In this interview, Sarah Natochenny opens up about her journey, from enduring sickening abuse by Pokémon fans to starring in hundreds of TV episodes and 14 movies, and becoming a cherished member of the Pokémon family.
Q: ‘Pokémon: The Power Of US’ is out now in cinemas. What can audiences expect?
A: Gorgeous animation, a great cast of new characters, and relevant themes. We had such a large, fantastic cast this year!
Q: You have been the voice of Ash Ketchum for 12 years now and recently shared a troubling story on Instagram about the bullying you received when you first took the role in 2006. Can you take us back to this time and some of the unwelcome trials you had to overcome?
A: I think it’s important to note: I didn’t “take” the role – that’s how a lot of the “trolls” like to characterise what happened. I was one of many actors who auditioned for a role that needed to be filled. At the end of the audition process, I was offered the role. I accepted, as anyone in my position would do – I was 19, and this was the most exciting thing to have happened in my career at that point.
As a fan of the show, I understood that my portrayal had to be true to the role, but I never imagined that I would start receiving death threats saying that I “took” what wasn’t rightfully mine, and if I didn’t give it back, I would get killed. There were petitions to get me fired, and confrontations at conventions. I was very much alone in this and felt awkward even mentioning it to friends.
It sent me down a dark hole for many years and led me to discover other career paths in the industry, for which I’m grateful. But if you think rejection is the worst thing you’ll experience as an actor, try getting the role and being told by fans that you’ve ruined their childhoods. Try getting creepy calls and emails with death threats. I’m sure there are people who easily shrug it off, but at 19, I wasn’t one of them.
On the bright side, I’m in a much better place now and feel encouraged by the fans who grew up with my work. They’re a huge reason why I’m still with the show. It’s been lovely getting to know them more at conventions and on social media.
Q: I imagine Ash and Pokémon must feel part of you now. How have you found the journey of voicing Ash and being an integral part of the Pokémon family for over a decade?
A: I really do have a lot in common with Ash! It’s ingrained in me to “be the very best.” I’ve made some wonderful friends working on this show and loved every second of my years in the booth.
Q: You have also had the opportunity to voice different humans and Pokémon over the years – including Diglett, Chansey, Wigglytuff and Super Pikachu. What is the process like of finding these voices and do you have a favourite Pokémon to voice?
A: I’ve voiced more than 30 characters over the years! It’s awesome to get to stretch my range like that in a single show. Typically, we look at the drawing or animation and try to get as much context for the character as possible. Then we try a bunch of voices. At this point, because I voice so many, my main focus is to find something that sounds unique against the other Pokémon I’ve done. Outside of Pokémon, I like to try wildly different takes and refine the one that suits the character best.
My favourite Pokémon to voice is Buneary.
Q: Can you name a character (from TV, film, video games etc) that you would love to voice and why?
A: One day, I hope to play Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The best thing about being a voice actor is that I get to play characters I would never play in a live action piece. Ursula is someone I’ve been obsessed with all my life. I’m fascinated by sad people who express themselves in insane, hilarious ways. But I know I’ll have to wait until my voice matures for that one!
Q: Do you have any other upcoming voice acting projects you can tell us about?
A: Look out for 44 Cats! That’s all I can say.
Q: Inspired by your love for cats and an episode of Pokémon, you recently started a non-profit called Voices for Fosters (voicesforfosters.org) with fellow voice actor Lisa Ortiz. What was the episode that inspired you and Lisa?
A: The episode was Pokémon Sun & Moon: One Journey Ends, Another Begins. One of the best episodes ever aired.
Q: I was just watching the Voices For Fosters Twitch livestream, which is a really fun idea. What are your hopes for Voices For Fosters and how can people get involved?
A: I have so many ideas for Voices For Fosters. Primarily, it’s a website created for rescuers and animal lovers to visit for peer reviewed information that doesn’t exist anywhere else online. Our larger goal is to promote fostering. Most people don’t know that it’s an option, and many shelters are just now building these programs.
I created the livestream on Twitch to reach the Pokémon fans who also love kittens, and to raise a little money for small non-profit rescues who need funding. We’re donating 80% of Twitch revenue to these organizations, which I will list on Twitch at the beginning of January. We also accept donations on PayPal using firstname.lastname@example.org or on Venmo @voices-fosters. I have an Instagram account dedicated to our fosters: @sarahanneofcats.
To help us out on social media, you can use #voicesforfosters when posting about your rescued, adopted or fostered pets.
Q: I also wanted to bring up your editing work. Where did your passion for that come from? What do you love about it?
A: It’s just one of those things that happen when you play with a camera and try a free software and realise you need way more control over the edit, so you buy the real software and perfect something silly and your friends go, “hey, you’re pretty good at that, you should do it,” so you do. I’ve been doing it professionally for almost a decade now.
It’s something I can do until I start falling asleep at my desk, then wake up and watch the cut over and over again without getting sick of it. That’s how you know you love what you’re doing. Moral of that story: try new things, always. You never know what you’re capable of until you work on something you enjoy. If you have a computer, you should never be bored!
I’ve found that editing gives you far more power over the final product than acting does. I love figuring out the best way to tell a story, finding the moments nobody else noticed. I love the feeling I get when I find that perfect cut, when it all just clicks. It’s very satisfying to see how a tiny change can change a story. I’ve been lucky to work with editors who were willing to teach me so much of what I know, things I wouldn’t have learned on my own.
Best part? No death threats.
Q: What does the future hold for you? Have you thought about life after Ash?
A: I’m going as far as I can as a voice actor. I’m so lucky to have this career. I’m ready for whatever comes next, but I have no desire to leave Pokémon. I’ll be making new episodes as Ash as long as they want me.
Title photo by Maxim Mamurov