAMSEY I got to go to the South African animation festival [Cape Town International Animation Festival] last year, and it blew me away, because there’s so much energy and vitality in that animation community, and so much of what they want is to know how we do it. I’m like, “You guys have everything you need, you’re so good, your ideas and the culture.” It’s so fresh and it’s so alive. There’s so much that’s just ready to blow out of that place culturally. It’s starting to happen — you’re seeing it trickle out more and more with the whole Afro-futurist movement.

There’s so much talent out there, and people, either they’re waiting for permission or they’re more ready than they think they are. You just have to tell them they’re ready and the door is open to them. It’s just people giving themselves that license to just step through the door. Or to know that the door is open to them.

EDEBIRI That’s so real to me, that feeling of, “I’m not qualified enough,” like I shouldn’t audition or shouldn’t ask to submit to this [writers] room, because I’m not ready. Then you go into the room and you’re like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been studying, I’ve been watching, I am ready.” But we’re blocking our own blessings because of that impostor syndrome, not wanting to seem unqualified. But no, we’re good. We’ve been prepping and it’s ready for us.

I get excited about this moment too, not just for myself or for people who look like me, but because there are people who I know don’t look like me. I have friends who are disabled and hilarious and smart, and I’m like, “Why aren’t you in a room?” I have friends who are Asian and Latinos and nonbinary and trans, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, why aren’t you running things? You are so capable.”

SUMMER My friend the actress Judy Reyes and her husband just did an amazing animated short about a little Hispanic girl who is gay and she finds a way to tell her friends. And it’s this beautiful cartoon. So damn pitch-perfect that I got excited … maybe it could be something shared in the schools, it was so deep.

TOLIVER It’s also just different life experiences, it’s not just people of color, but from different economic backgrounds. It may sound high and mighty, but we can save the world, people, we just have to tell stories from different perspectives. You have to get that specificity of story, and they look different and you’re like, no, they’re not different at all.

I think, honestly, there’s a silver lining, sadly, in the pandemic, that we’re finding we didn’t have to get on a plane to do this, we can figure out other ways for recruiting. Those are collapsing the barriers. We’re really trying to make sure that that gives access to different institutions and colleges — or [to people who are] not in college. We talk to people who are at-risk kids and have opportunities to learn animation, and they might not even finish high school.

RAMSEY On Spider-Verse, we had a couple of artists that we found on Instagram who were fantastic. Now you can watch how-to videos and take courses online and all this stuff. It really is changing the game. It’s hard to escape the fact that there are all these ultra-talented people who just don’t know quite the right gate to walk through.

TOLIVER I love that there’s a community now. I remember a couple of years ago, I did this Women in Animation gathering [for people of color], and it was the first time a lot of Black women and some men got in a room. We’re looking at each other like, “I didn’t know you were doing this,” and it was so therapeutic.

[The nonprofit Women in Animation has] been really involved in doing mentorship programs and finding mentors across the industry. They’re working with all the studios, and they’ve been partnering with organizations of color that have been coming up, and really lending their services and advice. We’ve been really trying to continue to move that needle.

There’s not a centralized place right now, and that’s what Women in Animation is working toward — a database so that people of color and women can add themselves to the database. So if you’re looking for someone, a woman, or you’re looking for someone of color to hire, that’s a place that you can go. That’s super needed.

The Oscar-winning short Hair Love was directed by Matthew A. Cherry, who co-produced it with Toliver, and starred Issa Rae.

Cree, what are you working on right now?

SUMMER I’m actually up to direct something now. Can we collectively be more fucking vague? (Laughter.) [For Lazor Wulf,] Amber Bickham, who is a Black casting director in animation, was sitting around, I think, with Carl Jones and I think with Henry Bonsu, the creator, and they were saying, “What Black woman director should we get for this?” And Amber said the room just went silent, crickets. Nobody could think of anybody. And then finally somebody said, “Hey, what about Cree Summer, anyone think she might want to direct?” I have to tell you, it was one of the biggest delights of my life. I pray to the goddess that I get to do it again. I hope I get to hire so many beautiful Black actors and actresses.

You know, we’re talking about inclusion, and I know it sounds like I’m joking when I say how shocked I am when there’s two of us in a room, but in all sincerity, it is shocking when there’s two of us in a goddamn room — and don’t let there be three. We’ll be too busy high-fiving, talking, looking at each other, saying, “Well, shit, I can’t believe you’re in here at the same time.” Because this is the heartbreak of it, because in most shows there aren’t three Black characters. So we’re going to start this conversation, bring people together and get us fired up, and we are going to make it different. It is going to change. First, we have to acknowledge that something has to change.

