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Premiering at the 27th annual Tokyo International Film Festival this October, Disney’s latest animation spectacular Big Hero 6 posits a near-future city of San Fransokyo where technological possibilities can transform kids into superheroes, especially when the enabler is teen tech prodigy Hiro Hamada.
Hamada’s older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) has convinced his slacker brother to forgo robo-fights and street betting for a coveted slot at the exclusive university he already attends; Hiro is psyched. To meet the admission requirement, he develops a remarkable nano-tech device. His presentation demo is witnessed by both the school’s dean, professor Robert Callahan (James Cromwell), and an unscrupulous billionaire Alistair Krei (Allan Tudyk), who wants to whisk Hiro and his invention away from the school. As the Hamada bros leave to enjoy his victory, an explosion in the building ensues.
When this death-dealing disaster catapults Hiro into the middle of a mysterious danger, he springs into action creating the super-powered team, Big Hero 6, out of his pals: adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), neatnik Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and fanboy Fred (T.J. Miller). In turn, prodigy Hamada establishes a special bond with his late brother’s creation, the plus-sized inflatable med-bot Baymax (Scott Adsit), and transforms it into his crime-fighting partner.
As the first non-live-action project based on a Marvel Comics property, the director and producers — part of the Disney animation team behind mega-hits Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph — turned to 19-year-old actor Ryan Potter to voice Hamada. Born in Oregon, he spent part of his childhood in Tokyo; then the seven-year-old’s family returned to the States. Something of a prodigy himself, fluent in both Japanese and English, Potter began studying White Tiger kung fu, a discipline pursued since age eight, while also handling drums, baseball and skateboarding.
In 2010, the 15-year-old began acting after he got a leaflet in kung fu class announcing that Nickelodeon was looking for teens to star in Supah Ninjas, a new martial-arts series. After auditioning, Potter landed the role of Mike Fukanaga, an American teen who discovers he comes from a long line of ninjas. Following its 2011 debut, Potter became one of Nickelodeon’s popular young stars, accruing features in teen mags and making appearances in the network’s Worldwide Day of Play special and its reboot of the ‘90s game show Figure It Out, among others. Though Nickelodeon renewed Supah Ninjas for a second season in March 2012, Potter also began a recurring role on Fred: The Show, playing the best friend.
Besides acting, the precocious Potter founded a charity In 2011 — Toy Box of Hope — which holds an annual holiday collection drive for children in Los Angeles area homeless shelters and transitional living facilities. During its 2012 event, Potter said of the organization’s efforts by explaining, “[W]hat we want to do is provide bedsheets, jackets and toys to [homeless shelters], so these kids are like, ‘Wow, someone cares, there’s hope.’” Potter reportedly planned to expand Toy Box of Hope to include a “Birthday Party Box” program.
In June 2012, he also became one of the youngest celebrities to lend support to California’s No H8 Campaign in defense of same-sex marriage. To explain his involvement, the then-16-year-old officially stated: “I know what it feels like to be bullied and I will not tolerate the thought of anyone, for any reason, being bullied. It starts with young people, and can end with young people. As we learn to embrace our diversity, we become stronger, more tolerant. The differences are beautiful. The differences matter. It’s what makes life an adventure.”
Winning the audience sweepstakes, Big Hero 6 made nearly $50 millon in its first week -- and provided a fascinating take on near-future versions of modern maker technology and bionic adaptations for the human body.
But Potter is blowing up well beyond both television and film appearances and plans to transform his acting successes into much more. As he engaged in this breathless one-on-one phoner during this film’s junket day, I wondered what next I will be discussing with this skilled-beyond-his-years talent.
Q: You’ve got this great starring role in a big feature film — but it’s animated! Girls aren’t going to see you in the flesh!Ryan Potter: I know, and I actually love that; I get to fly under the radar.Q: Were you recorded digitally with motion capture?RP: We didn’t use any motion capture for this. I went in and did a bunch of recording sessions and I did get very physical in the booth. I would run around and jump around, throw myself around, to create that physicality, that energy. But they animated everything afterwards, so they animated to the voice and the physicality that I created in the booth.
Q: With the little twists at the end, how did you feel when you read the script?RP: There were rewrites constantly, and there were definitely some scenes, like one of the ending scenes. It was very emotional, and you could feel that in the room. They’re like, “Oh, here we go, this is a very emotional day. Are you ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m ready to go,” and we’d be in the booth for a couple hours at a time. We almost had to leave the booth, trying to crack jokes or tell funny stories as much as possible, because the mood of the room definitely did go down for some of those scenes.When I was in the booth and was going on with the lines and had to keep doing them over and over, it was tough for some of the engineers who came in to sit there recording all day long. I’d see them on the other side of the glass tearing up and some of them crying, and it was just as emotionally draining for them as it was for me.
Q: Did you meet your fellow voice cast members in the course of doing the recordings?RP: I met the cast for the first time last week during the cast dinner. It’s so bizarre because you work on this film for a year and a half with your cast mates, but you don’t get to see them. And the way the film comes together, it really doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like we were all in the booth at the same time.I met Maya Rudolph [voicing Aunt Cass] very briefly, and she was a blast to work with. She is a phenomenal, phenomenal lady, and she is so funny.
