There will always be those voice actors in the anime industry and beyond who stand the test of time as household names. It’s safe to say that one such person is the legendary voice actor Sean Schemmel. He is best known for his role as Goku in the Dragon Ball franchise, but he also has an extremely wide range of talents as a voice actor and has a host of exciting up-and-coming projects that some readers may be unaware of.
So, to learn a little more about Sean, his thoughts on playing Goku, the other characters he’s enjoyed portraying, and the projects he’s working on currently, we sat down with him for a Zoom interview. The following is the condensed interview to go over the highlights of his talk with us for the sake of being concise and clear:
Elise: You’re best known as playing Goku in the Dragon Ball franchise, but you’re also very versatile as an actor. Can you tell us a little about your experience with that?
Sean: I’m known best as Goku, but I have over 200 credits and have done dozens of different voices for different shows over the last twenty years. And the funny thing is, and I’m kind of contradicting myself because one of the things I think is one of the hard-fast rules you want to do as a voice actor is when you’re doing a voice, or playing a part, you want to change your voice and your acting so much that they don’t know it’s you. So, a lot of times, people trying to compliment me go, “Oh hey, I saw you in that show!” And I’m like, “Thank you! Also . . . darn . . . I was hoping you wouldn’t recognize me.”
And then at the same time, I’m equally vexed when they’re like [shrugs] “Yeah, you’re only known as Goku.” And I’m like “I’ve done 200 other voices!” [laughs] So it’s like both, you know? So, it’s frustrating but I’m also like secretly proud because the number of times I’ve had to pull out my IMDB, people are like “oh, I had no idea,” and I was like, “Yeah, because I was changing my voice a lot!” [smiles]
Sean: As a matter of fact, my own producer, Justin Cook, just reviewed Mars Red, and he’s like “I barely recognized you.” And people are like, “Oh, it’s good to hear Sean do a low voice.” And I’m like “I do low voices all the time!” In fact, I rarely do high voices outside of Goku. I’m usually doing a monster voice [speaks in low voice], or a crazy high voice [changes to high voice], or something like that, or I’m changing my voice and talking like this [changes voice again], or I’ve got an accent on or something [speaks in British accent]. Or whatever. I’m doing some kind of thing to the voice.
And then for the new LEGO show I’m working on, which I can’t really talk much about but I can mention it, I’m basically just doing my natural speaking voice. It’s just me, if I were retired, but also still a magic god from China because I’m playing the Monkey King. It’s like me, retired, mixed with a little Norm Macdonald, is the way I’m kind of doing it.
It’s called Monkie Kid. It’s out in China right now. [Editor note: Update: Monkie Kid is now available to stream in the US on Amazon Prime] Fun fact: we’re not the dub cast of that show. China, which was the original client, wanted an English cast, so they recorded it in English first and then they dub it in Malaysian and Mandarin, and other languages. And we are the pre-lay cast. And when I see people online say, “Oh man, this dub cast is great,” I’m like, “We ain’t the dub cast!” [smiles] “We record this stuff before they animate,” which makes us very proud to do. Because a lot of times we get to interject our acting choices and then they can hear that and change their animation, or we’ll have an idea or suggestion and they’ll draw it in sometimes, if they like it and it gets approved. So I really like doing that pre-lay work. I don’t mean to imply dub acting or actors are less than or vice-versa. I’m proud of all my dub work and I actually think dub is more difficult and challenging due to having to get the same emotions out of a pre-determined, restrictive space.
Elise: That’s so great that you’re able to do that! That’s awesome.
So, I’m going to ask you a little about Goku. Can you tell us about what Goku has meant to you?
Sean: Here’s the weird thing about this: on the one hand, I’m a very, very empirical scientific-minded thinker. On the other hand, though, I do not discount mystical, magical, or in this case, another way to interpret it would be algorithmically, mathematically complex causes and effects that led me to being Goku. All of which could be dictated by some sort of cosmic energy, which is plausible. That being said, usually when people ask me about Goku, since I got the part, I considered it my reason for actually being on Earth. That once I was done, it would be okay to die. I take it extraordinarily seriously.
But the reason I think Goku means so much to me is that—and I think it’s true for a lot of people, especially when we are young and are looking for purpose and meaning and for a reason to perhaps deal with an otherwise fundamentally difficult life experience—since I’ve been playing Goku, everything I ever wanted in spades has come to me, most importantly a reason for being and feeling like I matter. And so I’m grateful for everything I have, from my very own partner, to decades-long friendships, and the honor of bringing life to such a legendary and meaningful character for so many millions of people across so many cultures and nations. It’s an overwhelming gift and honor. It’s a big part of why I channel so much into the character. Also, such a character REQUIRES it.
