No one does Storm quite like the animated “X-Men”

Alison Sealy-Smith talks about reprising her iconic "X-Men: The Animated Series" role for sequel series "X-Men '97."

Warning: This article contains spoilers from X-Men '97 episodes 1 ("To Me, My X-Men") and 2 ("Mutant Liberation Begins").

When the X-Men are pinned down by mutant-hunting Sentinels, Cyclops knows to call in the big guns. Tapping the communicator on his chest, he says, "Give 'em the forecast." He relishes giving the command because he knows what's coming.

Lightning begins to crackle against the desert floor with such force that the sands flash freeze into gnarled sheets of glass, but that's just a precursor. The source of nature's wrath is Storm, the X-Men's heavy hitter, voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith, with the power to harness the weather. "Ancient sands, heed my command...," booms the voice of the Barbadian-born, Canada-based actress as the animated character whips the winds into a devastating cyclone.

"Somebody like me, who did absolutely nothing but Shakespeare for about five years of my career, it was like I was made for these beautiful one-liners," Sealy-Smith tells EW. "'Summoning the power of the arctic winds!' and 'Rise, desert sands!' I was in my element. I was in that studio going, 'This is it. This is what this instrument was for.'"

<p>Marvel Animation</p> Alison Sealy-Smith voices Storm in 'X-Men '97'

Marvel Animation

Alison Sealy-Smith voices Storm in 'X-Men '97'

Nearly 30 years after the finale of X-Men: The Animated Series, Sealy-Smith's Storm returns for the sequel, X-Men '97, which debuted its first two episodes on Disney+ this week. The arrival of the proclaimed Mistress of the Elements immediately struck lightning with audiences once again for reasons beyond nostalgia. To put it simply, she's just the GOAT. Few other iterations of Storm could match the theatricality, regality, strength, vulnerability, and commanding force that is Ororo Munroe, Marvel's Omega-level mutant who was, at various times in the comics, a pickpocket orphan on the streets of Cairo, a queen of Black Panther's Wakandan domain, an Avenger, and a tribal figurehead worshipped as a goddess.

Even live-action attempts to bring the fan-favorite character to life, from Halle Berry in the first X-Men movies to Alexandra Shipp in the prequels, aren't in the same league. The visual effects of those films at those times couldn't make Storm's powers look as dramatic as the animation, while conversations around colorism permeated the casting of Berry and Shipp, who are both light-skinned Black women cast to play a dark-skinned mutant. All that is why Sealy-Smith's animated rendition remains the gold standard for the character to this day — plus, she just looks cool as hell when she is, as Sealy-Smith puts it, in her element.

<p>Marvel</p> Storm from 'X-Men: The Animated Series'


Storm from 'X-Men: The Animated Series'

The voice actress behind the role has no comment on the past live-action portrayals of Storm, but she has heard some of this feedback from the fans. "When you're at conventions and fans are fanning, you take it all in and let it make you feel really, really good and really, really humble," she says. "It strengthens you to get into the studio the next time, but you can't take it on and believe it. Each person's reaction is theirs. Even among the X-Men fandom, you're going to find people who say, 'Oh, Storm? I never did really like her. What's with the stilted Shakespearean stuff?' So, no, I don't take it on, but I've heard a lot of things."

Sealy-Smith doesn't fully remember certain details about her origins on X-Men: The Animated Series, blaming her memory on "aging and a misspent youth," but she remembers it marked her first voiceover gig. She was a single mom at the time with two kids in Stratford, Canada, and didn't have the traditional theater school background. Instead, she performed in various theater productions for social change. "It barely paid the rent," she says, but she was hungry. "I was hungry to prove that I deserve to be here," she continues. "No, I've never been to theater school, but I can do it. Yes, I'm a little Black girl from Barbados, but I can do it."

When Sealy-Smith came to the X-Men auditions in the early '90s, she didn't know anything about the project, Marvel comics, or cartoons, for that matter. She remembers thinking, "Cartoons are Scooby-Doo, and I'm a serious actress." At the same time, she recalls sitting in a room full of fellow thespians on their third callbacks for the Storm role and feeling her Barbadian background was working against her. Her competition all had North African, South African, Nigerian, Kenyan, and Ghanan heritage, which felt more aligned with the origin of the character. "I'm going, 'Well, they're right out there. So what do I hold on to?'" she says. "I do remember seeing the word 'queen,' and I went, 'Okay, I can do that.'"

<p>Marvel</p> Storm from 'X-Men: The Animated Series'


Storm from 'X-Men: The Animated Series'

On the shoulders of smart, culturally aware writing, she proceeded to channel a complex character straight from the comics, one who struggles with a crippling claustrophobia that stems from the death of her parents at a young age, isolation from the lack of acceptance from society, and a desperate need for family. 

"I am Afro-Caribbean. We grew up with this existential fear of hurricanes. My island is about a spec in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," Sealy-Smith says. "The idea of somebody who has this awesome power, and because of it has to exercise the most meticulous self control, I found that, as a Black woman especially, really interesting to see. This woman had this power and yet could never fall into the trap of the angry Black woman trope because if she allows herself to feel the full extent of her rage and fury against the injustices and inequities of this world, bad stuff is going to happen and people are going to get hurt. She may even hurt her friends."

That was an allegory the original show never shied away from. In one of her most widely recognized scenes from X-Men: The Animated Series, Storm and Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd) walk into a coffee shop in the 1995 episode "One Man's Worth, Part 1" from season 4. Though they are mutants, they are discriminated against for being a mixed-race couple. "Race-based discrimination? How quaint," she says. 

"Oh the relish with which you can say that line!" Sealy-Smith remarks of that scene. "That's what I love about this show, the fact that it's grown-up writing, which is so easily accessible by kids. The truth is, I don't know if that line would mean anything to my seven-year-old grandson. He just wants to see Storm fight somebody and win. That's the beauty of the show, the fact that it appeals to such a wide audience because your access points are just different." 

<p>Marvel Animation</p> Marvel's mutants return in 'X-Men '97,' the sequel to 'X-Men: The Animated Series'

Marvel Animation

Marvel's mutants return in 'X-Men '97,' the sequel to 'X-Men: The Animated Series'

All these years later, Sealy-Smith returned to the role with a different mindset. The character, while remaining the same at her core, is also dealing with different things. The first two episodes are clearly setting up an adaptation of the Lifedeath comic book arc of 1984 by Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith. In that story, Storm loses her powers due to a devastating weapon and goes on a personal journey of self-discovery with the help of Forge. Though the context is different, the second episode saw a similar end result for Storm after an attack by the X-Cutioner. 

Sealy-Smith still isn't up to speed on her Marvel comics and can't recall if Lifedeath had been mentioned to her as a reference in the recording booth. But she says she approached the character differently with all these years of hindsight.

"My lifestyle is completely different. I don't need this show. I don't need it to prove that I'm a good actress. I don't need it to pay the rent or the mortgage," she says. "I feel a much deeper, stronger, heavier sense of responsibility to the audience. I'm now much more aware of them when I'm in that studio alone in front of the microphone. I wasn't in the '90s. So I'm slightly more terrified when I go into the studio now, and yet more sure and relaxed and full of understanding of who this woman is and full of a deep appreciation of what it is that I'm being allowed to do this second time around."

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