Home Interview: Cat Owner Khoi Dao on Love for Voice Acting, Anime and Admiration of Laura Stahl

Interview: Cat Owner Khoi Dao on Love for Voice Acting, Anime and Admiration of Laura Stahl

It’s not often that the anime dubbing community gets a new favorite overnight. That was exactly the case with Khoi Dao, currently one of the best-known names in the anime and gaming scene. Thanks to his friendly approach, stellar reputation as a cat owner, and online banter with fans, fueled by immense talent, Khoi rose to fame in recent years. The voice actor is known as the alchemist knight Albedo in Genshin Impact and Kagetsu in Fire Emblem: Engage, Tetsuya Kuroko in Kuroko’s Basketball, and most recently Kazehaya Shouta in the English dub of the Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You anime. We got a chance to chat with him at the recently held Sakura-Con and of course, we drove into the serious questions right away.

Q: When you watch anime, do you watch sub or dub?
K: I like sub. I watch the sub. If only because I’m acquainted with a lot of the other actors who do dubs. It takes me out of the experience when I’m watching an anime. I’m like, “God damn it, that’s just Kyle,” or “That’s Larry,” or “That’s Frank.” It’s like hearing your friends doing a play. The immersion works better for me when I’m watching subs.

Q: Do you have a favorite anime? What about a favorite voice actor (Japanese or English) you admire?
K: A favorite anime that came to me by circumstance. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kuroko’s Basketball. Kuroko’s Basketball is the anime that will forever have a special place in my heart. If only I’d spent many hours just working on that show. In addition to getting to voice Kuroko, I directed many of the dub and wrote most of the dub scripts for it. Essentially, that math out to about 16 to 20 hours of work per episode of that show. And that show has three seasons and a movie. It became my life, my child, my baby for a year. I’ve developed a strong attachment and connection to that show. My favorite thing about Kuroko, in particular, is this whole thing as a character is he shines from the shadows, right? He helps other people to be the star. He brings out the best in everybody else to form a cohesive team among people who otherwise have their heads too far up their own asses to ever work together. And I think it’s just… it’s such a classic anime, the power of friendship and teamwork, and there’s something really beautiful about that to me. As for my favorite voice actor, I look up to this talented voice actor, Laura Stahl. In addition to being extremely talented, she’s also stunning to behold. I hope I get to meet her one day. (Stahl, who is dating Dao, was in the room with us.)

Q: What are the similarities and differences between voicing for a game and an anime?
K: Voice acting for games affords you a lot more freedom because, with anime, there’s nothing that we can do really to change the animation, barring some extraordinary circumstances where the client from Japan has given us permission to change a frame or two or make this person’s lip flap last one second longer because you need to accommodate a piece of information in the dub. And that’s extremely, extremely rare. For the most part, when you’re dubbing anime, you’re locked into the pre-existing animation, which limits what you can do from an acting perspective and makes it challenging for the writer to include all the information that’s necessary in that particular line while coming within the constraints of the lip flaps. And often, it’s more of a challenge for the writers because they have to choose what information to omit or what information to place later on in the scene. And there’s no right answer; you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t if you change something.

Whereas with video games, you’re not constrained by the timing. With JRPGs, for example, if we’re localizing a JRPG, it’s often just going to be the portrait of the character, and they’re just going to be flapping their mouths while the text waits to be read. You can have a little more room to play with video game projects.

In terms of similarities, they’re both fun. While video games have freedom, there is a challenge to dubbing anime that is fun. It’s like a puzzle almost. It’s like a rhythm game. You’ve got to find a way to deliver the line naturally on time and maybe use some very creative grammatical inventions that the writer had to come up with to make things fit.

Q: Who sounds closest to your normal voice?
There’s this idea that voice acting is about being able to put on a multitude of voices, and some voice actors have that ability, and it’s an awesome party trick. But if there’s no substance behind it, it’s nothing more than a party trick, right? It’s never been one of my talents, per se, and I’ll fully admit to this: I use the same voice for every character I’ve ever portrayed. If they sound different vocally, it’s only because the attitude affects the physical sound of the character, but I’m not actively doing anything to alter my voice. 

For example, Rei Kiriyama from March Comes in Like a Lion has all the wind taken out of him because what does he have to live for except for this stupid Japanese chess game that pays his bills, right? Kagetsu has had one too many cups of coffee, and that’s just the shifter in the energy levels that come with their respective characters. I’m not doing anything physically or intentionally to alter my voice. All of my characters sound like me, depending on their mood.

