J. Michael Tatum on Iida, Audience, and Searching for Something Greater

At this year’s Kumoricon, @vintageinmyveins, one of our writers and podcasters (Team Trinity), visited with voice actor J. Michael Tatum. Voicing classic characters like Kraft Lawrence (Spice and Wolf) and Isaac (Baccano!), as well as fan favorites from recent series like Attack on Titan (Erwin Smith) and My Hero Academia (Tenda Iida), Tatum is one of the most popular and well-regarded voice actors for English-language productions. Our conversation with him ran a gamut of topics, and Tatum had plenty to say. Here are a smattering of quotes from our interview:

On Voice Acting

I’m a big believer in letting go of expectations of what I think the characters should be because that changes all the time. New context brings out new facets of someone’s character.

It’s tempting to sometimes think of an actor as putting on a cloak and becoming someone else, but it’s not that at all. As cosplayers can tell you, when you put on the outfit, it’s not that you become someone else. The costume gives you permission to bring facets of your personality to the surface. It’s all you—its just not a side of you that you usually feel comfortable coming out. It doesn’t have a context. When I’m acting, I don’t become these characters. It’s just me in that situation.

I felt like, “Oh yeah, I know [Iida Tenya]. He’s basically me in high school. He’s very energetic and really good. He’s very concerned about keeping everyone on the same page and making sure everyone is doing their best. He’s very much a mother hen, which makes him insufferable at times because he can’t let go of control. But he doesn’t want control to misuse it; he wants to make sure everyone is taken care of. He’s a good guy. His challenge has always been to just learn to let go and trust everyone not to do what you want them to be able to do.

Iida battles Stain

I don’t believe in giving myself boxes to check. I try to leave myself open and sensitive to what’s in front of me and any emotional state I’m in.

You’re thinking is always a step behind. If I was to suddenly scream at you, you would have a reaction and then a thought. The actor’s job is always to be present in the body. The acting comes from the body, even in voice acting, especially in voice acting because your voice has to do the work of your whole body. On film or on stage, you have your whole body to communicate different things about the story, but in voice acting, you only have your voice.

On Audience

A character is a judgement by the audience of who they’re seeing based on what they do.

I’m not the one telling the story. The writer’s not the one telling the story. It’s the audience telling themselves the story. I find that if you are true to whatever you are feeling in the moment, there’s no wrong way to be in the scene. Even if your feeling seems to contradict what the writer might be going for in the line, it can create depth. If its real for you, it’s real for the audience, and they’ll make sense of that choice.

On Archetypes

I don’t find archetypes to be very helpful as an actor. You can’t play an archetype. You can’t play something that broad. It has to be emotionally resonant and archetypes aren’t for the actor. You just have to be alive to what you’re feeling at the moment. Archetypes come later.

Archetypes have a home in our heads. Psychologists, like Jung, believe that archetypes are categories of thought that we bring to bear upon reality, like how experiences help us fill in and process things. The emotional life that gives rise to archetypes is something very different. Archetypes are not the whole story.

Archetypes are really useful from the audience’s standpoint. They can be very instructive. They can give you a launching pad to say, “How do we interpret this character? What’s an interesting way to explore what this character is going through contextually?”

Art by NORD (reprinted w/permission)

On an Ultimate Truth

I don’t think we have the capacity to understand the ultimate truth, whatever that ultimate truth is. We’re always going to be dancing around. The most we can do is just point in the direction.

We might have moments of inspiration and feel completely washed over with the truth. Pieces of it might inspire you to draw or write or sing. I think that’s why we act and paint and write, because we feel this draw toward the ultimate truth and we’re constantly trying to get at it.

I think it’s more important to dedicate yourself as a person to smaller truths and let the larger truths worry about themselves. I don’t find that the larger truths much need us to believe in them or not believe in them, so I dedicate myself to the smaller truths.

On the Nature of People

Human beings don’t do terribly well on our own. We like to think we do, but we can’t exist without other people. We depend on other people for so much of our emotional life.

The hardest thing you’ll ever do in life is to learn to live in someone’s good opinion of you. It’s easy to live in someone’s bad opinion of you because it relinquishes you from responsibility. If someone says you’re sh–, you might believe it because as painful as it is to hear it, if you internalize that criticism you can tell yourself, “Why bother doing anything because I’m nothing.” If someone tells you “I love you, I believe in you,” that’s hard. That’s a responsibility. That’s an occupation you now have to that person to live in that good opinion and prove them right and do right by them, and that’s hard.

We need other people. I believe that. I know I’m not good on my own. Left to my own thoughts I’ll go down that rabbit hole and think the worst of myself and other people.

Follow J. Michael Tatum on Twitter and Instagram for more thoughts on acting and all things on his mind!

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