An interview with Kari Wahlgren
Date: Sunday 7th September 2008 [11:01] | Posted By: Joe
Thanks to go the great folk at AmeCon 2008, we were able to interview their main guest, voice actress Kari Wahlgren. You may have heard her in the American dub of FLCL as Haruko, or Robin in Witch Hunter Robin or Scarlett in Steamboy to name a few of her roles. As well as many video games you've probably played.
How did you become a voice actress?
I wanted to become an actress from a really young age. I was one of those precocious kids that was always dressing up, running around the house and acting things out. I liked singing as a child, going around festivals, communities and perform. So I just kind of did it, all grown up.
I'm from Kansas originally, which is a very country farming state. Eventually I got into college. I worked a little bit in one of the bigger cities in Kansas and I decided to go off to Los Angeles, which was a big culture shock. I got there, got an agent and pounded the pavement.
When I first moved out to Los Angeles I kind of thought I would do some voice over acting and some on-camera acting. I thought it would be a little bit more equal, but I was doing more on camera auditions and getting kind of frustrated, so I decided to take a break from it for awhile and started to go out on more voiceover auditions, which became successful in a way I didn't expect.
Is it easier to get into voice acting in some areas than others?
It is. Specifically with anime, there are three areas of the country that record anime: Texas, California and New York, although New York doesn't do quite as much. For more of the western animation, the original animation, LA and New York, they're the biggest for it. They definitely tend to be the big producers of cartoons and video games.
Have you ever worked on anything you're a fan of?
Yes! I did a few different episodes of Billy and Mandy, which I was such a fangirl of the show. The first time I went in I'm, like, "Oh, it's so nice to be here!" So I was very star struck and excited when I went in to do my first episode. It doesn't have anything to do with anime, it's just an awesome series.
Who was the first character you voiced acted for?
Anime or in general?
My first anime character was Haruko in FLCL, which still is a hugely popular show in the States. Even going to the convention today, there's people cosplaying as Haruko and people who love the show. So I had no idea when I did that character that it would be such a popular figure years later.
But I did turn out doing some radio commercials before anime. I did radio commercials for McDonalds and Planned Parenthood and a number of other companies before I actually started doing anime here.
Is the recording process different depending on the type of work you're doing?
It is actually. The process for recording is different depending on what kind of job you're working on. With radio spots especially, and TV spots, if you're doing voiceovers, it's very much about the timing. Because they only have 30 seconds that they purchased, or they only have 60 seconds, so it's all about the timing. You have to really fit it into that amount of space. You're working with a lot of dialogue, a lot of copy. You're cutting things or adding things to fit it with a specific amount of time. With anime obviously it's been created for Japan first, so the recording process is all about syncing up to a pre-existing picture. We actually have a TV screen in the booth, and we see each line and how long it is, what the characters expressions look like, and so our job is to fit everything up to what has already been created.
Now with an American animation show, like the Simpsons or Billy and Mandy, the process is completely different, because we go in, oftentimes as a group. With anime you record alone, but with something like Billy and Mandy you get to go in with a big group of people and record as a cast, which is a lot of fun. So we're all in there and we record the script, and then they animate it. So we actually record just the set script that we have in our hands, and then they ship it off to whoever is putting together the show, and they actually animate to us. So we don't have to worry about lip flap. And the freedom there from an acting standpoint, you're performance is not hindered, or directed at all by what's already been established. You can take a long pause for something, if you want to draw out the way you say a word you can do that. In anime you can't, because the characters already lalalala and it's gone! So there's a little bit of artistic freedom when you do the original animation to, some people call it, prelay.
And once again, video games are a completely separate process. With video games, depending on the kind of game they're doing, you may have a picture from a Final Fantasy game or something like that. You're going to already have parts for all of the pictures done for you so don't have to pick something. For a video game like Star Wars, you record first and then they animate to you.
So it's really fun. That's actually the kind of the things I love about my job is that there's so many different kinds of voiceover jobs. I've been (knock on wood) lucky enough to work in a lot of different mediums. So the recording process, you're kind of doing something different, and it makes it fresh and exciting. It's pretty cool.
