Continuing our coverage of voice actors in the anime and video business, we got the opportunity to interview Asian-American actress, voiceover artist, musical performer, and comedian Ratana, who recently joined the expansive voice casts of two, iconic and popular video game franchises.
In Fire Emblem Heroes, Ratana debuted as the first English speaking voice of Ishtar, a noble and warlock known as the Goddess of Thunder because of her extremely powerful lightning magic. Appearing as a major villain in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, Ishtar was a highly anticipated character for Heroes before and after her release date on May 10th. Ishtar also had cameos in Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 and 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening. Despite Genealogy never receiving an official English translation, Ishtar remains a hugely popular character both in Japan and overseas.
Ratana also voiced Lianshi for Dynasty Warriors 9, the most recent incarnation of the hack and slash, history-fantasy gaming series. Lianshi is one of future Emperor Sun Quan’s retainers and wives, and arguably his favorite. One of the more mature, motherly women in the cast, Lianshi fights using flaming “duck hooks” in DW9.
Otter Lee (Asian Crush): How did you get involved with Fire Emblem Heroes? Were you familiar with the FE franchise before?
Ratana: Like the process for casting many acting projects, I auditioned for this role. We weren’t given the name of the game, so I couldn’t do any advance research. All I had was the audition copy and a description of her character.
I had no idea what the project actually was until I landed the role. Once we started the recording process, the team shared more information about the franchise and the character.
Did you know how popular Ishtar is amongst Fire Emblem fans?
I had no idea how popular Ishtar was! There are so many moving parts to the release of a game, and it was only after my character’s release was announced that I realized how many fans Ishtar has, and how excited they were to have her come back for FEH. During the recording process, my director and the production team gave me enough context and direction so I could understand who Ishtar is and be able to voice that. Wendee Lee, who directed us, was terrific at getting the right performance to match the character that the team wanted to create.
Vocally, how did you prepare for voicing Ishtar? She has such an aristocratic, refined manner of speaking.
As a voice actor, it’s part instinct and part direction. I didn’t have any visuals in the beginning, just a short description of her character to guide me. To find Ishtar’s voice and attitude, I relied on the direction given to me in the audition and during our recording session. Ishtar is both powerful, but also perhaps a bit conflicted about the choices she’s made–and that’s what makes it fun for me (as an actor) to play her. She is both mighty and vulnerable.
Do you see Ishtar as a villain?
When we were creating Ishtar for this game, I don’t think I ever saw her as a villain. It was important for me to give her as much humanity as possible, because that’s what makes her interesting. A powerful person or being, who is only focused on gaining power or intent on destruction comes off as a bully. But a person who has power and also struggles with her choices is a relatable human condition. She is doing the best she can, with the circumstances she’s been given, like the rest of us. The only difference is, her circumstances just happen to come with thunderbolts.
Did you have a favorite line to record for FEH?
I did have fun learning the correct pronunciation of “Mjölnir!” What’s your favorite line?
(The J in Mjölnir sounds like a Y)
For me, it’s a tie between “Perhaps I was in the wrong” and “There’s nothing more to be said.” They really capture Ishtar’s inner conflict, and her ability to stay merciless in spite of it, respectively.
What was it like voicing Lianshi for Dynasty Warriors 9? Did you see any similarities between her personality and yours?
Lian Shi is strong but kind, and very protective of the family she works for. I like to think that I have that kindness and sense of loyalty to those I love, too.
Did you do any outside research into the historical figure Lianshi was based on?
Similar to the Fire Emblem Heroes project, we didn’t have a lot of backstory or information until we got into the booth to record. Making games is a team effort, and I relied on my director to provide the context I needed to help create Lian Shi’s character for the game.
Is there a story behind your name?
The name Ratana is Thai (with Indian roots). Depending on the translation, it means “beautiful diamond,” “crystal,” or “precious gem.” It’s pronounced “retina,” like the part of the eye.
How did you get started in performing? In VO?
I got into VO because I grew up loving cartoons as a child. But growing up in Michigan, there weren’t any places to learn the craft. I danced and did a lot of musical theater in school plays and variety shows. Becoming an actor was sort of a pipe dream back then. I went off to college, studied business and held jobs in Corporate America. When I moved to Los Angeles, I learned that one of my friends was studying voiceover, and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. Pretty soon I was using all my free time to take classes and study VO. After a couple of years of studying, I saved up money to make my demos and then built a website. I was fortunate to get my first agent soon after that.
Here in LA, a friend of mine started an improv theater called the Westside Eclectic, and I took classes and performed there. Eventually, the Eclectic became the Westside Comedy Theater, and it was my home away from home for many years. I was on a house team that played regularly and traveled to festivals for over 4 years, and it was some of the best acting and life training I’ve ever had.
Are there any other projects you can share with us that you are excited about?
I’m in the middle of a few new projects that I’m excited about, but unfortunately I can’t share any details just yet.
Asian-American performers are one of the least represented minorities in the entertainment industry. Did you ever experience any discrimination or hardships whilst working or looking for work?
When I first explored the idea of becoming an actor, there were very few performers who looked like me in the business. Those who were seemed to play stereotypes, or there were Asian characters played by Caucasian actors in “yellow face.” I remember early on in my own acting journey, being told that I should learn more Asian languages (even ones that aren’t part of my own cultural heritage) in order to be considered viable for more acting roles. Considering I grew up in Detroit, and my second language is French, it was disheartening, but not discouraging.
One of the reasons I was so drawn to VO is because it is more “color-blind” than most of the acting disciplines. It’s been heartening to see other Asian American actors gain prominence for their work and for creating characters that transcend race and ethnicity, like Sandra Oh and Priyanka Chopra. I think the way we overcome bias is to keep making work that transcends stereotypes and tell interesting, compelling stories.
Do you have any advice for people looking to get involved in the VO industry?
Lots! But the best pieces of advice I got are somewhat related: 1. Never stop learning— whether that’s taking classes, practicing on your own or with peers, or just listening to VO in all its forms and 2. Read out loud every day. We only get better with practice.
This is a silly one for the comedy nerd in me: If Ishtar was on an improv team, what kind of player do you think she would be?
I think Ishtar would be too busy fighting for what she wants to even be on an improv team. She seems pretty focused that way. I’d like to think if she did improvise, she’d play her status in a way that would allow a [comedic] straight man (or woman) to call her out on it for the humor of it all. Kind of like a mix of Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl and Cher (in Clueless) but with super powers.