For over 15 years, voice actress Kari Wahlgren has lent her talents to cartoons, video games, and anime dubbing with her first major role being pink-haired provocateur and “Vespa Woman” Haruko Haruhara in the cult classic FLCL. Her career has spanned over a hundred works and includes several classics in both the East and West, including Naruto, Samurai Champloo, Steamboy, Durarara, Rick & Morty, Phineas & Ferb, Ben 10 and Final Fantasies XII and XV to name a couple.
AsianCrush got to sit down for a fun duo interview with Kari during her appearance at this year’s Anime NYC. The following interview has been edited for time and clarity.
She started our conversation by describing her history with VO.
Kari Wahlgren: Before anime, I started with doing radio commercials and audiobooks. Then when I started in on anime projects, I also began going for western cartoons and things like that. It just kind of started that I started with the radio projects then went into anime then video games and western cartoons and prelay came after that.
We audition all the time in VO, so it’s kind of just whatever parts you end up getting you do. I’ve ended up doing a little bit of everything!
AsianCrush (Otter Lee): Can you describe the process of voicing Tayuya in Naruto? She’s so different from your typical anime villainesses.
I loved voicing Tayuya. She was so much fun! It was a lot of listening to the original Japanese and trying to capture that gruffness and the tone to her character. That was pretty much the only preparation we got
The thing that makes me laugh though is that in the original Japanese, she was much more vulgar and so they had to clean up a lot of her language for the English dub. She was dropping a lot more f-bombs and things like that in the original and they were like “We can’t get away with that on Cartoon Network.”
I wish they would do an R-rated version of Naruto someday and let Tayuya be as bad as she wants to be.
.You’ve played a variety of superheroes in both the DC and Marvel animated universes, like Emma Frost and Starfire? Do you have one you’ve related to or enjoyed more than the others?
Of the ones I’ve played, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I remember being very, very nervous about playing Emma Frost because I wanted to do her justice, and I had read so many X-Men comics before, that I was just nervous about doing a good job.
As far as superheroes in general, I’ve been collecting Wonder Woman things and reading the comics since I was a little girl. They had a big compilation of Wonder Woman comics in [my] local library, and I would check it out so many times that the book eventually fell apart.
I’ve gotten to play Wonder Woman one time in the DC Lego Universe Justice League vs Bizarro League Movie. I got to play Bizarra and Lego Wonder Woman, and that was kind of a dream come true. As far as personal bucketlist, that was it. I was like “Check. I can die happy now!”
I’ve also played a very tiny version of Black Canary and I was a big fan of Gale Simone’s run of Birds of Prey. A huge fan of those. I’ve read a lot of Batgirl, though I haven’t played her.
Of course, “I DO love Emma” *in the voice*
The whole Dark Phoenix saga and love triangle with Scott and Emma and Jean Grey–there’s always just too much good stuff in the X-Men.
I remember I used to date a guy, and he collected X-Men comics, this huge box of them. I would stay up late and just read as many of them as I could or borrow as many as he would let me. I was just so fascinated by the X-Men.
Have you ever had an ex nerd out over your success?
*Laughs.* I don’t know if they’ve nerded out, but it is trippy because some of them have kids now and the kids have nerded out a bit over me. That’s been very sweet.
Over the course of your career, have there been certain character archetypes you’ve found easier to access or play?
I don’t know if there’s any there are easier than other ones but I know that I’ve gone in waves. Like, when I first started I would get a lot of scrappy young girl characters. And then for awhile I was getting more villains. Then I was doing young ingénue lead characters. It kinda tends to go in spurts for me. I will say as I’ve gotten older, I am a little more comfortable with the older characters. I can bring something to those roles that maybe 10 or 15 years ago I couldn’t.
How did you prepare to voice the character of Saber in Fate/ stay Night? Have you found it difficult to follow all the twists and turns of the story’s many routes and timelines?
For Saber, I’ve done Shakespeare in the past and theatre, so it was about tapping into that regal quality of hers. I definitely dipped into my theatre training. As far as the twists and turns with her character and arcs, it keeps it interesting for me. A lot of times we don’t get the full story when we go in to record. It’s been a journey of discovery for me too. I go in and I’m like “What’s happening to her? What’s going on?”It makes it fun for me to play. Each one of the sequels is exploring a different side of her personality and we’re still getting more.
And if you had to liken Saber to a Shakespeare character or play, which would you choose?
There’s a little bit of Hamlet in there definitely, and a little bit of The Scottish Play—I won’t say it. Henry V. All the great leaders and warlords.
Next, Kari discussed how her anime work landed her one of her first major western cartoon roles because of a connection between the two series.
Haruko on FLCL was my first anime show and the first Disney series that I booked was Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!. I showed up to the first recording session and there was somebody wearing an FLCL t-shirt at the session. I said, “I don’t know if you knew this but I actually did the voice of that character,” and his eyes got really big. And he said, “Holy cow! Well anime and FLCL were a huge influence on this show.” So it was one of those crazy moments of my worlds coming together in this crazy way. It has been neat that I have found a number of times that some of the anime things . I did early in my career actually inspired things that I’m doing now. I play Shannon on OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes on Cartoon Network and those guys were really, really influenced by anime as well. It’s just crazy what a weird circle it is.
What would you say makes or breaks booking a role?
There’s no secret formula. Nowdays there’s a lot more celebrity casting and show creators either casting themselves or people in the studio. It’s changed a lot since I started doing it, but I just feel like if you keep doing good, strong, consistent auditions, that you eventually get the parts you’re meant to have.
Has there ever been a role you were surprised to win?
Neverland, a live action movie. I got to play a drugged out, slutty Tinker Bell r. It was really, really fun for me to get to stretch and do something that was outside what I normally get to do. Those are the best! That’s what makes acting so much fun, to get to walk in somebody else’s shoes for awhile.
For VO, I am always surprised and a little amused when I book sexy parts because I’m just such a dork in my day-to-day life. Whenever there’s some really badass, sexy character like Aranea in Final Fantasy XV. She’s just so cool—much cooler than I will ever ever be, and I adored playing her.
Yeah, whenever I get parts like that, they always make me chuckle a little bit because it’s stepping outside my comfort zones.
What was your childhood like? Were you into cartoons or performing?
I loved cartoons growing up. I was really into Disney princesses and things like that. When I got older I was just HUGE into Batman: The Animated Series. Those were two of my big influences growing up. I guess I kind of grew up in a simpler time. I grew up in central Kansas and could ride my bike home from school.We didn’t lock our doors until I got later into my high school years. It was a very idyllic childhood in a lot of ways. I loved cartoons, theatre, singing, and performing and it all factored into the career that I have now.
Thank you so much, Kari.