There were a number of things that I went through growing up that kind of portended that I may end up with something like this. I was born in the year of the monkey, my grandmother used to call me “Monkey Boy.” There was this whole monkey energy that I’ve been with my whole life. And there were a couple of other mystical things . . . oh, the other thing was when I got on the role, I was really lost. When I was twenty-seven/twenty-eight, I got divorced and I got remarried too fast, and then I was really depressed.
And I don’t believe in prayer because I don’t think prayers get answered because none of mine have ever been answered, but I do believe in just putting stuff out there, just kind of wishing. Because I think one of two things happens: a. you’re going to get a cosmic result, and the energy is going to go out into the universe, and there are cosmic deities that give a shit about you, or b. your unconscious mind is a powerful super-computer, and by putting the quest out there, you’re really putting it in. And then your mind’s working in its sleep to figure it out, and then an opportunity may—on a subatomic level, or in a mirror-neuron level, or some kind of cosmic level—come your way, or you’ll see the opportunity when it arrives. I refer to this as the “cosmic nudge”.
Either way, I was in a real down place, and I said to the universe, “Hey man, I just need something to get me out of this, and whatever you give me, if it’s the right thing, I’ll treat it like gold. I’ll give it my all.” And then I got on Dragon Ball. [smiles]
Elise: That’s awesome.
Sean: And it was my first audition ever. Oh! And the other weird thing: when I was a little kid, I loooved cartoon voices—this all ties into the Monkey King and Goku, and being born the year of the monkey, and all this other shit. When I was a little kid, I loved cartoon voices, and I loved, like, Rich Little and other impersonators because I could feel they were spiritually different. When Rich Little did an impression, he wasn’t Rich Little anymore. Bill Cosby would do it, and he wasn’t Bill Cosby anymore. Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams, or anybody I’d watch growing up, they weren’t who they were anymore, and I could feel that spiritually.
So, for me, it was like, “Wow! I could be somebody else–anybody else.” So I would turn the volume down on my TV as a little boy and act out scenes on TV shows I didn’t like, that were typically in black and white because I only liked color TV. Because you’re a little kid and it’s the ‘70s, and you’re like “Black and white! Pfft! Color’s great!” And color had been out a couple years by then, but not too long! And I would turn down the volume and act in real time. And I would just do that all the time.
Or my brother and I would get out rock n’ roll magazines, and my favorite thing to do was make my brother laugh. So I’d look at a heavy metal guy and go, “This guy sings like this!” And go [makes high noise], “This guy’s saying this!” I’d point at faces and make them say what I thought they’d sound like. So in that way, I was playing with voices all the time. I used to prank my friends. I was just always into that sort of thing. So while, ultimately, I had ended up being focused on French horn, and becoming a professional hornist as an adult, and that was my first true love, when I got on Dragon Ball and got in the booth the first time, it was even more rewarding and deep because it felt like I was coming home.
Elise: So, you were talking about how everything aligned for you to get the role of Goku. How did you happen upon it? Did you see a casting call and just went for it? How did that fall into place?
Sean: Like I was saying, I was a professional French horn player, playing in orchestras, and I had a studio of about thirty students I was teaching. And my (former) wife at the time was an actress, and back in the day there was no real internet to find acting jobs. I mean, it was 1999/98. There was internet, but it wasn’t widespread. And she would look in the Dallas Observer every morning. She would just look for auditions. And I’m getting ready for work or whatever and she’s like, “Hey, there’s an ad: ‘Voice Actors Wanted for Cartoon. Call this number.’”
So, here’s what happened: first she said, “You should do that,” and I’m like, “Nah. No thanks. I’m a horn player.” I mean, I wanted to be a pro horn player since the time I started. I wanted to play in orchestras and do the symphony thing, and that’s what I was going to do. And I didn’t care. Then I mentioned it to a couple friends, and they’re like, “Are you kidding me?” And I’d done some work in puppet theatres doing voices, but I wasn’t doing puppet work in the theatre for the voice. I got the job as the marionettist, pulling the puppets, and slowly they let me do voices. Not in real time; we recorded all of those. But my friends were really pressuring me to do it, and I ultimately agreed.
