Undoubtedly, Tara Strong is voice-acting royalty thanks to her stunning work on a ridiculous array of favourites such as The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony, Rugrats, Fillmore!, Ben 10, Drawn Together, and of course several different roles in the world of the Dark Knight. The voice of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, not to mention a certain Harleen Quinzel from Batman: Arkham City onwards, we were lucky enough to grab some time with Tara ahead of the Blu-ray release of Batman: The Complete Animated Series.
STARBURST: Having been involved in the industry since your teenage years, when did you first realise that this could be your career and that you had such range?
Tara Strong: Well, I definitely always did silly voices as a child. I had a fake radio station with my sister. I always copied people, I was this sponge. I knew from the age of three or four that I wanted to be a performer. I would perform in front of my kindergarten class. I always knew that I wanted to perform, but I didn’t realise it was primarily going to be voiceover. I grew up in Toronto and my family got me an agent when I was thirteen. One of my first auditions was for the voice of Hello Kitty, for the title role, and the rest is history. My parents were really supportive. They encouraged me no matter what. They were at every audition, every show. They were just the greatest.
That’s very different to your normal thirteen-year-old. How was it to grow up and balance that burgeoning career with normal teenage school life?
It was a little challenging in regard to education. I was very conscientious about being docked grades and losing marks just because I was away. I kept my grades up, so that was frustrating. Sometimes schools were accommodating, but often they weren’t. Finishing high school was really challenging because I was acting pretty much full-time from the age of thirteen. In Toronto, I had a very well rounded career doing TV, film, theater, I had my own sitcom. Everyone would tell me, “You don’t need to go to high school!” It was such a fun environment. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but I did know that I wanted to finish high school. I would have a lot of on-set tutors. I graduated at the same time as everyone else, thankfully, but I did switch schools several times.
You’d then move to Los Angeles in the early ‘90s. Was that move prompted by a specific job, or was it a case of just moving to LA to see what was out there?
From the time I was very little, I always wanted to move to Los Angeles; I always wanted to move to the United States, to California. I loved the idea of being in the hub of Hollywood. Often for on-camera parts, the large parts would be cast there. I remember thinking, “I just want to go to LA and do a ‘movie of the week’.” I just wanted to go and do other productions. I would’ve moved earlier except that I really wanted to finish high school. Right when I finished high school, I got into a few colleges for performing arts. One was in New York, one was in Toronto, and I chose Toronto because I’d booked a few films. I would’ve lost them if I left at that time, and they were good films. One was with Anjelica Huston and Sam Neill. I just didn’t want to give up those opportunities. The first day of school in Toronto, I ended up teaching there! I was like, “I think if I go to school it’s to be educating myself about things I don’t know about it.” I decided that I was going to make the big, scary move. I didn’t know that many people very well. The guy who played my dad in the sitcom that I did invited me to stay with him and his wife. He was very sweet. He’s actually just passed away this year. I stayed with them through the ’94 earthquake, so it was lucky that I had someone. My mom was like, “You’ve gotta come home! There’s no food, there’s no water!” That was all based on the news.
When The New Batman Adventures came around, you landed the role of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. How was that process?
When I first moved to town, it was actually quite challenging to get my footing. I had had a very successful career in Toronto, so that helped me, but I was still the new girl on the block. They like to stick to the people that they know, and I remember literally crying in my apartment going, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I’d had two eviction notices, I was broke, my parents were trying to help me but I was feeling guilty. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I got a call from Marsha Goodman, who said, “Would you come and play my Heather in the new Gadget Boy and Heather?” I burst into tears! And ironically enough, Marsha Goodman was the person who gave me Hello Kitty. So, she started my career and she saved my career; because of her I could afford to eat. Not shortly after that, I switched agencies and I booked one hundred episodes of 101 Dalmatians, which is unheard of. Then Powerpuff Girls and Batgirl all in the same year. People were like, “Who is this girl?!” That was me putting myself on the map. When I walked into the audition for Batman it was full of top tier voice talent as well as celebrities. A-list, D-list, you name it, everybody wanted to be Batgirl. It was quite an intimidating room. I went in and just did my best. I remember Andrea [Romano] and Bruce [Timm] saying something about how much they liked my natural personality and how I just seemed to be Batgirl. When I walked in, it was just very natural to me. In truth, Batgirl is the only job I do that’s really my own voice. When I got the call that I’d booked it, my agent left a voicemail on my answering machine at the time, and he goes, “Oh my god, you’re her! You’re the girl with the Bat, you’re Batgirl!” He was freaking out. Let’s just say that was a very good day.
