Otaku USA Magazine
INTERVIEW: Returning to Black Butler with Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum

After a hiatus, the Black Butler anime is back with Black Butler -Public School Arc-, now streaming on Crunchyroll. That also means that Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum are back to play their characters, Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis, respectively. Otaku USA spoke to Palencia and Tatum about what it’s like to return, what they do to get into character, and how they’ve changed since they last recorded these roles. Read on for one hell of an interview.

So what is it like returning to Black Butler after the hiatus?

BRINA PALENCIA: It’s such a privilege as an actor to get to live with the character for so long. There are so few mediums where you’re able to do a character for many years, and then take an almost 10-year hiatus, and then return to that character. It’s incredible. I don’t even know how to describe it. I just feel really grateful to have the opportunity.

J. MICHAEL TATUM: Yeah, yeah, same. It’s so nice when you get to be involved with something that has such longevity to it. It just makes you feel like you’re part of something really special and really big. It’s also really fun, and a very rare thing to happen in this business, where we get to come back to a role after taking a break for a little while. I have more life experience to bring to the role now. How can I dovetail that with the job? How have I changed, how’s the character changed, how has the audience changed? It’s really interesting and it becomes a kind of a benchmark, you know, in terms of your own career, being like, “Oh, wow, that’s right, I did that 10 years ago. Now it’s back. It’s so nice that people still think about that.” Because 99% of the things you do as an actor are so ephemeral. You have a great time doing them, and then you never really get a chance to revisit it, except through the eyes of fans who may tell you in person if you see them in public or something, “Oh, I loved you with this.” So it’s really nice to get to reprise that. It’s such a gift.

I don’t know about you, Brina, but I suspect you’re the same, being kind of a perfectionist; we always want to go back and go, “Oh, I’d do that differently now if I could” or “I wish I thought of that way of approaching the role that I didn’t have under my belt back when we were first doing it.” And now it’s like, “Oh, I can do that now.” [laughs]

BP: Exactly, yes. There’s so much that we have learned. just acting-wise, or just life-wise. What makes a huge part of being an actor is just experiencing life and having life experiences to draw from. And we have significantly more now.

JMT: Yes, yes, we do.

How do you think your characters have developed in this new season compared to who they were at the beginning of the show?

BP: In the -Public School Arc-, we get to see Ciel in an environment that we have never seen him in, and that is with his peers, with other kids. I love how flustered it makes him. He has no idea what to do with himself. He goes in thinking that it’s going to be so easy, like he’s just going to be like, “Oh, whatever, I have to deal with these kids.” And then, oh wait, that’s right, high school is, like, the hardest part of life.

[both laugh]

BP: I just love how angry he gets by the fact he keeps getting bested by these children.

JMT: I love it. I love it, too. I feel so much of Sebastian’s persona depends on where Ciel is in his life. Because I think Sebastian kind of wears his butler persona as a reflection of Ciel’s unconscious. So there are subtle differences. What Sebastian we get today depends on what Ciel we’re getting today. We see Ciel in such a wonderfully relatable context. Most of us maybe can’t relate to being part of a dark circus [laughs] or involved in a murder mystery party or something like that. But I think all of us can relate to the hell that is school life. Sebastian has taken more of a backseat, more of a an observant role in this version. Up to this point he’s been sort of a mentor to Ciel in some ways, and now he gets to explore that phase of mentorship where he has to let Ciel kind of leave the nest and fly on his own while he gets to watch him, sort of like, “Interesting, interesting, interesting choice.”

BP: You get to see him flounder a bit.

JMT: Yeah, which Sebastian, I think, does take a little bit of satisfaction in. [laughs] But Sebastian, I think, is always very concerned with Ciel’s growth, and how the pressures of whatever situation he’s in will change him. Because it will reflect on him as well. And so it’s interesting to watch Sebastian. He’s cooler . . . a little more . . . I don’t want to say cooler, because he has always been cool. But he’s a little more remote in this one, which I think is really fascinating.

BP: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

JMT: And also I love the fact that his cover as one of the teachers now gives him the opportunity to be just a little sarcastic, a little barbed with Ciel in a way that he can’t afford to be in other contexts. It’s so much fun to watch that become the dynamic, where they’re like, “Oh, nice to meet you, too. Oh, yes, well done. Hmm. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.” It’s really funny to watch them pick on each other in secret.

[both laugh]

Do you do anything in particular to get into character?

BP: My biggest thing is that I have to practice the dialect, so I watch a lot of British television. I try to watch at least one episode of something before I go in, and just repeat everything that I hear to try to get my mouth warmed up into that accent.

JMT: Sebastian lives so close to where my natural voice is. There’s not a whole lot of prep. It’s more of an attitude. I have a whole playlist of music that I listen to prior to going in for a session and it’s all Classical. It’s all kind of dark and a little sinister, maybe even a little sarcastic.

BP: You listen to that anyway.