So, she found that ad and she’s like, “No, you really should do this,” and I’m like, “Fiiiiine.” I’m the kind of person who goes “fine,” [but] I’m not going to half-ass it, ya know? So, I took any voices I’d done at the puppet theatre, which were just a few, added a couple of my own, typed up a resume, gave them my classical music resume, showed up dressed like a professional on time. And there were definitely some things I’d learned from my training as a musician on how to audition for an orchestra that applied to how to audition for a show. One of the fundamental rules of classical music, when you’re playing, is “do not leave your performance in the practice room,” which just means don’t play so hard, so many times, so much that you left the good take in the practice room. You want to push it, and right when you feel like you’re right, stop playing and save it. And that’s what happened.
When I got the audition, they were moving production from Canada to Texas, and they wanted us to mimic the Canadian cast for vocal consistency. So they stuck us in a room with a videotape player and just clips of twelve different characters by ourselves and a script. We would just watch it, copy the voice, watch it, copy the voice. And I did that for about thirty or forty minutes, and I got through it pretty quickly. I was thirty at the time, and if I hadn’t had the experience of being a musician, I would have probably blown up my voice in the booth and then ruined my audition.
But as soon as my voice started to hurt a little bit, I thought, “Okay, well I’m just going to sit here.” So I just sat there, and what I did was I sat there and watched the stuff over and over after I’d practiced, to save my voice and then just kind of stay mentally idling—mentally hot, ready. So, I knew when I walked in that I was going to be able to perform at my highest potential and hadn’t wasted the performance. I was very surprised that I got Goku because I did a bunch of those spot-on. I know I killed it at Captain Ginyu, but they wanted me for Goku.
I ended up playing King Kai [as well], and then they threw me a bone with Nail, which was nice. I enjoyed that character. I happen to like Namekians a lot. So yeah, when I got the part, I walked into work not realizing Goku was the lead character. And I wasn’t terribly excited, but I was excited, and as I’m walking through the halls, I see all these pictures of Goku everywhere, and I’m going, “Wait a second, that guy looks like the guy I might be playing.” But at the time, I still had Goku confused with Yamcha.
Elise: Yeah, they are pretty similar in appearance.
Sean: Back then, in certain shots, you’d have to see Yamcha’s scar, but if you saw the other side, with the hair, it would confuse you a little bit if you’re not a Dragon Ball fan. And this was the first I’d seen the show. So, we were working on the show for a while before Chris [Sabat] said, “You do realize you’re the main character on this show, right?” and I was like “No! I didn’t know that! That’s awesome!” And the rest is history.
Another reason Goku means a lot to me is that I got divorced early on, so when shit’s hitting the fan for me—like divorce can make you feel—I lose myself inside Goku. Especially Goku. In order to play Goku, there is kind of a beginner’s mind you have to get into. You just can’t be sad about your divorce when you’re playing Goku. You can’t be sad that somebody’s dying. You can’t be sad, you know—I had to voice-match an actress who had died, one time, and it was really hard to fight tears in the booth when you’ve got that going on.
You can’t have your own tears in there, so if you totally commit to the character, you’re just [in Goku voice:] “I’m excited about fighting!” “That’s awesome!” You’re just “Ready to go!” You know? And it would let me escape through Goku, and it’s allowed me to heal myself and explore myself and go through a psychological transformation in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s broadened my horizons in a way that I never could have expected.
Funnily enough, you know, the real fantasy for, I think, any voice actor—which I’m kind of getting that fantasy now on the LEGO show—is I’ve always wanted a Simpsons-like role. In other words, a role I won that’s a pre-lay show, that’s created in America, that is created from the ground-up, that I’ve been the voice from the get-go on. Like Bugs Bunny, or Mel Blanc, or Dan Castellaneta, or any cast member of the Simpsons who had this show that your voice is synonymous with and the first voice to go on this show. I always naïvely treated Goku like that was the case for me, and it wasn’t that I was trying to be disrespectful to Masako Nozawa or any English-speaking actor who played Goku. I just feel like if I do it any less than that, I’d be doing it a disservice.
Why should I treat—and I wasn’t thinking this at the time, but I’ve figured out intellectually that this is what I meant—why should I give Goku less credence because I’m “just” the dub actor? I’m not less than because I’m the dub actor. I’m not less than the guy who plays Homer Simpson because I’m a dub actor. I’m going to treat Goku like any pre-lay guy would treat that show and give my whole life and soul to it, as any actor should. And I’m proud of it. I think it’s paid off artistically. I think Funimation and our dub of Dragon Ball raised the standard for quality of dubs over the last twenty years, particularly Dragon Ball Super. I’ve made the comment to my producer several times that our dub stands up next to any well-polished, pre-lay cartoon made in America. In terms of audio production, the quality of the audio, the special effects, the mix, and animations, which admittedly is a bit difficult to compare as they are two different genres [Editor’s Note: anime vs American animation].
