From Symmetra in Overwatch, Rampart in Apex Legends, and most recently Auntie Ruby in Ms. Marvel, it’s clear that Anjali Bhimani enjoys taking on no filter, absolutely kick-ass characters! STARBURST catches up with Anjali to discuss just some of her major acting roles to date, whilst taking an in-depth look at the importance and refreshing impact of Ms. Marvel!
STARBURST: Can you tell us how you originally got involved with voice acting?
Anjali Bhimani: So that came relatively recently, probably, the last 7-8 years. Time flies when you’re having fun! It’s just been another branch of the tree that my agents started sending me out on. A lot of my career has been a series of “Oh, I didn’t know I was allowed to do that” moments, and this was one of them. I started in theatre and then started doing television and film, and this was just another logical branch of that tree. So, I lucked out, because my agents are pretty spectacular, and they got me some lovely auditions, and one of the first bookings I had was Overwatch. Which is a very popular game, in the gaming world. We’re very fortunate to have it in the world. It’s just been go-go-go since then!
What was it like to take on the role of Symmetra in Overwatch, and why do you think the game went on to become such a huge success?
Well, it’s been spectacular to work on from day one, because at the time it was definitely a revolutionary game in both concept and execution. It’s been popular for so very many reasons, and we love it for so very many reasons. It depicts a world in the future that is worth fighting for, that despite the fact there are troubles and bad forces at work, there is hope, and I think where we are in the world in general, where we were when the game came out, we really needed more aspirational depictions of the world in gaming, because we have a lot of post apocalyptic games, but this one definitely gave us a sense that even if the world has challenges, and even if there’s evil in the world we can overcome it, because we all can be heroes, and I love that beautiful, idealistic vision of the future. And not idealistic in an unrealistic way, but idealistic in a “This is what we should aim for” way.
In addition to that, what I think was really special about Overwatch, and what a lot of other games have also done since then, is that there are a group of heroes that are all very unique, of different backgrounds, of different genders, orientation, all sorts of different things. There are neurodiverse characters, amputees, and characters of all different shapes and sizes, and therefore, there is someone for every single human being who plays, to identify with. For anyone who jumps into the game, there is a hero to love, and a hero to hate. Which means there’s a hero to be, and a hero to play against. When people say to me “Oh, I don’t like Symmetra” I go “Great! There are plenty of heroes to fight against her with, knock yourself out!” and what I love so much about playing Symmetra within that group, is that once again she is this combination of all of the unique things that make her her. She is not one-dimensional or two-dimensional, just like any human being on the planet, and just like any creature that we meet in the world. There are complexities and layers to her, and I think a lot of times in the public eye, in media, in entertainment we sometimes get a two-dimensional representation of what a person might be, based on their cultural background, based on whether they’re neurotypical, neurodiverse, based on their gender, based on all sorts of different things. Whereas she is this incredibly complex, intelligent, graceful, amazing character. She happens to be Indian, which is just one part of who she is. All these different things are just one part of this incredible and complex and powerful character. So it’s been really lovely to play her and to also know that players of the game are seeing her and having a hero that they can identify with in a way that I didn’t have when I was a kid, and I’m hoping that that applies for people in the autistic community, in the South Asian community. I know there are lots of demographics that feel a kinship with her, and I’m really grateful for it.
What was it like to be Rampart in Apex Legends – another huge multiplayer game - and can you elaborate on how she stands out in this particular gaming world?
Absolutely, so Symmetra is graceful and elegant, and then Rampart is filter-free and rambunctious. She’s been a super joy to play, because she’s a lot more like me first of all, just a little less graceful, and a little more in your face, which I love about her. She’s definitely got no filter, she calls it as she sees it, she’s enthusiastic, she gets knocked down, she gets right back up again. Nothing can stop her. She’s like me, she’s tiny but fierce. I love all of that about her, getting to play her, even in the audition process, was such a joy because I felt like I just had to go into the studio and be me, with Rampart’s unique accent, which is more of a British cockney Indian accent, than necessarily Symmetra’s which is a British educated Indian accent. So that’s just been great, and so much fun, because both of these communities of developers, actors, and the folks playing the game, are incredibly loyal, exciting, artistic and generous. It’s just been a blessing to have both of those games as part of my life.
You also did motion capture for Rampart as well right?
Yeah, facial capture! Which was great, and crazy, because it was during lockdown. So they actually sent the camera, and the rig to my house and we sat on a zoom and they told me how to assemble it, my husband had to put the guide markings on my face, and I ran around the house, pretending to jump out of a plane. All sorts of stuff. It was really really fun.
Overwatch & Apex Legends are known for mainly being multiplayer games. I was wondering, how does working on a game that focuses just on multiplayer gameplay, compared to one that's more campaign driven?
