Interview with Liam O’Brien: Voice of Gaara, Juushiro Ukitake, War, Asura and more

Saturday morning at London’s MCM Expo got off to a good start with an interview with voice-actor Liam O’Brien. All the way from Los Angeles, Liam O’Brien has had an extensive history in dubbing, including anime, video games and television. He first came to my real attention as Junta Momonari aka The Mega-Playboy from DNA^2, and more recently he is known as the voice of Gaara of the Desert and as Thirteenth Squad Captain Juushiro Ukitake from the ongoing series’ Naruto and Bleach respectively. For comic book fans familiar with Joe Madueira’s works, Liam O’Brien provides the voice of War in both Darksiders and its sequel.

Me: How are you today? Has it been a good day so far?

Liam: Yeah, it’s been a good day – I haven’t been up too long. I got here in the afternoon yesterday and plunked around the city at night – so far so good.

Me: So, is this your first time in London?

Liam: No… I’ve actually been twice. I came here as a twelve-year-old, but too young to appreciate it and then I came when I was twenty. But, first time back as a grown-up and I can’t wait to run around the city tonight.

Me: I know; there’s quite a lot to see and you really can’t fit it into… you’re in town for three or four days?

Liam: Three or four days, yeah. I live in Los Angeles – I’ve spent many years in [and am from] New York City, and London and New York are very much akin to each other. I like a good city.

Me: So tell me, what projects are you working on at the moment?

Liam: That I can talk about?

Me: Yes, that you can talk about – nothing top secret.

Liam: I’m usually under a firewall of NDA’s… boy – that I can talk about all ready…

Me: Well, I know Naruto’s still ongoing.

Liam: Right, Naruto’s ongoing; Bleach is ongoing. I’m tied to this one project that comes out a year later… if we we’re having this talk in a month, I could tell you something new. I was just in, doing day-to-day for Naruto; Bleach is ongoing sporadically, I also – I don’t know if they air here, they probably don’t have British versions – but I’m working on Wonderful Pistachio.

Me: I haven’t heard of that one…

Liam: Nut campaign – if you YouTube ‘get crackin’ you’ll see these goofy commercials about nuts and my voice coming out of it. I guess that’s really all I can talk about, but I guess I can talk about stuff from the past or what I’m working on now, but I’d have to come back in a year to tell you about them.

Me: Well, I’ve kind of kept an eye out on your work since DNA^2, if that would be something we could talk about?

Liam: Oh wow! That’s going old school.

Me: The premise interested me, so I only watched it a few years back, but that was a long time ago and you’ve come a long way since then. I think recently, did you work on the Unlimited Blade Works movie from Fate/Stay Night?

Liam: Well… I don’t know, is it out already?

Me: I think so…

Liam: Well, I never know what I’m supposed to talk about, so I’m going to politely side-step that one… I do like hearing about DNA^2. That was back when I got my start – I started in New York City. There used to be more anime dubbing going on down there and I lived there when I got started. It was one of the jobs I’d just gotten under my belt and thought ‘Maybe I could make a career out of this voice-over thing; let me try Los Angeles,’

Me: So that’s how you got into voice-acting?

Liam: Yes, it was anime-dubbing. I started in the theatre and was working as a professional actor on stage, around the country in the US and I was doing Shakespeare in Ohio and one of my co-stars had been working in dubbing for a couple of years at that point, and just said – everyone has a story like this, a lot of us do – ‘Hey, I know of this audition, do you wanna go?’ And it went from there.

Me: I know that for Naruto, I know you’re Gaara, but you’re also on the writing team. So, how much input do you really get?

Liam: We don’t influence the story – at all. I mean the story – the manga – exists. I love the story, I love the series and the picture exists so all we really have is nuance and the kind of dialogue that’s used to communicate the same ideas. And so, I get a translation that’s often very flat and bare-bones and if you were to go super-literal it would be less enjoyable. So I have to rework it to make it sound better and then you’ve also got the mouth-flaps, which means I have to either take an idea and communicate it in much less time or much more time, while taking those into account. It’s like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

Me: The series’ that you work on – do you know about them before you actually work on them, like when you worked on Bleach, Naruto and Fate, did you know of those series’ before you auditioned?

Liam: No – well, yeah, I knew of Naruto before I started Gaara when I got in around episode 20. First, I’d heard of the show when people were starting to wear stuff and talk about it before the show even got dubbed, but then they did a first round of auditions for that show in LA and I didn’t get a call – I didn’t hear about them – but people were talking about this new show. Then a couple of months later they said they were doing another round of auditions for this series, so I just went to the internet and learned that I could. That is one of the two times in my career when I knew the roles they were auditioning for and I went ‘That one, I want that one,’ and got it. Normally, you go ‘I want that one,’ and then you don’t get it…

Photographer: So what was the other one then?

Liam: Nightcrawler.

Me: Oh wow, Nightcrawler’s one of my favourite X-Men.

Liam: IS – he is my favourite, was so from when I was a kid, so that’s a real Nerd-Badge of Honour. Loved it.

Me: You said you started out in theatre, so what would you have done if you hadn’t got into voice acting – stayed in theatre?

Liam: Yeah, I probably would have. I still find myself wishing that I was doing theatre – my last one was six years ago. To be honest, this kind of work has just sort of exploded all over me that it’s hard to deny it and I spent so much time in this world – you have to keep your contact up with people. I’ve spent so much time doing animation and games that I don’t know as many people in the theatre-world anymore. But if I were, I would be auditioning – I wouldn’t have moved to Los Angeles because it’s not the biggest theatre town. I would have kept auditioning and doing plays and work in regional theatres. I probably would have done a lot of teaching, because honestly, theatre – as much as I love it – it doesn’t pay the bills like some of the other acting jobs do, so you have to supplement it in different ways. But I would have loved it, and I hope to return.

Me: Is there a difference between anime and video-game dubbing?

Liam: Yeah, definitely. With [anime] dubbing it’s extremely technical – again, you have to start on time and end on time; you have to have good ‘Shatner Acting’ because there’s so many pauses. So to start on time and end on time can feel weird and some people will sound robotic when they try to match what’s being done. For video games or original animation – which is when you have a group of actor’s together – almost always, there’s no picture, so you can do anything – the sky’s the limit. The only limitation is your imagination, like the creator’s vision, where you can add a little more and take your time, or you can talk as fast as you want and go really quick! With anime, you’re ‘locked in’.

Me: You did Darksiders as War and Asura in Asura’s Wrath; I guess you did the dubbing for Darksiders before it was ‘put together’ while Asura’s Wrath was ‘already done’?

Liam: Darksiders, yes, there was no picture but there may have been one or two scenes where they had a roughly animated thing that I did dubbing to. For Asura’s Wrath, there was dubbing which is matching the mouth-flap – that’s the hard part. For many games – Western games too – but Asura’s Wrath, they’ll have a very crude, early – almost Barbie-doll – version of characters running around, so you’re matching, but you’re not just matching the mouth-flaps. If he goes like this (swings arms out wide), you can’t go ‘I’m gonna get ya,’, you have to (swings arms out wide) ‘I’m gonna get ya!’ to match it. But it’s still easier than dubbing, which is staring at a screen, look at a line, look back up and go ‘Okay, I’m gonna start on – time – and pause right about there so that I can keep going to the end,’ It’s kind of like tap-dancing.

At with that our conversation came to an end. But Liam O’Brien was nothing but candid and charming throughout. It was a real treat sitting down with him and I look forward to his future works.

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