When Hayao Miyazaki announced that The Boy and the Heron might be his last picture, Studio Ghibli’s U.S. distributor GKIDS knew it had a big task ahead, assembling a very special dub cast for the English-language version of the film.
While dubs can be a contentious topic in the animated film world, GKIDS and Ghibli have always partnered up with incredible collaborators to meet the challenge. Personally, I’m a huge Howl’s Moving Castle (starring Christian Bale and Emily Mortimer) and Porco Rosso (led by Michael Keaton) dub defender, among many other Ghibli favorites. The Boy and the Heron, however, presented a unique opportunity for the distributor. GKIDS president Dave Jesteadt recently talked to IndieWire about handling what was thought to be Miyazaki’s final film (the legendary filmmaker seemingly has since changed his mind).
“This is a very complicated film,” Jesteadt told IndieWire. The Boy and the Heron centers on Mahito, a young boy grappling with the death of his mother post-World War II, who moves to a countryside filled powered by magic that he holds a special role in sustaining. It’s a fantastical and heady picture that captures the imagination in the way only Miyazaki can accomplish, and that’s tricky to explain. “I don’t think Miyazaki will ever do an interview where he lays out what it all means,”Jesteadt continued. “But we asked a lot of questions, and we got a lot of answers back… I feel really privileged to have what feels like a skeleton key for what things were supposed to represent or mean.”
Now, many of the answers didn’t come from Miyazaki directly but rather Ghibli co-founder and producer Toshio Suzuki. GKIDS had very clear instructions to follow for this release and in particular for casting the Heron role. Jesdteadt explained to IndieWire that because the film was intended to be Miyazaki’s final picture, in Japan a lot of past voice actors from previous films returned to voice characters to mark the culmination of the master’s work. Naturally, GKIDS followed suit, reaching out to various actors who had previously done English dubs—including Bale, who voiced Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle, who mirrored his Japanese Howl counterpart by retuning to voice the role of the father for The Boy and the Heron. Mark Hamill (Castle in the Sky) also returned to play the pivotal role of Mahito’s granduncle. Other Ghibli dub alums featured include Willem Dafoe (Tales from Earthsea) and Dan Stevens (Earwig and the Witch).
But when it came to the Heron, the mandate was simple and utterly unhinged, but we sorta love it. Initially upon seeing the design of the Heron, Jesteadt thought to go for an older actor, but Ghibli vetoed that, “They said, ‘Oh no, in Japan it’s actually going to be played by a young, 30-year-old hot singer-actor guy [Masaki Suda].’” Key word: hot. Ghibli asked GKIDS to cast someone who’d match that and be an inspired choice for the role. So yeah, enter A24 and Batman star Robert Pattinson, who’d been on GKIDS’ radar for some time, “One of the things that we were talking about with Ghibli was his role in Good Time and his desire to play characters that don’t fall into a typical matinee idol filmography,” Jesteadt said.
Pattinson—the third Batman actor to join the Ghibli dub line-up, after Bale and Keaton—was a natural choice. “When we introduced the film to him, he was, I would say, giddy with excitement. He was nothing but enthusiastic about the project, not only because of the film but also because of the prospect of doing this role in particular. We didn’t offer him a platter of roles— we offered him only the Heron, and he was very, very excited about being presented with a role as complicated and nuanced as this one,” Jesteadt said.
Voice director Michael Sinterniklaas was a bit apprehensive at first bringing in someone who’d never done a dub or voiceover work: “When Pattinson’s name came up, I thought he’s a fine actor but there was nothing in his body of work to indicate that he could do this crazy thing.” But as Sinterniklaas explained, he need not have worried. “When he came to our studio in L.A., he was like ‘OK, I’ve been thinking about this role and I recorded some stuff. Do you want to hear it?’ And he whips out his iPhone and plays some stuff that he’s just been doing in the Memos app and it was already the voice. I was like, ‘Oh, bingo, you’ve already got the character.’” The end result is truly a breakthrough performance; Pattinson is clearly having fun disappearing into the wild Heron persona that’s distinctly Ghibli and all his own.
Watch The Boy and the Heron in theaters now.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.
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