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The AFA Podcast Interview: Merit Leighton (Ride Your Wave)


On The AFA Podcast this time Elvie Mae Parian got a chance to talk to voice and screen actor Merit Leighton (She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power,  Alexa and Katie) who plays Hinako in the English dub of Masaaki Yuasa's new film Ride Your Wave.  Ahead of the Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital release of the film from GKIDS Films and Shout Factory on August 8, they discuss the film as well as Merit's career, love for anime and why she loves voice acting!






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Interview Transcript



Elvie Mae Parian: My name is Elvie Mae Parian and I am a contributor to Animation for Adults, a site dedicated to delivering news, reviews, and all sorts of things having to do with animation. Animation for Adults believes that animation is a limitless medium that is for everyone and has something to offer for everyone.
 

Ride Your Wave is an anime film directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Essentially a girl meets boy story, it follows a young woman who has moved to an oceanside town to fulfil and indulge in her passion for the water and surfing. She meets a firefighter, the two fall in love, and tragedy, unfortunately, ends up reshaping their lives and raises questions about their future.
 

The film debuted at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival last year in 2019, and later premiered in Japan not long after. It finally later had a theatrical release in North America earlier this year in February, distributed by GKIDS. And now, Ride Your Wave is gearing up for a home and digital release pretty soon in August.
 

Today I will be talking with Merit Leighton, an actress who has provided her voice talents to Ride Your Wave, for the character, Hinako Mukaimizu, our central protagonist. 

So thank you so much for having this chat with me—from a distance! (laughs)




Merit Leighton: (laughs) Thank you for having me! 

E: Yup! Can you talk to me about your career? Where did you start and how did you get to where you are today? What brought you into the world of voice acting—’cause I know you previously had some live-action roles—and y’know, now that you have reached this point to provide your talent in dubbing a role in an anime feature, can you talk to me about that?



M: Well, I’ve been acting for around 11 years now, it’s been a while—



E: Wow, wow.


M: Yeah. I started really young because I was just—well, I thought that the TV was a little magic universe in a box. I didn’t think it was actually like—like, that people I knew could be on TV. I didn’t know that you could be in the TV. So the minute that I found out that I could be on TV, I wanted to be on TV. I wanted to be in the magic box!



And so I asked my mom and I was like, “Mooom! I need to be in the magic box!” She’s just like, “Uhhh, no. I know what goes on in the business. You’re too young. No.” And my dad was just like, “Well, maybe if you just believe it’ll happen—” I was like, “I don’t know how to do that!” I’m like what?—5! I was like 5. And then we got a call from—I think it was an agent saying that they wanted to represent me because my mom’s a photographer and they found my photo on her website of me being all sassy and weird, sticking my tongue out, and being a complete dork. And they thought that I was potential for their management and their agency. And ever since then I’ve been acting. And I’ve been loving it. And all the time I’m just like, “Are you sure you wanna do this? Are you done?” But then I’m like, “Nope! This is what I wanna do!” And my family is super supportive.



I did a lot of commercials when I first started out because I had so much energy especially when I was a kid. I was like bouncing off the walls. And so, that was a really good point—it was a thing that everyone gravitated towards me when I did commercials because the high energy, just, yeah. But then, I got my first voiceover role—I’ve done a lot of on-camera—but my first voiceover role since we’re talking about voiceover—and I LOVE voiceover!— 





E: (laughs)



M: I got my first voiceover role as Lucinda the Witch on Sofia the First, when I was around 9. 9 and a half-ish. And, oh my gosh, I loved it so much! I got to work with Sam—Sam Rijal, Ri—is it Ree-gal or—



E: Ree-gal, I believe, yes!



M: Yeah, Ree-gal. I just remembered when I called him Sam when I was a kid.



