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How 'Space Jam' voice actor's career is tied to his Filipino upbringing

NBC News logo NBC News 7/27/2021 Kimmy Yam
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Between fielding interviews and watching the flurry of reactions to the wildly anticipated "Space Jam: A New Legacy," voice actor Eric Bauza is taking it all in.

"Is this even happening?" an incredulous Bauza asked over the phone.

Bauza, the voice behind some of the biggest animated characters in the film, grew up a Looney Tunes stan, mimicking the voices and obsessing over all of the 1990s Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan collaborations.

Although it may seem as though Bauza's journey to Tune Town was fated, one could say it's in his blood. Bauza, 41, who voices iconic characters like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Marvin the Martian in the new "Space Jam," which was released this month, said the classic cartoons were a part of the bond between his Filipino immigrant father and grandfather.

"I hope to make him proud with all this work," Bauza said of his grandfather, whom he never had a chance to meet. Bauza said he learned through conversations with his father that back in the Philippines, the pair would often go to the movies together.

At the time, Looney Tunes had just become popular, and the cartoon shorts would often precede Warner Bros. features on the big screen, Bauza said. His father would opt to see westerns or action movies, which were popular in the Philippines during that period because of the heavy U.S. influence and history of colonization.

The cartoon franchise was shown in "little throwaway" shorts, often playing when many audience members were "probably in line or getting a soda," and missing them entirely, Bauza said. However to his father, the animations, while brief, were remarkably resonant. It didn't even matter that the cartoons were in English, which wasn't his father's first language.

The physical comedy in the shorts were a big hit in his family, and where his love of the animations can be traced. It's also a testament to the kooky franchise's unifying power.

"Looney Tunes transcends all languages and all cultures. There are some cartoons that don't even have English-speaking parts in it. There are some Looney Tunes cartoons that are pantomimes," he said. "It doesn't matter what part of the planet you're from. You get the comedy."

Bauza, who's now part of the iconic cartoon legacy, said he's still getting used to his success.

Last year, he became the voice of Bugs Bunny in "Looney Tunes Cartoons," making him the first person of color to take on the role. He was soon deluged with encouragement and adoration from the Asian American community. Around the same time, Bauza, who had initially been hired to trade lines with LeBron James and perform temporary dialogue with him, was surprised by the news that he had been cast in the independent sequel to "Space Jam," a film that defined not only his own childhood but also the childhoods of so many other kids of the 1990s.

People of Asian descent remain rare in his industry, so Bauza has become regarded as a pioneer of sorts. He has become the voice of some of the most iconic American cartoon characters, and he said his career trajectory couldn't have happened without his immigrant family.

His parents, who put down roots in Canada, were the first inspirations for his voice acting career. As a child, he mimicked their accents. Bauza said getting the accent right and doing it respectfully, in contrast to the derogatory ways people often mock different accents, required him to develop a level of precision.

"In the Philippines, my parents speak in their native language, which is Tagalog, but there's also Ilocano, which is another kind of dialect or language of Filipinos. There's little, specific differences," Bauza said. "There's so many different subcultures within each culture, and I think so many people just kind of blanket that because they're just too lazy to pick up a book and learn about it."

His attention to nuance and detail took him far, but Bauza said developing his skill also involved obsessive practice. It's all about "watching the classics, knowing the personalities and studying the new material," he said.

"I study those cartoons. I watch about an hour of Looney Tunes a day. That's like going to the gym for me," Bauza said, laughing.

Obsession and persistence, he said, are necessary to survive in the industry. While being a voice actor has shielded him from some of the discrimination that Asian Americans in front of the camera have dealt with in Hollywood, Bauza said he knows his field isn't exempt from racism or other systemic issues.

"There's always going to be misconceptions and people that fuel those misconceptions of a certain culture. It doesn't even have to be at the Asian background," he said. "People try to dismiss other people because of stereotypes. It's sad. ... We just have to keep pushing forward at the end of the day."

Bauza said people from marginalized communities will often deal with rejection in entertainment. To survive, it's critical to remember the excitement that comes with achieving your dreams, he said.

"Not every opportunity is for you. And you have to understand that," he said. "But when it is for you, you know it, and it's the best feeling on Earth, and that's what builds you up to get the next job."

Now, seeing how he has been received in Asian America, as a champion for the underdogs and a literal voice for the community, he hopes his story of grit will be a source of motivation.

"It encourages people that share my face. Or even if you don't have the same faces as me, background or culture, even if you're just scared to use your own voice, I hope that this is very encouraging for you," Bauza said. "I hope that it gives you some kind of confidence to use your own voice and to be strong."

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