Karen Strassman is currently holding voice acting workshops at Strawberry Hill Studio in Novato, California. Her next one is set for May 11th and registration is still open.
We had the chance to sit down with her before a recent workshop. The interview was conducted before the recent US theatrical release of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Re;surrection where Karen reprised the role of Kallen Kozuki.
Anime Trending (AT): First off, thank you for taking time to chat with us! I guess we’ll start with the easy questions: how did you get into voice acting?
Strassman (S): My pleasure! I have been in love with acting, just passionate about it, since I was a little kid. It sort of doesn’t make sense because nobody in my family or nobody that I knew was in the business. And I just wanted to jump up on stage, I wanted to tell stories. I made up plays in the basement at four years old that my poor parents had to sit and watch. So I just pursued acting as a kid and as a teenager. Because I didn’t know anyone in the business, it seemed more like an unrealistic dream to me. I grew up in Washington D.C. and it wasn’t really a showbiz town. I was kinda short for my age and had red hair. At the time, that was in the 80s and I didn’t look like Brooke Shields.
S: So I kind of didn’t think I was pretty enough and I didn’t know if I was talented enough to be an actor. I pursued studies in psychology because I thought that I could make a living doing that. But I always studied acting on the side. I went to France in my junior year abroad; I was nineteen. While I was there, I was studying psychology in French and I was studying French theater. And I started getting involved, first, in dialect coaching—you guys probably know I’m a dialect coach and I started doing that there—and I also had the opportunity to start dubbing French films into English. That lead to doing cartoons and that led to video games.
AT: And the rest is history!
S: *laughs* The rest is history. Yeah, yeah!
And I didn’t even think about it, as I was growing up, as a possibility. It just started happening. In France, in terms of animation, they do a fair amount of their original animation in English because it sells better to international markets. So there’s a small, but very talented group of anglophone actors in France who dub all sorts of things and do original versions of animations. So that’s where voice-overs started forming.
AT: Wow, that’s very cool! So, how fluent do you speak French?
S: I am fluent. I work in French and I act in French.
AT: You act in French as well; that’s awesome.
S: I actually married a Frenchman when I was there, so I am a French citizen and have a passport. I lived there for sixteen years of my life, so it’s kinda part of who I am.
AT: From our background, we know manga is particularly big in France. Radiant, which is written by a French author, recently got a Japanese anime adaptation.
Have you gotten the chance to dub any anime or other stuff in French?
S: I’ve worked in French and I’ve actually dubbed some once I moved here (U.S.). I dubbed some American or other foreign language live-action movies into French. But now that I live here, there isn’t much anime that gets dubbed into French in this country. So, that’s all kinda local to over there and I’ve had to move back there to do that. When I was there (in France), the big thing that was cool about me to them was that I spoke English, so I did most of my voice-over work in English. I did film and television in French, so I was in T.V. and films and did a bunch of French roles. Or I did it in French, but I played the Americans who say “Parle Francais?”.
But I haven’t gotten to do any dubbing in anime into French. That would be fun. I would enjoy that.
AT: You mentioned that you did acting. When you got into voice acting, was there something that surprised you compared to acting?
S: I don’t know if I can say it at that time. At that time, it was a new playing field that I got to play in, and y’know, I learned the rules and how it was. I think what did surprise me, and what I loved about it, was that in some ways I got a lot more freedom.
AT: Oh, in what ways?
S: I could really go out of the box. Y’know, go big or go crazy. Whereas on camera, even if it’s a comedy, you have to keep it grounded to a certain extent. But what was cool when I got into voice-over is I could play all these things that I’m not in person. Like I could play a tall, sexy, badass, boobalcious chick with pink hair! And, y’know, I’m five-foot-two. I could play little boys. I could play old ladies without any makeup. All I had to do was change my voice. And I think when I got into voice-over, that was really surprising and exciting to me: that I could really do a lot of things that I couldn’t do on camera.
AT: You mentioned that you’ve done a lot of voice-overs for quite a long time. You’ve touched anime, video games, and lots of other roles. The industry has changed a lot since you first started. What’s something that you noticed since you’ve started that’s impacted the industry and that has changed?