I’m really proud of it, and I’ve taken it probably too seriously, but I don’t regret taking it too seriously. You know what I mean? Because it was the too seriousness of it—had I been any other actor who took it less seriously, I wouldn’t be Goku.
Elise: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Goku and what he means to you. What are your favorite roles outside of Goku?
Sean: Currently, actually, my favorite role I’m doing is the Monkey King in Monkie Kid. I am loving that. I’m going to look back at some of my other credits because I always forget. Some of them are obscure, some of them are popular, etc. So . . . Monkie Kid, Goku of course, Morrison and Jervis in Pokémon, I loved playing in Welcome to the Wayne—I was guest starred as C.C. Scratch, which is a heavy metal singer. Loved playing that. There’s a lot I loved playing, but I’m trying to think of the really good ones. I loved playing Black Doom in Shadow the Hedgehog. Oh, I loved playing Onsokumaru in Ninja Nonsense. And most recently Maeda in Mars Red.
Over the summer, I did this Papa John’s commercial, and I played a jack-o-lantern voice and I got to make up the voice. Really enjoyed playing that. I liked playing Ryu in Shaman King. I’ve liked playing all these thumbs in Thumb Wrestling Federation. I guess I like everything I’m doing! Well, there were some voices I hated doing [laughs]. There’s that. I don’t know if I’ve quit a show for hating a voice . . . no, I haven’t done that yet. I’ve turned down auditions I didn’t want to do.
Elise: Did you hate them because you didn’t like the character or because it wasn’t a good fit for what you wanted to do with your voice?
Sean: It was two things. One: because they made me scream every line and it was painful, and two: the voice I’d come up with was so annoying to my own ear that I didn’t want to listen to myself. I haven’t really quit a role or turned down a role because I thought the script sucked because I’ll find a way to make it fun, and a lot of times they appreciate that so it’s fine.
I got asked to do hentai once and I can’t handle it. I’m not against hentai, you know, I just get so into character. They asked me to get into the booth to do some background voices for it—some moaning for sexy scenes. The beeps started clicking in my ears to start recording and I ran out of the booth. I felt my consciousness sinking into character, and I’m like “I cannot get into this scene with the tentacles and the orifices and the penises. I can’t do it. I’m not that good of an actor, I guess.” Granted, it was like the first two to three years I’d been voice acting, so I was really young and I was kind of trippin’ on the concept of hentai. But I definitely can see the—well, I don’t know if I see the appeal, but I definitely understand—well, I guess I can’t say I understand why people like it, but some can argue that hentai is the Maple Thorpe of the anime world [laughs]. They could argue that [laughs]. I don’t know.
Elise: So, now that we’ve talked about some of your past and current projects, can you tell us a little about your other upcoming projects and about Last Wolf Legion?
Sean: Yeah, so a year or so ago, before the pandemic, I met Garrett Gunn. Actually, the way I—and this is a lesson for all voice actors [laughs]. So here’s the thing: I give voice actors sometimes a hard time for working their game in a way I don’t think they should, which is ultimately not my business. And I’ve got my own opinions, but I find it extremely vexing and annoying when voice actors ask people for parts, or beg people for parts, or pressure people to put them on their show. I’ve never done that and I’m uncomfortable with it, with one recent exception.
Recently at a convention I was hanging out with a friend of mine named Jeremy Clark, and he’s an artist I meet at conventions a lot, and he knew Garrett Gunn and he said, “Hey, my friend Garrett is working on this show, and he’s got Billy Bob Thornton on the cast. Do you want me to see if he wants you to try for it?” and I was like, “Oh, I don’t really do that. I’ll tell you what: would you ask him if it’s okay if I audition for it? Not just ‘put me on your show’?” You know? And I very humbly asked Garrett, “May I please audition for Franklin and Ghost?” through a series of texts through Jeremy because I’m trying to respect Garrett’s boundaries.
Garrett’s like, “We’d love to have Sean!” Now, at the time, I thought the way Garrett responded meant he recognized my name and knew Dragon Ball. So, I asked a bunch of questions, they gave me a bunch of answers. I sent in an audition, Garrett loved it, and then when I finally got to talk to Garrett, he goes, “Yeah, I don’t know who you are. I’ve never watched Dragon Ball. I watch Pokémon.”