JMT: I know. [laughs] I said he was pretty close to me.

[both laugh]

Can you share some of the music you listen to for him?

JMT: I listen to a lot of Baroque era music. I love Vivaldi.

BP: The Four Seasons.

JMT: It’s a great thing, but there’s some more obscure composers perhaps that I really love as well. It just sort of depends on the mood. I feel there’s a certain elegance and an airiness, a lightness to Sebastian’s demeanor. For all its sinister implications, I tend to think of him as kind of airy, like a zephyr or something. I try to reflect that in the voice. The music helps me do that. Ironically, it tends to be music that’s recorded in a cathedral [laughs] because that sort of stuff was written to be played in that kind of venue. So when you can find a recording that’s true to that spirit, you’re really getting the experience of the music as the composer intended. And ironic that it helps with playing a demon [laughs]. At least in my case.

Are there parts of yourselves you bring out to play these characters?

BP: It’s so interesting, because when I first started voicing Ciel I was pretty young, I was in my early 20s. Returning to him, I’m now a mom, and I wasn’t a mom before. In the beginning I felt a lot more like I was empathizing with him, and I was just kind of on his side. I was like, “Yeah, man, don’t let go of that anger. Bleh. Screw society!” But now, watching him as a mom, I have a son and I think about everything that Ciel has been through. Honestly, it’s just heartbreaking. It hurts my heart to think of him. When I watch him in the -Public School Arc-, to me he puts on that fake sweet voice. He has those moments where he’s seemingly connecting with these other boys, and I want that for him. You know? But it’s not real. It’s all just a facade for him to be able to fulfill his duty as the Queen’s guard dog. There’s so much more to it now, having had a child, but then also having gone through therapy [laughs] and letting go of my own anger issues, and just kind of being like, “Oh gosh, everything that he’s feeling is just really, really intense grief. It’s all just a disguise for his grief that he doesn’t know how to process because he’s a child. I definitely have a lot more sympathy versus empathy now, as a more grown adult.

JMT: That’s another thing that makes coming back to these roles such a gift. You relate to them differently because you’re relating to yourself differently now as a person. You suddenly go, “Wow, my feelings about this character have changed.” And so naturally that changes your approach because now it’s a different kind of challenge. It’s one thing to play a character that you see of as out-there, that you have to kind of figure out and get your head around so that you can breathe life into the performance. It’s another thing to be like, “Oh, I relate to this so much.” Then the challenge is finding the distance, so that I don’t lose myself in this role.

BP: Right.

JMT: I can imagine that struggle because Brina is so good at feeling the reality of the character she’s playing and bringing herself into it. With Sebastian, I’ve never been a demon, despite what some people would tell you from my childhood. But I do come from a long line of teachers who took a lot of pride in mentoring young people, and I’ve been a teacher myself. I try to think of it like that. Ultimately, Sebastian is just a demon who’s playing with his food. [laughs] But I think the profound respect he’s developed for Ciel, seeing him in this wide variety of context, some of them very dark, some of them very funny, has really deepened his respect for Ciel’s capability. I think Sebastian has developed a lot of sympathy for Ciel and that changes the performance. It’s sort of like watching someone that you’ve mentored suddenly go out of their own, to the point it’s like, “Oh, now you’re where I can’t really help you anymore,” except as sort of a background supportive role. I have to be here and hope for the best for you, because I can’t take a more active role in your development anymore. That’s a difficult phase for any teacher to go through, especially when you’re invested in a pupil. It’s sometimes hard to let them go and realize that, oh, your role has to change now because they may not need you as much. Maybe it’s counterproductive for you to continue protecting them or caring for them, because it’s time for them to leave the nest. So it has changed. And I’ve had that experience. I’ve had that experience with students, I’ve had that experience with people that I’ve mentored, where I have to draw that boundary and realize that my role is over now in that capacity. It’s an interesting journey and it is such a blessing in so many ways to start as a mentor and as a friend. I’ve had more of that experience in my life since the last time we’ve donned these characters, so I get to bring that in the role. Because I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been through this a couple times since then.”

BP: Yeah, totally.

JMT: How interesting that Sebastian’s kind of going through that right now. Huh. Weird.

BP: Huh.

JMT: It’s almost like they’re watching us, Brina.

[Palencia laughs]

JMT: It’s almost like, “What if we put that in the show?” [laughs] Not that I’ve ever been Brina’s mentor in real life. She needs no mentoring from me. But you know what I mean.


Black Butler Image Credits: ©Yana Toboso/SQUARE ENIX,Project Black Butler


Danica Davidson is the author of the bestselling Manga Art for Beginners with artist Melanie Westin, plus its sequel, Manga Art for Everyone, and the first-of-its-kind manga chalk book Chalk Art Manga, both illustrated by professional Japanese mangaka Rena Saiya. Check out her other comics and books at www.danicadavidson.com.