We sat down with the voice behind Big Nate from the new series Big Nate (2022), Benjamin Giroux, and got to talk with him about the series, recording during the pandemic, improvised comedy, and much much more!
One of the works you’re best known for is your portrayal of The Toddler in Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger and Danger Force franchise, one of the network’s most successful and long-running franchise. How do you think The Toddler and Big Nate would interact with each other?
There are actually some similarities between The Toddler and Big Nate! The Toddler started off as Henry Danger’s OG villain, a gangster, an evil manbaby. Certainly, there are no similarities there. But The Toddler has recently taken on new life on TikTok. I’ve amassed 4.5 million fans that view The Toddler as less of a villain and more as a likable prankster. And that’s LITERALLY who Big Nate is! He is a very likable prankster. He’s mischievous, he’s precocious, he gets his friends into tons and tons of trouble with hijinx and misadventures. In that sense, I think there are some parallels with how the Toddler has evolved over the past years. I think they both enjoy some pranks!
That actually brings me to my next question. As you mentioned earlier, you’re verified on social media and have a TikTok account with over 117 million likes and over 4.5 million followers. All that being said, what would Big Nate’s favorite TikTok Trend be?
My followers are all young. (My follower count) is up to 4.5 million kiddos. I’m super grateful to be able to connect directly with the fanbase. The Big Nate Universe takes place in a different era. The PS38, the school that Nate and his friends go to, is this underfunded public school. All of the technology is outdated. You might see VCRs and chalkboards.
The music from the show also harkens back to another era; We use a lot of music from the 80s and 90s. So I’m not sure that Big Nate would have social media. I think part of the charm of the show is that he makes his pranks happen through analog, old-school, retro methods with his friends. If he did have social media, he would probably use it to create some sort of epic, digital prank against his arch-nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, his social studies teacher.
It’s funny because, in many ways, I’m using modern technology in social media and TikTok to promote a show that really harkens back to the old-school Nicktoons, the OG Nicktoons from the 90s. Shows like Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy! I think (Big Nate) has a lot in common with those shows.
You mentioned the 90s influence on your show’s music. I want to talk a little more about that. You created the viral music video “Back to the 90s” which received over 100 million views, charted on Billboard, and landed you in Las Vegas with The Backstreet Boys. Will you be bringing your musical ability into the series? If so is there any particular performance that you’re most excited for audiences to see?
I love the connection you created there! So I LOVE creating viral hip-hop comedy music videos. Yes, it is certainly a niche of viral content that I create, but I love it! I love nostalgia. I have always been obsessed with nostalgia and I think one of the ways that we can celebrate nostalgia is through music. So my music video, Back to the 90s (2017), charted on Billboard, we amassed 100 million views, we joined the Backstreet Boys in Las Vegas; It was a crazy experience that launched me on a path to creating more and more music and comedy content. We did Back to the 80s, our sequel video that did quite well, and we’re currently working on Back to the 2000s.
So the answer is yes! Once I knew that Big Nate (2022) revolved around music, particularly music with a bit of nostalgic twist to it, I started talking to the creative team about it. In the comic strips and book series that have been going on since the 1990s from the creator Lincoln Pierce, which our series is based on, Nate is actually a terrible singer in his band. In the book series, the band is called Enslave the Mollusk and in the show, it’s called Fear the Mollusk. Once we started working on the show, I started to tell the team “hey I really like to sing and it’s something that I do,” and they started to allow Nate to sing a bit more in the show. I think we’ve done 22 original songs in the first season of the show. I (also) sing the theme song of the show. In an upcoming episode, my writing partner, Arnie Pantoja (voice of Teddy Ortiz), and I wrote a song that they based an entire episode around. So we’re very excited about that as well!
That sounds super exciting! In speaking of the comic series, what’s the process like of picking a voice for a character that’s never had one but has been around for so long? Because Big Nate has existed for 20+ years, everyone reading him probably has a different voice inside their head, does that make it stressful at all to have to decide on one and zero in on it?
