While Toluca Lake is blessed with talented residents in many walks of life, particularly from the entertainment industry, we’re especially struck by the abundance of celebrated voice actors who make their homes here. Their careers may be based behind the scenes, but they’re familiar faces in the neighborhood, whether strolling and shopping on Riverside Drive or making frequent appearances at community events. To find out what makes the area an epicenter for voice talent and learn more about this lesser-understood side of acting, we interviewed four local vocal powerhouses.
Together, Debi Derryberry, Cissy Jones, Alicyn Packard and Tara Strong represent a wealth of experience in all facets of voice performance. They’ve played a host of beloved characters in TV shows, movies and video games — from action heroes and adorable animals to caped crusaders and a certain boy genius — as well as voicing commercials, audiobooks, trailers and much more. You also might have spotted Derryberry and Strong emceeing the raffle at the Taste of Toluca, for instance, or caught Packard performing her original songs at a local National Night Out event. The four met up with us at Santuari Restaurant at the Toluca Lake Tennis and Fitness Club to share what they love about the neighborhood and the stories behind their memorable roles.
What brought you to Toluca Lake, and what has kept you here?
DERRYBERRY: All the cartoon studios are around here, so I thought it was a good place to live because I don’t have to get on the freeway. And then when I had my kid, I didn’t want to work too far away. I love Toluca Lake and have lived in four houses here over the past 30 years. I like the convenience of it.
JONES: We moved here five and a half years ago, two weeks before my first daughter was born. We were looking for a place where we could go walking in the neighborhood on actual sidewalks — proximity to Trader Joe’s and restaurants and fun things to do and see, and parks nearby. It’s so close to the majority of the recording studios, so it makes commuting easy.
STRONG: We were living in Bell Canyon, and it was so far from the studios. We found this fixer-upper in Toluca Lake and moved in 16 years ago. I’ve lived all over this crazy town, and Toluca Lake’s my favorite. It’s such a neighborhood. When we first moved in, our neighbor said — because both our homes are gated — “Should we put a door on the side gate so that our kids can run back and forth and play?” and I thought, “Is this really L.A.?”
PACKARD: I actually landed in Toluca Lake when I moved here from Boston. I was a student at Emerson College, and at that time we had a small campus in Burbank and everybody was housed at the Oakwood Toluca Lake (which is now the Avalon). Then I came back to work for Emerson as the residence director, and I lived there again. When I met my husband, I moved to Woodland Hills, and I was a little sad to be that far out. Then he switched companies and they opened an office in Toluca Lake, right on Riverside. When I heard “Toluca Lake,” my head exploded. I thought, “OK, we’re home. We’re finally home.”
I love all the community events, especially now that I have a son. We did the Halloween bike parade, where we got all dressed up and rode around looking at the decorations. And the Christmas stuff they do, like the Magical Caroling Truck.
JONES: And the Fourth of July parade.
DERRYBERRY: And Kling Street Kids. That was so fun when my kid was little. You can go and let them play in the snow.
STRONG: All the events are really sweet and very inclusive, like the Turkey Trot and the Holiday Open House. It’s so fun.
What are a few of your other favorite things in the neighborhood?
DERRYBERRY: The deep-fried pork ribs at Hungry Crowd. They are the most amazing things on the planet. Everyone I take there goes back with lots of friends.
STRONG: I go out for lunch almost every day, either with my husband, whose office is right on Riverside Drive, or with a friend. There are so many good vegan choices — Kabosu, Sweetsalt, Prosecco … and there’s literally a restaurant called Something Vegan, which has really good Thai food. And there’s a vegan juicery and a vegan ice cream place.
When you walk into these places, it’s like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. At Prosecco, they say, “OK, here’s your regular table.” They know my regular order at Coffee Bean every morning, and at Sweetsalt.
JONES: I love the Red Door. And we’re having our agency holiday party at Riverside because I got in charge of putting it together, so we’re going somewhere that’s walking distance from my house.
PACKARD: My husband bikes to work, and we have a bike seat for my son, so the three of us just bike everywhere. I’ve got to shout out the farmers market because they have a free bouncy house, so we go down there most Sundays. I also love the lavender latte at Sweetsalt.
STRONG: I love that we can be at any job in five minutes. It’s nice, especially when you have kids, to be close. If you have two or three things happening in a day, you can go home in between.
DERRYBERRY: We’ve got Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Salami Studios. Warner Bros., Disney, Dreamworks — thank goodness, they’re all right here.