TOLIVER One thing I do notice is that the people that are already in the game now, and have some experience, are in high demand because there is this much higher awareness of the need for diversity. So from my side, when I’m looking for somebody who has experience, it’s like, they’re all busy. They’ve got 20 projects. But that’s a good problem to have, when I can’t find the person because they’re too busy.

SUMMER That is a good problem. We just have so many stories to tell. Peter, I’m totally looking forward to this Haitian cartoon. I think it’s a great idea. Oh, also, I want to bring up before I forget, because it is super important, that it’s Karissa Valencia who is the creator of Spirit Rangers, the Native American animation show. She is Chumash Indian, and she brought it to the elders, who gave their gargantuan blessings to transmute these old folkloric traditional tales that are very important tales to the tribes. This is a big deal.

Missy (far right) on 'Big Mouth' was voiced by Jenny Slate until she stepped aside and Edebiri was cast.

What animated shows and/or characters do you feel have helped with the breakthroughs?

SUMMER Oh my God, I mean, I loved Boondocks. I loved Susie Carmichael [Summer’s role in Rugrats]. Susie Carmichael looked like all the little brown girls. She had the braids, them little barrettes on the end.

EDEBIRI Oh, the barrettes clacking when you run, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SUMMER And her whole damn family, she had a mama, a daddy, everybody was professional and, you know, she stood up to the bad guy. Those characters were iconic.

RAMSEY Oh man, what did we have, Fat Albert. That was about it. But when you’re a little kid you don’t really want to be Fat Albert, you want to be Batman or Johnny Quest.

EDEBIRI Susie was big for me. I mean, like every character you played, and Numbuh 5 [in Codename: Kids Next Door] too, every single time she was cool, she was right.

Fillmore was also iconic to me. I’d wake up early in the morning to watch Fillmore! I always think about the line where this white girl made him chicken and then betrayed him, and at the end of the episode, he goes, “By the way, girl, the chicken was dry.” I think about that every single day of my life. (Laughter.)

And Proud Family. The Proud Family also was iconic. That was what my life looked like, where there were Black people in my life and they were funny and real and goofy and just were different. Like, different socioeconomically and politically and having a goofy white girl in the friend group, like, that was what my life looked like.

Anything else you’d like to share?

RAMSEY I’ve raised a family through working in the arts. It’s viable, and I think the opportunities are only expanding. It feels like a growth industry, as people are consuming [more content]. Somebody’s got to make it, so come on in and give it a shot.

EDEBIRI It is really affirming to hear that this is a job, a career. It doesn’t just have to feel like a dream or a crapshoot. You can do it, and there are so many different ways to do it. I feel so encouraged as a young person, seeing you guys who are writers or performers and directors and producers, just seeing all of it take shape, it’s very affirming.

SUMMER I would say to the studios to just remember the things that we have talked about. One of the beautiful things that Ayo and Karen seconded is that the more specific the story, the more relatable to everyone all around the world. And cartoons don’t hurt anybody, they help. You can go to bed at night and say, “All I did was make somebody laugh or think about something or feel better,” and Lord knows our community could sure use some feel better right now.

I would just implore and beg, and really ask that we have more content, and that when the content appears, can we please be the interpreters of it and the creators? I’m on fire. I can’t wait to see what kind of cartoons my little girls make.

TOLIVER As animation is a medium, there are so many different stories to tell. I really do think we’ve only scratched the surface. In some ways, we can forget what we know about all the rules of what has happened before and what makes an animated movie or makes animated television. Creators, just bring your whole self to this medium just like you would in live action or anything and surprise us about what it looks like in the future. I’m just really excited about that.

RAMSEY Yeah, and on the studio side, this idea that you can play an active role in helping a specific group of people advance within the industry.

Look at the world as it is. It’s wonderful to have an ideal, we all want to strive toward an ideal, but we’re not in the ideal yet, and we can’t pretend that we are. We have to take steps to move forward toward that ideal, and right now, it’s just acknowledging that our industry is nowhere near parity or equity. There’s just not the level of fairness that there could be in this industry and for the talents out there. Nobody is going to lose out, the way this industry is growing, if more new people come in. So, help, you know, help.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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