Interview: Voice Actress Janet Varney and the Secret Origins of Korra

The one thing you quickly pick up on talking to Legend of Korra voice actress Janet Varney is that she’s just happy to be doing the work. Above all else, the actress, who lends her pipes to the show’s title character, is simply thrilled to be a part of the process of giving voice to something animated onscreen. “Just doing voices for cartoons is just a dream come true,” she explained. “For me there’s nothing closer to what magic—real magic must feel like.”

In the follow-up to the wildly popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, Varney plays Korra, the latest in the long line of legendary avatars, born to bring balance to a tumultuous world. For her part, Varney describes the teen character as “cool, complicated, stubborn [and] too big for her britches, who also has a really great heart,” pointing to this mix of traits as the reason why the character appeals to the voice actress and why Korra will appeal to viewers as well. The series airs Saturdays at 11 A.M. ET/PT on Nickelodeon, and MTV Geek had to opportunity to speak with Varney about returning to the Avatar universe and the secret origins of Korra’s voice.

“I didn’t let myself think too much about it being Last Airbender-related, because I am a fan of the show, and I didn’t want to jinx it for myself by getting too excited or too worried about it.” That was Varney’s response when I asked her how she approached the character when first auditioning for Korra. More than anything, Varney was happy to simply be considered—not only for a role on the show, but for any work with Nickelodeon.

Still, she’s able to see The Legend of Korra as a fan, explaining that the new series maintains the spirit—the heart, according to Varney—of The Last Airbender. One of the virtues of the original series was its ability to juggle multiple tones, from goofy slapstick, to character drama, to sprawling action, and for Varney, The Legend of Korra has been able to respect that legacy.

One other area where The Last Airbender gained love from fans was in the diversity of faces that it put on screen each episode. For Varney, it’s particularly poignant to her to be able to bring a strong female character to young audiences in the same way that The Last Airbender’s cast of characters gave face and voice to a host of non-white animated characters. Her lighter tone from earlier in the interview gets serious as the considers that, “As a girl, as a woman, it’s frankly really gratifying for me to see this new series catapult this incredibly cool female character into the minds of children, and girls in particular, who I hope will feel empowered by her, and inspired by her.”

For Varney, the appeal of Korra the character is that in many ways, she’ll be a character that viewers can empathize with, from her hot-headedness to her fragility. “What would it be like if you were this young kid who had all of these extraordinary powers? You’ve probably feel a little full of yourself,” she says of her character. To Varney’s mind, it’s this mix of likeability and maybe not-so-likeability that makes Korra appealing to viewers. It’s that mix of adolescent fears, doubt, and stubbornness that make up Korra’s personality and will hopefully resonate with the young viewers—both male and female—meeting her for the first time.

Varney recounts with slight embarrassment the one prominent female character she really enjoyed seeing onscreen when she was younger: Helen Slater’s take on Supergirl in the widely derided movie from the 80’s. “It was not a good movie,” she laughs, “but just getting to see a girl fly and be a superhero was just incredibly exciting.”

I asked her how thematically The Legend of Korra lined up with The Last Airbender, which was largely concerned with characters learning how to live in the present and get past the tragedies and traumas of their past. Varney sees her series as an extension of that, but she also says that viewers shouldn’t overlook the wealth of comedy that the two series share.

As an actor, she says that getting the comedy down is a challenge given that Korra is a traditionally-animated series, meaning that she and her fellow cast members have to get a sense of the tone and feel of the comedy of a scene from the page. “I think you kind of have to use your imagination to see what’s happening when you’re performing, and kind of find where the comedic moments are.” But instead of being intimidated by this challenge, Varney says that she was actually excited by reading the pages of the script, seeing narrative threads and characters woven into the story.

In terms of finding the right mix of cast members for the show, Varney credits a director who many of our readers may be familiar with from some of our previous animation coverage: Andrea Romano, who has been responsible for assembling the voice casts for much of the animated DC Universe. For Varney, Romano “is extraordinary at finding these moments for comedy, and finding the moments for sympathy, and sentimentality.”

When I asked her where the voice of Korra came from, Varney gave two points of inspiration—one of which she’s never told anyone about. The first is Jodie Foster, whose child acting roles Varney admired when she was a child herself. She says that this has influenced the headstrong elements of Korra. She says Foster’s youth and teen roles were better than just an oversimplified version of real kids.

That other point of inspiration came from early in the Korra voiceover process, when someone advised Varney to imagine someone who could help her get into the mind of her character. Varney’s choice: actress Christina Ricci. “For some reason that popped into my head really early on in the audition process. I had this idea of this really smart, kind of too smart for her own good [character.” From Ricci, Varney says she was able to find that mix of brattiness and lovability for her own performance.

You can check out how this mix of influences works out Saturdays at 11 A.M. ET/PT on Nickelodeon. You can also download the first two episodes on iTunes for free.

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