Will Forte and Nicole Sullivan Aren’t Angsty Teens — They Just Voice Them on ‘Clone High’
Today, we know Phil Lord and Chris Miller as the creative forces behind The Lego Movie, the 21 Jump Street movies and the Spider-Verse. But in the early aughts, they were a couple of untested writers then-Scrubs producer Bill Lawrence gave a shot, helping them bring to life their animated sitcom about historical figures’ teen clones. Clone High’s very first season had more than its share of setbacks; still, Lord and Miller’s vision, and the brilliant voice cast they had assembled, were strong enough for Clone High to get a wildly improbable revival, 20 years after the team’s first attempt. And, as of February 1st, another season after that.
A few days after the latest season’s premiere, I talked to voice stars Will Forte and Nicole Sullivan — who voice Abraham Lincoln and Joan of Arc, platonic best friends (or maybe more?) — about their early days recording their tracks with their producers, what Sullivan’s teenagers think of her work and the scenario Forte thinks could have ended with him winning an Oscar.
Voice acting is usually solitary. How do you keep your energy up for that kind of performance when you’re all on your own?
Will Forte: It can be tough. With this show, it’s a little easier because we’re working with people we’ve known for a long time, so you just feel relaxed and you’re having fun and it tends to be less laborious. I hate calling it “laborious” because we’re so lucky to have these jobs. But as with anything, you take it for granted. There’s days when you’re struggling a little bit and you’re cranky. But it’s the best job in the world, and we’re very lucky to have it.
Nicole Sullivan: Clone High isn’t difficult to record by myself because I know the other characters’ voices so well and I know their timing. So I can anticipate what Will might do, I can anticipate what other people might do, and it makes sense to me to do it by myself. And Erica, who’s the showrunner and directed most of the episodes, is so helpful for that. Maybe the other actors have already recorded their lines, so she knows what they’re going to say next, and she’s very helpful in that way.
Will, do you remember, at the beginning of the show, the first season, Chris and Phil would be in the room with us?
WF: Oh, yeah.
NS: They had a desk in the recording area. I had done voiceover before I did Clone High, so I was like, “What?! They’re supposed to be behind a glass wall!” But they were just in the room with us, which was hilarious.
WF: I had never done voice acting before, so that seemed very normal to me. I was like, “Oh, that’s how it’s done.”
I’ve been lucky enough to do a voice on a couple of Bob’s Burgers episodes, and I know that, at least pre-COVID, they were all together in the room, and it’s a really fun way to do it. People get other jobs and sometimes they can’t be there, so you’ve got to call in. It’s a tricky thing to schedule, but it’s fun.
But yeah, what Nicole said is great: After you know somebody for a while, you can anticipate how they’re going to do something. You might have some idea where you go on a little improv run, and then if I do it first, they can recreate it and do it with Nicole. Or if she does it first, I’ll hear about it, and we’ll try to recreate the other side. At some point, it would be fun to try to do it with all of us together.
This season, Joan briefly falls in with Clone High’s nihilistic, artsy crowd. Nicole, was it hard for you to get into that mental headspace?
NS: For Joan, it’s not hard for me to get into anything she’s into. I always say she’s eternally frustrated, and no matter where she is, there’s going to be an issue for her.
Was this a phase that you went through in high school as well?
NS: I stuffed my feelings down so much that no, I was really just positive. I was president of the student council. I was that person. I shoved it all down. It came up later, don’t worry. I was in therapy by the time I was 21.
WF: Well, your therapy worked.
Abe and Joan’s initial dynamic, especially in the first season, is typical of TV teen dramas at the time — an oblivious boy who doesn’t know his female best friend really likes him. Were either of you viewers of those shows on Fox and The WB at the time?
NS: I will say that my husband has never met a teen drama that he didn’t like, and you wouldn’t know that by meeting him. I remember one time he said to me, “There’s something about that Blake Lively.” I was like, “Oh, really? Something about her?” I was not into the teen shows. You know, I’ve never seen an episode of 90210?
NS: Oh my God.
Will, you’re a fan?
WF: Back with the original Beverly Hills, 90210, I would watch every week and be super-bummed when the episode was over and I had to wait a week. Same thing with Melrose Place, which I know was slightly older than the high schoolers of 90210.
NS: Gossip Girl? Were you a Gossip Girl fan?
WF: By then, I kind of had stopped. I was trying to write, so I’d try to spend all my time writing. But I will also say that Dawson’s Creek was one that I did watch, and I know that was a heavy influence on a lot of the storylines from that very first season way back in the day. And a lot of that stuff: It’s timeless. It’s just Romeo & Juliet; that stuff always transcends time. The stuff that we’re doing now is just the current version.
Nicole, you have teenagers at home: What do they think of Clone High?
NS: They have zero interest in listening to anything or watching anything that I’m in. I remember one time my son was watching a kids’ show that I was on and he was watching different episodes. I told him, “That’s the episode I’m on.” He goes, “Yeah, but there are good episodes.” They don’t want to hear my voice, and they don’t want to watch me. I know my son has sneak-watched Clone High, and I imagine he liked it, because it’s right up his alley, but he would never tell me that.
Will, are there specific incidents in Abraham Lincoln’s biography that you would like to see explored on the show?
WF: I’m a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, but I’ve never read a biography of him, so my knowledge is just the fragments that I know from growing up loving history. I was a history major, and then there’s the Steven Spielberg movie and other things I’ve seen on TV. But my brain just doesn’t hold onto information, so little things will poke in there like, “Oh yeah, I remember…” But I don’t have a huge well of information on Abraham Lincoln. So you know what? I’m going to go get a wonderful book about him. Do you have any suggestions?
I don’t know about books. I did recently learn that he was a very skilled wrestler in his youth, so I thought that was something that would translate to a high school show.
WF: I love that.
NS: I’m obsessed with high school wrestling because it’s the oddest sport. I don’t understand it, and it looks horrible and hard. Their ears turn different shapes, and they have to lose weight. I don’t like it. I don’t like it!
This week, Apple TV+ released the trailer for Manhunt, which is about Lincoln’s assassination. Will, would you like to use this interview to start a feud with that cast or just specifically with their Lincoln, Hamish Linklater?
WF: No, I do not want to start any kind of feud. I want to wish them the best. And I just know that if Phil and Chris had done that show, I would be the Abraham Lincoln. They have made a deal with me that I am their Abraham Lincoln for life. And so if they had done the Steven Spielberg movie about Lincoln, I might very well have an Oscar right now, because that would’ve been my role.
NS: I don’t know anything about the show. I’m sure it’s really good. But I want to say fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! Love a good feud.