Interview: Zeno Robinson on ‘Kuroko’s Basketball’ and ‘My Hero Academia’

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From Disney’s Big City Greens to Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek, Zeno Robinson has a repertoire of diverse voice roles in animation. No longer just playing one-off characters, he’s quickly becoming a staple name in the industry. With big roles in My Hero Academia, Fire Force, Horimiya and Kuroko’s Basketball, Zeno is taking on that quarantine grind, one season of anime at a time.

On track for a third season on Netflix, Kuroko’s Basketball is a story of shadow and light. It stands as one of the most defining sports anime of the 2010s. Meanwhile, My Hero Academia is set to release another film later this year. We interview Zeno, talking about his role as the voice of Taiga Kagami in Kuroko’s Basketball and Hawks in My Hero Academia.

Mae Trumata: How did you get into anime in the first place; what is it about anime that draws you into it?

Zeno Robinson: I grew up – as a lot of people do – on anime. I’ve always been interested in those worlds and playing pretend as a kid. The complexity of the stories and the cool moves and fights were always appealing to me. Once I figured out it was something actors could do—I went to Anime Expo, the open auditions that Bang Zoom used to hold. From there, I learned that there was actually a market for it; [that] it was actually possible to play in those worlds. I auditioned for Magi the first year and I didn’t make it. Then I auditioned for Perfect Idol and I also didn’t make it. But then I auditioned the next year for Aldnoah.Zero. I won that year and got to play some incidentals which then led to me being on the roster. I started getting auditions.

MT: Let’s talk about Kuroko’s Basketball. Have you watched the series before, and what was the audition process like for it?

ZR: Actually, another member of the cast told me – Alejandro Saab who plays Kasamatsu. Whenever we would talk about anime that we should watch, he would always go, “you got to watch Kuroko’s Basketball, it’s like Dragon Ball Z but basketball”. I checked it out, but it never really sunk in for me. I never really got into it at first just because I was trying to catch-up on so many other shows. But then, I got the call that I was going to be Kagami. That actually wasn’t an audition. Sometimes, because some of these projects have to be done so quickly, [that just happens]. I was kind of hand-chosen to be Kagami, which is really interesting. From there, I started studying. I watched the first two seasons and studied Kagami – his demeanor and how he acts – to inform how I would approach it.

MT: You said you were handpicked for Kagami. What do you think is it about your voice, or maybe your personality, that makes you perfect for this role?

ZR: How we’ve approached Kagami is he’s got this fire inside of him. I imagined him in my head as always kind of mad. But it’s like, just how mad is he that day on a scale of one to ten. We describe it as like a fire; how much do I want to turn up the heat, how much is the fire to play simmering within. That’s how I approach it. I think about me in particular, it’s because Kagami is also from America. He’s got this American kind of slang way of speaking. It’s rough around the edges, sort of the street way of speaking. And I think, you know—because I’m Black—it’s easier for me to lean into that. I also play lot of angry characters really well. Mixing those two things together is probably why I [ended up] chosen to portray Kagami.

MT: Do you or have you ever played basketball? Can you relate to any of the characters and events within Kuroko’s Basketball?

ZR: I have played basketball; I’m not very good at it actually. I don’t know if there’s like a particular character that I can super relate to. Eventually, I think you kind of start to see yourself in a lot of the characters you play. With Kagami, even though I don’t relate to loving basketball in the way he does, I can relate to loving acting in the way he [loves basketball]. The thing about Kagami is he’s always up for a challenge. He’s always ready to go up against stronger, better, basketball players. You know, he’s going up against The Generation of Miracles! They’re like these prodigies and he’s kind of the underdog. And I see a lot of myself in that.

Kagami gets better when he’s on the ropes. He gets better when he’s losing, and he grows through failure, and trial and error. I relate to Kagami a lot in that aspect. Kagami likes it when he’s doing terribly and working to get better. I’m like that too. Whenever I had an acting class on, I always wanted the teacher to tell me I suck. Just tell me I’m terrible so I know what I can improve on!

Read more: Interview: Anairis Quiñones on Diversity in Anime and Voice Acting

MT: Aside from overcoming odds and the things that you learned from Kagami, is there anything else that Kuroko’s Basketball has taught you?

