Chatting with April O’Neil – An Interview With Renae Jacobs
It’s not every day that you get to hear one of the most memorable voices from your childhood telling you stories, but that was our experience recently when we had the amazing opportunity to speak with Renae Jacobs, the voice actor for April O’Neil in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. There are few words to describe just how delightful our experience was with this amazing woman, but I’m sure you’ll understand exactly how sweet and caring she is when you read through the interview.
We made sure to ask her some of the tough questions that fans are really curious about, including her thoughts on the new Nickelodeon TMNT series and Michael Bay’s new project, queries which she definitely provided some interesting answers for. If you’ve been wondering what this incredible female role model has to say about the casting choice of Megan Fox in the role she originally filled back in 1987, let Renae herself tell you what she thinks about that. Having the chance to hear about some of her amazing experiences with fellow voice actors like Rob Paulsen and learning more about just how she got the role in the first place was really an eye opening experience, so we hope you’ll read through the entire interview and let us know what you think in the comments below.
First we would like to know, how did you come to get involved with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series? What was the process in regards to getting cast for the role of April O’Neil?
Well, I had been doing voice over in Los Angeles for a number of years and just like (I think) every woman in the city, I got a call to audition for this unusual show. No one had ever heard of this comic book and everybody was like “what? Teenage Mutant what?” Anyway, we all showed up at the interview and the director was a man by the name of Stu Rosen. I saw everyone in that waiting room that I had ever known in voice over. So we all waited our turn and went in and auditioned. I went in, Stu directed me, it was a long audition and when I was done, that was that! Not long after that, I got a call from my agent and he said “you got that role.” I said “what role? what are you talking about?” and he said “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I said “you’re kidding! okay!” The funny thing is that I got the role, went in for the first day of rehearsal and Stu turned to me and said:
“You know, I didn’t like you for this role.”
“Really? Thanks for telling me, Stu.”
“I played them (the producers) everyone in town, because I just didn’t think you were right.”
“Well, okay, but here I am; I got the role.”
“Well, every one I played, the producers said ‘No, no, no, that’s not April,’ and finally I was out of people to show them, so I pulled your audition out and played it for them and they said ‘That’s April!’ So you got the role.”
“Well, thanks for telling me, Stu.”
So that’s – I hope that’s the answer to that question.
Well, it’s definitely a good answer and we (and millions of other people) couldn’t be more delighted that you played April O’Neil, so Stu was wrong in this case.
Thank you! I appreciate that!
I guess this is kind of a related question, but how did you come up with the voice for the character when you were doing your audition? Was there any type of research you did for the role?
Well, no one had ever heard of the Ninja Turtles and I know it’s hard to believe, but back in the day when we started auditioning for the show, there was no internet; there was no computer that could get us any information. If you wanted to look up information, you had to go to the library, so having the Ninja Turtles as a resource really wasn’t there for me and I wasn’t familiar with them. But obviously there was a very good character description of her, so I looked at that and I kind of built her based on me. I felt that she should be a very strong character with very good convictions, she should be a loyal friend; she should be serious about her work and she wanted to be taken seriously, not just looked at as another pretty face.
I kind of developed (as I was waiting to audition) a picture in my mind of this news reporter who was young, had a lot to prove, and really wanted to get it right. So that’s how I kind of came up with the heart and soul of who she should be. Most of the time when I was doing voice over work, it was always some kind of crazy, funny voice, like munchkin voices or My Little Pony, or any number of those little tiny voices. So this was really one of the first voices I ever did where it was a straight voice; a real character, a real person, versus some kind of crazy little made up fantasy character.
That’s interesting. You definitely did a good job of portraying that, because with April O’Neil in the show, we definitely understood that she was an independent woman. You did a good job at being a friend to our loyal, beloved Ninja Turtles.
Is there anything you like more about voice acting than stage acting, or vice versa?
You know what? I am passionate about any kind of acting that I have the opportunity to do. The big advantage of doing voice over work is you can look any way you look. I’m sure most of you haven’t seen me in person, but I’m 4’10”, not statuesque and live, so I can come into a voice over audition and be who I am, be creative and get the part based on my talent and not based on my looks. That I appreciated very much. It also was a lot of work, a lot of energy, because you have to create that character with your voice. It’s just a two dimensional character – if you’re lucky you get 3D – but it’s the voice and the energy that the actor puts into it that lifts that character off the page. So I love doing voice over and I absolutely love doing theater. It’s hard to say which one I love better, though, because they’re both different and both exciting and wonderful.
Can you tell us more about the day-to-day process in regards to what went into your part?
Do you mean more like what the recording experience was about? The process of how we recorded the show?