STRONG: I raised my kids at Salami. I used to go to work and bring a nanny with me, and they would run around and play and I could see them when I was in the studio. This business is so great for having a family — and you can work up until you deliver.
JONES: I went into labor in a session. I finished the session, and then I had a kid.
DERRYBERRY: I scheduled my C-section for the afternoon session. I had the morning session at Nick, and then the hospital in the afternoon.
PACKARD: Nowadays most of our auditions are from home, so we all have home studios, which makes the commute even less. I just walk to my backyard and then I’m at work!
So how did you get into voice acting and decide to make it a career?
DERRYBERRY: I was going to be a doctor; I was premed at UCLA. And then I decided, “I’m not going to med school.” I’ve been playing guitar since I was 9 and writing songs, so I thought, “I’ll move to Nashville and be a country singer.” I was a full-time session singer, but I only got hired to sing like a baby. So I contacted some cartoon directors back here, and they said, “Good voice, nice cassette demo.” I moved back here and ICM signed me, and I started working two weeks later. I never had to think twice after that, because it was one thing after another.
When I started working in voiceover, I was like, “This is great. I can get paid to talk like I talk.” Thank goodness there’s a way to make a living when you sound like this! Because would anyone believe me if I said [in a baby voice], “I’m going to take out your appendix”?
JONES: I started in Silicon Valley. I had a business degree and a Spanish degree, and I worked in venture capital and startup-land for 10 years, and I hated my life. My husband and I went on a trip to Alaska and one day we were talking about dream jobs, and I said, “I’ve always just wanted to be a voice on The Simpsons, but you’ve probably just got to live in Hollywood.” And two weeks after we got home from that trip, I heard Nancy Cartwright, who plays Bart Simpson, on the radio, talking about voiceover and how it’s this incredible career. I got on the phone that day and started taking classes that week, and two years later I met my agent. I booked my second audition out the gate, and eight years later I haven’t looked back.
STRONG: I knew when I was 4 or 5 years old that I wanted to be a singer/dancer/actress. I grew up in Toronto and had a very well-rounded career there; I did TV, film, theater and voiceover pretty equally. But I’d always wanted to move to California. My first two years here were kind of tough, like, “I don’t even know if I can survive here.” And then I got Gadget Boy and Heather and thought, “I can survive a little longer.” Then I booked Powerpuff Girls, 101 Dalmatians, Batgirl and Rugrats all around the same time, so that blew up the voiceover stuff.
I didn’t know voiceover would be my primary focus, but it’s sort of this gift that you didn’t see coming, because it doesn’t matter what you look like, and you get to work with the kindest, most giving actors. It’s a really small community and you work all the time and the studios get to know you, and it’s just a more reliable part of the business — as well as super, super fun.
PACKARD: I started back at Emerson in Boston, when I was doing a lot of on-camera and I wanted to be an actress. I was also doing radio and I really enjoyed that, and somebody said, “Hey, you should get into voiceover.” There was so much I wanted to do in terms of performing — music and acting and voiceover — but voiceover hit sooner out of the gate. I booked Prince of Persia my first year, and then through a connection at Emerson, I booked The Mr. Men Show, and from there I just started working more and more. It’s a pretty good mix of different types of voiceover work now. In the beginning it was more animation, and now it’s kind of shifting to other things like promo and commercial. I think in some ways I found my adult voice.
JONES: That’s the thing people don’t understand about voiceover: It’s not just animation or video games. It’s commercial and narration and trailers and promos and e-learning and audiobooks. There’s so many different facets to the industry, so it’s been a good education to learn what all of it is and then find your way into each one.
Do you have a favorite type of voice acting?
DERRYBERRY: The different genres of voiceover have their own separate skill sets. I do a lot of looping, or postproduction in movies, where you have to know what they’re talking about. And the same with anime — it’s matching lip flaps and “Say it this fast, but act really well!”
PACKARD: And depending on how it’s written, you’ve got to get five seconds of dialogue into two seconds. “OK, speed it up 30%” — and you’ve got to know exactly what 30% means.
DERRYBERRY: Western animation draws more on the strongest acting skills, because you have to be a great cold reader. And in video games, they’ll go from one emotion to the next: “OK, you’re getting out of the war scene. And now your mom died. And now you’re super happy. And now you’re being blasted to the moon.”
JONES: And you’re in a room by yourself and you have to make it sound as believable as possible.
STRONG: I think group animation is the most fun, because it’s really collaborative and you’re improvising a bit and playing off each other.
