We’ve seen big shifts (in the right direction) when it comes to BIPOC depiction in entertainment this year, and thankfully cartoons are no exception. Look to animated shows like Dana Terrace’s The Owl House, Daisuke Tsutsumi’s ONI: A Thunder’s Gods Tale, or Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild, and many others—all of which have done wonders for BIPOC visibility, both on the screen and behind the mic.
As some of the above examples show, the animation industry has matured in handling LGBTQ+ visibility as well. Currently with two seasons on Netflix (and hoping for a third), Hamish Steele’s Dead End: Paranormal Park (produced by Blink Industries) is one of those Western cartoons for kids that broke ground. It centers a gay transgender Jewish boy, Barney (Zach Barack), and a South Asian girl, Norma (Kody Kavitha), who later comes out as bisexual. As the pair brave the silly supernatural horrors of the Phoenix Parks amusement park, they explore their respective queer identities with nuances unseen in any other cartoon (or youth programming in general, honestly).
Big things happen in this series: a park impersonator has gone missing, Barney’s pug (Alex Brightman) can talk and perform magic, the park owner has a ghastly secret, Angels are waging war on the Demons, Barney also gets a cute boyfriend, and Norma deals with her unrequited crush on her podcast bestie, Badyah (Kathreen Khavari). It’s the kind of goofy show capable of delighting all ages.
Indian-born Kavitha plays Norma, a neurodivergent kid with a hyper-fixation for everything Pauline Phoenix (until that changes). In a phone call, Kavitha talks about auditioning for Norma, relating to Norma, singing post-op, and queer and neurodivergent Asian representation.
Caroline Cao: Let's talk about how you landed the role of Norma. What was on the character description? Did you know anything about the graphic novel [source material]?
Kody Kavitha: I didn’t know about the graphic novel when I got the audition. When I got that breakdown for Norma, I think it described her as someone who works at a theme park and was obsessed with the theme park called Dead End. And I also worked at a theme park at that point and was obsessed with that theme park. I kind of chuckled and thought, “Okay, that’s me.”
The audition I did at home. Because of the impending [COVID] pandemic, I was pretty stressed out anyway, so I just kind of said “Okay, let’s just get this audition done and then, I don’t know, doom-spiral on the Internet.” The day of my callback was actually the day of the shutdown. I had a really great time and it was raining and I got back to my car and I was soaking wet. And I got an email from my theme park job saying that I had lost my job because of the shutdown.
CC: Oh my goodness.
KK: I know.
CC: Can you say what theme park you worked at? [Laughs]
KK: I actually can’t. We’re not allowed to say it. But it’s a very popular one that’s similar to Dead End.
CC: Okay, aside from the theme park thing, how do you see yourself in Norma?
KK: I definitely see myself in [her] anxiety component. I think there was a period of time where I went through exactly what Norma is going through, which was that just trying to understand people was a little bit difficult for me. Norma mentioned that they, [people in general], don’t quite make sense to her. But that anxiety of making new friends and being accepted for who you are, I definitely think that anybody who’s been through their 20s has been through that at some point.
CC: Were there any dramatic challenges?
KK: Well, there’re two. [One is] the fact that Norma is on the spectrum and I am not. Going into the recording, I wanted to make sure that whatever performance I gave was respectful and not a caricature or anything that we’ve seen previously in Hollywood’s depictions of being on the spectrum. And so for myself, I did a lot of research before recording, not so much in you know how to portray autism because again, that’s just offensive, but more so in how people on the spectrum view themselves. I was able to glean a lot of information from social media or from YouTube videos and realize that—not to make them an “other” or separate them—but they have exactly the same wants and needs as I do or other people, and understanding that at the end of the day, all we really want as people is to be understood and accepted.
Of course, having members of the crew also being on the spectrum, I think helps as well. I think as an actor, I felt very safe, knowing that the way that we’re going to tell the story is going to be in a way that is respectful and also realistic.
And the other thing that I think was probably the challenge for me was going into the musical episode.
CC: That, I was going to ask about that!
KK: I was just so thrilled to be able to sing Patrick Stump’s music. But I was very nervous seeing that my song was an absolute showstopper number. Because at the time that we were recording, I was going through a health situation. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had endometriosis. And something that people don't understand about endometriosis is it’s a full-body disease and it was impacting my breathing. And I was very nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver those large notes needed for “My Frankenstein” and the finale number because I couldn’t get enough breath. But conveniently, my surgery for endometriosis actually had to happen right before we did the musical episode, which was actually wonderful for me because I was able to recover and I think I was about four weeks post-op when we actually recorded the musical episode and it was like night and day. I was able to hold those long notes. I was able to really go, as the kids say, as hard as I could on “My Frankenstein.”
CC: Dead End: Paranormal Park has done a lot for representation, like the visibility of queer Asians. For example, I'm Vietnamese and queer and I got excited seeing an actual gay Vietnamese youth [Logan “Logs” Nguyen, voiced by Kenny Tran] in a cartoon.
CC: That conversation Logs has with Norma, [when she tells him that she’s bisexual] was pretty important to me when he says that he’s not out to his mother yet and “it’s complicated in Asian families” because I don’t remember a cartoon that talked about a very specific queer Asian experience in that way.
KK: I remember reading that part in the script where Logs says, “it’s complicated with Asian families.” It was just such a subtle nod to the struggle. I personally can’t say that I’ve been through that because I was adopted. So I didn’t grow up in a traditional Asian household, even though I am from India. However, I have a lot of friends that have experienced exactly what Logs was talking about. What I liked so much was that it shows that there are many different ways to exist as LGBTQ+ in the Asian community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Published on December 20, 2022