Actor and activist JP Karliak uses his voice for ‘X-Men’ and more

Decades before Iron Man became one of Hollywood’s biggest heroes or the average filmgoer had a favorite version of Spider-Man, “X-Men: The Animated Series” dominated Saturday morning screens. Its 76-episode run premiered in 1992, paving the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and more.

“In the Marvel Comics universe, mutants, people with genetically endowed superpowers, are persecuted by a hateful and fearful populace,” it’s now described. The series was based on the entertainment juggernaut’s line of “X-Men” comic books launched in 1963, co-created by the late and legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Born differently and hated for it, the X-Men have served as an allegory for minorities ever since. It’s undoubtedly contributed to the property’s six decades of success, leading to cinematic interpretations and revivals like Marvel Studios’ “X-Men ’97.”

The animated sequel premiered on Disney+ March 20 and “revisits the iconic era of the 1990s as the X-Men … are challenged like never before, forced to face a dangerous and unexpected new future.” The series brought back a significant amount of its original voice cast and hit four million views in just five days, a new record. View the trailer below:

Returning characters include mutants like Storm and Wolverine, popularized by Fox’s live-action films, as well as animated counterparts like Morph. The character appeared in nine episodes of the original series, including its two-part premiere and series finale in 1997.

Based on a legacy comic character named Changeling, Morph is a shapeshifter who can alter his body and voice to appear however he wishes. His inclusion in the series made headlines in February when former “X-Men ‘97” showrunner Beau DeMayo — a gay man who parted ways with Marvel Studios ahead of its premiere — noted that the character would be nonbinary.

Actor and activist JP Karliak, who is genderqueer and uses he/him pronouns, voices Morph in “X-Men ’97.” He’s settled on he/they for the mutant, an ongoing discussion, and has an extensive resume that includes fan favorite characters like Wile E. Coyote, Boss Baby and Joker. He reflected on the role via social media after its premiere:

Performance isn’t Karliak’s only passion. He co-founded NerdsVote in 2018, the nonpartisan organization dedicated to getting pop culture aficionados involved in the democratic process, and founded Queer Vox in 2021. The latter nonprofit provides training and professional support for LGBTQ+ voice actors while advocating for equitable opportunities and authentic representation.

Karliak discussed his work with Watermark after the “X-Men ‘97” premiere, reflecting on the importance of using your voice for mutantkind and much more.

WATERMARK: What drew you to performance?

JP Karliak: I got hit by the performance bug so many times. I was a big fan of movies, old movies that my mother would watch every weekend, and I was a huge fan of cartoons. I was just under the impression that there was no way that it could be a job because it looked too fun. I watched “Aladdin” as a kid and I thought to myself, “Well, they’re letting Robin Williams do that and he’s a famous Hollywood actor, so I must have to become a famous Hollywood actor in order to be allowed to do voiceover.”

That was sort of my trajectory through college, trying to get on stage or get in front of a camera and do that work. Luckily, I had a professor tell me, “You can just audition for these roles, you don’t have to be famous to get them,” and that led me to voiceover.

What are some of the rewarding and difficult aspects of voiceover?

There’s really no judgment about what you look like, or what your physicality is. Your voice is allowed to play whatever character it manages to change into, so I’ve had a lot of variety that’s been at my disposal.

As for what’s difficult, the pandemic changed it to being a real work from home experience, whereas before I was visiting with engineers, producers, directors and writers. Everybody would come to the session and we’d all record together, and sometimes I’d get to record with other actors and get to kibitz during break; it was still quite social. I’m an extrovert, so I do miss that. Luckily, there are experiences like the “X-Men” premiere where we get to really bond and get excited for a project. It’s been nice to have that.

How did your involvement with “X-Men ‘97” come to be?

It was really just a regular audition. I got it, saw that Morph was not only a legacy character, but also that they were adding the detail of him being nonbinary, and it really piqued my interest as someone who identifies as genderqueer. Really delving into his story and getting to know this character, I saw a lot of myself.

How did you approach it?

I think because Morph wasn’t a massive part of the original series, there wasn’t such a pressure that his voice had to be exactly the same as it was in the original — he has a very distinctive laugh that was stressed as important — but other than that, I identified so much with this character that I thought, “Well, I’m just going to do my voice and see how that goes.” I really don’t sound that different from Ron Rubin, who did the original, so I just trusted that I didn’t need to put anything on to play him. I just needed to let the sense of humor shine through and that was it.

