By Derek Lawrence
December 03, 2020 at 09:15 AM EST
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Credit: Myles Loftin; Netflix

Missy has found her voice.

During the fourth season of Big Mouth, the animated Netflix series is focusing on half-Jewish, half-Black teen Missy "discovering herself, her sexual identity, and her Blackness." And with that came a needed change. Jenny Slate, the white actress behind Missy, decided she should step down from voicing the character.

"At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play 'Missy' because her mom is Jewish and white — as am I," Slate said in her announcement. "But 'Missy' is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing 'Missy,' I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people. Ending my portrayal of "Missy' is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism in my actions."

Following Slate's decision, co-creator Nick Kroll and company tapped comedian Ayo Edebiri, who had previously been hired as a writer for season 5, to take over as Missy. Despite Slate already completing all of season 4, the transition to Edebiri was moved up to the penultimate installment of the new episodes.

Ahead of Big Mouth's Friday premiere, EW chatted with Edebiri about taking the mantle from Slate, making Missy her own, and her involvement with the upcoming return of Apple TV+'s Dickinson.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you feeling as your prepare for an exciting next month with both Big Mouth and Dickinson premiering?
AYO EDEBIRI: It’s kind of strange, because a lot of it feels like it’s been happening inside my house. That’s been the prep, just inside my house and texting my mom every now and then to reexplain how to watch things to her, because both are on streaming services and my parents are old people with cable. [Laughs] It’s a lot of like, “Okay, so, I login?”

I want to talk to you about both shows, but let’s start with Big Mouth. Back when you were coming aboard as strictly a writer, what was it that made you want to be a part of it?
Oh man, it’s always been a show that I’ve loved and made me laugh in the best possible way. I feel like comedy can often be so pretentious and this is such a cool show because it doesn’t have any of that. It’s about something that is so universal and has happened to mostly everyone — unless you’re Benjamin Buttoning. And it’s able to get to things that are both so true because of the universality and so true because of their specifics, because the writing just really cares about these characters. And also it’s fun and funny and dumb and stupid sometimes, and that’s also nice. Sometimes I don’t want to watch a documentary, I want to laugh at poop and periods, and that show lets you do that.

Sometimes you need that, and maybe now more than ever.
Truly. I always just want to laugh at poop, pee, and periods. And I get to write for a show that does that... and other stuff! It has beautiful moments in the midst of that.

When you were hired as a writer, had Jenny stepped down yet as Missy?
No, not yet.

So, as you entered the world of Big Mouth, what were your thoughts on Jenny voicing Missy? And then what was your reaction when she decided to step down?
Yeah, as a Black person who works in animation, I had thought about it, but I had never really talked about it. And it was interesting then getting to be in the room and getting to actually see how it was dealt with and how the change was dealt with and how the conversation was dealt with. I’ve thinking about a lot about how so much has changed, like even in my lifetime. Sometimes I’ll watch older movies, and often not even that old, and they’re using slurs that are unbelievable and people are pretending to be people with disabilities and winning Oscars, and you’re like, “Huh?” We discovered that this was wrong and we’ve corrected it. And so I think, to me, this is a faster version of that in a way. It’s like, okay, we realized it, and we’re seeing it happen in real time that what we thought was acceptable maybe isn’t, and we’re learning why and learning to have conversations about it in real time, too.

How did you end up taking over? And was there any hesitation on your part?
I auditioned like everyone else. I had been doing small voiceover work before and auditioning for things. I knew it was going to happen and we all talked about it internally and got the email that the press announcement was going to happen. And I was not thinking necessarily about myself for even auditioning, because the comedians who are voice actors on this show and people who are guest stars to me are like celebrities that I admire. In my head I was like, “I’m very excited for Angela Bassett to get it!” Or Dame Judi Dench if she was Black. So Dame Angela Bassett. And then I got an email that was like, “Do you want to send in a tape for this?” I weighed the pros and cons for like an hour, because I overthink everything, and then I was just like, “Well, I’ll just do it and then if I don’t get it they’ll just clown me in the room and that’s great because I know how to deal with that.” And then I got a callback and had more callbacks and producer sessions where I worked with Nick [Kroll] and the EPs on finding the voice and there were a few of those to the point where I was like, “Okay, each call that happens either this is good news or bad news, so just let me know.” Then one day on a call, an EP was like, “Do you think this call is good news or bad news,” and I was like, “Because you asked that question please say good news!” And they were like, “Yeah, you got the part, good job.” I was very excited.

