Home Interview: Brina Palencia & J. Michael Tatum on Black Butler: Public School Arc

Interview: Brina Palencia & J. Michael Tatum on Black Butler: Public School Arc

Black Butler -Public School Arc- is proof of something magical and hopeful: that even after many years, your favorite anime might come back. The manga series by Yana Toboso had been adapted into a multi-season anime, multiple movies, and several OVAs alongside a slew of anime-original content. The series’ third season aired ten years ago and the theatrical film Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic was released seven years ago. The currently ongoing Black Butler -Public School Arc- is the first arc set after the Book of the Atlantic and is a direct sequel.

Along with the return of the series, to the joy of many fans, original English dub voice actors Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum returned to the show to reprise their roles as main characters Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis, respectively. We had the wonderful opportunity to sit in conversation with the Earl of the Phantomhive manor and his loyal demon butler to discuss their return to the series and their time voice acting for Black Butler -Public School Arc-. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: It’s incredibly rare for a series to get a new season after such a long time. What was your reaction to the news that more Black Butler was coming?

Brina: I mean, shock, honestly. So surprised, so excited, and also just scared because we didn’t know at first whether or not they would ask us to reprise our roles and Michael and I were just constantly texting like, “Have you heard anything?” 
Michael: (interjecting) “Have they talked to you yet?”

Michael: I think I had—I’m not online very often—so I had a slew of friends get the news before I did and be like, “Have you seen the news?” And I thought they were pranking me. And then it just kind of sunk in. I was like, “Oh, my, oh, oh, oh, yeah. I hope they ask us to come back. If they don’t, I, I,—”
Brina: (interjecting) Whatever shall I do? 
Michael: We had so much notice. I mean, they announced it, what, a year ago it feels like. Or something like that.
Brina: So we were just sitting in limbo.

Michael: We got to live in our anxiety for months and months before we were like, “Are we doing this? Are we? Are we doing this? Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But it was exciting. I was really thrilled and grateful because it’s so much fun to sit with and to revisit a property that you’ve been part of for so long and realize that “Oh, people want it back. That’s so cool. People still love it. Yeah, it’s still relevant.”

Q: Have you both read this arc before? Were you familiar with it? Or was it entirely new for you at the time you began recording?

Brina: I actually did read the arc in the manga, as soon as it was like looking like it would probably be us [voice acting] again. In the past when we recorded it was before we ever did simuldubs [simultaneous or near-simultaneous release of the original Japanese and the English dub]. So I was used to being able to watch the whole series before we recorded. And Ciel has so many, so many layers to him—both emotionally and technically—that I really feel better if I know where he’s going. Because there’s so much I have to think about with that character. Because it was in a simuldub form, I couldn’t watch it ahead of time. So I decided to go ahead and just read the manga, which I’m really glad I did because I had never read it before. And I plan on continuing. It’s delightful.

Michael: I’m really glad she did that homework too, because I didn’t, (Brina laughs) so I could be lazy. I don’t—you know, back in the day, I used to read everything I could get my hands on when I was cast in something. And I’ve learned I do a lot better in performance the less I know because I tend to overthink things. Plus, I feel like Sebastian’s role relative to Ciel is so reactive that I rely on what Brina’s doing and kind of reflect that energy because that’s what Sebastian does with Ciel. That may sound like a justification for my laziness, but I really do. Sometimes the temptation is very strong to pick up the manga to know where it’s going. Cause I’m such a fan, but I try to be disciplined and like, “No, no, no. I want to be surprised what happens. I want things to unfold in real time for me so that the reactions are as real as possible.” That’s just how I work. Not everyone does that.

Brina: And I think it also tends to depend on the character too, because there are certain characters that I feel that way about as well, but Ciel is not one of them.
Michael: Yeah, I think you’re right. Ciel is so layered. You have to have more information than just what happens. Cause Ciel is more of a—Sebastian is reactive and I think Ciel is more proactive. 
Brina: Yes, absolutely.
Michael: So you need more of an idea of where he’s coming from and what the goal is and where it’s going to go.
Brina: He’s much more of a planner.
Michael: And Sebastian is more of the, let’s sit back and watch it unfold while I smile and judge [type]. I hope our approaches work.

Q: Jumping off of that point about reactive versus proactive — obviously this setting is a bit different in the sense that Ciel is no longer the person in charge, no longer has the power or the authority. How have you found both of your roles having to change or how you voice the characters changing in response to this new setting and this new power balance?

Brina: I love seeing Ciel being so uncomfortable (laughs). And I just feel like he really underestimated the difficulty of being a teenager and how hard it is to be around your peers and to navigate all of those social structures that he’s never had to navigate before. And that he—I think really looked down upon [others] and thought that he could just immediately control [everything], but nah dude, this is the hardest part of life. And you’re being thrust into it without having had much practice. Also coming up with the fake voice, his fake sweet voice, trying to do Ciel’s voice in a sweet, positive way? Delightful. It’s such a challenge and it’s such a fun one at that.

Michael: It is. It’s so much fun, I’m delighted. Just as I’m sure Sebastian is delighted to see Ciel in this context because it adds a new ingredient to their dynamic that kind of gives Sebastian permission to be a little more patronizing, a little more sarcastic. So it kind of brings out the comedy of manners aspect to it in a way that it is stronger than it’s ever been. And I love it because Sebastian really — he also gets to be under deep cover as Ciel’s superior. And he loves to remind him of that. And I think it’s just, it’s so much fun to do that. Like, “Oh yeah. Hi. Yeah. Do your homework.” Yeah, super, super fun. Also, I’m a huge fan of how the implication is that for everything Ciel has been through, school is the hardest and the least relatable. And that Sebastian is fine because school is nothing to him because he’s literally from hell. So he’s very familiar and at home in it. I love that implication and it’s so much fun to play with.