Yes. Like, were you in the booth with all the other voice actors, or was it just you individually? Were you kicking and jumping while you were delivering your lines?
Hahahahahahaha! Oh, that’s funny. Well, we were all in the recording studio together. It was made very clear that this is what they wanted to have done and that we were not to take other jobs or think that we could schedule an individual recording session; that we were to be at the studio (wherever that studio was) and ready to go as a team – as a cast, so that’s what we did. It was very rare that any of the cast members were absent during recording. We would get there, we would get our scripts, we’d have time to read them over and underline them, highlight them. Then we would do a run through, which would take a couple of hours. Then we would take a little break, and then we would record. We would record as many of the lines in a row as we could. Sometimes the director would stop us and say “hey, I want you to do it this way” or “tone it down,” or a line would be blown, or someone would throw in an ad lib and they’d say “hey, get back to the script” or “yeah, that was great, let’s keep going.” It usually took about 2-4 hours depending on the situation, and then we would go on to the next script either the next day or the next week.
That’s always a good way to keep up team work when you guys are doing your voice acting together in the studio.
Yeah, it was – I really loved it. It was great for camaraderie and relationships. We played off each other, many of the lines that you hear on the show were made up by the guys. There was a lot of ad libbing and it really brought a lot to the script. It would have been hard to do that if we hadn’t been there together.
What are your thoughts on the new Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series? Have you had the chance to see it?
I’ve seen a few of the episodes. I think that it’s a lot of fun. Would I like us all to be on that show? Yes! I would like all the original voices. I personally love the voices that our cast did and it’s hard to hear other voices doing those characters on a personal level, but I think the show is really well done and I’m very excited that it’s bringing Ninja Turtles to a whole new audience. It really is an amazing property that it can just bridge these generations. You’re talking about Turtles starting 25 years ago, and as passionate as the fans are that have grown up with them, a whole new generation is starting to fall in love with The Turtles again and you just can’t ask for anything more than that!
You’re absolutely right, we agree with you in all aspects, because there are so many younger people that now are getting to know the Ninja Turtles and it’s great to see these generations being bridged together.
It is! In fact, I have a lot of fans on Facebook and I hear from some of the guys that are now fathers who have introduced their children to the old school Ninja Turtles and they’re watching the new episodes together. It kind of gives you chills, you know? How often do you get to share your childhood passion and excitement with your children in a way that they can relate to? I don’t know of any other – you know, I don’t see – My Little Pony, maybe some of them, but people don’t seem to be as passionate about those animated shows as they were about Ninja Turtles.
You’re Absolutely right. Do you approve of Michael Bay’s upcoming Ninja Turtles movie cast and the new animated CGI approach?
That is a very interesting question. I have heard from a lot of fans and they’re not really happy about it. In my personal opinion, I’m excited that there’s anything out there that continues to promote the Ninja Turtles. There’s got to be a reason why they are setting the Turtles in the setting they have and casting it the way they are. Everyone wants a successful film, they want to make money, they want it to be good; they don’t want it to be a failure. So I have to put my trust in what they’re doing and know that whatever they do, it’s going to promote the Turtles and it’s going to continue to make the characters popular. It’s buzz; it’s talk. Good? Bad? The public will have to decide, it’s none of my business what they’re doing with it.
What are your thoughts on Megan Fox becoming the new April O’Neil?
Good question. I’ve been asked that a number of times and I think my answer would have to be that, again, they’ve cast her for a reason; they think she will be successful in the role and they think she will help promote the film and make it a box office success. I would hope that Megan would look at this character not only as a sex symbol (if that’s where they’re going to take it), but make her a role model for young women out there. I hear a lot from women who really looked up to the April O’Neil character. I was just in Texas at the Lone Star Comicon and I had the chance to meet a number of women who are in the service. They all came up to me and said “I watched Ninja Turtles with my brothers and April O’Neil was one of my role models. She was a serious reporter, she tried to be a loyal friend and do the right thing, she wasn’t just a fluff character and she influenced me in my life.” So I would hope that there would be a sliver of that, at the very least, in Megan’s character. I’m sure they’re going to dress her very provocatively, I could be wrong, but I hope that the core strength will be there so that she’s not just a pin-up girl.
Maybe she will seek your advice as she’s preparing for the role.
Hahaha! Well, we can only hope.
Did you ever have the opportunity to work hands on with Peter Laird or Kevin Eastman on the cartoon series?
