Set in the fictional land of Jalpur, Disney Junior’s Mira, Royal Detective is an animated mystery-adventure series for preschoolers inspired by the cultures and customs of India. The series follows the brave and resourceful Mira, a commoner who is appointed to the role of royal detective by the Queen. Airing now on both Disney Junior and Disney, each episode features two 11-minute music and dance-filled stories that, as Karen said, are magical!
In this incredible interview, Karen reveals her characters – yes, characters. Even cooler and completely fascinating, the actress takes us inside the recording booth for the process of doing voiceover work. But more on her dream experience on Mira, Royal Detective in this extensive, exclusive and, well, animated chat!
What were your first thoughts about a children’s animated series featuring an Indian girl?
It was quite an emotional moment actually. To see a show like this on Disney and have our stories told it truly is an important thing that has happened. My dear friend Geetika Lizardi, she is one of the writers on the show, called me and told me about Mira. I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘Seriously? Is this really happening?’ She said, ‘Yes! Would you like to come in? I would love the creative team to meet you.’
Tell us about your first meeting about being a part of the project. Did you cry? I imagine you did.
Yes, I did. You know I am the biggest sop there is. I find that each year that goes by I become even more soppier. (Laughs) Anything makes me cry with joy, especially if I see something so inspiring.
I went to their offices and she [Geetika] took me to different rooms where I saw storyboards. I saw sketches. I saw vision boards, and then it became more real to me. I thought, ‘Oh My Gosh’! Our creative team is so insanely talented and to see how they have brought our world to life is nothing short of miraculous and magical. I did have the cheesiest grin – it was just permanently stamped on my face. Even at home, I could not stop smiling. I also couldn’t stop thanking them for doing something so important, so needful that will last. I couldn’t express enough to them how meaningful this was to me.
They have tried to be so authentic and really true to this world in the show and the Indian culture…
What I love about this show is that the attention to detail is so wonderful. That is all down to our brilliant creators Becca [Topol] and Sascha [Paladino], who have been absolutely instrumental and proactive in making sure that the stories we tell are very authentic. The entire team is just respectful to every detail and to every nuance to make sure that it is right. The authenticity was so important to them and that shows. I am so grateful for their care and their attention to detail.
Of course it being me, I love that it has a touch of classic Bollywood with the music and dance taking the story forward.
Yes, the dancing and the choreography is so well done – they celebrate it and our culture. Our wonderful choreographers would send videos of them dancing. How the creative team have been able to take those moves and implement them into the characters… it is just absolute MAGIC! They really nailed it so perfectly!
You play three characters in Mira
You know, as an actor to play one character it is a gift, to be able to play three I was so excited! (You can hear the excitement in her voice). It is the same preparation as I would if I am filming for TV or film or voiceover work for animation. So where do you start? It is all about the personality. With each character, I look at it as a painting. You start layering the different textures and the colors of the personality. It’s finding a little something about the essence of that character and then from there you get to go and play. That is how I kind of look at it, all the different layers and then finally knowing when enough is enough, then you step away.
So for Mira, after I read the whole script, I will try different voices and you just know – it is a gut instinct. You know when you come to that voice that feels like the essence of that character. It is about finding the heartbeat of that character. Then I will record some notes for myself so I know okay this is what I am leaning towards. Then I will give them little quirks about them.
Each of the characters are so different from each other. I play two mothers Shilpa and Ashima and both very nurturing. At the same time, Shilpa is more frantic and the humor from her comes from her franticness! When something kicks off she is the first to have a mild panic attack. It is quite funny to play through that humor. Then you have Ashima, who is very grounded and very calm. For me, it was really important to make the differences between Shilpa and Ashima. I think just playing the juxtaposition of those two mums is just so entertaining. Then there is Rubi; she is a handmaiden to the queen. She has more of this open heart where, of course, if anything happens she is there she will do anything it takes to help. I love that about her.
Now, we have seen a snippet of actors doing voice recordings for animated series or films, but only snippets so how does this all work?
