The late 90s saw the birth of great anime. From Naruto and One Piece to YuYu Hakusho and Cowboy Bebop, a slew of adaptations inspired an entire generation of otakus. Of course, none of this would be possible without the voice actors behind the various characters from our favorite shows. Among them, Beau Billingslea gave his voice to Jet Black, the iconic captain of the Bebop. He joined FAN EXPO Canada: Limited Edition to talk about his career and the Cowboy Bebop Netflix live-action series.
“You’ve been acting a fool your entire life; you might as well get paid for it.”
Billingslea always saw himself as more of an athlete. He was offered a contract to play professional baseball out of high school and then even offered an NFL contract in college. However, it was only while attending law school that Billingslea seriously considered an acting career. When discussing the matter with his father, his father said: “You’ve been acting a fool your entire life; you might as well get paid for it.”
Billingslea is also a military veteran but began his acting career right before his service. According to him, his time serving helped him in his voice acting career. “The military gave me a sense of discipline,” the voice actor said. “You need to have determination to be in show business because you get rejected a lot.”
“The first time I heard the music, I thought that this is something very special.”
Billingslea played Barret’s English language voice in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Referring to his character, the voice actor “thought it was really cool to have a gun for an arm; I would love to have a gun for an arm.”
Following up, a fan asked Billingslea how he felt about replacing the entire cast for the remake of Advent Children. “It was disappointing,” confessed the voice actor, “but it happens a lot in this business.” He added that “you have to move on. [The directors] make decisions and voice actors have to go with them as they are made.”
The discussion inevitably moved on to the elephant in the room; Cowboy Bebop. A fan asked when Billingslea realised that Bebop became a cult classic. “I didn’t know what it was in the beginning,” Billingslea admitted. “I just thought [that] I’m playing a cowboy [and] would talk with a Far West cowboy accent.” But his colleagues convinced him to use his normal voice with a slight tweak, which would go on to eventually become Jet Black’s English voice. Billingslea added that the cast “didn’t see the whole series” before recording. They would simply “get an explanation of what was going on in that episode.”
Of course, everything was also on paper at the time. “The first time I heard the music, I thought that this is something very special,” the voice actor shared. But Billingslea only realised the extent of Bebop’s success when it “became [popular] on Adult Swim and Cartoon Network.” According to him, Cowboy Bebop “put anime on the map in the western sphere.”
“We are the Bebop family and always will be.”
We asked Billingslea how he feels about the Netflix live-action. “I really like the cast,” Billingslea said. “I watched the trailer and I think it looks great. The way I understand it, it’s an original series and not a live-action version of the episodes of the anime.” For those reasons, the voice actor implored fans to judge the show on its own merits instead. The voice actor is also confident about adapting the Japanese show for a western audience because Bebop was always heavily influenced by “western culture, from the music to the cowboy inspiration.”
Billingslea also feels reassured by the fact that the original director of the anime, Shinichirō Watanabe, is also part of the production team for the live-action. Other voice actors have expressed reservations about anyone else interpreting their role, but Billingslea stated that he and the original cast “don’t feel replaced.” “We are the Bebop family and always will be,” he emphasised.
Fans were always somewhat shocked by the way Cowboy Bebop ended and one of them asked Billingslea about a potential reunion with the original cast. “We were devastated when we realized it ended with the movie,” Billingslea admitted. “You know how the movie ended; we were in tears.” He said that the cast “begged Watanabe-san to give us more, but he wanted to leave the audience wanting more and move on.”
Billigslea’s role as Jet Black really catapulted him into the anime world. “Back then it was a lot of word of mouth and we were a small circle,” Billingslea explained. After Cowboy Bebop, the voice actor notably voiced the Raikage in Naruto and several Digimon in the Digimon series.
“When my career started, I wasn’t limited by being an African-American.”
Beau Billingslea grew up in the United States when racial tensions were at an all-time high. Billingslea himself was one of the first Black voice actors in the United States in the 90s. Consequently, a fan asked him to reflect on how representation in the industry has changed over time. “I’m very happy it has evolved in the way it has,” Billingslea stated. “A little late, but better late than never.”
While he is pleased with how the voice-over world has evolved, he added that “when my career started, I wasn’t limited by being an African-American.” Nevertheless, the voice actors strongly believe that “the integration of our society into the voiceover world is great; it should reflect what society looks like. I want young POC to be able to think ‘Oh I can do that too!'”
The voice actor also played a few roles on set and a fan asked how normal acting on camera feels compared to voice acting. Billingslea admitted that voice is more difficult because it requires one to “move the story with only your voice.” However, he also praised the technological evolution in voice acting over his long career. For example, before the implementation of time codes, voice actors had to rely on the sound of “three beeps” that would indicate the start of a scene. Advances in modern sound engineering and moving from paper to digital greatly simplified a voice actor’s work over time.
“Do not allow yourself to be victimized, speak up for yourself and express your thoughts with respect.”
Billingslea also faced many personal challenges as a voice actor and he touched upon a few during his Q&A. “I’ve done a lot of characters with big voices, big fights. It’s a physical challenge,” Billingslea explained. “I played Orcs in WoW. They’re beasts, so the goal is not to hurt [your voice]; It’s fun to do a ‘Waaaaagh!’ but for 8 hours, it’s a challenge to save your voice.”
Another challenge the voice actor admitted to facing is character creation. Billingslea explained that it’s important that “you try to find a connection with yourself.” “The most fun characters for me are the ones that let me get out of myself as if I’m talking [to myself] as somebody else,” he added. “Most actors try to find a vulnerability in their character to balance it out. For example, I voice a lot of macho guys: it’s a façade they put on, but they are vulnerable inside.”
Billingslea also shared a particularly harrowing story involving him, his colleagues and work hours. “We were about to go on strike because producers couldn’t understand that a 4-hour session every day was too much,” Billingslea revealed. “It’s not easy [to stand up for yourself], you feel the pressure to please the director and everyone else,” the voice actor admitted, “[but] In life, you need to stand up for yourself, for your family. Do not allow yourself to be victimized, speak up for yourself and express your thoughts with respect.”
You can check out the live-action Cowboy Behop on Netflix now.