At Anime NYC, we had the opportunity to interview Sarah Natochenny, an actress who is best known as the voice of Ash Ketchum since the ninth season of Pokemon. We conducted this interview alongside a group of other outlets, all of us competing to ask questions in a “first come, first served” free-for-all format.
We shared the audio of the questions we asked on Manga Mavericks episode 106, but you’re about to read the transcript of the full interview, which includes questions asked by the other outlets. Like ours, these questions explore Sarah’s history with Pokemon and her thoughts on Ash and the strengths of the series, and how it’s messages of empathy and perseverance shares positive messages for the show’s younger viewers.
We also ask her about her animal welfare non-profit Voices For Fosters, a resource that provides animal lovers an FAQ and guide to fostering programs and networking initiatives to keep up to date with the animal fostering community. For more information on Voices For Fosters and how to get involved, please visit their website here.
With all that said, enjoy our interview with Ash Ketchum’s voice actress, the iconic Sarah Natochenny! (Portions of this interview have been edited for brevity, clarity, or emphasis.)
All-Comic: How’s your Anime NYC been so far?
Sarah: Fabulous! So fun. So many characters that I don’t know. (laughs) I’m learning! I’m learning a lot. It’s good. It’s very good.
All-Comic: What cosplay have you seen the most today?
Sarah: Uh, Pikachu, just because that’s what my eye is drawn to. Yeah, I saw a few. I saw a few Pikachu. Yeah, very cute.
Have you always been a fan of Pokemon, even before signing up as a voice actress?
Sarah: Oh yeah!… I started watching it when it came out; I was eleven years old. So… I was the perfect age.
Yeah, I tried to play the cards. My mom only bought me like, a small deck, so… But I watched the show… and then, I got the show, and I continued being a fan.
What was that audition process like?
Sarah: I went in to audition the first time… It was on a Monday, and I was an irresponsible teenager and I forgot that I had the audition, and that morning I look at my calendar – ‘cause I had like a paper calendar, like an “at a glance” calendar on my desk; a big one. I like was a “do’er,” you know? And I had to flip the page to see Monday, and I didn’t look ahead for some reason and I thought, you know, I had an easy week coming up. I look and my heart sank, out my butt, and I ran to my friend’s house and I’m like “we’ve got to practice this, immediately, ‘cause I have to sound like this person.” We worked on it and she’s like “you’re never going to get this. You don’t sound anything like her.”*
I went to the audition, and they’re like “oh, this is a dub,” and I’m like “what is that?” They taught me how to dub at the audition. I… did not think I did well, but apparently I guess I did? I guess… I learned the dubbing process pretty quickly. I took to it quickly, but I left that audition and cried my eyes out. I still, to this day, never had a worse audition I don’t think. I haven’t felt as bad after an audition then I did that day.
And then there was a series of callbacks, and then I got word that I had the role, and… that was amazing. Yep.
* referring to Veronica Taylor, Ash’s previous voice actress
Sounds like the first day of Ash’s Pokemon journey, right?
Sarah: Pretty much, yeah.
All-Comic: But at least you didn’t get attacked by a flock of Spearow…
Sarah: Yeah… well, you know, I kinda did. I kinda did, on the internet. There was a flock of Spearow, and they were in the form of some college students who… formed a coalition against me and were like “fire her and give the role back to its righteous owners” and I’m like “what? I didn’t steal anything. I didn’t take anything. I’m just a nineteen-year-old actor who booked a job.” So… that was pretty awful and I got death threats and stuff, so… Spearow; that’s the perfect analogy. It’s exactly what happened.
But now I have a cat named Pikachu, and… you know how in the beginning Pikachu and Ash didn’t have the best relationship; Pikachu was just like “Zap! Zap! Zap!” That’s how my Pikachu was as well. But now we’re best buds and he doesn’t bite me anymore. So… he’s a good boy.
Is that how you would relate to Ash, in some way?
Sarah: It’s the easiest way, yes, because… in my daily life, I’m like “Pi-ka-chu!” I say it with an accent. I don’t say “Pikachu”… I don’t say no to him, I say “not.” I don’t like saying no to an animal.
So, now that you have this iconic role – ‘cause that’s what it is at this point – are they starting to use your voice across the different platforms? Like games, things like that?