Q: If you had to voice like from a franchise that you love, like video game anime, and if you had to choose a favorite character that you would want to possibly voice as well, who would you want to choose?
K: I’m a greedy boy, and I want to say all of them. One franchise that I love, which is the franchise that sent me down this path, is Persona. Persona 3 Portable specifically was my first ever Persona game, and it came to me at a difficult time in my life. It was a revelation, a journey of self-discovery, and it was the first game that instilled within me the dream to become a voice actor because it seemed like the people playing this game were having a lot of fun and they got to make money doing it. That sounds freaking awesome. But yeah, if they ever make a remake of Persona 4 Golden, I will take anything, any bone they throw at me. I will take any role for real.

© Nintendo / INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS. Fire Emblem and Nintendo Switch are trademarks of Nintendo.

Q: Among all the characters you’ve voiced, who do you think has resonated with you the most?
K: Goodness, it’s like asking me to pick a favorite child; it’s very unfair to all the other ones. I mostly play Fire Emblem for the waifus and husbandos. I don’t get too deep into the story. Once I S rank with the person of my choosing, I drop the game. But in Fire Emblem, Laura Wetterstedt was the lead in Fire Emblem: Engaged, and I was one of the romanceable characters. The moment I made us kiss, it was over.

But in Fire Emblem: Engaged, I play a delightful little fantasy Asian called Kagetsu of Volusia, and his character is this awkward golden retriever Prince boy from fantasy Asia who is in this new foreign land, and he’s trying to make friends the only way he knows how, by battling them. And everyone is like, “Oh? Wait? What? Who are you?” It’s very similar to my own story, having been a foreigner for a lot of my life and having trouble finding points of connection with each new civilization I become a part of. Every single character is a brilliant opportunity to play pretend, but with Kagetsu, it didn’t feel like pretending. It feels really good when you feel like your performance is earnest and true, and that was my experience with Kagetsu. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to voice him.

Q: What do you enjoy the most during your creative process? What about the most challenging?
Sometimes studios have snacks, and sometimes the people in the studios bring their dogs to work, and I think that’s delightful. 

The serious answer is I don’t think I have to explain to anybody here what a gift it is to make a living out of storytelling. It truly is an amorphous thing, especially during tax time. To describe that job to someone at a mixer or something, “What do you do?” “Oh, I do voices for cartoons and video games.” “What? That’s awesome!” And it truly, truly is the obvious part. However, the part that not many people have the opportunity to behold is how even that can lead to burnout sometimes. Again, I’m very grateful for every single opportunity I’ve ever received. Work is work, though, and it does weigh on you. And it is very difficult to find someone to empathize with you on that level outside of a fellow actor. And even among actors, we all work at different rates. It really doesn’t matter how talented you are, but this vocation draws a lot of competitive people, it’s either, “Oh, you’re working too much, boohoo,” or like, “What? No, man, that sounds like so much fun, you’re tired? Wild! Having fun!” But, you know, it’s difficult to relate to someone. But to me, ultimately, it’s a small price to pay to get to do what I do.

Q: What do you think are the biggest issues voice actors are facing today?
K: The most recent hullabaloo is all the people who cut our checks are trying to replace us with AI. Yeah, that is the big thing. And I don’t want to sit here and say that, “Oh yeah, AI sounds like dog s***,” because it doesn’t. A lot of it sounds pretty convincing nowadays. And it doesn’t have to be spectacular. It just has to be good enough for people to package and try selling it. So that’s where we’re at currently, and it’s probably the biggest threat to anyone who has aspirations of becoming a voice actor. Why would I pay another human when I can have a couple of prompts on a computer and get what I wanted for free? That’s been the biggest barrier to entry for many new aspiring voice actors, and it’s been a headache in contract negotiations for actors working currently. But I have faith in anime consumers to realize that quality matters, and we appreciate these stories so much because of the humanity behind them. Anime fans, I believe in you, and I’m counting on you.

Q: Are there any genres of video games or anime you would want to lean into for sports anime or horror?
Sports anime are fun, especially when they don’t take themselves too seriously and are goofy. Kuroko’s Basketball is literally just teenagers who have superpowers, and they decide to use them for basketball. But oh man, I like my favorite aspects of JRPGs, in particular dating Sims and romance mechanics, because falling in love is just so much fun. It’s such a yummy feeling, especially if you get to be the person pretending to be falling in love with somebody else. Those are the most… I always love to ham it up whenever I get to record those scenes, and I never feel I get enough opportunity to do that. 

