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JP Karliak morphs into non-binary character for Disney+'s X-Men '97
by Jerry Nunn
2024-03-22

This article shared 10147 times since Fri Mar 22, 2024
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series X-Men '97, a revival of the popular X-men: The Animated Series that's both continuing the ongoing mutant storyline and breaking new ground along the way.

The character of Morph now looks more like the comic book depiction and is now non-binary; in the new series, they face challenges presented by their identity during the late '90s.

Karliak's pronouns are he/him and he identifies as queer as well as genderqueer. He is married to Scott Barnhardt and performs out of their home studio in Long Beach, California. He created the non-profit training academy Queer Vox made specifically for LGBQT_ identifying voiceover performers and has provided community and support in a safe environment for people since 2020.

Karliak has built an impressive resume over the years, including Netflix's Boss Baby and Eden. X-Men '97 follows his previous Disney adventures as Star vs. the Forces of Evil and Disney Infinity: 3.0. Edition on multiple platforms.

Video game projects began with Tom Clancy's EndWar on Microsoft Windows and he currently can be heard with the character of Doctor Nefarious Trophy in the Crash Bandicoot franchise.

Karliak always has something important to say and he spoke about Morph, plus much more, shortly before the debut of the superhero series.

Windy City Times: Where are you from originally?

JP Karliak: I am from Dunmore, Pennsylvania, which is a tiny town right next to Scranton. Yes, I have watched The Office [laughs].

WCT: How did you wind up in California?

JPK: I went to college at The Catholic University of America in DC for two years, enough said, then transferred to the University of Southern California for the rest of my education. I stayed, so I have been here 24 years.

WCT: Have you been to Chicago yet?

JPK: Yes and I am coming to see the new musical version of Death Becomes Her soon.

WCT: Excellent. Were you into musicals growing up?

JPK: For sure. In high school, I was in Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street and Into the Woods. I loved doing it as a fun thing, but not something that I would pound the pavement to pursue.

My husband was in the original cast of The Book of Mormon, so there is musical theater in this house all the time!

WCT: When did your journey into voice-over work begin?

JPK: When I was little and thought about one day having a job—it was the same year that Aladdin came out. I wanted to do the same thing as Robin Williams. I thought I had to be a famous actor in Hollywood first to be allowed to do voice work.

It seemed too fun to be a real job. I held on to that perception all the way into college. That is why I moved to LA, to be on camera, and I finally realized I could just work with my voice instead.

One of my teachers was Kelly Ward, who worked in musical theater and animation. He's best known for being in the first Grease movie. He put me on the path to study with Bob Bergen, who was the original Porky Pig. He became my mentor and the rest is history.

WCT: When did you. acquire a home studio?

JPK: It started as an easy way to audition since I lived far from my agent. All it had in it was a little microphone and an iPad at the beginning. Now, there is a whole setup and I work from home.

WCT: Did you record X-men '97 in it?

JPK: Yes. The premiere was last night and I hadn't met the cast in person. It was so nice to get together and take pictures.

WCT: Was it weird to hear their voices and see them in person?

JPK: Well, half of the cast is the original cast from the '90s. They live in Canada, so I had never met them before. I watched the show as a kid, so it was neat to see them. Many of the new cast I knew, so it was nice to get together with them.

WCT: Were you a comic reader as a child?

JPK: No, I didn't get into comics until later. I was a big fan of comic book movies as a kid. I have vivid memories of going to Batman at the movies and I loved the X-Men franchise. I read comics now after it has all come full circle.

WCT: Have you worked at comic conventions yet?

JPK: I did a little bit. When I was in New Looney Tunes as Wile E. Coyote, I did some panels at a New York comic con.

I hope to do more if the rest of this cast is game. That would be fun!

WCT: I have the Morph action figure right here.

JPK: I loved action figures growing up, and my favorite was from He-Man. I had all of them until my mom made me get rid of them.

Many of the characters I have voiced over the years have been legacy characters such as The Wizard of Oz's Tin Man, Willy Wonka and now Morph. Every time I buy the Funko Pop! figure that corresponds with the character I have played, so I have a whole wall of them now.

WCT: Did your agent send you this role of Morph?

JPK: Yes, just a regular audition. I knew it would be important and impactful because Morph is non-binary. That I knew from the get go, and I was very excited about that. I watched the trajectory of the character from the old series.

