2:00 pm EDT, August 14, 2018

Exclusive: Josh Keaton talks ‘Voltron’ season 7, Shiro’s new arc, love and loss

In Voltron season 7, Shiro took on a hugely pivotal leadership role, and saw through the conclusion of an antagonistic relationship in his battle with Sendak.

Prior to season 7, I had the opportunity to discuss the journey that Voltron executive producers Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos took to get LGBT+ representation on screen. When the season released in full on Netflix, we dug further into the story, breaking down the devastation that met the Paladins on their return, as well as the continuation of Shiro’s arc, and the cliffhanger ending.

Shiro’s arc, following his rebirth at the close of the previous season, took some surprising turns in season 7. I spoke to Josh Keaton about what that journey was like, how a sense of love and loss echoed through these episodes, and how satisfying it was so have Shiro confront Sendak on his own terms.

Warning: There will be significant spoilers for Voltron: Legendary Defender season 7 below.

Hypable’s exclusive interview with Josh Keaton (Takashi ‘Shiro’ Shirogane)

From talking previously to Lauren [Montgomery] and Joaquin [Dos Santos], they mentioned that the idea of making Shiro both identify on the LGBT+ spectrum, but also having an invisible illness, was something that they’d had planned for a long time. How long were you aware that that was something they wanted for Shiro and how did that inform your performances if you did know, both prior to revealing it to the audience and moving through to season 7 and beyond?

Josh Keaton: Well, we, as the actors, knew probably– it’s hard. Because time kind of overlaps a lot, as we go in and record these things very far in advance. Then they animate it afterwards, and then they send the animation back, and then they do ADR pickups if we have any, and then the stuff is released several months later. So everything kind of overlaps, because sometimes you could be doing ADR for episodes that are going to be coming out sooner, and at the same time we’ll be doing new episodes. You kind of end up conflating all the times. I would say, if I had to guess, I was aware probably around season 2. It was pretty early on.

And in terms of how it affected my performance, I wouldn’t say that it changed much. Obviously it directly influenced my performance of my scenes with Adam, where you actually see his relationship on display. But in the other stuff I didn’t really feel it necessary to really have that affect anything about his character. Because his sexuality isn’t necessarily what defines him, it’s just another facet of Shiro. I didn’t want it to be something like, oh, he’s gay, so I’m going to have to play him this way. I didn’t want that at all. Especially because of the fact [that] he specifically plays against stereotypes. I think that that’s one of those beautiful things about having Shiro as representation. So, I wouldn’t really say that I changed anything about my portrayal.

What I did use it for, though, was just kind of filling in stories in my own headcanon. As actors, we have to make our own fanfiction, our own headcanons, because we have to play these characters with a story and a history, with aspirations and things that they feel are going to happen in the future. Whether or not we know that, whether or not we have anything in canon told to us about their past, or about what’s going to happen to them. We kind of have to figure all that out, and have something, because otherwise it’s just a really boring portrayal. You’re just going to be playing what the dialogue says, and I guess the dialogue implies that you’re angry, you’re going to do it angry, which is just going to be a very stodgy performance. So you want to try and fill in as much of that character’s story so you have something to play. Whether or not it’s right. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it plays and gets the emotion across.

So, definitely, knowing that filled in a lot of blanks in my story, but it also allowed me to further expand upon that. To say, well, did he face any struggles because of his sexuality, how might that have affected how he approaches this type of person, or whatever. It allowed me to ask more questions, to fill in more of my headcanon story so that I could play a more rounded character. But in terms of, like, a specific thing that I could point to and say, I found this out so I made him more like this? There’s just nothing like that.

In season 7 we start off with seeing the conclusion of the relationship between Shiro and Adam, when Shiro decides to go on the Kerberos mission. Later on in the season, when the Galra invade Earth, Adam is part of the first wave of attacks, and he tragically loses his life. We do get to see Shiro react to that, briefly at the memorial, and in his later speech, but how difficult was that for you to play?

JK: We’ve all been in situations where we are forced to make a choice, which is going to be a pivotal choice. We may not know it at the time, how pivotal it’s going to be in our lives, and how it’s going to define our lives, but we all have to make these choices. And there’s always going to be that voice in your head [saying], “Did I make the right one? Did I make the right choice? Was this the right thing to do?”

And whether or not he thought he was going to get back together with Adam and have this great reunion, or whether he had already moved on, no matter what, when you’re that close to somebody, knowing that they’re no longer there, knowing that they are gone, knowing they’ve died, is a huge thing. Whether or not you’ve ended the relationship. Because the relationship was in such a place where it was such a big deal to both of them. And it would have been a life-long relationship, had Shiro not gone, had he not had a disease.

There are so many things that could have changed the direction of how it all ended up. And I’m sure that at some point Shiro probably questions his own actions, possibly blames himself. But that’s life. Things like this do happen. There isn’t always a happy ending for everybody.