S: Like the anime industry?
AT: Yeah! Like if you go back with a time machine yo when you first started, what’s something that you won’t believe “this is what’s going to happen in the industry?” That kind of thing.
S: It’s nice that we’re not doing this on camera so I can just pause and think.
AT: *chuckles* We’re good at editing. We’re not as good as audio editing as Raj.
S: Uhm, let’s see… Although there’s been a lot of changes in technology, from my point of view, it really doesn’t feel like too much as changed.
AT: How so?
S: I think that even though technology has changed, a lot more has changed in the creation of anime and the animation. So in terms of the technology needed for the drawing and the computer drawing, I think that’s probably where the biggest changes have been.
But in terms of voiceovers, you still stand in front of a mic and you still, y’know, try to make a magical moment and make an animated character come to life. So that when people listen and watch, they are endeared by that character, or it makes them laugh, or it makes them cry, or its exciting or scary. I think there’s some technical things that have changed, but really, I started thirty years ago and have been doing this professionally for thirty years.
Aside from technical differences here and there, nothing has changed in terms of being a voice actor.
AT: That’s cool to hear. As a consumer, anime has changed a lot in the United States.
For instance, have you worked with simuldubbing?
S: I’ve heard that they do it at Funimation. And in Texas, it’s a big deal over there. They don’t do it in Los Angeles yet, but I heard it’s fun and crazy.
AT: If given the opportunity, would you do it?
S: Totally! Oh, yeah!
AT: Very cool. As you mentioned, you’ve been doing it for almost thirty years, and that’s a lot of characters and different personalities.
Any personal favorites that you’ve voiced? Or any difficult characters that come to mind where you went “Oh my god, that was challenging to do!”?
S: Well, I always preface this question by saying that a lot of the characters that I do are like my kids. So, it’s hard to pick a favorite. When you spend a lot of time with the character, you fall in love with them. Like the months and months that I worked on Kallen from Code Geass, y’know-
And again, when we did Lucky Star, there was months and months on that. I have so many favorites for so many reasons: Kallen from Code Geass because the story is just so fantastic and Kallen is a hero. She plays that “Oh I’m a spacey chick!” But she’s really, really smart! And bad*ss! Lucky Star came to mind just because it’s so much fun on that. When we wrapped, I cried. I went “NOO!!!” because every single loop we do, we do it in the afterwards and we’d all go “Awww!” So that’s for the cute factor. If we put into them categories: badass would be Code Geass and cute factor would be Lucky Star.
I would say… I have real affection for anything Persona. I love Aigas and the video games. I played Aigas and also Nanako- Aww look at that smile!
AT: *laughs* We started Persona 5 recently so this is fresh. There’s so much to get into now!
S: I’m not so much in Persona 5; I do some smaller characters, but I’m in all the other ones. I love everything Persona, it’s really well done and fans love it because of the story telling. Fans are really touched by Nanako, so everytime I bring her up, I get a smile like that. It’s just so sweet to be able to touch people like that. I get a lot of fanmail about Aigas because the fact that she’s a robot and she so much wants to be human; that touches a lot of people. I have a big affection of them.
I have a big affection of Poison from Tekkan. Just because she’s so wild and it’s so much fun to play a character so wild. The same thing about for Katana and Alina; they’re so intense. One of my very favorite–I don’t play favorites usually, but I would say, if I had to choose–my favorite anime that I ever been part of or watched, is an anime called Monster, where I played Nina and Anna.
S: The distribution in the United States was not completed, so fans had to order it from Australia. But hands down, I think that’s my favorite anime I’ve ever done. The storytelling is pretty brilliant. It’s so moving and thrilling and disturbing. I think it’s so well drawn. If anyone can get their hands on it, I would highly recommend it. I loved playing that character, it was just chilling. And, as we talk about this-! I’m sure I’m missing gobs of characters that I loved. But it’s a few examples!
AT: Because you have so many different characters, how do you mentally prepare and make each character distinct? Obviously, each character has different backgrounds and you have to have different pitches of voice. How do you personally, as a voice actress, change “I’m this character” to “I am now this character!”?