And I’m like, “Well I’m in Pokémon!” and he goes, “Really?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I played Lucario and Morrison, and about forty other Pokémon on the show, and a bunch of other characters. I was Jimmy in Pokémon Chronicles. I did a bunch of Pokémon.”
So, then what happened I was at a point in my life where I thought it might be prudent to start investing in things for retirement. I wanted to do some investing. So I was looking for companies to invest in as a producer, and then I was looking for other companies I might invest in just to make money, such as maybe scientific technologies. And Garrett said, “Hey, I’m looking for people to build my company with and I’m offering buy-ins to a percentage of my company.” And I say, “Well what do you want?” And we were talking about it and I say, “Look, what I’m interested in is being a creative, you know, producer-type with whoever I’m working with and owning part of the company and synergistically making awesome shit,” and Garrett’s like, “That’s what I want to do!”
So, through a series of conversations of Garrett and I getting to know each other, working on Franklin and Ghost, we realized we’re a good fit, so I invested in his company. And then, our company was growing in small amounts but nonetheless gaining the attention of another guy Garrett works with, who I also bought into their company as well—Ox Eye Media, which I’m now a board member of. So, that allowed me to get really excited about Franklin and Ghost, which I was already excited about, and that kind of got put on hold, even though we’re going to do it, because we had some other shows we were working on that were getting even more attention.
I’m excited to be working with Garrett because I firmly believe that Garrett is very likely—and I only say “very likely” because I can’t predict the future—but I would gamble a large sum of money, so much so that I did that, to believe that Garrett is going to be the next Matt Groening, the next Justin Roiland, the next whoever made a show and also is in it [laughs]. Garrett has fourteen different properties that all intertwine together, and when I was reading his stuff, I’m like, “This is amazing.”
So, he showed me Familiars, and Familiars is, imagine an adult version of Pokémon set in a Nordic-style universe, and the character you’re bonded to, which is called a familiar, can be killed if you lose. Violently and bloodily with a Nordic-style vibe and feel. That’s a show we’ve already recorded a motion comic for that we’re still mixing. We’re working on Warcorns: Combat Unicorns for Hire, which is about this military group of Warcorns who go into battle, who are chasing these other characters from Franklin and Ghost who are basically slaves trying to escape from the general bad guy. All of this is connected.
So, we just finished our Warcorns radio drama, which is designed for two things, [one being that] it’s designed to give people a very inexpensive motion comic experience. Because with a motion comic, you’ve got the audio, but you’ve still got all the motion for the motion comic, which is still more time-consuming than the audio, and almost as time-consuming as animation, but also significantly less so. So I was telling Garrett—I think Garrett actually thought of it, but I was thinking, “What if we just did the radio drama, and then you can just read the comic book, and then you hear it playing in your ears and that way your eye’s the camera? That way, we can get our cast assigned to it, which is going to be really great for the property, we can bring the characters to life. And then we could also use that as a selling tool to sell an animated series to whomever we’re talking to,” and we’re currently in negotiation with several different companies for all of our properties.
We thought this was a really good idea, so I recorded but never finished mixing Familiars, Warcorns was just released [Editor’s note: Warcorns has since been published and can be purchased here], and I think it turned out spectacularly. I’m really pleased with the cast and how it turned out. And the bottom-line goal for us with Garrett and Last Wolf Legion—which by the way now got absorbed by Ox Eye Media, which kind of gives you a sense of what they feel about Garrett, because Garrett is really the IP guy behind it. I’m just a producer, creative consultant, and head of all the audio, but Garrett is the brainchild who creates all these worlds, and so it’s really his baby. The goal here is to make awesome, amazing animated and live-action shows.
One of our properties we want to make a live-action version of possibly is Cold Dead Hands, which I think is an Evil Dead-style, macabre, magic—it’s hard to describe, but the hands are chopped off the guy’s body and then they’re attached, and they have their own entity—they’re a spirit from ancient times. I can’t describe Garrett’s worlds as well as Garrett, so you’ll have to interview him on it, but he’s a creative genius, and I think we’re going to go places [laughs]. That’s what I think! I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I put my money where my mouth is [laughs]…
We want to give a big “Thanks!” to Sean for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about his experience as a voice actor and his current work and projects. He was very delightful to interview, and we wish him all the best in his new endeavors.
[Interviewee’s note: Sean would like to thank Elise for her incredible patience in dealing with Sean, as he is hard to get a hold of and put off finishing this interview for almost like, a year. I’m really sorry 🙁 ]
What is your favorite Sean Schemmel role? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!