What appealed to you about the character of Missy? Was there anything specific with her that you really related to?
I think Missy is one of the characters that I relate to the most. I’m very anxious and kind of dorky and weird, and definitely was that as a kid. Also, the buckteeth, the buckteeth gang! I grew up in Boston, and in my adolescence your parents are trying to send you to like “better” schools and a few of those were predominantly white institutions. Missy’s journey of her discovering herself, her sexual identity, and her Blackness, and even discovering that those are things that she needs to discover are all things I definitely related to growing up.

Once you officially took over as Missy, how did you go about making her your own and not just an impersonation of what Jenny had done?
What Jenny did was so specific and fun, and I really worked with the producers in finding that, and I think that meant trying a bunch of different things. It isn’t just like it was in my head sitting quietly and then I hopped in the booth and was like, “I got it,” and everyone was like, “Great job!” It is a lot of trial and error, which I think is what makes voiceover work so fun, because it is a lot more hands-on. It is very involved and interactive and I got to try a bunch of different things, and it was a combo of what feels right to me and what the producers felt good about.

Jenny had already completed her work on all of season 4, so what went into the decision of bringing you in starting with the penultimate episode?
I got to see a cut of [the switch] and I was actually like, “This is really beautiful.” Another part of why it happened is just the practical reality of animation, which is that it does take a very long time to do. I mean, Jenny was getting started on some of season 5 as well. We have our own voices, so even if I’m perfectly matching her cadence, I’m not doing an impression, but even if I was perfectly matching her cadence, it would also take time to clean up for the animators and then to have that sent back. And now I’m talking about stuff I don’t even know about because I’m not an animator. [Laughs] It does take a really long time to be drawn and animated and recorded and cleaned up, and even when you get something that you think is good sometimes you get a cut and actually you have to change X, Y, Z.

Much of season 4 was already about Missy struggling with her racial identity and, like you said, discovering her Blackness, so, as someone who didn't have a hand in that, what was your take on what they did? There is even the meta line of her saying, “It’s just that I’m really struggling with my racial identity right now. My mom’s white, my dad’s Black, I’m voiced by a white actress who’s 37 years old. It’s all very overwhelming.” What did you make of the journey they had already sent Missy on and how they handled it?
A very good joke. [Laughs] To be honest, I was like, “Good.” I think this is the right thing that should have happened. I know there are people who want it to be a bigger thing than it is but I think it is just about doing what is right and having equity in the industry. Kudos that we’re looking at things that have aged weirdly or interestingly, and maybe this will be one of those, I don’t know. I think this is a positive and well-intentioned, and it’s a good step on the way to changes that have needed to happen.

I think no matter what there are always going to be things that don’t age well.
One hundred percent. Speaking for myself, this process hasn’t had cynicism or bitterness or anything, it’s been people trying to make the right steps and do what’s right and listen to people.

Moving on to Dickinson, what was that experience like, and what should we expect in the new season?
Writing for that show was awesome. I’m a depressed kid from Massachusetts, so getting to write for the show about Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) was so cool. Alena [Smith] is a really incredible showrunner. Writing for that show was an incredible experience, and then in the process of being in the room and me just being my wild self, Alena was like, “Okay, there’s a part on the show and you’re playing it, because every time you talk now I just imagine the character like you.” We wrote and shot this way before anything happened with Big Mouth, so this was truly my first experience writing for something and then getting the opportunity to be on camera.

There’s a lot of fun that is going to happen; there’s some really cool guest stars that pop up. Nick Kroll makes an appearance in my episode, and, again, this was before I was even hired on Big Mouth, and if you’ve seen the pictures of him as Coach Steve, that’s like a little hint at what happened on the Dickinson set. That is my little tease. And I think [the season] takes some interesting turns in Emily’s life and her poetry and her relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt), which is as complicated as ever, as well as her relationship with her family. There’s some incredible performances and really dope music as usual. There are episodes that explore a lot of the Black characters in the Dickinson world that we’ve met and that we have yet to meet and they get to have a lot of fun too.

Now twice in a short span, you've been hired as a writer for a show, only for them to essentially then be like, "Well, actually, we really need to cast her too!" What's that been like? Kind of surreal?
Yeah, it’s really cool. And, honestly, it was not something that I was angling myself to do in any way. I really can’t stress that enough. [Laughs] I’m lucky that that happened. It’s a real honor, and there are people who I admire that have done that for themselves in ways big and small, so to have the opportunity was great. I was able to gain a lot as a writer, and then when I got to the acting space I kind of had them separated. It was like I had a tool in my toolkit. Sometimes as an actor you don’t know what the whole season looks like, but I had a feeling of, “I know what this is." It helps give you more of a road map than you might have, because I was able to be in the room with the showrunners who were saying, “This is what I want and this is how I want it,” and I could be like, “Okay, great!” It was really cool in both instances.

Big Mouth returns to Netflix on Friday, while Dickinson season 2 premieres Jan. 8 on Apple TV+.

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