Interview: Jillian Nguyen on voicing Scarygirl; “It felt very sacred.”

In another case of someone making the most of their lockdown potential during COVID, Australian actress Jillian Nguyen auditioned for a voice role as she was confined to hotel quarantine.  That role ended up being for the lead in a bold, ambitious new locally made animated feature – Scarygirl.

As the family film continues to delight audiences across Australia (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with Jillian about said audition process, if she attacked this role differently from live-action, and the importance of such a film embracing people’s differences.

With animated films you never know just how much interaction is taking place between the actors.  The cast of Scarygirl is quite stacked! Had you met any of your co-stars prior, or any since?

I know, it’s so funny that you are in scenes with people that you’ve never met.  The only person I had worked with was Mark Cole Smith.  He’s my good friend.  He and I did a short film together.  Everyone else? I met Remy (Hii) during press.  I haven’t met Sam (Neill), Anna (Torv) or Deb (Deborah Mailman).

Are you hearing any of their voice work when you go into recording?

No, you’re on your own.  It’s just you and your canvas, just going over and over again.  And you don’t see the other figures.

And how was the audition process for you? 

It was during COVID, so around 2020.  I was in hotel quarantine doing a small project in New Zealand, and when it came through I was, like, “Come on!” (Laughs).  You only get lead animated voice when you’re a star (laughs).  This is Cameron Diaz, big dog stuff.  There’s no way!  It was just a voice audition, and it was back and forth, and I think I had this idea that I had to sound younger, but I actually already sound quite young (laughs).  I remember doing the audition at home and my ex-boyfriend was asking “Can you not do (that voice)? It’s really creepy.” (Laughs).  I was making my voice so high.  The producers and everyone loved it, and they showed the distributors, and then they offered me the role.  It happened (so quick).  I was, like, “No way!”

Did you attack this differently than a live-action role because it’s just your voice?

I find voice work, when you inhabit a character, is even more vulnerable than live-action.  When you’re on screen, and I’ve only done screen, it’s your whole body.  It’s costumes, it’s makeup, it’s you and the other person.  It’s so much more collaborative.  You’re never really one.  And even when you’re doing a scene alone, you have your cinematographer, your director…but for animation, I really feel like…(this character) can’t exist without my voice.  And I’m not only giving her a voice, and I know this sounds a bit “Woo-hoo” (laughs), it’s like you give them your soul.  I often find with film that you feel like a surrogate mum.  You have the baby, you feed it, you sing to it, you spend time with it, and then you give the baby away.  It gets raised by a village and you just hope the baby turns out alright (laughs).

But with animation, all these amazing animators build this universe, they bring it all to life.  You then come in and give it this voice, but it’s so much more.  It felt very sacred.  I didn’t think it was going to feel this intimate.  I was blown away and very moved by the process.

I feel like Australian animation in cinema is still something we don’t entirely embrace.  The animation in Scarygirl is beautiful!  And when I was watching it it was bonkers, but I loved it.  I love films that have a message, but they’re not hammering it into you.  It’s funny and it’s sad.  And it transcends what an animated “kids” film should be.

I don’t even see this as an animated film.  Yes, you acknowledge the art form.  There’s hundreds of people building this world, but I think of the Ghibli films and the Disney films, of Coraline, of Pixar…they’re provocative and relatable.  I’ve never seen anything like our film.  Let alone an Australian film.  On the small screen we have Bluey (laughs), but there’s nothing like Scarygirl.

I remember when I first got the role and I was talking to them about (my character) Arkie, and saying how different she is.  She’s not really human and she’s not really an octopus.  And just the type of person she represents.  She’s not perfect, at all, but she essentially has disabilities.  She has one eye, doesn’t really have hands… but I remember at one of the screenings there were some special needs kids there, and they were so moved.  It’s a fantasy world but it’s grounded in such truth.

Scarygirl is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.