Ryan Potter lived in Tokyo until the age of seven and grew up bilingual. He knows Tokyo and San Francisco and he’s a student of White Tiger Kung Fu. That made him a natural fit to play Hiro in Disney’s animated feature Big Hero 6, a superhero film set in fictional San Fransokyo that came to Blu-ray and DVD on February 24, 2015.
Potter is only 19, and he’s only been in the acting business for four years now—which makes him sound young. But in 2011, the same year he was cast on Nickelodeon’s “Supah Ninjas,” he founded Toy Box of Hope, a charity that benefits children living in homeless shelters and transitional living facilities. That makes him sound old. And you know what? Talking to him you get the feeling that he’s just a guy who has it all together and isn’t letting his quick rise in the business go to his head.
He went from answering a flier for a Nickelodeon series to playing Mike Fukanaga on Supah Ninjas for two years, playing Fred’s best friend on Fred: The Show, appearing in a short film titled “Save the Date” (2013), and then working in two highly rated 2014 feature films—Big Hero 6 and the indie flick Senior Project. All in the span of four years.
I had the chance to talk to Potter for a brief one-on-one phone interview, and he shared his thoughts about Big Hero 6 and his groundbreaking role as Disney’s first multicultural hero.
What were your favorite Disney animated movies when you were growing up?
I love The Lion King. It’s one of the classics, but really my favorite of all-time would be Treasure Planet. It’s kind of one of the ones that flew under the radar, but it really is a phenomenal film.
So are you a pirate at heart?
I mean, I’m a pirate, I’m an astronaut, I’m a firefighter, I’m a Ninja . . . . As a live-action fan, at heart I’m literally all those dream jobs.
Speaking of dream jobs, if you had a choice between starring in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie or the next installment of The Avengers, which would you take, and why?
I would definitely do The Avengers, because I think there needs to be more Asian-American superheroes on the screen. There’s definitely a lack of them. Even in the comic world, there’s really not a lot of roles that we can play. I think Dick Grayson would be phenomenal . . . being able to play an Asian-American Robin. Or, I don’t know, being the new young Tony Stark on The Avengers, right? Getting your presence known would be awesome.
Are you a gamer?
Definitely being in a Disney movie. Infinity was a lot of fun to be able to record and kind of see my character come to life on the screen and being to play as him, but there really is a certain magic—I know it sounds so corny, but there really is a certain magic that comes with working on a Disney film. Just the creative environment that you get to go into. You literally get to create with some of the most artistic geniuses in the world. And yeah, that’s the best way to describe it.
I’ve often heard that voice acting can be lonely. Did you get to meet other people on set or hang out with other voice talents?
I wouldn’t say that it’s lonely. I think if people are saying it’s lonely they just wanna hang out with the other castmates. Yeah, you don’t get to work with the other castmates, but you get to work with the head of story, directors, writers, sound engineer, producer. You get to work with the production designer, you get to work with all these different people, and they’re just as important as you in the film, you know? I feel like, in animation, yeah the voice cast is great, and yeah they get good recognition, but really some of the most important people on Big Hero 6 and other animated films are the production designers, or the head of story—these people who literally work on one scene for weeks at a time and perfect it. It really is never lonely, because you get to work with them.
What was your take-away after doing this movie? What did you learn technically or behind the scenes or inspirationally?
Man, I feel so bad because I’m forgetting who it was. About a week before the film came out, somebody came up to me and asked how it felt to be the first multicultural Disney character ever. And my response to that was, “Wait, Mulan . . . oh, no. Pocahontas . . . oh, no.” And it really dawned on me that Hiro, Tadashi, Honey Lemon . . . they are the first multicultural Disney characters ever. When you think about it, if you’re going to call the United States the melting pot of the world, you need media, you need film, you need television, you need entertainment that represents that. And it’s been an absolute honor to be able to voice the first multicultural character. Having that weight on my shoulders has just kind of opened my eyes to finally being able to go on more auditions now that have in the character description “Asian American.” And I’m just proud to be able to be a part of a film that has opened up so many doors now.
Which did you find most helpful in order to play Hiro, your bicultural upbringing or your martial arts background? Or was it a tie?
I think it’s a little bit of a tie. Just the character in general, it screams me. Growing up in Tokyo, growing up in San Francisco, I know the city kind of like the back of my hand. So being able to see the city and the environment that he lives in, I totally get it. He lives in this new city that’s in constant renewal, that has so much lived-in culture. I related to him so much, and in every aspect.