X-Men: The Animated Series stars on legacy, recording in Canada and returning for X-Men ’97

Canadians Lenore Zann (Rogue) and George Buza (Beast) talk to us ahead of a big X-Men reunion at Toronto Comicon

X-Men: The Animated Series Rogue, Jubilee, Xavier, Wolverine and The Beast

One of the most beloved Marvel properties of all time is coming back.

On March 20th, X-Men ’97, a revival of the massively popular ’90s cartoon X-Men: The Animated Series, will begin streaming on Disney+. But while the series has been off the air for nearly 30 years, its legacy can’t be understated.

It helped push the X-Men into the mainstream and paved the way for the slew live-action comic book movies that we have today, starting with Fox’s hit 2000 X-Men film. Even in recent years, the series’ iconic main theme can be heard in major Marvel Cinematic Universe titles like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Ms. Marvel.

Naturally, then, there’s a lot of buzz for X-Men ’97. But perhaps no one is more excited than the series’ cast, many of whom are reprising their roles after all these years.

“The very first day back in the studio was just ecstatic,” says George Buza, the Cleveland-born, Toronto-based voice of Beast, of returning to the intelligent blue-furred mutant. “Because the show meant so much to us when we were doing it in the ’90s. And we all chatted about the possibility of it coming back, so to have it actually come to fruition was one of the most exciting things in my life.”

“It’s like a dream come true. I think most actors can only dream of something like this later on in their careers,” says Lenore Zann, the Australian-born, Halifax-based actor behind the fan-favourite flirtatious Southern belle.

In separate interviews, they reflected on working on the original series, returning for X-Men ’97, their fondest memories, reuniting at Toronto Comicon and more.

An (uncanny) Canadian production

Lenore Zann

Lenore Zann. Image credit: Lenore Zann

What many people likely don’t realize is that the voiceover for the original show was actually recorded in Toronto with local actors. According to Zann, that also meant that the cast didn’t initially grasp just the global popularity of the series.

“Coming from Canada, originally, and originally recording the show in Toronto with all Canadian actors, we had no idea, until just recently, the extent to which our show has reached people all around the world,” she explains. “So now that we are starting to go out and promote the show and appear at different comic cons, the love from the fans is actually rather overwhelming, and we’re all feeling really humbled by it.”

Returning for the new series has also highlighted how much technology has changed in the decades since, particularly with being able to do voiceover remotely. “Before, we would put everything on tape and then it got sent down there on tape. There wasn’t the technology to be able to record in the studio and have it immediately digitally transferred to Los Angeles. So everything got sent down on cassettes, and they don’t even exist anymore, except in the hands of collectors!” says Buza with a laugh.

George Buza. Image credit: George Buza

“Toronto has always been a big hotbed of animation,” he adds. That goes all the way back to the original ’60s animated Spider-Man series starring the late Toronto actor Paul Soles and extends up to the ever-popular ongoing Paw Patrol, which is produced by Toronto-based Spin Master and Guru Studio.

Now, recording happens in a variety of cities depending on the actor, like how Zann does most of hers back in Halifax. Still, she has many fond memories from being in the booth in Toronto with her castmates. “We would all gather around our own separate microphones in the same recording booth and so it was like a radio drama, where we actually got to see each other, react to each other, make fun of each other,” she says with a laugh. “We had a really good time.”

“It makes me very proud to be a Canadian and it makes me proud that we were chosen when they could have chosen anybody,” she adds. She praises Larry Houston, the series’ original director, for wanting to cast with theatre actors. “And so they went looking for us, and they found us all, put us all together, and they said that it was like lightning in a bottle. When they brought us all together and they heard our voices, the gravitas, and the real strong acting chops, it took it from being just like a kid’s cartoon to a really heavy-duty series that speaks to adults as well as children.”

To me, my X-Men!

And over time, the X-Men cast has only become more closely associated with the characters and fans’ memories of them. In Zann’s case, pretty much any YouTube video about X-Men: TAS will have many comments mentioning how her version of Rogue is still the definitive one for them, and that’s not lost on her.

“It’s been mind-blowing and overwhelming, and I feel a huge sense of responsibility. Because it’s wonderful that people say they hear my voice when they read the comics and that I really touched them. And that’s what an actor dreams of doing,” she says. “And so I feel really honoured to have that place in people’s hearts, and I will continue with this role. I believe that I will make them feel more and think about even more things deeply, especially in these very troubled times.”

She cites the X-Men: TAS episode “The Cure” in which the Rogue, troubled by her inability to touch people without harming them, seeks to remove her superhuman powers. Ultimately, she comes to realize that her unique abilities, complicated as they are, make her who she is, and she resolves to keep them. “I think that that is so important. Again, it’s an important message for today’s youth, for anybody who is being persecuted. And because there ain’t no cure for who you are — and I would add, nor should there be.”

And while she hasn’t gotten to voice Rogue in decades, the social justice spirit of that character has lived on in her years of work as a politician in Nova Scotia, including a tenure as an NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and a Member of Parliament (MP) for the riding of Cumberland — Colchester.