Are video games different from anime?
Yes, video games are probably the most challenging kind of voiceovers just because it's so gruelling. Video games, usually you get a script, and it literally can be "Swift Kick".
I've just worked on the new Prince of Persia that's going to be coming out. With that one I had probably over 7,000 lines. So you have to record every single one. There are different sections to a video game as well. You have more the movie sections with much more interactive dialogue with maybe another character. You've got sections where it's in game fighting, but it's more phrases like "I will defeat you". "You're not going to get away with that!" And you know, you've got a whole sixteen pages of those.
Then you have the fighting set, where you'll literally have 20 pages of say,
Short Punching react.
Medium Punching react
Long Punching react.
Short Death React.
So all of those little, "Huh!" "Aaaaaaah" "Oooooooooowh!"
You're literally recording every single one of those. By the end of a four hour session your voice is completely trashed, because, you know, you have to sound like you mean it.
Are American anime conventions similar to British ones?
Yeah! This is my first British anime convention. This is my first British everything! It's really cool because a lot of people have been asking me that question. In a lot of ways it's very similar. Fans in America cosplay. There's definitely the attention to detail with the costumes. It has the same kind of fun social atmosphere, with people hanging out and wanting to talk with other people about anime and that characteristic that they like and all of that.
But some of the merchandise is different, I had a really good time yesterday walking around the dealers' room, because there's a number of things here that I haven't seen in the states. Certain figurines, definitely some of the clothing, some of the different funky t-shirts we don't get over there.
It's very similar which was kind of cool. It's nice to know that anime fans are anime fans wherever you go. Everyone's been really nice.
The only difference, really--and this may be the same out here-is that some are much, much larger, some are much smaller, and that just affects the energy of the convention. With a smaller convention as a guest I have more of an opportunity to walk around and interact with as many fans as I can and, you know, talk to them about their costumes and that sort of thing. With a really huge convention you almost have to do a lot of your interacting in panels or in a workshop. That was my only regret. I wish I would have had the chance to do a couple of voice acting panels and answer questions because the fans in America are very intrigued by the recording process, and it's the same out here.
You're on the adventures of voice acting DVD?
I am! They did a really good job of wrangling everybody for that DVD, so I'm curious to see how it turns out. I hope it turns out well because I know they put a lot of work into it.
What's it like to hear your voice on TV?
At first it's really cool and it's very surreal. Then my inner critic kicks in, because I always want to try to improve and get better and everything. It's very hard for me to watch cartoons that I'm in, because I find myself picking apart my performance: "Shoot, I could have done that better", "I could have done this a little differently". I usually try to watch at least a couple of episodes of every show that I work on, but then after that sometimes I'll continue watching it, but most of the time I won't.
It's really weird too, because I love cartoons, I love animation. I'm the biggest geek on the planet. My big thing too, in my hotel every morning I've been watching British cartoons because it's really cool to see what kind of voices are they doing and what animation is popular and what are they showing over here. It's great research for me. I love cartoons in general. But the funny thing is, the more I work in it the more it's hard to disassociate yourself and just enjoy the cartoon because you start recognising people "Oh! That's so and so!" "Who is that, I'll have to look through the credits! Oh yeah it was!"
It's hard to just kind of take yourself out of it and enjoy it from a pure entertainment standpoint, because you know someone who's your buddy, you recognise his voice. It's interesting.
What about your background in theatre, has that been helpful to your voice acting?
Theater has been probably one of the most helpful things for me in voice acting, especially video games, because emotionally there's a sense of heightened intensity about everything that's going on.
One of my favourite stories of how theater came into play was when we worked on Final Fantasy XII a year or two back. We did a couple of recording sessions, we did one or two, and I had signed up for a Shakespeare master class. So after the first couple of recording sessions I started my Shakespeare class and then I went back into the studio. The director said, "I'm not sure what you did, but you have tapped into the character brilliantly today, in a way that you didn't in the first couple of sessions. So I want you to go with whatever you're doing and we're going to re-record everything that we did in those first two sessions." So we went back and rerecorded all of the lines. But it was the regal attitude from the Shakespeare class that I had taken.
