Prolific industry leader Cherami Leigh spoke to The Natural Aristocrat® about voicing Asuna Yuuki on Sword Art Online and the anime’s darkest moments ten years later at Anime NYC 2022.
This Cherami Leigh Interview from Anime NYC 2022 contains spoilers for the Sword Art Online anime series and films.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT (NIR REGEV): The scene where Sugou is taking advantage of Asuna both in SAO and in real life, is one of the show’s darkest. What was it to dub this moment and what are your memories of it?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Man, any time that something’s happening to a character where I feel like they’re being slighted or not heard or not fully appreciated is very hard for me to record because I get very defensive of the character. I want to protect them.
There’s been a lot of times for us where Asuna’s been in a situation where I feel like she’s been underestimated or not fully seen and not fully appreciated. And that’s always hard to record.
But it’s lovely to get to work with our director Alex von David, our producer Hiroe Tsukamoto, and the rest of the cast is amazing. Our writer and director Alex will always make sure that every moment is just right and we’ll do the scenes multiple times if we need to, to make sure we get it perfectly.
Obviously, there are a lot of emotionally intense scenes in SAO. I always trust that if something is not hitting exactly the way that it should be, that Alex will make sure that we do each moment exactly right.
Sometimes I’ll get a little too bold to make sure that Asuna is being protected because I love her so much!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: According to a 2014 study by the Disabled Women’s Network of Canada, 60% of women with disabilities experience some form of violence, often by their own caregivers.
Considering Asuna’s comatose-like state with the headset around Sugou in SAO Season 1, what are your thoughts on this comparison?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Yeah, that was really hard to work on and to record… Just to know that somebody that you’re playing is in such a vulnerable position and that the character was being taken advantage of in that way was really upsetting.
We get to see it in the game as well as in the real world what that looks like. And there’s been a lot of conversation with people coming up to me saying like, Asuna is such a strong character and we hated seeing her that way. Why was it depicted that way?
When I look at those episodes, yes it’s terrifying and Asuna seems very vulnerable and I think it’s easy for people to say that she seems weak. But at no point in the show in what is depicted with the animation or in the light novels, which I’ve done the audio books for, did Asuna ever give up.
Asuna was biding her time and being aware, like watching with the control panel. I think that’s something that needs to be considered is when you’re in the situation and people say, well why don’t they leave? Or why are they not standing up?
You’ve gotta watch your circumstances and make sure that it’s the perfect storm of elements and that you have everything planned and taken care of.
It’s very hard to look at someone’s situation and say, ‘Well I think they’re such a strong person, why are they making this choice that is seemingly not the right choice for them?’
But you don’t know behind the scenes or in their mind what they’re navigating and working through. That’s a cause that’s very important to me is helping women in those situations, having to navigate, leaving a toxic relationship or leaving a toxic family environment to protect themselves and to protect their children.
It takes a lot of strength to stay in it, to bide the time, to find the right moment, and then also to rebuild after the fact and navigate what that looks like in your life. There’s so many great organizations that can help people through that.
But as I’ve talked to friends of mine that are psychologists and social workers and organizations that work through that and work women and families in that way, it’s really, really difficult because they are inundated.
Specifically during the last two years, they said there were a lot of men and women and children that because of the pandemic, they were now isolated with their abuser or isolated in the toxic situation. Which I think mirrors Sword Art Online so well that Asuna was absolutely isolated.
And one of the few people that was supposed to be a caretaker for her was actually the person that was the most abusive and the most toxic for her. And that is devastating. So I’m happy that those organizations are there.
I wish there was more ways to provide more resources because I know the people that work in that type of service industry and working with those organizations & those individuals.
It’s so taxing not just emotionally and with the resources that they need, but physically it’s really demanding too. Just to keep finding the strength every single day.
So I loved that the show depicted not just strength and battle with a sword, which Asuna we know handles so well, but additionally strength through vulnerability and finding the strength in the most devastating circumstances.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: When I interviewed Todd Haberkorn on the Sugou scene at Anime NYC 2019, he briefly paused the interview to call you & left a voicemail with a dinner invite. He said, ‘Deal? If it’s a deal, say nothing… Perfect!’ I was curious if that dinner ever happened?
