Adjectives are one of the entertainment industry’s most valuable currencies. A film that’s Amazing or an Astonishing performance would be hard to describe without a little dramatic exemplification.
Another exuberant use of language is often applied to the description of one’s deeds. Like having a, “peerless list of credited work.” Or maybe someone might be, “incredibly diverse while also warmly recognizable.”
Both descriptions barely scratch the surface of voice actor Kari Wahlgren. With a sliver under four hundred listed credits (via her IMDB page), Kari has lent her talents to some of the biggest franchises in all of Voice Over Land. A Kansas-born L.A. transplant, she’s seen her name under titles using words like: Star and Wars, Final and Fantasy, Teen and Titans, Halo and… Halo and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Oh, did I forget to mention Rick and Morty?
Whether you’re into animation or gaming, Kari Wahlgren has been an important part of your entertainment life. So why not get to know her a little? Here’s my chat with one of the industry’s most prolific voice over talents. (Editor’s Note: I may have been a total fanboy during the entire interview)
onFiction: You hail from the midwest, you’re one of the most impressively credited voice actors on the planet, how does that journey happen?
Kari Wahlgren: It starts with being a very dorky kid. I was a huge fan of cartoons when I was a child. I loved comics and graphic novels and kind of always had this weird sense that there were people doing the voices behind the cartoons that I watched. I told my parents when I was real young, “I’m gonna make the voices for cartoons one day.”
I would start taping myself on a tape recorder when I was young and actually would mail them off to people with little cover letters. It was just a very odd thing that I kind of knew I wanted to do something with this very early on. I did a lot of stage acting, got a theater degree at the University of Kansas and I worked in Kansas City for a little bit out of college doing commercials and voice over and professional theater. It put together a demo in Kansas City for voice over before I moved to L.A. Once I got out to L.A. it was just a case of auditioning a lot, finally getting an agent and once I started putting more of my focus on the voice over side of things instead of the on-camera side of things it kind of started to click a little bit. I started to book a few jobs and the rest is history.
oF: That’s an interesting distinction. I talk to a lot of voice actors, and the path to that being most of their work is more like a snowball. They get one V.O. job that leads to another which leads to another, but going in that direction was more chance than choice. You seem to have chosen making V.O. a big part of what you do from the beginning.
KW: I always knew that I wanted it to be part of my career. I didn’t expect it to take off the way that it did and kind of become the focus of what I do now. But I always had it in my brain that animation and voice over was something I wanted to be a part of what I ended up doing.
oF: I know you from a number of things, you’ve voiced a lot of things I consume, but once I started digging in and prepping for the interview I found it mind-blowing how many franchises you’ve touched. Do you ever think about the fact you’re part of these shows and games and films that reach millions and millions of people?
KW: I have my own little tiny, inner bucket list. Like the first time I booked something on a Star Wars project, that was a big deal. That’s something I kind of go quietly into the other room and go, “Eeeeeeeeeeee!” The first time I booked a Final Fantasy job it was the same way. I’ve been a Wonder Woman fanatic since I was a little girl and I got to play Wonder Woman one time in one of the Lego movies and that was a dream come true. So yeah, there are little tiny milestones where it really means something to me to book those jobs, because my inner geek is just flipping out.
oF: Between American animation, anime and video game work, are there different ways you prepare for each type of character?
KW: That’s a great question and yes, we record very differently for the different kinds of projects. With anime – and for anyone who doesn’t know, those are projects that were originally done in a foreign language like Japanese – for a show like that, it’s already been released, it’s already been recorded and what we do is we dub them into English. So when you go into the studio you are by yourself, you have a TV screen in there and you have to sync every single line up to a preexisting mouth flap. So they have to adapt the scripts into English and then they have to tweak the lines to make sure they fit so everything syncs up to a preexisting picture.
So the technical side of that is just as important, if not more important, than the artistic side because you have guidelines that you have to follow. With original animation like Rick and Morty or Gravity Falls or Fairly OddParents on Nickelodeon, with those shows they are created in the US first and sent somewhere to be animated. So we record the lines first and then it’s animated to us. For those, we can either be recording by ourselves or we can be recording in a big room as a cast, which is always a lot of fun.