So I think training is a big thing. I took a number of dialect classes in college. Whether or not they're perfect, they have allowed me to get hired for a number of different jobs. And I think it just keeps pushing you as an actor, it keeps challenging you. I actually was just doing a play in Los Angles which I finished about 3 days before flying out to the UK, so it was a pretty gruelling schedule but it was really good because it continued to stretch acting muscles that you bring to your voiceover job.
I'm not saying theater training is the only way to become a good voice actor but I can say that every good voice actor I know is just a good actor in general. So getting some sort of training or finding ways to keep your chops up is really important.
What advice would you give aspiring voice actors?
The business side of voice acting is very different from the artistic side of voice acting. The reason I stress training so much is that 90% of your job is being prepared for the opportunity for when it comes along. Because people will say, "Oh well, you know, if I just got the big break, I'm really good." And they'll get that big break and they won't be prepared for it, and you may not get another chance.
If you finally get your big audition for Disney, if you come in and you're very unprepared, it'll be a very long time before you get into Disney again because big corporations don't have time to see people that aren't on top of their game.
So it's very important that you know who you are as an actor, that you train in whatever way is helpful for you. Because then in the audition process, there's so many things that you can't control. Maybe you sound too much like another person that they've already cast, maybe the producer has a niece that he promised that he was going to cast in his next project. Maybe they decided that Scarlett Johansson was going to play the lead role. These are all things you can't control. So your job as a voice actor, 90% of it is preparing yourself to the best of your ability.
After that, it's networking, it's making sure you've got a good demo put together, it's finding the right representation for you. That's when all the business side of it kicks in. At least in the market that I'm in you really have to think of yourself as the president of your own company. No one's going to care about it as much as you should. It's not like you get an agent and then you just wait by the phone for that booking. Once you are prepared and feel you're in a position to be competitive, you have to start mailing things and doing all the legwork. And then when you get the chance to meet so-and-so executive and hand them your demo and business card, then get the audition, you show up and knock it out of the park and you hopefully can get the job.
There's a lot that goes into it. If it's only just about how your voice sounded, everybody would be doing it. The tricky thing about voice acting is that it's even more competitive than on camera because you don't have to hire five actors if you've got one actor that can do all five roles.
With a lot of weekly cartoons the turnover is so fast that they don't have time to see a lot of new people. It's OK, who have I worked with in the past, who have I auditioned in the past that was really solid, because I've only got one day to cast it, and boom. So I can't stress preparation enough.
What would your dream voice acting role be?
I would like to do another children's series that's aimed towards a younger audience, kind of like a Power Puff Girls, or something that's very child friendly. Because it's been really fun. I've gotten the chance to do a lot of different cartoons that are more for older kids, into high school, college age, into adult cartoons, definitely stuff on HBO or late night on Cartoon Network that you don't want younger kids watching. There's something very sweet about doing something only a five year old can watch and appreciate and make a little stuffed toy out of it. So, yeah, to just do another show like that where I can branch out and interact with some teeny tiny fans, that would be cute.
What kind of roles have you had trouble with? What have you found difficult doing?
I've just worked as Rip Van Winkle in Hellsing Ultimate, which is going to be coming out, and that was a very nerve racking role. And I had never been cast in a German accent at all and that was very difficult for me. I'm just now starting to do more boys voices, which has been fun but also challenging.
Do you play any games at all?
I'm a terrible gamer! I'm so, so bad! People always ask me I play the games that my characters are in, and the answer is no. I have played Justice League Heroes because I'm a huge super hero nerd. I collect Wonder Woman stuff. I've got, like, fifteen coffee mugs and all sorts of things. Which, by the way, the UK makes awesome Wonder Woman coffee mugs. It costs me more to get them off the internet. So, yeah, I usually go to You Tube to try to find scenes from video games to actually see what they turned out like.
I just recently did this TV station interview in the States called G4, which is geared toward gamers and pop culture. They brought me in for an on camera interview for what it's like to be a voice actor, and they had all these clips from games that I had worked on. So I was "Wow! So this is what that looks like! That's what my character looks like! Wow!" They're like, "You haven't seen any of this?" "No! This is exciting". So that's how I found out what my characters looked like.
