Blade Runner: Black Lotus introduces a new cast of characters to the Blade Runner franchise. Following a young woman with amnesia in the cyberpunk world made famous by Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Black Lotus explores a new side of the neo-noir universe through a 13-episode anime series. Not only is the show visually stunning, but it's a delight to listen to -- thanks to the talented cast of actors who brought the people of this grungy, neon world to life.
At a roundtable attended by CBR and other press outlets, Blade Runner: Black Lotus actors Jessica Henwick, the voice of Elle, Stephen Root, the voice of Earl Grant, and Will Yun Lee, the voice of Joseph, discussed their participation in the cyberpunk series. The actors explained their experience with the Blade Runner franchise and anime as a whole, and discussed the lengthy recording process and tapping into the non-verbal components of their characters.
Blade Runner has become an iconic franchise, a fact that the actors were well aware of when they took on the gig. "I was always a fan of the movies, obviously," said Root. "After seeing the 10-minute anime bit that they did for the 2049 movie, I think that's what generated interest in doing the series now. So I was really thrilled to be able to be a part of that. I was, as I said, just a big fan." Henwick agreed, saying that the original movie was one of her dad's favorite films. "He used to quote the 'tears in the rain' monologue to me. You never think that you're going to get to be a part of the world in any way. I actually auditioned for Denis' sequel in, when was that, 2012? I auditioned and then I had to pull out of the running 'cause I got an offer that clashed. And so I thought, 'Oh, now it's really gone. I'm never going to be a part of the world.' So when I got the email offering me the role in the anime, I was thrilled."
Lee was similarly excited to be a part of the Blade Runner franchise. He recalls getting a call from executive producer Joseph Chou -- who his character is named after. "That's how hard he worked to make this series happen," Lee explained. "Either director Aramaki-san or Kamiyama-san gave him the honor of having his name in the series. So I played Joseph, and I was speechless when I heard. When he called, he said, 'It's an animation series.' When I walked into the place, I had no idea -- it just said Black Lotus. Then I walked in and saw him and then it said Blade Runner. I was like, 'I'm doing Blade Runner? This is amazing.'"
Being such fans of Blade Runner, naturally, the cast had thoughts on whether protagonist Rick Deckard was a replicant. Root always felt that he likely was, but claimed, "You watch it three different times, you get three different answers to that question." But Root isn't always thinking about questions of humanity while watching Blade Runner. "I love to rewatch the movie so I can see the dead trademarks, like TDK and Eastern Airlines or whatever is in it," Root added. "It's the best, really fun. That's a dumb reason to watch the movie, but it's so good to see that stuff come up." Henwick added, "I like the poetry of him being a replicant and that what he's hunting for is right under his nose the entire time. So I think I'll go with a replicant." Lee agreed that he was likely a replicant.
Of course, any conversation about Blade Runner and Deckard's human status inevitably turns to the movie's iconic Voight-Kampff test. Henwick described the test in Black Lotus. "I've watched the episode back and the animation is stunning," Henwick said. "I think that's the most beautiful thing about that scene to me. I actually didn't register it that much when I was performing it. I was so in Elle's headspace that I wasn't really stepping outside of it and going, 'Oh, it's so cool I get to do that!' But watching it back, it's a wonderful scene."
While Henwick, Lee, and Root provided the English voices for their characters, Black Lotus is being simultaneously released in Japanese with a different set of voice actors. While no one got to meet their Japanese counterpart, the actors discussed what an honor it would have been. "It's rare that you get to meet somebody, your alter ego," added Root. "I've never met someone who's dubbing me or who I'm dubbing," claimed Henwick. "I did occasionally get audio clips of her in the rough cut. I know she also got audio clips of me in the rough cut. If one of us had scheduled our recording session before the other. Sometimes they would just put in dialogue, even if it's in English or Japanese, just so that they can hear something there."
Henwick clarified, "I wasn't dubbing her, but I got a bit of that experience."
"You can get a tone if you hear a little bit of it," added Root.
"I wasn't trying to match her in any way," said Henwick. "Sometimes I would hear it and go, 'You know what, she killed it. So I'm just going to do what she did.'"
Lee was in a unique position of not meeting any of the rest of the cast either. "What I find interesting is that I didn't get to meet any of the cast on the American side until just now," Lee said. "You never know when you're crossing language barriers if the nuances are going to be kept. What I loved about the directors was their attention to the layers and bringing all the performances down -- going against the grain of what we considered in the past anime, being big, and trying to indicate as many things as possible. What I loved about them is even just a small breath, even when you grab something -- we would do a take where he would say, 'Okay, you're tired here, you're weary.' And we would do that take 20 or 30 times because they were just trying to get the exact emotion of the scene, which felt like I was on a film set in a lot of ways."
The actors also discussed what makes Blade Runner: Black Lotus different from other Blade Runner stories. "For me, I think having a female lead is a huge difference," said Henwick. "It's a really nice change, a nice addition to the universe." Root added, "[I'm] not a good person in this incarnation. That's not unusual for the other films, but in this film, it's a family affair. My wife is also not a fan of replicants." Lee added, "Just [that it's] being told from the lens of the replicant being hunted and the emotions that come with that. As an audience member [wondering] 'Is her heart real? Are her memories real?' I felt like that was such a cool footprint to lay down."
Black Lotus has an emphasis on physicality, with stellar fight scenes but also quiet moments where the characters show their personality through body movements. "I'm principally a character actor," explained Root. "To me, when I'm doing a character, I do it unconsciously with my whole body, not just my voice. So when I'm in the booth and when I'm within the bible of the script, your body naturally does things that that character would do. There's not a separation really between voice and what you do regularly on film. For me, it's on the page and your body takes over from there."