JONES: I have been working a lot in trailers, which is a whole different beast, because it’s a fast turnaround. You’ll get the audition and they want it back in 30 minutes, maybe 60. When it happens, you have to be available at a moment’s notice. I was in the running to be the voice of a movie trailer campaign last summer, and I recorded 50 spots. I recorded at 11:30 at night, I recorded on camping trips with my family — I have a travel rig that I take with me everywhere — and a week before we were due to sign the papers, the marketing person at the movie house said, “Why don’t we just get that guy that does The Bachelor?” and it all went away, but that’s trailers, right?
I try to find the time for that because I love it, but also work in other areas and keep that going strong as well. If you don’t do all the things sometimes, it’s hard to keep the mojo going.
PACKARD: I love comedy, animation and promo. I do the promos for the Ovation network and I just love being able to bring the essence of what that network is to life.
How do you create a character using just your voice?
STRONG: When you have an audition for a new character, they’ll send you a drawing, a character breakdown and a portion of the script. You have to think, “What does the creative team want this to sound like?” And then you have to be willing to play.
We do our preliminary in our home studios, and we’ll sometimes lay down three choices for something, and then you get a callback and you’ll go in and they’ll say, “OK, we love what you did here. Can you make her a little older? A little younger? A little chubbier? Can you make her have braces? Can you make her from England? Can you make her a boy?” And you have to be their Play-Doh.
That’s why when people say, “How do you get into voice acting?” I always recommend taking as many acting and improv classes as you can, because studio time is expensive, so if you don’t know what to do, you’re not going to get another shot. You want to be at the top of your game when you get those opportunities.
Sometimes the voice will be an idea right before you speak. It happened to me on Teen Titans. I was doing four other tragic teenage girls at the time, and I thought, “How do I make this girl different?” As I was leaving the studio, I said to the director, “I have this other idea; can I just try this really quick?” I gave the character this weird little guttural roll every time she said something, and I saw all the people in the studio go, “Oh, that’s Raven.” You have to trust yourself as the actor — that’s happened to me a couple of times, where it was a voice I didn’t know I had or something very organic. That’s why we get frustrated when people say, “Oh, you’re just reading, right?” No. You’re tapping into all your acting training and skills, and I actually envision myself as these characters in these moments.
DERRYBERRY: When you’re finding a character for a guest role in a show that already exists, you’ll have to be familiar with the show because you don’t want to do something that’s already on it.
JONES: So we get to watch cartoons for market research. It’s great.
DERRYBERRY: In video games, you have to be familiar with what it sounds like when you get punched, as opposed to doing the punching. The audition may say, “OK, you’re getting punched and then you do a hit and then you throw something.” And for each one, you do small, medium and large, so that’s really nine different things.
What else makes a good voice actor?
JONES: You have to be a good actor.
STRONG: You have to be versatile. Because they can pay a voice actor for up to three different characters for a SAG scale rate, so they’re not going to bring in three actors if they have someone who can do three completely different characters. The more characters you can do, the more you’re going to work because you can save the studios money.
DERRYBERRY: In addition to all our major roles there’s all the utility ones. In a video game, there may be over 300 characters.
JONES: I get people all the time saying, “People tell me I have a really great voice, so I think I’d be great at voiceover.” That’s great for you, but there are a lot of people who have a great voice and can’t do anything with it.
PACKARD: Or who don’t have a great voice and can do something with it. Sometimes they want a really unique or quirky sound, so you don’t even have to have what would traditionally be a great voice to make it in commercial or animation.
DERRYBERRY: It’s all about the acting. I laugh when people say, “Have you ever done any real acting?” Most people don’t know that on-camera acting and voice acting are both really specific acting jobs.
PACKARD: Being able to improvise is important, too. Improvisers have a sense
of play and openness and immediacy, as opposed to having a set idea of how things are going to happen and what your choices are.
What’s your favorite character you’ve voiced?
DERRYBERRY: That is such a hard question! I suppose the one most recognizable is Jimmy Neutron, but I really like the ones they’re giving me on F Is for Family. It’s like my dream job because I was cast as a little girl voice, which is my easy one, and then I do six different characters and constantly have conversations and arguments with myself.
JONES: Probably the best experience so far for me is a video game I did called Firewatch that was the little indie that could. I ended up winning a BAFTA from it, and I’m still half-expecting them to come to my house and say, “We meant to give this to someone else.”
