The voice behind Vegeta, Zoro, Armstrong and more reveals his secrets
It's one thing to talk about games with game people, but another to talk with someone as famous as Christopher Sabat and find out what makes him tick. The incredibly prolific veteran voice actor first got his start in Dragon Ball Z as Piccolo and Vegeta, but has since shown up in Fullmetal Alchemist, Case Closed, One Piece, Attack on Titan, and way, way more titles than I can easily count.
At the Bandai Namco New Years Showcase Event, I had a chance to sit down with Christopher Sabat and ask him some questions on his past, missed chances, and Dragon Ball Z screaming matches. Let's get started!
First off, thank you so much for this interview! Let's start with an easy one, and one you've probably heard like ten times today--you've brought life to a huge variety of characters, like Vegeta, Zoro, Armstrong--what's the one role you love more than any other, where performing this character gives you a real charge?
Just so everybody knows, this is my favorite Vegeta picture ever
CHRISTOPHER SABAT: Uh, well... I always hate to answer this question this way, because it's such an obvious answer to me, but I love playing Vegeta more than I like playing any other character. I don't know if that's because I like his character more, or because I just know his character better than anybody else. I mean, I've played Vegeta more than any other character, so I have to be careful when I'm doing other voice acting work that I don't accidentally drift into his voice.
When you get a new role, do you first listen to the Japanese voiceover to get a feel for the character and how the original actor portrayed them, or do you just read through the script and go with your gut?
CS: It really depends on what position I have when I'm auditioning. If I'm the director or producer of that particular show, I've had the opportunity to watch it in Japanese first, and there may be a character I really like or want to play. In most cases--and this is the case for not just anime, but most auditions--you never really get a chance to see or hear it in action, so you as an actor have to look at the character and script and decide how you want this guy to sound. My impression may be different from someone else, so I look at things like the character's age, how big they are. Do they have some sort of weird quirk? Should they have an accent? How fast or slow should I speak? I think that's where good voice actors kind of stand out, because they're the kind of people who can look at something and say "this is how that character should sound," and then sell you on it.
You've done a lot of action shows, with exciting moments and intense battles. Do you have any stories from the recording booth, like, do you and Sean Schemmel (Goku in Dragon Ball Z) get competitive on who can scream the longest?
CS: Man, I wish I could say that we had that opportunity--I mean, we always try to outdo each other and we're always trying to one-up each other even in life because we're Goku and Vegeta--but anime is a very lonely business in terms of voice acting because you have to go in and do the voice work independently. It's the same with a lot of voice work in video games, too. I mean, now with motion capture, they're getting more ensemble reads, but in general, you usually bring in one actor at a time.
Let's see... memorable moments? There are parts of working on Dragon Ball Z that I'd be happy to share if I hadn't tried so hard to purge them from my memory, because they were such hard times. Back in the early days of recording DBZ, we were on really bad, really slow equipment and we were racing to get it on TV, so it was just hours and hours and hours of screaming and screaming and screaming in a booth, and the worst thing about Dragon Ball, you'll be screaming, like--
He actually gave a pretty good minute-long yell here, no joke
--and then you think it's over with, and you stop for a second to take a breath, and it cuts back and the character's still yelling and you're like "DAMN IT I HAVE TO DO THAT OVER AGAIN." It sucked even more to yell twice for the same scene, and that's just painful.
That actually brings me to my next question--now, you said that it's very individual in the booth, it's just you and the director and your lines. Other than that, are there any major difference between recording for games, compared to recording for anime?
CS: Well, if you can imagine: take all the work you have to do for anime, and then compress it into a much shorter session, and that's a quick picture of what video game voice work is like. In anime, there's a lot of previewing. In a typical anime session, you'll watch what you're going to be voicing, then you step in the booth and record based on what you've seen. You don't often get that in a video game, and you just have to jump right in.
