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Otakon 2009: Mary Elizabeth McGlynn: Jill Of All Trades


Otakon 2009

Media Conventions
Genre Event
Publisher Otakorp, Inc.
Release Date 07/18/09
Website Otakon

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July 17, 2009

by: Serdar Yegulalp

"The Major" has a few words -- and notes -- with the Otakon faithful.

I was formal, right from the git-go. I pushed my glasses up and asked the Door Dude if this was indeed the place for Mrs. McGlynn's panel. Door Dude thumbed me in without even a yes.

So much for formal, but a habit once formed tends to persist, and I kept referring to her as Mrs. McGlynn to all and sundry 'round me, from the trio of fans in the row directly behind my head to the Otakon staffer who was doubling as microphone gofer and A/V assist person. Then Mrs. McGlynn took the stage, cheered, razzed, hooted, groaned about NEEDING MORE COFFEE OH MY GOD, and formality was officially kicked out the top story of the Sears Tower.

It is nigh-impossible to be a Ghost in the Shell fan and not also be a Mary Elizabeth McGlynn fan. And a formal, formally intimidated fan at that. Anyone who has the plum role of Toughest Chick In Anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi, for god knows how many years running (second only maybe to Jill Valentine, sorta, in a way) is bound to be intimidating by default -- much as Richard Epcar / "Bateau" intimidates by the sheer tonnage of his pedigree. It's not just those single roles, either; go dig up Mrs. McGlynn's IMDB credits and you'll see a breadth of material from GITS itself to the Silent Hill games.

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She also has the singular credit of adding her voice to, and directing the cast for, Cowboy Bebop. She's also added a new credit that should bring her plurality of talent to a new generation of viewers: Naruto Shippuden.

She also plays poker regularly with Richard Epcar, wherein they crack each other up with Shatner impersonations.

She also sings one helluva roll, as Silent Hill fans already know.

Mention anything vaguely orange-coated-ninja-related to an anime crowd and they'll pounce all over it, and so that more or less turned out to be the first fat tidbit tossed out to the crowd. There's fairly major behind-the-scenes VA extras being compiled for the Shippuden sets, and she's contributing her ongoing sultry-voiced role of Kurenai. When asked about the other cast members, her response was a big grin and a Shatner-esque: "I ... can't ... tell ... you."

Silent Hill fans also got another major boost: "I got to be a codirector on the next Silent Hill game. For the Wii, no less. It's really gonna rock. I've been doing the songs for the series (there's four more in the next game!) and you might want to preorder that one 'cos there's going to be some one of a kind bonus stuff I can't tell you about." (Anime fans quickly grow inured to, and twice as quickly learn to tell the difference between, "I can't tell you" and "We have no plans at this time".) "We'll be recording it all in just a couple of weeks, and this is the first time we've done anything like this."

Based on a quick show of hands, there were at least as many Silent Hill fans as there were GITS fans, so it came as little surprise that many questions revolved around everyone's favorite Pyramid Head Franchise. One question -- what were her favorite songs from the games? -- evoked an interesting response: "We actually don't know what the song titles are when we do them! But my favorite of the bunch -- well, without knowing the title, it's the one that goes 'Here's a lullaby to close your eyes --" and with that a good chunk of the (female) audience sang right along to great applause. Ditto when she crooned "Stare at the walls, they make fun of me". (MEMO TO FUTURE CONVENTION ORGANIZERS: A panel of nothing but Mrs. McGlynn doing karaoke sing-offs of Silent Hill tunes would be a sell-out.)

As enthusiastic as she is about music -- she was, by her own admission, a Band Brat in high school -- she doesn't do as much singing as you might imagine. There was talk of recording her own album but it never materialized, but: "What I'd live to do is talk to Akira [Yamaoka, the composer[ and release the best of the songs from that game, enough for a full album. It's weird because right after I did the Silent Hill stuff I did a demo for a children's audio book named 'My Little Tree Frog' and I kept thinking about that stuff done in the SH manner. 'IT'S A TREEE FROOOOG!!'" (Cue audience convulsions.)

Question from the floor: "Was that you as Pandora in Xena, Warrior Princess?"

I'd just won a bet with myself. I didn't imagine we'd get through this session without someone asking that.

"That was indeed me, and in fact, that job was what got me into doing voice-overs! In the first scene for that episode I wasn't playing Pandora herself but rather her granddaughter; they actually cut out one of my favorite lines: 'You have no idea what it's like to be cursed with this box.'"