ZR: I very much like the idea of no matter how good you are, if you try doing everything by yourself, you end up alienating the people around you. And that’s kind of the lesson Kagami and Kuroko end up teaching all The Generation of Miracles. It’s like, you’re used to this because you’ve been handed everything, so you could just try to do everything on your own. Meanwhile, we’re stronger as a team—we’re stronger as a unit. That’s why we’re going to win. I think that’s a dope lesson to learn. Because it tells you that you can be the best at something and still work with somebody else; you can be the best at something and still make a collaborative effort to do something greater. Like in a basketball game! So, I really kind of enjoyed flipping that trope on its head.

MT: Have you learned any new voice acting techniques, or things that you’ve been doing in the booth that you’ve been able to do at home that you might carry on when you’re back in the studio?

ZR: What I will say is what I learned from recording from home and from Kuroko’s Basketball is how to use a voice I felt was way out of my playable range. So, if you listen to the first episode and later episodes, you’ll hear Kagami’s voice change just a little bit. It’s because as we moved on, I started to figure out where exactly I wanted the voice to sit. And it was in a surprising range that I didn’t know was within my wheelhouse. Learning to experiment, find characters, and learning how to act in my body when I’m stuck in my booth for eight hours is a very valuable lesson.

MT: And we can’t leave today’s interview without talking about My Hero Academia for just a little bit. But, it looks like Hawks is now playing a big role in the future of the series. What do you make of being able to play such a character?

ZR: I love it. Hawks was the first “significant character” I played in a big way. It’s great getting to return to the character every so often, getting to learn about him when I read the manga. Digging deeper into his psyche and into his personality is just a treat. It’s always a blessing, especially in a show like My Hero Academia; my favorite type of show with all these stakes and over-the-top everything. It’s like a playground! I always can’t wait to discover something new, and lean into a nuance there. I know fans really like [certain] moments; how do I honor these moments, and honor every moment? How do I make everything count, knowing what I know about what happens in the future? And how can I make this an experience that it wouldn’t be if I didn’t know what was happening?

Read more: Interview: Justin Briner And Clifford Chapin On ‘My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising’

MT: Do you by any chance relate to Hawks as a character?

ZR: I relate to Hawks as a character in a way that what I love most about Hawks is he’s always kind of wearing a mask. He’s always got the personality that he presents to you, and the personality that he doesn’t show. The clock is always ticking up in his brain, [like] in mine. And I relate to that a lot. I relate to everyone having an outward idea of who I am, but in my mind I’m like, they don’t know who I really am. He’s like, “I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to be this for the people, but for me or for the bigger picture, I’ve also got to do this”. A lot of these interesting facets that he has, the way he handles trauma, I think I’m very similar in that respect.

MT: And of course, Hawks also had a brief role in Heroes Rising. But it looks like he’ll also be present in the third My Hero Academia film as well, which is exciting. What do you hope to see for his character in this next film, and in the future of the series?

ZR: I hope to see him do more. [In] Heroes Rising, he had a bit of a brief moment [where] he was on his detective tip. I hope to see him do even more covert behind-the-scene stuff. Maybe actually get into a fight or two, take on a bad guy or two. That’s actually what I hope for the most, him getting to actually fight somebody this time around. He showed up after everything was done in Heroes Rising. And in the series moving forward, I’m just hoping people get to see his two sides; him making the big plays and playing the long game, strategizing, and doing the detective work.

MT: We talked about Kagami, we talked about Hawks. Is there a common denominator to all the roles that you’ve played that might give us an insight into who you are?

ZR: I would say a lot of the characters I play are like really chill people. But, Kagami’s not a chill guy, Garfield’s not a chill guy either. I do end up playing guys who are either really chill, really cool, like your best friend, or like really mad. I feel like those are two facets of my personality; that I’m really, really cool and chill, but I do have a switch that can turn on.

MT: And for yourself, what other ventures do you hope to achieve this year, inside and outside of the booth?

ZR: Inside the booth, I definitely hope to work on a capacity that’s creatively rich and fulfilling. I do hope I get to keep working on emotionally rich things. But, I feel like I want to work on something a little more dynamic than some of the stuff I’ve been working on so far. I can lean back on things like Kagami, and things like Hawks, which are really nice sweet spots in between everything. But really, bits that’ll really let me play and emotionally just [put] me out there with how complex [it is]; that’s what I’m looking for.

As far as outside the booth, I really would like to get into creating things. I like writing, I like creating worlds. Really, I would just like to start creating art and putting it out there and seeing what happens. That’s probably something I’d like to accomplish this year as well. Make a show or a comic or something, who knows? But I would like to tell a story that I’d like to see and have it out there.

Interview conducted by Mae Trumata


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