Obviously, they are two different formats, just like theatre and film are two different formats. One thing that’s definitely different, at least to me, because so many lines are just triggered by other lines that you don’t necessarily know are happening, or they’re triggered by other actions, which you don’t know are happening. You’re recording a little bit more, not in a vacuum, but independently. I’ll go into a recording session and the voice director will be there telling me “OK this is what is happening on this line, go” whereas a lot of campaign-based things, there are cut scenes or role-playing games will have a little more interaction between actors and between characters, so there’s a little more of a chance to build the story in that way, as opposed to going line by line. It’s a little bit like when we’re doing the cinematics for the games, VS when we’re doing the in-game play lines. There’s a little more interactive quality when you’re doing it with the cut scenes, or with the cinematics. That’s a little bit more like doing theatre, television, or film.
Growing up you loved DND, so just how rewarding and exciting has it been for you to be involved with Critical Role?
I can’t even tell you! I’m so grateful for so many reasons. When I was growing up, I loved DND but it wasn’t cool. I couldn’t be as open with people about the fact that I loved DND back then, because I felt like I was living a little bit of a dual life. So finding the time, and the people to play with became less and less possible over time, because I was just having to separate my lives, whereas now, coming back to gaming, with Overwatch, Apex Legends, Critical Role, and all of the groups of people I get to play with, it feels like finally, I can be the same person 24/7. I can enjoy these things publicly and with people who are just, some of my best friends in the world. Which is again, talk about blessing upon blessing. I actually met Matt and Marisha because of Overwatch, because Matt Mercer is in Overwatch. So the first time that we all got together as voice actors and met, that’s when I met Matt and Marisha, we talked about DND and role-playing games, and Marisha then connected me with Geek & Sundry who had me doing my first role-playing show called We're Alive: Frontier and then the rest just opened up to start working with Critical Role on UnDeadwood, DOOM Eternal One-Shot. The last probably, 6-8 years of my life have been this wonderful convergence of all of the different mediums that I like to work in, coming together and all of the storytelling opportunities really feeding into each other, as opposed to when I first started acting, where theatre was theatre, TV was TV and voice-over was voice-over and never shall they meet, now it all really feeds into each other, one thing really leads to another thing, one thing serves another thing. One community gets excited about another community, and that to me is very very rewarding. My life feels very connected.
Critical Role is such a unique idea, and the show just keeps growing with every episode!
What I love so much about them is as they expand, they continuously pull other people up. They’re continuously celebrating other creators and other companies that are doing the same thing. I think there is this false sense of competitiveness, or at least in the circles that I have run in as an actor. There’s this false sense of “Oh, it’s so cutthroat!” I don’t know about anybody else, but in my experience, all of the most talented people, and the folks at Critical Role are the perfect example of this. All of these talented people are also the biggest celebrators of other artists. They are the most excited for other people to succeed because they know that a rising tide raises all ships. I just could not love them more.
Marvel is known for keeping all of their projects very under wraps. What was it like to work on something as top secret as Ms. Marvel, and to also not be able to tell anyone what you were working on?
You know what, on one hand, it was challenging but more than anything it felt like you were a super spy, and it was really secret and intense, and exciting. I didn’t even tell my husband what I was shooting until it was publicly announced, because I didn’t want to get in trouble, and I wanted it to be a surprise to him too. NDAs are a real thing, not just with Marvel but everywhere. I started my part of shooting in November of 2020, and he didn’t find out what I’d been shooting until March of this year. So it was fun, and kind of like what I said, being a super spy, knowing that you’ve got a secret, you can’t tell anyone yet, but when you do it’s going to be super cool. That was a really special thing. Also knowing that I and the cast and the creators had this unifying thing that only we knew about throughout this period of time. That brought us all a lot closer together.
What do you think Auntie Ruby brings to Ms Marvel, and for someone that hasn't seen the show just yet, how would you describe her?
Auntie Ruby is again, a little bit no filter. I seem to love these no-filter characters. She has no problem telling you exactly what she’s thinking, it shows up on her face, she’s not hiding a darn thing, and what’s fun about that is yes you get kind of the side of maybe a South Asian auntie that many people know from stereotypes, which is the judgemental side, but you also get more layers. She is a really interesting character that starts sharing more and more information as the show goes on. While historically in stories that involve the South Asian community there might be two-dimensional aunties who are just there to knock down the lead character. Auntie Ruby has got more, she’s got sass. Auntie Ruby has got a little more under the skin. I’m really having a lot of fun with her, and I had a lot of fun playing her.
Photo credit: Matthew Kenneth
We've only seen the episodes that have been released so far. However, the sets alone are incredible and full of vibrant detail. So what have they been like to act and live within?
It was so beautiful because again the show isn’t about a particular culture or a particular religion, but that is a part of what is the tapestry of this story. The very complex tapestry of this story. It is an undeniable part of who Kamala is, our leading character Ms Marvel herself. And so stepping on to that set and feeling the authenticity of the Khan’s home or with the events that happen, like in episode two, don’t want to spoil it! Just stepping into that and being like “Oh, this reminds me of growing up, this reminds me of my friends house, this reminds me of this event”. Even if you are not Pakistani, because I am Indian, there are overlaps in understandings and connections between the two cultures that are undeniable, and you feel that recognition of “Oh yeah, I remember this auntie and uncle, and this family that I was growing up with, they were Pakistani, but we were very tight with them” Our cultures connected, and ran through each other very seamlessly throughout my upbringing. As people will learn throughout the course of the series, Partition was a particularly divisive time, but in many ways the cultures have connected since then. I find it hard to explain, because obviously there is strife between the two, but at the same time we were all one India, for centuries, and that part can’t be denied. That connection can’t be denied. I love that the writers and creators of this show are really diving straight into that as part of the complexities of the histories of these two peoples.