(Innuendo? On my Xena? It's more likely than you think.)

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"But then they had this scene where I was on a horse and they were going to hang me by the neck -- and then the horse reared up, fell on me, dislocated my kneecap, and that was that. A month after I got married I came back to the States and a friend said 'Well, if you're not on your feet, how about voice-over work?' And he introduced me to [dubbing studio] Zero Limit, and I replaced the lady on El Hazard."

Her love of Cowboy Bebop goes down well with fans, not just because she was on the cast and directed the voice actors, but because through it she has a shared parallel experience. Anime fans never forget their first show (with me, it was Giant Robo), and neither did she. Small wonder when asked what voice actor she'd most be willing to share a deserted island, she dropped back to the obvious choice. "Steve Blum. Spike Spiegel. Or Melissa Fahn [Ed]. But actually, at this point I have the most fun with Miley Flanagan. We've been working together on Naruto for four years and we get on like a house on fire. She's one of my favorite people in the world, and it's not hard to see why: we're just so crass together. Two Irish broads flipping each other off throughout the whole recording session!"

Another of Mary's recent directorial credits put her in the same room as one of Hollywood's biggest names -- which, even for someone who's already made it to any degree, is intimidating. I speak of none other than the Afro Samurai video game and Samuel L. Jackson, and the fact that she ended up working on it surprised her about as much as anyone else.

"I got roped into it two days before it started. I was terrified! They told me, 'You'll be in the same room with Sam, but you won't actually direct him. He'll do his own thing. Don't get upset if he does.' So first day we're setting up, and he comes in 45 minutes early, so we gotta rush back from lunch. We talk to him, and I try to find some common ground: my dad lived in Bermuda, his dad had a golf tournament there. But he's got cameras on him, and so he's a bit distant and probably distracted.

"Now with this game, he had to do both Afro Samurai and Ninja Ninja -- two totally separate characters in two different registers. Afro is like 'OOHM GNGRG' [super-ultra-deep basso-profundo] and Ninja is like 'EEH WHEE YEAHH' [glass-splinting high E above C''']. What's more, he's doing both of them at the same time, into different mikes. We told him he was free to do it however he wanted -- two mikes, one mike, anything, it was all up to him, however he wants to do it.

"So he says, 'Does that mean I don't have to take direction?'

"And I said, 'Sure, if that means I don't have to give it.'

"And at that point he pulled down his sunglasses" (you've all seen Sam L. do that) "and smiled, and from that moment on I was like 'I'M FINE! I passed the test!'

"We had a great, great session after that. We did 450 lines in 2 1/2 hours. Ron Perlman was also great, although the voice he had to do, all 'ARRR RUHRR RURH', is really hard on him, on anyone, so that was a tough session. Hard work for him and I felt for him to have to sustain that kind of throat-trashing for any length of time."

A later question from a prospective voice actor (there were a remarkable number of them in the audience) touched back on that: How do you indeed scream for hours on end and not completely trash your voice? Answer: Water, honey, lemon, nebulizer if possible, and scream from the diaphragm. "By the end of a session like that, you should feel like you were punched in the stomach."

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The fact that Mary wears two different hats -- director and actor -- provoked some reflection. "As an actor, I have to take off the director's cap and listen. I'm sort of a control freak, which is why I love directing; as an actor you have no control of anything. As a director you get a little more control, you get to see the big picture, and you basically get to help the actors sculpt their performance to the show. It's amazing to watch that happen.

"But as an actor, I have to take all that off and trust the director, and tell him, 'I'm your piano, play me. However you want me to sound, within reason.' Sometimes it's hard because I know ... we did something once, I think it was Wolf's Rain, where my character's mate is dying and she's supposed to be crying, and I just ... couldn't get there. I got kinda the way there. And they said, 'Oh, its great!', but I didn't feel like I'd gotten it and I was like, 'Nawww, you're lying.' A lot of the time it's easier for me to pull something out of someone else rather than pull it out of myself."

How has all this fan attention shaped her feelings about her work?

"It's actually kind of embarrassing at times! You sit in a little room and stare at a TV and you talk, and you play and create, and then come out here and to know it's affected people's lives is sort of amazing. It's wonderful, is what it is. It really is. If you guys didn't like it then I wouldn't be doing it. I must be doing something right! What makes me happy makes other people happy."