What are your plans for your future?
Hopefully, I would like to keep doing a diverse mix of different things.
This year it's been a bit more interesting because I've been doing a bit more voiceover for commercials. You know the very popular TV campaign in the States for Serta Mattresses? I think they took their inspiration from Shaun from Wallace and Grommet, the little claymation-looking sheep, who I'm totally obsessed with. I'm so obsessed with Shaun, I can't even stand it. So the Serta Mattress Sheep are very popular in the US, and so I got to play a Serta Mattress sheep in one of their TV commercials, so that was like a dream come true.
[Editor's Note: We've checked and Aardman Animation who did Shaun the Sheep also did the Serta Mattress animation].
It's also exciting because of the different things that pop up, and I just want to keep doing a variety of different things, and hopefully do a little bit more theatre, and keep making it to conventions!
I've been to a anime conventions, one or two, and I've been to Comic Con as well.
Are there any tips you would give to people starting out. It's not exactly an easy career path to break into.
It's kind of crazy isn't it? That's another thing I always tell people, if you can get internships at radio stations, or TV stations are great too, but even universities will have university radio stations and everything. There's a technique to working with a microphone. You can't just start screaming into a microphone because you're working with an engineer and they have to adjust levels. If you say "P" into a microphone it pops everything. Working with a mic and hearing yourself so presently in your headphones is very disconcerting at first when you do it. So the more you can be working in an environment where you get a chance to hear what you sound like at the mic with the headphones on, that's a really helpful experience, too. Using a teleprompter and getting experience just reading that quickly and everything. Being a good reader is a huge help.
It's definitely tricky in the beginning. It's a very technical, very meticulous process. Hopefully you've got a patient director when you're first starting out who's willing to work with you. It's one of those skills that if you can take classes, or sit in at sessions if you're an intern at certain places. Once again, the more you get a feel for how the process is put together, the more it will help you.
How do you warm up before a session?
It depends on the part. It depends on the character. You've got to work the higher register as much. When you're playing a little girl, you've definitely got to start talking or something so you can get that high. I don't wake up and naturally talk that high in the morning. I'll sing in the car. There's a scene that I insisted be cut from Adventures in Voice Acting of me singing Prince, in various different voices, I'm just way too embarrassed to have them put it in there. Singing in the car in various voices can help warm up a lot of different parts of your voice all at the same time.
You've got to work with texture. All the different dialects, too and try to work with that beforehand. Although I've been very, very nervous to try any of that over here. I've got the severe American complex about launching into any British dialects while over here. Maybe one time in London and there's no chance of severely embarrassing myself I'll try and order something [in an English accent].
Anything with a script you get beforehand you get given to go through and make acting choices, or think about different voices you might want to try with the character or anything like that which will help you prepare. You always have to be prepared because sometimes you don't get given the script before you show up. With anime most of the time you don't get given the script before you show up, which is good and bad in a way, because if you have a script and if you know in the end that you turn out to be a villain, you may play it a little bit differently in the beginning. With an anime show where you don't get the script in advance, if your character is very sweet and angelic, you're going to play it that way. Then one day you show up for a session you're, like, "Whoa! Wait a minute, she just killed this guy?! She's actually an alien, or something like that?!" You're just as surprised as the audience.
Sometimes we get some details like one of their favorites is, "mysterious past". We may not get al the details of that, but the director might say, "There are things in her mysterious past that are influencing her interactions with these other characters". Then you can start painting some back story or weight to what you're saying.
I can think of one or two particular anime shows where I didn't know something emotional that was going to happen later in the series. So we got to that point in the series and I was very choked up when playing it because I didn't know it was going to happen. And so, when a character is really moved and affected by something and really upset and, you know, she's very emotional about something, it was easy to do because I didn't see it coming. With anime it's so great, or other long running series, you do get so attached to your characters you get much more invested in it. By the time you get to the later episodes, and big things are happening, you're really invested. I've done a few shows where I've gotten really emotional, like, "Oh My god! I didn't see that coming!"
