"Gimme A Break!" star Lara Jill Miller opened up to AmoMama in an exclusive interview about her life, her career, and her plans.
Actress Lara Jill Miller is an icon to those who grew up with "Gimme A Break!" What many may not be aware of is that her voice has been enchanting tots and teens for decades.
Miller is one of the most respected voice actors in the animation industry, with shows to her credit such as the classic manga "Digimon," "Zatch Bell!" and the beloved children's animation shows "Curious George," "Clifford's Puppy Days," "Doc McStuffins," and "The Loud House," among many others.
Miller gave us unique insight into her life, and her decades-long career, including the possibility of a "Gimme A Break" reboot, her quarantine experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. She also shared her views on the #MeToo movement that has shaken Hollywood.
Lara Jill Miller recording the role of Lambie in Disney Junior's "Doc McStuffins" | Source: Getty Images
TALKING TO LARA JILL MILLER
We kicked off the interview with the monumental crisis that is changing the world: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: How is your quarantine going? In what way does it influence your life and work? Did the industry suffer, or in what way did it transform?
LJM: Welp, it's a quarantine, so… as good as that can be, really. We/my family/friends so far are all safe and healthy. I actually stay inside pretty much all of the time, go out for little walks (with a mask) here and there, have our food delivered by delivery services. One time we stood in line at 6:30 am at a local drugstore (with masks!) to try to be there early enough to get the very elusive wipes or alcohol, but none. And did I mention we wore masks? ☺︎ My travel plans to visit my family, though, were canceled, so I'm sad about that.
As far as life and work? For the past decade or so, I've been auditioning from home anyway, with occasional callbacks to the studios. But now work sessions are at home, too, in a very padded hallway. I do have to plan sessions around the lawn guy on one side and the leaf blower on the other. I've been buying neighbors little gifts for their cooperation: gift cards, etc. But now I'm running out of ideas, so I've been resorting to rolls of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and alcohol swabs.
LARA JILL MILLER'S EARLY CAREER
Q: You made your acting debut on Broadway in 1980 at 12, opposite icon Dick van Dyke. What are your brightest memories of that time?
LJM: Actually, the national tour of that show started a year earlier, rehearsing in New York City. Oh, Oh, one not so bright memory and one I don't think I've shared before! A few days before we were to hit the road, my mom and I had packed everything — four suitcases to last the whole year — and checked into our Manhattan hotel. We got back that evening from one of our last rehearsals — and everything had been stolen! It was so scary, of course, so we checked out immediately. Castmate Christian Slater and his mother let us stay with them those last few nights, and my mom had to go out and buy us all new stuff — from eyeglasses to underwear. Crazy!
Original theatre poster for "The Music Man" -- 1980 Broadway revival | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Fair use image
LANDING THE DREAM ROLE
Anyway, getting the job in "The Music Man" was kind of a fun story, too. On a dare from a local friend who wanted me to go see what a 'real' audition is like, I went on a cattle call audition in NYC for a brand new musical called "Evita." After narrowing the field from over 800 down to 5 of us, they asked if I'd be willing to dye my hair — if they needed a replacement in a few months and I hadn't grown too tall by then.
On my way out, I heard familiar music coming from the studio next door. So what's a kid to do? I stuck my head in and asked, "Can I audition for THIS show, too? And the rest, as they say, is history! (PS. I had JUST done "The Music Man" at my local dinner theatre, so I already knew all the lines, the songs, the piano piece to play.)
Lara Jill Miller and Dick Van Dyke in the 1980 revival of "The Music Man" | Source: Lara Jill Miller
Ultimately, our tour took us through Reno, NV (I remember Christian [Slater] and I roller-skated at our motel a lot and went to Circus Circus all the time. So much popcorn!), then Los Angeles (loved going to Venice Beach and hanging out at our hotel pool in Hollywood), San Francisco (adored Fisherman's Wharf, and had a hotel with an indoor pool; so fun at night after shows), Chicago (thought having a soda machine backstage was amazing - hey, I was a kid!), Minneapolis (where everyone ELSE's rooms got broken into except OURS!) and then back to NYC and Broadway, where I lived in a little studio apartment on East 54th Street over a Japanese restaurant. Every day when I walked to and from the theatre, I'd wave to the doorman at the hotel on the corner and holler:
“If you don’t see me walking home after the show, call my parents!”
