[Interview] Joe Zieja, FIRE EMBLEM THREE HOUSES' Claude, Talks VO, Battle Tactics, And Fandom Love | AsianCrush

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[Interview] Joe Zieja, FIRE EMBLEM THREE HOUSES’ Claude, Talks VO, Battle Tactics, And Fandom Love

Otter Lee September 3, 2019 September 4th, 2019

Last July, Fire Emblem Three Houses got a ceremonious release for Nintendo Switch. The latest entry in the tactical strategy roleplay game has protagonists becoming a professor at a Hogwarts-like academy for military tactics and magic. Your character chooses which of three houses they want to chair and mentor, and unknowingly shape the political and societal landscape of the nation of Fodlan through their choice. The game’s received rave reviews for its presentation, gameplay, narrative, characters, and replay value.

In celebration of Three Houses, which became the best selling Fire Emblem game of all time, we interviewed one of the game’s stars, Joe Zieja. Joe voices Claude, the head of the Golden Deer House, a lovable rag tag band of mostly idealistic and quirky peasants.

Story spoilers for Fire Emblem Three Houses follow!

Otter Lee (AsianCrush) : How did you get involved with Fire Emblem and what was the audition process like?

Joe Zieja : So there wasn’t really a whizz-bang story on this one. A studio I was working with on some smaller projects reached out and said they had some auditions. They brought me in and handed me a bunch of sides. I read for Claude, for Dimitri, and I think I also read for Dedue and maybe one or two others. Then a couple weeks later, they called me and said “Hey, you booked the part.” It was really that simple. The audition process was pretty standard. There wasn’t anything crazy about this one. 

So normally for these types of video games, dubbing would be involved since the game is released in Japan first, then translated for international versions, but Fire Emblem Three Houses released worldwide. Were you given any Japanese recordings or early audio snippets?

I don’t recall ever listening to any Japanese audio. We were just talking the other day, me and Chris Hackney, the voice of Dimitri. We never listened to any Japanese voices at all. I don’t even think I even did anything to picture, so there you go. 

How would you say your personality is similar or different to Claude’s?

Claude is a wise guy and I am definitely a practiced wise guy. I grew up in an extremely sarcastic, quippy family, so I relate to his snark and laid back attitude. In terms of differences,  I think he’s a little more heart-on-his-sleeve than me. I am a lot more reserved, just in person. He puts more of himself out there. 

You also voiced Canas and Jamke for Fire Emblem Heroes. How was voicing Claude different from those two?

Oh, Claude is wildly different from those characters. Canas, I can’t remember how to pronounce that exactly, is a bookish “everything for science” kind of guy. Very learned and very reserved. Jamke, even though he is also an archer, he’s a lot more your typical checked out hero dude. Claude has more round-about ways of solving his problems. I feel like Jamke would shoot first and ask questions later. Claude would scheme first, then maybe shoot, and then would probably ask as many questions as he could. 

No pun intended, but how much time did you have to prepare Claude’s timeskip voice?

It was instantaneous. We would often have to record pre and post timeskip stuff in the same session. We talked about what happened to him during that five year period, how it affected him, and then how that would alter his voice. I feel like I got lucky compared to Chris, who had to radically change his character’s entire attitude and outlook before and after. Claude doesn’t change all that much, so it wasn’t difficult to come up with his post-timeskip sound. 

Yeah, he’s pretty well-adjusted compared to a lot of the other characters in the story.

Even in the midst of all that war, he’ll tell jokes about it, and I understand that. I was actually in the military, the air force for about ten years. And some terrible things happen, but if you want to stay sane, you’ve got to let it all roll off you. That’s what Claude does; he plays the hand he’s dealt.
Claude does have his problems, but the other lords seem like they have some…. REAL problems. 

Would you say your service experience has influenced your acting a lot?

Definitely, I was in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, and that was cool because I had a lot of prior knowledge of the subject matter. And a couple times, I had to tell producers “This is actually how you pronounce or refer to this piece of munition or maneuver. 
It’s funny, I actually don’t normally get hired for your typical soldier characters. That’s just not what my voice sounds like, but it certainly contributes to my performing.