E: (laughs)



M: Um, but he was so nice! And I got to meet Ariel Winter and see her do Sofia’s voice. ‘Cause I was lucky enough to be in an episode where they were doing one of those big cast readings. ‘Cause usually in voiceover, you don’t meet many of the other cast members. And you don’t even usually hear their voice, unless it’s like a very—a scene where you have to be very on top of each other. Like the Lucinda the Witch episode that I was a part of—I played Lucinda the Witch—and I needed to be able to play off the others. And so I got to record with Diamond and Isabella and Ariel—we were all together and it was really fun! I’ve been in love with voiceover ever since!



Actually, I saw a picture—my mom took a picture of me through the window of the booth. I was like, 9. In the picture my smile is just so wide while I was recording. I just loved doing it so much. Ever since then, I’ve been addicted, I swear, to voiceover. And I’ve been into anime since like, 2012. So I’ve been loving and watching anime for years. One of my number one goals in life was to be a character in an anime. And do a dub—or whether it’d be the Japanese original version or a dub, I just wanted to be a part of the anime industry somehow because it’s inspired me so much in my life and honestly it really shaped my likes and interests and everything. I just love anime so much!



So when I got the call I booked Hinako—because I think I auditioned for two, two of the roles—I mean I just started auditioning for my anime now, and I’m really happy about it. And I was so shocked that we even got a response for this one. I was just like, “Oh my gosh! What? This movie is so amazing!” Right? It’s so incredibly stunning I cried so much when I watched it. And my mom was just like, “Umm, have you read your email? You need to read this!” And I was just like, “What is it?!” She’s just like, “You just got an email you booked ‘Hinako’, which one is that?” And I was just like, “WHAT?! No! You’re lying!” (laughs)



I was like no! You go it wrong! It must be a mistake! It has to be a mistake! You just read it wrong. And she’s just like, “No?”, and she read the whole thing to me. And I was just like, “Let me read it.” And so I read it like four times—



E: Uh-huh?



M: And I still couldn’t believe it! I was like, in shock. And I was crying (laughs) ‘cause I was so happy. ‘Cause it’s not only my first anime role, it’s a movie about water which is something I’ve loved my whole life. I love the ocean. And water. And swimming. I just loved it since I was a little kid. And for it to be about the ocean, and for me to be able to sing, AND it’s the lead—my brain was exploding!

So yeah, I mean. I’ve been doing it for 11 years, so I skipped over a lot of things but that’s kinda how I got to where I am right now. It’s pretty crazy. I’m really lucky. 





E: So it sounds like this film kinda checked off a lot of boxes for you, in a way? (laughs)



M: Oh no, yeah! For sure, I’m going to reevaluate my life’s bucket list now! Like, oh my gosh! It’s so incredible. To be able to work with Stephanie and Michael—like oh my gosh! Stephanie Sheh and Michael Sinterniklaas—oh my gosh. They’re—see I can say Sinterniklaas but I can’t say Riegel?! Oh my gosh.



E: (laughs) It’s fine!



M: Oh my gosh, they’re so amazing. Michael was so nice. He helped us set up everything because it was recorded remotely at home. In my home studio. Which is just my closet—our closet in our house we modified to become a studio. We put like, foam on the walls and filled it all with our giant stuffed animals that we used as padding. So it’s just a stuffed animal closet basically. Everywhere. And blankets everywhere to deafen the noise. And we had to like stick my iPad up the wall and he was just helping us get everything set up technical wise and he was just so nice.



And I was like, just so excited, like oh my gosh, ‘cause he’s done so many things that I have watched and he’s so talented and I’m so blessed to be able to work with these people. And having Stephanie be the voice director was just like, “OH MY GOD!”, because Sailor Moon was my first anime I’ve ever watched, and so it’s like all coming full circle.



‘Cause, I also watch Osomatsu-san and Jyushimatsu is my favorite sextuplet, Todomatsu is my second favorite because he’s cute and pink. But Jyushimatsu is like—I feel like I am him.



E: (laughs)



M: —because he always is happy, and always smiling even when it’s a sad moment. And like, awkward. And I relate to that. So yeah me and my sister each say that we are Ichimatsu and Jyushimatsu cuz we’re best friends and we’re also related and my sister is really like, emo. And I’m like, super optimistic. And so we say that we are like each other.



