Interview: Lana Condor on being the first female title character in DreamWorks’ Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken

*This interview took place prior to the current SAG-AFTRA strike*

She may have loved all the boys with her hit Netflix trilogy of films, but the only thing we love right now is Lana Condor.

Making history as the first female title character in a DreamWorks Animation film, Condor is breaking ground as Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.  A coming-of-age, action-comedy adventure, the film dives into the turbulent waters of high school as it follows a shy teenager who discovers that she’s part of a legendary royal lineage of mythical sea krakens and that her destiny, in the depths of the oceans, is bigger than she ever dreamed.

Talking to Condor back in June for the original US release, ahead of its international roll-out this week, Peter Gray touched on the recording process, not working with any of her famous co-stars, and the most surprising thing she learnt about herself during filming.

Congratulations on being the first female title character in a DreamWorks movie.  Was that something that registered for you when you signed on? That you’re kind of making history right now?

Oh. No.  Yeah, that didn’t register until you just said that (laughs).

I guess it must have been nice to not have that pressure on you? When you’re recording you’re just thinking “I’m doing a movie…”, and then later on you can have that reveal.

Oh, for sure.  In hindsight I think you’re spot on about that, but I’m honoured.  I can’t believe it.  It’s definitely up there with the top three, maybe top two coolest things in my career.

And with animated movies, I like to ask people that have done these types of films if, for you, there was one title growing up that you look to as your comfort movie?

Oh, yeah, I mean, Kung Fu Panda is definitely a comfort movie.  I think just for animation too, I’m a huge The Last Airbender fan.  That is very much a comfort show to me.  I love, love, love that show!

With the recording process, the actors I have spoken to have had different reactions.  Some of them feel like it’s very freeing, because you’re going in and it’s just your voice.  Others have found it more terrifying, because it’s just your voice.  Where do you lie with that? Do you feel a bit more exposed when recording?

I think as a performer I’m pretty expressive with my face.  I think that’s something I’ve always done with my previous bodies of work.  So I’ve relied on my facial expressions as part of my tool kit.  In the animation space the challenge was getting across my emotions using just my tone and different inflections in my voice.  It was a welcome challenge.

I think it is freeing, but the difficulty is I didn’t see any artwork.  I didn’t see anything until I saw the final cut of the movie a couple of weeks ago.  So, for three years I was doing it blind, hoping that my imagination was accurate to what our directors were trying to explain to me.  You just have to trust your fellow filmmakers.

When you see the final film, do you notice certain mannerisms of your character that you see in yourself? I know when the actor is recording they like to take note of how you’re acting.

Totally! There’s always a camera recording my face when I’m in the audio booth, so I think there was a lot of times they ended up using certain expressions that I would use and put it into Ruby.  Because this was recorded over three years, I think it was almost impossible not to bring a bit of (myself) into the character.

I spoke to (your director) Kirk DeMicco and producer Kelly Cooney when the trailer first dropped, and they were saying how they recorded quite a lot of you and you brought something new to it every time.  Was that instinctual to you? Or did you just sort of learn as you’re going along that you have so much freedom, and obviously so much time, that this character can change with you?

That’s a good question.  I feel like the writing was very specific.  I had a pretty clear idea of Ruby from just the first pass of the script.  She jumped off the page (for me).  It was clear to me what they wanted.  But I think that we played a lot over the years with how nervous and how quirky (she is).  We massaged that line over the years of what’s too much and what’s too little.  Awkward, nervous, quirky, overwhelmed…they all come naturally to me, for better or worse, so my biggest challenge was when Ruby became her most powerful self, that took some time to figure out how “superhero” do we want her to be?  We played around with making sure “Ruby 2.0” felt right to all of us.  I think that’s where we spent a lot of time.

Was there anything that you learnt about your voice during recording? 

That I learned? I learned that in animation, for me, you’re speaking so much from your diaphragm.  And Ruby’s voice is higher pitched than my talking voice, so I was working a lot from my diaphragm.  But when I do that I get really hungry (laughs).  I don’t know how to explain it, just, I get really hungry in the booth.  I’m a generally hungry person, and my stomach is so loud and it was always getting picked up by the mic (laughs), so I learned how to prepare correctly so I don’t ruin takes with how hungry I get.  That’s maybe not the answer you were hoping for (laughs).

I love it! It’s like that thing of celebrities being just like us.  And speaking of, this film has so many amazing people in it.  Annie Murphy, Jane Fonda, one of my own in Toni Collette.  Have you actually met any of your co-stars though?  So often the case with animated films that you aren’t meeting your co-stars until much later.

I have still yet to meet anyone.  I haven’t met Annie.  I haven’t met Toni.  I haven’t met Jane, but you bet your sweet bottom I am freaking out!  I’m so excited to meet them all.  It’s weird, because this is the first time in my career where I don’t have a relationship with my co-stars.  Usually with press and the premiere and all that stuff, there’s this joy of being able to talk (to them) and…(whispers) I don’t know anyone (laughs).

Well, as someone who’s childless and probably the older demographic than what this film is going for, I still unashamedly fall for movies like this, and I think it’s a testament to Ruby Gillman where you can find your own through-line with your own life experiences.  I can relate to Ruby being a bit scared of who she truly is but then embracing that and realising she doesn’t have to hide her true self.  It’s so wonderful to have this type of positivity in the world, and that’s only enhanced by your performance.  You have a very comforting nature about yourself.

Thank you. Thank you. That’s actually the nicest thing I’ve heard all day. So thank you very much.  I really want people to feel better after they watch something that I do.  I know that’s not always going to be the case.  I have a couple movies coming out, and I’m about to shoot some thrillers, so there won’t necessarily be happy feelings (with those), but I want the majority of my films to make people feel better after watching.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is screening in Australian theatres from September 14th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.