INTERVIEW: Voice Actress and Director Stephanie Sheh
Our sweet reader Rhona has one swanky friend who has turned her geeky passion into her career! Stephanie Sheh went from being a member of the UCLA anime club to being a successful voice actor and director for many anime series.
Stephanie is best known for providing the American voice for Orihime from Bleach and Hinata from Naruto and she was the co-director for the voicework of Resident Evil 5. She is also pursuing an on-camera career and plays mini Olivia Munn on G4’s “Attack of the Show” and was a part of an ABC pilot with Damon Wayans and Jane Lynch.
But her work doesn’t stop there. She’s got a very philanthropic side as well. She started the not-for-profit group, We Heart Japan, with fellow friends in the anime industry after the devastatingÂ March 11th 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Towering at a height of 4’9″, Stephanie is living proof that big things come in small packages. Like dynamite.
How was it like going from being a member of fandom to becoming a strong presence in the American anime industry?
SHEH: It’s a dream come true, I guess! But at the same time there are certain things that I miss about being a fan. That’s not to say that I’m not a fan; I’m just not the same type of fan. When you’re working in anime and go to your voiceover sessions or writing scripts at the same time and adapting, or reviewing, or directing, you’re watching anime while you’re doing it. The last thing that you think to do when you have free time is to watch some more anime.
I miss getting together with friends and geeking about the newest stuff but it’s still the best to be able to do what you love and work on the things you care about. So it’s awesome but the one little downside is that you don’t get to participate in a lot of the activities that you would have done if you weren’t in the industry and gain more of an understanding. I remember being a fan and being “why doesn’t the company just do this?”and get a little angry but now I totally get it.
There’s also some other things like rights issues and licensing stuff. It always comes up in terms of dub songs. Sometimes they want you to dub a song and before I used to think it was the company being lazy. But then I realize it’s because they don’t have the rights for it and because sometimes the rights are split up between a million different companies and everyone has to approve of it. Sometimes it’s impossible and it’ just not going to happen.
How is it like being a Chinese-American woman in the entertainment industry?
SHEH: In terms of my work in things that have to do with Japanese culture, it’s helpful because there are certain similarities between Asian cultures and so [my background] helps me understand it better when I’m working on it. I’m always super excited when I am able to use my language or culture in my work. Sometimes my some of my Caucasian co-workers wouldn’t get something and then I would explain why it makes sense in the context of an Asian culture.
I will say that it’s also tough. I’m also pursuing an on-camera career. And there is this idea of the exotic and submissive Asian woman that’s hard to combat. Or they want you to do an Asian accent. It’s a frustrating thing even with voiceovers because they always want you to do a slight Asian accent and you end up sounding kind of stilted and unnatural.
One of the things I used to do is when I used to have different aliases for my voice-overs was to give myself Asian last names because I didn’t want to take away from that because there are so few Asian-Americans doing voice overs that I just have to represent them.
I’m proud to be Chinese-American and I wish there was more Chinese-American role models and characters in our culture that we could look up to. I don’t necessarily think that we’re quite there yet.
Do you prefer the acting aspect or the writing and directing aspect of your career?
SHEH: I definitely prefer the performing aspect. I enjoy the writing and directing aspect but I get more of a high and a thrill from acting. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an Aeries but my first love is acting. I’m pretty sure when I get to the age where it’s harder for me to find work “ because our society values youth” then I can transition into more directing and writing.
You’ve been cast as many high-pitched and sweet-hearted girls such as Hinata and Orihime. Is there difficulty trying to portray all aspects of these types of characters with just your voice?
SHEH:I think it’s fun to play with different characters and personalities. The breathier the voice is, the easier it is because there’s less voice in it. If it has to sound clear, young, and high, it’s harder to sustain especially if I’m tired or if there’s lots of yelling involved. The main thing about those characters is more about their personalities because that and bringing it all out through performance is what sets them apart. I like playing innocent and cutesy types of characters.
Â I remember watching the dub scene of when Orihime was tearfully speaking to Rangiku and I nearly cried!
SHEH: Orihime! Shea a good character. I just wish they’d give her more to do since she’s usually the damsel in distress. I like it better when she’s actually part of the storyline and they focus on her inner strength. That’s a pretty important part about her. She has a huge heart and really strong powers. She’s not stupid but just a little bit spacy.
Gundam Unicorn was a simultaneous global release. How was it working on something like that with so little time?
SHEH: It’s super super tough. I killed myself working on it production-wise because it’s a lot of work and it is such a hard production schedule. I hope everyone goes out to watch it! Gundam is a great complex and deep story that is relevant to global issues with wars and class issues.
The reason we put ourselves through this and worked with Sunrise for a simultaneous release is because we really want to help the industry by preventing illegal downloading. If the main reason that people download anime illegally is because they don’t want to wait for year or so for the localization, we are providing them a way to access it legally right away and take away the excuse for stealing it.
Yes, I’ve noticed other series recently have been released as simulcasts in America that are available hours after the Japanese airing. It’s really amazing yet there’s still people complaining about it.