But yeah—I said, oh my gosh! I’m doing a lead in an anime film where I get to sing and I’m working with Jyushimatsu and Sailor Moon! What the heck?!



E: (laughs) Yeah! That is really overwhelming, and then you’re like the main character—there’s so many layers to this that, y’know—



M: Yeah!



E: This is such an exciting time for you. Y’know, such a pivotal moment in your life, and like you said, I don’t know, “I gotta go back through my goals—”



M: (laughs)



E: “Reevaluate.” (laughs)



M: Oh for sure! I mean I identify as a fangirl, like a fangirl “connoisseur”, like y’know—



E: (laughs)



M: But I try to be respectful. But I am very deep into the things that I love, and I love them very deeply. So it just feels like, um, what, after 7 years of doing voiceover? It’s just (sighs), it’s been so amazing. But yeah! It was a lot of lines as well. It was crazy! It was so much fun.



E: Can you talk a little bit about how the process when it comes to dubbing anime is pretty much kind of different compared to normal voiceover? Can you talk a little about that—



M: Oh yeah!



E: And share other stories behind the booth?



M: No yeah, for sure! It was a lot different—a lot more different than I expected. Because you think, “They’re both voiceovers, so they gotta be similar!” And I mean, I guess in that way they are similar? They’re both voiceover, right? And you both need the same kind of capabilities to be able to do it. You have to be able to do the voice consistently and be able to act restrictly through your voice acting, which is the same kind of thing. But, the way you go about it is so different and I didn’t even know until I got this role that how different it was.



Dubbing anime is kind of a lot like ADR in Western animation that I’ve done, where you see the picture, and you have to match the picture, and they already have a read in mind. ‘Cause in normal—well not normal—but Western voiceover you get to create the character from the ground up and there’s no animation to go off of. It’s just your read that inspires the animation. Right?



E: Right!







M: A line that is written can go any direction. So if it’s like, something that’s just like saying um, “Hey, excuse me!” it can be like or it can be like, (loud “Hey, excuse me!”), or like, (harsher “Hey, excuse me!”), or (annoyed “Hey, excuse me!”) Right? There’s like a whole bunch of ways to say sentences! And intonation changes everything, especially in English, right?



So it’s like, none of those reads would be, quote unquote, wrong, when you’re doing it to know animation, like when recording. But it could be something completely different than what the voice director had in mind but they actually like it more. So they decide to keep it. It’s just like, “Oh, that’s a really interesting choice! So we’re gonna keep it.” Right?



But in anime, the picture is already there. Right?



E: Mm-hm.



M: So you can’t stray too far from the original emotion that was being felt in that line. And I understand. We really want to preserve the original film in the new language. So you have to capture the original performance’s emotion without trying to recreate it. Because—Stephanie Sheh has taught me a lot, especially after recording for hours every day for like, 3 weeks. I got to learn a lot from her and the thing that stuck with me really the most—one of the things that stuck with me a lot was—her saying like, “You need to try not to do result-based acting.” And that basically means you can’t act trying to get your voice to sound a certain way, you can’t act like, “Oh I need to make this part sound sad, and this part—”, and get your voice to do the right thing. You have to feel that emotion truly, to get that emotion to come across. Because it’s almost like you’re trying to fake it? And it sounds not as genuine, and it sounds like you’re just trying to copy the Japanese read, but emotion doesn’t necessarily translate with an exact copy of a read throughout language.



I was like, “Oh my gosh...that’s so true!” And I hadn’t been doing that entirely—I try to give my own flair to it. But as someone who is learning Japanese—and I could understand a substantial amount of the original Japanese film—the anime nerd in me was like, “I need to preserve EVERY single breath and EVERY single thing needs to be perfectly on time and I have to match the lips and the timing of every line, perfectly right!” So I was just focusing way too much on that and not focusing on the emotions. So just getting to focus on the original emotion and REMEMBERING the original read, and not try to copy it and just try to follow that emotion was something new. Because I never had something I could possibly copy from before.