Fire Emblem Engaged was a wonderful opportunity, if only because I had to pretend to fall in love with my current partner before we were dating. Recently, I’m from the anime From Me to You, I got to voice Kazehaya, and he’s a breath of fresh air. He’s so dreamy, but he’s not like the traditional hot guy you’re supposed to lust after. You fall in love with him for how earnest, kind, and straightforward he is, and that was a really interesting take on that genre to me. What I’m hungry for most is a romanceable character in a video game or a heartthrob in shojo anime. Those are fun. It’s fun to be oblivious and stupid and cute.

Q: How did you get into anime? What Inspired you to be a voice actor?
K: Oh man, let’s see. I guess it’s interesting that, being a child of a single mother, your television was doing most of the raising of you. I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, for a lot of my early upbringing, where the language of instruction was French. That meant French for me, not English. My mom was finishing up her doctorate at the time, so I found myself just watching a lot of television. And there was this delightful little show that came on at 8:00 every morning called Pokémon, which was my best friend for many of my early years. And it just snowballed from there.

What I’ve always really liked about anime is the art style. I’m a big fan of stylization and strong choices, and there was just something very yummy to the eyeballs about anime that I liked. I’d share some titles, but I’m too embarrassed outside of the very vanilla Pokémon. The seed was sowed by Pokémon, but it always felt like, you know, a pipe dream, as someone from a very traditional Asian upbringing where any aspiration outside of, like, being a doctor or something business-related never felt realistic.

But I had the wonderful opportunity to attend college in Los Angeles, where dreams are made. One summer, because I decided to stay in school for the summer to take extra courses because I’m a nerd and I want to finish early, I found myself with nothing to do. And Anime Expo was just down the street. I figured, why not? This was back when a ticket to Anime Expo was like $50. Now it’s like your legs, liver, and firstborn child will get you like a sandwich at one of the food trucks. I figured, you know what? I like anime. I got 50 bucks to spare. I won’t eat this week. Why the freak not, right? I give myself a badge, I show up, and this delightful little organization has a booth there this year, and they’re doing open auditions for dubbing. And I’m like, “That sounds fun. I like anime. I like acting. I like attention. This is perfect.” I went, and I did their thing. I bombed because I had no experience. But they were selling classes, like, “Hey, I want to be a voice actor. I want to make this work.” And they were like, “Cool, you have disposable income.” And I said, “Yes, yes, I do. You can have all my money.” They told me to take some of these classes, and we’ll see what happens. And I did, and it took a while, but I eventually exercised my acting muscle enough that they gave me my first opportunity, and the rest is history.

© Karuho Shiina / SHUEISHA © DNDP, VAP, Shueisha, Production I.G

Q: From all the characters you have voiced, who would you be friends with in real life?
K: Gosh, I voice a lot of awkward beans, being an awkward being myself. I feel like we’d all be too oblivious to know that the other wants to be friends. See, I’m very much drawn to kind people, to honest people, people I can trust. And at the same time, I voice a lot of assholes; this is quite the quandary. Wolt from Fire Emblem Heroes is a sweetheart. Albedo from Genshin is also sweet, but he’s a huge nerd, and I have to fight off the temptation to shove him into a locker every 5 seconds. Poor Albedo, right? Yeah, we get it; you’re an alchemist.

Let’s see, Herb Cookie is a sweetheart; he’s Barbara from Cookie Run Kingdom. Kazehaya would be unbearable to me, I think, just because I don’t trust anyone who’s… yeah, “no way, what are you up to? There’s no way you’re that nice!” Except Kazehaya. I know Kazehaya is a super nice person, but if I were to meet someone like that in real life, I’d have my guard up. Kagetsu, a golden retriever, is a dumb, sweet, strong guy.

Q: Which of the characters you voiced before would you take in a fight?
K: Probably the teenager with depression. I could probably beat him up. Let’s see, Rei Kiriyama from March Comes in Like a Lion, a sweet boy, doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. In a physical altercation, I would probably have the upper hand. You know, the buff Mice from Demon Slayer? They’re really buff, but they’re also mice. I feel like I have a chance. Yeah, like if they’re unarmed, I have like a solid 40% chance of winning. If they had their swords, they could stab me in the ankles. Yeah, the mice and the teenage boy.

Q: When you get a new role, do you listen to the Japanese voice, or do you follow the script and go with your own creative portrayal?
K: We have no choice but to listen to the Japanese preview. The way anime dubbing works is, let’s start with the audition, for example. Traditionally, your agents will get an email from a studio saying, “Hey, we’re about to work on the dub of this awesome new anime. Here’s a clip of 30 seconds of the original Japanese with the original Japanese voices. And here’s a script to go along with it, that’s the audition script.”