The things a kid remembers, huh?
Lara Jill Miller as Samantha 'Sam' Kaniskyand the rest of the cast of "Gimme a Breakl!" in 1984 | Source: Getty Images
Q: We see so many actors and actresses say they don't want their children to take up acting. How did your mother, as a talent manager, feel about you going into show business as a child?
LJM: Oh, let me make this clear. My mom became a talent manager AFTER I was out of the business. We had come back from the tour and Broadway and 6+ years on a television show in Los Angeles when all these parents of all these kids would ask her/us how to get into showbiz. After referring a few of them to agents and managers, it dawned on her:
“Hey, I could do this!”
And so she did. She sent a few kids to MY agent. We would find kids in the mall, at pageants…anywhere. I would actually help train them, teach them songs, coach them, bring them to auditions in New York (by then I was living there). She was really successful. At one point, she had I think 6 kids on Broadway at once, in Les Miz, Tommy, Miss Saigon, some on tour.
She started the careers of many actors that you know now. But I'll just say this: She was always a mom first to me and also for her clients. She wouldn't take on any clients if they had bad grades. She always interviewed the parents, too, to make sure they were on board, could afford and were willing to travel, etc. It was important to her that the kids stayed well grounded.
She was not a 'stage mom' at all! And I have to say, I made it through my formative years in showbiz unscathed! Sure, I was around a lot of "Hollywood" stuff, if you know what I mean — the good and the bad: award shows, parties, and even drugs… but I kept my head on my shoulders, got straight As, never drank, smoked, or tried any of that stuff. I think my biggest rebellion was becoming a vegetarian — and I still am to this day!
Lara Jill Miler and Dolph Sweet (1920 – 1985) on the set of "Gimme a Break!" | Source: Lara Jill Miller
TEEN-DREAMS OF A CHILD-STAR
Q: As a teen, you were working in the adult world, with adult demands of work ethics and responsibility placed on you. How did that balance out going to school, wanting to have fun, going to slumber parties, etc.?
LJM: There were no slumber parties, no regular school, no football games, no proms… but I got to do everything else! I had a tutor on set. Everyone always asks if I missed a normal life, but that WAS my normal life — and I was fine with that. Hey, from what I hear, junior high and high school weren't that great anyway!
Some of my best friends would come out to LA to visit. My dad and sisters came out periodically, and my mom and I would fly home for a few months every hiatus. We traveled a lot, too, for celebrity events. My fun was the Emmys. My fun was "Battle of the Network Stars," "Circus of the Stars," and "Star Games." My fun was learning my lines and going to work! I loved it.
"GIMME A BREAK!"
Q: You moved from Broadway straight into one of the hit sitcoms of the 80s, opposite yet another giant talent who is also a Tony Award-winning Broadway star, Nell Carter. On-screen, Nell stood as a maternal figure to your character Samantha "Sam" Kanisky. What was your real-life relationship like behind the scenes?
LJM: Like you saw on camera. I was her baby. I loved her. I adored her. And she loved me. And she spoiled me. She also made me wear a dress to the Emmys!
Lara Jill Miller and Nell Carter ( 1948 – 2003) with their puppy, Mercedes | Source: Lara Jill Miller
Q: Despite the fact that you were by far the youngest member of the cast, you were a scene-stealer from the word go. Was there a lot of you in tomboyish Sam? How did you "find" her?
LJM: Yep, I was definitely a tomboy, but not as much as Samantha. Like when I had to hold a worm, I was NOT very happy!
Nell Carter and Sheila Frazier in "Gimme a Break!" in 1985 | Source: Getty Images
Q: What do you remember best from those 6 years with Nell Carter, Dolph Sweet, Kari Michaelsen, and Lauri Hendler? Was there a particularly amusing incident that stands out in your memory of your "TV family"?
