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Futurama's Lauren Tom Talks Voice Acting and the Inspiration Behind Her Characters

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When MetaCon opens on Friday, there will comic books for sale, live music to enjoy, memorabilia, costume contests, and stars from things like Transformers and Power Rangers. Futurama has two voice actors, Billy West and Lauren Tom, who will be on hand to sign autographs, talk to fans, and host panels about their work.

Tom voices Amy and Inez Wong on the show, which was canceled (again) last year, though rumors of another rebirth circulate on the web. Her career spans over 30 years, including roles on popular shows such as The Cosby Show, Facts of Life, Friends, Grey's Anatomy, and Supernatural. She has also appeared in movies like The Joy Luck Club and Bad Santa. Her first voice acting role was with King of the Hill, and she has done stage work as well, including spending the 1989-90 season at the Guthrie.

With such an extensive resume, it's hard to pick a topic to talk discuss when interviewing Tom, but we did our best.

See also: Futurama's Billy West: Cons are becoming "a place to see and be seen"

With voice acting, you're often in a studio and not necessarily face-to-face with your co-workers. Are conventions one of your only chances to see people like Billy West?

Lauren Tom: Yes, especially now that Futurama has been canceled. We were really hoping for a miracle there, thinking that some other network might step up and save us. Apparently they're still working on that happening, but we haven't heard anything yet.

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For shows that have been canceled already, it's one of the only ways that we see each other -- unless we've become such good friends that we socialize and hang out. But that's not really the case. I've made some super close friends in some shows, but that doesn't happen all the time.

How did you get started in voice acting?

My very first job was King of the Hill. I auditioned for it just like I would any other sitcom, really, and I ended up getting it. The voiceover world is kind of an inner circle where once you get your first job, if it's a nice one, through word of mouth you can sort of go around and do other shows. It's really nice that way.

What's really interesting to me is that in doing this for decades -- my whole career is 30 years, but the voiceover I'd say from maybe around '95 -- in all of that time I have never met one jerk in the voiceover world, which is kind of phenomenal. I think that it attracts really down-to-earth people. I can't say the same for my on-camera career. I've met plenty of people that I would just hide from or run from.

Another thing is there's no stereotyping in voiceover, so I can be a five-year-old black boy or a 96-year-old Jewish woman. It's really wide open to the kinds of parts you can play, and that's really wonderful. Being an ethnic woman, I've had to deal with that. It's annoying, but I understand it because TV is so visual. Ninety percent of whether you get a job or not is how you look. The talent is icing on the cake, but if you look right for the right part, everything is in your favor. I never had to deal with that in the voiceover world at all. That's been such a fun aspect of it.

You mentioned the Futurama rumors earlier. What is the status on that?

I haven't heard much. When we first got canceled, we had really high hopes. As time has gone on, I don't really know at this point if anything is going to pan out. It's been quite a while now.

But you never know. We were down three or four years before Comedy Central stepped up. Never say never.

Hopefully, we'll come back. It's like a big family, it was just so great to see everybody when we got picked up by Comedy Central, and we certainly enjoyed that ride. I thought it would last longer, but I'm happy it lasted as long as it did. It's been a blessing for me, that job.

What are some things that you added to Amy's character in Futurama?

Originally, she was written to be really strong and kind of butch looking. [At] my audition, Matt [Groening] and I hit it off so well that he kind of re-tailored it. Amy is kind of boy crazy, and Leela was already strong. Instead of having two really strong women, you had two women who were a bit different. I think that added more to the show. They made it a bit more like me, I think. It's also fun to play Inez, to play my mother.

People always ask what I'm saying when I'm cursing in Chinese. When I do conventions, I always teach the audience and then I tell them what I'm saying. I don't speak Cantonese fluently. I only am saying the lines that I've heard over and over again from my childhood. But anybody who's Cantonese that watches Futurama knows what I'm saying. In the past, I've had people come up and verify that they know what I'm saying and that they heard that growing up as a kid.

Is playing Amy a trip back to when you were younger?

I wasn't as slutty as Amy. [Laughs] I definitely was a big flirt. I wasn't really a klutz so much either, because I was a dancer when I was young. I think they were just adding that to have some more humor with her. I remember the same thing with Hermes, the little hooks to make him funnier. Originally he didn't have a Jamaican accent, and Matt asked if he could do one and he could. That's how they formed that.

A part of voice acting is that you can play a five-year-old and a 96-year-old and a 25-year-old. Is it difficult to capture the spirit of different age groups?

I feel like a child at heart a lot of times. Maybe that's why I've had success in the voiceover world. I relate to a lot to young characters because emotionally I feel so adolescent. Also, the older characters, now that I am older, are easier to relate to. I can't believe how fast time just hurdles by. Especially when you have kids. I can't even believe it's been 24 years since I've been to the Guthrie Theater. It feels like it's been maybe eight. I try to tap into people I know and channel them, because it's easier and you feel like you're doing a real person then.

Who is the real person behind Inez?

That's my grandma. As I grew up, my brother and I used to play Who-Who and Gung-Gung, which is kind of like baby talk for "grandma" and "grandpa." We would be in the backseat of the car, and we would just repeat what they were saying in their hilarious Chinese accent. She could never say my name, Lauren. It would be "Loray." I had her voice and her inflection and everything down from the time I was five.

It's a way to keep my grandmother alive, too, because she passed a long time ago and I loved her so much. Once in a blue moon I'll get an Asian watchdog group that takes me to task for doing characters with accents, but I really don't pay them much mind because to me, when I do it, I'm always channeling my grandma, and I feel like it's grounded and based on somebody that I know and love.

I think it's only offensive when someone white has written the lines, and then someone who doesn't know how to do that accent does it. Then it's offensive, because there's no truth in it. A lot of times I'll find that an Asian audience will come up to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, that's exactly my grandmother.' They will relate to it because it feels real.

I know there are some actors of Asian descent who refuse to ever do an Asian accent, ever, just on principle. But I don't agree with that. There are millions of people out there who have an accent.

Was your grandmother as blunt as Inez?

She was really tough. It made her hilarious, as she was so bossy. She had a restaurant in Chicago for 55 years, and I still remember there was one time when a customer asked for ice cream for dessert and she goes, "No, you too fat. I give you Jell-O."

She always spoke her mind. It was kind of like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. People loved her because she was entertaining. Who says that? She didn't really live long enough to harp on me about grandchildren, but she would have.

Are there any of your jobs in particular that your kids have enjoyed?

One will be 11 and the other is 13, and they absolutely are Futurama addicts. I think they probably have seen every episode because they're playing them on a loop. Thank God, because that's paying for their college with all the residuals.

It's fun to see them watch it and laugh. It's one of the things that makes them not quite as embarrassed to walk down the street with me.

IF YOU GO:

MetaCon Hyatt Regency Minneapolis $30-$40 for a weekend pass; $110 platinum pass Noon to 3 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday

Lauren Tom will be holding a drawing at Meta Con to benefit HomeboyIndustries.org, a charitable organization that helps ex-convicts find employment. The winner will be treated to lunch on Sunday with herself and Billy West (Fry, Professor, Dr. Zoidberg). Visit her booth for details.