Sarah: No… I did a Nintendo commercial for Pokemon Let’s Go, and that’s it. I think Ash is… treasured in the anime, but I don’t know what the future holds.
What was your first Pokemon game, and what was your favorite gen?
Sarah: Um… my first Pokemon game was Pokemon Go. I never played video games growing up, so I did not play any of the Pokemon games. I played Tetris, that was it. Oh, but I babysat a girl and she loves Zelda, so we played Zelda and Super Mario Kart.
Zelda’s still a great series!
Sarah: Still a great series, I know. Still going super strong. Yeah, that’s great.
My favorite gen… in the series, I would say Sun & Moon. But XY was also really amazing, story-wise.
Ash has had so many amazing Pokemon that I’m sure you’ve had more experience with than any of us, even playing the games. What’s your top six?
Sarah: Ooh, six?! Alright – Meltan is my top one. Love Meltan. Um… Pikachu. Mew. Aipom!
Uh… how many was that? Was that five?
Sarah: That’s four? Kay, cool cool cool. Um… Greninja. Our relationship is… it’s solid!
Oh man, the pressure’s on. I dunno… Sobble. Crying, always crying!
So Ash is… at this point, he’s immortal, really.
Sarah: Immortal, yes.
What does it mean to you as an actor that… you are this renewable source of motivation for all the new generations that are coming up, and it’s not like you are… like the character’s getting older. Like how does it feel to have new kids come around and then talk to you and meet you as the actor? How is that experience as an actor?
Sarah: That is literally my favorite part of this whole show. The fact that he doesn’t age; he’s there for every generation. He’s there for our kids, your kids, everybody’s kids. For their grandparents, he was there… and he’ll always be there. You have this tenacious kid who is a great influence, I think, on kids. He rescues Pokemon when they’re not well. He always… he’s a good person.
All-Comic: How does it feel to watch Ash’s journey develop throughout the seasons as in every region, every League tournament, he does better and better, and in the Alola League, he finally becomes Champion?
Sarah: So, I don’t know if he becomes Champion. I honestly don’t. It may happen, it may not. We don’t know. I know what happened in Japan, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen here!
So we’ll have to see. I… admire the fact that he’s improving, and that the fandom is gaining some respect for him. I love that. He deserves it, and uh… we’ll see what’s going to happen.
Speaking about him winning Champion, or maybe not as you said, when he lost the most previous one with Greninja, how did you feel about that pain? Did you want him to win as well?
Sarah: Of course. Yeah, no I always want him to win… It’s hard, it weighs on me that he never wins. Like, c’mon dude! But… yeah, of course I want him to win.
All-Comic: What is the loss of Ash’s that most devastated you as an actor?
Sarah: Losses against Paul. Yeah, those were really… yuck. That kid was… ugh. I personally hated him. Not the actor! The character.
I think part of the cool thing about what happens is that he does have a lot of losses, but I think for people who are growing up and struggling, like that’s important to kind of learn that is reality. You don’t always win, and again have you had any experiences where people have talked to you about that as opposed to just “the guy that always wins!?” Like this is a really good experience, I think, to teach kids about that other side.
Sarah: Absolutely. I think it’s a terrible thing to say to a child that you can be anything you want to be. That’s not really true. Some people have an extraordinary talent for absorbing a ton of information and they can become doctors. I can’t do that. No matter how hard I work, I’m never going to be a doctor. I could say that and it doesn’t matter how old I am. I would have said the same thing when I was eighteen. I just cannot hold that amount of information in my head for a long enough period of time to take a test and save someone’s life. I just can’t. It’s just not in my brain. And some people can’t dance! Some people can’t sing, and to say that you can be anything you want to be is… setting kids up for disappointment.
You can be good at something you show an aptitude for! You can get really, really good at that. Will you ever be a professional? Maybe. Maybe not. And that’s ok! That’s ok. So… I don’t remember what the question was, but… that’s my speech and I’m standing by it!
The high point of most of the Pokemon arcs, so to speak, usually come down to these competitions, but would you say that [Ash’s] true strength lies in, like, maybe other things that lead up to it? We know that he’s going to head to a competition, we know that there’s gonna be a big face-off, and he’s gonna… lose, apparently, somewhere in the competition – but we get so much leading up to that point. Do you think that’s really what the series is about?