Critics have spoken out against morph being nonbinary and dissent can be the loudest, but there’s also been positive feedback. What can you share about that?

I think, as you said, the dissent is the loudest, but I have also been around long enough to know it is the smallest — and truthfully, I’ve been overwhelmed by the backlash to the backlash.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive reactions, by the people championing “X-Men” and saying, “Have you not read ‘X-Men?’ Do you not know their origins? Do you not know what they stand for, being born out of the civil rights movement and being an allegory for civil rights for all sorts of communities, including and especially the queer community?” So it’s been heartening to see that a lot of people understand what those origins are and can come to its defense, as opposed to the conversation really being dominated by trolls and haters.

I did read an article or two from some of these hateful websites, and what I found so amusing was that one called me a “radical queer activist.” I’m the founder of an LGBTQ+ voice actor advocacy nonprofit and they said that I was, and they listed the mission, and it was all accurate. So I’m happy to roll with it.

Why do you think the X-Men resonate with LGBTQ+ audiences?

I think it’s their history of oppression. I love the line in the film “X2: X-Men United” where they visit Iceman’s parents and he comes out as a mutant. They say, “have you tried not being a mutant?” and there are so many nuances like that with the X-Men that queer people go through that aren’t even thinly veiled references. It resonates so powerfully with our experiences.

I also know personally why Morph feels so powerful for me. In the original series, he goes through such a traumatic journey — including feeling betrayed by his friends, then feeling he betrayed his friends, feeling PTSD from some physical and psychological trauma and having to try to overcome that, and then trying to figure out how he fits back in his friend group. All of that, especially as we continue the story in this series, is trauma that he tries to push through with humor, which is such a uniquely queer experience that just so powerfully resonates with me.

There’s been a lot of queer representation behind the scenes as well, like with former showrunner in Beau DeMayo. Is there anything you can share about that?

I think Beau has such a fantastic grasp of that connection between the queerness of “X-Men” as a whole and how to bring that to the screen, and I think it’s very evident in his writing; it comes through so beautifully. But I do think that it has been such a team effort. There are so many artists on the show and other writers who are queer as well that bring so much to the table.

Although the voice director, Meredith Layne is not queer herself, she does have such a beautiful grasp of how to tell a queer story. She’s worked on what I consider to be prestige adult animation, including “Arcane” and “What If?” and “Castlevania” and “Blood of Zeus,” many of which have queer stories and she helps direct them with such a deft touch. I think all of that combined really gets the message of its queerness home without a “very special episode.” We don’t need it, and I think we’re in that part of our movement where it is so powerful to just see us living our lives.

When it comes to Morph’s pronouns, what should be used? There are conflicting reports and the show’s credits use “their.”

Yeah, I noticed that too. Which is funny, because in recording the show and in interviews, it’s been he/him and has been from the original. This is an ongoing discussion, so I reserve the right to edit my response at a later date. (Laughs.) But the way I jive it is basically in the context of what’s happening in 1997, when the term nonbinary did not exist yet and the use of they/them pronouns in connection to someone who is nonbinary was not a mainstream thing.

So while Morph might not even have that terminology to use, gender is a journey and it’s a journey of understanding. I’m going to say that maybe the end credits are sort of the historical record … maybe, fingers crossed, Morph will make it to an era where nonbinary is common terminology. So maybe we could say the pronouns are he/they. But again, even that resonates so much with me.

How so?

My gender was a journey. I didn’t have the language to say that I was genderqueer in 1997 in high school, confused about who I was. I found that much later and even in spite of that, I still identify with he/him pronouns. If I was 10 years younger, I probably would identify as nonbinary and use they/them, but I think there is a sort of conditioning of growing up in the era that I did that makes me more comfortable with he/him, which is fine.

I think it speaks to every queer person’s prerogative to be able to use the terminology that describes what is within themselves. No term fully encapsulates in and of itself what everything is, and everybody’s going to describe their gender identity differently. I think this experience with Morph figuring out who he is, and using whatever pronouns he may end up using, is all just a beautiful journey of his specific queer experience.

Why is LGBTQ+ representation important on the screen?