Like voice doubles are obviously a different situation—you wanna copy the original read of something. But with anime, you have to try to not get in your own head too much about it, which I never really had a problem with but it was really, REALLY fascinating to learn about. It’s much more different than I thought.



E: Right yeah, there’s like this tricky balance between preserving the initial intent with the source or—y’know, at the same time, as making sure the performance makes sense or reads correctly—



M: Yeah!



E: For this new audience, this potentially new audience you’re performing for. An English-speaking audience. So it definitely is an ongoing struggle, I definitely get that. (laughs) Especially when it comes to—yeah, you wanna respect what the material is trying to portray, what the original creators wanted to do, what the original writers and actors wanted to do. But at the same time, now that you have this added layer of like, doing all of this, in a way it’s like your own interpretation and adaptation of what those characters are supposed to do.



M: Yeah! And also, Stephanie might have like a read—like a SPECIFIC read in mind for this, a certain line or a certain scene. And I could have gotten in—there’s not very many, just a few lines that I had a different direction I was going with—not like a clear direction with the read but with the emotion I was feeling. She was just like, “No, you need to be more—”, you need to have more like, not-freaking-out-panic, but, I-need-to-get-out-of-here-panic.



It was really fascinating to learn that and being able to learn to take direction perfectly. I try to be as good as I can with taking direction and ask for different ways it’s being said so I fully understand what they’re trying to go for. But when it’s something so specific when it already has a picture, it needs to be right or else it can feel off, when you sync it up to the picture.



Some lines we would have to—she was just like, “I want it to go this way!”, and I was just like, “Whoa! I never even thought about going that way, but that’s so much better than what I had in mind.” And it was just really, it was so eye-opening, honestly. It was such a learning experience for me.



E: So there’s the um, y’know, the recurring love song in the film that becomes this sort of, very important storytelling piece throughout Ride Your Wave. It’s just this poppy love song that Hinako and Minato sing together and find a kinship together. It's sung QUITE a lot. It's sung quite a lot, right? (laughs) So, what were some of the things, such as that, that you had to do for this film that were very noteworthy or memorable to you, or were there other things going on that you recall during the voiceover process behind Ride Your Wave that stood out to you? And to the best of your ability without giving away too many heavy spoilers, I would say. (laughs) But yeah, like, what stood out to you in what you had to do for this film?



M: Well, singing obviously—I love singing! My first voiceover role for Sofia the First—I had to sing for as well. So singing and voiceover have gone along together with me a lot. Obviously for not all of my roles, like for Frosta, but for some of them, they had singing. So to be able to do singing in this role was amazing! Especially since the song is really great and I love the Japanese version AND the English version—I actually LOVE the English version’s lyrics. But I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the English version. I don’t know when this is coming out but, I don’t want to spoil the English lyrics.



I loved singing those first few lines, like the, “Kimi ga nagameteiru—”, but in English, obviously. And being able to sing it in a whole bunch of different ways—like some are really distraught, and some are really like, happy, and some are panicked, right? So being able to sing with different emotions is really, REALLY fun.



And I LOVE doing cute roles. It’s like one of my favorite things. To do cute noises.



E: (laughs)



M: So anything that has like a, (confused noise), or, or anything that’s like a weird, uh, “effort” or noise or panic noise. Like when she drops something she’s just like, (panicked noise), right?!



E: Right!



M: Like I love it! It’s so much fun! So anything that has efforts in it is always fun. The swimming efforts were fun. I also got to do—I got the pleasure of doing young Hinako as well as the grown-up Hinako you see for most of the film. I had to do young Hinako, as well. So I got to the cute baby Hinako efforts which were really fun. ‘Cause I love being—I love playing really young characters. It’s so much fun to do sweet voices for them.



But yeah, one of my favorite things to record was the car scene—I don’t want to spoil too much—but the car scene with Minato was really fun. So I just got to be super chill, and kind of funny, and a little bit romantic—like first date awkwardness.



E: Right, right.



