What makes a great kids show? How do you know when you’ve got a quality program on your hands, versus the everyday schlock? And how do shows attract the right talent? Up and coming voice actor Nick Wolfhard, who’s starred in more than his fair share of kid programming, has built up a few insights.
The, now 22-year-old, actor stars as the teenage survivalist Jack Sullivan in Vancouver-based Atomic Cartoon’s 2D-animated series for Netflix, The Last Kids on Earth (the streamer launched a second season of the show on April 17). He’s steadily built up a career voicing characters in big-brand series, and has previously held roles in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Beyblade Burst. Before these TV roles, he worked on Canadian animated feature films, including Arcana Studio’s Howard Lovecraft and the Kingdom of Madness and Kickstart Entertainment’s Under Wraps. (Wolfhard is also the older brother of Finn Wolfhard, who has his own share of kids credits, including Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego, MGM’s The Addams Family reboot, and of course, Stranger Things.)
“A good kids series is a show where the characters’ problems and relationships are grounded in realism,” says Nick Wolfhard. Personally attracted to working on series that blend real drama with comedy and action, he points to Steven Universe, Gravity Falls and Avatar: The Last Airbender as quality programming because each wasn’t afraid to “get a little dark” at times.
Building on his focus for realistic stories, the projects he most enjoys make the characters experience some hardship and inner turmoil, and have them learn a lesson every episode. He is also drawn to engaging mysteries. Although less common in kids TV, Wolfhard is attracted to serialized stories because an overarching story allows him to become more invested in the project, and track the characters’ growth.
These are the same elements that connect with fans, and the biggest insight he’s heard from audiences is that they continue watching a show because they feel like the characters are growing alongside them.
He sees these elements in The Last Kids on Earth, an action/comedy show where a group of kids band together to survive the zombie (and monster) apocalypse. Beyond its stylistic animation and funny dialogue, the 26 x 22-minute show stands out from other properties because its story is grounded in the reality of a kid who sometimes misses his parents and has to make his own family with his friends, says Wolfhard.
While he’s been a steady-working voice actor for several years, most auditions are at a stand-still now because of the pandemic, he says. However he’s hopeful that new projects will begin coming along as the industry slowly returns to normal, and he can start working on more projects that foreground realism, he says.
“I got into the business because I love cartoons,” he says. “Producers don’t need to make a serious show, but they do need to make characters relatable. The series doesn’t have to be hyper-realistic, but the character’s problems and relationships should be grounded in reality.”