Yuri Lowenthal: MCM Expo 2010 interview (part one)

If Kyle Hebert instantly feels like your coolest best friend – and he does – then Yuri Lowenthal instantly feels like your most famous best friend. He wields a professionally polished charm that would sit comfortably on a Hollywood A-list celebrity; a charm that says ‘I am an extremely busy man, and I only just managed to fit you into my schedule; but now that I’ve met you, I’m glad that I did’. That said, Tom Cruise never had the cajones to wear a t shirt with the word ‘geek’ emblazoned across it.

He is accompanied by his wife Tara Platt, an actress in her own right. Tara is happy to let Yuri take the spotlight in the interview, but remains present perhaps to deter any women that fall under Yuri’s spell – an entirely plausible scenario. If he finds Iain from Geek Planet Online, Michael or myself particularly attractive, he hides it very well.

I got into voice acting from other kinds of acting,” says Yuri. “I’ve been doing a lot of theatre, and moved out to Los Angeles with my wife and partner in crime Tara Platt. It’s hard to make a living as an actor. You have to take several non-acting jobs, and we were looking for as many jobs as possible that were acting related. Neither of us had really ventured into voiceover, knew much about it. Not knowing anything about it, we took an intro class to that and through that class, put together a demo reel, and started sending that out. Also, luckily, the teacher of that class ended up directing an anime series, a dub of a show called SD Gundam Force.

It’s ridiculed among many Gundam fans for being sort of ‘the baby Gundam’, the Super Deformed Gundam show. It was actually a lot of fun, and that was my entry to the dub scene. That was my first job in dubs, and that led to other jobs.”

So how did he move from there into videogames?

It’s a pretty tight circle, the voiceover community in Los Angeles. You can’t survive on just one kind of job. If you were just doing dubbing of anime… it’s not enough to make a living. There’s animation, commercials, narration, videogames. In the type of auditions I was doing, videogame auditions came up. I think maybe the first videogame that I did was… was the SD Gundam Force videogame!”

This got a laugh. Why? Because it was Yuri saying it.

Soon after or perhaps even before, I did an audition for a game called Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That ended up being a very lucky break for me, because it ended up being a super game. We audition all the time for all different kinds of projects, and videogames are one part of that, a part that I love.”

Yuri Lowenthal is perhaps best known to gamers as (the decent) Prince in the Prince of Persia games, and one of his best known roles in animation is that of ‘Kuma’ in cult hit Afro Samurai. Does he feel pressure starring in such big-name franchises?

“I think there’s definitely a benefit to doing some of those titles that end up being big, but you don’t always know what’s going to be big. Obviously there are the franchise titles and if they were big last time they’ll probably be big again. I wasn’t in the first Bioshock game, but because that was so popular when I was in the second one, I knew that was a big title. It’s nice to be able to say ‘I was in…’ or ‘You might know me from…’ but the funny thing about Afro Samurai is, the first question I always get is ‘What was it like working with Sam Jackson?’. And unfortunately my answer is always ‘I have no idea, I never met him throughout the entire process!’.

He always recorded alone, and I always recorded my stuff separate. It wasn’t until the release of the videogame, I was at the opening party for that. He was there, and so I thought ‘This is my chance to meet him’. I went up to him and said ‘Hi Mr Jackson, you’ve been kicking my ass for the last four years and we’ve never even met, so I thought I should introduce myself’. It’s definitely fun to be a part of those big ones, but that’s only a part of what we do. We work on so many other little titles that don’t have the prestige of that, and it’s just nice to be working regularly.”

Is voicing the same character on a regular basis any easier or harder than voicing a character he might only do once or twice?

I think when you voice a character again and again over time, there are two nice things that happen.”

It is at this point that my dictaphone, finally overwhelmed by Yuri’s star quality, faints. That at least is the best explanation I can think of for why I needed to change the batteries when the battery indicator was showing full charge earlier that day. Yuri, clearly ten times the professional at his chosen art than I am at mine, immediately stops answering the question and waits for me to finish fumbling with the battery cover and making an arse of myself.

Was that yours, was it the battery? I’ll wait till you’re ready.” At least, I think that’s what he said; I have no record of it.

With fresh batteries installed, I lewdly grope the battery cover with my sausage fingers in a vain attempt to replace it. For a moment I fear that perhaps I bought a size of battery that is only sold to idiots like me; AA½ that fits into absolutely nothing. With something distantly related to relief, I realise that no, it’s just my ineptitude when it comes to simple electronic items at play here. The rest of the interview is recorded with my dictaphone bearing its batteries like a pair of Zinc Chloride buttocks.