Performance art, whether it be theater, film, TV, whatever it is, is meant to show us a slice of life. It is meant to give us a better understanding of humanity. So when we’re only showing limited snippets of humanity, we’re not really showing the world as it is. We’re not really addressing everything that’s happening, so I think representation is so important for the experience of seeing the fullness of humanity.

On a very specific level for the queer community — although representation matters, especially in a show like this, where there is a queer hero — it matters right now because the youth need to hear it. This is such a difficult time for the queer community. I’m not going to say it’s the worst time because we’ve certainly faced a lot of bad, but this is a very, very dark time, especially for queer humans. I think having positive representation, especially positive heroic representation, is so important.

What about behind the scenes?

When it comes to behind the mic, I think that’s important because as much as we want our art to represent the full breadth of humanity, we also want to give everybody an opportunity to pay their bills. I never make the argument that a queer person should be played by a queer person because only they have the talents or the wherewithal to be able to understand what that person’s going through. We’ve all seen queer characters portrayed by cis or straight people that we found effective or beautiful … to me it’s not about that.

In an ideal world, where we all have equal opportunity, we all would be able to say, “oh, I want to play that role that is not my gender” or something like that. But the truth of the matter is that you are denying the opportunities of the actual people whose story you’re telling to earn wealth telling those stories. You are dabbling in an art form that is actually a business, and therefore careers cannot be made because you had to take that role. That’s the problem to me, and if this industry was allowing everybody an equal opportunity, not even to just get the role but to audition for the role, then we’d be in a much different situation.

Is that why you became a “radical queer activist?”

(Laughs.) Well, it really was born out of that, of having conversations with casting director friends celebrating the rise of well-written queer characters in animation and video games, but also bemoaning that they were not authentically cast. So often we were hearing “I just don’t know where to find them,” and they weren’t wrong, but it’s not that queer and trans voice actors don’t exist. Of course they do. It’s just that we haven’t created the pipelines to get them into mainstream work.

Part of it was creating a training program to offer classes with little to no financial burden to offer people this training, and I discovered that a lot of them already had it, they just didn’t have the opportunity. It’s about ensuring queer people are a part of stories, even those that aren’t queer-centered stories. It’s about showing people we exist. Just as we’ve trusted our cis and straight colleagues for hundreds if not thousands of years to play us, now the industry needs to trust us to play them. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be allowed those opportunities as well as the mainstream representation to build long-lasting careers.

Your activism also extends to NerdsVote.

NerdsVote was the brainchild of my voiceover pal, Courtenay Taylor. She was talking with one of her fellow voiceover pals about wanting to get people excited about voting, about creating voter registration opportunities, but at the time, they were just overwhelmed with a very busy schedule of various conventions. They were like, “How am I going to have the time to register people to vote when I’m talking to all of my fans at all these events? Oh.” Suddenly the light bulb went off about bringing voter registration opportunities to conventions.

Why is it important?

If you’re a young person who is a big fan of particular property, and you go in to get an autograph from an actor and you’re excited to meet them, and while you’re there, they encourage you to get out the vote and that’s important to them, you’re going to find it’s important to you too.

It’s nonpartisan, even though Courtenay and I are pretty darn partisan ourselves and fully admit that, but we really work hard to make sure that it is purely about registering more people to vote. We’re of the mind that by and large, the nerds that we’ve run into — people who love gaming, cosplaying, congoing and pop culture of all kinds, they’re an empathetic people at heart. They are interested in social justice and making the world a better place. Having more of those people voting is a net positive.

Florida has passed high-profile, anti-LGBTQ+ laws in recent years. What message do you have for fans here?

My message for the queer folks — especially the gender nonconforming and trans folks and especially the youth in Florida — is that you’re my heroes. (Pauses.) I don’t know how you do it. I grew up in the 90s in Pennsylvania, which was tricky enough just being a gay person. I never felt the government coming after me. I felt some bullies throw me into lockers, but I never felt that my existence was threatened by the Governor of Pennsylvania. Never. I had smaller concerns. I don’t know if I would have survived that, so it breaks my heart that any queer person has to go through that.

So whether it’s my work at Queer Vox, or NerdsVote, any of the stuff that I do, so much of it is about trying to turn the tide so that no queer person anywhere has to experience that. So that no queer child has to grow up feeling that the literal world is against them. You’re my heroes and we’re doing our best. Hang in there.

“X-Men ‘97” is now streaming on Disney+. For more information about JP Karliak’s acting and activism, visit

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