Every time I go into the recoding booth, every day is a day at school where I get to play, play, play. See, they don’t see you, the actor on-screen; they see you through the eyes of an animated character, so it is really important that you bring that vocal energy into your character. They now have to be able to hear you smile… you know? You have to have the energy, and it has to come through, if not you will sound flat and it will come through as flat on-screen. It is bringing to life your voice in another way, which, trust me, is just so magical. I just love it. It is finding that joy. Especially when you are doing animation, that essence and that joy can only come from your heart and your soul – literally. It is your heart and your soul coming out of yourself through your voice and then into the character and the screen. It is so had to explain – it is just tapping into that magic.
My face comes alive and I am so animated when I am in front of the microphone. I might not necessarily do that normally in front of camera because that is a much closer close up medium. But in this case especially, my face just carries all the acting and that carries through in my voice I find. It is fascinating how it all works. Also I am a very physical actor so if you see me in the booth I am always moving and it looks really funny. So if Shilpa has is having a harrowing moment because she is trying to get to a certain place and then she’s blocked off by a herd of goats in front of her then I tend to get quite physical to get that energy out. It is quite fun! If anyone, (laughs) saw me they might think I look completely crazy. I get really into it with the physicality.
It just kind of all interconnects through your heart, your soul, that joy, using your childlike imagination, then into my face, my physicality and somehow that energy just comes through to the microphone.
Most challenging thing?
Bringing a different energy to each of these three characters. There will be some days where I will be recording for all of three characters. It is a bit of a mind game… (laughs). It’s like wait, who am I again? That has been a really wonderful challenge jumping from one character to the next in literally one session. It is kind of like having multiple personalities. To play these three strong and wonderful women and with American accents too is a wonderful challenge. (Laughs)
If you have noticed, everyone is speaking with an American accent because why should we play to the stereotype… there are Indians who live everywhere around the world. I mean, I know some of Indian friends that have thick Scottish accents, or Irish accents but they are Indian… you know what I mean? So, whether you are from India, or an Indian who lives anywhere in the world, or if you are not South Asian at all this show celebrates our culture in such a relatable and accessible way. I am so excited for people to watch the show.
The funnest thing?
The most fun… my call time is not 4 in the morning! I don’t have to be in the makeup chair for three hours. I can literally come in pj’s, in my bed slippers, with my glasses on and a cup of coffee and I can just go and play (you can hear the smile). It has kind of ruined me! It is just about you showing up, being present in the moment and let that inner child come out and having fun! I pinch myself all the time, thinking my gosh, what a fun way to pay my bills! I just love it.
Once you saw it all put together what did you think?
I think being a part of it right from the embryonic stage then to see those sketches transformed into what we now know and see as the end product, it is so awe-inspiring. I wish I had that dexterity to be able to draw, to paint, and be so creative in that way, but I can only do stick people and honestly that is being kind – so I completely admire what they have done. To see it all, it literally it is the little kid in me coming out and me squealing with joy! (Laughs) My cheeks are so sore from smiling so hard. To be a part of it has been such an honor. I am so excited about season 2 and where the stories will grow into and go. There is so much opportunity. We have such a creative team; I know the imagination is endless.
As kid, did you ever think there would be a show like this?
Never! I never would have believed it. I so wanted to see a character like this, reflected on TV as a little girl. Being newly emigrated with my parents from India, you just want to be accepted into your new community. Growing up if I had a show like this I wouldn’t have felt so alone. I would have felt wow, there’s this inspiring young girl who is helping those in need, is part of the community where she fits in and I LOOK like Her.
It’s very true to the customs, traditions, the way of life with the Indian families. You see the Indian sweets – the jalebis, the bangles, the colors of the saris – I mean these are things that we grew up with. Down to the funny little sayings like Soggy Samosas. (Laughs) Or a character says I am going to go out for a lassi – I remember growing up talking about lassi and kids were like ‘What is that?’. Now, the younger kids in the South Asian community have a cartoon that they can look to and aspire too.