S: I think characters are a lot like people that you get to know. So, you might have two friends and you might meet somebody new and go “Oh, gosh! Sarah reminds me a lot of my friend Alice. Because, y’know, they’re both blonde and kinda giggly.” And then you start to get to know Sarah “Oh wow, Sarah has a bit of a sarcastic side that Alice doesn’t have… And Alice is a little bit shyer.” So you start to get to know them, and as an actor, drop those places into yourself. They might have the same voice pitch and the voice might live in the same place, but then, one might be kinda edgy and sarcastic, and one might be a little bit shy. So, it’s not even how I think about how it will sound, but if I feel that way, it’s going to start to sound that way. Or if one bursts out laughing all the time and one kinda goes “hehehe!” and covers their hand with their mouth.
Like a person, you start to get to know them. And especially in an anime series, as it unfolds, you start to get a sense more and more of who they are and who they are becoming. When you audition for it, you’ll usually get a description of the character. You’ll integrate that description in your read, like if your character is loud and boisterous, you have to be careful- *lowers voice* -not to make them too soft and sexy. Or if they’re soft and sexy and shy- *elevates her voice*, y’know, you won’t give them a combative voice. So you just start to integrate that and find those places in yourself and allow that to come through as you are expressing yourself.
AT: That’s a really cool way to do that. Great tip! I know later today you’re gonna do that workshop and I know not everyone is going to be come, but we have a lot of people online that are inspiring to be voice actors and wanting to find tips. Do you have any to share to people who are trying to be voice actors/voice actresses?
S: Yes. I would say do as much theater as you can. Take acting classes and do theater. Voice acting is acting. It’s about creating a character, it’s about understanding what a character wants and what a character’s given circumstances are. A lot of people think that voice acting is doing a voice, but if I were to do just a high-pitch voice right now, it would get boring after awhile. Whereas if I were to speak in that same high-pitch voice, but be talking about how I had a crush on a boy and start getting shy about it, and giggly, and then start feeling embarrassed because I’m talking about it; and allow that as a human being to be a part of me? Like to connect to a part of me that is shy and that has/had a crush on a boy and connect to that in a very human way, as opposed to just saying the lines with a high pitched voice. So it’s really about connecting to human emotions and given circumstance and where the character is coming from. Those are all the things you study in acting classes and theater.
So take acting classes! Do community theater! All of that. That’s like the base, the foundation, that any voice actor needs.
AT: Any final comments to our readers/fans online?
S: Well first of all, thank you. Thank you for following my work and I would just encourage everyone to… be true to themselves. I think we are in a society where we look at how other people have done things and we are told how we should things and how we shouldn’t do things. We’re programmed and conditioned: do it this way, don’t do it this way, this is good, this is bad. I think as an artist, part of my path has been to really start listening to myself and know what I believe in and what’s true to me. In terms of brush strokes, like how I do want to create a character or how do I want to create my life, if someone tells me I can’t do something, is it just because they have a preconceived idea? Or is it because they’re actually just a little bit ignorant? Or because they’re scared and are projecting their fear onto me? And that means I have to listen to myself, and listen to what I know to be true for me, and learn my strengths and my weaknesses.
I know I am a little bit shy, personally. Sometimes I am afraid of making challenging phone calls where I have to ask for a favor. But it doesn’t mean I don’t do it. It’s just, alright, I’m putting this phone call off and I need to call the producer and introduce myself. But I’m gonna to take that risk because I know that’s my next step. And I tell people: listen to yourself, know yourself, and have the courage to follow your dream. If there are elements missing–which there always are in the treasure hunt of life–then look at what’s missing: oh, I need more training. Oh, I need more classes. Oh, I need a degree in this. Okay, how do I get that? Oh, I have to audition for theater school! Oh I have to spend hours preparing monologues! So live life with courage.
AT: Very awesome, thank you so much again. Thank you for sitting down with us today!
Special thanks to Strawberry Hill Music and Raj Ramayya for the opportunity.