When you get the chance to reprise that role, is it a little easier to do given that it’s your natural voice, or does that make it even more difficult?
I love every time I get to go back to it. I get really excited every time I look at a script and see Batgirl. It’s just a wonderful, exciting, nostalgic thing. When I first booked the job, I was sitting between Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy – and I pinched myself! Whenever you get the opportunity to revisit that, it’s pretty extraordinary. I get excited every time. Not that it’s easy because it’s my voice, because truthfully, it’s quite challenging from an acting perspective Any time you’re taking on a new role, as the actor you really envision yourself in all of these scenarios. You do some very deep stuff when you do Batman. My favourite iteration of Batman is always the darker ones. They take you to very dark places. So, I never go, “Oh, it’s gonna be easy.” I go, “Wow, I’m excited to take this on!”
Were you a fan of Batgirl or the Batman mythos before you got involved in The New Batman Adventures?
My father collected World War II memorabilia - he’s a big collector – and we grew up going to antique markets. My sister began collecting Wonder Woman and I wanted to collect something, too. I didn’t want to do what she did, so I chose Batgirl. Very young, I wanted everything that I could find that was Batgirl. And my father had the early editions of almost every comic you could think of. So, I definitely grew up in that world and was familiar with it. I haven’t read every single comic – certainly, fans know a lot more about every single story than I do. In fact, when we started The Killing Joke, I hadn’t read it before I saw that we were doing it. When I found out we were doing it I bought it and I found it so fascinating, even afterwards, to watch The Killing Joke and have the comic in front of it. You see how similar they are. You look like you’re watching the comic. There was the additional scene, which I was grateful that they gave to me. It was quite exciting.
How is it to tackle something as dark as The Killing Joke or Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker, in comparison to the more balanced tone of The New Batman Adventures?
It was shocking and interesting, and I figured there’d be some backlash but not to the degree that I saw. People freaked out. I just remember thinking, “Just relax. She’s a grown woman making a grown decision. She’s not Batman’s sister or daughter or anything.” I just loved how beautifully it was done. I thought the acting was extraordinary. When you watch those moments with Mark Hamill and the origin story in The Killing Joke, there’s some really incredible moments.
With some of the scenes added to the animated take on The Killing Joke, there was a backlash amongst some fans. Given how so much of what you’ve done throughout your career has had a hugely positive fanbase, what was it like for you in the aftermath of The Killing Joke?
It was really hard, because you put your heart and soul into something and you hope that people like it. Any time you hear negative stuff about anything you’ve done as a performer, it’s not a good day. You try to ignore it and not let it affect you. I think more people need to teach their children about how to not attack people online. When my son was maybe four or five years old, he really hated Justin Bieber. He just had an aversion to him. He put out a new video and he goes, “Oh my god! Mom, watch this.” He was very young and he was basically saying how terrible it was. I said, “Well, it is what it is. Some people like that.” And he said, “I’m gonna write something.” He was writing underneath the video what a piece of garbage this video was, and it was poop. “You know what? That’s not a good idea to do, and I’ll tell you why. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean other people won’t like it. I guarantee that this performer really likes it. He wouldn’t put it out if he wasn’t proud of it. So rather than bang on it and bash it, that’s not good karma. Put your energy to someone and something else. If you want to create your own music, do that. But if you don’t like it, you don’t have to say something negative.” And I taught my son that and he’s never done that. He’s sixteen now. I think people need to teach their children more about doing that, other than to keep going in to your adult years thinking it’s okay behind a computer to say something totally nasty about someone.
When you first landed the Batgirl role, when did it dawn on you that you were playing such a huge role model of a character?
Oh, I always knew that. I knew the second I booked it that it was going to be a huge, important role and a huge, important role for young girls everywhere to have a female role model to look up to. I take the responsibility pretty strongly, about strong female characters that can inspire other girls to be strong and stand up for themselves and do the right thing. It was always something I knew was important and I felt very blessed to be playing her.
