Sarah Natochenny isn’t the first woman to voice Ash Ketchum the iconic Pokémon TV series and movies — but by now, she's certainly been doing it the longest. The New York City-based actress, film editor and model originally landed the job when she was just 19 years old and has since dedicated her spunky dubbing chops to more than 400 episodes of the series.
Natochenny, who recently celebrated her 30th birthday, is also the voice of Ash in the franchise's latest film, Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You!, which was released in English nation-wide over the weekend. In honor of the occasion, we caught up with Natochenny to ask her how voicing the series' most beloved trainer has been through the years, and what we can look forward to as die-hard fans of the little monsters.
What was it like to assume the role?
Sarah Natochenny: I've been playing Ash since 2006. Season 9: Battle Frontier was my first season of any show, ever. I went through the standard process of auditions. My voice was right, but I had no idea what dubbing even was, so the producers spent time with me in the booth to see if I could learn the technique quickly enough. They were very kind to me. I'm lucky to have had such a positive experience early on in my career.
Is Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You! the first full-length film you've done as Ash?
We do a film every year! So I've been doing the films since Season 9 as well. My first was Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea. Voicing the films is more fun simply because of the material and the higher quality of animation.
What does a typical day of voice-over work on Pokémon even entail?
I'm going to make this sound easy, only because I've been doing this consistently for over a decade. In my experience, it's rare to get the script in advance, even when the show records pre-lay (meaning the actors record before the animation is finished). So on Pokémon, my director Lisa Ortiz tells me what the episode is about, what happens to my character(s), and we start recording, line by line. It's just me in the booth.
Sometimes, other actors have been recorded, so I get to play off them. Otherwise, I have to imagine that their performances are there and just talk into the void. We typically do an episode or two a week. VO work in general entails a lot of auditions. It feels like a really creative way of playing the lottery.
I haven't really watched Pokémon on TV since I was, like, 11 years old. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest moments Ash has gone through over the years?
Ash turns to stone at one point, so to Ash, that might be his biggest moment. But to me... in Season 18, Ash does something incredibly difficult out of pure love for one of his strongest and favorite Pokémon, Goodra. After seeing Goodra roaming free among its friends, Ash decides to let it stay behind to live a fuller, happier life. This is an amazing lesson for people of all ages: if you love a living being, do what's best for them, even if that means never seeing them again.
Do you have a favorite Pokémon episode?
I got to play a talking Pikachu in "Lights! Camera! Pika!" In the episode, the gang learns how to produce a movie alongside a horde of Pikachu. I thought it was the most effective episode of Pokémon in recent history. The X-Files inspired one of my best friends to become a doctor — I'd like to think this episode got some kids interested in filmmaking. My favorite episodes tend to be the most imaginative ones.
Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories from your time voicing Ash that you'd be willing to share?
This is a really wholesome show, and the fandom reflects that. I met a trans woman at San Francisco Comic Con who donated her entire collection of Pokémon cards to my new organization Voices for Fosters, and got her friends to donate sets and individual cards of value as well. She'd been building this collection her whole life. Lisa Ortiz and I were inspired by a recent episode in which a Pokémon dies, and started raising funds to help rescues and shelters end the euthanization of healthy animals, in a variety of ways, but most of all, by promoting fostering.
As far as gossip goes, I hardly work with the other actors on the show, so I got nothing!
This latest movie is more like a re-visiting of Ash and Pikachu's first episode together, rather than continuing the canon. How did you feel about that when you first read the script?
Believe it or not, I didn't read the script before I went in to record it. But I knew exactly what was going to happen in the movie, so I revisited the first season of Pokémon (oh the nostalgia!! my childhood!!!) and discussed my approach with Lisa before recording. It was so much fun to revisit the beginning of Ash's journey, and an honor to give voice to him at that point in his life.
Are there still hardcore Pokémon fans out there? Do you think they've gotten more or less common over the years?
Not only are the hardcore fans still out there, but they've had children and gotten those children into Pokémon as well! There are entire Pokémon families coming to meet me at conventions. Since I've been voicing Ash for over ten years now, there's a generation of children who grew up with me playing their favorite character. These kids are my favorite fans. Meeting them is a joy I've never known.
What are your Ash/Pokemon-related plans moving forward?
I plan to keep playing Ash as long as the production will have me, and to inspire my fans in every way that I can. Ash and I have a lot in common, and Pokémon fans and I have a lot in common as well. The best thing I've heard is that our show helps lift kids out of depression and restores the faith in themselves they lost along the way. I'm going to keep doing that.
Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You! is now screening on the official Pokémon YouTube channel. The film will also have additional screenings on Saturday, November 11 and Tuesday, November 14 in select theaters across the country.