“I’ve always been politically interested, an activist, before I became a politician. And so I brought that into my work as a politician. And, of course, it was always there as Rogue and the X-Men who want to fight for the people who don’t have voices, the people who are the underdog, the people who are being put upon, which, in our show, are called mutants. But in today’s society, what’s going on with the attacks against the LGBTQ community, against women, against immigrants, against people of colour, against people of different religions… It’s interesting to see: does art imitate life or does life imitate art?”

She mentions a bill that she introduced, an Act to Address Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice, that is going to the House of Commons environment committee on March 21st. “It is highly likely it will pass and become law this year and I’m so proud of that. And that encapsulates everything that we’re talking about right now.”

For Buza, he relates to Beast on a more physical level. “In my own connection, it was a hard time going through elementary school and being dressed like a nerd, being a fat kid, being bullied on the school yard — it was unpleasant,” he says. “And that’s where I found my refuge, much like the people found their own refuge in the series X-Men, I found mine in acting.”

Image credit: Giphy

He says it’s been heartening to hear over the years how others have also connected to Beast and the series.

“The fondest memories are when born people are so overcome with emotion that they can’t even speak to you. We’re just ordinary people, but the fact that they’re connecting with us on that level, and sharing that emotion with us is one of the most touching things — that they would share that with you.”

He even has a fun anecdote about how the series informed Fox’s first X-Men movie, which was filmed in Toronto. In it, Buza plays a trucker who helps a hitchhiking Rogue (Winnipeg-born Anna Paquin).

“When I auditioned for the role of the trucker in the very first X-Men movie, there was no talk of the fact that I had done Beast until the stunt coordinator, who was an old friend of mine, leaned over to [director] Bryan Singer, and he said, ‘That’s the voice of Beast in the animated series,’ and Bryan Singer lit up and he invited me over to his table. And he said, ‘If it weren’t for your series, I wouldn’t be making this movie today,'” he says. “So we had a great impact, not only on the lives of all the people that were watching the show, but also on the future of the X-Men franchise. So yeah, it’s a great honour to be a part of that.”

Since then, parts of that X-Men film franchise have been carrying over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like Patrick Stewart’s Professor X popping up in the aforementioned Doctor Strange or Vancouver’s Ryan Reynolds coming into that world later this year in Deadpool and Wolverine. That’s to say nothing of the crossovers between the ’90s animated Spider-Man and X-Men series.

Spider-Man and RogueThat begs the question, then: what other Marvel characters would Buza and Zann want their characters to meet?

“I really don’t know what characters I would like to meet — I always left it up to the writers!” admits Buza.

Zann, however, had an answer right away.

“I’d love to meet Thor!” she says with a laugh, noting she had a childhood crush on the character. Then, in Rogue’s signature Southern accent: “So sure, sugah, come on down and see me, God of Thunder — maybe we can make the plains and mountains roar!”

An X-citing future

Looking ahead, the pair say they’re “excited” to reunite with the rest of their X-Men cast at Toronto Comicon, which runs from Friday, March 15th to Sunday, March 17th. On the first day, they’ll take part in a special X-Men panel with fellow Canadian actors Cal Dodd (Wolverine), Alyson Court (Jubilee), Catherine Disher (Jean Grey), Adrian Hough (Nightcrawler) and Chris Britton (Mr. Sinister), as well as Houston.Toronto Comicon X-Men

The following day, a special screening of the first episode of X-Men ’97 will be aired before a Q&A with Dodd, Buza, Zann and Hough, hosted by Canadian entertainment podcast The Movie Podcast.

“The most exciting thing is being able to do a convention in our hometown,” says Buza. In all these years, we’ve never done a show in Toronto. We’ve been all over the U.S., we’ve been all over England, but we were never invited to come and do a show here in Toronto. And we’re all here, except for one or two of us that are out on the West Coast. Everybody’s a local. So that is going to be exciting.”

And while they can’t reveal much about X-Men ’97, they have nothing but praise for the material.

Editor’s note: These interviews took place before the sudden and mysterious firing of creator and writer Beau De Mayo.

“Beast is just as consistent as he was back then — I think they’ve done a fabulous job in maintaining what we did,” says Buza. And the animation is spectacular.”

“[Rogue’s] going to go through an amazing arc,” says Zann. “And all I can say is that you’re going to be on the edge of your seats, and you’re gonna want to not miss the next episode after each one. And when I get the scripts, I can’t put them down until I’m finished them, which is a really good sign.”

Ultimately, they say they’re just excited for their X-Men to return, not just for old fans but also for new generations.

“The children who are now adults tell me that they appreciated the fact that they were never talked down to — that they were expected to understand these themes and learn from them. And many of these fans say it’s made them who they are today and they are now introducing their children to the show, and watching our old show on Disney+ with their kids. And also, they’re gonna be watching the new show with the kids as well. What a legacy! You can’t get better than that.”

Single-day tickets for the Toronto Comicon start at $28 and can be purchased here.

X-Men ’97 will premiere with two episodes on Disney+ on March 20th, with one new episode every Friday thereafter. A second season is also in development.

Image credit: Marvel

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