M: And it was really sweet, I loved doing that. And I also loved doing the song—but I’m not gonna spoil anything about the song. But it’s not really one scene or one thing but I really, really loved doing the song. It was one of the last things we did—I think it was the last thing we did. And it was just so nice cuz I got to hear Joey’s voice—he’s great, he places Minato—and I hadn’t really heard his voice all that much because I think he started recording after I did? I mean I did get to hear a little of his voice at the very end once we kind of caught up to each other and we were at the same place in the script. And so I got to hear a few lines here and there which was really nice because I had someone to play off of which is always good. ‘Cause then you can make sure the reads are going together—of course Stephanie is always on top of that. But it’s really good to hear it yourself, too.



But he had recorded the song first, so I got to sing along with him, which was really fun. Even though he wasn’t in the booth and he wasn’t actually there I got to sing along with his recording and play along with his funny jokes and his laughs and cute little details he put in his read. I got to go along with those ideas and come up with new ones. And it was really fun, yeah!



It was kind of crazy for Stephanie though because it was a little bit off-sync—my singing from his. (laughs)



E: (laughs)



M: We’re recording remotely. And so she’s just like—he starts like, “Kimi ga—”, and then I go, “Kimi ga—”, like a whole beat and a half off. And she can’t even tell I’m in sync until she finishes syncing them together. But yeah, it was still really fun. I loved doing it. 


Lu Over The Wall



E: So Masaaki Yuasa is kind of a known name, especially to huge, HUGE anime fans—



M: Yeah!



E: Maybe to much older anime fans. And to many others otherwise in the States, a guest episode he contributed to Adventure Time was probably their first taste of the sort of work he does. And so to speak, Ride Your Wave has been commented as one of, quote unquote, like his more “normal” works (laughs)



M: (laughs)



E: Were you familiar with his stuff prior to this film? And can you just talk to me about your other anime interests and even Western animation interests?



M: Well, I’m a huge animation nerd. I watched animation while I was growing up like every day.I watched, even children’s programming. I watched like Disney Junior, Nick Jr.all of the children’s animation channels, ‘till I was like, 12. And that’s when I found anime. (laughs)



E: Yeah! There’s like a lot to appreciate, from all sorts of ages.



M: I actually love children’s animation as well, so I love that whole world as well. I feel like the reason I was put on this Earth is to make people smile, and happy, and bring people joy. Whether that’d be through cryinggetting out their emotions through crying. Or laughing or whatever.



But yeah, I love animation. And I’ve heard of Masaaki Yuasa before, because I’ve heard of Lu Over theWall—which is a great film. I watched it and it’s actually so pretty. And I love Lu!



E: Yeah! (laughs)






M: I watched the English dub because I especially wanted to hear Michael and Stephanie’s performances. And they were really good, and I just (sighs)—I mean I—I liked dubs before—I mean the first anime I watched was Sailor Moon, the English dub, like the original Sailor Moon English dub. And I watched Sailor Moon Crystal. And all that. But yeah, I’m finding an even new appreciation for dubs just cuz it’s hard work!



E: Definitely.



M: And I understood it was hard work before, but now that I actually have gotten an opportunity to actually do it, which I’m so blessed to have, I realize how hard it is. It’s really difficult. I’m so impressed by all the dub artists out there who do English dubs and of course the original Japanese artists, voiceover artists who do that as well.



But Masaaki Yuasa’s work is absolutely beautiful and I love his stylized approach to things. I wanna watch The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl. Was it the right title?



E: Yeah!



M: I really wanna watch it.



E: Yes, it’s definitely a good one, too. I would say.



M: It looks absolutely stunning—I’ve seen the trailer. I like to do a lot of research before I audition for something.



E: Right!



M: So when I got the booking for this, I watched a whole bunch of videos about Masaaki Yuasa’s work and I watched previous clips of films that he’s worked on. And I just really wanted to capture that feeling that he brings. Even though this is his most “normal” film, it still has his touch that makes it very signature to him. Which is really, really unique and awesome. So I’m really glad to be a part of especially—I’m just—he’s honestly an anime movie legend, to put it very short. Because I mean, Lu Over the Wall is a stunning film. I think that Ride Your Wave is also very beautiful, I cried whenever I watched it. 