CHERAMI LEIGH: (laughs) We’ve joked so many times Todd will be on a panel and he’ll say, you know, ‘Hey, I’m gonna call Cherami really quick and we’ll all say hi!’ And so I will look down at my phone randomly on the weekends. Usually if I’m at a convention, I’m probably in a panel myself.
And if I’m not at a convention, more than likely I’m doing laundry or carrying on with my day on my weekend off. And I’ll look down and be like, I missed a call from Todd.
‘What did he need? Oh my gosh, I hope everything’s okay!’ And I’ll listen to the voicemail.
I’m like, ‘Oh man! I don’t know what it is that I always happen to miss his call.’ It’s so funny that you say, ‘Did that dinner ever happen?’
We were working on a project where he was directing me on a show and he said, ‘I feel like we have to schedule time to see each other. We either have to have a session where I’m directing or you’re directing or we have to call back or we have to have something or other.’
And he said, ‘We’re gonna have to schedule a dinner. I’m gonna have to book a time in my calendar and say like, does this time work for you? Pick a time we’re gonna schedule a dinner.’
So we have a Calendly invite in motion so that we can set a time to go to dinner. Because we live like ten minutes from each other. But he’s so busy and I’m so busy and our schedules have yet to align.
So we’ve joked we’ve had dinner at conventions while we’re here at the events. But we haven’t gotten to like hang out and just like decompress and have a friendly dinner.
I told him, I was like, ‘My husband’s gotta come, your wife’s gotta come. We’ve all gotta get everybody together there to hang out.’ So hopefully that’s coming soon!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Speaking of your husband, if you lost all the memories of your relationship except the last two years like Asuna in Ordinal Scale… Would he be able to make up for it?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Yeah, my husband’s fantastic and I’m really lucky to have a great family and to have a great partner. They usually come with me to conventions.
I can’t imagine how difficult that would be for my loved ones, but I think it would be harder on me. I pride myself on having a really great memory and I love getting to look back on memories and say like, ‘Do you remember where you were when this happened?’
‘And this was the restaurant we went to and I remember it was on the left side!’ So I think I would feel so lost in the world if I only had the last two years of memories of my life. That would be really challenging. I’m like, man, all of my dear friends from high school, I wouldn’t have any of those memories!
I wouldn’t have any of that. But my husband, my husband and I have a great relationship, so I know that would be fine. He would find ways to bring up and make me remember things. But it would be really difficult for me in a lot of ways to let go of some of those things that I hold so dear.
I love getting to look back on my memories and to look back at pictures and be like, ‘Who are these people? What’s going on?’ That would be really hard.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Yuna’s father in Ordinal Scale feels SAO survivors are better off forgetting their experiences entirely. Do you feel it’s better to forget a tragic experience even if good memories around the same time go with it?
CHERAMI LEIGH: I mean certainly, that’s a coping mechanism that a lot of people have is just to dissociate and block the memory completely in order to move forward.
It’s so difficult for me personally… I am somebody that would like to dig & go back and find the history. Find the missing pieces so that I could see what was missing so that I could heal & look at the full picture and say, ‘Okay, so this is where this trauma comes from, this is why I’m scared of this, or this is why I’m dealing with this.’
And now that I have the missing piece, I can see the picture and move forward and heal. But I know for many people that’s not the case. They’re like, ‘I would just rather forget it, not worry about it and be able to move on fresh.’
I don’t think that there’s a right or wrong way to go about it. Different human beings need different things based on their experiences.
If something was so traumatic, like what happened in Sword Art Online, I’m sure there’s many people that would have to say like, ‘I just can’t look at it, can’t remember it. I need to move and and let it go so I can move on with my life.’ And that’s what serves people best. That’s what they have to do.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Do you feel any parent would do what Yuna’s father did in Ordinal Scale to bring their child back to life? Even virtually. I’m not 100% sure if you have children or not but is that something you feel you would have done?