They came to the set, they came to the studio and we got to meet them, but we as a cast never had the opportunity to put any input into the script. Sue Blu was our director, they did not do any of the directing. I know that they had wanted the cartoon show to be darker, more like the comic book, but that was very hard for us as a cast. You had the most talented, wonderful, creative group of actors in that recording studio; most of them had young children and they really developed those personalities. They were kind of like The Marx Brothers, The Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Burns and Allen and all of those wonderful, fabulous old radio personalities and early movie personalities all rolled up into one. So we would start out a season and they would say “okay, you gotta make it tougher! don’t be so silly!” and we’d start and then it just fell apart and we went back to silly, because that was – it was wonderful and creative and funny. If you really listen to the old series and you listen to the lines, there was something for the little kids and there was something for the adults. That was Rob Paulsen and Barry and Townsend and Cam. Those guys put the heart and soul into those turtles and came up with those personalities.
Yes they did, and they did a very good job at it as well.
Yeah. They were fantastic.
You mentioned a convention just a moment ago. We were actually interested to ask, you’ve been doing appearances at conventions across the US. Are you surprised at the size of the fan base for the Turtles? What’s your most memorable convention experience?
I’m not surprised, because when we were first doing Ninja Turtles, my daughter was actually born on the day my agent called me and said that we went to series. We started first with a five part episode and then we waited for a while, nobody knew what was going to happen, it aired and of course it was a huge hit. So on April 7th, 1988, I found out we went to series. When my daughter was 2, I took her to the park and every single child in that park had Ninja Turtles shirts, shoes, socks, t-shirts, hats. I realized that had this show been live action and it had been my face on that show, I wouldn’t have been able to go out in public, so I knew how popular it was.
After being on Facebook and getting some of these comments with people saying how much the Turtles helped them through some very difficult times – hearing from people, I wasn’t that surprised at how many people came by and were big fans of the Turtles. I’m very appreciative of it! Sometimes the fans will come up to me and they’re physically shaking. I met a young man in Texas – he could hardly speak! It was very sweet and I could see that it meant a lot that I was there and the series had done something for him when he was growing up, so that was wonderful.
Then I met a young man who was dressed in full Mikey regalia and showed me a tattoo of Michelangelo on his shoulder. I said “okay, you’ve gotta give me – you know, what’s the back story on this? Because you went so far as to have a Ninja Turtle put on your shoulder. What is this?” He said that when he came to the United States, he didn’t speak any English and his mother got him the Ninja Turtle books and cassette tapes, and he listened to those over and over again and he learned to speak English and read using those books and cassette tapes. That just really touched me. Really, really touched me, because here it is – a cartoon show and as you’re doing it you don’t feel like it’s that important, but each time I go to these Comicons, some of these really great fans have the courage to come up to me and tell me how the Turtles really changed their lives. I don’t know any other show that’s done that.
That is a very interesting story from a fan who learned to speak English through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Yeah, and read! And there’s so many touching, wonderful stories of people who were not well when they were children. One of the things that we used to do when we were doing the show is – there was an organization called Famous Phone Friends. This is a non-profit organization who would get stars and voice over actors to call children in the hospital and kind of brighten up their day. So we would get together at a company who would volunteer to allow us to use their phones and call these children. Then their mothers would get on the phone after we were done talking with them and they would say “Johnny hasn’t smiled in three weeks and he has a smile on his face from ear to ear.” So, you know, we knew we were touching people’s lives and making a difference and some of these people are coming now to Comicon and talking to us about things like that. It’s just difficult to describe how meaningful that is for both of us.
Absolutely. It’s very touching to hear that. Well, that was the last of our questions and Renae, we couldn’t be more happy that you gave us a moment of your time to be able to speak with us. We are very big fans of your work and we definitely hope that someday in the future maybe we’ll be able to see you in some future projects related to the Ninja Turtles.
Well, I hope so! Just in case anybody wants to know, I’m going to be at the Port City Pop Con in Wilmington, North Carolina on May 10th and 11th, very excited; and Geektopia on August 9th-10th in Somerset, Kentucky. Those are my two next Comicons and I’m working on some others. If anyone has any connections, can get me invited or would like me to come, I would love to do so! Just get in touch with Mike Roberts, who is helping me put these together through Facebook, and I’d be happy to come and meet everybody.
Well, we definitely appreciate that. You don’t get to meet actors every day that are willing to be able to connect with their fans, so we tremendously appreciate it.
Well, thank you. The feeling is mutual!
Be sure to visit Renae Jacobs at one of the many Comicon events she will be attending over the summer and drop a line on her Facebook to let her know just how much you appreciate her hard work. As a final thought, we would just like to extend our appreciation once more to Renae for giving us the chance to hear her thoughts on so many wonderful topics related to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This truly was one of the most exciting and enjoyable experiences we’ve had in a long time and we can’t wait to see what this amazing actress will do next.