Zach Callison, who voices the loveable Steven on Steven Universe, is a triple threat. Actor, musician, and soon to be series creator. At San Diego Comic-Con we got the chance to chat with Zach about recent developments in Steven Universe, playing the part for five years, The Zach Callison Show, his upcoming single, and why Steven has been speaking with an Italian accent lately.
To set the stage for this interview, it must be noted Callison was wearing a suave looking suit, which you can see below.
(Callison moderating the Steven Universe panel at SDCC. Photo courtesy of Deedee Magno Hall.)
What inspired you to wear that today?
This is my style now. I’m getting into fashion and music, I’m doing some alt rock music that’s going to be coming out later this year and trying to craft an aesthetic. My designer’s father was the designer for Elvis. They do a lot of Rock and Roll stuff out of Memphis and he hooked me up with this.
How do you portray a character who’s been able to maintain his innocence while dealing with all that horror around him?
Steven at his core, he has that childlike wonder, caring for all his friends and that is a core part of who he is. I feel like he’ll always have a little bit of that childlike energy in his character because he’s always very happy-go-lucky but it’s the things that happen to him that test the character and change him over time and make it more serious and more practical.
That’s the dynamic of the show and the arc of the show are those two forces fighting against each other. You see a big differences between the episodes that are just around town vs episodes where all this horrible stuff is happening. It’s hard for him to maintain that. I think that’s one of his major struggles as the show goes on.
Because of all that change, is there something that you, as a voice actor, want for Steven at the end of this storyline?
I try not to do that as much. I don’t even read the storyboards before the sessions anymore because I like to discover it as I read it. The writers are really good at their jobs so it’s hard for me to theorize. Obviously I want some sort of closure for Steven and all the questions he has, which is hard because a lot of them don’t have answers because the Gems don’t know, he doesn’t know, his father doesn’t know. They’re there to support but they reach a point where there’s only so much they can tell him.
Learning about his mom, things he didn’t realize, things aren’t as they seem, it’s hard for him to process all that. I hope he finds some contentedness and peace at some point.
There are a lot of episodes where Steven is narrating as it goes along because he might be the only speaking character on the screen for minutes as a time. How do you approach that to keep it interesting?
It’s tough. A lot of examples of expository dialogue in any medium is really hard to make legitimate and not explanatory. The writers do a really good job at keeping it natural. I talk to myself a lot, he has liberty to do that as well. The show is called Steven Universe and it is litereally from the perspective of Steven.
There’s no episode of the entire show we’re not seeing the show through Steven’s eyes. I think that device of having him speak to himself and inform of the audience what’s going on. It’s also a kids show and it helps in that way. That’s even more justification for it, the show is Steven’s POV always which is something I didn’t even realize until Rebecca and Ian explained it to me that it’s a writing device they use. It’s genius! It’s amazing!
What’s the most challenging thing about voicing Steven in season four?
By season four my voice had finished changing. I really found a way to be stable in that. It’s still tough. I get sick a lot, I’ve never had a great immune system, so I have to be very careful when I come into record and taking care of my voice as much as possible. Plus, my character is much easier by comparison now. He lives in my head, I’ve spent so much time with the character it’s second nature.
It’s harder to do new characters because you haven’t been able to give them the time they deserve. I’d say it’s more the physical limitations than the emotional or mental capabilities anymore.
(Photo courtesy of Zach Callison’s Instagram.)
How has growing up with Steven changed you?
I talk about the arc of my life vs. Steven’s life. We’ve both sort of grown up alongside each other. I think it’s affected, on Steven’s end, it’s affected that arc and my ability to act in it because I can relate a lot to his struggle. Finding who he is, growing up, a lot of additional responsibility placed on his shoulders. I think it’s been a very interesting dynamic.
Rebecca said early on they wanted a real kid to play Steven and that’s the benefit of doing that. I’m getting the real kid experience of Steven. On my side of things, from a life perspective, it’s opened so many doors for me and it’s an amazing learning opportunity to be around people who view art with a purpose. They really care about the message they are putting out and have a passion for the work they do. Just that experience alone of working with the people on Steven Universe has been very formative for me.
What is your favorite aspect of Steven?
I love that he has a sense of humor even in the worst situations. Also that he always gives people a chance. A great example is in “Bismuth” and throws something at her and yells, “Look out!” but they’re fighting and she’s actively trying to get him. It’s very insightful to who Steven is. Violence is always the last resort. He’ll always try to talk it out for better or for worse, it doesn’t always go the way he wants it to.
What was your biggest shocking moment in the series?
The whole Lars thing was definitely a tough one. I knew about it coming up a few weeks in advance. Then on screen… wow, that’s a little rough. It was in a good way, it was very dramatic. The scene was a challenge and a good way to act. I call that actor candy. The writers give us a lot of that on this show, which is very fortunate.
What was it like to kind of “Jesus” Lars back to life?
Jesus as a verb! It was really cool. The relationship between Steven and Lars has always been rocky. Steven is always the one wanting to be his friend and Lars has not always been there. There’s been times when Lars was insecure in who he is. I think this really cemented their friendship wich has been rocky at times and it hasn’t always been clear as day.
I love anytime I get to be with Matt Moy in the booth and Steven and Lars get to interact. It’s an example of Steven talking to someone and bridge that gap. It works sometimes like with some of the newer Gems like Lapis and Peridot he spoke to their soul. With Lars he’s tried to distance himself in a lot of ways. It was a very rough movement but I think their relationship will be stronger for it.