Did you have any favorite scenes?
I get asked this all the time, and you have to remember that us actors record a lot of our lines way in advance of the game’s release. We wrapped our work a solid, I don’t know, six months before July. There was even stuff we did last Fall, the pickup stuff. I do remember really enjoying the support conversations he had where he’s ribbing Hilda or treating Lysithea like a little kid. Those conversations felt so unique to Claude because he really takes his making fun of people to the next level. He’s very much a roast master. 

Were there any moments in the story that really shocked or surprised you?

I wouldn’t say so. We always had a pretty fair briefing on what was going on before getting into it. When you don’t choose Claude, his arc essentially ends, so that’s one big moment. How far into spoiler territory are we?

The game’s been out for over a month, I’d say we’re fine….   
In the finale of the Golden Deer path, you fight against an ancient evil and some crazy stuff goes. How were all these revelations and happenings explained to you? The dubstep, the satellite missiles, the cryogenic resurrections….

There’s a phrase we use a lot, especially when it comes to recording JRPGs and anime. A director will explain the most outrageous plot points or devices and all of us will just go “Oh, because anime.” We’ve come to understand and accept these moments that are so out-of-this-world. Nobody else can think of or question this stuff. It’s just “Because anime.” 

Is there a specific romantic partner or marriage option that you think is best for Claude?
I only remember recording lines of that nature for the professor. I don’t recall any other voiced marriage supports for like Hilda. 

Right. Most mention of marriages is only in the written epilogue portion. 

On that topic, a lot of players were devastated that Claude cannot be romanced by male Byleth. What’s your take on that drama?

Here’s the thing I’ve been saying to everyone that’s been disappointed with how the S-supports were handled. You can’t define the idea of gay or LBGTQ rights  through one character anymore than you can define it through a single piece of legislation or a single soundbyte from a news network or a single quote from a celebrity. By default, those rights are inalienable, but sometimes the world has got to catch up, and it will. It’s hard to make everyone happy, and I wouldn’t put too much thought into what’s done with one character in one game. 

What have the fan interactions been like so far?

Complete insanity since the game’s release. I’d done some popular roles before. I played Fox McCloud in Star Fox and Achilles in Fate Apocrypha–stuff that already had pretty large fanbases. I expected a small surge of social activity followed by back to normal. Absolutely not. It has been completely bonkers and I never expected anything like this. 
I think it owes a lot to how much people love Claude as a character. and the more and more I interact with people, the happier I am to know that my portrayal of him was good enough to do the character justice. People were excited for Claude before he came out based on his design, before they ever heard his voice, so I had a lot of support going for me already. It’s been great interacting with fans and everyone’s been so kind.

You experience fandoms that can be toxic or rough to navigate, but I haven’t experienced any of that, with the exception of one or two lewd comments. 99.9% has been very pleasant, congenial, and supportive. 

How did you find your way to voiceover as a profession?

My route was pretty fortuitous and certainly very strange. I’ve told the story a lot, but I had just left the Airforce in 2012. I remained on reserve duty while I was working my day job for the government. I made the transition to government contractor. There was no one in the office, so I was talking to someone and said I’ve always wanted to try this thing, voice acting.” And I was already thinking anime and games. I was always a gamer, they had a huge impact on my life. 

And he said “My company needs to hire someone to do our corporate stuff on this website, why don’t you check it out? Now, I was a hobbyist musician with OverClocked ReMix, they’re basically a bunch of nerds who produce covers of their favorite video game music. I’d been on staff there for a couple years. I had the recording software and knew how to make my recording sound good, but I didn’t know anything about VO at all, but I booked the first thing I auditioned for. It quickly became clear to me within eight months that this would be my way out of corporate employment. I’d always been looking for a way out of dayjobness into something artistic. I always thought it would be my books. I am a science fiction and fantasy writer. I had a deal with Simon and Schuster, so I figure this is going to be the thing that gets me out. VO took over so strong and fast, that writing didn’t even catch up–well, it honestly still hasn’t caught up. VO is basically what I do. 