That’s a great question! I certainly feel like there was an added sense of responsibility because Big Nate has an existing global fanbase from the comic strip and the book series that’s been going on for almost 30 years. And you’re exactly right: the die-hard Big Nate Fans have an idea of what Nate should sound like. It’s been so interesting since the show has come out. We got a little bit of trolling online as any existing franchise is going to have when you bring a new voice to it or modernize it. We just had this feeling that the people who were die-hard fans, once they saw the show, were going to embrace it. And that’s exactly what happened. The die-hard fans, after seeing the first batch of eight episodes, have really gotten the full scope of what we’re doing. The edge to the comedy has really come through! And I think the reaction to the vocal performances of the entire brilliant cast of funny people has really come through. We’re so lucky that we get to collaborate with such a talented group of people. Arnie Pantoja, who I referenced earlier, is my writing and improv partner in real life and plays Teddy Ortiz. Teddy is Nate’s co-conspirator in all the hijinx on the show. Bryce Charles, who plays Dee Dee Holloway is the theatre nerd of the show and a brilliant singer – and so is Bryce! Bryce and I actually met prior to Big Nate in a theater doing a play together (fact check what show). Daniel MK Cohen who plays Francis is sort of the nerd of the Big Nate World. Daniel and I also previously knew each other. We’re both short guys and we actually met at a Christmas Elf Audition which I know sounds absurd. Suffice to say, our vocal performances are heightened versions of ourselves, and I think the rest of the cast would tell you the same. So it’s easy to channel that inner sixth-grade kid who is just on a quest to find his inner-awesomeness, particularly because of the existing friendships we already had prior to being cast because we could rely on those friendships as we found (our character’s) voices.
Earlier you mentioned the comedic voice of the show which brings me to my next question. You’ve collaborated with some of the biggest comedy directors in entertainment including the Farley Brothers, Christopher Guest, and David O’Russell. After all of those experiences, how do you put your own spin on the humor in Big Nate?
There are some shows you do, whether it’s voiceover or on-camera, you really have to honor the scripts. If there’s a comma, you better pause and honor that comma! Our show was the complete opposite of that which I am so appreciative for. Huge shoutout to our showrunner, Mitch Watson, who has created an environment of improvisation. Mitch is a theatre guy and we’re all theatre and improv people, so there’s a real spirit of improvisation and reacting off of each other.
I booked this show for the first week of the pandemic. When most animated series went to at-home work or just an actor talking directly to a voice director and all the performances are cut together, later on, our show found a way to record as an ensemble remotely! Every week we get on a Zoom, and there might be twelve actors with our showrunner, Mitch, and our director and we’re able to play off of each other and react to things that we might not have expected to have been said! Arnie and I try to throw each other off and it creates these fun, magical moments that feel very organic. Those moments find their way onto the show! I think it all boils down to the spirit of improv and those are skills that I’ve been able to hone over the years after working with some really talented directors and actors! I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I became a better actor once I started directing. I’ve directed TV pilots, commercials, and music videos. Any time I get the opportunity to be on set as a director, I think it really improves my ability to act as well.
How does your experience as a director influence your acting performance? Are there any ways in which it influences your acting on Big Nate specifically?
I think that early in my career, I was fueled by anxiety. I think a young actor is stressed. (They think) “Oh god, I have to say the right things and do the right things. I don’t want to step outside of the norm or color outside the lines.” I think that directing allowed me to see the full scope of how a set operates. It has allowed me to get a view of how things are supposed to function in a show. As a result, it eliminated my anxiety or at least calmed me down during my more anxious days as a young actor in Hollywood. You realize that everyone is on the same team as you and wants to create something amazing.
