In September 2001, Cowboy Bebop debuted on Adult Swim. It originally aired in Japan several years prior, and the buzz surrounding its American premiere as the first anime broadcast on the first night of the animation block, was palpable. I can safely say it met all expectations. The series, of course, has become a classic, as has the English dub for the series, in large part due to the work of Beau Billingslea, the voice of former cop and ship “dad,” Jet Black.
Although he was introduced to anime audiences that evening in 2001, Billingslea’s career is far more extensive than that one piece. He has voiced multiple roles, and has also acted in a number of major television shows and films. It was a real treat for a pop culture nerd as myself to sit down and speak with him at Anime Matsuri 2018.
On knowing how influential the series would be:
We didn’t have a clue. It was a gig. It was a lot of fun. We never would have thought that 20 years later, people would still be watching it and suggesting that their children would watch it. It was really a surprise. When I actually got the chance to watch some of it, that’s when I was, “This is pretty special.” The writing was good and the directing was awesome. Mary Elizabeth paid great attention to the dub, to the flaps, that it wasn’t done in a sloppy way.
On voicing Jet…
My first thought was “cowboy”—I thought it was going to be a western theme, and so the first session we had with Mary Elizabeth, who directed it, we were deciding how the voice would be for Jet and I was thinking it would be kind of a cowboy guy, and it would be [in western accent], “Yeah, and he’s from out west with his cattle” and she said, “No, Beau, that’s not really the way we’re going with this. Why don’t you just use your voice?” And I said, “Well, that’s boring, but we ended up with that voice.”
On Steven Blum and the physicality of voice acting…
Sometimes when there’s a lot of physical activity in a scene, you have to do as much of the physical as you can. When you’re sitting down, talking, people can hear it. Steven Blum had a lot of fights in it, so if he wasn’t doing the moves or something similar, you could hear it. So consequently, we had a little joke: he was “Bobble Body.” I would say, “Steven, you’re a bobble body. You’re head is staying still, but your body is doing all this stuff.” He’s really brilliant at staying on mic cause you gotta stay right there and keep your head there while doing “Huh! Ahh! Huh!”
One of the biggest differences with on-camera acting and redubbing anime is that I can’t use my own body to express myself. As an actor, what you’re doing is telling a story, with your voice and with your body.
Becoming an Actor
While I was eager to hear about his experience voicing Jet, I was even more interesting in Billingslea’s acting work in television as films. He acted in many of the most popular TV series of the 1980’s, 90’s, and 2000’s, including The A-Team, Murder She Wrote, Dallas, Moonlighting, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing. But his route to Hollywood wasn’t traditional: Billingslea developing his acting skill through law school and during a stint serving as an officer in the Army JAG Corps. I asked him how he had time to act while attending law school.
My ranking in my class dropped significantly! I was in Connecticut in law school and would go down to New York to do stuff. I just had the itch to do it. I had been in ROTC in college, and when I graduated I was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and they gave me a delay from active duty to go to law school, and so after law school I had to go on active duty, so I did some acting when I started my last year of law school.
On balancing military service and acting:
I started off writing contracts, and then I did criminal cases. I flew around Germany because word got around that I was, I would say, a very active trial lawyer representing my clients, that I did my best for my guys. I would fly to Berlin, I would fly to Munich, and I would investigate my cases. It was an exciting time in my life especially because I was helping people. I felt that was one of the things I could with my law degree, to help folks. Actually, I did some acting while I was there. I was lucky that I didn’t miss any performances! Lo and behold, I did the lead in “Dracula” while I was in Germany as a JAG officer.
Working with Hollywood Directors
I had to ask Billingslea, a former JAG officer, about the portrayal of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in one of my favorite films, A Few Good Men, which led to this story about its director, Rob Reiner:
I have a personal story about A Few Good Men because I auditioned for the role of the judge. I didn’t get the part and then Rob Reiner did another film, The American President. I was a secret service agent. I went in, I didn’t even audition for the part, I took a meeting with Rob Reiner and the first thing Rob says, he says, “We were going to put you in A Few Good Men as the judge but we felt you were too young to be Jack Nicholson’s peer.” So it was interesting. I didn’t know the backstory. All of us actors, you know, are insecure. You don’t get a part and you immediately think, I wasn’t good enough, but very often it’s because you’re too tall, too short, not only enough, too old, and so he expressed that, but he said “You’re going to be in this one.” Agent Cooper was throughout the movie, so it was a nice gig.
Rob Reiner is one of my favorite directors. He just does such amazing work.
He’s an awesome human being. He’s about the environment. He’s about children. He gave a speech to the cast of American President. He got the cast and the crew together and he said, “We’re doing a movie. We’re going to have long hours so I can’t get you home for dinner, but I’m going to do my best to get you home for bedtime so you can read stories to your children.” And we used to have a lottery, a grab bag, at the end of the week on Fridays where you put in a $5 with your name on it and he’d pull out a bill and whomever’s name was on it would take home the bag of money. The last time it happened, we all put in $10 and he pulled out a bill and he said, “Oh, this isn’t going to work.” He pulled out his own bill. So he put it back, pulled it out again and one of the carpenters went home with $1700. They spent money—a string quartet came, we had nice dinners. It was just a wonderful experience because that’s just who he is.
On Ron Howard and J.J. Abrams:
I worked with Ron Howard years ago on a film called Night Shift and that whole gang, just wonderful human beings. Steven Spielberg—I don’t know if you know the story, but when he made E.T. and they made a lot of money, and he gave money to everybody, secretaries got checks for 50 grand. Nowadays, there are so many people that want to be richer than rich. How rich can you be? And so, he spread the wealth. I’ve been lucky to work with directors, like John Frankenheimer and J.J. Abrams, who can relate to the actor’s experience. J.J. has a clear vision and he can express it. People don’t understand the function of a director and how it works—he has to have a clear vision of what he wants and he has to express it to the actor, and I’ve worked with directors who weren’t good with the language. Even in voice-over. You’re trying to figure out, “What are you asking for? What do you really want?” Mary Elizabeth in Cowboy Bebop was wonderful at that.
Favorite Acting Experiences
There’s a mini-series called “North and South” and I played a slave and we filmed at actual slave quarters in Boone Hall outside of Charleston and that was…I can’t tell you. Playing a slave…as an actor you try to live the character, you try to be the character, you try to experience what its like on a day-to-day basis. When you get up in the morning and you’re owned by somebody who has the power to kill you that day and filming in actual slave quarters? And that was the first time my parents saw me on set, because I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, so they came down.
The other one was a show I did on Nickelodeon called “Just Jordan.” I played a grandpa who ran a diner. My newly-divorced daughter comes to live with me over the diner with my two grandkids. Well the reason why it was so meaningful was that my granddaughter was an extra on it, coming in all the time and running around having a ball. To work with your granddaughter? You can’t beat that, can you?
No, no you can’t beat that. But I think, also, that sums the man up—though he’s acted in so many important series over the past 40 years, Billingslea’s best memory was of acting with his family. But by the time our interview ended, I wasn’t surprised: as much as he’s a wonderful actor, Billingslea is humble, kind, and generous, and I’ve rarely been so impressed after meeting someone. A wonderful talent, but a better person—and that’s a legacy we should all be so happy to build.