If you’re a fan of Critical Role, you’re likely familiar with our interview guest today. Following a tragic event that claimed the life of Taliesin Jaffe’s Mollymauk Tealeaf (long may he reign), actress Sumalee Montano was a guest star in the immediate aftermath: coming to life as the warm-hearted and maternal firbolg known as Nila, Sumalee captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Critical Role and D&D fans. Following her stellar performance in Critical Role that concluded just a few weeks ago, we reached out to Sumalee Montano to learn a bit more about her career, as well as her time on the beloved tabletop series.
What initially got you involved with voice acting work?
When I was still working as an investment banker in New York, a friend from college told me about voice acting. He knew I had acted in a lot of stage plays during school and thought I should know about voiceover. I wasn’t even thinking about changing jobs or anything, but my friend wanted to put me in touch with a voiceover actor anyway. The actor offered to do an informational interview with me over the phone, so I could ask questions, learn more about the job, etc.
Up until that point in my life, I had never met someone who enjoyed their career as much as that voice actor did. He was so happy about his work. Talking with him was eye-opening, since I didn’t really know that voiceover work existed or that you could make a whole career of it! So that one phone call, thanks to an introduction from my friend, was what started it all.
About two years later, I decided to quit investment banking. I had saved enough money to throw on a backpack and travel around the world, while figuring out what to do next with my life. Toward the end of my trip, I decided to move to San Francisco and pursue VO acting professionally.
Part of the reason I chose voice acting to start with, is that I thought my physical appearance wouldn’t factor into the types of roles I could get cast in, compared to the live-action world. There’s so much freedom in voiceover. And I feel incredibly lucky now to voice superheroes, villains, animals, giant transforming robots, and characters from 8 to 80 years old. It’s a dream job!
Weaving between live-action work and voice acting projects seems like it would be exciting, but do you find it to be challenging as well? If so, in what ways?
I feel so fortunate to be able to move back and forth between live-action and VO projects. Both feed my soul in different ways that I love.
For live action projects, I like getting “dressed up,” getting my hair and make-up done, and working on a set, opposite other actors. On a recent TV gig, I was in awe of all the design and detail that went into creating the physical space where my scenes took place. And working on a live set that’s buzzing with crew, other actors, craft services, and everyone around — it has its own magical vibe to it!
And for voice acting, I feel a different kind of joy from slipping on the headphones and seeing all the action unfold in my mind’s eye. I get to move my body as much as I want to, and I can make silly faces while I perform. And no one ever sees that, well, except for the people in the recording session. I guess I like the anonymity you feel during voice acting, as much as I enjoy acting in front of a camera that sees everything you do. I know my creative soul is happiest being able to work on both types of projects.
The biggest challenge of doing both live-action and VO work has just been scheduling. And for that, I am extremely grateful to my reps, the producers, and casting directors who make it possible for me to do both.
You’ve had the opportunity to be on a handful of major shows through the years, including E.R. Veep, NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy. Is there a show or appearance that you’re particularly interested in adding to your resumé?
What a fun question! It’s too hard to choose just one show though. I’d love to add The Walking Dead, GLOW, and How to Get Away with Murder, not necessarily in that order. Oh, and Raising Dion, the new Michael B. Jordan show on Netflix. It’s not out yet, but I’m already super excited for it!
It’s been a dream come true for me to be cast in all the shows I’ve been on. I’d also like to be a series regular on a live-action show, too. It’s such a different experience for an actor to develop a character over the course of an entire season, or hopefully several seasons. I’ve enjoyed that experience in the voiceover world, but not yet in live-action. Something to look forward to!
Your recent appearance on Critical Role was a real treat: your calming presence as Nila was generally seen as a much-needed salve for a party lost in grief. Where did you draw the inspiration for this character from?
Thank you for saying that. Being on Critical Role was a huge treat for me.
I definitely drew inspiration from my dad. He’s a big nature lover who literally hugs trees. When I was a baby, he would take me on so many fishing trips (setting me in a playpen on the riverbank), that my very first word was “fish,” well “-ish” to be exact. He also speaks in a calming way, very intentionally. I was also inspired by Native American cultures, specifically their reverence for nature. And I thought about LOTR’s Treebeard and the Ents. Love them.
One of the most impressive elements of the Critical Role fandom is the extensive library of fan-created art. I know it would be hard to pick your favorite, so what were a few of your favorites?
You’re so right. I am blown away on a daily basis by the fan art and how quickly people create it too. Some of my favorites of Nila include:
Sam Hogg’s work — particularly the mother-child image paired with Nila pulling the cage bars apart. Those two images together say so much!
And Nila napping with her new friends makes me chuckle every time. So good:
There are so many more that I love, but I know you can only highlight two or three here.
As a (relative) newcomer to the world of Dungeons & Dragons, what advice would you have for folks stepping into this expansive fantasy world for the first time?
Since being on Critical Role, I find myself talking about Dungeons & Dragons to just about anyone who will listen! I’ve been encouraging a lot of actor friends to give DnD a try, because it’s essentially long-form improvisation with some math. I can’t remember who told me that, but I love that description. It makes the game feel so much less intimidating.
My advice would be to just dive in and try it! I love learning new things. And I made a conscious choice to have fun in the process. I was also extremely fortunate to play with the best group of people you could ever ask for! I think if you stay curious and replace any feelings of intimidation with genuine curiosity and a desire to have fun, you’re guaranteed a great time.
What’s next for you? Will you be attending any upcoming conventions where fans can see you?
I feel blessed right now to have recurring roles on two different live-action shows, and I just finished filming a guest star role on another. So there will be several opportunities to see me on TV this fall. On the voiceover front, I have episodes of Voltron, Marvel Spiderman, and The Loud House on Nickelodeon, which came out recently. I’m also working on some new animated series and video games, which will be released further down the road. I just can’t talk about my involvement yet. No fan conventions scheduled at the moment, but I’m open to attending!
Any last minute plugs or announcements you’d like to share?
Since I can’t mention titles of my upcoming projects, I’ll just say, please follow me, @sumaleedotcom, on Twitter and Instagram, and I’ll keep you posted.
I also want to thank Matt Mercer again for inviting me onto Critical Role and for being the best, most amazing storyteller I could ever imagine. His guidance and how he chose to weave my character into the narrative was simply brilliant! I’m so grateful.
And thank you to the Critter community for welcoming me so warmly and showing me such kindness. In my whole career, I’ve never experienced this kind of love and support from a fan base. So Critters, you hold a very special place in my heart. My experience on Critical Role is something that I will always treasure!
The Geekly Grind would like to thank Ms. Montano for taking the time to answer our questions!