Q: She’s so funny in person.RP: She was just killing me. We recorded for maybe 20 minutes, but that was it. [Other than] that, I was by myself in the booth the entire time, and I met the rest of the cast last week. But we clicked immediately.We had been working on this project together for a year and a half, and when I met Scott [Adsit] — who plays the voice of Baymax — I was like, “Hey, Scott!” and he was like, “Hey, Hiro!” and I was like, “Oh, hey, Baymax!” and it didn’t feel like we missed a beat.I was trying to introduce myself, but he already knew, and I already knew. Scott and I picked up immediately, and it didn’t feel at all like we had to tell each other about ourselves because we already knew so much.
Q: You did the live action television series Supah Ninjas for Nickelodeon where you used your martial arts training. How did you apply your martial arts knowledge to this character?RP: It’s interesting because early on in the process there were a lot of lines like “Strike” or “Kick” [in the script] and they didn’t quite know the actual terms. So I was able to go in and say, “That’s actually this; that strike is that; that kick is this.”So early on they took my word for it, but they brought in the martial arts consultant for the rest of the film. I’ve done stunts before, so I’ve done rigging, and I’ve sparred, and I’ve done grappling, so I know the physicality that Hiro [Hamada] goes through in this film. He is very active; he’s being thrown around, he gets lifted up. So I know what all those sounds really sound like in real life, and it came very easily to me.
Q: You can do the most amazing stunts and not get injured doing animation. Were you ever injured in the process of doing stunts or martial arts?RP: At my martial arts school, I got my bumps and my bruises, but [for] stunts, I worked with a phenomenal fight coordinator, Hiro Koda. It was awesome to work with him because he really did want me to do more and more. So when I trained with him and he got me into the harness and onto the wires, he taught me everything I know now. He kept me safe throughout that entire process, and he was phenomenal to work with.
Q: So you’re Nisei — second-generation Japanese in America, right? I should have said, “Kon’nichiwa [hello]” earlier, and I’ll say, “Hajime mashite [nice to meet you],” now.RP: I am. I’m half-Japanese, half-Caucasian.Q: Do you go to Japan and visit relatives? What have you learned from your grandparents and their experiences?RP: I actually grew up in Tokyo. The city they created is very familiar to me; I’m very familiar with Japanese culture and Japanese pop culture. That was my childhood. I moved here when I was seven years old.I go up to San Francisco on holidays and spend time with my family there, but whenever I go to Japan I enjoy every moment. I try to go back there every year or so. It’s a phenomenal place, and I absolutely love it. It’s not my second home; it is my home. Whenever I go back I feel very connected with Japan.
Q: Have you seen a lot of anime and read a lot of manga [Japanese comics]?RP: Oh, yeah. I grew up with [Hayao] Miyazaki films [such as the Oscar-nominated Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and The Wind Rises] and I grew up with Weekly Shōnen Jump [comic magazine]; I grew up with [the anime series] Dragon Ball Z, [and director] Satoshi Kon films like Paprika.Q: Really, the late anime innovator Satoshi Kon?RP: Satoshi Kon is without a doubt one of the top three animators of all time. His work is so under-appreciated. His work has inspired so many films here in the US that have gone on to do so well, and there was really no credit given. In Inception [Christopher Nolan's 2010 sci-fi thriller], there’s a lot of scenes from Paprika in it. It was kind of a nod — “Hey, that was a great thing you did” — but they didn’t quite give the acknowledgment. And Satoshi Kon is on par with Walt Disney and on par with Miyazaki [among others].
Q: And there’s the great manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the sci fi series, Akira — which became an incredible anime.RP: Otomo — oh, absolutely. These guys have shaped my childhood.Q: Once the idea of acting and doing Supah Ninjas was introduced to you, did you always want to do both? Were you ever torn with doing more martial arts and not pursuing the acting?RP: This isn’t to play down people who pursue acting… For me, I do acting just as a fun job. It is a phenomenal job, and I have fun doing it, but I relate more to my martial arts, to my baseball, to my film study. There are more facets to my life that I relate to.I love acting — I love doing it. It’s a lot of fun, but for the longest time, I wanted to become a firefighter. I still do want to become a firefighter. You never know; I may go to film school and not like film school, and then go learn to firefight.
Q: You should talk to Steve Buscemi. He was a firefighter before he became an actor.RP: Yeah, and Steve Buscemi, without a doubt, is one of my top three favorite actors of all time. I love his work and he is an inspiration to me.Q: If you were a director, what would you do?RP: I would want to do music videos, actually, because I have a love of music, and I feel like I’d be too much of a critic of my own music if I were to produce or create or whatever it is. I’ve always been a very visual and very creative person; I’ve always had to be hands-on. Combining my love of music with my need to create, music videos are the perfect combination of the two.
Q: What’s your favorite music… or artist?RP: My favorite musician has to be Prince, without a doubt. Prince is, I think, one of the greatest artists of all time. A lot of this younger generation doesn’t know about Prince, and it kind of blows my mind. This man mastered so many instruments by the age of 13. He’s very under-appreciated, but there is a generation that idolizes him.Q: So what are you doing next?RP: I’ll continue to promote Big Hero 6 and do the other things that come from Big Hero 6, but I’m working on putting together a portfolio and going to film school.
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