"I had a lot of fight scenes," Henwick added. "You have to fill those out with effort sounds and grunts. And it got to the stage where I would just say, 'Okay, just play me the fighting top to bottom.' Then I would just go through the choreography in my head like, 'Okay, I'm doing a hook, I'm getting punched and then I'm doing an upper-cut, I'm running, I'm running, I'm jumping.' I would have to learn the fight so I could do it in a very small way so that the noises were exactly right. I think that was probably my most physical."
"It's always fun to just chase the sequence," added Lee. "Where you literally say, 'Just play it.' We'll just be in it like you're in a video game, and you choose the sound and chase the hits. It's such a strange affair because if you were just a video camera and you looked into the booth, us crazy individuals are screaming at ourselves -- it's just the weirdest thing. I thank my acting teacher who made me a kazillion years ago do these weird exercises where I'd be like a tree and you'd have to stare at another person who's pretending to be a building. Just the uncomfortability of feeling embarrassed -- thank God, I got that out of the way."
Lee also addressed some of the difficult parts of making a show like Black Lotus. "I think the hardest thing is how long a show like this takes [time]," Lee said. "You'll go and shoot. You'll go and be in the booth for two days and then you won't hear from them for seven months and you come back you're like, 'What's my character's name?' I think that is the hardest thing, constantly trying to find that throughline." Root agreed, adding, "You've probably done seven or eight or nine or whatever animated things before that. To be able to have some kind of reference when you come back is really important." Root explained that they counteract this by showing clips of their performances or what's already been animated, which is helpful. Henwick added that it was this lengthy process that was making the roundtable more difficult, noting, "If we're rusty on questions, it's because we recorded this more than two years ago."
The time since the recording wasn't the only difficult timing aspect. Blade Runner is meant to be a futuristic world, but the original movie was set in 2019, a year that has come and gone already in our present. Dealing with ideas of the near-future and the quirky timeline didn't phase Henwick, however. "Because Elle is kind of timeless, I didn't really approach it as 'Let me make her sound modern,' or 'Let me make it sound futuristic,'" she explained. "She's such a fish out of water that it was more, 'Let me make her sound naive. Let me make her sound like someone who hasn't picked up modern intonation and slang' and all of that. It's like giving a baby a voice. I wanted it to sound like someone who doesn't know words. She grows throughout the season and becomes more and more firm in her voice, but at the beginning, I really wanted to sound sort of innocent."
Most of the cast have not yet seen the completed series. "I knew the weight of expectation from the Blade Runner fans was so high," Henwick said. As an anime fan herself, she knew what it was like to have those expectations. She continued, "I watched it with my brothers, and I was blown away. I think it will speak for itself. It's such a beautiful, poetic show."
Root was similarly impressed with the end product. "All you have to do is look at the trailer and you want to see the whole thing immediately," Root added. "It's amazing now that you'll get six or eight of a series, it seems like they're long movies now, but you get little bits at a time because there's this huge, beautiful, complex story. It's just you get six hours of it instead of two. I think that's helpful. You get to see a lot of backstories and a lot more complex characterization in something like this than seeing a two-hour anime."
"The only thing I saw was the trailer," Lee added. "It blew my mind away. When you watch stuff like this, you're like, 'How is this?' I come from the era of Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, and I watch this stuff and it raises our expectation of what we want to see in live-action. And you're like, 'We can't do that with a camera.' They make you feel like wow, this is an actual live-action movie as opposed to just something that was generated through -- I don't even know how they generate it. But it literally I think it will move the needle to make audiences expect more from an actual live action movie because it's breathtaking."
As impressed as the cast was with the show's footage, this was certainly not their first foray into the realm of anime. "I was a big fan of anime growing up," explained Henwick. "Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star -- the OGs. I voice a character in Blood of Zeus on Netflix, and I do a children's animated series in England, which I also write for. So no, I've been working in animation for a while and I love it, I think it's so freeing. Yeah, huge fan."
It's not anime, but Lee has also done a lot of work that has been influenced by Blade Runner, including Altered Carbon. "There are so many sequences in the first season, even the second season of Altered Carbon where -- the cast members have said it a million times, every time we entered this space, which we shot in Canada, and Skydance had built, essentially, it felt like the Blade Runner world," Lee said. "You'd walk into these stages and you would no longer feel like you were on a stage. You felt like you were in the movie. When I watch the trailer for this Blade Runner, or just being in the world of Altered Carbon, it feels like a familiar place. Which is bizarre to me, that I feel like it's a place I've been to."
The other actors can find similar Blade Runner influences on their previous projects. "The impact of Blade Runner was so huge," explained Henwick. "So much is derived from it. It's hard to quantify something that was such a huge pop culture moment." She pointed to the monologue in the rain at the end of Season 1 of Iron Fist and The Matrix as drawing from Blade Runner. "I did bring up the 'tears in the rain' monologue once on set and [Lana Wachowski] said, 'I have a whole story about that, which I will tell you,' and I never asked her for the story. I should have!"
"I was in a movie called Bicentennial Man," added Root. "I was a huge Asimov fan, anyway. So all that kind of science fiction stuff, I grew up being a huge science fiction fan. I think the first time I got to Vancouver, it looked like a science fiction city. I don't know if anybody has been there, but the buildings look like it's straight out of Blade Runner 2049. I always feel when I go there to shoot something that it should be science fiction. But that's my background, a love of science fiction."
Co-directed by Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama, Blade Runner: Black Lotus premieres on Adult Swim's Toonami block Nov. 13 at midnight ET/PT and will stream on Crunchyroll at the same time.
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