If you were seated at the next booth, you’d have thought I was having lunch with a family that could fill up a station wagon--a squalling baby, a bratty little boy, a precocious little girl, an affable mother, not to mention a frisky puppy with the world’s most ingratiating little bark.
But the only person with me was Debi Derryberry, the voice actor who plays Jimmy Neutron, the star of Nickelodeon’s new animated film “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” which opens Friday. That’s right: Jimmy Neutron is a woman! And as it turns out, a woman with considerable talents. Though tiny in stature--she’s 4 feet 101/2--Derryberry is an imposing presence behind a microphone, having spent the past 15 years doing a vast array of voices in animated films, TV shows and commercials. If you watch family films or Saturday morning TV, you’ve probably heard Derryberry’s orchestra of voices dozens of times over.
In video and film, she’s played Whispers in “Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale” and Annette in “Lady and the Tramp II,” as well as the baby maggots in “A Bug’s Life,” a puppy in “Babe” and additional voices in “Toy Story.” On TV, she’s Weenie the dog and Katrina the caterpillar on “Oswald the Octopus,” and she’s played Jeannie in the Emmy Award-winning “Life With Louie” as well as Wednesday on the animated TV series “The Addams Family.” She also was Zack Putterman in the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed Duracell battery ads.
But Derryberry’s lead role in “Jimmy Neutron” is a huge breakthrough. It’s the biggest part of her career and a launching pad for more exposure; she also plays Neutron in a Nickelodeon TV series due next fall and does his voice in ads and toy product tie-ins. Neutron is a gadget-inventing 8-year-old who builds a homemade spacecraft to save his parents from egg-shaped alien invaders.
But don’t count on seeing her on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” or “Good Morning America” any time soon. When “Jimmy Neutron” had its premiere recently, Paramount Pictures, which distributes Nickelodeon’s films, kept Derryberry out of sight.
Paramount has taken such a John Ashcroft-style veil-of-secrecy approach that I had to interview Derryberry without the studio’s knowledge. The studio has been trying to keep her under wraps until after the movie’s release, worried apparently that it might confound viewers to learn that Jimmy Neutron was played by a woman.
Voice actors are among Hollywood’s unsung blue-collar craftspeople. They don’t have publicists, get written up in gossip columns or have Oscar-campaign ads in the trade papers. After “Will and Grace” became a big hit, NBC gave the show’s stars Porsche Boxsters. After “The Simpsons” became a hit, Fox gave its voice actors bowling balls.
“You could look at it that the bowling ball will still be in good shape long after the Porsches are rusted-out hulks,” says satirist Harry Shearer, who voices a number of “Simpsons” characters. “Or you could look at it that what we do is viewed as a lot more invisible.”
A warm, gregarious woman who admits to “pushing 40,” Derryberry lives in Toluca Lake with her husband, Harvey Jordan, and River, their 7-month-old son. She spends her days racing around to auditions and recording sessions, keeping track of her schedule on a Palm Pilot. At night she sings in Honey Pig, a three-woman country band that has a CD available on Amazon.com. In “Jimmy Neutron,” you can hear her ad-lib-crooning a few lines from “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” one of her favorite John Anderson songs.
In recent years, thanks to a production boom in animation, a host of movie stars has been moonlighting as voice actors for high-profile films such as “Shrek” and the “Toy Story” films. “It’s the hottest gig in show biz right now,” says Larry Hummel, co-head of agency ICM’s animation department, which handles Derryberry and a number of respected voice actors. “When we have new actor clients, they always want to get to know the animation department.”
Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers will get roughly $10 million each to voice their characters in DreamWorks’ “Shrek 2,” a hefty raise from the $350,000 they were paid to do the original. But the pay scale for rank-and-file voice actors is far less lucrative. Voice actors who perform on Saturday morning cartoon shows are paid day-player rates: $636 per four-hour session, plus a 10% agency fee. Prime-time animated shows pay roughly $4,000 per session.
