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Voices: Wallace Shawn & Sarah Vowell

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Wallace Shawn is literary royalty; Sarah Vowell, an indie-radio darling. Each is known for a—to be kind—distinctive voice, and in The Incredibles play (respectively) an unctuous executive and a superhero.

You’re both writers. Describe the sound of your voice.
S.V.: Ah, this leads into clichéd self-deprecating territory. I play a teenager, and I probably don’t sound old enough to be a teenager. I never liked it. It’s nasal and high-pitched and weird. I remember in The Scarlet Letter, there’s this little devil-child, Pearl. I don’t remember how Hawthorne described her voice, but that’s what I feel like, the Annoying Devil Child. But I’ve been working with radio since 18, and I’ve made quite a bit of money off it. I wouldn’t bite the throat that feeds me.
W.S.: When I was in high school and in chorus, the music director complained that my voice didn’t blend in. He even joked about the Shawn Tone. I don’t really know what he meant—except that he really felt that it didn’t blend in well with the other tenors.

How did you get this gig?
S.V.: Brad Bird, the director, heard my story about my father on “This American Life.” It is sort of weird, when you fear that you sound like a cartoon character, and then a director of an animated movie calls you up.
W.S.: Pixar movies are how I live. I was the dinosaur in two Toy Stories, and played that same dinosaur in Monsters, Inc. But I don’t do anything I’ve been asked to do: If it offends me, I turn it down. Most things do offend me.

Is Hollywood your NEA?
S.V.: My endowment is the lecture circuit: gouging college students.
W.S.: My writing is, uh, strange and appreciated by the few—and not even all of them. In some ways, even, my body is a little bit avant-garde. But my voice is popular. I have a different agent representing my body and one representing my voice.

Is it odd to be cast as an oddball? Especially since you weren’t called on for your acting in this case so much as to sound like, well, yourself.
S.V.: I’ve always been attracted to those kind of characters: Wednesday Addams was a huge influence on me. Wednesday was one of my nicknames in college. And I always like it when that girl gets to be the hero instead of some cheerful blonde person.
W.S.: In my real life, I’m not a character actor and I don’t have a funny voice. I don’t think of myself as what E. M. Forster called a flat character. In my real life, I’m a leading man. In my daily life, I’m a romantic hero.


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