You watch the clip, try to get a vibe of the tone, emotion, and just the general sense of the character, and then give your best interpretation of it in English. And the person who interprets it the best gets to have the role. Not many people know this, but the producers and the Japanese side of things have a huge say in who gets picked. Often, they have the final say. Some studios are so trusted by the Japanese client that they get to make that decision, but usually, that’s rare.

And it’s burned; the Japanese producers end up picking a lot of the English voices. Your audition often has to appeal to that sensibility, which isn’t always the same as the sensibilities of the ears of someone in the Western world, for example.

Once you get the role, you’ve got the role, and you’re going in for your first session as, what’s his face, from what the f***, the anime. The way that works procedurally is, okay, we’re starting on episode 1, line 1, which happens in this scene. Here’s a preview of it in Japanese. You’re going to hear beep, beep, beep, and then they do the line in Japanese. And then, once you hear those three beeps, it’s your turn to do the line in English.

We’re always molding our performances after the Japanese performance to a certain degree. Now, there are differences in how we express things in English versus how we express things in Japanese. Japanese, as you may know, is, for the most part, a very direct and literal language, whereas, in English, we tend to code things a little more.

Sometimes, in writing, other times, there needs to be a little more subtlety, or maybe we have to get a little bigger if something feels awkward to the American ear, even though it’s said a certain way in Japanese. We often have to localize it to make more sense to the ears of someone listening in the West.

Sometimes, the director makes those calls, and then they’re approved by the person in Japan. If the person in Japan feels they’d rather preserve 100% of what was done in the Japanese, they get to say, “Hey, can you do this line again?”

We do what we can to stay true to the original Japanese. Sometimes, we feel like we need to make changes, and every time, those changes have to be approved by the people in Japan. Sometimes, they ask for changes. After all, they have the foresight to know, because they’ve been doing this for a while, that something that makes sense in Japanese might not make a lot of sense in English, and that’s always appreciated.

Q: Can you share some of your memorable or funniest experiences while voice-acting?
The mind that I’m allowed to speak about is a recording for Albedo in his character trailer. He’s an artist, right? He likes to draw, and he talks about this painting he just made in his character trailer. And in the script lies the word “brushstroke.” It is not two separate words; it is one word, “brush-strokes,” which is really, really difficult for me to say. I can’t necessarily say that slow in the script because it’ll sound really stupid. What ended up happening was I did a bunch of different takes, and it went up to the dozens to get to an iteration of my pronunciation that was good enough for the trailer. 

And if you go back and watch it and pay attention, you will find something weird about that saying “brush-strokes.” Another incident that, funnily enough, is also about my struggle with the English language in general was when I was recording Detective Pikachu. So, for the longest time, I thought that’s how you pronounce the word “laboratory” (“lobortory”) — it’s not how you pronounce the word “laboratory” to look at me, alright? I’m not entirely stupid. In the UK, it’s a fun way, but no, here they say “laboratory” (“LAB-uh-tory”). My first time learning this was in front of the Pokémon Company when they were like, “Why can’t this kid say this word? Did we hire someone that can’t speak English?” English, like he’s just from somewhere else, English is new to him. And I was like, “No, please.” But in that instance, I could not get the word right, no matter how often you let me do it. And part of it was, yeah, I was kind of s******* my pants in front of people from the Pokémon Company, so that was very embarrassing. 

Q: You’ve mentioned online about how you’ve traveled a lot and know a few languages. Can you tell us a bit about that? Has this helped you in your career in some way?
I feel like the piece of advice that is the most difficult to assimilate for people who come to these conventions and ask, “How can I become a voice actor?” They always expect, “Oh, take this class, do you connect with this such person,” or whatever. But the most challenging piece of advice to give and the most difficult piece of advice to put into action is to take some time to cultivate an interesting life, an actual life. You’ll find that the people who make the best actors’ performances are measured by how earnest and believable they are in their performances. And what helps with that is to be able to draw from real experiences.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel a lot as a child due to the circumstances of my upbringing. I’ve spent much time following around my mother as she completed her education worldwide. She spent a year in France, five years in Switzerland, and seven years in Singapore. And those are multicultural places. Singapore, for example, is such a melting pot of different ethnicities and religions, and as a society, puts a very, very big focus on everybody getting to know each other and getting along. 

I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to draw from those experiences in the booth, and that’s why Kagetsu from Fire Emblem Engaged was such a delight to play. It felt like a mirroring of my own experiences, and it was very satisfying.

Drawing from Khoi Dao for Anime Corner

Big thanks to Khoi for taking the time out of his busy Sakura-Con schedule to talk to us! You can find him on X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, and Instagram.

Interview Assistance: Carla Carreon

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