I remember when I was cast as Jasmine in Once Upon a Time, I never thought in a million years I would ever play a Disney character I love. That was a dream come true. Now knowing what Jasmine did for me and many other boys and girls and then seeing what Mira is going to do for young girls and boys – it just excited me! If anyone had told me when I was a little girl… well, actually when I was a little girl I would be like – Oh yeah, absolutely… because as kids we think anything is possible. As adults we tend to lose that. That is why being a part of a show like this brings out the inner child in me, that childlike innocence. It is a wonderful reminder that anything is possible. I am just so grateful to Disney, to Disney Junior for making this happen.
In the world today, I think it is really important and wonderful that this is not just for South Asian kids and South Asian adults, it is also for young kids all over and their parents that are watching, to see the show and be exposed to this culture. It is going to give more information and insight and have a huge outreach…
I think that is where I was quite emotional. Being so excited about the possibilities of the outreach that this show can transcend. To reach out to everyone, all walks of life. So our show, yes it is so important for our community, but it is moves my heart even more knowing that other people, both adult and children, have the chance to understand and embrace so many wonderful things about our culture.
The domino effect of making a show like this is such a positive. It is teaching kids from when they are young, that it is a great big world out there, but it also a small world. No matter what we are, we are still all united together! I love that a show like Mira can do that.
I think that diversity should never be a ‘trend’ as it is said to be today or an issue because we are already naturally diverse, we always were. It is all about the inclusion of all walks of life: no matter the color of your skin, hair color, nationality, ethnic background, men, women, LGBTQ – that is what our world is and in today’s day and age we need that unity. We are connected through this brotherhood and sisterhood – through our different and beautiful cultures that make up this world. With all these wonderful differences between our cultures it somehow unites us as a global family.
We live in such a divisive world and I hope with everything that is happening right now, that it will teach more compassion, empathy, patience and understanding. That is what Mira does. She and the show celebrates camaraderie, community, helping those in need. That is the essence of the show. The fact that it is out there now for everyone to see around the world… it is so… it is so… exciting and it warms my heart to no end.
Looking back over the journey what would you say?
I have done voiceover for video games, but to do animation was always a big dream of mine. I have been spoiled rotten to be part of a show with its first all South Asian cast. And to be doing a show that is so important and meaningful, like I said. To know that my nieces and nephews, my Swedish family, are watching, it is thrilling to see my friends sitting down with their children watching Mira or to know that kids from all walks of life are going to watch – it just makes it all worth it. I could not have asked for a more wonderful start to my animation work. I am just so grateful and honored to be part of such a very kind, very supportive insanely talented cast and creative team and crew. I feel very blessed and very lucky.
What else are you working on?
Going completely opposite of Mira, Royal Detective, I started as a series regular in the apocalypse – Fear of the Walking Dead. This truly has been an exhilarating and thrilling experience. As an actor, you want to do roles that are complete opposite of other roles you have played before so going from Galavant and being Isabella, to Princess Jasmine, to doing Mira, to now Grace! I get to try things I have never done before, grow as an actor so I am very grateful to being playing Grace on that show. I have been recurring on Legacies. It is like Harry Potter and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer had a baby! (Laughs) Again, the little kid comes out in me – anything with magic sign me up! I am thoroughly enjoying playing Emma Tig, the witch guidance counselor from the school. I have never played a witch before and this is an inspiring, nurturing and empowering witch. It is such an honor to play a character that is helping kids who have these extra supernatural powers, but in essence helping little kids, big kids who feel a bit different. Throw in some comedy, romance and twists and turns and it has been a really fun adventure. I love this show so much! I have been recurring on The Rookie as well. It has been so much fun working with Nathan Fillion and the gang. Nathan is so funny – I just love him. I have been playing a bit of a badass detective, so that is fun!
I have just been very fortunate that I have been able to go to many different shows. I am loving every minute of it! I am so grateful! It has been such wonderful journey since Galavant, which was really my start here in America. No matter what it is and what we do, as long as we love what we do we win at the end.
Karen is honestly one of the best and nicest people I have ever interviewed. She always gives me more in her brilliant answers and our interviews always turn into conversations! I wish her the best of luck and can’t wait to talk with her again!
On Friday, the 17th you can see her in action on the fabulous animated series Mira, Royal Detective.