Interview With Ben Diskin
Voice actor and self-depricating extraordinaire Ben Diskin is the kinda guy who has managed to stay under the radar for years, often playing some of your childhood’s most beloved characters without you even knowing. To paraphrase a writer better than I, you may not have heard of Diskin – but you have definitely heard him. With leading roles in everything from Kingdom Hearts to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Ben has amassed a plethora of unique credits that have won hearts across multiple fandoms.Yet, all of this is a far cry from what was one of his first (and still one of his most famous) roles, as Sylvester in Kindergarten Cop, alongside with Arnold Schwarzenegger – a job he is inevitably quizzed on regularly, despite the film being 30 years old. I, of course, am no different – and begin my questions by inquiring as to how it feels to have had this start, in his acting career.
“I had very realistic expectations set for me by my parents, who are both actors, so they put me forward with the idea that this would get me a little bit of money that I could put toward college, so I could get a real job”, Ben tells me. Luckily for us, however, this was only the beginnings of Ben’s career, as he quickly moved on to voice acting over on-camera acting, when his agency began putting him forward for VO jobs.
Being around 6 at the time, Diskin couldn’t quite read at that age – but was more than adept at repeating phrases back to the crew, on request. “The voice-over and on-camera work came about at the same time” he explains, “When you’re a child actor, and you can moderately take direction reasonably well, they put you in everything!”.
As I soon learn, however, he immediately goes par for the course, in terms of his modesty, by becoming incredibly self-deprecating. “Compared to kids nowadays, I was garbage – but back then, I became the Golden Turd! Which is going to be the name of my autobiography, one day”, he jokes. That said, there is no doubt that this was the career Ben was truly made for, both as a guy with the ability to create a vast range of characters, professionally, and in terms of his personal preference. Particularly as he can be quite averse to the level of fame that comes with on-screen work.
“Back then I was a stupid little kid and I went and told all of the kids on the playground about how I was going to be in a big movie – and I thought it was really neat! But kids don’t really have a concept of fame or money, so everyone thought I was a millionaire movie star… and started treating me like crap” he explains, “but when you do voice over, you realise that so many people love your characters without associating you with that character”.
Clearly, this is something that has stayed with him to this day, as he tells me how he loves the voice over world for giving him the ability to play and create new characters, without the hassles of fame that inevitably come when people consistently recognise your face.
“It’s really kinda nice that I have some control over whether I tell people if I’m on a show!” Ben laughs – but there’s a sincerity to his viewpoint that, even now, comes across in how he interacts with his fans. He admits to me that there are times at cons when he spends as much of his downtime as possible in his hotel room, in order to avoid near-constant over-stimulation through interaction with fans. Although it is worth noting that, like the rest of us, he can sometimes be found meandering through con halls because he’s feeling a little lonely – so, if you do happen to catch him at a con, he’s likely to welcome a quick chat.
Imposter syndrome runs deep within Ben’s personality, which is often exhibited through his sarcasm, dark humour and, in his own words, “naturally pile-driving myself further and further into the dirt – that’s my instinct!”. Referring to his award-winning work on Muppet Babies, he tells me “I have an Emmy on the mantel… and I’m still convinced someone is going to come in and take that back, any minute now”.
So, how does he battle his own inner demons, when faced with a tough role or a bad day? “With a heavy dose of reality!” he laughs, “I tell myself that I’ve been doing this for long enough, that I’ve been consistently working for years – I don’t let myself get a big head, but being positive about my work is my best coping mechanism”. That’s not to say he doesn’t struggle when something new comes along – namely singing. As it turns out, Ben isn’t too keen on singing or dancing, although he used to be able to carry a tune on the clarinet (in case you were wondering).
Throughout his career, which now spans three decades, there has only ever been one time where work – of lack thereof – became a huge point of stress for him. Having just bought a house in the late 00’s, his career took a downward turn and the ability to pay the mortgage was quickly shrinking. Like all successful actors, however, the answer to this problem lay in working even harder, for what felt like minimal payoff, until – one day – his career picked up again. “I was desperate and did the only thing I could, which was to knuckle down and take any work I could get” Ben confesses, “which is lucky – because I don’t have anything else I can fall back on!”
If anything, this tough period has helped Ben to gain more clarity on how to go about getting work, from auditioning to working on each, individual project in its own, individual way. “It always depends on what kind of thing you’re going to be working on” Ben clarifies, when I ask him how he approaches a new role, before going on to display a wide range of different pitches and voices, in order to explain each genre.
Of course, even within the same genre, there can be different styles, he explains. “A Shonen style anime will be very different to more realistic, grounded work from Japan, so each show needs to be performed according to the style they’re going for”.
Then there are the personalities themselves, which inevitably drive the character forward within the series, film or game. He reminisces particularly on one villain he played, after which he had to field questions at a con about his character “I was asked how I prepared myself for this villain – everyone else was talking about how they related to their characters and how they could draw from their own experiences. I just had to say ‘errr I don’t know! I was just acting!’ – So, yeah, sometimes it’s just fun to do something completely different to myself. To just act.”
