Did you know Seán Schemmel was disappointed to get the role of Goku? Find out what Seán and Chris Sabat have to say about the early years of Dragon Ball Z, in my exclusive coverage of C2E2.
Seán and Chris were guests at C2E2, the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, from April 24–26, 2015, and I was there to cover their events.
The broadcast was streamed live, so if you missed it, you’re out of luck. But as a Dragon Ball historian I have transcribed the entire interview here for posterity.
The Early Years of DBZ
djWheat: Tell me about the casting process for Dragon Ball Z back when it started.
Chris Sabat: Huge casting process. We called in so many people. FUNimation was a tiny company at the time and didn’t have a ton of money, so we had to put ads in the paper, put fliers up in gymnasiums at high schools, and whatever we could do to find people that would agree to be on the show, because no one had heard of anime before. One of the people that came in was Seán.
Seán Schemmel: Yeah, I saw there was an ad in the Dallas Observer, it said, “Wanted: Voice actors for a national cartoon.” My friends said, “You’ve gotta do this. You do great voices.” Because I had done voices my whole life, not as an actor at the time, but I loved playing with voices and doing comedy. But I was playing French horn in an orchestra and thought, ‘Nah, I’ll stick with French horn and play in orchestra.’ So I said no again, but then they finally talked me into it.
But I took it seriously when I decided to do it. I printed up a fake resume to make it look like I had done this before. I made a voice over demo of voices I had done in a puppet theater.
Chris: It looked really legitimate. But here’s the funny part.
When we called Seán and told him he had got the part of Goku, he was disappointed.
He was like, “Oh, man, really? I thought I did really well with my Captain Ginyu audition.”
Seán: Yeah, my Captain Ginyu audition was awesome, and I did not get that part. But Chris said, “Trust me, you’re gonna love Goku.” And he didn’t say any more.
It took me 2 weeks of playing Goku at the studio before one day Chris told me at a critical moment, “You do realize that you’re the lead on this show, right?” I was like, “Oh, really?! Awesome!”
It was a Goku-y moment for me.
Chris: Seán has a lot of Goku-y moments.
Seán: I do. I Goku out a lot. Either at my dog when I’m mad at her (in Goku’s voice), “Stop it!” Although I feel bad afterward. Or my head is completely up my butt, which is 23 hours out of the day.
I’m a big believer in preparation. So when I got the slot to go audition, it was scheduled for a couple weeks after I called them. I went home after school, because I was teaching at a school during the day, and I’d turn on Cartoon Network and watch the existing dubs done in Canada.
The problem was that they were only airing the episodes where Gohan goes to train with Piccolo in the wilderness. So I was thinking, “There’s only two people on this show! A kid and a green dude, and I’m not going to get either of these parts, but alright, I guess I’ll show up.” And there were like 800 characters on the show, and I had to read for 12 of them. And I was disappointed that I got the part of Goku.
Chris: At that time there were so few people that we could find in the Dallas area who were good at this. There was no one experienced in dubbing anime, or dubbing at all, anywhere. So we found Seán, and they end up casting me as Vegeta, and Piccolo, and Yamcha. It was a lucky thing.
Remember, this was 1998. If you wanted to look up a picture you had to let it download overnight. There were no fan sites where you could look up Dragon Ball Z info. All I had was a bag of video tapes. They said, “Go home and watch this.” So I said, “Alright.”
djWheat: In high school I had a foreign exchange student from Japan who brought DBZ tapes to school, and it was my first exposure. And there were a lot of bad guys I thought were good guys, so there were some “Ohhh!” moments.
Chris: It was the same for me. I got there on my first day of work and said, “Oh, so this guy’s Goku?” The producer says, “No, that’s Goten.” I’m like, “Oh, this guy looks just like Goku.” “No, that’s kid Goku.” I’m like, “Oh, who’s that one, is that Goku?” “No. That’s Gohan.”
Seán: I don’t think I understood the hair transformation thing until after a year of recording the role. “Oh, so my hair is going to transform now?” As an actor I was more focused on playing the moment and knowing the character, so the later story wasn’t the focus. We didn’t get a whole script of the story. You record your part of the story separate from everything else, and the director is there to keep everything together through direction. You don’t get a full script where you can read the story, know your emotions and line of story arc. I recorded the bulk of Dragon Ball Z without meeting any other actor.
djWheat: Chris, were you deep in voice acting when you got the roles?