Another thing is, in a typical fight scene in anime for, say, Dragon Ball, you watch the scene and act it out as the fight goes on. However, in a video game, you don't know how that scene is going to play out when the player actually gets to it, so you have to record every single one of those sounds separately, and you have to do multiple iterations of that one sound byte. So instead of saying "FINAL FLASH" once, you have to say it ten times ten different ways, or you have to do twenty small pain reactions, twenty medium pain reactions, twenty large pain reactions, twenty "on fire" pain reactions, twenty big electrocution reactions, so... yeah, those video game recording sessions are pretty intense in comparison.
Let's go with something a little more personal--what's a role you really wanted, but you missed? One that kind of got away from you?
CS: Oh man, I have a great story about that. Some time ago, there was a writers' strike in California, so at that point, some of the studios were having to be really creative about where they were going to get their productions done. Some were doing temp work and others were, well, I don't know what they were doing, but basically I was recording for this game where I didn't even know what it was called at the time. I'd done several sessions for it, and then later found out that the game was going back to California to be recorded. It needed a California cast for union reasons, as it was a union game, and it turns out that the game I'd recorded was Gears of War, and I was cast as Marcus Fenix.
That was one where I started it, but never got to see it to the end. That was a huge, huge bummer, man. It's hard to start measuring how much stuff you didn't get to do, especially when you've had a lot of luck like I've had. I don't really dwell that much on what I didn't get to do, but there are so many characters I'd love to play that I just had a chance with yet. We'll see!
Do you have any tips for aspiring voice actors?
CS: What I tell people a lot is that voice acting is a really hard business to get into. Even if you're really talented, it's hard to even just get your foot in the door, to even audition. My advice to people is typically to diversify yourself. Voice acting has two parts to it--you've gotta have a decent voice and be able to deliver lines correctly, but you also have to be an actor. You have to be as involved as an actor in as many things as you possibly can.
Imagine voice acting being the very center of the bullseye on your dart board, but try to throw as many darts as you can--be involved in theater, in production, in film, in stage, podcasting, anything where you're gonna get some experience doing what you want to do. If you're specifically interested in becoming an anime voice actor, try and look into becoming a writer or an audio engineer or a line producer, or something that will get you in the studio. The people who have had the most success are the people who have been closest to the production. Justin Cook, for instance, was the voice of Majin Buu and Yusuke in Yu Yu Hakusho, and he was my audio engineer before! He'd never been a voice actor, but he'd been around so many people and saw how it was done that he got that chance. Use any means you can to try and practice what it is you want to do, even if that means sitting in your house recording yourself reading stuff and playing it back.
I've seen people come in for their first audition for a voice gig and ruin it because they don't have that kind of experience in front of a microphone. You can be as confident as you want and really ready to do it, but the minute you step into a room that's completely soundproof--it's very unnatural--and then you put headphones on, which amplifies that unnatural feeling, there's all this technique that goes into acting that you start getting tied up in all these weird distractions. That's where the really good voice actors shine, is that they've been through that weirdness and nothing's weird about being on a microphone for them now. For me, when I'm in front of a microphone, I'm comfortable and can focus on just acting, instead of little things like "am I facing the right way, am I the right distance from the mic" and so on and so forth.
A good example is Team Four Star, those guys are doing a genius parody of Dragon Ball Z, and I think that's where the new generation of voice actors is coming from, where people don't just wait for opportunities, they go out and make their own. I would say most of my success has been from realizing an opportunity and taking that path--I didn't know I was going to (or plan on becoming) a voice actor, I didn't have that option in mind. I saw a chance, and went for it. Sorry, that was really long-winded--
--no, no, don't worry about it, that was a lot of great information that I think a lot of people will appreciate. You mentioning Team Four Star is great, because that was my next question: I mean, Dragon Ball Z Abridged is awesome! How do you like their take on the characters you've performed? I mean, they really do come close to the original cast, so how do you like their work?
CS: Oh, that was the first thing that caught me. The first episode I saw happened to be an episode with Piccolo, and they're training, and he's yelling at Gohan to climb down. The first time I heard Lanipator go (Piccolo voice) "CLIMB DOWN!" I thought "that is my voice, that is my Piccolo voice that I use." It's shockingly close to the original sound, and I love their take on the series.