Other prospective voice actors asked for hints on getting a big break. "Go where the work is! Go to L.A., go to New York, go to Dallas. But if you can't go there, start locally -- go to Braille institutes, for instance, and do books on tape for them. I did this myself, and it helps you read clearly and develop a story through the use of your voice and nothing else. It's good practice. Reading out loud, too -- do that whenever you can. Preferably at home, in private. In public it'll get you stared at, but you have to be kooky to do this job anyway!" What's nuttier than any actor I've known is the screwball fences that SAG erects around the union, where (as she pointed out) you can't get into a union production without being in the union, and can't join the union without being ... you get the idea.

Mary may be best known for Motoko, but that was a role she more or less inherited from someone else: Mimi Woods, she who voiced the Major for the original Ghost in the Shell film. Not long after I watched the first TV series, I dug out my copy of the movie and rewatched in English, and it confirmed something I'd always suspected on my own: the TV show was the place where she went from being a protoarchetypal character to a fully-rounded person. That and I felt Mary's performance is by far the better of the two.

Mary agreed, but up to a point: "I got the TV series role because Mimi moved away. I got lucky! I'd actually seen the movie before I started doing voice acting, and I thought 'Wow, what an amazing character.' So when I got the chance to do her, I wanted to respect Mimi's performance but still add my own little things to it. She's definitely got more depth in the show, more filled out -- but still, I wanted to make her proud of the work someone else was doing. We took a lot of cues from the Japanese voice actress's performance -- she's brilliant -- and a lot of what I did was based on the music of her performance, the intonations.

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"When I did the role again for Innocence, I had to let [voice director] Kevin Seymore take over from Richard [Epcar]'s interpretation and let him guide me. I have to give respect to each director. The interpretation is always a little different; it's like  stage play. I've done this play before, I know all the lines, but this time I've got new guidance and new insight.

"With Ghost in the Shell, the TV show, Kevin and I had some pretty hard debates about things. If you say 'we need to do this the way it's done in the Japanese version', the problem is that it doesn't always work that same way for an American audience. And so we need to express this a different way for Ammurrica. I don't mind a good, creative debate about these things as long as I don't get angry  -- I just want it to be right and good, and pay respect to everyone. Lines like 'I'll never forgive you!' just don't work as well in English, y'know?"

There are other times when a person's feelings about a role can work against you, and provide entirely the wrong emotional motivation.

"The worst nightmare I ever had was this sort of Jack the Ripper nightmare, and in it I kept begging 'No no no, roll the credits!' So the credits rolled in this dream, but under it there was this arm being skinned alive, and I just knew it was a woman's arm. So later, when we were recording one episode of GITS -- I flipped out a bit, because it was that episode where that guy was making women watch themselves from his own eyes as he ... eeyuch. You know the one. And Kevin kept telling me "No emotion!" for my line readings. And I kept pushing back, I kept saying, "No, this is a crime against women! Motoko may not have a body anymore, but every now and then there's got to be some modicum of connection back to the rest of humanity!" I probably pushed things in that episode a lot more than they should have been, and made it affect her personally -- which in turn strayed a bit from the truth of the character. But I was still adamant about adding that little bit, especially for something that was so obviously anti-woman."

Digression: Bateau or Togusa?

"I love them both for totally different reasons. Togusa, I think she's got a soft spot for him -- possibly because he's still got his whole body, his organic body. But I couldn't decide between them and you can't make me, nyeah."

Digression the second: What's her favorite GITS character arc?

"Bateau's arc in Innocence. Dealing with losing Motoko, and him with his dog -- I always thought Bateau was the most fascinating of the bunch, a soft touch on the inside for the dog and the Tachikomas, too..."

Digression the third: The best thing about voice acting?

"The fact that I'm not on camera. I hated being on camera. Hated it. I'm so self-conscious. But now I don't have to worry about hitting my mark or stepping out of my key light. It's playtime. It's awesome. It's the best job in the world besides being an astronaut, which is something I wanna do. Speaking of which, I jumped out a plane the first time this year, with Troy Baker! We jumped out of a plane together. Highly recommended."

For every role a voice actor gets into, there are always catchphrases that get you into (and sometimes out of) character quickly. For Mary and Motoko, it's "Tachikoma!" Emphasis on that last syllable there. Mentioning this brought us to the inevitable round of "say this line the way X would say it" voice-actor baiting. To that end, with a little prompting, she did a killer one-liner from GITS: "If you're not dead, then get off your ass and go arrest him!"

Me, I still think the ultimate one-liner from GITS is an item from Season Two that most every fan of the show should recognize: "Wanna find out?"

And if you don't know that one, then get off your ass and go watch it.

Coping With A Coffee Malfunction


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