If you were seated at the next booth, you'd have thought I was having lunch with a family that could fill up a station wagon--a squalling baby, a bratty little boy, a precocious little girl, an affable mother, not to mention a frisky puppy with the world's most ingratiating little bark.
But the only person with me was Debi Derryberry, the voice actor who plays Jimmy Neutron, the star of Nickelodeon's new animated film "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," which opens Friday. That's right: Jimmy Neutron is a woman! And as it turns out, a woman with considerable talents. Though tiny in stature--she's 4 feet 101/2--Derryberry is an imposing presence behind a microphone, having spent the past 15 years doing a vast array of voices in animated films, TV shows and commercials. If you watch family films or Saturday morning TV, you've probably heard Derryberry's orchestra of voices dozens of times over.
In video and film, she's played Whispers in "Whispers: An Elephant's Tale" and Annette in "Lady and the Tramp II," as well as the baby maggots in "A Bug's Life," a puppy in "Babe" and additional voices in "Toy Story." On TV, she's Weenie the dog and Katrina the caterpillar on "Oswald the Octopus," and she's played Jeannie in the Emmy Award-winning "Life With Louie" as well as Wednesday on the animated TV series "The Addams Family." She also was Zack Putterman in the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed Duracell battery ads.
But Derryberry's lead role in "Jimmy Neutron" is a huge breakthrough. It's the biggest part of her career and a launching pad for more exposure; she also plays Neutron in a Nickelodeon TV series due next fall and does his voice in ads and toy product tie-ins. Neutron is a gadget-inventing 8-year-old who builds a homemade spacecraft to save his parents from egg-shaped alien invaders.
But don't count on seeing her on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" or "Good Morning America" any time soon. When "Jimmy Neutron" had its premiere recently, Paramount Pictures, which distributes Nickelodeon's films, kept Derryberry out of sight.
Paramount has taken such a John Ashcroft-style veil-of-secrecy approach that I had to interview Derryberry without the studio's knowledge. The studio has been trying to keep her under wraps until after the movie's release, worried apparently that it might confound viewers to learn that Jimmy Neutron was played by a woman.
Voice actors are among Hollywood's unsung blue-collar craftspeople. They don't have publicists, get written up in gossip columns or have Oscar-campaign ads in the trade papers. After "Will and Grace" became a big hit, NBC gave the show's stars Porsche Boxsters. After "The Simpsons" became a hit, Fox gave its voice actors bowling balls.
"You could look at it that the bowling ball will still be in good shape long after the Porsches are rusted-out hulks," says satirist Harry Shearer, who voices a number of "Simpsons" characters. "Or you could look at it that what we do is viewed as a lot more invisible."
A warm, gregarious woman who admits to "pushing 40," Derryberry lives in Toluca Lake with her husband, Harvey Jordan, and River, their 7-month-old son. She spends her days racing around to auditions and recording sessions, keeping track of her schedule on a Palm Pilot. At night she sings in Honey Pig, a three-woman country band that has a CD available on Amazon.com. In "Jimmy Neutron," you can hear her ad-lib-crooning a few lines from "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal," one of her favorite John Anderson songs.
In recent years, thanks to a production boom in animation, a host of movie stars has been moonlighting as voice actors for high-profile films such as "Shrek" and the "Toy Story" films. "It's the hottest gig in show biz right now," says Larry Hummel, co-head of agency ICM's animation department, which handles Derryberry and a number of respected voice actors. "When we have new actor clients, they always want to get to know the animation department."
Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers will get roughly $10 million each to voice their characters in DreamWorks' "Shrek 2," a hefty raise from the $350,000 they were paid to do the original. But the pay scale for rank-and-file voice actors is far less lucrative. Voice actors who perform on Saturday morning cartoon shows are paid day-player rates: $636 per four-hour session, plus a 10% agency fee. Prime-time animated shows pay roughly $4,000 per session.
The big money comes from a long-running TV hit or an animated feature. The six "Simpsons" voice actors won a new contract earlier this year that pays them $100,000 per episode, the equivalent of $2.2 million per year. Hummel says established voice actors, like Derryberry, have a yearly income in the six-figure salary range, with a big chunk of that coming from TV and home-video residuals.