Leah Applebaum

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Dogasu's Backpack | Voice Actors Guide | Leah Applebaum Interview

Leah Applebaum is one of the lesser-known of the American Pokémon Voice Actors.  She does two minor characters (Erika and Susie), which is far less than most of the other voice actors/actresses in the show (Addie Blaustein does eleven characters, Lisa Oritz does 12, Eric Stuart does 13, and Rachel Lillis does a whopping 26).  She also plays the part of Nanami in Revolutionary Girl Utena, a really eccentric character who is often the comic relief of the show (well, other than Chu-Chu).  The following interview was given by Kit Fox and appeared in Animerica Volume 7 #11.

Leah Applebaum describes her start in voice-acting as “a complete fluke.”  While working in an off-off Broadway comedy sketch show called My Thoughts Here in New York, Applebaum got a call from the director, who was looking to cast a role for a Sci-Fi Channel program called Think Like a Dinosaur, with Michael O’Hare from Babylon 5.  She auditioned and got the role, which led to more Sci-Fi Channel projects—The Signal Man, an adaptation of the Dickens story, and an original musical called The First & Last Musical on Mars, in which she also sang, and Time Arrow and Time Spiral, in which two souls keep reincarnating over time.  But finally, thanks to connections she made through her Sci-Fi Channel work, the road led to anime.

Applebaum’s first anime voice-over role was that of Nanami in the romance series Revolutionary Girl Utena.  “When I first went in to record…they showed me the first frame of Nanami in the episode, and she has blond hair and long legs,” Applebaum says.  “I thought, ‘Wow, I get to live vicariously through this character,’ because I have brown hair and I’m short.  I don’t think I’ve ever dyed my hair blond.  At times I’ve wondered what it would be like to be blond."

Following Nanami, Applebaum picked up a couple of plum guest roles in the Pokémon TV series—perfume-store manager Erika and Pokémon-massage-therapist Suzie—but she found herself unprepared for the show’s runaway popularity.  “We were on the plane on the way to the convention, and Crispin Freeman, who is an anime voice-actor, took out his Game Boy—I’m still learning the lingo of this stuff—and it was the Pokémon game, and in there was my character Erika, and I thought ‘Oh my God!’  I just didn’t realize that it would be all over, everywhere, the way that it is.”  At the convention, Anime Central, Applebaum was introduced to anime fandom at large for the first time.  “One guy came up to me and said, ‘I can tell when you went up into your higher range when you were doing Erika, and she was screaming—I could tell that it was the same voice-actor that did Nanami.’  And I thought, ‘Oh my God these people listen, it’s amazing!’  I just had no idea of the anime world, and that got me excited.

Let’s talk about Nanami from Utena.  What was your original impression of this character?

I would say, first of all, it took me a while to get acclimated to the Japanese style of anime—the way they do their characters.  So some of the stuff throughout the series that was already recorded took me by surprise, but it’s part of the fantasy and part of the creative process.  As far as my first impressions of Nanami, I thought it was going to be fun because she’s this manipulative little brat.  But as the series went on I realized this is actually a psychologically disturbed little girl.  There’s much more to the character than meets the eye.

So your impressions have definitely changed after recording more episodes?

Oh, absolutely.  I was pretty naïve in the beginning—there wasn’t much preparation time outside the sessions.  I would go in, and if there were a few minutes before we got to record, I would read through some of the script and get to ask questions.  They told me the basics of the character.  As an actor, when you’re in a situation like that, in a cold reading, and when you’re in a timed situation, you have to make choices quickly, and with good directors, they guide you in the right direction—“Let’s take it this way,” or “Let’s try something different”—and they take the different edits and put it together, which is great.  I actually got to develop Nanami as I went along, which was exciting in itself.

Where did you find Nanami’s voice?  Did you have to draw from your memories of school?  Did you got to school with a character like her?

Oh, of course.  [LAUGHS]  Actually, the one thing that sticks out in my mind, when I was little, there was a book that my grandmother read to me based on the TV series Family Affair with Buffy and Jody, and there was a series where there was a little girl at a school who was just mean to everyone and conniving and manipulative and bratty and would go and hit girls and call them names.  So Buffy had a party and invited the girl over and she was really upset, and something happened and they saw that she was a real girl and that she was actually insecure and wanted to make friends and didn’t know how to deal with people very well.  So that actually struck me when I thought of Nanamil.

She’s obviously an insecure, disturbed character—she loves her brother Toga, and Mickey, and certain people in her life that she cares about, and in that there is something good.  But then there’s the way people have different ways of dealing with things, and she obviously, maybe, doesn’t know how to deal with them.  The fun thing about her is that she’ll go out and do anything she needs to do in her mind to get what she wants, and it always backfires.  It’s so much fun, because you’d think she would learn and she never does—she keeps going and going and going.

Poetic justice, maybe?

Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, poetic justice.  What goes around comes around.

Let’s talk about Pokémon a bit.  What do you play in that?

I do two different characters—I do Erika, who is the manager of the perfume store.  She’s the one who gives the Rainbow Badge to Ash, and that story is about Gloom, and a lesson in empathy, and how you need to be able to understand and not put the Pokémon in a position of being fearful—being able to understand what you Pokémon are going through instead of just treating them as objects.  And then I play Suzie, the masseuse, who gives Vulpix to Brock.

I love the episodes Suzie is in because they talk about how it’s what’s on the inside that counts.  Jesse and James have their own salon and they are very much about what’s on the outside, versus Suzie, who is talking about what’s on the inside.  We have to make sure that the Pokémon are relaxed and feel good about themselves and are confident, versus the other perspective, that appearance as an aesthetic is the only thing that counts.  Which, I think, is one thing about the series—I wake up every once in a while and turn it on, and it sends a good message to kids and leaves little messages here and there about how you need to care about what you look like on the inside and not on the outside because that’s what really matters.  I think that’s a positive message.  It’s the same with the other episodes I did with Erika—the empathy and understanding .  It’s a beautiful thing.

I imagine you’re quite a hit with some of your younger relatives?

Yeah, I went down south to visit, and when my cousign introduced me to everyone, she said, “This is my cousin that does Pokémon.”

All their jaws hit the floor?

Oh, yeah, and they would come up asking me questions, and I had to sign things for them.  It’s exciting to see them getting excited over this sort of thing.  And the fact that I’m a part of it makes me excited.  So yeah, I really didn’t know how big of a deal it was until my mom called me and said my little cousin said it was the talk of the bus, and that’s down in Atlanta, Georgia, and here we are in New York.  It made it more real for me, I can say that—when I was actually able to get feedback from people.

When I go into the recording studio, I do the work, and then I leave; the work is done.  So after a while, I don’t feel as connected to it as I do while I’m doing the work, versus when you’re in a play or onstage or doing a film—you stay connected to it for a longer period of time.  With stage, you get the immediate feedback, and it’s right there and happening, and there’s a long run of a few weeks or a few months—or if you’re lucky, longer than that.  With voice-overs, you go in and you do it.  For me, it wasn’t until I was actually able to get a copy of the work I had done and hear it and see everything, the whole project mixed with the other voices and the background noises, and the music and all that stuff—if was like magic, and I could see it after the fact, so that helped me connect back to the project again.  And then I would go to a convention and I would be able to reconnect because everyone there was so…I don’t know the word.

Receptive?  Enthusiastic?

Yeah, enthusiastic about it.  And that to me made it more real.  I actually realized that people watch this, this is exciting, they follow this.  And that in itself is really rewarding—as an actor, as a working performer—knowing that people really enjoy the work we do.

Do you ever watch the animation you’re in?

Yeah, it’s easier for me to listen to my voice that it is to watch myself on tape.  But what’s really funny, right when I had done the Pokémon series, I was waiting for it to come on TV.  And I was getting up every morning, and watching the show, and I hadn’t seen my episodes yet, so I skipped a couple mornings.  So one morning, I figured, well, I had a friend visiting and she said “Do you want to turn on the TV and see if your show’s on?”  I said, “Yeah, but I don’t think it’s going to come on today.”  So she left, and I turned the TV on, and there was my voice!  Oh my God!  [LAUGHS]  It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

You were talking to you

I was!  I was talking to me!  Y’know, there I was on TV, my voice was on TV—and that was bizarre, surreal, and exciting, and it blew my mind all at the same time, so I stuck a tape in to get the rest of the series.

Were you a fan of animation before you got into voice-acting?  Did you watch a lot of it in your formative years?

I hadn’t watched a lot of it, actually.  I just wasn’t exposed to it where I grew up, in South Carolina and Georgia.  Every once in a while, I’d hear about it and my interest would be piqued, but I was just more involved in theater growing up—that’s where my interest was.  But as I got older and moved to California to get cast in productions and I started to become more aware of the voice-over world I moved to New York and took a voice-over class, and they said, “Ninety-eight percent of the voice-over work is done by men and two percent of it is done by women.”  And I thought, “Wow, with these statistics, if I get any voice-over work, it’s going to be by the grace of God.”  So when this started happening, and it fell into my lap, I wanted to run with it.  That’s how I got exposed to it, actually—once I got to New York.

I think it’s amazing stuff and it’s beautiful—it’s so different from the American stuff like Disney, which is wonderful but with anime everything has its own…aura, it’s place, and there is something different at work about it.  I love the Disney stuff—that’s what I grew up on—but now that I’ve been exposed to anime, I’ve definitely been getting interested in it. 

Send Fan Mail To:

Leah Applebaum
c/o Central Park Media
250 West 57th Street, Suite 317
New York, NY  10107




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