The big money comes from a long-running TV hit or an animated feature. The six “Simpsons” voice actors won a new contract earlier this year that pays them $100,000 per episode, the equivalent of $2.2 million per year. Hummel says established voice actors, like Derryberry, have a yearly income in the six-figure salary range, with a big chunk of that coming from TV and home-video residuals.
Job security isn’t high. After “Babe” became a hit, Universal offered “Babe” voice actor Christine Cavanaugh a raise from $27,000 to $54,000 to do the sequel. When she held out for more, the studio replaced her with E.G. Daily, a top voice actor (and Derryberry’s close friend) who reportedly got $50,000 for the part.
“It’s still an uncertain life,” says Derryberry. “My income fluctuates from year to year, and I still sometimes worry that everything could fall out and I could be in the unemployment line. But who else gets to go to work in their pajamas?”
Derryberry is one of about 15 women who regularly do kids’ voices. Nancy Cartwright is the voice of Bart Simpson. Daily does Tommy Pickles on “Rugrats.” Women traditionally do boys’ voices because they have more professional experience and their vocal register remains consistent, unlike young boys, whose voices often deepen when they reach puberty. “E.G. and I compete against each other all the time,” says Derryberry. “But we’re best friends--when we gave birth, she cut my baby’s cord and I cut her baby’s cord. Being a voice actor, you feel part of a tight, supportive community. There’s very little animosity or back-stabbing.”
When “The Simpsons’” actors were in the midst of a bitter contract renegotiation several years ago, Fox quietly contacted a host of A-list voice actors, asking them to audition for “Simpsons” roles. Almost to a person, they refused.
For women, voice acting is one of the few jobs in Hollywood that doesn’t toss them on the junk heap at 40 because their looks begin to fade. “There’s far more longevity in this part of the business because it’s based completely on talent,” says ICM animation co-head Natanya Rose. “It’s not about your face or your body or your sex appeal. It’s all about your voice.”
Derryberry grew up in Indio and was a premed student at UCLA. But she always wanted to be a singer. A big fan of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, she moved to Nashville in the mid-1980s, hoping to start a career in country music. After struggling for several years, she moved back to L.A. and established herself as a voice actor specializing in little boys’ roles. Because of her diminutive stature, she also landed jobs doing body work, serving as the body double for the young boy in “Free Willy.” (On her resume, she lists one of her special skills as whale riding.)
To capture the voice of a young boy, Derryberry relies on her imagination. “It’s all about getting inside a kid’s head and understanding their innocence and wide-eyed wonder. When I’m out walking my dog, I’ll often study the boys playing football in our neighborhood, listening to what they say and how they say it.”
The only thing pampered about Derryberry is her vocal cords. She sleeps with a humidifier, never drinks ice water and wears a scarf and gloves to prevent her from catching cold in chilly recording studios. She’s also a little reluctant about shaking hands. “I’m very cautious about germs. I wash my hands all the time, I don’t touch doorknobs, and I take my own headset to auditions so I don’t get a pair of headphones that were just used by someone who was sick.”
Derryberry says she’s not envious of the celebrity actors studios often hire, largely because of their value as a brand-name marketing hook. She is a particular fan of Eddie Murphy’s work on “Shrek,” Minnie Driver’s in “Tarzan” and Billy Crystal’s in “Monsters, Inc.” “But as good as they are,” she says, “I’m not sure that kids know the difference or that parents are swayed just because a celebrity’s name is attached.”
For her, the pleasure is in her work, not her acclaim. “I like the anonymity,” she says. “As long as I’m appreciated by my peers, I can live without all the attention. My family already thinks I’m famous. They all joke that my head must be at least as big as Jimmy Neutron’s.”
Derryberry is refreshingly modest about her vocal magicianship. After demonstrating her range of dog yaps and howls, she says, “I have a pretty good bark, but I’m still doing a caricature of a dog. I might fool you, but I don’t think I’d fool a dog.”
“The Big Picture” runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes .com.