You’ve played so many characters over the years, so many of which have meant so much to different people. Which one do people lean towards the most in terms of which has meant the most to them?
I hear a lot of Raven at cons, I hear a lot of Batgirl, too. Mostly at cons I hear that Raven helped people through depression or she’s someone people can relate to. Harley, people are always happy about. And Powerpuff Girls. Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. All of the roles have been quite iconic roles. I mean, not many people get to say that they’ve played these characters like Batgirl and Harley and Poison Ivy and Raven. Over my career, I’ve had the opportunity to play such extraordinary characters.
Drawn Together was risqué at time, but was there ever anything over the years that you’ve been offered but turned down due to it being too out there?
Oh, I loved Drawn Together so much. I miss that show. I said no to a cartoon that was basically an anti-Jihad cartoon. It was a weird sort of ISIS comedy. It was kind of at the height of the beheadings and everything, and I just said, “You know, Charlie Hebdo was really serious and devastating, and we need to be conscious of what we’re putting out there. I’m not going to do a Jihad cartoon.” I just passed, I didn’t even submit an audition.
And was there anything on Drawn Together that maybe went a bit too far for your liking?
There was one thing that I told the guys I was not going to do. There was an Anne Frank joke, and it was really harsh. I was just, “Guys, I think we can do this without going here.” The truth is, on a show like Drawn Together – similar to South Park – there’s a racist element making fun of racists. Basically, showing how ridiculous racism is. From that viewpoint, I’m completely fine with it. And if they asked me to do that show again I would be back in a heartbeat.
You’ve mentioned Harley Quinn, and that was a role you took on originally in Batman: Arkham City. Taking over that role from Arleen Sorkin, was that a nervous moment or was it just seen as another challenge?
Definitely very nervous. I used to work in the studio alongside Arleen Sorkin, and she’s just the loveliest human ever and incredibly bright, beautiful, intelligent. When they said they were going in a new direction, it scared me. People love their signature voices, and I was terrified that people wouldn’t like what I did. When I came in and they were trying to explain the different area that they wanted to go, I understood it and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a money thing. Once I knew it was a creative choice, they told me that they wanted it based on her but with my own spin on it and to be completely out of control crazy. We were definitely just jumping in, and I hoped people liked my version very much. It was scary!
Batgirl is this strong symbol of hope and fighting the good fight, and then you’ve got Harley Quinn who’s on the other side of that. Is there a favourite side of the fence for you?
No, they’re both really fun. I mean, it’s always fun to play the bad girl. But like I said before, it’s very special to play Batgirl. Harley kind of becomes my therapy when I get in the studio – to scream and shout – but they’re both equally fun. It’s always fun to play the bad girl but there’s something very special in my heart about Batgirl.
Across the board, which is the role you find yourself getting most animated about in the studio?
Probably the craziest right now is Unikitty. She’s pretty crazy, she’s all over the place.
In Rugrats, how much of a challenge was it to voice a literal infant in Dil Pickles?
It was really fun, but it was challenging. All of my lines would be stage directions, like, “Baby Dil grabs Tommy’s toy and throws it at Angelica’s head, throws up and poops, then goes to sleep.”
How great is it to see the Bronies fan movement involved in My Little Family?
It’s extremely rewarding. I love the My Little Pony fans, they’re the cutest fans ever. They’re the first to give to charity and be there for each other. They’re very strong on anti-bullying stuff, and I just love them so much. I call them my Army of Kindness. I had no idea that Pony was going to have that level of fandom, so it was sort of this unexpected, brilliant, extraordinary world of people just being there for each other all over the world.
What are you working on at the moment that you’re able to tell us about?
Well, I’m working on a lot of stuff. A lot of the DC Super Hero Girls, still doing some Rocky and Bullwinkle. I love that so much, and I encourage people to check in for this new season; it’s really, really fun. And more Ben 10, more Teen Titans. Yeah, I work every single day. Just follow me @tarastrong and I usually post career stuff along with my frustration with politics.
Be sure to check back here over the next week or so as we talk to some of the other key figures involved in Batman: The Animated Series.
Batman: The Complete Animated Series is out now on Blu-ray.