Morph was a really tragic character. He was victimized by Mr. Sinister and he was mind-controlled to betray his friends. He masked his trauma with humor and positivity just like many queer people. I gravitated to him very quickly.

WCT: Morph was killed off in the comics. Are you concerned about the longevity of your character?

JPK: There is always a possibility and he was killed off in the original cartoon series as well.

WCT: Morph is well-loved, but there is a great deal of chatter about the character being non-binary. How do you protect yourself from seeing the negativity on social media?

JPK: I have been labeled a radical queer activist and I love it. There was one article I read that was inflammatory, but I didn't take offense to it.

People have said that I founded an organization to help queer kids get voice work and that is true. I am an advocate for equal representation and diverse casting.

WCT: It's a fictional character, so why do you think people are so bothered by Morph being non-binary?

JPK: He's a shapeshifter so I don't understand why he wouldn't be non-binary. I don't do roles like this for the masses where I want 100% of the population to buy into it. It is more about queer people of all ages that will watch this and see themselves in the experience. If this superhero can represent them and make them feel better about themselves, then I have done my job. I don't need everyone to love him, but he is pretty funny so I am hoping they do.

WCT: Is there any dialogue about pronouns throughout the season of X-Men '97?

JPK: No and that is for two reasons. One, it takes place in the '90s, so we didn't have the mainstream vocabulary of non-binary or they/them back then. For myself, I didn't start identifying as genderqueer until the pandemic. Like many people, I had time to sit down and breathe. It gave me time to think about my identity and learn about these terms. This felt like me. I wore he/him like a comfortable old sweatshirt, so I never felt the need to change it.

Regardless if we see Morph in 1997 or in the present day, he might feel comfortable in the pronouns he's had all his life or he might change. Either way is okay!

WCT: You recently played the Joker in the action game Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. What is the difference between voicing cartoons and video games?

JPK: Spreadsheets. When we do an animated project we get scripts to read in advance and then record it one day. Video game scripts we usually don't receive in advance and it is often on a spreadsheet because there are so many options to say different things.

The director gives context to the words to guide the performer. Other than that, cartoons and video games are pretty similar as far as performance.

WCT: Is there one character on your resume that you would like to be remembered for?

JPK: It might sound like I am sucking up but it is Morph. I have played queer-coded characters before such as Dante Crescendo in Trolls: TrollsTopia, but it was never said that they were queer. Morph's identity is not mentioned in the show, but it is in press releases. The fact that I get to share his identity with the world is huge for me. That has always been the goal.

WCT: Talk about Queer Vox and what advice you give to people pursuing voice work.

JPK: Queer Vox is an organization I started in 2020. It is a queer voice actor academy for the LGBTQ+ community. It started as a class to offer training, but it evolved into some industry advocacy to talk about authentic casting and ways to write a casting breakdown that is appropriate.

We encourage them to think of their career like a sandbox. In the center are the voices that the performers love to do and [what] others perceive for them. That is their money maker right there.

The roles outside the sandbox are the ones that others might not hear them play, but it is euphoric if they get to play it. For example, someone who has an effeminate voice and thinks they can't play Superman should still submit themselves for the role. There may be one time that it just clicks, and it's a different take on the character.

Some roles in the sandbox could be offered a part because the performer sounds perfect, but they may not want to do it for some reason. They are taught how to communicate that to their agent and casting directors. With the right terminology, they can be marketed correctly in the future and can explore more possibilities.

WCT: What was the most challenging voice for you so far?

JPK: The hardest character I have played and certainly one of my favorites was Boss Baby. The voice is gravelly, so I would always have a cup of steaming tea before recording him. He was also so overwritten, with dialogue pouring out of his mouth. For a show that was aimed at five-year-olds, it was an inordinate amount of dialogue. [laughs] It was complex and I spoke Japanese in one episode!

WCT: How do you tackle other languages as a voice artist?

JPK: I am provided a pronunciation guide. With Boss Baby, it was one line and not chunks of dialogue.

If there are accents that are important to a character it always helps to have a coach. Authenticity is important these days, as it should be, and performers should do the right thing with a different culture. It needs to be done correctly and not a stereotype.

For more vocal advice, try queervox.org and X-men '97's first season currently streams on disneyplus.com .


This article shared 10147 times since Fri Mar 22, 2024
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