Ben goes on to reveal the audition process he had for Haida, in Aggretsuko, in which he construed the character to be somewhat of a lady’s man. As it turns out – and as fans of the series will already know – that’s not quite how things pan out for the humble hyena. It’s all part of the process, however, and the casting/voice directors worked with him to give us the personality we all know and love, now.
Another major benefit to being in the industry from a young age comes with seeing all the changes in the industry – for better or worse. At this point, I can’t help but ask him how things have changed in Hollywood, when it comes to getting roles. “Well, when I first started out, all the auditions were on tape – and, if you screwed up, they would literally have to stop and cut the tape” he recalls, “now, however, I can send over auditions from home and send those over as an mp3. If you’ve got a good mic and good set-up, then that opens up doors to a lot of new talent.”
Most recently, his work on Aggretsuko has him playing the role of Haida, for which season 3 was recorded entirely from home. And, while playing animals with human-like characteristics isn’t exactly a new venture in animation, the release of Haida into the Netflix universe also coincided with another character who came about at around the same time – namely, Beastars’ Jack, whom he also voices.
With so many anthropomorphic creatures coming out at once, it was only a matter of time before our dear Ben caught the eye of the furry community. Naturally, this makes my interviewee a big point of fascination for these anthropomorphic enthusiasts, and you can often find Ben discussing the community, his stance and the fanart of these characters over on his Twitter account.
Being completely new to this culture and fandom myself, Ben is kind enough to discuss with me what it means to be a part of something like that. “I discovered them through working on Aggretsuko,” he tells me, “and I’m a huge fan of the show myself. Which, usually, when I like a show, it means nobody else is interested – cause that’s just how it goes for me. I naturally gravitated toward the character that I played and kinda fell into it. But it means I get to act like a giant idiot fanboy online with everyone – and it helps the show!”
Of course, Haida himself resonates well with followers, making him a big focal point for fanart and fictional crushes within the fandom. When I ask Ben why he thinks Haida is so popular, his answer pulls the full gamut. “The show is filled with strong female characters, with most of the guys either being horribly sexist or just shouting at Retsuko” he reminds me, making reference to season 1 characters, including the yoga instructor and her boss, “so, when you see a guy who is actually cute and nice that makes it easy to relate to him. But I think it also stems from being the guy who has the crush, that doesn’t get with the person he likes, and his feelings are unrequited. So, especially for people who are gay, or are furries, Haida’s experiences are so easy to relate to, because it’s much harder to find the right person when you’re in those communities.”
Despite this, Haida himself has come under fire somewhat, with mixed reviews from audiences, who seem to be divided as to whether his reactions in the season finale are appropriate, given what happens over the course of the series. This is something that Ben himself struggled with, as he explains to me, “when they gave me the clip to work with, the cover clip of the file was Retsuko crying, and I was literally pointing at the screen, saying to my wife ‘how can I make her cry? I don’t wanna do this!’”. So, just how much of Haida stems from Ben himself? “Haida is literally me from before I met my wife,” he laughs, “This total idiot, who sucks with women and pines after women who have no interest in me. I mean, if I could go back in time and slap the crap out of myself, I would!”
Through it all, there’s no denying that this is a series that is almost tailor-made for the disillusioned generation of millennials, with the main character struggling with trying to make a living in the current economy, especially in season 3. And one of the things that seems to have caused conflict with fans, is that Retsuko doesn’t quite get the traditional happy-ever-after that people expect from happy-go-lucky stories about cute animals. As it turns out, this is one of the things that Ben likes the most about Aggretsuko, because “it doesn’t point to Hollywood or fame as being the solution. It displays real-world problems and gives realistic solutions. That’s not always reality – most people do just work in the office and the show gives fans ways to cope with those moments, like her annoying co-workers and her boss”.
Interestingly, given the current news surrounding sexism in the workplace – particularly in the gaming and voice-over areas – the way that Retsuko is able to work with her misogynistic boss (as well as the advice she gets her friends in leadership roles) seems oddly well-timed, for those new to the series. We also see massively inappropriate and damaging behaviour from fans within the show, in the lead-up to the climax of the third season, which is sadly true to real life at times. And this is something that Ben openly discusses with me, when it comes to how he feels we can change things in the real world. “The biggest thing for me is to be able to call out that behaviour, when it happens”, he replies, when I ask him how we can help to stomp out that behaviour in all areas of life. “It’s not always the easiest thing – but seeing not only the way my colleagues are treated, even by fans, not only are the acts and the things that happen scary, but the way women talk about these experiences. It’s become so ingrained into our way of life, that they talk about it as though it were an everyday experience and not something terrifying – which is absolutely is.”
Taking an uncharacteristically sombre tone, Ben then goes on to point out “it isn’t always that obvious thing, the way Ton will come across in the show. It can be something as simple as phrasing something in a way that is overly familiar or those tiny microaggressions. You don’t have to make a big thing about it, or a Twitter call-out, you can just say something as and when it happens to challenge them. Just be respectful to everyone”.
And therein lies the main takeaway I can pull from my short time with Ben Diskin, in that this is a guy who is – to his very core – a genuinely good guy, who wants to bring everything he can to each role. Whether he’s creating a caricature of a voice, in order to meet the requirements of an over-the-top animation, or speaking with his followers on social media, you can be sure that Ben has plenty of love to give to his career and his fans. Personally, I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for us.