CHERAMI LEIGH: My husband and I do not have children. We hope to at some point. I’m sure there are many parents who would have done it. I think every parent would love to just make sure that their child is protected.
We went and saw a play last night that was all about parents saying, ‘I just wanna protect my child from pain, or I just wanna make that pain go away and I just wanna have my child with me and make sure they’re happy.’ And I’ll talk to my mom or my dad and I know that they would wanna protect me from things.
My mom wanted me to not be in this business because she said, ‘It’s incredibly traumatic, it’s incredibly hard. The business does not care about the human being behind it.’ And they did not want me as a child going through that.
They thought that was an unnecessary thing for a child to go through, but it was what I wanted. So they were left with the difficult decision of ‘Do we help our child follow their dreams even though they’re very naive about the context and the industry and the business of it all?’
‘Will we help them navigate that or do we keep them out of the world of acting and allow her to find her way when she’s older and can make that choice?’
I’m very happy that they allowed me to do this work in this industry as a child and I’m so happy that I had such supportive parents.
But there are many times I’ll say, ‘Ugh, this is something that I’m working through. I had this traumatic experience, I had this horrible memory,’ and my parents will say, ‘I’m so sorry that we couldn’t protect you from that, and they can’t protect me from that’.
And the play that I saw last night, one of the lines was, ‘The only thing that we can know about life is pain is inevitable and it helps us grow and it teaches us empathy.’
If we protect children from that and don’t allow them to grow and experience that, are they going to be as empathetic and compassionate and strong and capable without those experiences?
With that being said, of course you wanna be able to protect them from unnecessary pain and unnecessary trauma. But they will experience some sort of setback or frustration or sadness or anger.
And if they have a great support system, like I was lucky enough to have. Like so many children do with their parents that will talk to them and say, ‘I have your back. Let’s go talk to someone. Let’s figure out what we can do to heal this or give you the right skills to move forward.’
Then I think the kids are better off for it and then they’ll be better parents and the generational healing will continue in that way.
But I totally understand why Yuna’s father made that choice because he loves his daughter and just wants her to be safe. He wanted her to be free of pain and be with him.
And that’s really a hard thing to do. I can’t imagine that because I don’t have children… But I can only imagine that’s what a parent would like to do is to be able to protect their kids from anything that would cause them pain.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: The difference between SAO players’ real lives and game lives is often staggering as is the case for Konno Yuuki being in a hospice in Season 2.
What are your memories of the scene where Yuuki dies in Asuna’s arms? I thought it was some of your best work. A powerful but hard scene to watch.
CHERAMI LEIGH: It is a very hard scene to watch. We just got to record the audio book for that arc as well and it’s so hard.
While I was working on that arc of the show, I was dealing with the loss of my great-aunt. I thought I had gone through the grieving process and then when we were going through and recording the show, I was realizing, ‘Oh no, I had compartmentalized some of this and said like, I’ll deal with that at another time.’
And because I had to say these lines and go through these scenes with Asuna, it kind of forced me to go through that healing.
People always say, ‘Are there things that you’ve learned from Asuna?’ There’s so many things that I’ve learned from Asuna…
But one of the things that I have been so appreciative of all of the characters that I’ve played is there’s been moments with each one of them where a scene will come up or a line will come up and I will say, ‘Wow, this is very poignant and pertinent to me in this moment and I would not have faced this if not for having to go through it with the character.’
That’s such a bonding moment. While Asuna is with this character and what’s she going through at the hospice… I feel like Asuna and I are holding hands walking through this moment and this healing journey together.
So those are some of my favorite moments where my life meets with Asuna’s life and the show and it feels really honest and real and poignant. So it’s nice to look back on those scenes.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I interviewed Brina Palencia recently on The Future Diary and she described returning to voice Yuno Gasai in the ReDial OVA years later. How it was a ‘little bit jarring’ to approach a version of Yuno that could truly have happiness.
