Comedian Ronny Chieng On The Challenges Of Voicing An Animated Character: Making Action Sounds "Is So Intense"

The US-based Malaysian comedian makes his voice-over debut in the Netflix animated series ‘Scissor Seven’.

Ronny Chieng has tone issues. The Malaysian-born, US-based Malaysian comedian said so himself on his Netflix special year Asian Comedian Destroys America!  He even named his tour after it. “Everything I say sounds sarcastic or angry,” Ronny remarked on the show which premiered on the streaming service last December.

Now, Ronny and Netflix have teamed up again. This time, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah correspondent is supplying the English dub for the lead character in the Scissor Seven, the first Chinese animated series to be launched on Netflix. It’s also Ronny’s first job as a voice-over artist.

A satire on the superhero genre, Scissor Seven follows the misadventures of a failed hit-man (he’s ranked 17, 369th in the league — so, clearly, he’s no John Wick) who runs a barber shop as a cover.

As the third-rate assassin, Ronny has to go easy on his signature caustic tone to play a character who’s playful, klutzy and just plain off the wall. Is there a reason why the producers cast Ronny for the part? “That’s really more of a question for them,” Ronny, 34, tells 8days.sg via Zoom.

“I don’t know what they were looking for,” he says, matter-of-factly.  “But I guess they like whatever they were hearing from me. I guess they wanted someone a bit edgier in the portrayal.” According to Ronny, there was no audition — he was simply offered the gig.

It’s late August, and 8 DAYS manages to squeeze in a few time minutes into Ronny’s tight-as-spandex schedule. In fact,  once he's done with us, he's off to the airport. After spending five months Down  Under — where he kept himself busy with personal projects (he can’t disclose them) and “playing PlayStation games”, it’s time for him to return to New York and continue to work on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

Here, Ronny tells us more about his experience doing voice-overs, and how his recent foray into acting has influenced his stand-up performance.

8 DAYS: Did you have to audition to voice Scissor Seven?

RONNY CHIENG: They just offered me the role. There wasn’t a lot of prep work, to be honest. We just found the right voice in the studio on the day. There was no audition, no rehearsal. I had to record the whole season in three days. I was in the audio booth in Los Angeles over the weekend with the director, who was great. It was the first time for me doing voice work and the director gave me some really good animation. He did a really good job of easing me into it, letting me be myself. We just figured out that exact voice.

scissor seven pic
Not John Wick: Scissor Seven (left) is a third-rate assassin who's ranked 17,369th on the killer-ranking list. 

Did you get to improvise the dialogue?

The script was already pretty good. Sometimes I would change some stuff if I felt like the translation could be better. Or if we needed more words to match the mouth movements. So there was some improv-ing, for sure. A lot of it was just sticking to the script. Netflix did a great job of producing it, writing it and making it easy for me to just go into the booth and record it.

Did you feel silly making those action sounds?

Scissor Seven is a wacky character who has to do a lot of action scenes. When you do action scenes, you have to voice the action scenes. That was something I wasn’t used to doing. But because I watched so many cartoons and anime — Ghost in the Shell is my favourite anime — I just kinda knew from experience like how much you have to put into the character to make it work, how much you need to put into the action, so that it sounds correct. Even though it’s crazy in the room and it doesn’t make sense, but on screen it works.

ronny chieng inset pic
 Call of duty: If Ronny were to dub another show, what would it be? “We should do an English dub of [the 1993 Mediacorp gambling drama] ‘The Unbeatables’. I would love to voice Li Nanxing,” Ronny says with a laugh.

The voice-over sessions sound hardcore. How do you take care of your voice?

Stand-ups don’t usually take care of their voice because we are not trained to so, usually to their own detriment. But the more you do stand-up, the more you realised you have to take care of your voice. The voice-over sessions [taught ne] a more professional approach to taking care of my voice. Otherwise you can’t get through it. Especially on Scissor Seven, where the fighting sounds are so intense. There’s a lot of yelling and there’s not a lot of breaks between sessions, so you have to make sure you take care of your voice by resting it, eating right, taking remedies like honey water or specific kinds of candy.

In recent years you’ve also branched out to acting. How has acting informed your stand-up?

I have definitely been lucky to get a few more acting roles lately. Unfortunately, it’s all stuff I can’t talk about but I have been lucky to get some really fun roles. I never went to drama school so I’m a very inexperienced actor. One good thing is that I feel myself getting better every time I get a performance. A lot of [my acting] I learn from watching movies I like and watching the actors and how they come across on-screen. A lot of it also happens on set when you are around other professional actors — seeing how they behave, perform in front of the camera, and prepare get into the zone. That’s how I learn acting. And I think acting has gone its way into my stand-up in terms of performance, there’s definitely a little bit of that. The exercise of acting definitely helps performing in general. For me, stand-up has always been my first profession and I get cast because of my stand-ups. When I act, the fundamentals of acting all come from performing stand-up comedy. So, for me acting and stand-up kinda intertwine, even though they involve extremely different muscles. In stand-up comedy, you’re staying true to yourself while in acting, you’re trying to be someone else with someone else’s words.  

father s son pic
Law and order: Ronny Chieng in the short film ‘A Father’s Son’. He plays NYPD Detective Jack Yu, who’s embroiled in a gangland dispute in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Based on a series of crime novels by Henry Chang, the short film also stars Tzi Ma. "Tzi Ma is a great actor," says Ronny of his co-star. "He's a great actor and very encouraging to everyone around him, but also very professional and no-nonsense on set." 

What movies do you turn to for inspiration?

Quentin Tarantino movies. I think the acting in his movies is really inspirational, especially Inglorious Basterds where they switch between languages. So, that’s something which I always look to influence my own acting, being bilingual and having to act or listen in two different languages. [I like] Christopher Nolan films too. I feel Tarantino and Nolan make movies that are very accessible and well-acted with a lot of nuance. So whether it’s Interstellar or The Dark Knight, I watched them to get inspired and step up my game acting-wise.

One last question. You sell socks on your website. Why socksOh, my in-laws make socks. So we decide to make Ronny Chieng socks. I think they are fun things to do. I think socks are a great way to express yourself, even if you are forced to wear a uniform or a suit.  

ronny chieng socks
Sock it to them: The Ronny Chieng socks are sold on his website for US$12 (S$16) a pair. They are available in five colorways, Sky Blue, Mustard, Maroon, Olive and 'Special Edition' Red. 

Scissor Seven and Asian Comedian Destroys America! are now streaming on Netflix. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah airs weekdays, Comedy Central (Singtel TV Ch 324), 11.30pm.

Photos: Marcus Russell Price/Netflix, Netflix 

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