Tia Ballard has been in the voice acting business since 2010 and has voiced some of your favorite heroes in anime. She’s best known for bubbly and cute characters like Happy from Fairy Tail and Shao Mei from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but she has recently branched out with roles like the mature Zero Two from Darling in the Franxx. We sat down for a chat with her at Colossalcon in Sandusky, Ohio, and she opened up about all kinds of things: her motherly instinct towards the characters she plays, the unusual route she took to become a voice actor, and even her love of gardening. Let’s hear what she has to say!
Interview with Tia Ballard
How did you get your first voice acting role?
I was born in a little tiny country town where everyone was pretty much a farmer or a teacher. I graduated with like 20 people; it was very very small. Right out of high school, I became an art major because I wanted to be creative and not talk to anybody—I was very shy. After that, I went to the Walt Disney World College Program because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, so I was like, “I’ll just work for Mickey Mouse!”
(laughs) That’s a valid point!
Yeah! I thought, “I know... cartoons... uh, Disney??” I got to see people who had worked there in the park for their entire lives, their entire careers, and they were so happy doing it. And it really showed me that you can do whatever in this world. And I said, “Okay, I’m going to be in cartoons. That’s my choice.” So I looked up, in my country town, what’s the closest place they do cartoons? And it was a place called Funimation in Dallas, two hours away.
So you were in Texas to start with?
I was in Texas to start with, and then I went to Florida. And while I was in Florida, I started doing all this research, and then I said, “Okay! That’s where I’m going to work!” So I came home and changed my major to Speech & Communications so I could get over my shyness and then Theater so I could learn how to act. And through meeting people and speaking up about what I wanted, I got my first audition and that’s where I’ve been ever since!
That’s awesome! So you had the idea to be a voice actor before you chose your path in college.
I decided, “I love cartoons, I want them to be a part of my life somehow... I’ll do voice acting! That’s what I’ll do!” And it was one of those things where I didn’t realize how hard that might be. It was just this blind, “Okay!” And it worked out for me!
There’s that saying that if you don’t know it can’t be done, then you can do it!
It reminds me of Cats Don’t Dance, when he’s going to California and he’s just, “I’m going to be an actor!” And it’s not as easy as he thought it would be.
But for you, it worked out! And you were lucky that you were close to Funimation, that’s great!
So I’m a big Fairy Tail fan—love you as Happy—and you’ve been playing him for about 8 years since the anime started. Do you notice any differences between your performance way at the beginning and your performance now?
I’ve grown up a lot. When I started as Happy I was so shy, I was a newbie, it was my first year voice acting, so I was like, “I hope I’m not screwing this up!” And now I’ve been playing Happy for a quarter of my life.
It’s insane! I have con people come up to me and say, “I grew up with you!” And I’m like, “What!? How old are you?” And they say, “23,” and then I’m like, “Oh, all right... fair enough.” So when Happy meets Carla, his voice gets a little deeper.
Because he’s trying to impress her?
He becomes a man, I think. And that was a choice by the director [Tyler Walker], so Happy is a little deeper than he was at the beginning.
Oh, so he permanently does that?
Yeah, he kind of drops his voice just a little bit. I mean, it’s the lower high pitch, so no matter what, he’s high pitched. But the only thing that’s really changed about my performance is that it takes me a lot less time. In the beginning, it took forever, but now a session as Happy is so fast.
Because of outtakes? Because of not knowing what you’re doing?
Because of being scared. You know, for new actors it takes some time to get comfortable in the booth. You think, “Oh, I hope I don’t screw up!” And then you stumble over your words or whatever, but now it’s like, “I know all of you guys and I’m in here in my pajamas.”
So the Fairy Tail manga already ended, but the anime is ending pretty soon. Do you feel sad that you won’t be able to play Happy anymore?
Here’s the thing—when I started playing Happy, I thought season 1 was all we were going to get. And then I thought season 2 was, and then I thought the movie was, so I feel like I’ve had all of these false endings forever. It’s not like I have insider information or anything, but I kind of feel like I’m going to be playing Happy for a long time. And he lives on at these conventions! I get to do his voice all the time and there’s so much love for him.
I’m also a big Fruits Basket fan and I saw that you took over for Kagura in the new 2019 anime, since the 2001 anime is from before you started voice acting. So do you try to reference Meredith McCoy’s performance at all or do you just try to do your own thing with Kagura?
So when I was cast as Kagura, I did research on her. I listened to the original, but I knew that Caitlin Glass—that’s the director—had so much love for the show and would have her own unique vision of where she wanted Kagura to go. So I did listen to her original voice, but once I came into the booth, Caitlin and I were able to explore and just kind of redefine her as a character.
Also, the English voice cast for some of the main characters like Tohru, Yuki, and Kyo did return from the 2001 version. Do you feel like an outsider or a newcomer at all compared to the actors who know their characters very well?
When I start a character, before I try to voice them, I try to get a good grasp on who they are. So I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t know Kagura because when she comes in, I’m like, “Oh, I love you! You’re insane! I’m all about it!” My respect is all about the character, so I wanted to do her justice and take care of her. Especially being a show that’s so well loved, I wanted to honor the character and, in that way, honor the fans. If I had any worry at all, it was, “Let me take care of her.”
That’s a really interesting philosophy! I like it.
Thank you! As far as I’m concerned, I feel like I’m the middleman. Say you’re a Happy the Cat fan and I meet you at a con. I might be the closest that you feel like you can get to Happy, so I’m the middleman to link our worlds.
The intangible anime world and me...
So you tend to play characters with high pitched voices, but you also recently played Zero Two from Darling in the Franxx, who has more of a mature feel going on. How did you get cast for that?