Do you feel your approach to voicing Asuna has changed over the years in any way?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Yeah, I mean I’m sure it has shifted. Bryce (Papenbrook) and I were watching an interview when we first got the job and we look so different and I think we sound different.
We’ll still hear our references and we’ll match our references, which is great. But yeah, I mean I have 10 more years of life experience. So when we were going back into Sword Art Online Progressive Part 1 and we’re working on the show again and it’s Asuna before we even meet her in the series… Like it predates that.
I listened to my reference and I said, ‘Can I pitch her up a little bit? And we had to kind of find like, ‘Well, she’s a little more naive in this area. She’s a little bit more guarded in this area.’
And kind of rebuilding the walls that we had broken down with Asuna over the years. Or her inexperience with gaming, kind of bringing that in.
And so it’s been very fun to kind of get to build a backstory. You mentioned forgetting memories and it was like we’re adding to the memory banks as if we hadn’t met that part of Asuna because we hadn’t, which was really fun to get to do.
And I’m so thankful that the team that we’ve had, which is not always the case for a show specifically when it runs for 10 years. We are so, so fortunate to have had Alex Von David and Hiroe Tsukamoto, our producer from day one. And they’re still with us now.
It’s really lucky to have those two people as touchstones for the character to know like, ‘Does this really sound like Asuna as should we reword this scene? Can we change the inflection here?’
Because they’ve been with us through since the beginning. So they’ve seen us grow and they know what these characters need to look and sound like.
So it’s very fortunate to have that kind of element so that we can like phone a friend and check in with the director and make sure everything’s working as it should.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Do you still remember your original audition for Asuna?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Absolutely! I had just moved to Los Angeles, this was the first anime that I auditioned for with a studio in LA. I’d been doing a lot of on-camera work and I was like, ‘Man, I really would like to get into voiceover again’.
Everybody’s like, ‘It’s really hard to get into voiceover!’ And I had said, ‘But I’ve done so much in Dallas, I would really love to have a shot!”
I had one person, and I still don’t know who it was, but I just got an email that said you were referred by an actor who thought you might be a good fit to work with us. I’ve asked around, I’m like, ‘Who was that actor who referred me?’ Still have no idea. So to whoever they are, thank you so much!
I’m sure I’ve worked with them a million times. But this actor had referred me to the studio. I got the audition and I did not have a home setup.
I recorded my audition on my iPhone in the closet and then sent it in. Didn’t expect to hear anything.
But I was really excited about Sword Art Online because I had heard from going to conventions, a lot of people had said, we really think you’d like the show.
We know you like stuff that’s really grounded and realistic and this is such a great show. So I had watched an episode and I was hooked and I had hoped I would get a small part on the show and get to know the people and get to know the team.
I remember getting called in for my callback and meeting Alex von David and meeting Hiroe Tsukamoto. And we had this work session trying the voice a little bit higher, trying the voice a little bit lower, adding on all these different elements.
I left the callback and I said, ‘Well, I probably won’t get cast as Asuna, but I hope I’ll get to do like a a bit part or get to work on one episode. I loved getting to work with Alex and Hiroe and I hope I’ll get to work with them again.’
They called a week later and asked me to come in and voice Asuna and I was very excited. So yeah, it was my first voiceover job in LA!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Is the audition process comparatively different when you’re doing it for a Nintendo game, like Rhea in Fire Emblem?
CHERAMI LEIGH: It depends. I mean I think auditions have definitely shifted now since the pandemic. There were certain studios that would say, ‘Could you come in and audition?’
When I worked on Cyberpunk 2077, my first audition, I went into the studio and auditioned for that. When I auditioned for Nier to play A2, I auditioned in studio for that.
I think for Fire Emblem, I probably came in to audition for Rhea. But now because of the pandemic, I would say probably 99% of our auditions just come through email and we never get to meet the producers.
We never get to see the production team and you just get a piece of paper with some lines and a paragraph and a description. Maybe a picture if you’re lucky.