And in terms of just getting myself to get to that point, as an actor you tend to try to use things from your own life. Certain parts of my, you know, kind of like your toolbox. Certain moments that I use to get me to a certain place, I keep private, and this one will probably be no exception. But, that being said, I do use things from my own life to get myself to that place. And at the end of the day, I am not a gay man, but I do understand love. And I do understand loss. And I think that those are universal. That’s not something that, because you’re gay, you’re going to love differently than a heterosexual person. I think that love is love. And what is true to me, in terms of how I would have felt had this happened to me, that would also be true to Shiro. There’s no difference in that circumstance. It’s love. And being able to really get myself into that place, when you think about the loss, and start kind of asking yourself the same questions that you think Shiro would have asked himself, it does put you in an emotional place. It does get you to that place where I would imagine Shiro would be. In that place where he’s at at the monument, feeling for the first time that Adam’s not there anymore.

In my review of season 7, I said that Shiro was the most effective leader, I think, as he has ever been, in the way that he steps up and shapes the final conflict. How great was it to step into that newer, leadership role, after Shiro was essentially reborn at the end of season 6?

JK: That’s a perfect description. He is reborn in this season. I mean, yes, through tragedy, but everything that you’ve seen Shiro go through since the beginning of the show has been quite tragic. And he still comes through. And that’s why he’s such an inspiring character. No matter what’s thrown at him he still gets through it, no matter how hard it is for him, or no matter how much his own afflictions are trying to fight him. It’s beautiful to watch. And I was so happy because I was worried about that. I was worried that Shiro wasn’t going to be a Paladin anymore. Like, damn. What’s next? When you play a character for as long as I’ve played Shiro, and as a fan, too. I watch the show as a fan. I’m probably– not probably, I am Shiro’s number one fan. I am a Shiro stan, 100 percent.

But yeah. I love Shiro. Part of being such a fan of Shiro is that you try to get into his head, and part of playing Shiro is that you do the same thing. So you’re always trying to game out how certain things affect him. I always, as a central tenant of how I played Shiro, would be [that] as much as he suffered from his PTSD, leading and making those decisions, making those hard choices, and protecting people is what gave his life meaning. That’s really what we turn to to get him through all of this other horrible stuff that had happened to him. So I was super worried that, now that he’s not going to be a Paladin anymore, that he was going to have more time to wallow in the fact that Adam was gone, and what did I do, did I make the right decision?

But that doesn’t happen. And it’s almost like everyone is waiting for him to step into [that role]. Everybody is like, of course, yeah, we need you to lead us. It brought the biggest smile to my face. I forget exactly— it was the stage directions. Reading the stage directions when he’s finally given command of the ship, and it describes how he kind of stood there and took in everybody around him, took in the ship, and realized at that moment that everybody’s looking at me to lead right now. And that filled me with so much pride, reading those stage directions. Because it was right. It’s exactly right. It’s what he was born to do. It’s what he’s always fought to do. It’s what he’s encouraged others to do. And to see him get this ship, that turns into a freakin’ mech, and still be able to not only lead alongside his friends, his teammates, that he’s essentially trained, they’ve all kind of trained each other, I can’t think of a happier ending. It’s an amazing continuation of his story. I won’t call it a conclusion, but it’s an amazing continuation of his story. I loved every second of it.

One conclusion that we did get was with Shiro and Sendak facing off, in that battle at the end of the season. That is the second hugely emotional battle that you have had in as many seasons, both with Keith in the previous, and now Sendak here. How did those two performances compare for you [emotionally], and how satisfying was it for you to see that arc come to a close on Shiro’s terms?

JK: That feels to me almost like one of Shiro’s most pivotal moments. Right up there with “The Black Paladins,” however that was a mind-controlled Shiro. In terms of Shiro-proper, I want to say that that was probably, in my mind, one of his most pivotal moments.

This might go slightly against canon, but I always felt in my heart, and in the way that I play Shiro, that Sendak got to him even more than Zarkon. Yes, Zarkon was the big bad, and yes, Zarkon had done all these horrible things, and led the Empire for all of these years. But Sendak got into Shiro’s head, enough where he even questioned himself, where he made him scared of himself. And [Sendak] got to him to the point where he couldn’t handle it, so much, that he jettisoned him from the ship. And at that point he was probably one of their only means to getting to Zarkon, and being able to take him down. And he just sent him off into space. Possibly to his death. How were we to know that he was going to come back? That’s how much that affected him.

So it’s such an even bigger victory seeing him, as you said, begin to end it on his own terms, to deal with it in a way that it wasn’t thrust upon him. He made a choice. He went in, and he took care of it. That’s overcoming so much of what has plagued him throughout the show. I don’t know that he’ll ever be completely over all of it. Probably not. I don’t think that any of us ever really get over super traumatic events completely like that. You still carry a piece of it, and that’s what makes us human. But I do believe that that was hugely important for him.

In terms of performing them, I would say that “The Black Paladins” was still more difficult because there were so many other notes that I had to hit. I had to hit the fact that he was mind-controlled, but at the same time, I also had to hit that certain things reached through to him. And there was a lot of technical things that went into that that had to be hit in order for that whole story, that whole scene, to really have the impact that it did. And not just from Shiro, from everybody. From the animation, from music, to Steve Yeun’s incredible performance as well. It was a Voltron of an effort. But yeah, I would say that “The Black Paladins” was a more technically difficult thing to perform, but they were both so rewarding in their own ways. I still am super happy about him having dealt with Sendak, in a way that I feel was probably cathartic for him, in terms of undoing a lot of the bad memories in his past.

‘Voltron’ season 7 is available in its entirety on Netflix now

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