As someone who has been a director, especially in the on-camera world, I was able to look at what the script supervisor was doing and say to myself “wow! She’s crushing it! That person is amazing!” whereas I wouldn’t have had a point of reference before. I wouldn’t have known what that position did, how it functioned, or how it contributed to the success of the show. So in the same regard, in animation, I have a full understanding of how the show operates. Everything from the crew to the animators, to the directors, to our composer Freddy: there are so many people involved in making an animated series, particularly when you are all isolated from one another in the midst of a global pandemic. Directing has given me that full scope to understand how a project comes together and it removed the anxiety of having to perfect all the time. That’s what Big Nate is all about, you know? It’s a little rough around the edges! It’s a little messy! Nate’s a prankster! I think that I would only be able to do a role like Big Nate after all of these experiences I have had in entertainment.
I love that! My next question relates back to what you said about the recording during the pandemic. What was the process like? How did the pandemic impact that process?
What a strange experience (it was)! In many ways, Big Nate defined the pandemic for me because I booked it the first week of March 2020, and we immediately started working remotely. In fact, the premiere we had recently was actually the third time that I have been in the same room with anyone affiliated with the show. So we all had to remote into work from completely different cities, some were in completely different countries, to create a full animated series. I don’t think you would ever know! In the early days, we were figuring out the technical aspects. Things like “how do we sound consistently broadcast quality” from an audio standpoint. I have to give a huge shout-out to our audio engineer over at Nickelodeon, Ryan Green, who was instrumental in making sure that all the series regulars became not just actors but audio engineers! He taught us how to be audio engineers because we had to be! So in terms of getting equipment, soundproofing our broadcasting booths, finding the right internet speeds: there were so many technical hurdles that we had to leap over to make the show even possible, particularly to do it as an ensemble!
I’m so grateful that Nickelodeon found a way for us to record this series as an ensemble because so much of the show is about reacting off of one another and those fun, improvisational, magical moments in-between the lines on the script could only be achieved by actually doing the show together! I think the show is the first of its kind to be able to do it as an ensemble. While the world was falling apart around us, every week we would get on a Zoom from our homes and step into PS38 and the world of Big Nate. It was a beautiful escape from Covid and the political climate in our country. It was such an amazing escape. It brought us so much joy to create the show during that dark time, so my hope is that that joy shines through and people are able to see it.
That’s fantastic! I hope it shines through too. It’s really impressive to take something as tragic as this pandemic and turn it into something beautiful and fun.
I think in many ways, the show could have benefitted from it. I’ve done other Nickelodeon animated shows and plenty of other animated projects. Typically you’ll get three, maybe four max, actors in a recording booth pre-pandemic times. We had the luxury because everything was on Zoom to get TWELVE actors on. That wouldn’t really be happening in the before-times. So in many ways, it strengthened the performance because we were looking right at each other. In a very strange way, there was almost an added sense of intimacy to the performances because of the pandemic.
That makes me even more excited to check out the show! Is there any specific moment you’re most excited for audiences to see?
You know, my favorite thing about the show is that every time you think it’s going to go in one direction, it goes in a direction that you didn’t see coming! In any other show, if a character got a pimple that would be a bad thing and a terrible day. In our Big Nate World, Nate gets a pimple and becomes a pimple shaman! It’s a lucky pimple, and everyone is so excited to touch it because the pimple is going to give them good luck! We take something inherently bad and we make it good and comedy happens at every turn. Or you could take the opposite. Like the idea of Valentine’s Day which is this sweet, loving thing. Nate wants to finally confess his love for Jenny, the girl he’s had a crush on for forever. You’d think the episode would be about that, but we made it into a Valentine’s Day of Horror! Nate wins a pizza party for the school and it is tainted pizza. Everyone gets food poisoning and vomits all over each other! I just like that we subvert expectations on the show.
I also think we have the luxury of having a 22-minute animated show. A lot of times in animation, particularly in kid’s animation, you’ll have split segments where you are doing two eleven-minute episodes. Now, we have the ability to do an A-Story and a B-Story and classic sitcom-style cold opens. The structure allows our stories to breathe and our jokes to resonate.
