The nimble voice of Vincent Tong
Not many voice actors – or on-camera actors in any genre – can claim that their first role was that of a piece of sushi. (We’re not prepared to say definitively that there is only one such voice actor, but we’re sure the cohort is infinitesimal).
Vincent Tong can make that claim, and when he relays this bit of trivia in a recent phone interview, he does so with pride. Long before Tong was a fixture in the Vancouver animation scene – building a fan base and scooping up award nominations for his voice work on cartoon hits like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu, and Nerds and Monsters – he was a first-time voice actor on a show called Sushi Pack.
That job – for which he voiced a hunky chunk of tuna named Toro – completely changed the trajectory of Tong’s career and life.
On his first few hours on the job, though, Tong wasn’t thinking about the rest of his career and life. He was thinking about holding his own in a crowd of voice acting veterans, and making it through the day.
“The room was filled with extremely loud, funny people who had a witty remark after anyone said anything, and I was blown away but so nervous and excited at the same time,” recalls Tong. “I literally had a corner seat, and I sat in that corner and just absorbed everybody.”
Among them: Tara Strong, a bona-fide voice superstar (Batman: Arkham Asylum) and Tong’s future colleague on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
On that first day, Tong “sat there like a sponge” – while voicing a piece of sushi – “and absorbed everything that these guys were doing, and it was such a great, quick learning curve for me.”
The fact that Tong had been preparing for a life in cartoons since his childhood probably helped, too. As a kid, he’d imitate all of the voices he heard on the shows he loved, be it the slang-slinging, pizza-eating heroes in a half shell on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the squeaky protagonist of Bobby’s World. “Way back then, when we had tapes for the answering machines, I used to change it on the weekly, and all of my parents’ friends would be really confused when they called the house because I would always put on a different accent or make up things,” he laughs.
“I think I used to annoy the heck out of everyone in my household.”
While young Tong clearly possessed a proclivity for voices, his first stated passion was musical theatre. “I think I was one of the first Chinese cowboys in Oklahoma,” muses Tong. Upon graduation from the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria (where he sang and danced in a show choir alongside future My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic colleague Ashleigh Ball), he headed first to Charlottetown, and then to Toronto, and lived out his Broadway dreams in popular shows like Footloose, Mamma Mia, and The Lord of the Rings.
He continued in this same vein upon his move to Vancouver, but his life and career changed when that piece of sushi gave him a real taste for the world of voice animation.
Voice, says Tong, “is the medium where I feel like I’ve had the most opportunities to play larger parts, because it’s not really dependent on the way I look. I’m an Asian Canadian in film and TV. You get extremely typecast as the doctor or the scientist or the Asian gangster, which I’ve played a ton of – and not to say that those aren’t fun parts, but there isn’t much opportunity to play the ingénue or the love interest." But as a voice actor, "I’ve gotten so many chances to play every part from the monster that lives in a cave to the love interest of Twilight Sparkle [Strong’s character] in My Little Pony.”
Tong’s worked steadily in the animation field since 2008. His numerous credits include Lego Elves: Secrets of Elvendale, Nexo Knights, Bob the Builder, Slugterra, Voltron Force, and multiple Barbie projects, voicing all manner of heroes, villains, species, even food (besides his Sushi Pack role, he voiced a bag of chips and a juice box in 2016’s Sausage Party, as well as a third character that didn’t make the cut because, Tong says, “I think it was a bit too vulgar, if you can believe that”).
Last November, Tong was nominated for three separate performances at the UBCP/ACTRA Awards, which honour the on-screen and voice achievements of UBCP/ACTRA members. “I’ve been working my butt off for many years, so it’s a really nice acknowledgement of my hard work, and the fact that I was nominated three times, it was nice to be recognized for my versatility as well,” says Tong, who was nominated for wildly different roles on Fruit Ninja, Chuck's Choice, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (the award ultimately went to Rebecca Husain for her work on Beat Bugs).
Speaking of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: that particular show has been a game-changer for Tong and everyone involved. It’s that rare juggernaut animated hit whose fandom spans the generations, and its adult male fans – the Bronies – have been the subject of multiple think pieces and documentaries, including Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony and A Brony Tale.
“When I first heard about these Bronies, I was like, ‘This is so strange,’ because it was so different from the norm,” says Tong, who voices multiple characters on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (including Garble, Feather Bangs, and Twilight’s special someone, Flash Sentry). “They would have these conventions, and I really wanted to go to these conventions to meet these people.”
And what Tong ultimately discovered was “more aspects of true humanity than I have anywhere in my everyday life. They are so generous and sincerely encouraging and loving toward each other and accepting of everybody. They accept people on the whole. This is who you are. This is what you are. If you don’t want to be talked to, we won’t talk to you. If you need a helping hand, we’ll encourage you. These guys are so amazingly beautiful and have taught me so many lessons about patience and generosity and love.”
“I fully embrace and understand where these guys come from, and I educate people about the Bronies, because you have to skew their first impressions of what they think they are,” adds Tong.
Follow Vincent Tong @VincentTong007.
MORE FROM VINCENT TONG
On portraying LeFou in the Arts Club’s recent production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: “I actually played the part the last time the Arts Club did it nine years ago, so it’s fun to revisit it. I haven’t done theatre for a while, but man, I just walked into the theatre last week for the first time in nine years and I didn’t expect all of these butterflies to come back, and the excitement, and all of the memories to come back, and the moment I stepped into the wings, and just smelled the air of the theatre and saw the dressing rooms that we all live in for a month and a half, and all of the pictures and the nostalgia – it’s such a beautiful thing.”
On meeting My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans in unlikely places: “I did a movie called Cop and a Half with Lou Diamond Phillips. I used to watch his movies all of the time. He’s such a nice dude and he was asking me what else I did, and I told him I did a lot of voice work for Ninjago and My Little Pony, and he said, ‘You do My Little Pony?!’ So we go to his daughter and he said, ‘Guess who this is? It’s Flash Sentry from My Little Pony.’ She just stopped. She couldn’t say anything, and her mom and dad were laughing so hard. It was her birthday the next day, so the next time I was on set I brought in a little Flash Sentry doll and gave it to her. She’s a little smitten with Flash. It was really sweet.”
On the prep that goes into preparing for a voice audition: “The audition process is one of the hardest ones. A lot of the times we’re auditioning from home now because of the technology, we can just send in MP3s, and you’re given a description of the character but not the picture. A picture always helps, but sometimes you’re not given that and you just have to figure out how you can embody this character with solely your voice, not even the physical attributes, so reading the adjectives and how they’re described or how they behave towards their cohorts, it really informs the voices. Is he more jowly? Is he a good guy? Is he younger? Does he talk slower? That part is the hardest part, and it’s about instinct, it’s about experience, and a lot of it is about watching cartoons. Doing your homework. Watching what’s out there, and what the big shows are, and why are they big. What are the mannerisms that people are delivering to make them so popular and successful?”
On advice he’d give to a 21-year-old version of himself: “I would say so many things to him, but he wouldn’t listen: he’s 21 and he knows everything! I would say to, in those moments of doubt, have faith: have faith in your ability, have faith in what you know, and believe in who you are. There are so many times in my career where I was trying to be a prototype of what I thought people wanted, but in the end, being yourself is what’s going to get you the best jobs. It’s going to fulfill your highest potential if you’ll just be yourself.”