Justin Briner is a relatively new face in the anime voice acting world, but he has recently skyrocketed in popularity thanks to his breakout role as Izuku “Deku” Midoriya in the hit series My Hero Academia. We sat down with him at Matsuricon 2019 in Columbus, Ohio to chat about his most iconic roles, the uniquely bizarre world of Sarazanmai, his take on whether or not Mikaela from Seraph of the End was actually in love with Yuuichirou, and plenty of other topics. Let’s hear what he has to say!
Interview with Justin Briner – Voice of Izuku Midoriya, Mikaela Hyakuya, Enta Jinai, and More!
So how did you make the jump from voicing characters in YouTube abridged series, such as teen Gohan in Dragon Ball Z Abridged, to working with Funimation?
That’s sort of a misconception, actually – it’s more like the other way around. The folks that I worked with at Team Four Star were working at Funimation. They were doing background voices with me, we did some walla [nonsense background dialogue] sessions together, and that’s how we connected. And then they were casting for one of their newer series, and they thought of my name and asked me to audition. So I sort of fell into it afterward.
Oh, interesting. Then what was the first role that you had at Funimation?
It would be Mikaela from Seraph of the End.
That’s a main character – good for you!
Thank you! It was the rise of SimulDubs at the time, so everything was sort of getting upended, and the director needed someone who sounded like a little kid. He knew me because I was just recently auditioning for him, and he called me in for that. And it ended up being a very large role!
Yeah! So how has the massive popularity of My Hero Academia changed your career? You seem to have gotten an explosion of roles after you started voicing Deku.
It’s been pretty funny and fascinating in some ways. It’s definitely made my voice more accessible – people know how I sound now. But it’s also prompted people to cast me outside of that comfort zone more often, now that I’ve pretty firmly planted my feet in this role of the young, spunky hero. I’ve been getting cast as villains or antagonists of some sort... just generally not nice people. Which has been fun! It’s cool to be able to stretch your wings in that way.
I would think that you would just end up getting pigeonholed into the same role that you always do, but did the directors actually want you to do other things?
Yeah, they definitely wanted to expand my repertoire, and I did as well. I think it’s really valuable just to be in different headspaces.
So was your role as Enta in Sarazanmai your first exposure to Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work?
I believe so, or at least working on it. I was definitely aware of some of his works before, but with this one, going into it I didn’t really know exactly what to expect.
It’s just so much all at once!
It’s a lot. And [Funimation] sent a text to me when I confirmed that I would be available for the role. They said, “So this show... it has X, Y, and Z going on. And it’s a little so-and-so in nature.” And I was like, “All right. Let’s do it. Let’s do it!”
It has a lot of butts in it.
Oh, yeah. But yeah, it was really fun! I hadn’t had an opportunity before to sing for anime.
That’s right, you’re a singer! Where do you usually use that?
I did a lot of musical theater growing up, and still now. So that’s most of where it happens.
Did you get the role because you could sing, or did it just end up that way?
I think it was a little of both. I had just done a show with the director, Tabitha Ray, where I filled in for someone. So she knew that I could sing, and I was in her mind already because it was the last show that she had worked on. [Enta] is kind of a nerdy, over-the-top character, so I see how my name would pop up. I loved playing him – it was just such a delight and so rewarding in a lot of ways.
Enta is confirmed to have a crush on Kazuki, so he’s a canonically LGBT character. And on that note, Mikaela has an unconfirmed but pretty obvious relationship with Yuuichirou in Seraph of the End. Did you approach your role as Mika thinking that he was in love with Yuu?
In my mind, absolutely yes. Even if you don’t want to go as far as calling it true love, I believe it is. Yuuichirou was his driving force for what seems like a decade – for so long, he’d been suffering, and the one light at the tunnel was reuniting with Yuuichirou. So yeah, I think there’s something deeply touching about their reunion and how Yuu came to accept Mika again. It’s really beautiful.
So, outside of voice acting, I’ve heard that you love to cook. What are your favorite dishes?
I’ve been trying to make a lot of curries lately, like Indian curries and masalas. I’ve been trying to expand my spice drawer, which is very rewarding. I like to cook French onion soup a lot... I just really like the act of cooking, messing up and trying again next time... I love the gratification that you get from making food, serving it to yourself and others, and getting to enjoy the work that you put in.
