Kari Wahlgren has one of the most recognizable voices in the voiceover industry. She has lent her acting talents to more than 100 animation projects. Her first major role was as Haruko Haruhara in FLCL. She would then go on to provide the English-speaking voices for characters in films and shows like Witch Hunter Robin, Last Exile, Samurai Champloo, and Steamboy. You may agree that her most notable role is that of Saber, Artoria Pendragon, in the Fate series. Honey-chan got an audience with the King of Knights when Kari visited Anime NYC promoting the latest Fate Universe offering, Fate/Stay Night: Heavens Feel II Lost Butterfly.
Interview with Kari Wahlgren - Voice Actress
You started your career in a rather unique way. You were on a tour and selected to do some voiceover work. Tell me about that experience.
Yes, it was my eleventh birthday and I was on a tour in this studio where they recorded a radio drama. They were in the process of trying to cast a part for a girl my age. They asked my parents “would she like to audition for this?” My parents of course said “She’d love to.” We stopped the tour, I did the audition and ended up doing a couple of episodes.
You moved to LA with the hope of pursuing a career in on-camera acting but decided to pursue voice-acting. What led to that?
I knew that I always wanted to do voiceovers as part of my career. So when I moved to Las Angeles my goal was to get on camera and also try and do cartoons. I was out there a couple of years and just wasn’t enjoying the on-camera auditions. I decided to take a little break and focus all my energy on the voiceover side and see what happens, and it took off.
You are an actor and acting well means understanding a roles really well. How do you manage to understand the characters you play since the roles aren’t really conventional in the world of anime?
You can be playing aliens, you can be playing people that are placed in these fantastical situations that would never happen in real life but at the bottom of it all it is still about relationships and priorities. It’s about people or aliens going through some sort of internal journey. I think at the root of every character or every project, no matter how crazy it seems, you find this element of “what do we relate to.” If there was actually nothing that entertained or inspired us with these fantastical characters we wouldn’t watch it.
You’ve been playing a very popular character the last several years. She’s a somewhat petite but powerful woman, the King of Knights, Saber, Artoria Pendragon. Do you think you have her figured out at this point? Do understand her motivations and reactions?
The thing that’s so great about Saber is they keep unfolding these new sides of her. So, I can’t say that I have it all mastered yet. I felt with Fate Zero we got so much of her backstory and some things about her as a leader and in Fate/Stay Night they revealed more of her sensitivity and made her more human and showed her vulnerable aspects. Now we are learning even more about her. So, I don’t think we’ve seen all the sides of her yet.
What is it like being part of such a big franchise like Fate?
It is pretty amazing. Things change hands with companies and sometimes things get recast and so I’ve been fortunate to be able to play Saber for the last several titles. It is just such a fascinating story and it has so many interesting characters. I like that it has that overlap of history and fantasy. It’s been a lot of fun.
You had the chance to work on Steamboy with Sir Patrick Stewart. Did you get the chance to do any of your recording together?
No, I didn’t, but I did get to meet him. I was in a lobby for one of my first animation sessions ever and he just happened to be there. I think it was the first show I did for Disney. It was just one of those moments when I thought “I think I might have made it.” I was like there is Patrick Stewart, handsome, polite, and charming… it was one of those surreal, awesome moments.
Do you have a favorite line you’ve gotten to deliver? Or one that sticks with you? When you’re struggling to open a jar do you start shouting “Excalibur!”?
Well, “Excalibur” is the line. I mean every time I get to say it I just get little goosebumps. Whenever I go to a convention and someone asks “would you do a line of Sabers’?” I just get to ring out “Excalibur!” in a big convention hall. It is a thrill and a rush every time.
What advice would you have given your younger self about the business?
Don’t worry so much. Relax and keep doing what you’re doing, it all turns out fine. I know it is easy to say that in retrospect but man, the only thing I regret is there is so much time in my life that I spent stressing about things I had no control over. The only piece of advice I’d give my younger self is to relax and enjoy the ride.
Who is your biggest influence as an actor?
In the voiceover world, Tom Kenny and Dee Bradley Baker are two titans. I admire and respect them so much. They are pretty much as successful as you can get in our field but they are also the most kind, most genuine, wonderful human beings you can ever meet. I look at them as an example that you can be successful and still be a quality person.
If you had to choose an anime genre to be your reality what would it be?
It would be something where I had a badass fighting skill or some sort of super power. I would hardcore kick in to some femme fatale, kick butt, badass role in a heartbeat.
What can you tell us about working on a video game as opposed to animation?
It is very grueling on the voice. When you play a video game, every time you’re doing one of those punching sounds or you’re taking damage or getting kicked or shot, we record pages and pages of those efforts and screams and injured reactions. It is very stressful on the voice and you’re doing it for a lot of hours at a time. So, the video games can be challenging.
How does it feel to be an adult and working on and talking about cartoons all day?
I think there is something childlike at heart you keep when you work on animation and cartoons especially. I do a lot of baby voices right now for shows like Doc McStuffins and Vampirina and Henry Hugglemonster and shows like that and you just can’t take yourself too seriously or be in a bad mood when you’re making baby sounds in a studio for a living. I do like the fact that it helps let you keep this sense of play and wonder and fun.
Is there another role other than Saber that has stuck with you?
I think Haruko from FLCL. She was one of my first characters in an anime role and now all these years later Adult Swim just did seasons two and three. So that has been a very sentimental character for me just because it’s been in my life for so long. I really, really enjoyed her and have continued to enjoy her. I’m just now getting to the point in my career where people are telling me that I was the voice of their childhood. I’m at the same time feeling ancient and very, very honored.
What other projects can you tell us about?
Overkills new The Walking Dead game got released on Steam and is going to be released on all platforms in February. It’s just been officially announced that I’m playing Heather, one of the playable characters. The game is really intense. There are some things I can’t announce yet, but if you follow me on social media [@kariwahlgren] I will announce them as soon as I can.
What is your sense of the anime community? What do you like about it?
I love it, the anime con community especially. The two things I’m always reminded of when I think of a convention are first, that there is a lid for every pot. Because you see love, you see couples that have bonded over their love of Doctor Who or Durarara and wearing matching costumes. The other is that people find their tribe. I love that anime conventions bring people together and that this is the one place where they feel knowledgeable and comfortable, and they feel accepted and included and I love that.
Is there any other role that you’d like a crack at? A role that you haven’t had the chance to play?
I can’t think of one at the moment. But, nowadays it’s the surprise roles that delight me. It would be something that I never knew existed and it would surprise me.