If there's anything that annoys me about the existence of Dragon Ball Z Abridged, and it has nothing to do with those guys at all, but it's how many people really love that series and ask me to do lines from it, and I just don't know it. They come up to someone and say "hey, do a line from a show that's making fun of a show you did!" I love those guys, and I wish I could work with them more, but when you're working on Dragon Ball Z in an official capacity, they make you sign these things where you can only use that voice on specific, approved things with permission.
Do you have any favorite voice actors (Japanese or English) who you admire, or whose work you follow?
CS: I love Mayumi Tanaka (Krillin in Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z/Dragon Ball GT, Luffy in One Piece)! I adore her voice so much! By far, she's my favorite Japanese voice actress. Man, I don't actually know--it's funny how I end up getting cast on a lot of similar-sounding characters. I usually get cast as the guy who's part of the good guy team, but not really all that into it, like Zoro or Kuwabara, or Kurogane in Tsubasa Chronicle, the tough guy with a heart of gold! I've done so much of this dubbing where I start to hear the same voices in Japan a lot, like I end up dubbing over the same actor a lot of times. [Here, he talks about something that hasn't been announced yet, but I'm sure Funimation will announce this soon! I think you'll like it.] Basically, it's me playing a character that looks and sounds like another character I've played, but couldn't be more different.
As for American voice actors, I've worked as a voice director so I've had the opportunity to call in some truly talented performers. Some of the women I've worked with, like Colleen Clinkenbeard, Laura Bailey, Luci Christian, y'know, Chris Ayres came in recently to take over as Frieza (in Dragon Ball Z Kai) and that's just instantly become one of the most memorable roles I've witnessed. [HE DOES IT AGAIN and talks about something we can't cover quite yet! Sorry for all the censoring!] He's amazing! As far as guys who have inspired me, I've known Troy Baker for a long time and actually helped get him into the business, and he's just such an amazing guy to listen to. He's a brilliant impersonator, and he's really capable of impersonating people that other actors don't even think of touching. He'll always do a weird, unexpected impression instead of going for the easy one. Jason Douglas, Jason Liebrecht, they're both great actors, um... I've just been so fortunate to work with all these excellent actors and I've had to chance to just sit in a chair and listen to them work their magic.
How does it feel to be the voice of a generation's heroes?
CS: Man, it is incredible to be the voice of Vegeta right now. I hear the same story over and over again, and it doesn't get old or boring--the minute they come up, I know what they're gonna say, and it's usually "Chris, dude, you were my childhood," and I don't know how to respond to that! I tried saying "you are my manhood" once, and that didn't come out right, but I hear the same thing! All the people who grew up watching the dub of Dragon Ball Z were like 7, 8, 9 like you probably were [FYI I was in high school when the dub first came out], y'know, it's ten or fifteen years later and these "kids" are in their twenties and their driving their own cars and living their own lives and going to conventions and they're nostalgic, and to be connected so closely with that is really endearing.
For some reason, right now, Dragon Ball Z feels as successful and popular as it was in 2000, and that's due in part to Team Four Star and to the new movies coming out, but people still love Dragon Ball Z. A lot of people who have interviewed me today at this press event, at least somebody on every team has mentioned how they were (or are) a big DBZ fan, so it feels really cool to have worked for this long on something--knowing all the work we had to put into this show back in the day--it feels really redeeming to have so many people appreciate it in a way that I've never been appreciated in my life. It's really humbling, I'll tell you that.
Is there anything exciting we can look forward to from you?
CS: No, nothing at all. I plan on doing nothing exciting at all. Uhh... the hardest thing about working in this business is knowing that there are things coming out that you can't talk about. There's something big for me coming up, and I don't know exactly when we're announcing it, but basically I always love getting to revisit something I've spent this much time on.
And that's a wrap! What are your favorite Chris Sabat roles? Let us know in the comments!