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Don't Lose Your Way!: A Talk with Erica Mendez

In just six years of voice work, Chicago-born Erica Mendez has taken the anime world by storm. She's lent her powerful pipes to Ryuko Matoi, Sailor Uranus, and most recently Gon Freecss! We talked voice acting, video games, and the weird world of fame on day 3 of MomoCon.

by Jankenpopp
Jun 8, 2016 1:49 AM | 27,321 views

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez
I sat down to a press conference with Erica Mendez on the third day of MomoCon, having been previously informed that I would be allowed one question without followup. As the conference included two journalists other than myself, it would have only been five minutes long under these constraints. The three of us ended up speaking with Erica for twenty enlightening minutes, during which I got some serious insight into finding one's voice (and not losing your way!).

(A/N: Answers and questions edited for clarity and length. Starred questions are from yours truly.)

How long does it usually take to get a project out the door?

The time span generally varies from show to show. There was one show I worked on called Yuki Yuna, and that was released within like a month or two of us recording it. But I've had shows like Your Lie in April where we record it at a certain time, and then six months, almost a year later it'll come out. So it really depends on how much time they have to spend on it or whenever they feel like they need to release it. It's hard to give an average time because it's so different from project to project. I know people who have waited years for video games [they've worked on] to come out and it's so painful, because we're big fans of the stuff that we work in. So we want to talk about it right away, but we can't because it's a big secret.

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Fuu Inubouzaki, from Yuki Yuna Is a Hero (Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru)

What's the difference between voice acting in video games and in anime?

The biggest difference is that we don't usually dub to picture for video games. It's all free-form and there's more flexibility on how you're able to portray the lines, depending on how the director envisions it. In anime, obviously the project is already there and you're dubbing to picture, so there's a little less flexibility to do more zany things if the scene calls for that. Video games tend to go a lot quicker; they're paying you more [laughs] so they want to get it done faster, and anime pays less. Sometimes they'll take more time with it, sometimes they won't. It really depends on what the budget's like.

What was your first VA project?

My first project, oddly enough, was playing Pac-Man in a video game [Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures] based on a TV show on Disney XD. The show is done in Canada and they wanted to do the video game in Los Angeles, so I did a voice match for the actress who played Pac-Man in the TV version. I did two games for that series. It's so weird saying that one of the first big things I did was Pac-Man! [Laughter]. It is cool, it's really cool!

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Pac-Man Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures

How'd you get into Kill la Kill?

Like every other project I auditioned for it, but I was actually going to get cast as Mako's little brother at first. Then they brought me in and they were like "Hey, change of plans: we haven't cast Ryuko yet and we'd like you to do a callback for it. If it doesn't work out you can still be Mako's little brother, and if it does work out, then obviously you get to be the main character of this anime series." So we started from the end of the first episode because they wanted to see what my stamina was like for all the screaming and stuff in the show. So we eventually got to the beginning and finished the episode in that session, and they called me in for another session a few days later. I'd been a main character in things like Pac-Man before, I was the lead character in an anime adaptation of Treasure Island and in Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic, but nothing really put me on the map until Kill la Kill. So I'm so lucky that it happened to me; it could have been anyone, but they decided to take a chance with me!

What was your most stressful voice acting job?

Oh, definitely Kill la Kill—that show is 80% screaming, if not more! Because I had so many lines I would record two weeks straight, excluding weekends, for about four episodes. And that's a long time to be honest, because usually we'd get an episode and a half done in 2-4 hours. But Kill la Kill was so rough with the screaming that I had to take care of my voice. Normally I'm a pretty quiet person and I'm not used to screaming like that, so I definitely think my voice got stronger after the show!

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Kill la Kill Ryuuko Matoi Ryuko Matoi, from Kill la Kill

*Is there anything you've done that you think gets overshadowed by Kill la Kill? Anything that showcases your talents in some way you want more people to see?

It's hard to say...sometimes, but every once in a while someone will come up with a particular title and tell me how much they really liked it. I appreciate whenever anyone says how much they love my work, but some things—you know, people just bring you less merch to sign. I really liked A Lull in the Sea—that's free on Crunchyroll, the dub and the sub—because it was one of the first anime where I really got to show an emotional range. My character [Akari Shiodome] is not in it a whole lot, but she cries within like the first three episodes, so that was a fun challenge.

One that's a little bit more recent is Your Lie in April, which just started streaming on Netflix. I played Tsubaki in that one, and that was totally emotional, and I legit cried for a lot of those sessions. It's hard not to. Just watching the show I cried! I haven't been through a lot of the things Tsubaki's been through in that show, but I really felt for her, so it was easy to cry.

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Akari Shiodome, from A Lull in the Sea (Nagi no Asukara)

Are there any shows or games you've done that you don't play or watch?

I try to play and watch everything that I'm in, and I like to collect the stuff too. Sometimes I'll get it for free, but most of the time I buy it myself. Sometimes I like to get the limited edition, so I'll spend a little more to get extra, but I think I've pretty much done everything that's been out so far.

How did you get into voice acting?

I became interested in it because I was a huge fan of cartoons, anime, and video games, and have been since I was very little. I suddenly one day realized that there are people that do these voices, so I started looking it up on the Internet. I found some web forums of other people that were interested in stuff like that, so I started joining these communities of people that wanted to practice doing voiceover. So I did that for a while, I think I started when I was like 13. Jeez, that's like half my life now! [laughs]

So I just kept with that for a little while, and eventually it spiraled up to me wanting to do it as a career. I'm from Chicago and I moved out to Los Angeles—not originally for voiceover, but I have a degree in animation, so I went out for that. My boyfriend lived in New York at the time, so we both moved out to California together. I was perfectly happy to follow his career and let him do his thing, but then I fell into it too, and we've been working on the same projects together. It's been really cool!