PACKARD: I would say Toodles from The Tom and Jerry Show. I love her because she’s such an iconic character, and it’s an honor to work on a show that has such an amazing legacy. I also liked playing Little Miss Naughty [on The Mr. Men Show]. Doing a lot of work for preschool audiences, you can have more over-the-top characters. It’s really fun to be able to just let loose like that. I did Miss Naughty, Miss Sunshine and Miss Whoops, so it was like three different aspects of my personality — the deviant and the happy-go-lucky one and the klutz. That was fun.
STRONG: I always say The Little Mermaid II, because I don’t know what little girl didn’t want to be the Little Mermaid. To stand in the booth and sing with Jodi Benson and play her daughter, that was a dream come true.
Our roundtable interview spanned many more topics than we could fit in the print magazine. Here are a few extra conversations.
The characters you’re playing are so far beyond what you could be doing in an onscreen role. You might be playing a little boy, or—
JONES: An anthropomorphic nail file.
DERRYBERRY: Or a vomiting trash can.
How do you figure out the voice of a vomiting trash can?
DERRYBERRY: Well, you use your best retch. Your pre-cat-hairball noise. And it was on a Friday session. We like the hard voices on Friday sessions, because then you have the next two days to recover. It was one of those migraine sessions where you push, push, push to get that voice out and it was a little painful afterwards. But I don’t know, it was a nice vomiting. You give them a lot of choices.
JONES: Do you want actual vomit or semi-vomit?
STRONG: We could do actual.
Do you feel the industry is changing? There are certainly a lot of celebrity on-camera actors doing voiceover work.
DERRYBERRY: Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed that!
STRONG: You don’t see it so much in games or in series work. You do see it in film, and I’m fine if they’re great, because there are a lot of great ones. I’m not so fine if they’re mediocre and they’re getting $10 million more than I am.
DERRYBERRY: I don’t really think the audience cares who the actor is. I think the audience wants to be immersed in the movie. I guess it’s just the production that wants that A-list celeb to be on the roster of who’s in the film.
STRONG: Sometimes we’ll go in and fix their work and they don’t even know.
DERRYBERRY: Or we’ll do the scratch read and then we’ll see the actor come in and they’ll say, “We really like what the voice actor did on the scratch read. Just do what the voice actor did.”
JONES: I did a demo session for this thing a while ago, and the producer called me and said, “Great news! They loved you. They gave it to Catherine Zeta-Jones and told her to do exactly that.”
What’s it like to be so known for your voice and not always recognized in person?
STRONG: To be invisible when you go out.
JONES: It’s amazing.
DERRYBERRY: It’s great.
STRONG: I mean, we get recognized now, because of the internet. People look up their favorite voice actors. But we definitely get recognized less, unless we’re at a convention. At a con, we’re superstars.
What reaction do you get when someone finds out you’re a professional voice actor?
DERRYBERRY: Bark for your supper! Quick, do it, do it!
JONES: Dance, monkey!
DERRYBERRY: Do you go up to any musician and say, “Do you want to come and play at my birthday party because you love to sing so much?”
JONES: But if you’d have become a doctor, I would go up to you and say, “I’ve got this thing…”
DERRYBERRY: Yeah, people do that.
Is there a dream voice role you’d love to play?
JONES: I want the Wonder Woman 2 trailer campaign. I want the Wonder Woman 2 trailer campaign.
DERRYBERRY: Say it again.
JONES: I want the Wonder Woman 2 trailer campaign.
DERRYBERRY: Done! I love accents and my boyfriend is British and Scottish, and I keep trying those. I never believe myself when I’m trying my British and my Scottish, but one day.
PACKARD: Well, I’m a writer as well. I wrote on Barbie Dreamtopia and Poppycat, so my dream would be to create my own animated show and star in it.
STRONG: I also like to write and it would be fun to have my own show. And it would be nice to be on The Simpsons. I’ve done Futurama and Family Guy, but it would have been nice to get that paycheck. Those guys get a lot more than we do.
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During her 30-plus-year career, Derryberry has played hundreds of roles, including Jimmy Neutron on Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Jackie on Bobby’s World, Draculaura on Monster High and Coco in the Crash Bandicoot video games. She’s also acted in onscreen roles, written a book on voiceover and teaches voice acting. You might recognize her country band, Honey Pig, from performances at local venues like the Taste of Toluca or from her many years performing children’s concerts with her No. 1 hit song “Baby Banana.” She currently voices six characters on Netflix’s hit animated series F Is for Family.