And video games are like a mixture of the two, some titles come over from another country and there are timing issues or some sync issues that you have to honor, and other times you’re starting from scratch and recording it like a US cartoon.
oF: Does any one of those formats allow for more creativity on your part?
KW: You definitely get more flexibility with the US original animation, just because you can interpret the lines without being married to anything that’s already been done before. It’s lovely with the anime because you get to hear the amazing score, you get to see the facial expressions, but as far as being able to make purely uninfluenced creative decisions the original animation gives you a lot more flexibility.
oF: You’ve been doing comic book-based work long before Marvel and DC made it such a mainstream success, how have you seen that genre and others like it change over the last ten years or so?
KW: I think you kind of nailed in on the head in that it’s just become so much more mainstream. There were cartoons or characters that I was doing years back and there was still a little bit of that mentality that this is going to be for a niche audience and now it’s so, so mainstream. And the size of conventions and the scope of those titles has changed. Now you go to Comic-Con in San Diego and Marvel and DC and all of those things have a huge presence. I just think it’s gone so mainstream and that’s the biggest difference.
oF: It’s kind of the same for gaming. Games from ten years ago to today, you can’t even compare them. How has it changed on the performance side?
KW: It’s been very interesting to see the process change and it’s changed very very quickly. They do, for some of the games, motion capture. Where they will put dots on your face and track your motions and they’ll put you in these full body suits and it’s all filmed and fed into a computer. And to watch how much more sophisticated that has gotten just over the last seven years is pretty amazing.
The way that’s recorded, the way that it’s filmed and produced, it’s gotten much more savvy from a technical standpoint. And the stories, the scope of the games have gotten much more cinematic.
oF: I’m over 40 and still play games, read comics and watch cartoons because I’m obsessed with all these amazing ways to consume stories, and voice over actors play such a huge role in so much of that. Finally there is more recognition and more of a spotlight on that job, I see your name and know exactly who you are, but what do you think needs to happen so that the people doing the work are more fully recognized for what they’re doing?
KW: It definitely has come a long way and I think a couple of bit reasons for that are: 1. social media. Social media has been a huge bridge between the fan-base and your favorite voice actors. Suddenly you can put a face and a name together. You can put up a picture of yourself next to a character you’ve voiced. At least a few times a day I’ll have someone say, “I didn’t know you did that!” So I think that has been a huge factor. Also the rise of the convention circuit. It used to be the kind of small, tiny thing, and now it’s a booming business and there are conventions not only all over the country but all over the world. And the fanbase get to know voice actors on the con circuit.
I would say that those two things have helped. There’s still a long way to go. I think some sort of reality show would probably be the next step to really kind of launch V.O. people more into the mainstream. There is a great documentary out called I Know That Voice, a really fabulous voice actor John DiMaggio, who plays Bender in Futurama and a ton of other roles, he put that together and I think that started to also highlight more that these are the people that are doing all of these things. But yeah, I think one or two more steps into greater visibility will be what launches that even more.
oF: Having done anime and other imported projects, do you think other countries or other markets are farther along in that recognition?
KW: Definitely other parts of the world are very far along. In Japan the voice actors are rock stars. They are literally huge celebrities. It’s the same with people that are the voices for certain American superstars, they have certain people that are their dubbed voices in another language. This is the official voice of Jennifer Lawrence or this is the official voice of Eddie Murphy in Brazil. And they’re celebrities. We’ll see if that trickles over into the US.
oF: I have to talk a bit about probably my favorite thing on the planet right now, Rick and Morty. Season three is about to start, is it going to be another year of you tormenting Morty and keeping Summer safe?
KW: It will definitely be another season of bizarre craziness. I had couple moments in the studio where I thought, “Am I high? What is happening in this script.” I think that fans will not be disappointed. They just build on everything insane that has happened in the first two seasons.
oF: There’ve been shows – like the Simpsons and South Park – that launched us into this genre of adult animation, and Rick and Morty is so dark and it’s so smart, this couldn’t have happened ten years ago. I think that’s due in large part to voice acting and voice actors and their talent making it so viable.