*How do you relate to characters [e.g. Tsubaki] that fundamentally aren't you?

I think a lot of it is listening to the music. In Your Lie in April specifically, a lot of that music is so heart-wrenching. We didn't dub to picture in my audition for that show—they just played the music in the background for me and that kind of got me going. It was enough to book me the part, how emotional I got for that!

I would also say the writing and the directing; having a good director is totally fundamental to getting a good performance out of a particular person. If the writing is good and the director is good and the actor is halfway decent, you can get so many emotions out if the piece calls for it. For Your Lie in April I would read on in the script and it wouldn't even be my line, but I'd just start tearing up! A lot of it was reading the other characters' responses and how Tsubaki felt about the person she's had a crush on. She lived next to him, she's always had this crush on him and didn't realize it until recently. He never reciprocates those feelings, and if I had to go through that I'd be devastated! Who wouldn't, really?

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Tsubaki Sawabe, from Your Lie in April (Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso)

If you could do any role in anime or video games, what would it be?

One of my favorite shows that got me into anime is Fruits Basket, so I'd love if they made a remake of that. If I could just be anyone in it—just a regular school student, I don't care—I think that would be a full-circle experience and I'd love to be a part of that.

For video games, I don't know if I have a particular character, but there are definitely series that I'd love to be in, like Final Fantasy; I love the Tales of games, the Persona games. I play League of Legends and I'd love to be in that.

*Is it surreal to hear your friends' voices in games and shows? How does that change your experience?

It's definitely surreal! It's hard to watch things sometimes and get into the show, because you're like "Oh, there's Laura [Post], there's so-and-so, there's that person!", especially when it's the same voices they use in everyday conversations. If they can get me past that, I usually tell them! A lot of people in the industry I've known for a long time—Laura I've known for over a decade at this point. It's just so cool being able to get into this with my friends, and I'm glad we got in together and achieved our dreams.

Have you ever been in any shows that you weren't sure would take off and did? Kill la Kill, maybe?

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Diane, from Seven Deadly Sins (Nanatsu no Taizai)

I think Seven Deadly Sins was like that for me. For Kill la Kill I kind of knew that was the hit show of the summer, so I had a feeling that was going to be big. Whether or not the dubs are going to be received well, that's always up in the air, but I had a feeling that we had worked hard enough on it that it would be. Seven Deadly Sins I didn't know because I hadn't heard too much about it before working on it. A bunch of other people told me it was a big deal, but I didn't realize until I started doing conventions. Now I think my character Diane is one of the most requested [voices], probably second only to Ryuko!

*You mentioned that anime dubbing is a little less freeform, but Kill la Kill seemed to take a lot of creative liberties with the writing. What was the process behind that?

I think a lot of it was Alex von David, the director. He also wrote it, and he's great at English adaptations for anime, and I feel so lucky when I get to work with him. He's also kind of a fan, so he knows what people want. He'll stray a little bit from the Japanese translation while still being true to the material, making it more relatable to English audiences.

Who's your favorite character in anything you've worked on?

That's always so hard, because I really like a lot of them! I couldn't even pick a top three...I really love my character in Sword Art Online II, Yuuki Konno; of course I love Ryuko; Aladdin was one of my first big ones in Magi, so I really like him. Love Live is really special to me because I played the game before I auditioned for the show, so being in that project was really amazing. I really loved Tsubaki in Your Lie in April, because I was really able to go through her journey and really appreciated her in the end.

MomoCon Interview Erica Mendez Yuuki Konno, from Sword Art Online II

*Are there any stories that you want to tell as a director or writer?

I'm not really good at writing my own stories, but I'm definitely interested in doing English adaptations. I'd like to give that a try. I used to do it on my own time when I was a lot younger. I'd do fandubs for fun to get a feel for that stuff, so I'd make my own scripts and cast people—not really direct them, but let them do their thing and then I'd mix it all together. I like doing creative stuff like that. I don't know if I could do it in a professional sense, since I'm not a trained writer or anything like that, but I'd love to give adaptation a try. I don't know if I could do directing, but that would also be a fun thing to try.

*Is there anything that hasn't been adapted that you'd like to jump on?

I feel like the one anime that I'd love to get a dub would be really hard because it's so heavily based on Japanese culture and puns. I really love this show called Gintama, but a lot of the charm of the series is the Engrish they put into it, so that'd be a really difficult one to adapt!

Besides yourself, who is your favorite voice actor?

Do you think I'd consider myself my favorite voice actor? [Laughs] I'm not that egotistical...There's so many great people. I really like Kari Wahlgren, I think she's amazing; that, and the fact that she started in anime and now she's doing all these amazing Western cartoons and video games. She's come so far in the time that I've known of her work, and she's the nicest person too. I really like Laura Bailey; Troy Baker's work is amazing. A lot of the people that are here are so great, like Cree Summer, Jim Cummings, they're my childhood! Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Steve Blum, all my friends that are here, like Laura, Ben [Diskin], Dave [Vincent] and Matt [Mercer]. I find inspiration from everybody, and it's really hard to pick a favorite, because everyone's got so many different amazing qualities to them.

*So you still get starstruck.

Oh, yeah! I don't want anyone to have any awkward conversations with me. There are a few people I haven't actually spoken to even though I've been in the same room several times!

If there's anything to take away from this interview, it's that we're really not so different from the famous voices that breathe life into anime. Move past the starstruck wonder and you'll find yourself talking to gamers, artists, writers, and anime fans just like you. The only difference is perseverance, passion, and plenty of hard work. Erica Mendez is living the dream: having discovered what she loves, she shares that love with millions worldwide.

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