Voice Actor Colleen Clinkenbeard On Voicing One Piece's Monkey D. Luffy For 15 Years [Exclusive Interview]

For 15 years, voice actor Colleen Clinkenbeard has shouted the catchphrase "Gum Gum!" as anime hero Monkey D. Luffy threw his stretchy punches. Sprung from Eiichiro Oda's enduring shōnen manga, the "One Piece" anime is still sailing after more than 20 rollicking seasons that add up to over a thousand episodes (plus several feature films). As Luffy's gruff, sandy English voice, Clinkenbeard fondly sails with him for his next adventure in "One Piece Film: Red," where Luffy's ambition to be King of the Pirates is in opposition of the interest of his childhood friend, Uta (Amanda Lee).

From "Fruit Basket" to "My Hero Academia," Clinkenbeard is a prolific voice actress of more than 300 roles in anime and video games. /Film spoke with her about what it means to be Luffy, directing ADR, Luffy's past, and the future of the voiceover industry.

'I don't think my heart rate went down until I found out'

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. It also contains spoilers for some of the films and shows Clinkenbeard has worked on.

For about 15 years, you've been with Luffy. Channel your early memory of auditioning for the role of Luffy and landing it. What was the line read? What do you recall of the character description?

Oh my goodness, [that's] so specific for 15, 16 years ago. The audition process was a little bit different than it had been since I'd gotten to Funimation. We knew a little bit more about the show. There was buzz. Everybody knew that this was supposed to be somewhat bigger than the things that we had done before.

When Mike called me in to audition — Mike McFarland was the director — called me in to audition, and I assumed that I was auditioning for Robin and Nami. So that's what I concentrated on reading. And then he actually asked me to read for Luffy, which sent my heart right through the roof, and I went away to practice those lines more. I have no idea what lines they were, and I was not yet very comfortable with a boy voice. It wasn't something that I'd done a ton before, but I had just recently done my first boy voice for a lead for a different studio. I guess he got the idea from that, that I was able to do it, so he auditioned me. And I could tell that he was actually considering it just because he asked me specifically to read that role. So yeah, I don't think my heart rate went down until I found out.

'The nerves are gone now'

So how has your voiceover craft evolved over the years? Do you think you maybe evolved with Luffy?

Luffy's evolved with me, and I've evolved with Luffy. It's been a really interesting ride, because I've gotten to be familiar with the role so much in a way that you don't get to be when it's a show that lasts for 12 episodes or 24 episodes. So I've sunk down into him and kind of found all of his range, and I feel like I understand how he will respond to something and when I need to dip down into something lower and when I need to be a little higher and lighter and more floaty. So I know that he has evolved, and his voice has evolved through me, as the dub has gone on. But I would say as a voice actor overall, I've just become a lot more comfortable with what I do. Because we're all so nervous in the beginning. The nerves are gone now, which means that I get to concentrate a little bit more on honoring the character.

'I enjoy the surprise...'

The manga is stretching out — that's a pun — and so far, the English dub is more than 850 episodes in. I know a lot of English dubbers do have a relationship with the manga. Do you have a relationship with the manga source material?

I don't personally read the manga yet. I may in the future. I don't really want to know scene by scene what's going to happen until I do it as Luffy. I enjoy the surprise of that. But I will say that I am very, very thoroughly spoiled on everything that happens in the manga. Fans love to tell me what's coming up, and then I really like to hear from our director and the engineers, who are keeping up with the show in Japanese, what is going to happen. I just get excited. So I know what's going to happen, and I very, very thoroughly respect the source material, but I haven't gotten a relationship with the source material myself quite yet.

'That was my breaking point'

So Luffy is very reckless. He's very silly. He can be serious. He cares for his crew. And what do you think is your favorite Luffy performance early in the series?

That's a hard one. There's so many Luffy moments. I feel like it's pretty well acknowledged by fans that Luffy and Nami [against] Arlong in that era of "One Piece" is where we all kind of gained an attachment to the series. It was fun before that and everybody was enjoying it, but that's the moment where you really start to invest in the characters and be afraid for the characters. The emotions get heightened there to a point where you start to feel loyalty. That's the moment for a lot of people, I feel like, where you start to want to be on his crew.

What is your most favorite Luffy performance most recently? Movie or anime.

I liked finally getting to do Snake Man [Luffy's elevated form], so that was a big deal. I've been waiting for a while, and people had been describing it for so long, so I was very excited to get to step into that moment. But I think the movie, "One Piece Film: Red," was just a lovely way to kind of go back to Luffy's roots and understand who he was as a kid, which brings us to that lighthearted Luffy, and then to see how he's grown and what he's learned since then that he has to impart to people. So honestly, "One Piece Film: Red," I think was a great touchstone for modern-day Luffy.