Sarah: Yeah. For me, yes, definitely. I love everything that happens outside of battle, and the battle is just the cherry on top of the sundae. But, the character development and all the great stories and the things you can really learn… You can learn a lot from the battles too, but, I think the… humanity stuff, I think that comes in the scenes in between the battles.
Just going back to you getting the role, you said that you had to “sound like her.” But… you might’ve had to do that for the audition, but now I’m pretty sure you’re putting your own spin on it and… actually taken over this role now. Can you speak to that?
Sarah: I didn’t do it on purpose! It just kinda started happening and… nobody stopped me. The character evolved a little bit and… I think there is a beauty to having more than one person occupy a role like that. It’s interesting to have different takes on a character. I don’t think our takes are so drastically different. I think it’s mostly in the voice. His essence is still, I think, very much the same. Would you agree?
Sarah: I think he’s the same Ash. He sounds different. I’m also… I’m placing him in a place that’s more comfortable for me. When I was trying to do what she… I don’t know exactly how she did it; she’s amazing! But, I felt like there wasn’t enough air coming through, and so that was just… tiring for me. So I think slowly… it happened organically. I just started opening my throat a little bit more and letting… more come out.
Did she reach out to you when you took over the role?
Sarah: No… Yeah, I haven’t thought about that, no. It would be very nice to talk to her, yeah. It’s been a long time, it’s very much overdue.
How do you feel about Ash continually having to take down organized crime?
Sarah: (laughs) I’m all for it. I think it’s very good for the world, I think it’s good for humanity, and I think he’s the right guy for the job.
In a lot of new anime coming out, kindness is becoming like a new superpower, like Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia, and it’s kinda cool because Pokemon’s… always done that for so many years. And stuff like gestures like Ash like giving away his Pokemon and stuff like… how does it feel to have that as the sort of strength as opposed to like “he always wins. He’s this brute strength guy.” It’s kind of a cool message, right? What does that mean to you as an actor to depict that?
Sarah: That’s actually… that’s the one thing you should teach your kids. As someone with no children, I… I can say this! It’s kindness; it’s to treat everybody you meet with… a base level of kindness, because you don’t know what people are going through. You don’t know what draws them to behave the way they behave. If somebody seems like they’re quiet or they’re “weird” or they’re like… you know, they’re not mainstream, and they’re not regular, and they’re not popular – you got to treat them with kindness. Because you don’t know what they’re going through at home, you don’t know what they’re going through in their head, and you don’t know what’s going on. Just… be kind. I think it’s great that our show perpetuates that.
All-Comic: Is there a particular moment in Pokemon where Ash displays kindness and empathy in a way that really moved you?
Sarah: Yes! In episode 1928 (season 19, episode 28 – “Seeing the Forest for the Trees!”)… I recently rewatched it. He rescues a bunch of Pokemon from the snow. He rescues a Pokemon from a tree. He gets into his first fight with Serena, and I love that!
When he rescued that Pokemon from a tree… it was so small but it was so poignant for me. Also because, my mom and I, we foster kittens. So we don’t actually rescue them, but I work with some rescuers that, you know, are out there every single day. Day and night, and taking calls from people who’re like “Um, I have a cat in my backyard. Help me.” It’s like… do it yourself, first of all… but it’s incredible work that they do, so that tie-in is really…
All-Comic: Actually, I want to talk about your non-profit – Voices For Fosters. You started it two years ago, inspired by an episode of Pokemon – the Sun & Moon episode “One Journey Ends, Another Begins…” I was wondering what about that episode in particular really stood out to you, that encouraged you to start the non-profit and spread awareness that foster programs are kind of overburdened with strays that need… temporary homes and people to take care of them.
Sarah: You’re literally answering the question. (laughs)
So, shelters are overburdened and need foster homes for their animals. Otherwise, there is an order in which they get put down. And they get humanely euthanized, but… it’s not a solution that I think we should be using in the 21st century. We have the internet. We have every resource available to us to network and to be able to find homes for animals. There’s absolutely no reason for euthanasia to exist at this point.
The best way to keep animals out of the shelter… is by finding foster parents, and most people have no idea of what fostering even is. They don’t realize that they can borrow an animal, and just give them a home temporarily, and then help or not help. With Bideawee, the organization that we work with, the kittens stay with us until they’re like two pounds. Then they spay and neuter them, and they give them their shots, and they put them in their kitten room which is like a free running… no cages. And they all play with each other, and people can come in and meet them, and decide who to adopt, and they go like hotcakes. It’s great. It’s a great model.