Clifford [Chapin], who is the director, called me and said, “Hey, do you want to be in this new show?” And I said, “Yes!”
Yep! And man, it blew me away that it’s gotten such a good response! I never really research that stuff. So when I come to cons, it’s like, “Hi! Look at all the Zero Twos!” It’s super exciting! I love playing her very, very much—I relate to her a lot, she’s beautiful. I think we can all relate to Zero Two—rather than [other people] thinking of her as, “Oh, she’s a monster,” she thinks of herself as a monster and as unlovable. And I think we’ve all had times where we feel that about ourselves, so when I played her, that's what I started with. Not feeling worthy of love, but wanting it so deeply.
The show really is a lot about teens and their relationship with love and self-acceptance, so that’s a really interesting way to go about playing your role. “I am a teenager who feels that they’re unable to be loved,” and that’s where the basis for the character is coming from.
Yeah. “I’m different, so that’s wrong.” And it’s about finding out that it’s not wrong, and that you are lovable! You just have to find the right person and the right people.
Small note here: I also adore Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and I love the fact that Shao Mei never speaks English, but is an amazing character regardless.
Yeah, when I got cast as Shao Mei, I was like, “Oh my gosh! I used to watch Fullmetal in high school!” And now I get to play the panda! And I think... Ed and Al’s mother, I play her as a little girl. It’s in like one episode for one second, but I thought, “I’m their mother! Without me, none of this would’ve happened...”
This is less voice acting related, but you’re working on getting your teaching degree. How is that going?
Yeah, I am! So I have an associate’s degree in Speech & Communications and Theater, and then I went through a really bad breakup. During that healing process, I was like, “I want to do something new! I’m going to get my teaching degree!” So that’s where that came in. But I absolutely love to teach. I teach voice over classes, children’s theater, things like that. So if it ever comes to pass that I want to change careers, that’s definitely what I’ll do.
So this is for when/if voice acting is done?
Yeah! I never thought I would ever want to be a teacher, but then the older I get, the more I love it.
You said that you’ve taught kids and college students, but what would be your dream class that you would want to teach?
I would want to teach art to middle schoolers. I love middle schoolers because they’re at that terrible place between growing up and being a kid, so nobody likes them. So I take that as a challenge! I would do a really hippy-dippy art class where we learn about self-love and color and “You’re beautiful!”
What art project would you have them do to help them love themselves?
Oh my gosh, that’s a great question. I think the entire year would be a practice in self-love; I don’t think it would just be one project. It would be like, “I see where you’re starting—I want to make you a better person by the end of this.”
Also, what organizations do you like volunteering for?
Last year, I decided to become a Master Gardener. I wanted to become one because I love gardening and plants, and Texas has a Master Gardening Association in almost every county. My county had six months of classes and then 70 hours of volunteer work. So I did that and it was an amazing experience. I sat with about 60 people and they were all retired except for me, and it was amazing because nobody cared or knew who I was. They gave me all these different volunteer opportunities! So, for instance, I volunteered at a nature reserve, you can volunteer at an old folks’ home planting gardens for them...
So they’re all kind of gardening adjacent.
Yes! Juvenile delinquent kids—who were my favorite because I like a challenge, you know. Some of their community service involves planting gardens and things like that, and so I helped them.
Nurturing life! I sense a theme.
I know, I’m very Mother Nature-esque. (laughs)
You’re also working on a children’s book and an audio drama, right?
Yes, I’m working on a kids’ book that’s based on my dad when he was younger.
Does it have gardening in it?
It is plant-based, I will say. It’s a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart. My dad was dyslexic and he was raised at a time where people didn’t quite know how to deal with problems like that. So he was kind of treated as an afterthought or a brat or a delinquent bad kid. I don’t enjoy that stigma, and sometimes when you have problems, no matter what type of problems they are, you don’t know how to deal with it. You could lash out, you could pull in—there are all these ways of healthy coping, and also unhealthy coping. And the book is going to be about a kid who’s got that type of issue. He may have it, and he doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions, but he’s got so much love and he’s such a good person still.
And then my audio drama is about a murder. (laughs)
(laughs) Uh... cool! That one’s not plant and “love yourself” based, I assume.
C’mon, I’ve got to have my Disney and my Eminem. You have to have balance!
No, I love it! And I think the children’s book will be helpful for anime fans and the con audience because a lot of us have mental disorders like that. We grew up not knowing how to express or love ourselves, and we carry that with us as adults. So I think that just because of who you are in the anime industry, you could make a good impact.
Absolutely! And thank you. I definitely have a unique platform, and it’s just about reminding people like you that you are lovable, and you are worth it, and... I don’t know. I’m just blessed to be here with people.
So speaking of fans, what have been some of your favorite fan interactions at cons?
I know this is going to sound corny, but... all of them. Even ones that are rude or whatever. Listen, my job is talking to myself in a closet all day. So when I get to say, “Hi, human being!”, I always have a really nice time.
And what do you find to be the most rewarding part of your career?
Absolutely it’s watching people grow. Watching people grow through the characters I get to play, and by extension, they watch. Today, I had a guy say, “Fairy Tail got me through college.” And that’s amazing! Things like that—helping people along on their journey, whether it’s actual people, or whether it’s a character!
It’s rewarding to see a character grow and change over time?
Yeah! They’re my babies. I’m ready for Happy to have kittens with Carla. I’m like, “My baby, please!” I’ve been wanting him to have kittens since I was cast.
Was there anything else that you wanted to mention?
I will say that you can catch me on Twitter at @tiatoony, and my art Instagram is @tiatoony as well. My normal Instagram is just @missballard.
Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us! Have a great rest of your con!