Above all else, I hope what people get from this series is laughter! It’s been a really hard two years for all of us. If people can escape into PS38 for 22 minutes in the same way that we escaped into it by making it, that’s all I could hope and dream for the show!
I hope so too! On an entirely different note, your parents owned and operated a series of comic book stores for over 40 years. Did you get to read Big Nate back then? If so, how does your history with the series influence your performance?
I am the child of comic book store owners! I grew up in a comic book store in Phoenix, Arizona in the 90s. I’m so grateful to have had such a colorful and creative upbringing surrounded by artwork, superheroes, and literature! What a wonderful environment to grow up in. I remember climbing the shelves as a kid, helping my dad sort comics and pull titles.
I was an artist as a kid. I used to do fine art. I would pull the comics, like Spiderman for instance, and I would try to replicate it and see how much I could make my drawing look like the comic book cover. It’s so strange to be voicing a character who doodles! He’s an artist on the show. While our show is a 3D CGI show, Nate’s drawings come to life as 2D animation in the show. In our birthday episode, Nate is in some sort of estranged dogsled race. It becomes this whole 2D segment that is basically Mad Max! It’s so funny! I grew up around comic books and artwork, I used to draw. Certainly, the artwork has found its way into a very full-circle moment in my character, Nate.
I’m 37 so I actually missed the initial Big Nate Surge growing up. So it’s been fun to retroactively educate myself on the fanbase. I would say quite candidly that I underestimated the global fanbase for Big Nate when I first booked the show. It has been so cool to see the die-hard Big Nate Fans saying things like “I hope they put this character in the show!” or “I hope we see this kind of storyline!” It’s been fun to poke around on the subreddit to see what people are saying, knowing that I have all the answers ahaha!
There are definitely a lot of strange parallels between my childhood growing up in a comic book store and my childhood as an artist with Big Nate because he’s an artist too and I see so much of myself in him.
You said something that was really interesting that I wanted to talk about! You mentioned that the show blends together 3D and 2D animation. How do you think that it aids the storytelling in the show?
I’m obviously going to be biased because I’m in the show and I get to work with such an amazing group of people. But as objectively as possible, I can say that I think this is the most gorgeous thing I have ever seen on television in terms of animation. Typically with CGI shows, they’re very bright, very glossy, they light everything uniformly. Our show has taken a completely different approach which is so cinematic. They light things practically. So (for example) you’ll have light streaming in through a window or you’ll have a scene lit from a lamp in the corner. You’re allowed to see the texture of the sort of clay features of the faces of characters; There’s a real sophistication to the animation just from the CG side of things.
Then we mix in so many other styles of animation in the show, again something I’ve really never seen before! From our 2D segments of Nate’s fantasies, we have cut-out animation, we have stop motion animation, they will even include tiny moments of live-action. I think we have got every kind of modern animation represented in our show. I’ve truly never seen anything like it. Real credit to Nickelodeon for giving our team the resources to experiment with, play with, and innovate with! This would have been really easy to do as a 2D Flash Animation Show and for a lot cheaper. Credit to the studio for saying “No! Let’s do something really inventive!”
To me, I think the animation is really gorgeous! The grounded performances, enhanced by the improvisation elements to the show, the animation style really helps sell the performances and the grimy, under-funded world of PS38. I think we were able to achieve that through the style of the animation.
That sounds like a great experience to watch! In speaking of which, where’s the best to watch Big Nate and what other things can fans do to support the show?
Big Nate is now streaming on Paramount+. Nickelodeon will be distributing them in batches. I don’t have any information about when the next batch of episodes will be released, but we have a ton of them in the pipeline! So go watch the first eight episodes exclusively on Paramount+ and watch it for as much as possible! We want to keep making the show. We’re so proud of it!
Big Nate is now streaming exclusively on Paramount+