This is Iman Vellani’s first major acting role. What has it been like to work opposite her, and what do you think that she brings to the role of Kamala/Ms. Marvel?
You’ll hear this from every single person who talks about her on this show, so I’m going to sound like a broken record. There is not a human being alive that is more perfect to play this character than Iman Vellani. She herself is a huge Marvel fan, she is a big old geek like I am, but specifically with Marvel stuff. She is intelligent, grounded, lovely, and warm-hearted. She is living the coming of age story, that Kamala Khan lives throughout the course of this show, throughout the comics, and throughout the whole and entire journey of that character. It’s very hard to separate Kamala from Iman because Iman has imbued her with so much of herself, in the most beautiful way. She is brilliant, she’s grounded, she’s kind, she’s hilarious, she’s talented. The thing that I’m most excited about her coming to this role at this young age, is that we as audiences and cast members and creators get to have Iman Vellani and watch her soar for so long. Because she is so young and has so many years ahead of her, we get to have her for a long long time. And I could not be more excited about that. She brings her unique sauce to this character in such a perfect way, the show would not be the show without her.
The show features Marvel's first Muslim superhero on-screen, how important do you think that is, and what else do you think that Ms. Marvel is going to bring to the MCU overall?
Much like we talked about at the very beginning when we were talking about Overwatch I think it’s vital that people see themselves represented in a respectful way on screen and in books and in video games. Not in a way that one person is responsible for depicting an entire culture or an entire religious background, but in a way where they can look at this character and be like “Oh yeah, cool, I am seen! Because this character exists, which means someone sees me! Someone sees this aspect of my real life” I read this article on NPR and I think it’s very accurate where it describes how one of the things that makes Ms Marvel extraordinary is that it makes being Muslim ordinary. It makes it normal. We are all Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever. We are all living with so many of the very same things in our world. We all care about our families, we all want our loved ones to be OK, we are all living with challenges, living with teenagers one way or the other, who are always rebelling against their parents, or not rebelling, but just struggling with “Please trust me, and know that I know what I’m doing” or the parents that want to keep them safe. It’s not even a rebellion so to speak. All of these universal things that all of us are dealing with, a lot of times, in the public eye, they are minimised, or they are pushed away, and there’s this manufactured sense of us VS them, when in reality there’s so much interconnectivity, between cultures and religions because we’re all humans, and we all have families, dreams, desires, challenges. It’s so exciting, and I have to hand it to all of the folks at Marvel, starting with Kevin Feige, and all of the way down, Sana Amanat and Bisha K. Ali who created this show, for taking on something that maybe in today’s world is exceptionally challenging, but necessary to do. Which is, taking a group of people who have historically been vilified in entertainment, which I hate to say, and making it clear that no, that’s not who these people are, who the Khan family is, and it’s certainly not who this entire demographic of people are. I think it’s a really beautiful thing. And again, the fact that it’s just one part of what makes these people them in this story. I can’t over-emphasise how important that is, for us to realise that we are a sum of all of the things that make us us. This family is a sum of all of the things that make them them. They’re loving, fun, and caring. They’re traditional but also modern, they’re all sorts of things. They’re the family I grew up in, and I really love that. The importance of it, could not be overestimated.
What else can we expect to see from you in 2022?
I wish I could tell you but I’m under NDA to not talk about almost everything! Which is crazy and frustrating. The best way is to just keep in touch with me online, on social media, because I announce things as soon as I can. I have some video games in development, I have some more TV coming out in the fall. I can tell you this much, my book is going to be published in a wide release. It’s called I Am Fun Size, And So Are You!: Thoughts from a Tiny Human on Living a Giant life! That is coming out in August, and I will be announcing the specific date a little bit in the future. I’m very excited about that, that’s been a labour of love that I created as a love letter to this extended, gaming, Marvel, this HUGE community of people that I’ve been introduced to in the last eight years, who are generous, artistic, kind, and I wanted to give something of myself to them, and one thing that I have that no one else has to give is my set of experiences. So the book is about that, it’s about things that I have learned, for better or for worse along the way, some stories are fun, some stories are embarrassing, whatever it is. It’s basically a book to let people know, that no matter what you’re going through, you’re not alone. There’s always someone standing beside you, there’s always someone rooting for you, there’s someone who maybe went through what you’re going through. Or maybe is just there to make you laugh while you’re experiencing it, but one way or the other you’re not alone. So that’s coming out in late August, and I’m really excited about that. Then I have a bunch of convention appearances coming up throughout July, September and the beginning of 2023.
Episode 4 of Ms. Marvel is currently streaming on Disney+