Within eight months, I told my employer I either have to quit or go part-time. I went part-time for another eight months and then I quit. I moved to Los Angeles in August 2015 and started booking big work. It’s been weird. How fast and how random. Who goes from being an officer in the Airforce to one of the lead actors in the #1 game in the world in five years or less. It’s been a strange journey, and I’ve often said that it feels like my life is being conducted by someone with a very strange sense of humor. 

It’s like something out of an anime or a JRPG.

It really is. I’m kind of expecting someone to land in my backyard with a giant sword and tell me that I’m the chosen one. Or that I’m going to destroy the world. 

Did you have any performing experience growing up?

None. I mean, I guess I was in my high school play. A Blithe Spirit. That was the only acting experience I ever had and I can’t even remember who I played or much about it like the writer haha. I still can’t believe I’m where I am. There are so many people who go to school or take lots of classes for this. 

What sorts of TV, video games, movies and novels do you enjoy? My wife and I relax at the end of the day by watching TV after we’ve put the kids to bed. We’ll pick up whichever Netflix series is up. We just finished the last season of Stranger Things. It was okay.

Yeah, I found it kind of uneven myself. The last episode was exciting but the buildup was meh.

If I ever become a showrunner or someone at Netflix who approves something, not to go off on too much of a tangent, the writers will have to show me the entire beginning, middle, and end of the arc of the whole show. All stories have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and too many shows. I don’t know if stranger things is going to go that way, but it sort of felt like “This is the end of the story. Okay. Why are you continuing it? Oh nooo, now you’ve gone and jumped the shark!” I play games quite a bit as I mentioned. Just finished God of War! Now I’m doing Spiderman and Shadow of the Colossus.And then I’ll usually go back and play retro games. I love Click Adventures like Quest for Glory. Every five years, I start at Final Fantasy IV and start playing through them until I get tired. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy too. I’m reading the third book in the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch, who wrote the The Lies of Locke Lamora, a fantasy adventure. He’s an excellent writer and a cool dude.

What advice do you have for people looking to pursue a VO career?

I get asked that a lot, but my own journey has been so strange, it’s impossible to emulate. What I will say is that part of the reason I was able to do what I did, was that I made sure I was extremely solid before I left my job and before I moved to LA. People ask me how to be successful in LA, and I tell them to be successful before they go to LA. That starving artist lifestyle works for some people; it motivates them.

You move to LA, give everything up, and have like $10 in your pocket. And then you work your butt off. I didn’t do that. I had a very stable job that paid well. I had my first kid by that time, so I had a responsibility to provide for my family. Do a bit of everything and do it very often. Even though it seems like, I’ve ascended the VO ladder relatively fast, I’ve done well over 50,000 auditions in the past five years. I just submitted for everything I could get my hands on. I took a brute force approach rather than a steady approach. I threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and saw what stuck. 

Dimitri or Edelgard, who would you rather have in an alliance?

Dimitri I’d have to say. I recorded my portion of the game, so I understand but don’t fully know what happens to these characters. Dimitri’s ideals of justice  would really have resonated with a younger me, particularly when I was in the miiitary. So if I had to pick someone other than the Golden Deer, I’d probably go with Blue Lions.When I just started playing and streaming the game, I started meeting all the characters. I definitely wanted to get to know he Black Eagles., but after talking to everyone, was just like “I don’t know if I wasn’t to be friends with any of you people.”  I found the Blue Lions kind of vanilla, but I could definitely jive with them. 

As a father, do you ever find your VO work influencing storytime with your kids? 

It’s super funny.  My kids are 6 and 2. The 2-year-old doesn’t really understand it when I do one voice or another, but the 6-year-old will sometimes catch me throwing on a voice while I’m reading a book and just be like “Dad, stop that!”  And then sometimes, I’ll catch her putting on a voice. It depends on her mood. Most of my work doesn’t involve me putting on a voice. 90% of my jobs especially a lot of the commercial and corporate stuff, have me tust use my natural speaking one. 

Thank you so much, Joe!