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Hero In Disguise
Reisa Shanaman Special to the Jewish News
Tara Strong is a mom, wife, activist — and the voice behind hundreds of our favorite TV and movie characters.
I always say ‘I win IMDb [Internet Movie Database],” Tara Strong tells us over the phone from her Los Angeles home. “I literally work every single day.”
Her impressive page on the web database of all things film and TV is certainly indicative of that. Strong’s voice has been featured in so many animated television shows and movies that the No. 1 phrase she hears from fans is “Thank you for my childhood.” From Bubbles on Powerpuff Girls and Timmy Turner on Fairly Oddparents to Harley Quinn in the DC animated universe, Twilight Sparkle on My Little Pony and Raven on Teen Titans Go! it seems there aren’t many animated series of the last few decades Strong didn’t help bring to life. And Metro Detroit fans can meet her, in person, at this year’s Motor City Comic Con, held May 18-20 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, where more than 300 comic creators, writers, illustrators and actors will greet fans.
Strong says she knew she wanted to be a singer, dancer and actress from the time she was 4 or 5 — however, she couldn’t imagine then the career in animation that lay ahead of her. The first big gig she booked in the industry was for the voice of Hello Kitty when she was just 13. “I think when I started doing Hello Kitty I learned how much fun of a career it is. At the end of the day, I get paid to be silly with my friends. We just have so much fun,” she says. “I never knew it was a career, but I’m so grateful for it because it’s just been so rewarding. It doesn’t feel like work most of the time.”
Strong has two teenage sons with husband, Craig. “They’ve been watching my shows since they were babies,” she says. “Sometimes they think it’s cool; sometimes they think it’s not cool. They grew up at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. They had a really cool, interesting childhood. My favorite thing was when they would pick out voices from shows that they didn’t know I was in. [For instance], one time my friend was watching Family Guy, and they started screaming ‘Mom, get in here! There were five different kids in this scene from all over the world and you were every single one!’”
Growing up in Canada with her parents Syd and Lucy Charendoff, Strong, 45, loved big musicals like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. She also got up to watch Saturday morning cartoons every weekend. “Without really knowing that I was [honing a talent], I always did funny voices and imitated what I heard,” she says. “I used to hold my mom’s hand when I was 6 and say, ‘Let’s pretend we’re from England in the store.’ I can’t even explain why.” Every stuffed and real animal she encountered had a distinct voice, she says. Before moving to L.A., she took improv classes at Toronto’s Second City.
Judaism also played a major role in Strong’s childhood, especially as the granddaughter of a cantor. Strong’s mother and bubbie ran the catering business in their synagogue, so she ostensibly “grew up in the giant kitchen at Beth Radom in Toronto,” she says.
A member of the children’s choir there, she sang in shul every Rosh Chodesh. In fact, Strong’s first professional acting role was in a musical production at the Toronto Yiddish Theater. Fluent in Hebrew by the second grade, she didn’t speak Yiddish, but learned it phonetically for the role.
“[Judaism was already] really a huge, huge part of my childhood,” she says. “Then I went on the March of the Living. Of course that makes you even more proud to be Jewish. When you’re watching everyone marching holding hands through those gates, it just absolutely changes your life forever,” Strong says.
Because her grandparents fled the Jewish pogroms in Russia, the March was especially significant for Strong, as it is for so many. “My bubbie was one of five sisters, and her parents were pretty set on staying [in Russia]. She just had this gut feeling that if she didn’t get them out of there they were going to die,” Strong says. “I don’t know how she did it, but at the age of 16, [my bubbie] bought tickets and forced her entire family onto a boat. My great-grandmother said to her, ‘If I die on this journey, it’s your fault.’ And it really all fell on her. She saved everyone. I have lots of [family] that perished, but my bloodline goes on because she was so brave.”
Not one to take her life, or her following, for granted, Strong frequently uses her public social media platforms for good. “My fans are so sweet,” she says. “If you have 350,000 followers and everyone donated a dollar to a cause — I love using my Twitter for that.” In that way, she has helped raise around $500,000 for charity.
And she finds other ways to assist others through her work. “I’ve had many times where people break down and tell me, ‘You got me through my parents’ divorce,’ or ‘You helped me through my depression.’ Moments like that make it so rewarding,” she says.
Compared to the realm of on-camera acting, Strong describes the world of voice-over as incredibly warm and welcoming. “Everyone that’s there deserves to be there because they’re so talented,” she says. “It’s not about what you look like or who you know. When you’re uber successful in this business, you really have this amazing gift. I’m impressed every single day by my cohorts. It’s just a beautiful, supportive room. And we laugh so much. It’s just fun.”
The effervescent and inclusive attitude behind the scenes seeps out and can be felt at the Comic Conventions, or Comic Cons, she often attends. Opportunities for fans to meet the creators, publishers and actors from their favorite comics, the assemblies, Strong says, are massive, crazy and silly, with some fans crying — or even fainting — when they meet their favorite celebrities.
“Your eyes will see things you’ve never seen before. The cosplay [“costume play”] is extraordinary. Some of these kids work on these outfits for a year. They’re incredible. They’re just wild and they love it,” she gushes. “The nice thing about these conventions is nobody is a nerd and everybody is a nerd. Nobody is ostracized for being different.”
Tara Strong will greet fans at Motor City Comic Con 2018 on May 18-20 at Suburban Collection Showcase in Novi. For information, tickets and photo ops, visit motorcitycomiccon.com.