The Inverse Interview

Steven Yeun and J.K. Simmons reveal the roles that made them Invincible

The animated Amazon superhero drama’s two stars both look back on their most iconic voice roles to date.

Amazon Studios

Steven Yeun and J.K. Simmons are no strangers to voice work. Prior to the new animated superhero series Invincible, streaming March 26 on Amazon Prime Video, both award-worthy actors starred in two different animated epics.

From 2012 to 2014, Oscar-winner Simmons (who plays Omni-Man on Invincible) voiced the sage monk “Tenzin” in the acclaimed Nickelodeon fantasy series The Legend of Korra. And from 2016 to 2018, Oscar-nominee Yeun (who plays, well, Invincible on Invincible) voiced the rebellious “Keith,” pilot of the Red Lion, in Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender, a reboot of the 1980s anime.

Now in Invincible, the two performers enter a superhero universe in roles that bear a striking resemblance to their Korra and Voltron characters. At least, on paper. In truth, as Yeun and Simmons tell Inverse, the characters couldn’t be any more different.

In Invincible, the animated adaptation of The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s superhero saga first published by Image Comics, 17-year-old Mark Grayson (Yeun) develops superpowers thanks to the inherited genes of his father, the alien superhero Omni-Man (Simmons).

At first glance, Mark and Omni-Man (whose human ego is Nolan Grayson, a best-selling author) are riffs on Voltron’s Keith and Korra’s Tenzin, respectively. Like Mark, Keith was a hot-headed teenager tasked with saving Earth from an alien menace. And like Omni-Man, Tenzin was the wise, rock-like mentor to Korra, the protagonist of The Legend of Korra who struggles to mature into her role as a destined savior. But Yeun and Simmons think the similarities end there.

In Invincible, J.K. Simmons and Steven Yeun star as the father-son superhero duo, “Omni-Man” (left) and “Mark Grayson” (right), who suits up as Invincible.Prime Video

“For me, they’re pretty different,” Yeun tells Inverse. “I think there’s a little bit of age crossover. They’re both angsty in that way. [But] I think Keith is much more confident in himself, and more sold into himself and really has a point of view that he’s trying to explore. I think Mark is still wavering and trying to understand who he is and fight through his own expectations.”

Simmons, too, believes Tenzin and Omni-Man are so fundamentally different.

“Until you asked the question, I hadn’t thought about the similarities or differences between Tenzin and Nolan,” Simmons tells Inverse. “Obviously [they’re] both parental figures. But I think Tenzin was a much more calming, grounding influence.”

Diving into the weeds of his performance, Simmons notes the vocal differences between the zen-like Tenzin and the masculine Omni-Man. “As I think about it, vocally, there was a certain calm, more breath in the voice. Less strident, less testosterone, for lack of a better word.”

From 2016 to 2018, Steven Yeun voiced “Keith” (center, red) in Netflix’s Voltron.Netflix
In The Legend of Korra, the monk-mentor “Tenzin” (second from left) was voiced by J.K. Simmons, who now stars as another fatherly mentor in Invincible.YouTube.com/Avatar: The Last Airbender

Still, the two actors agree that their previous roles on The Legend of Korra and Voltron: Legendary Defender afforded them some rare insight into their roles in Invincible.

“It’s two kids at different points in their journey, both coming into their own,” Yeun says. “I would say Keith is much more prepared for what he embarks on than Mark.”

“They both sound like me,” Simmons playfully observes about Tenzin and Nolan, the latter of whom hides a dark side that’s later unmasked. “As the [Invincible] show runs its course, we learn layers of complexity about Nolan. It was a more layered character to play with. Again, they sound like me, but hopefully [they’re] different enough versions of my voice that they’re distinct characters.”

Invincible begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on March 26.