Chris: I had experience doing voice work in commercials, and I was a DJ, but I didn’t have much experience with voice acting. In Dallas there wasn’t a lot going on there.
I was cast on a whim. I played Yamcha and Igor in a test video. I didn’t know what FUNimation was doing. I just came in, they cast me as these two characters. Afterward they said, “You’re kind of pretty good. Would you like to join the cast?”
I thought, “Let’s see? $20,000 a year?
djWheat: Living the dream.
Chris: Yeah. Remember, FUNimation had no employees. Nothing.
Seán: I remember going into one building, and the recording booth was in an office with a conference table, boxes everywhere.
Chris: Yeah, and the microphone was connected to a toaster, connected to a microwave, connected to a humidifier.
Seán: Now it’s state of the art, but at the time they were buying their gear on eBay.
Chris: You mentioned not hearing the original cast. The only cast that we could hear occasionally was the Mexican dub. FUNimation couldn’t get the materials in time from Japan. They were floating on a boat somewhere, I don’t know. So we just had the Spanish dub of Dragon Ball.
Seán: I speak fake Spanish, and to me the Spanish dub sounded like everybody was screaming in the same way, and everybody sounded handsome on the Mexican dub. I listened to it without getting much of it, other than the lip flaps.
Chris: I took away that they changed Chichi’s name to Milk.
Seán: MUCH better.
djWheat: We’ve got Xenoverse here, so let’s play a bit.
Goku Plays Goku
*They load up Dragon Ball Xenoverse. Seán plays as Goku, fighting against Freeza.
Seán: I’m hearing myself, and this is freaking me out.
*Seán plays the game and makes his own battle sound effects while he plays as Goku. He’s never played before, and struggles to figure it out.
Chris: I love the Dragon Ball games, but sometimes I suffer from not being able to complete the tutorials.
I’m really disappointed; I thought you would know how to play this game.
Seán: Argh, I don’t know how to play this game.
djWheat: How much time goes into voicing the games, compared to the episodes?
Chris: It takes about 3 or 4 months total to get the voices done. Because a lot happens with the translations.
Seán: KAMEHAMEHA!!! Kame… Hame… HA!!
Chris: An episode of the show can take 2 and a half days. This game took 3 months. What’s funny is that the amount of voice work that goes into a game is about 15 episodes worth. You have to do all of the battle calls. It’s not just a bit of fighting. You have to do everything.
Seán: You record an episode in real time, where you can rewind and do it multiple times. In a video game your cues per hour go up from 30 to 40 cues to hundreds of cues. You just have a script without video or context.
So as an actor it’s not as enjoyable as doing a show, but it’s more enjoyable afterward because you can control it.
Chris: It’s easier to say, “Hey, check me out in this video game,” rather than, “Hey, check me out in these 291 episodes.”
Seán: Although that’s pretty dope too.
Being Voice Actors
djWheat: I have to imagine you have some amazing bloopers and outtakes.
Seán: We have hours and hours of hysterical outtakes that we’ve been secretly archiving to release them once our contract expires. And I hope Gen Fukunaga is not watching this interview! No, just kidding.
I remember we had our first cast party in 2000, and we had a video tape of a bunch of outtakes. And our producer says (in a Texan accent), “Hey, I heard about that outtake reel, you want to give that to me?” And the engineer gives it to him. “Is this the only copy?” The engineer said yes, but he told me he had his fingers crossed behind his back, so I think the engineer still has that tape.
And it’s especially true while we were dubbing Battle of Gods, because they had a camera rolling the entire time. And sometimes we were talking about the other voice actors! Sometimes complimentary, other times not. So they had to edit that out.
Chris: Seán was talking about his stomach problems half the time. And they had to edit out a lot of footage of the actors looking down at their phones.
djWheat: Can you guys say a few of your famous lines? Or what’s that like to have to do Dragon Ball on the spot?
Seán: Everybody thinks that we sit around talking about Dragon Ball all the time, which we don’t. But Chris has gotten into the habit of texting me as Vegeta. It’s hilarious.