KW: I think it’s also pushing the envelope for what animation can be. That’s another thing with animation in other countries, when I was doing a lot of anime, they’re telling very adult stories through animation. They were doing very very heavy issues and definitely not just for children. But I think in the US, for a long time, we had this idea that anything that was a cartoon was for kids. Now we’re seeing that shift so the limits of animation are being tested and broken down.
oF: With Rick and Morty, you do a ton of voices versus something where you’re the main character, what is the difference for you? Is doing ten different voices better, or does doing the main voice let you dive into a story more?
KW: That is an awesome question because I find that voice actors in our industry fall into one of two categories: They have a really interesting voice and they book a lot of lead characters and they’re just really good actors. They don’t do a lot of different things, they do a couple of things really, really well. And then you have other actors where they do a hundred different things and so they work all the time, but maybe not as leads all the time. I’ve found that my career has been more of the latter. And I kind of love that. It keeps it very interesting for me, it makes it harder at conventions sometimes because you can’t go and do a signing for Woman #2 and Villager #5. But it’s so interesting to me when I get called in and they say, “You’re gonna do a grandma, a little boy and a baby in this episode.” I get to just play and do so many different things, it really keeps it fresh and interesting for me. When I get a lead in a show, that’s fun because you get to flesh out the character and get to know that character a lot better, but I really enjoy those incidental parts. Anytime somebody says to me, “I didn’t realize you were doing all three of those different voices in that one episode.” That’s actually very gratifying for me.
oF: With that, if you’re doing multiple voices I can’t imagine they give you a ton of lead time to prepare. Are you just constantly working on different things away from the studio in preparation for potential parts?
KW: No, not really. A lot of things have come out of necessity. A lot of times there’s been an audition that popped up, I remember this one time a number of years ago, I got this audition for a baby character. There wasn’t much dialogue, it was pretty much just baby sounds. “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to do this.” And my agent said, “Just give it a shot. See if you can turn something in tomorrow.” I went home, I literally just started making stupid noises in my living room. Thank goodness no one was around to hear it, but I just started experimenting, making these different noises and though trial and error and having to put something down for the audition the next day, I started stumbling across a couple of sounds that sort of sounded like a baby. And from that one audition, I did not end up getting that part, but then they started giving more auditions for babies that came in and now I actually play a lot of babies. It’s funny because it’s not like I prepped and said, “Oh my gosh, one day I’m gonna be playing a baby.” It’s just this character came through and I’ve gotta figure out some way of doing it.
oF: Besides just putting everything, what else can you talk about that’s coming out? Anything that might put you over the rainbow?
KW: You’re actually catching me at a great time because I’ve just been able to announce a few things that have just started coming out. One of them is Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. It’s on the Boomerang app. I’m not sure if we’re on the channel at this point, but we’re on the free Boomerang app and I am playing Dorthy and Queen Ozma. So that was a dream come true for a Kansas girl.
oF: That’s coming full circle.
KW: It certainly is. When I first moved out to L.A. I would get the Kansas jokes almost everyday. Someone would say, “Where are you from?” and I would say, “Kansas.” And they’d say, “Well, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” So now I can finally say, “No, but I’m Dorothy on TV.” That is out now on the Boomerang app and we also have a new show that’s gonna be streaming on Amazon Prime starting July 21st, it’s called Niko and the Sword of Light. They actually did one pilot episode of it which won the Emmy for [Outstanding Children’s Animated Program] last year, so now they made a series and I’m going to be playing Lyra, so check that out.
oF: I hate the term “Dream Job,” but is there something you’ve got high on the bucket list?
KW: At this point it’s more there are some people I want to work with. I missed out on the whole Robot Chicken phase and I really would love to have worked on that show. The guys that worked on that are doing some other things and I’m really hoping to get a chance to work with them some time. I just hope I keep working consistently, that’s the dream.
Massive thanks to Kari for giving us her time and sharing her thoughts! Now click on over to Facebook and tell us who your favorite voice over artist is!
** Photos of Kari Wahlgren by Michael Becker **