I’ve also heard that you really like Hearthstone. What makes that so addictive and fun for you?
It’s funny – I’ve sort of drifted away from Hearthstone lately, but I still love card games. I love the concept of deck building, reflecting your personal play styles in how you build the decks and what you play. I like getting up to shenanigans in card games, so I was always the player who would have the one stupid combo that I could pull off once in 20 games. But when I did, I was like, “Yes! I did it!” I also like the not hyper-competitiveness, but still the communal “we have come together to do battle in this game” feeling.
It’s competitive, but not so much that it’s obnoxious?
Right. There’s an element of luck involved, and at the end of the game you can just say, “Well, you know, it didn’t go my way.”
And you’ve said that you enjoy reading, so have you read any good books lately?
Yeah, there’s a really fascinating biography of Tennessee Williams [a famous American playwright] that I read recently [called Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog]. Basically, the premise of the book is that a young writer [named James Grissom] got in touch with Tennessee Williams, sent him some stuff just on a whim, and asked what he thought. And Tennessee Williams got back to him and said, “Hey, come to Louisiana and meet me. I want to talk to you.”
Yeah, you just have to go to Louisiana when summoned. So he sat down with Tennessee Williams, who essentially said, “Hey, I’m getting older. I can’t do this project I have in mind, so I was wondering if you would help me compile it.” So he asked this young writer to go around to different actors, playwrights, etc. that had worked on Williams' material or with him directly in the past, just to see if, “Hey, did working with me or knowing me mean anything to you?” It’s super fascinating! He’s going to see folks like Marlon Brando and others.
That’s really interesting! Did you ever perform in any Tennessee Williams plays?
I don’t think so, but I still do theater now. I haven’t done as much of it since getting involved with voice over, just because I haven’t had the time to devote to it as much, but it’s still kind of my first love and I will always feel at home onstage. I’m sure I’ll make my way back there someday.
Do you get typecast as young, spunky characters in theater, too?
I get cast as the highest singing voice that you need! (laughs) So wherever your median voice is, I’m up at the top.
So what has been the most rewarding part so far of working in the anime industry for you?
It’s twofold – it really is. On a personal level, I feel very rewarded to be able to work consistently and tell these really amazing stories. You get the instant feedback from directors, you get to make adjustments, and it feels like you’re really working in that moment towards something. And now, with Funimation, you basically get to see it the next week – it’s out there for public consumption! So that’s pretty fascinating.
But then, on the other side of things, I’ve really been humbled by the community aspect of anime. To be doing these conventions now more frequently and getting to meet folks who have been so moved by work that I’ve done or been a part of is extremely humbling. And now, with the advent of My Hero Academia being so astronomically popular, I’m even more honored to hear stories like, “This show moved me out of a personal depression” or “It motivated me to make some physical change in my life” or even something simple like “My family watches this show every weekend.” I think that’s the most special thing!
Aww, I want to watch My Hero Academia with my family. That’s so sweet!
Nothing negative about it, but anime was stigmatized when I was younger – it was just not cool. People got together and still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what it is now. To see anime and video games cross into the pop culture mainstream so heavily is really amazing. So to be a part of that, I think, is very special.
Have you had any interactions with My Hero Academia fans or cosplayers that were particularly impactful to you?
I mean, I love all of the cosplayers who come by. The best, I think, is when you get younger kids who come up. I’m talking to them, and I see their eyes light up – there’s some sort of connection being made and the synapse fires, like, “Oh, I know that voice!”
I just love the amount of emotion that you put into Deku’s voice. He’s got a lot of big shounen speeches, like his speech to Todoroki in the Sports Festival arc.
Thank you! I love being a part of it. It’s very special to me, and we really put a lot of love into it, so it’s nice to see that it’s taken on a life of its own.
I’m just really glad that the show has become a phenomenon because it’s such a wholesome story.
It is! It spreads a lot of messages about positivity and promoting your self-worth, and those are lessons that I think kids need to hear growing up. So if you’re rooting for Deku, you’re rooting for yourself. And just following your dreams – you can do anything you set your mind to with enough persistence and dedication.
Well, thank you so much for chatting with me. Enjoy the rest of Matsuricon!