As a child of the ’90s, actress Mae Whitman (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Arrested Development) has a deep-seated love for Nickelodeon programming shared by most people of her age. “I feel like I am a lot of who I am because I watched these shows that said it was okay to be a total weirdo,” says Whitman. “Shows like Pete and Pete, Hey, Dude, Salute Your Shorts — that’s what I grew up with.” Having previously collaborated with Nickelodeon on Avatar, Whitman will be seen starting weekend on the network’s revival of another classic ’90s show: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The older version has a special place in her heart too.
“I have this memory of being obsessed with how the pizza looks. This yellow, weird pizza. There was something about it… I viscerally loved it. The colors, the premise — everything was fun and interesting and different about it.” Whitman sees a connection between those classic Nicktoons and the modernized Turtles. They’re both about outsiders, and in the case of her character April O’Neil, emphasize positive messages for younger viewers. “There are so many things about her that are incredible. One thing with this is that she’s younger, she’s the Turtles’ age, a teenager. That’s cool to me because you can have these young girls relating to her. And we’re not trying to take her over, we’re trying to add something to her.”
The original April had her fair share of adventures with Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and Whitman’s new inter-operation of the character should still have the reporter’s signature edge — just with a 21st century twist. “It’s almost as if she’s the same girl, just younger. She’s so vivacious, so smart, and really kind and loving. She’s a part of the family. For me, I wanted to make sure I kept that. She’s very intellectual. She’s… not funky, but independent and energy and life. She comes up with ideas. And she’s the only human counterpart for the Turtles, a view to the outside world. And a female energy, which so important (especially as a kid who grew up with Ninja Turtles). “
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Whitman has been working in the voiceover business almost her entire life. Daughter of voiceover extraordinaire Pat Musick, Whitman got her first taste of the business when she joined her mom on USA’s Duckman. The rest is history. “They would record [Duckman] at Klasky Csupo [the company behind Rugrats, early Simpsons, and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters] and that was the coolest place ever to go. I was in the voiceover circle even has a little kid. I became friends with all the directors and all the people who worked at the studios. It was fun to go. I remember going there and having fun.”
Whitman is part of a close-knit group of performers in the voiceover community who she still looks up to. “There are definitely heavy-hitters who are all-stars in the voiceover world,” says Whitman. “These people are just so talented. Jeff Bennett, Rob Paulson… people I work with constantly. You have a guy like Dee Bradley Baker who worked on Avatar with me and he can do any animal ever. They’d be like, ‘Hey Dean, make a water buffalo sound for us.’ And he was like, ‘North American water buffalo or South African?’ These guys are just talented.”
With Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Whitman adds another property to her roster of respected TV shows with rabid fanbases. What might be overwhelming for the uninitiated is just something new for Whitman to be excited over. “Every time I go to Comic-Con, I’m jacked. I want to dress up and walk the floor and answer questions, because I’m excited about it. It’s like making new friends. That goes for all of it. Arrested Development — I’m like the biggest fan ever of Arrested Development. To be a part of it is incredible. Same goes for Parenthood. To be a part of that family, it’s exciting to me to find new friends, new people who share your interests. It’s like speed dating! Now it’s Turtles.” That’s not to say Whitman is hoarding fan-friendly projects. “I only have room to do things that I have a love for in my life. To me, all of these projects I have going on… I feel really lucky. I feel really passionate about them. They help me connect with the other people involved: fans.”
Having interacted with so many types of fans, Whitman is a bit of a geekdom connoisseur. “Everyone is super hardcore in their own way. Arrested Development fans are subtle and cool, but are still die-hard fans.” One group stands out to Whitman as truly diehard: “The ones that really resonate with me the most are the Avatar fans. We went to Comic-Con, Dante [Basco], who plays Zuko, and I, stopped in on a small fan-run panel. These people were going crazy, it was awesome. Dante especially — girls were dying over him, screaming ‘Zuko!’ He’s a heartthrob. There is so much energy. It’s positive and great. To be swept up in that positivity over something you love, it’s the ultimate gift.”
Thanks to the massive success of the sequel series The Legend of Korra, Avatar fever is even hotter than ever, and although Whitman did not reprise her role as Katara on the first Book of the show, she’s hoping there might be an opportunity in the future. “I would not be surprised if that’s something we could eventually make happen. We all care about each other, we’re a family. I would definitely not be surprised if that was something we could make work. I would be horned to be a part of it. I’m so glad there’s a continuation of that energy. It was beautiful and serene and important. A really special energy. I would love to be involved.”
To this day, Whitman still fondly looks back at her own TV favorites from growing up. “I’ve seen every Hey Arnold! episode ever, but it would have to be between Pete and Pete and Doug. Doug got me through so many hours of being annoyed about homework.” Knowing Whitman’s own history, it’s not hard to imagine that her work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will do the same for today’s kids — and perhaps, inspire the future generation of voiceover actors.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kicks off Saturday, Sept. 29, at 11AM on Nickelodeon.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Nickelodeon; WENN]