LJM: Well, mostly, I remember the fun times in the rehearsal studios. And making popcorn. And playing Wiffle ball in the hallways with the sound guys and climbing up the carpeted walls and onto the sound booms.
Also all the great lunches with Nell at Denny's across the street, and playing lots of Ms. PacMan with her. I loved rehearsals. I loved hearing her sing!
As I got older, hanging with the casts of other shows that shared our same studio and getting lost in the underground catacombs there. I can watch old episodes and actually remember specific days; what happened in that rehearsal. Or I'll see a particular wardrobe piece, and I'll remember who was in the audience that day. The memories stay with you.
Lara Jill Miller and Nell Carter in "Gimme a Break!" - still from the episode "Nell Goes Home" | Source: Lara Jill Miller
Q: So many child actors tend to implode, failing to make their transition to a successful and fulfilling life, as you have, as a professional and as a woman. What would be your advice to young aspiring actors, and their parents?
LJM: Show business is a business, too. It's not all fun and glamor. And I'd advise you to save your money and not live up to your means. There could be lots of windfall years followed by lots of lean ones, with no earnings. So, be smart, amortize, don't drink or do drugs, and don't put yourself on a pedestal.
You're the same person you were BEFORE you were working, or got famous. Stay kind, patient, aware, responsible, professional.
Lara Jill Miller and "Gimme a Break!" co-stars Lauri Hendler and Kari Michaelsen | Source: Lara Jill Miller
Q: The #MeToo movement has raised the public's awareness of the abuse, so many young women suffered behind the scenes. As a very young woman working in an adult world, were you aware of those nuances going on around you?
LJM: Well, as a kid, I had heard of the phrase 'casting couch,' but it never entered my world nor circled near me at all. But yeah, it was something people just knew of, and I guess sadly, had even accepted. Things have changed. That's good. Really good.
LIFE AFTER "GIMME A BREAK"
Q: What was the transition like for you, to go from working as an actress back to the "normal" world of teenage concerns?
LJM: Well, there wasn't much 'normal' after I became recognizable. I mean, for a long time when my family would go out to eat, we'd rate it a "3 Star" or "5 Star" autograph meal — based on how many times we were interrupted for an autograph.
Or I'd be at the mall with a friend and get followed into the bathroom. They'd ask:
“'What are you doing here?' And I’d be like, 'Um - the bathroom?'”
Q: How did your classmates in high school react to you? Was the fame a burden or an asset?
LJM: Well, the abrupt change was right after elementary, since that's when I left on tour. It was never quite the same after that because I wasn't there for high school except for a few weeks a year.
I kept a few of my really good elementary school friends. They're the ones that visited me in LA.
HEADING FOR COLLEGE
Q: Instead of pursuing a career in acting straight after high school, you opted for college, and you studied Law. Did you feel that one phase of your life was over, it was time for a new chapter? Why Law?
LJM: I actually deferred for two years before I went off to college because I was still working on "Gimme A Break!" Because I wasn't attending regular high school and hearing about colleges from guidance counselors, I literally only applied to one school: NYU single choice/early decision. I got in, never really expecting to go or actually finish…but voila.
THE ACCIDENTAL LAWYER
Then one day on the NYU tennis court, I asked one of my teammates what she was doing after graduation, and she said she was taking the LSATs for Law school. So I figured:
“Hey, I’ll do that, too.”
Honestly, I didn't think I was 'brave' enough to go back out to LA, so I figured I'd just stay in school and be a good student — which I was really good at. And I chose a school in Manhattan, so I could continue to audition. And I still kept my foot in the business during that time, doing regional theatre in the summer and voice-overs year-round.
Q: You graduated Summa Cum Laude, you practiced Law for a few years, then gave it up. What prompted that decision?
LJM: Not Summa. Just Magna…but, thank you. And Phi Beta Kappa. And Law, welp, it just wasn't my thing. First, I was a legal assistant at a big firm in NYC — on the night staff.
That was fun, actually. It was a bunch of theatre and dance folks wanting to keep their days free to audition. Then I got a real lawyer job, worked my butt off with looooong hours, but didn't love it. And then wouldn't you know it, my true calling called again. Loudly!
