Nicole Sullivan gives her voice to Supergirl, Shego and other animated characters


Yonjoo Seo , Assistant Arts and Entertainment Editor

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicole Sullivan (Communication ’91) had to find a way to safely record her part as Supergirl in “DC Super Hero Girls.” Most voiceover booths were sold out, so she and her husband built one in the storage area at the back of his office. She bought a high-quality microphone, audio interface and sound pop screen to record sound.

“It’s a little hodge podge, but it’s really super effective,” Sullivan said.

The actors in “DC Super Hero Girls” are working from their home studios. They communicate through Zoom, and record their parts both together and individually. Although the circumstances aren’t ideal, Sullivan said she’s happy to show up to voiceovers in her pajamas.

 “DC Super Hero Girls,” a cartoon about teenage superheroes based off of iconic characters from DC Comics, has aired on Cartoon Network  since March 2019. Sullivan had previously voiced the character of Supergirl in a series of shorts called “Super Best Friends Forever” in 2012. It’s one of many animated roles Sullivan has voiced – for younger fans, she’s probably most well known for her part as the villainous Shego in “Kim Possible.” In adult animation, she’s voiced various characters in “Family Guy” and “BoJack Horseman,” and played Joan of Arc in the cult MTV series “Clone High.” Her roles aren’t limited to just cartoons, though – she’s acted in various sitcoms, and currently plays Janine, the neighbor of the Johnsons in “Black-ish.”

Sullivan said there are benefits to voice acting beyond showing up to work in pajamas; she enjoys having the freedom to play a wide variety of characters who don’t look like her, and in some cases are decades younger or older than her. 

“With acting in person… I can’t be a teenager because I kind of look like a Karen,” Sullivan said. “That’s why I can be a Karen on Black-ish.” 

While her voice acting gigs have continued mostly uninterrupted by the pandemic, Sullivan’s live-action roles require different safety precautions. She had to test eight times for the coronavirus in the 10 days she was on set for “Black-ish.” On set, the entire crew have masks and face shields on, although actors do not wear them while filming. 

“Now (the crew) says ‘cameras, roll sound, speed, remove PPE,’” Sullivan said. “And then someone comes and takes your PPE off and then they say ‘action.’”

Sullivan’s first major role as an actress after she graduated from Northwestern was as one of the original cast members on the Fox sketch comedy series “MADtv.” She performed in the show for six seasons, and described the experience as a “baptism by fire.” The roles she played, like racist country singer Darlene and the mean-spirited Vancome Lady, were often out there and required her to go so over-the-top that she got used to feeling comfortable performing anything. It ended up being great preparation for her voice acting career: she said when recording for an animated show, it’s normal to feel a little awkward in your skin. You have to make weird faces and alter your voice to exaggerate.

Graphic by Catherine Buchaniec

“If you’re feeling a little embarrassed, then you’re doing it right,” she said.

As a voice actress, Sullivan said she isn’t a chameleon like some of her other colleagues who create a variety of different voices for their characters. She doesn’t necessarily alter her voice that much from role to role, and distinguishes herself more through her turn-of-phrase, comedic interpretations of lines. She also said she enjoys improvising and going off script during readings for her various shows.

The writers of “DC Super Hero Girls” initially wrote lines for Supergirl to be a “bad girl,” but tailored the role to complement Sullivan’s abilities.

“I got hired, and then they were like, ‘hold on,’ and then started rewriting,” Sullivan said. “(Now the tone is more) sarcastic.”

Because her voice sounds similar in the parts she plays, Sullivan said she focuses on staying true to the characters’ distinct personalities. When she plays Supergirl, Sullivan keeps in mind that the character is a sassy teenager who also wants approval and to stay out of trouble with her parents. When she played the contrasting character of Marlene in “The Penguins of Madagascar,” she had to remember to be positive and effervescent.   

“I always had to remember no matter what (Marlene) is the glass half full,” Sullivan said. “She knows that tomorrow is going to be a better day.”

Although she’s worked primarily in comedy, Sullivan said growing up she wasn’t a class clown or known for being particularly funny. She developed her sense of humor while studying theatre at NU. It was her mother’s idea for her to apply to NU. She told her she knew of some great actors who went there. Sullivan responded: “What’s Northwestern? And where’s Illinois?” 

One of Sullivan’s distinct memories from NU is of painting the set for a production during her freshman year. She would get covered in fireproof black paint and have production crew responsibilities until 11 p.m. She said the experience served her well, and she can build steps to this day. Not ones you would want in a skyscraper, she clarified, but the steps her kids can use to look in the mirror in the morning.

At Northwestern, Sullivan met Betsy Thomas (Communication ‘90) when she starred in a play based off of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” which Thomas was assistant directing. Now a director and writer, Thomas has worked with Sullivan on a variety

Graphic by Catherine Buchaniec

of projects, including the NBC comedy “Whitney,” and the show she created, “My Boys.” In “My Boys,” Sullivan guest starred as the girlfriend of one of the main characters, Kenny. Thomas said the cast had a blast improvising with Sullivan, and some of those improvisations made the final cut of the episode. She also said that, although Sullivan mostly does comedies, she has a wide range of abilities as an actress. 

“A lot of people think of her as very funny, which she is, but she’s actually a really good actress,” Thomas said. “And I think she ends up doing a lot of comedy because that is what she’s known for, but the truth is she could absolutely do drama. She would be terrific.”

Sullivan demonstrated some of her dramatic ability in her role as Jill Tracy, one of the recurring patients in “Scrubs.” She said the role was one of the most meaningful she’s played because Jill was a depressed woman who saw friendship in the doctors who were treating her.  

“She saw a friendship that she was craving in her life,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s what we all sort of suffer from.” 

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