Q: One thing about this new season that I noticed immediately is the new art style and updated animation. How do you both feel about the art style changes? And do you ever long for the sort of nostalgic, original art style of the first episodes?

Brina: I mean, I love the first episodes, but it’s so cool to see how it’s grown. And I mean, you know, technology has grown and whatever. It’s been a long time. But boy, howdy, those tea scenes — every cup of tea in that show is like the most beautiful work of art I’ve ever seen in my life.
Michael: (laughing) It belongs in the Louvre.
Brina: Yes, true!

Michael: Likewise, I’m obsessed with Sebastian’s lashes. I can’t get enough of them, I’m jealous of them, I want them in my real life. What I really love about the art direction this time around is that, you know, you mentioned “Are we nostalgic for the old style?” Of course, we are, but it’s clear that the current animators are too because their approach seems to be such a love letter to the old style that I think it’s perfect. It’s just wonderful to work with material that is clearly made by people that had to have grown up watching it. And now they’re getting to work in the industry and it’s just so cool to be part of that ride. But yeah, I think the new animation style is absolutely gorgeous. Really adds a lot of dimension.
Brina: Well, like you said Michael, there really is — you can see the love in every frame. The attention to detail is just stunning. It’s beautiful.

Q: In this arc, other than your own character and each other’s characters, who would you say is your favorite other character so far?

Brina: Oh, I love McMillan. 
Michael: Oh yeah. McMillan is super fun. I’m going to cheat though. I have to say mine is Bluewer just because it happens to be played by my husband. I’m very predictable. I may not read ahead, but I’m very predictable (laughs).

Q: One thing that Black Butler anime did over the years was have the older parts of the anime have anime-original stories that are not addressed again, including in the new season. How do you feel about going to strict manga canonicity and not having those older arcs get resolved?

Brina: That’s actually a really good question. I mean, I’m fine with it. I like where it’s going. (Michael laughs)
Michael: Yeah, I like where it’s going too. I think I could go either way. I know I love it when the material kind of deviates from the source material if it does so tastefully and with an eye towards the feeling of it. But I also love it when it stays as true as possible. And it’s, I think, a testament to how flexible and how ingenious the franchise is that it can do that and succeed. So when something’s unresolved, I just consider it like, “Well, that’s a fun little thing we might revisit one day. You never know.” So it becomes more of a tantalizing Easter egg, but it doesn’t present a problem for me at least.

Q: In preparation for the series, especially during that little limbo period you mentioned, did you find yourself looking to either different institutions of prestige or famous colleges to observe the vibe and the energy? Or did you go straight into it with just your own perception of the story and the setting?

Brina: Well, I think Yana Toboso does a really good job of giving you the backstory of the English school system, the public school system, in the manga that I feel like I kind of learned all the stuff that I needed to learn from her asides in the manga.
Michael: I’m an avid reader. I’m very passionate about reading. And so in preparation for this kind of world we’re in, I started reading or rereading a lot of Victorian novels that take place in schools. There’s quite a few of them; it’s a whole genre. So I was kind of familiar with it and going like, “Oh, they’re doing that. That’s cool. That’s cool that people remember that was a thing. That’s neat.” I’d get really excited because I’m like, “Oh, that’s the thing!” — we’ll be working and Caitlin will be like, “Yeah, I know.” Caitlin Glass, the director. She’ll be like, “Yeah, you’re very excited about that. And yes, we know, we know, we know that’s the hierarchy. We know that’s how that works. We know that’s the political structure.” I was like, “But it’s! …okay.”

Q: And my last question, do either of you have a favorite quote from the series or from this season that your character has said?

Brina: I wish I could remember the words, but there’s a moment where Ciel is trying to get information and then is like, (as Ciel) “Oh, it was the headmaster.” Oh, that’s what it was, when he’s making fun of the fact that everyone says (as Ciel, mockingly) “It’s the headmaster’s decision.” That moment where he’s so annoyed and he’s trying to tell Sebastian “And everyone is saying, ‘Oh, it’s the headmaster’s decision.'” Getting to do it in such a mocking way was really, really fun.

Michael: I think that for me, it’s gotta be the first time that Sebastian says “Yes, my Lord.” The whole buildup to it, the slow pan, the shot…I was just cracking up. They definitely knew that that line is the line. And it’s really fun to play a character that has that line. It’s also really great that that line does not have to be screamed or shouted as a battle cry because that after 20 years would really take a toll. So I’m very fortunate in that my more iconic — the lines I’m most known for are very comfortable to say.
Brina: Yes. Very chill, very chill.
Michael: He never raises his voice.

We’d like to thank both Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum for taking the time to speak with us. It was simply one hell of a conversation. Black Butler -Public School Arc- is currently available to stream on Crunchyroll. The English dub first premiered on Crunchyroll on April 27th. New English dub episodes stream weekly on Saturdays at 1 p.m. PT. Crunchyroll also offers Black Butler Season 1, Black Butler II, Black Butler Book of Circus, and the film Black Butler Book of the Atlantic. Brina Palencia is set to release her debut EP in the fall of 2024 and is available to listen to on Spotify. J. Michael Tatum has multiple exciting projects due for release later this year.

©Yana Toboso/SQUARE ENIX, Project Black Butler

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