Gwendoline Yeo, voice of Nala Se on Star Wars: The Bad Batch
What’s it like to voice a long-necked Kaminoan? How about a “floppy-eared” Gungan? Gwendoline Yeo, voice of Nala Se on Star Wars: The Bad Batch, gave us these answers and more at a Bad Batch Roundtable on June 26, 2021.
Yeo is incredibly accomplished. She has voiced over 50 TV shows and video games such as the Mass Effect video game series and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2016-2017). She is also known for acting roles on Desperate Housewives (as Xiao-Mei), Grey’s Anatomy and Castle. But her journey to become a prolific voice-over artist began when she was transplanted from Singapore to America. In order to fit in as a teen, she would change her voice and inflections, essentially becoming a chameleon.
You’ve done so much in your career, not just as a voice actor. So where does Star Wars fit into this for you?James Burns, Jedi News
GWENDOLINE YEO: I grew up a very ugly duckling, a lonely kid. For me, my imagination was everything, and I’m sure all of you as well. And so, I just remember Little Bo Peep on my sheets and having conversations with her. I remember seeing these movies and these characters that came alive in front of me. Jabba the Hutt, Princess Leia and her warrior spirit. That gave me a sense of perhaps what could be.
When I first moved here from Singapore, I talked like this-la [Singapore accent], and people said “you freak!”. So then I would stand up and say [very formal] “The. Answer. Is. 12!”. And so I started talking like this [a bit of a British accent], so I would sound less crazy. And the valley girls would tease me and so i started talking like a valley girl. Through all of this bullying, I started learning to be a chameleon. Through all of this my voice-over career started to build. Just because you’ve gone through pain, some of that pain – that could be your money-maker.
I never knew i would have Star Wars on my resume, I never thought that i would be on imdb or sitting here with you guys. I’m grateful every day for it, I really am.
Nala Se’s Character Journey in The Bad Batch
Now let’s peak under the hood of Nala Se. In The Clone Wars, Nala Se is a Kaminoan – a very distinct race in the Star Wars universe. A tiny round head sits on an impossibly long neck which branches up from a long, thin body. They are vaguely amphibian and come from the water planet Kamino. Kaminoans are most known for the species in charge of cloning, and Nala Se is a Kaminoan doctor and scientist who played a key role in engineering the Clones, including the chip embedded in each Clone Troopers’ head engineered to work when Emperor Palpatine enacted Order 66.
In The Bad Batch, Nala Se has a new character journey – she has a significant interest in Omega, and keeping Omega alive. In Episode 9 “Bounty Lost” we learn that Nala Se sent bounty hunter Fennec Shand not to kill Omega, but to protect her from another Bounty Hunter.
What did you think when you first learned of this new direction in the character of Nala Se?James Baney, Star Wars News Net
GWENDOLINE YEO: I’ve played Nala Se for so long, she’s created this army. She’s internally intense but pretty cold. In terms of the overall arc and how she would be, the team (Jennifer Corbett, Brad Rau, Dave Filoni) did come to me and say ‘hey, we want you to do Nala Se but with a twist – we see more of a maternal side to her, a vulnerability to her.’ For me I was excited and was like….[Excited squeaking noises!]
In The Clone Wars, Nala Se was ominous and villainous. How did you approach Nala Se in BB versus Clone Wars?George Bate, Star Wars Holocron
GWENDOLINE YEO: It’s interesting you said ominous and villainous, I love that that’s what you got from her. I don’t think that was thrown out the window in Bad Batch. I think there’s an additive, or slight opening into her really investing and really caring about what she created. Whether that’s interpreted as protective, or territorial, or maternal, that’s up for the audience to decide. But all those words came through my head. I think there was some trepidation playing that because I wanted to be able to still stay within the Kaminoan way of species. You can’t get off-species. We did multiple takes, we kept talking about it. It was literally like 2 degrees to the right – even the slightest shift can make a huge difference. You try different things, the animators came back, but really the performance was very, very, very internal. I could feel that intensity. You can’t lose that power and stoicism. I think it helps to be 80 ft tall. I think with her it’s really scary when people are that reigned in.
The Bad Batch feels like it’s given us a peek behind the curtains with the Kaminoans and I was wondering if you were surprised by this direction.Charlotte Errity, Skytalkers
GWENDOLINE YEO: The surprise was when they first approached me and pitched the storyline. You do a gig and you move on. I’ve been so blessed with SW to have been in their family for awhile but you never take anything for granted. I was surprised when they said “hey, here’s Nala Se and here’s what we’re thinking” It was really, really exciting. I think being able to play her and reveal.
You sit with a character for so long and now they’re giving you more layers to play. It’s a real pleasure. And these reveals in Episodes 9 and 14, i think, you go “OK, alright” let’s see where the story goes. It’s been really cool to dial her in a different way. I’m not playing an Asian woman, I’m playing a Kaminoan. It’s not ethnicity defined. Sometimes I do enjoy playing ethnicity defined and sometimes I don’t. But to have the palette that they’ve given me has been really cool.
The Physicality of Voice Acting Star Wars Aliens
And finally, we get to the most interesting part of the Roundtable. My friend and fellow fangirl Tricia Barr asked a question very similar to what I wanted to know – how do you portray different aliens vocally, including Nala Se? Yeo has also portrayed a Gungan (Peppi Bow) and a Clawdite (Cato Parasitti) in addition to the stoic Kaminoan. I do recommend you listen to our podcast at 19:19 because you really have to hear her describe the voices. She gets into it!
How does the physicality of the character play into your vocal performance?Tricia Barr, Fangirls Going Rogue
GWENDOLINE YEO: I love you for asking. I think when I first saw a picture of Nala Se with the lines. I definitely do both on camera and VO (voice-over). With VO I am in a stance – there is a full body, and some more than others. With Nala Se with her being so tall, and her little arms and her little lips. It sounds ridiculous but there was an immediate stoicism, an erect spine, an internal sense. I talked to Dave [Filoni] about it in terms of ‘how much regality? How much power?’ And so I started talking without moving my lips at all. It’s almost like she’s fully botoxed. And then we backed off and I found this formality. The phrasing started to change. The physical led to the verbal performance.
With the Gungans, well I’m from Singapore originally and when I first came here I talked like this, ya [Singapore accent]. Dave asked ‘you’re from Singapore, right? Give me a taste.’ With the floppy ears and the Singapore way-la, it’s more of a relaxed way of speaking. There’s an innocence, so I had big eyes.
With Cato Parasitti it was more “neck-like”, more slithery as a bounty hunter. So you just instinctively find it and the directors will push you a little bit, and your body follows suit, or vice versa.
I find it fascinating to learn what these voice actors do to create a role. It’s not just talking in front of a microphone. There’s a lot of thought, time, energy and physicality in creating a character and sharing a story with the world. When each person does their part, we get art and fun story-telling. Be sure to tune in to The Bad Batch Episode 14 “War Mantle” on Disney+, when Nala Se reappears!
Thank you so much to Lucasfilm and Disney for the invite.