Do you have a Lars in your own life to whom you have been a Steven, and have you ever been a Lars to a Steven?
I’ve never resurrected someone from the dead. Not yet. There’s a lot of life left to live, we’ll see. I’ve had childhood friends trying to be cool and didn’t want to hang out with the little spazzy tiny kid that I was up until last week. I didn’t grow for a very long time. It wasn’t bullying, per se, but like “I have to be cool and you’re not cool. I don’t wanna be around you.” I sort of understand (the Lars/Steven) dynamic because of that. I’m not naming any names.
So you’re quite a musician. Piano, dabbling in alt rock. Do you play any Steven Universe music?
I haven’t learned any of the songs from the show. I love doing covers. I took them all down because of me being very young. I was known as “the Drops of Jupiter kid” in my friend circle for awhile because I would always do that cover at shows. I’m playing less covers than I should. I want to take the time to learn more but it’s been all about writing for me lately. Writing songs, getting in the studio with my producers, making them happen. I’m really serious about making this music thing a big part of what I do I just have a passion for it. Dropping the single this fall ideally. From there start gigging and do what I love.
Will you be doing it under your name?
Yeah, I’ll be playing as Zach Callison. It’s band music. I’ll be hiring a band for my live shows and doing it the rock way. I’ve done the actual band thing before and it’s impossible to keep together, people disagree on stuff, so I just decided to become a creative tyrant and take over the reins.
Have you talked to Rebecca, or Aivi & Surasshu about playing around with music and experimenting together?
Yeah, I’ve sent a couple of my tracks to Rebecca for notes. I appreciate her musical mind so much and she’s so good at what she does. Aivi hasn’t heard my music, but she’s been supportive of me talking about it and pursuing it in the future.
(Photo courtesy of Zach Callison’s Instagram.)
You’ve mentioned you’re working on the Zach Callison show?
Yes, thank you for asking. That’s in the works right now, we were doing some shooting earlier in the week actually. It’s a sketch comedy show about making a sketch comedy show. It’s very meta. We have our digital short sketches and our live stage sketches and also these intros. There’s sort of a character development aspect where I’m playing a charectetized version of myself.
Without giving away too much before it comes out, I’m teasing it on my social media. We’re currently finishing production, getting out edits out, and start pitching it. It was initially going to be on my YouTube and now we’ve had some interest. Ideally we’ll get a couple extra seasons to make it a proper production.
Steven has been working through the stages of grief with accepting his mom wasn’t super perfect on his mom, talk about that.
That’s a big dynamic for Steven as the show goes on. He just wanted to meet his mom at first. He had all these questions about who she was and know that he knows he wishes he didn’t in a lot of ways. He still doesn’t know definitive answers about a lot of things. He was especially frustrated when the Gems wouldn’t always tell him the truth about things or how things really were. That’s going to be a struggle for Steven for awhile.
What will it take for him to forgive her?
At this point, because I don’t know the whole story, I can’t say. I don’t think Steven knows if he can at this point. There’s a lot of things that Rebecca and I have agreed she wouldn’t tell me that I can discover in the moment. That’s a future thing I’ll have to find out eventually.
Is there a line of dialogue or song that Steven has song in the series that is really close to your heart?
There’s so many. “If you need a great actor, you’ve come to the right guy!” And the Peter Pizzapapalis thing, that’s a more recent one. Funny story about that, the whole Steven loving to say Italian words all the time and doing that Italian accent? Not a plan from the beginning. I speak semi-fluently in Italian and Rebecca found out about this and she went, “Oh, we can totally use that! Now they just sprinkle that in when he’s being goofy. Arrivederci! It’s a lot of fun.
Let’s discuss the depth of “Cookie Cat”. It’s kind of predicted the whole show.
Yeah, I’ve read some fan commentary on that. I didn’t even think, once I found about, “Guess what, they’re aliens!” Cause that was one of the first episodes we recorded. I never actually asked her (Rebecca) if that was intentional or not. That’s insightful.
How does it feel that “Cookie Cat” has really blown up?
It’s awesome to have people be so gung ho about the show from episode one was really cool. People ask me to do it at panels all the time which is really fun and I can get the crowd involved because everyone knows it.
Out or your relationships with Deedee (Pearl), Michaela (Ameythst), or Estelle (Garnet) which relationships mirrors Steven’s relationship with the respective Gem most?
All of them. From them to me and Grace (Connie), I always said Rebecca nailed the casting. We’re very close to our characters, all of us, in real life. I don’t know how she did it. The realatonship between Deedee and I, she’s very much my second mom. If I type mom in my phone she comes up before my mom because she’s listed as Bird Mom. Michaela feels like a big sister realationshp for sure. It’s cool to have that dynamic especially on an animated show where a lot of times they won’t do an ensemble record so you’ll record alone. We’ve been able to record together and become a family. They’re friends for life.
What can we look forward to in season five?
Lots of drama. It’s a bit of a murder mystery which is cool. There’s a lot of potential for crazy story arcs which we may or may not pursue. We’re totally going to pursue them. I’ve said too much!
Thanks to Cartoon Network for setting up this interview and thanks to Zach for taking the time to speak with us. You can find him on twitter here.
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