That happens in FLCL at lot!
FLCL relatively short too. Surprisingly, though, that was one of the few instances where they really wanted that to be a very quality dub. Usually with anime they have a very tight recording schedule, so they have to turn over episodes very fast. You may want to do things differently, or work with timing or performance issues, but you just don't have the time. With FLCL they were so intent on having a good dub, that even though we only did six episodes we took, like, maybe three months to do them. Which I think, considering its popularity, over the course of the last number of years is a really smart decision because people still comment on the quality.
Which accents would you say you're most proud of?
I get cast as British all the time. It's extremely embarrassing to come over here. You know, you'll throw out one or two words, and they'll be like, "Eh, it's OK, it's all right". I do British a lot. I do eastern European a lot. I don't like to go into an audition and do something for the sake of doing it. Like, I'm pretty aware that there are certain accents I don't do as well, so I really won't do them unless asked. I went in for this one specific game, and the director asked if I did an Australian accent, and I said, "No, I do a very poor Australian accent. I think my this-and-this-and-this [accents] are much stronger." And the director's like, "Well just try an Australian accent?" So I'm like, "Ok!" So I tried the Australian accent and sure enough I cast as an Australian. It's one of those things where you do the best you can. You don't have complete creative control over what happens with the session, but you do have a casting director, you've got a director and all this other stuff, so you do your best.
It's so funny, there's such a fascination with everything British in Los Angles, in the industry especially. Because we're fascinated by, "Wow! You're British and you're doing an American accent! That's fantastic!" Whereas, you may come over here and you guys may say, "Yeah, your American accent may be ok." But our industry is just fascinated by it. You know, we love the Brits!
People in America have an idea of how certain accents sound, so a lot of voiceover casting is done according to this preconceived idea of what we think your accents sound like. There are hundreds of different dialects and regional influences with different British accents, but in America we think this is what an English accent sounds like, and that's a Cockney accent and that's what a Cockney accent sounds like.
There are a couple of Irish guys at my agency. They get so irritated because they never get the Irish jobs, because they say, "They all want the Lucky Charms Guy. They want us all to sound like a leprechaun but we don't sound like that."
They have different regional Irish dialects and they get so irritated because it doesn't sound like what Americans think. We think, the Lucky Charms leprechaun, that's an Irish accent! Or the McDonalds Irish Shake that always comes out every year around St. Patricks Day. Voiceovers, that's what an Irish accent sounds like!
That's another thing that you're working against. If you want the job, do you go in and give the client what their idea of an English accent is, or do you go in and say, "Well if he's from this region he would technically sound like this..."? And then the American client would be like, "No, that doesn't sound English to us. We just want him to sound more respected and more English. We just want him to sound more British". You may technically know that in that region they don't sound like that, but do you want the job?
Is there anything you find particularly difficult about voice acting?
That's what really frustrates me sometimes with the time schedules that they have for certain dubs. We do what's called previewing. In a recording session they will play a line in the original Japanese, and then they will go into record mode and let you try and record. There are certain projects that are so crushed for time that you don't get a preview. So you basically read, "I always wanted a brother like you", and they go "BEEP BEEP BEEP", and you just go, "I always wanted a brother like you". No, wait she was sobbing, so you've got to do that again, but you have no idea what the tone it's going to be in. The thing is that you've got to turn over three episodes in a week or something like that. It's so crunched that you just don't have the time for the quality and profession, and that's what bothers me a lot. I just want it to be good. I think that when they push production too fast it hurts the project.
The Otaku News Crew would like to thank the following...
A big thank you goes out to Kari Wahlgren for agreeing to be interviewed, she was fun to interview and what the plain text doesn't capture is her vocal range, and great examples when we actually did interview her.
We'd also like to thank everyone at AmeCon for arranging the interview at their convention, we think she made a great guest. We look forward to the next AmeCon.
Additional thanks goes to Kathy Hassinger for additional editing / proof reading / and general checking stuff over.
This article was a joint effort between Otaku News and Voiceacting.co.uk.