Girl Talks Like a Dude
Actress Colleen Clinkenbeard provides the voice behind One Piece tough guy Monkey D. Luffy. By Charles Solomon
Monkey D. Luffy ( rhymes, appropriately, with “goofy”), the hero of the hit anime series One Piece, is immediately recognizable by his straw hat, ear- to- ear grin, skinny limbs and raspy voice.
That scratchy baritone, which sounds like he gargled with Comet by mistake, is provided not by an actor projecting machismo, but by Colleen Clinkenbeard, one of the busiest voice actresses, line producers and ADR directors in the country.
Anime fans also know Clinkenbeard as Erza Scarlet in Fairy Tail, Riza Hawkeye in Fullmetal Alchemist and Rachel Moore in Case Closed, but Luffy is her most popular character. Clinkenbeard talked about her work and cross- gender voices in a recent interview from the FUNimation Studio in Flower Mound, Texas.
After graduating from college, she says she “came back to my home town in Texas to try to earn some money before I moved to New York to make it on Broadway.” A friend introduced her to voice acting and her career took off.
Although she had done a male voice previously, Clinkenbeard planned to audition for one of the female characters in One Piece. “Director Mike McFarland had heard me playing that male role, so he decided to audition me for Luffy,” she says. “It was exciting and kind of terrifying, but I don’t think I’ve wanted a part as much before or since.”
With his golliwog face, scrawny body and outsized feet, Luffy is hardly a matinee idol. But Clinkenbeard insists that doesn’t detract from his charm. “You want to play the fun role, the role that gets to do the most exciting range of things,” she says. “To play a boy- hero who is funny and stupid, but who also has dramatic moments — that’s as good as it gets.”
Fans on both sides of the Pacific agree. When Eiichiro Oda began the One Piece manga, he set out to create the story he wanted to read as a boy. It proved to be a story others wanted to read — and see. There are more than 345 million volumes of the manga in print. The TV series ran for more than 600 episodes ( with more in the works) and spun off 12 theatrical features. It’s one of the fastest growing anime franchises in America, with more than 26 million episodes streaming each month.
When Clinkenbeard talks about Luffy, she punches an occasional word in his voice and with his trademark enthusiasm.
“Male voice actors lower their voices to do the gruff- sounding roles: Luffy’s voice comes from the same place, I just have to lower it more and put it at that gravely place in my throat,” she says. “It’s playing around with the mechanism in your throat. That’s part of what’s fun about voice acting — you don’t get to do that kind of experimenting if you’re on camera or in the theater, but with voice acting, you can be anyone that you can sound like.”
Because he ate the accursed Gum- Gum Fruit, Luffy’s limbs can stretch beyond anything Elastigirl ever imagined. He uses this ability to launch himself over walls, inflate himself into a balloon and pound the sushi out of villains. The fights and transformations require Clinkenbeard to suggest violent physical action with her voice, but if she moves too much, she’ll go off mic and spoil the take.
“Director Justin Cook had to teach me how to make all of those fighting sounds without actually making the motions,” she says: “It has a lot to do with diaphragm control and energy, but it’s become second nature. Right now, I’m pregnant and I can do Luffy while sitting in a chair, relaxed.”
As the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates, Luffy is fanatically devoted to his mates, and will go to any lengths to save them when they’re in trouble. But he’s clearly not the sharpest sabre in the deadman’s chest. When needle- nosed crewman Usopp poses as a masked super- hero, Luffy gapes at him with a fanboy’s awe.
“The rhythms of Luffy’s speech come from the fact that he doesn’t think: Everything is a little bit confused or overly happy,” Clinkenbeard says. “There’s not a lot of layers to anything he says, which is very different from almost every female character I’ve played.”
“I love him not realizing Usopp has the mask on — he never learns, which is a huge part of his charm,” she says. “Once, he was listening to all the characters describe a plan to him: When we go in there, this is what we’re going to do. Luffy says, ‘ Got it!’ I turned to the director at the end of the take and asked, ‘ Do I got it?’ He said, ‘ You don’t got it.’ I knew Luffy was going to go blasting in!”
Clinkenbeard is a popular guest at anime conventions, where One Piece fans want their hero to speak to them. “By now most people know I’m Luffy,” she concludes. “But it’s fun to have people be amazed that you’re the one who made those sounds — it kind of strokes the voice actor ego.”