Voice Actor Interview: Sumalee Montano
Sumalee Montano is one of those actresses that has had a varied career, moving back and forth between animation and live action with ease. Her past credits include television shows such as E.R. and Close to Home. Her work in animation ranges from video games such as Dead Island. Transformers fans were first introduced to Sumalee as Arcee, a key member of the Autobot team in "Transformers: Prime". BWTF was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Ms. Montano about her work both past and present.
1. Can you tell us about your background?
I’m half-Filipina and half-Thai. I was born and raised mostly in the United States, but also grew up in Bangkok, Thailand for a few years.
I’ve been acting since I was a kid, but purely as an extra-curricular activity in high school and then in college at Harvard. After I graduated, I became an investment banker. But after a couple years, I realized life is too precious to be doing something you don’t really love. So I quit, threw on a backpack, and traveled the world for a year. And along the way, I was able to figure out that what I really wanted to do was become an actress.
2. When did you know that you wanted to go into the entertainment industry? Was it a single moment or was it a slow realization over time?
It was both. There was a slow realization that life is short, so you gotta do what you love -- and also that single defining moment when you choose to take the plunge. For me, the realization started when I decided to quit investment banking. Then when I was backpacking through Africa, I hitched a ride on a boat sailing to Zanzibar, and along the way, it just hit me like a ton of bricks: I had always enjoyed acting but never had the thought or courage to pursue it professionally. That was the moment I decided to do it.
3. What was your very first acting job? Can you tell us about it?
My first legitimate role was on the TV show ER. That was my first audition ever in LA. Afterwards I drove from the Warner Brothers studio to my agents’ office. And by the time I walked into the lobby, they came out and told me I got the part. I was so happy! I ended up playing nurse “Duvata Mahal” for three seasons of ER. It was an amazing first job to land in LA because it was such a well-run, successful show. It gave me a foundation to grow into doing guest star work on other shows like Boston Legal, Bones, and Harry’s Law.
My very first paying gig was actually a voice-over part in a local radio commercial in San Francisco. And before that, the first acting “job” that I can remember was for a high school play. I don’t remember the name of it now. I only remember it was an avant-garde type of thing, and I had to recite a soliloquy while dressed and sitting in a bathtub. Hilarious.
4. In the past, there seemed to be a very firm separation between "live action" actors and "animation" actors, however in recent years that line seems to be all but disappearing, something your career exemplifies. What is your view on that phenomenon?
As an actor, you savor the chances to work with other creative people to tell stories. I think a lot of live-action actors have just become more aware of how fun voice-over work can be – and how creatively fulfilling it can be too. I know I feel very lucky to be able to play in front of the camera and behind the mic.
5. What have you found to be the biggest differences between live action and animation work?
Well, with animation work, you don’t have to spend much time in the hair and makeup trailer! Other than that, really, the preparation for both types of work is similar for me. If anything, I find voice-over can sometimes be a bit more challenging, because it’s like working in front of a green screen. You have to take the time to imagine and recreate in your mind all the physical things around you -- from what the location looks like and maybe details about the environment or sounds you’re hearing, to the other characters and creatures you’re interacting with.
6. In your view, what qualities does an actor have to bring to the table in order to be successful? Does this differ between animation and live action?
I don’t think it differs that much. I think you need to be hardworking, persistent, have a positive attitude, and be open. But most importantly, you really gotta love the work and the process. There’s a lot of rejection and competition in this industry, so to really thrive, I think you have to be able to find joy in the process and truly, truly love what you’re doing.
7. Please tell us about the process of auditioning and getting the role of Arcee in "Transformers: Prime". What attracted you to the role?
I first auditioned for Arcee at my voice-over agency. Then I got a callback, which was held at a recording studio. At the callback, I worked with one of our executive producers. I gave him my first take or interpretation of Arcee. He gave me a couple notes and directed me into a second take. And then, for a third take, I offered up a totally different direction. It wasn’t even close to the Arcee character we know today! But I really appreciated the fact that they were open to playing with me and let me come at it from a totally different angle.
I’m not sure how much longer it was until I got the news. I remember I was walking from my front door to my car. My cell phone rang and when I answered it, my agent said calmly, “Hello. May I speak with Arcee, please?” And I was just overwhelmed with joy!
What attracted me most to the role of Arcee is that she’s part of the whole Transformers world! I love the fact that she’s a great warrior -- who has flaws -- just like everyone else. And at the end of the day, I mean, she fights alongside Optimus Prime. So really, what’s not to like?
8. Arcee is very different than many fans expected. She's tough, haunted, caring, smart and fierce all in one package. Did you expect such nuance in the character when you originally read for her? Is there anything of yourself that you have injected into the character to add a layer to her personality?
Based on the audition script I was given, I didn’t anticipate such a cool exploration of her haunted past. But I love that we got a chance to live through it, so people can really understand where she’s coming from and how her character grows.
I think an actor necessarily injects who he/she is into every character. That’s the beauty of it. No two actors can ever play the same role in the same way, because we’re all different. If I’m doing my job right, there is quite a bit of me in Arcee. Not all of me, of course, but definitely certain parts. I love her determination, her sassiness, and her vulnerability. I think you really see that human aspect of her through her relationship with Jack and how much she cares about him.
9. Please take us through a typical day in the recording sessions for "Transformers: Prime".
The cast arrives and there are always lots of warm greetings, hugs, and happy catching-up. The camaraderie and feeling of family on the show is extraordinary. Then our director gets us into the studio and the jokes just start flying. I’m usually cracking up at Kevin Michael Richardson’s antics or Steve Blum and Darren Norris’ jokes before we’re even done setting levels and adjusting mics.
Then we begin recording. Generally we start at the top of the script and move straight through to the end. But we also work scene by scene. So we’ll rehearse, say the first scene of the script, by running it together as a group once or twice. Then after we get the entire scene, with the right tone, pacing, etc., maybe we’ll focus on individual lines or exchanges here and there, before moving onto the next scene. It’s a really fun, collaborative process. And since we record together as a cast, it’s a treat to witness how differently each individual actor works at the mic -- and hear it all come together.
At the end of the session, there’s usually even more laughter and hugs -- plus a lot of snacking in the kitchen. Well, at least for me. It’s tough for me to resist all the yummy treats in there!
10. If you could work with any actor (that you have not worked with yet) past or present, who would it be?
Meryl Streep, because she’s such an amazingly talented and skilled actress. From Sophie’s Choice to The Devil Wears Prada -- simply amazing! She’s pure inspiration and getting to work opposite her would be a dream come true.
Special thanks to Paulo Andres and Matthew Proulx for their participation in facilitating this interview. Thank you to Ms. Montono for taking time out of her busy day for this interview!