Q: Was there a particular moment or incident that crystallized as "I'm in the wrong place doing the wrong thing?"
LJM: One cold, snowy winter day, my friend said I should come back out to LA for pilot season. I said:
“Don’t say that twice.”
She did. I went. I booked the first thing I auditioned for.
RETURN TO ACTING
Q: You went to work in front of the camera once again in "The Amanda Show." You always seem to end up working (mostly) in comedy. Is this karmic, or a deliberate choice on your part?
LJM: Actually, my very first audition after returning to LA was for "Chicken Soup for the Soul" — totally not comedy. And I booked it. I remember going to the audition, and they said just read the first few lines, and they let me read the whole thing, and halfway through I was thinking:
“Are you going to stop me? Are you paying attention? You must like me? Hey, I should be concentrating! Stop me! Oh yay, I think they like me!”
I don't think I even got all the way home before I found out I booked it.
And don't forget, I also did some work on "General Hospital." That's not comedy. But I do love comedy. I think I use a lot of my comedy chops on the cartoons that I work on, too.
Q: Then, in the late 90s, you started doing voice work in a very particular kind of animation — manga adaptations and anime. You did "Zatch Bell!" "Digimon," "Blood Plus," and "Astro Boy," among others. How did that come about?
LJM: My very first animation audition when I returned to LA just happened to be for "Digimon." And, then I booked "Clifford's Puppy Days," and my career took off.
Q: Manga and anime fans are enormously enthusiastic and dedicated to every minute detail, and to recreating their favorite characters in cosplay. What is it like to be in contact with that world and with the fans for whom your work is so real?
LJM: Usually, the fans know more about my shows than I do! Especially the anime, because we don't record as a cast. We come in one at a time and skip through the show -- skip skip skip, MY LINE, skip skip skip. I just did "Beastars," and had no clue what happened to me until I watched it!
As for cosplay, how cool! It's so fun to see, and really an honor to play these roles that people love so much! And I've seen FANTASTIC fan art!!!! I mean, WOW! There are so many talented artists out there! And so many who adore the shows. It's really, really an honor to be playing these characters and to be a part of such wonderful content.
Q: The manga and anime work is a world apart from much of your work in children's shows like "Curious George," "Doc McStuffins," "The Loud House." Which genre do you prefer?
LJM: I like both. They're VERY different. Especially — ok, I'll admit it — the pay. It's not anime vs. children's shows though; it's dubbing vs. original animation — world of difference.
And now, of course, most anime shows are non-union, so there's not a lot of work for me. "Beastars" was the first anime show I did in about 15 years, in part because it was a union show, and it also didn't hurt that I was offered the role without an audition. I was really humbled and grateful to be chosen! It's neat to be a part of such an amazing show and such a great cast, too.
Q: Voice acting is so challenging. You have only your voice to convey all the subtle nuances of personality. How do you "discover" a new character's Voice?
LJM: I look at the art, if I get any, that is. If not, I just bring to light what I think would go with the description of the character.
For instance, in "The Loud House," I saw no art. I just had an audition where they asked for me to "do all your girl voices from baby to teenager," and one of mine was the Lisa Loud voice. I was chosen. I didn't even read sides!!
"Curious George" illustration from the Margret and H. A. Rey's book series | Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Fair use image
Q: For example, one of the things I noticed in your voice work is the incredible comedic timing you bring to the characters. To what do you attribute your gift?
Talent? Yah, ok — I said it. And of course, skill. And that comes from experience. You see, it's not all about voices. People always assume that if they can do funny voices, they can do cartoons. But even though I did bring a certain quality and sound to Lisa Loud that they were looking for, the fact that they knew of my previous acting work was, I think, just as important.
I'd played the title roles in "Clifford's Puppy Days," "The Life and Times of Juniper Lee," and "Henry Hugglemonster." They knew my work, along with all the years on "Doc" and "SciGirls" and such.
So there's the importance of a good reputation (in fact, sometimes people just get offered some of the guest parts) and again, talent. That's not to brag, but you really do have to have it to work in this business.
