‘Big Mouth’ recast one of its leads — and reinvented itself in the process
One thing that is abundantly clear on “Big Mouth” is that experiencing change is just a part of growing up.
And character Missy Foreman-Greenwald’s journey in the fourth season of Netflix’s animated series, which hits the streamer Friday, includes becoming more aware about her racial identity and figuring out what being Black means to her.
It’s in this context that writer and comedian Ayo Edebiri makes her debut as the voice of Missy. Edebiri, who also joined the “Big Mouth” writers room for the fifth season, takes over the role from Jenny Slate, who had voiced the character since the series premiered.
“I’ve always found Missy funny and weird, and it was cool to get to be a writer for a season where we were uncovering her as a character even more and giving her a lot of fun things to do,” said Edebiri. “[Season] 4 is a really great start, I think, to the beginning of what Missy’s journey is going to be like discovering not just her Blackness but herself.”
Because of the production timeline for animated TV shows, Edebiri had been part of the “Big Mouth” writers room since the end of last year. So she had already been working on the show’s fifth season when Slate announced she would be stepping down as the voice of Missy in June.
“After the announcement was made, the search [for a new voice actor] started happening,” said Edebiri. “And a few days after I got an email that was like, ‘Do you want to send a tape for this?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I think I will.’”
Slate’s announcement came after the fourth season was complete, so the initial plan was to recast the character starting with Season 5. But after the “Big Mouth” team realized that there was a moment in the narrative where it made sense for the switch to happen, it was decided that Edebiri would make her debut as Missy during the Season 4’s penultimate episode, “Horrority House.”
In addition to “Big Mouth,” Edebiri’s upcoming projects include Netflix’s animated “We Lost Our Human,” “Mulligan,” an animated series from Robert Carlock and Tina Fey, and a role in Season 2 of Apple TV+’s “Dickinson”, on which she also served as a writer. (“I’m just like a depressed kid from Massachusetts,” she joked.) In her conversation with The Times, she discussed why it’s important not only to have diverse voices in the room but also to listen to them and drawing on her awkward middle-school years for work on “Big Mouth.” The following has been edited for clarity and condensed.
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What are your thoughts on Missy as a character? What about her do you find the most relatable?
I’ve always appreciated and related to Missy. I don’t think I was a bucktoothed kid who wrote joint fan fiction with my friends and took Latin for fun, so I think you can draw whatever parallels you want to from that. There was also a period of my education where I went to [predominantly white institutions], and I think similarly to Missy I had to reckon with discovering myself in that context.
What was your reaction to hearing that the show was going to start exploring Missy’s race and that aspect of her identity more?
They discuss identity a lot on that show in a lot of different ways so I think it makes sense. It’s a show where things are discussed, so why not give this the same airtime and have it treated right? But also it was like, “How do you discuss this when Jenny is white? What do you do about it?”
There are characters who are characters of color, but they were voiced by white people, so they didn’t have those conversations, when maybe they could have if the actors were Black. Or maybe they wouldn’t have. Maybe the stories wouldn’t have to be about race and could just be about character. That’s what I think is exciting about this. Like, I’m Black. And sometimes I talk about it, sometimes I don’t. That’s the reality of race — sometimes you talk about it, sometimes you don’t.
What are your thoughts on how we approach issues around race in an authentic way in entertainment?
We’re living through figuring that out. And I think expecting to have the right answers is part of the problem. Because we don’t have them. This could even end up being wrong. I know there are people who are half-Black and half-white who are like, “Well, why didn’t they cast somebody who was exactly half-Black and half-Jewish then?”
We’re figuring it out. But I think that part of doing that means having conversations. Sometimes, maybe, they’ll be funny. Sometimes they’ll be serious. Sometimes, they’ll be nice. And sometimes they’ll be uncomfortable and not completely concrete, or you might not be getting the answer that you want or need. But I think having those conversations is a big part of it.
I think another big part is having people in the room and actually listening to them. Not just hiring people because they check off a box. Like, hiring them because you value their voice and what they have to say. I think part of the recasting, not just came from Jenny but also from having Black writers and other writers of color in the room who said, “This needs to happen.” Making sure that you’re actually listening to those voices and uplifting them and promoting them and not just having them on camera or in front of the camera or the vocal talent or whatever but having them in positions of influence.
“Big Mouth” really takes me back to what I remember about my own own awkward middle-school years. What is it like to have to dig into that regularly for work?
Oh, man. Both very fun and very excruciating. Like, my interview for the job, I remember we just strictly talked about puberty, which was such a horrible time for me. I left the interview feeling so bad, because I just talked about all that stuff. And I [thought] I was not funny. And I was just talking about me at, like, 13, being a freak. This is not good. And my manager was like, “OK, please calm down. It’ll be fine.” And I was like, “I ruined it!”
But they were like, “No, you got the job. We know you’re funny. We read your script, and we’ve seen your stand-up. We just wanted to make sure you had stuff to draw from. That’s why we were asking you questions about puberty and the bad stuff.”
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As a kid, were you funny? Or were you aware about trying to be funny?
I wasn’t funny at all. I mean, people will tell me they remember me as funny, but I didn’t really identify as a funny person at all. And then when I was in eighth grade, I remember I just felt like I was getting picked on a lot. And I was like, I’m gonna be actively funny now. Like, I’m gonna work hard to be a funny person. I don’t want anybody to make fun of me anymore. So now I’m gonna be funny. I’m gonna make fun of people. And then that sort of backfired. So then I was like, “OK, we’re going to have to find a middle ground now.”
What has been the most exciting thing creatively, working on a show like “Big Mouth”?
It’s a show that’s always made me laugh. Getting the writing job felt like a dream come true on its own. Being given the opportunity to voice a character on the show has only heightened that feeling. And while it’s definitely a bit nerve-racking, we’re very much in the middle of these conversations about diversity and inclusion and equity. So I don’t know if excited is the right word, but I’m grateful that as a show we know the importance of that while also remembering that the show itself is funny and fun, and we get to deliver that.
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