For over 13 years, Sarah Natochenny has voiced Ash Ketchum, the protagonist of the Pokémon anime. We recently sat down to chat with the New York-based performer at this year’s Anime NYC convention. Just two days later, Natochenny would win a Voice Arts award for her body of work.
*The following interview has been trimmed and edited for clarity*
You have experience in comedy, in sketch, in improv, how would you say that has helped your voice career evolve? Enormously. Studying improv has been totally instrumental in my career as an actor in general. It just gives you confidence and gives you the ability to get off the page and make something your own and bring something new to a scene or to a project and that’s really important.
You can’t really improvise with the dialogue because it is a dub. There have been little moments where I’ve re-written something, but he’s such a specific character and with the brand it is what it is and there’s not much leeway, so with Pokémon I haven’t but in other projects I have. In CAMP CAMP I really got to play. that was really fun.
How do you match all those lip flaps? Magic. No, I do… It just kind of happens. I get his cadence, I guess. Even with new projects, it also kind of happens – i find myself on new projects like “wait a second,” and I kind of have to watch it maybe two or three times, but with Ash I pretty much get it on the first go.
The day I auditioned, I left that studio crying because I–I don’t think I’ve ever left a room feeling that bad about an audition since. I thought it went horribly. I sounded right I guess? I didn’t know how to dub, so they taught me how to do my job at my audition. That to me was a horrible audition. In hindsight, the fact that they took the time to teach me and see how I responded to their teaching is a testament to how they wanted to work with me.
They wanted as little change as possible–they wanted a sound-alike to [Veronica Taylor] and someone who could both imitate her and pull it out of themselves. I think that I’ve made the role my own though. You can hear the difference over the past 13 years!
What’s it like to voice only your lines without the rest of the cast?
It varies now. I used to be the last to record so that I would have everybody already in, but at this point I don’t even notice it. It’s really second-nature to just imagine how they sound. I know what Carter is gonna do and maybe that’s not a nice thing to say, but I feel like I know what he’s gonna do, and I know what team Rocket is gonna do… I know what my partners in crime are gonna do. You know, we do a few different takes. I trust my director completely. If there are different reads to be done, we do them all and the editor does everything else.
So Ash always changes up his team when he travels from region to region. Would you say that you have any favorite Pokémon from the Alola region specifically?
Um… I’m like, “Which are the Pokémon from the Alola region?” I’m literally in it right now but all I can think of is Grookie. “Grookie? Grookie?” that’s not what it sounds like 0- I have no idea what it sounds like. Oh god, list some of the Pokemon for me… Help me out… Yeah, Litten’s probably my favorite… Is it cause I like kittens so much? Maybe.
There’s Poipole too.
And Poipole, yes also, but Litten mostly cause Litten went through some really difficult moments and that really spoke to me in a big way.
Are there any types of scenes that you find more difficult to record than others? Well, screaming ones. I scream a lot. Yeah, for sure.
How do you prepare before recording?
I come in psyched. I’m just permanently psyched. Can’t you tell? Yeah, that’s actually the answer. I don’t have to prepare. I read a little bit, like if we left off at the last session, like in the middle of a battle, I ask to hear the last few lines/the last minute of the show, so I know that I’m matching the energy that I had in the previous session a week ago. Yeah, I’m pretty psyched. It’s very easy to get into Ash Ketchum for me.
Do you ever get lost between recording breaks?
Yes! Sometimes I’m in the middle of a battle and I’m like “Who are these people and why is this happening?” It also happens if Ash isn’t in the episode as much, like if I don’t have a lot of lines or if the episode focuses on other people. Then I don’t know what the episode is about because we don’t get our scripts in advance. I’ll read the synopsis and forget about it because I wasn’t in it interacting with everybody. Sometimes at a convention, people will tell me about a particular episode and I won’t be able to remember if I was in it.
Are there any positive interactions [online] that you remember that really stuck with you?
Now that I’m on social media, I get so many notes. It’s amazing. Those I read. Sometimes, I’ll get a link that will send me down a rabbit hole.
People who follow me who actually engage over the Internet, they’re great. Those I’ll read.
I’ve taken screenshots. One recently: I liked an image of some fan art on Instagram and they wrote a whole thing like, “I was having the worst day and then she liked my photo and I’m crying and it’s the most amazing thing and it’s exactly what I needed…” And just the fact that I have power like that, to make someone’s day.
What would you say is one of your favorite episodes?
My favorite episode is in the XY Series. It’s 1928–I remember because it’s my grandma’s birthday. Ash rescues a bunch of Pokémon from the snow and one from the tree and I was just like “This is my man. I love this kid. He’s a good dude.”
What did you think of the film Pokémon: Detective Pikachu?
It was so beautiful and awesome. I wanna live in that world forever. I would not say no to living there. Pokémon Go also really changed everything for me too!
How would you say you are different from Ash personality wise?
Uh, I win more? Honestly, there isn’t much difference. We’re both pretty tenacious. We both love our Pokémon and have a pal named Pikachu. My cat’s named Pikachu, @Pikachenny on Instagram, you’ve all gotta follow.
Apart from that there’s not much of a difference. I don’t switch out my friends every three years! I keep my friends longer than that for the most part!
In a series as long as Pokémon, storylines inevitably become recycled–like, there are these Pokémon fighting over real estate in the woods or the wetlands. How do you keep things fresh and find new moments as an actor?
It’s easy because there are SO many characters and it just keeps going and going. It’s not like theatre where you have the same exact work every night. It’s the same characters, but it’s different work every week! Keeping things fresh has never been an issue for me!
In recent seasons [with animation changes], it’s gotten even more interesting because he’s got bigger expressions. I can really play around. It’s almost weird because I feel like I’m being challenged in a whole new way.
Thanks, Sarah, and congratulations on your award!