SHEH: There are some hardcore fans out there who don’t care what happens to the US market since they’ll get it for free via fansubs. But what they don’t realize is that part of the money made on anime DVDs go back to the original creators as part of the licensing agreements.
The illegal download issue is also an issue in Japan and a lot of studios are trying hard to stay afloat. So illegal downloading hurts the whole industry, which is not doing well at all right now.
A lot of studios have closed and lots of creative people have left the industry because they can’t make money or they can’t tell the stories they want to tell. I’ve had one director tell me that he had ideas that he would pitch to the studios. They would say “that sounds great but we’re not going to turn it into an anime because we can’t sell toys”. The only anime we’re making right now are the ones that sell toys because we’re actually losing money making the anime itself.
What were the challenges being the director for a video game such as Resident Evil 5 as opposed to adapting anime?
SHEH: I love working on games and I love Resident Evil. W’re trying to make the franchise a little bit more real and scary. The main difference between games and anime is that the games are so huge so it’s harder to figure out where you are when you’re directing it since it’s done in pieces.
In games, all the actors are recorded separately and since there is no video to follow, it’s not all on the same timeline. So it is tricky to record half of a conversation and to get all the actors’ dialogue to line up naturally when if you don’t have a clear idea of how the other actor did their lines.
Tell us a little about your organization We Heart Japan.
SHEH: Basically I and a bunch of my friends who are currently working in the anime industry or have in the past decided to create a not-for-profit group [to raise funds to help Japan rebuild after the March 11 earthquake]. Everything that we make goes back into the group for cost of running the event or straight to charity instead of anyone’s pockets.
We’re doing various events and we’re also working with conventions to be a charity of choice. We want to bring the whole anime community together and show that we’re positive people who can give back and contribute to the community and society and not just a bunch of detached socially awkward people.
Thatâ€™s pretty epic!
SHEH: It’s been a very exhausting but rewarding thing to do because it’s worth it. I believe that anime fans have their hearts in the right place and it’s a way to give back to a country and a society that has given us so much. Japan has given us so much in terms of entertainment and friends and also personally for me, my career.
I hear you have an event coming up soon.
SHEH: We are having an event on Saturday October 1st in Hollywood at the Theatre of Arts Arena Stage behind the Egyptian Theater off of Las Palmas. Doors open at 5 for the opening reception until 6. There are going to be autograph session and a raffle for awesome prizes.Â At 6, there’s a live performance by Mari Iijima – the seiyuu for Macross Lynn Minmay. Dan Southworth and T.J. Rotolo will also be there to show the audience how it’s like to be a Sentai Super Villain and we will also have the cast of Cowboy Bebop reunite to read an anime episode live!
Tickets are $40. Premium tickets are $60 that gives priority seating and a special goodie bag. Everyone will get an exclusive Kamina (from Gurren Laguann) postcard that is not available anywhere else.
You can get more information about our group via our website: www.weheartjapan.com or our twitter: weheartjapanxo
What are your current projects right now?
SHEH: It’s mostly Naruto and Bleach right now since those are ongoing. Gundam is still in production (we’ve just finished episode 4). We just dropped K-ON! Which is a lot of fun because we got to go to a lot of conventions to promote that by cosplaying and playing air guitar to the K-ON songs in Japanese. I had to learn 5 songs phonetically in Japanese and reminded me of being back in college. I kind of felt bad for the other girls because learning to sing songs phonetically in a different language was a completely new experience for them!Â We are hoping K-ON! does well so that we can do the second season as well.
What else do you geek out about in your free time besides anime?
SHEH: I love sci-fi. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. To be fair though, I don’t know that much about the original old series but I’m totally nerdy for the new version and I get really excited about it. I went to Nan Des Con and they gave me this TARDIS cookie jar. It was so awesome! It was such a nice surprise. I recently went to the U.K. for The Doctor Who Experience and bought tons of stuff. I’ve also just bought all of Torchwood since Doctor Who isn’t coming out fast enough.
I’m also into Buffy the Vampire Slayer and anything by Joss Whedon.
I have [a statue of ] myself in carbonite in the studio in my garage. I got it through doing something with G4. Who can say that they have a life-size imprint statue of themselves in carbonite!
I am a hardcore casual gamer and spectator. I like puzzle games and rhythm games. We used to have video game parties back in college and have drunken DDR matches, which was hilarious as the night went on. My favorite group game though is Pacman Versus for Game Cube.
I heard you also had a pocket Dalek?
SHEH: Oh I do! My amazing friend Rhona knitted me an awesome Dalek. I wish I could do craftsy things. I Â have all these projects lined up like making a shower curtain out of these Doctor Who bags and making a dress out of Heroman bags but haven’t gotten to them yet. It’s a matter of being a fan but not having the time to do all these cool things because I’m so busy working within the industry.
You have an excuse! You’re working in the industry and inspiring other people to make amazing things too!
SHEH:I feel so happy and very lucky to be able to do that.
We Heart Japan has various events to raise money for Japan. Their upcoming event is this Saturday October 1st, 2011 from 6-8pm in Hollywood at the Theater of the Arts Arena. Doors open at 5pm.
Regular tickets are $40. Premium tickets are $60 and include premium seating + gift bag.
For more information,Â check out their website
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