From ATLA’s Toph to Studies at Yale, Michaela Jill Murphy Walks Her Own Path

On occasion, I’ve interviewed voice actors during the evening hours of a convention. It’s not ideal—the guest is often drained by that point, and besides, I feel uneasy about delaying him or her from resting after a demanding day.

At Ecchi Expo, and 18+ anime convention I attended last week, rest was what Michaela Jill Murphy needed. “I can’t wait to find a pillow,” she admitted, having arrived earlier in the day at the end of a long drive from Los Angeles with her boyfriend, who’s also an actor. But other than that small admission, you’d never know that she’d driven halfway across the country (with more to go after the convention).

Better known to Avatar: The Last Airbender fans by her stage name, Jessie Flower (which she used as a child while voicing Toph Beifong), Michaela was energetic, honest, and generous as she explained the route she’s taken since that time of childhood success, a winding path she’s still in the middle of traversing.

You might think that Michaela’s life now could be complicated or difficult because of the fame she experienced early in life, but her story isn’t compelling because it’s full of engaging name drops or sad and sordid tales of a childhood gone awry. Rather, I found it interesting because of its normalcy. It mirrored my own path in many ways—and yours, too, perhaps—as she made and still is making her way through the same types of challenges many encounter in adulthood. It just so happens that Michaela also voiced a beloved character in one of the most popular and acclaimed animated series ever along the way.

A little piece of trivia: Before voicing the role of Toph, Michaela played Meng in an episode of season one of Avatar. When she auditioned for the more major part, Michaela didn’t even know it was also for same show. And how she got the role feels, well, true to life and how things sometimes work out in the most unusual of ways.

She was in Indiana visiting family (Michaela was born there but moved with her mom out to Los Angeles when she was four) and had to find a “random music store” that had a studio where they would let her record. That’s when her grandmother comes into the story:

I went in, and my Grandma was like, “Wait, who’s reading the other part?” The audition scene was the first scene, the one between Toph and The Boulder. I said, “No one. I just read Toph’s lines.” And she said, “That’s funny. Somebody should read the other part. Why don’t I read The Boulder?” So my grandma read The Boulder and I read Toph, and that was my audition!

That reading in a random southern Indiana studio begat a role that she’ll always likely be linked to, even with the many other characters she’s played and others certainly in her future. But without accompanying social media fanfare, and conventions not having the same pull as they do now—along with, as Michaela noted, ATLA‘s growing reputation and popularity over the years above and beyond that at the time—fame didn’t come immediately. I wondered if her decision to go to college instead of continuing with acting straight after high school was impacted by this measure of fame. She thinks it’s more part of parcel of who she is:

So I was a very—I don’t know if it’s stubborn or opinionated or lofty—but I had this timeline in my head. I’m going to be an actress, have my name on the Walk of Fame by 14, then I would stop cold turkey, switch to school mode and into math and the sciences and become a cardiovascular surgeon.

Michaela obviously didn’t become a surgeon. What she experienced instead is what many of us do—a reckoning where you realize the life you had planned doesn’t align with what life is really like. While Michaela excelled at the subjects that would lead her to medicine, she found some of the duties and the very philosophy of the American healthcare system disagreeable, causing some internal consternation: “The hardest part was discovering that what I wanted to do wasn’t what I had thought, and having to figure out a whole new life plan.”

Michaela returned to something familiar, theater, while also majoring in film. Oh, by the way, did I mention that she was attending Yale? She looks back fondly on her years in the Ivy League institution, but it presented social challenges. The switch from pre-med to performance majors meant a shift in friendship dynamics, as did just living among such a wealthy student body. “I got very overwhelmed by all the different types of people.”

“The hardest part was discovering that what I wanted to do wasn’t what I had thought, and having to figure out a whole new life plan.”

Then she added, “It was a real learning curve, but I’m really grateful for it.”

In the short few years between then and now, Michaela has experienced many things—she moved to New York and dabbled in music theater. She worked in short film. She continued to audition for voice roles. She started attending conventions, seeing a rise in popularity with Avatar: The Last Airbender streaming again on Netflix. And she returned to Los Angeles.

“And now I’m in Texas,” she laughed.

The trip to Austin aside, Michaela’s journey has been circuitous. And full of bumps, too. When I asked about anime, she mentioned sending in “so many auditions” and how challenging the competition is nowadays.

I got the sense that, as with so many in their twenties (Friends, for instance, is largely based on this theme), she was still trying to work through that vision of life she had laid out as a motivated adolescent, and the fact that things were not so certain as an adult. So I asked the five dollar question, the one sometimes given at job interviews:

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

With the same enthusiasm she approached every moment of her interactions with me, Michaela reflected on the past, first: “I need to do this anyway! I was such a planned kid. I haven’t done this in a while. In five years…”

Michaela paused a bit. She gave some some relational goals (you can peruse her Instagram account to see her boyfriend, for instance—a really nice guy by the way), and then she came to career. “I think I do like performing best. I’m just a little tired.”

In our last few minutes together, Michaela expanded on that sense of tiredness—the “exhaustion” of rejection, the struggles of finding the right performance, the wondering about whether to focus on creating or performing. And in doing so, she reminded me of what it means to be 27—whether you’re someone self-assured, successful, and Ivy League-educated like Michaela, or just you, occupying your space, doing your work, living your life.

Being 27 means uncertainty. It means wondering about (and wandering down) the paths you’ve taken, the path you’re on. It means passion and energy and tiredness and anxiety. It means sometimes being able to see far into the future, and sometimes only one foot ahead at a time. It means experiencing life but not enough of it, wanting it all but not knowing quite how to get there.

I guess that’s what speaking to Michaela reminded me of most of all, the universality of being that age, in all its fun, tenderness, concern, and hope—maybe even a double dose of the last quality, for there was no pity in her voice, no down-in-the-dumps in her tone. She’s determined to push ahead and continue to discover her passion, learn about herself, and make captivating art, with the same qualities, it seems, she had as a child—resolve, intelligence, and yes, like Toph Beifong, confidence (and maybe a little stubbornness, too).

After the convention, Michaela continued on a cross-country journey, driving from Texas to the east coast. How can she have such energy to keep moving like that after three days at a convention, besides the earlier thousand-mile leg of the trip? I realized that’s what sets her apart, what’s not usual about her path, what might be hard for many of us to relate to. But that’s the very picture of Michaela Jill Murphy—always moving, optimistic and hopeful for what’s in store next on the journey.

I think what comes of all this, what she discovers on the road, may be a surprise, both to her and all her fans. But knowing how Michaela is, I’m sure she’s ready for the adventure—and that she wouldn’t really have it any other way.

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