Sorry about that.” I say, realising that were the ground to swallow me up, I’d just fall into a group of cosplayers on the floor below. As statistically that group would be sure to contain one man dressed as a Sailor Moon girl and/or one person carrying a gigantic weapon of some kind, I decide I’d rather stick around.

As far as playing the same character over time goes, it definitely makes it more comfortable,” says Yuri, after most politely dismissing my apology. “Going in you can relax a little bit more, knowing the character. Sometimes it makes it more difficult, because especially with the Prince in Prince of Persia… when something hits big that first time, if you go back into it again later, there’s a pressure to be as good as, if not better than, you were the first time. You only have so much control over that. Oftentimes I do get nervous going back into something that was popular. Because you know, I don’t want the reviews to say ‘Oh, he was great last time, but for some reason this time he wasn’t as good’. Sometimes it’s harder because there’s more pressure. The nice thing about being able to play a character over a long time is the character gets to develop.

If you just get to play a character one day, it’s a nice place to visit; but over time you get to see the character develop, because obviously I’m changing, the story’s changing. That’s definitely a nice thing about playing a character over time.”

As an actor…” Yuri stops to think, confronted with a question regarding any creative control an actor might have. “It depends on the project, whether or not we get a lot of input in the development of a character. Oftentimes there are time constraints, and they need something very specific, especially for videogames. In a lot of this stuff, an actor plays one part in a huge chain of events. When you’re doing an animated series you lay down the vocal tracks, and then eight months goes by while they do animation, and the designers work, and the directors direct and cut… so as an actor you have a certain amount of input, but it’s not always huge. With videogames things are very specific, things need to work in a certain way. I like to believe we all put our personal spins on it and for example, when Nolan North was doing Drake for the Uncharted games… a lot of that character is him. He has a tendency to improvise quite a bit.

It’s a tough call because if you’re good at improvisation, and you’re clever and funny, then it works. And if you’re not, you should not improvise so much. You have to gauge a feel depending on the project as to whether you have a lot of input, or whether you should just do what they tell you to do.”

Does he have a preference for playing heroes or villains?

I like to work.” he says, an unexpected curveball that gets us all laughing again. “Whatever they send my way… I started out by playing mostly hero type characters. I think Sasuke on Naruto was one of my first dark characters. He’s sort of a hero, but he’s not the naïve, young white-hat hero that I had become accustomed to playing. I think most actors will tell you that they love to play villains. I’m definitely one of those types of actors, I love to play villains; and I don’t get the opportunity to do that very often.

Kuma on Afro Samurai was great. He wasn’t necessarily a villain, but he was crazy, and filled with revenge. I like to explore the dark side. As far as what’s actually me, the characters that are closest to me are more the hero types. That’s probably why I love to play the villains, because I get to do things that I wouldn’t ever consider doing in real life.”

A carefully measured pause, and then…

At least, I would never own up to the fact that I have ever considered doing those things. Certainly not on a recording.”

Laughter all round yet again; the Yuri Lowenthal charm offensive is as unstoppable as a BP oil slick.

Having worked with his wife Tara on projects including Persona 3 and 4, could he tell us if they worked together in the studio and if so, how the dynamic differed from the norm?

She’s sitting right next to me, so I have to answer this question very carefully,” says Yuri, again to laughter; but as a married man myself, I know full well that he is only half joking. “It is fun when we get a chance to work together. Because of the nature of the business, a) we don’t always get cast on the same thing together, and b) sometimes even when we do get cast on the same project, we record separately – but on occasion we have gotten to work in the same studio. It’s fun because you get to explore dynamics, again re the previous question, that you’d never get to in real life. Sometimes we get to, uh, work out our differences. When we were on Rave Master together, I played the hero and she played the villain, and we got to beat each other up in the anime! So we didn’t have to do that in real life. It’s always a bonus when we get to do that. Uh… what was the last part of that question?”

Oh yes. As per Patrick’s request, I had also asked if he’d started any work on Persona 5….

No. Is there a Persona 5? If there is they haven’t told me about it yet. Just so you know, if I was under a Non Disclosure Agreement this would be my response anyway, but…” his answer is cut off, again, by laughter round the table – so we get a free sample of his acting. “’I – oh, no, they haven’t contacted me, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’. But no, they haven’t contacted me. But I love the series, we have both really enjoyed working on it. Although with the pattern, in three, they gave me a character who didn’t really say anything and then in four they gave me the character who couldn’t stop talking, so in the next one they’ll be back to one who doesn’t say anything; I don’t know, we’ll see. I hope to get to do more.”

Be sure to check back tomorrow for part two of the interview. Was that him playing Luka in Bayonetta? How did he feel losing out on the part of the Prince in Warrior Within and the current gen reboot? Did I ever get the battery cover back on my dictaphone?!?

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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