What is your reaction to Luffy's childhood in the movie?

I love seeing the little bits of Luffy's childhood. Especially since he's getting to where he is now, it's really nice to go back and see his roots and see him before he was this powerful.

What do you think is the darkest Luffy moment for you?

[Death of] Going Merry [the ship] was hard. I know everybody says Ace['s death], but for whatever reason, maybe just because it was the first for me. That was my breaking point.

Okay, we got over 20 years of the manga and anime. Why do you think "One Piece" and Luffy just endured for so long?

I think we have to put that all up to the mangaka. I think Oda is a genius and is so, so incredible at keeping a story fresh and alive, because by now I feel like we should already be feeling, "Well, we've done this before." We should be getting tired of storylines, and usually you would start to feel the story writer feeling that same way. But there's just none of that [with Oda]. It feels so much a part of the plan. And at the same time, it feels like he's discovering things with us and for us. So I think that you don't get bored because he's not bored yet. He's not done telling the story. He's not done discovering where else these characters are going to go. So there's nothing to be bored of. Nothing's the same yet.

Were you a fan of pirate fantasies before you were hired onto the show?

You know what, I think the show has turned me into a fan of pirates. I was more on Team Ninja before, but now I have to be strongly Pirate. Team Pirate.

'I think acting and directing kind of go hand in hand'

You were/are the ADR director of other productions, such as the 2004 "Fullmetal Alchemist" and the currently running "My Hero Academia" [both of which you have voice roles in]. There's a lot going on in "My Hero Academia" season 6. I know that.

I know!

So the ADR director of "One Piece Film: Red" is Anthony Bowling. And can you talk about what it takes for an ADR director to have a stable professional relationship with the voice actors?

I will say that what I do and what Anthony does are two different things. I'm working on one show, "My Hero Academia." And I produce other than that. That's the only show that I'm directing. And at the time when I was directing full time, it was a lighter workload, honestly. It was just a different experience, because we weren't doing simul-dubs and you didn't have the same relationship with the fans that you do now. So I think what Anthony is doing with "One Piece" is something that I'm not sure that I could do and I respect so completely. He stepped into a show hundreds of episodes long and went back to research what all had happened before, to learn the voices of the characters that he was going to be directing.


And then he's continued on. He reads the manga and he watches the sub well in advance of when we're going to be doing that in the dub. I feel like he just revitalized the series for us and kind of gave us that jumpstart that we needed at this point in the series. He's definitely the breath that is behind the show right now for us.

So it sounds like it takes a lot to have a balance between voice acting and ADR directing, correct?

I find acting and directing easy to step laterally. But for me, producing in the mix makes things a lot more difficult. So I would imagine that "My Hero Academia" is going to be the last show that I direct.


Maybe just for a while, but maybe forever, because producing is what I do for the most part. I just don't want to leave "My Hero [Academia]" until it's done. But yeah, I think acting and directing kind of go hand in hand.

'There's a lot of chatter about whether A.I. is eventually going to take over'

You've spoken before about moving into the male-dominated industry of voiceover and ADR directing. How have you seen the anime voiceover industry evolve over the years?

I think that the voiceover industry has always been pretty accepting of everybody. It's a bunch of misfits, and we all tend to be fans of what we do before we do it. So I think everybody is kind of just coming at it from the perspective of we love these shows, and we want to do justice to the shows. I guess what I'm saying is, I think the industry evolves with the interests of the people who are in the industry, and that kind of just goes hand in hand with pop culture. Whatever is a driving force behind pop culture at the moment tends to be what we are really interested in and what we're trying to pull into the shows we're involved in. So that's kind of fun to watch, and as that happens, I think we're seeing a lot more strong female roles.

Where do you hope the voiceover industry will be years from now?

I just hope there'll still be a voiceover industry. There's a lot of chatter about whether A.I. is eventually going to take over, and I realize that there is some interest in that, because anytime you get rid of the human element, you can kind of get rid of some doubt and the chances that you're taking with different personalities. But I think personalities are what bring life to the roles, so I'm hoping that the voiceover industry survives that and can grow as it's doing now, because right now it's just exploding.

What Devil Fruit would you eat?

Robin's. I want Robin's, because I'm a mom. [laughs] It would be really nice to have that many hands.

"One Piece Film: Red" hits U.S. and Canadian theaters on November 4, 2022.