E: From here on out, how do you see your career evolving? Are you interested in focusing again on doing on-screen work or just voice acting? Or even both? Are you seeking to balance the two worlds? Or are you interested in exploring even something entirely new at some point?



M: Well, I love all forms of acting so I’m up for anything, really. I mean I’ve been doing on-camera, my whole life—well not my whole life, but my acting career I’ve been mostly on-camera. And voiceover came a few years later, once I was, y’know, old enough to read a script on my own. (laughs)



I mean I LOVE voiceover. And I love on-camera too, but especially with the current situation, like, voiceover is just so amazing—and you can literally be anything in voiceover. I think that freedom and incredible creativity—like you can be a bird, or a slug, or a squirrel, or a giant monster, or a superhero—literally anything is possible in animation. And I think that’s why I get so drawn to it because I love fantasy. And I love being able to do character voices and things like that. And I love doing on-screen. But I feel I really wanna do more anime—cuz obviously I’ve been an anime fan for a very long time—and this role was like a dream role for me. So honestly, I hopefully can do more anime because it was so much fun. And I want to do more voiceover and on-camera work once this whole situation comes down.



But I just had the new season of Alexa & Katie, an on-camera show I just finished. The last season just came out a few weeks back. So if you wanna check that out, that’s cool! And also, my other animated show, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, where I play Frosta—one of the Princesses of Power. Also just had their final season come out on Netflix. So yeaaaah.



E: Exciting!

 


M: A lot of things—a lot of my projects are all coming out at this point, so it’s pretty crazy.



E: It’s like a flood of like…just ...(laughs)



M: Yeah, yeah! I can’t say anything, I can’t say anything (groans)—



E: I know it’s you have to like, bundle up your excitement because it’s like, “Oh shoot, I can’t, I can’t—” (laughs) You can’t spoil anything. You can’t say anything much. Yeah. I get it. I get it.



M: And I have a lot of things I wanna do. I really wanna do more Twitch. I’m trying to work out all the glitches I’m having and make I can do—because I really like talking to people. And—

E: Yeah!



M: And stuff. And finding people that like the things I like. Like anime! So yeah, I wanna do more Twitch. But I’m really like focused on voiceover right now, especially because of Ride Your Wave. And I’m just—that’s just the train I’m super excited about right now! I’m just so excited to see it and watch it with my family.



E: Yeah, and it can probably only go up from here, to be honest. That’s like a great...y’know



M: Yeah…



E: Like as you said, as your first role in this—your first role in dubbing anime. That is like, huge. That is a big deal.



M: I know! I would have freaked out if it was like a tiny role. I mean no role is a small role, but I would have been so happy if I was just like, even the background noise of people talking. So for this to be my first anime role is mind-bogglingly amazing. So I am sooo blessed, honestly.



E: Well so—thank you so much for having this time to chat with me! Through all of this. Thank you, thank you so much.



M: It really was so fun talking to you—thank you so much for having me!



E: Yeah! Do you have anything else you would like to say, to add on?



M: The best way to find me and what I’m doing is on my Instagram, it’s the place where I’m most active. I do have a Twitter. I should use it more. I use my Instagram the most. It’s @meritleighton if you want to see my future projects—that’s for all the people listening out there!



And I all hope you enjoy the English dub of Ride Your Wave, because we worked really hard on it and it’s such a stunning movie so just go check it out! Even if it’s just the Japanese one, watch it, please, it’s so good! I cried so hard—it’s really stunning, not just for the story but visually. And it’s such a great story about grief, and loss, and moving forward through that pain. And riding the waves of life. And it’s just such a great message. So yeah, thank you!

 Elvie Mae Parian is an animator who also likes to spend her spare time through writing and criticism. You can follow her on Twitter and see her own art on Instagram. 

Ride Your Wave is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital from August 8 via GKIDS and Shout Factory. Buy it here on  Amazon Video (Japanese), Amazon Video (Dub)  Google Play, or Blu-Ray/DVD .

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