So… what about that episode inspired me? The fact that… my cat had just passed away, when we started recording that episode I think. Our director, Lisa Ortiz, was also dealing with the death of her cat about a year prior, and we both just like looked at each other and started crying. We figured this would be a great thing to promote.
I started fostering after my cat passed away, ‘cause I wanted to meet other cats. I was like, there was no way my cat was “the end-all-be-all, most amazing cat, there’ll never be one like her.” So I started meeting, you know, as many cats as I could and realized that ok, they’re all different, but they’re all amazing in their own way and they can all… be an amazing buddy, and then I found Pikachu. And now I have Pikachu.
Ash is such an unconventional trainer. He lets Pikachu stay out of the ball, he jumps into the middle of a battle to protect his Pokemon, and he treats them as friends, and you see a lot of people on the show who don’t think that way. How do you think that ties to what you’re talking about right now – actual treatment of animals? Do you think that love of animals, love of Pokemon, is similar?
Sarah: Definitely. I mean… you can’t equate animals and Pokemon, they’re totally different, but I see the analogy in it personally. I think it’s a beautiful lesson. If a kid comes away watching the show… seeing how Ash treats his Pikachu and his other Pokemon and how much he cares about them and how worried he is when they’re hurt, and how he takes them straight to the Nurse Joy when they’re… you know, when they need help? It’s a great lesson. If they get the analogy, it’s great.
Bringing up Lisa, speak about your relationship with her. Being an iconic voice actor… and now directing you on this project?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s amazing to… sit with somebody. She also coaches, so she’s really sought after and… I’m so lucky to get to work with her, ‘cause I learn from her every… every day. She’s an amazing director, and she’s so easy to work with, and so fun to work with, and so generous and just… the best. She’s the best. She’s my favorite.
With the game that just came out today (11/15/19) – Pokemon Sword & Shield – will you be getting that and playing it itself since you already played Pokemon Let’s Go last year? Will you be playing this game?
Sarah: Yeah, sure. Definitely.
Which one are you choosing?
Sarah: I don’t know yet. I haven’t thought about it. I have to think about it, yeah. I figure, you know what… I’ll let it sell out of stores first, and then in a few weeks when it gets restocked I’ll get it.
All-Comic: Speaking of choosing Pokemon, you’ve also played several Pokemon in the show itself. Like you were Ash’s Staraptor and Dawn’s Buneary. I was wondering what was your favorite Pokemon to portray?
Sarah: You literally answer all my questions. (laughs)
Dawn’s Buneary is my absolute favorite Pokemon to voice. So cute.
All-Comic: What about her was so fun?
Sarah: Oh my goodness… her little… her little flirtation with Pikachu. Oh my goodness, the cutest thing ever. Just the way I made her sound. I just love her. She’s so cute.
I know you were talking about the kindness and stuff and something a little deeper, but for the kids back home, what’s your favorite Pokemon battle that’s gone down?
Sarah: Oh… boy. Oh my goodness. I feel like my whole life is flashing before my eyes right now. I don’t know… Honestly, the one that’s coming up. I don’t know if he’s going to win or lose, but uh… it’s pretty epic! It’s a good episode.
If Ash didn’t choose Pikachu, and if he could’ve chosen one of the other three, which one would you have chosen personally?
Sarah: Personally I would have chosen… Charmander, I think. Yeah.
It fits the jacket (that Sarah was wearing).
Sarah: The jacket, yeah. This jacket’s red. Charmander… he’s a bit more orange.
Is there anything you want to say to the fans?
Sarah: Hi fans!… You know, follow me on social media. I’m active. I’m hanging out with people. Um… That’s it. I just got nominated for a Voice Arts award. That’s on Sunday (11/17/2019), so maybe you’ll have something more interesting to write about…* Thanks so much, guys!
* Sarah indeed won an award for “Outstanding Animation or Gaming – Demo, Best Voiceover” at the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS)’s 2019 Voice Arts Awards!!
Thanks again to Sarah for graciously giving us her time and insight! To keep up with what she’s working on and her future con appearances, follow her on Twitter at @sarahnatochenny.