Although I have to say, with all the home studios, more and more people — many of them newbies — are being found via the internet, so there's occasionally an opportunity to learn on the job. But that's more for dubbing than for original animation.
Q: There is a current wave of reboots of comedies and shows from the 80s and 90s, Would you be willing to take up your role in "Gimme a Break!" once again, as the grown-up Sam Kanisky?
LJM: Are there any plans for Lara Jill Miller to step back in front of the camera anytime soon?
It would be cool to do a reboot, but most of the cast is dead. ☹ I think without Nell, it just would be sad.
I've had ideas though: Sam could be an animal control cop, Julie could run a Bed and Breakfast, Katie's a fashion maven, who knows?
Someone out there wants to write it? As for other on-camera work, I'm not pursuing it right now, because happily and luckily I'm really busy in voice over. Yay for no makeup! But I'd love to. Just not a BIG role because agh, memorizing lines?
FAMILY AND ACTIVISM
Q: On a more personal level, you have become an activist, if that is the right word, to raise awareness of the prevalence of FTD -- frontotemporal degeneration – after your own mother was diagnosed. What would you say to our readers, to alert them to early diagnosis?
LJM: Not so much an activist, but an ear for individuals and families who are going through it, and facing the devastation that mine did. It's a disease like no other. You lose the person (often at a very early age) right in front of you. One by one, you watch as they're robbed of their empathy, sympathy, compassion, comportment, ability to discern right from wrong, all their social 'filters.'
Then there are things like hoarding, compulsive lying, and of course, eventually the incontinent phase: no speaking, no walking. Think of reverting to a toddler, but in the prime of life, their 40s or 50s or 60s, with a world of experience and memories behind them, and so much lost life ahead of them. FTD wreaks havoc not only on them but on their families and loved ones as well.
It's not their fault, mind you. They're ill. And this is a disease that commonly goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years and years. Specialists — neurologists, even — are often unfamiliar. Oh sure, maybe it was a blip on their radar in med school, but if they don't practice and see it, not so much. Heck — I was a lawyer! I know that just because you have a degree doesn't necessarily make you GOOD at what you DO!
Q: Diseases like FTD and Alzheimer's are devastating – perhaps more so than cancer – because there is no hope of recovery, only a gradual erasure of the beloved sufferer. What message would you send to caregivers of loved ones with FTD?
LJM: You're not alone. And no, there's no cure, but hopefully one day there will be. And know that you MUST be an advocate for the patient and for yourself — even when doctors don't believe you. I'd say: take notes. Film the person if you need to, to provide proof.
Also, prepare yourself (legally and financially). Talk about this with your loved one before it progresses. And do NOT think you're crazy when the one you love just changes right in front of your eyes. Something IS indeed wrong. It doesn't always show up in an MRI. Try to find some good and some humor. Music! Music helps. Dance! Art! Take pictures! Get a swing!
And the ONE thing I can say is that when it's over, you will reach a time when you can finally remember that loved one BEFORE. It's hard because it can be a long and arduous journey — but in time, a smile can and will come back to your face. And now, when I make friends on the AFTD page (a support group for families at https://www.theaftd.org/ ) or when I see others suffering, I share a lot of my stories. Some are quite funny NOW. They weren't then, but boy — with the perspective of time, I sure can make people laugh through their tears. And I know my mom would be proud.
LIVING LIFE WITH COVID-19
Of course now, with COVID, what a joy it is to continue to work from home. I am very, very, very lucky to be able to continue to do what I love and have a job that I love. I never take that for granted.
A SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM LARA JILL MILLER
Thanks for taking the time to ask such in-depth and thoughtful questions. I hope I've answered them all to your (and the readers') liking.
Stay well. Stay healthy. Be safe. Wear your masks! I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me. We're all in this together.
I feel that I must add a postscript, as this interview was agreed to and the questions asked and answered before the more pressing issue at hand. I couldn’t remain silent, so before the last draft goes to print, I am addressing it now: Racism must end. We must do our part. We must listen, learn and love.
Stay strong. Be brave. And smile. We're in this together. Be well, everyone! Thanks again for reading!