Like many veteran voiceover actors, it’s probably easier to name cartoons that Kari Wahlgren hasn’t been in than to list out all the ones where she has. The Kansas native’s career began at the tender age of 11, when she was offered an on-the-spot audition for a radio drama while touring a recording studio as part of a family vacation to California. While she began her acting career in Kansas (after graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in theater), she soon moved to Los Angeles to begin her life as a working actor, soon shifting her focus to voiceover work.
Her major breakout voiceover role was as Haruko in the fan-favorite anime series FLCL, and Ms. Wahlgren went on to other iconic dubbed roles as the title character in Witch Hunter Robin and Fuu in Samurai Champloo. Since then, she has gone on to act in countless video games and pre-lay animated productions, including Ashe in Final Fantasy XII; Shelke in Dirge of Cerberus – Final Fantasy VII; Nova in Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!; Charmcaster in the Ben 10 franchise; Tigress in the Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness series (as well as in some shorts and video games); Allie Underhill in Kaijudo; the female lead character in Disney’s Academy Award-winning short film “Paperman;” Starfire in the DC Animated Universe Teen Titans movies and the Injustice 2 video game; Mina in Bunnicula; and Jessica in Rick and Morty.
Toonzone News was able to interview Kari Wahlgren via e-mail to discuss her career in voiceover and of her other non-voiceover-related projects.
TOONZONE NEWS: You graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in theater. Was voiceover taught back then as a specific skill, or was it still more about dialect or vocal training for the stage at that point?
KARI WAHLGREN: It was definitely more about speech, dialect and vocal training. There weren’t really any specific voiceover classes, but the best voiceover actors are just great actors in general, so you end up using your theater training when you get behind the microphone.
TOONZONE NEWS: What do you feel were the most important skills that training gave you in voiceover, and what do you wish the program had incorporated for voiceover training in particular?
KARI WAHLGREN: The dialect classes were a big help and surprisingly, the Shakespeare classes I took have been invaluable. The only thing I would’ve loved is more behind-the-mic experience, because there’s a technical element to voiceover in addition to the creative side. You’ve got to get comfortable with that part of it if you want a long term career in voiceover.
TOONZONE NEWS: From the outside looking in, it seems like voiceover is becoming a skill that actors will pick up now, akin to on-camera technique or improv. Do you feel that’s true from your perspective, and how do you think that affects full-time voiceover talent?
KARI WAHLGREN: People come from a lot of backgrounds now; on-camera, stand-up comedy, etc. I think especially now that acting and improv skills are just as important as traditional voiceover training. That’s made it harder for full time voiceover actors, since there is so much more celebrity and “stunt” casting, so your skill level doesn’t always determine who books the job.
TOONZONE NEWS: You got your start in animation voiceover doing anime dubbing work, back when there was more of a separation between the anime talent and the pre-lay animation/video game talent. Did you ever feel like the anime section of your resume was an obstacle to getting into the union/pre-lay work, or were those barriers really broken down by the time you shifted from one to the other?
KARI WAHLGREN: I had to turn down a lot of anime work when I was trying to transition into getting more original animation and video game work. The two worlds were pretty separate, and it was really difficult for awhile. I feel fortunate now that I’ve had the chance to do both. I enjoy doing both, and the fans have been incredibly supportive over the years, it’s been great.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know a few voiceover actors who have said that anime dub actors work harder and need a lot more skill to do what they do. What skills do you think you honed doing those anime dubs that helped you the most in your pre-lay career?
KARI WAHLGREN: Definitely learning to sync up to picture in dubbing has been a huge asset in my pre-lay career. I’m able to get through my ADR on original animation shows pretty quickly. Also, you have to work fast in anime in general. I think that’s helped me learn to make choices and take direction faster in original animation.
TOONZONE NEWS: You wrote and produced a short film, “Girl #2,” and you’ve talked about how that was about stretching a different set of creative muscles. Are you thinking of doing more live-action stuff behind-the-camera, possibly even directing your own?
KARI WAHLGREN: Absolutely, I’m working on a couple of things now that I’m very excited about, and it’s really rewarding to focus on the writing and producing side. It keeps things fresh and interesting for me.
TOONZONE NEWS: I found out about the Kari Wahlgren Theatre Scholarship at the University of Kansas while researching the interview. How did that happen, and how involved are you in the scholarship administration? Any interesting stories related to establishing the scholarship or participating in it?
KARI WAHLGREN: I had a great experience at KU and wanted to give back in some way. I had planned to just donate to a general theater scholarship, but I thought it might be motivating for the students to see that the scholarship was coming from someone who was actively working in the entertainment industry. I set up some loose guidelines, and the theater and film department picks the recipient each year. I really love getting the letters that tell me about who received it. Sometimes I hear from the winners, too, which is pretty meaningful to me.
TOONZONE NEWS: For voiceover auditions these days, it seems like self-direction is a skill that actors need to develop. What are your go-to tips or tricks for directing yourself in auditions when you need to do it?
KARI WAHLGREN: Make a bold choice, even if it’s wrong. If you get the job, there will be directors and producers there to guide you. When you’re auditioning, they know you don’t have all the information. So if you’re unclear about something, make the strongest choice that feels creatively authentic.
TOONZONE NEWS: “Ventriloquism” is listed as a special skill on your theatrical resume. Is there a story behind that? Have you ever ended up on a gig where that came into play?
KARI WAHLGREN: I taught myself ventriloquism when I was 10 and did it for 14 years or so. I won a lot of contests and did shows and traveled. It gave me a lot of experiences over the years. I rarely do it now, but my friends are constantly asking me to do a reunion show with “Danny.”
KARI WAHLGREN: I can officially say now that I’m back as “Haruko” for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim’s FLCL sequels! It’s been an emotional experience to revisit my very first role, and it really feels like coming full circle. Season 2 will premiere on June 2. I’m also voicing the Wasp in Disney’s Avengers cartoons and Aunt Cora in new episodes of Spirit: Riding Free on Netflix. I’m doing more convention appearances this year than I ever have before, too. You can get updates on those dates and locations on my social media sites. I’m on Twitter @KariWahlgren and on Instagram @kari_wahlgren. I also have an official Kari Wahlgren Facebook page. I love hearing from fans, so drop me a line!
Toonzone News would like to thank Kari Wahlgren for taking the time to talk with us. In addition to the assorted social media links above, you can check out Kari’s official website and hear Kari Wahlgren as Haruko in the FLCL: Progressive premiere this Saturday, June 2, 2018, on Adult Swim.