At another convention we’re in a hotel room and he asks, “What floor are you on?” I say, “I’m on the 10th floor.” And he writes back, “Damn you, Kakarot! You’re always besting me, I’m on the 9th floor!”
Chris: (As Vegeta) “One day I will be on the 11th floor!” This weekend I’m on floor 11 and he’s on floor 10 and he says, “Why don’t you come down to my room?” I told him, “No, you come UP to ME! I’m above you THIS time!”
Seán: It’s surreal for me, because it’s been over 15 years, and we don’t do that very often.
djWheat: Is that a sign that maybe Chris is…
Seán: He’s fused with himself. He’s method, man.
So in regard to the lines, I like, “I WILL NOT LET YOU DESTROY MY WORLD!!” from Battle of Gods. And, “ALLY TO GOOD, NIGHTMARE TO YOU!!” And also (as King Kai), “I like big butts, and I cannot lie.” That’s the only rap I know.
Chris: My favorite is in Battle of Gods when Vegeta finally defends Bulma’s honor. “MY BULMAAAAA!!”
A couple of people have asked me to say this “IT’S OVER 9,000!” phrase, or something like that. Apparently it’s part of the show.
And Piccolo, his only job in the show is to tell Gohan what to do, like a dog. “Gohan, go. Gohan, do it. Don’t do it. Stay. Now go, and then stay.”
Seán: And tell them about your theory on Chaozu and how nobody can see him.
Chris: Oh, right. Chaozu is this puppet-like clown character that floats around Tenshinhan, and it’s always been my theory that this character doesn’t exist. Like Tyler Durden. And only Tenshinhan can see him. He says, “Hey, I’ve gotta go get Chaozu,” and everyone is like, “Yeah okay man, whatever.” So in Battle of Gods we had Brina play Chaozu in the booth. Every time there was a group scene where you couldn’t hear her voice clearly she has this long dialogue where she said, “Hey guys, how’s it going.” And then, “I get the weird sense that nobody can hear me.”
Seán: And it’s in there, in the background.
djWheat: That’s a super Easter egg.
Seán: Yeah, one that can get us fired, haha.
djWheat: Not after this many years, no.
Seán: ‘Oh, you guys are still here?!’
Our entire career has been this summation of DBZ, where you think it’s over with, and then the dust clouds disappear and we’re still standing there, battle damaged, and we think, ‘Alright, let’s do it again.’
Seán: Our careers have been just like Dragon Ball, where life imitates art. I remember thinking it’s over, and then, ‘Oh, they’re going to do Kai.’ So I think, ‘Okay, let me dust off my voice.’ And there hasn’t been a year where we haven’t done a game. So people ask us, “What’s it feel like to come back and do Battle of Gods?” Well, I just finished the last volume of Kai, so, you know.
I love playing Goku and being the character, but it’s one of those things where it’s like, “Oh man, more screaming.” So you love it, but it’s a real challenge. And it keeps going up a notch, “Over 9,000!” “Over 10,000!” “Over a million!” You get to the next thing and you think, ‘If they keep bringing it up higher, my vocal chords won’t be able to take it. How can I take it further than this?’ But Dragon Ball keeps taking it further.
By the way, the dub for Resurrection of ‘F’ will be coming out this summer. And this one is spectacular! You know how sometimes the sequels to an awesome movie suck? Well this one is better than the first. Akira Toriyama is on fire. You guys are going to love this movie. I don’t kiss the ass of a creator, so if it sucks, I’d tell you. But I saw it in Japanese and I was just as emotionally moved as if it were in English, and I got to see it sitting next to Masako Nozawa, so that was stellar. I had goose bumps the entire time.
djWheat: Thank you so much for being with us today at C2E2. Big round of applause for these two talents.
Meeting with Niko
After the panel was over, Seán and Chris walked back to their hotel room. But on the way there, they stopped for a special meet and greet with Niko.
Niko met with his heroes, shook their hands, and received autographed copies of Super Saiyan Goku and Vegeta Funko Pop! dolls, and a Resurrection of ‘F’ poster.
All in a days work for the world’s strongest.