You kind of have to figure out what you think they’re looking for? How does that work with who you are as an actor and who you are as a person? And then create this audition and hopefully you’ll hear back.
Sometimes they’ll just cast you off of the audition and sometimes they’ll say, we would like to do a Zoom callback or work with you on this.
I love getting to meet the team and hear about these characters. Hear what they were inspired by when they created them and kind of get to play and say like, ‘Oh, you didn’t like this kind of thing. Well maybe we could do this and be more collaborative.’
It’s harder to do that when they just send in an audition and you send in an MP3. You kind of hope that with that one swing that you hit it out of the park. But that’s not always the case.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: It must be hard to keep those NDAs!
CHERAMI LEIGH: It’s impossible! Yeah, I think the hardest one was for Cyberpunk 2077, I did the first demo in 2018 and I thought, well it would be great if I get cast in the actual game… But I don’t know, I was like, ‘This is such a big game!’
By the time it comes to the release, it’s probably gonna be a movie star. And then I was coming home from a convention and saw that Keanu Reeves is gonna be in Cyberpunk 2077. I was like, ‘Oh man, he got my part.’
And then I found out like, ‘No, it’s still me!’ So between 2018 doing the demo and late 2020 when the game came out, I had to keep a secret for about two and a half years and people were asking me about it.
Because people had discussed the game and kind of thought that maybe that might be my voice. And it was very hard to just lie and be like, ‘What’s a Cyberpunk universe? Who? Keanu Reeves? I don’t know who that is… (laughs) Cause I’m a terrible liar.
So I just plead ignorance and denial for everything across the board.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: You do on-screen stuff as well, so you can consider yourself a star there too though.
CHERAMI LEIGH: Yeah, I’ve told people, I’m a good liar when I have the lines in front of me and I know what I need to say. But when it’s me, I’m not, I can’t surprise anybody!
My whole family knows exactly what they’re getting for holidays or birthdays before they’re getting it. Because as soon as I get it, I’m so excited.
I’m like, ‘Do you guys wanna know what I got you? Well it’s definitely not this!’ I’m like a five-year old child. I told my dad, ‘I definitely didn’t get you socks, but I got you socks just because I’m so excited.’
It’s exciting to get to share these things and to work on these projects. It’s really hard to keep it from people, especially when they’re asking specifically about that one project.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Palmer Luckey who made the original Oculus Rift headset recently modified a VR headset to be lethal to the user for real, inspired by SAO. What are your thoughts on art becoming life like that? Do you think many people would voluntarily take the risk?
CHERAMI LEIGH: That was one of the things when my mom saw the first episode of Sword Art Online, she said she really appreciated the creator sharing. One of the reasons why they created the series and shared the series was they said this technology could be here by 2022.
And of course now we have passed, caught up to and passed the day that the characters were trapped in the game. I don’t want anybody to live in fear or be concerned and say like, ‘I’m not gonna try out new technology.’
But I think it is something to be aware of and considerate of. We’ve had so many incredible technological advances, some for the betterment of society and some you could argue not for the betterment of society.
So kind of finding that balance of utilizing technology to help us, but also not losing our humanity and still being able to interact with people in person.
I have so many friends that will say like, ‘Oh, I’ll just text them. I don’t wanna call ’em or see ’em in person. I’ll just text them or check out what they’re dealing with on Facebook.’
But there’s nothing like an in-person meeting, getting to share a meal and share an experience and see how people are doing. It’s not the same as messaging somebody on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
It’s lovely to get to have those options because we’re moving so quickly, but it’s not the same. So I’m very cautious. I know Bryce (Papenbrook) is always a little bit more like, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’
I’m a little bit more cautious about living life in a virtual world. I love getting to experience life with all the five senses. And I know you could do that in the virtual world, but what would that do to the real world?
I don’t know, I guess that remains to be seen. So yeah, it is definitely something to be aware of and something to be considerate of. I will not be the first person putting on that head set.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: What would it take for you to wear an SAO style FullDive head set with all the potential consequences?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Oh my gosh! I don’t know. I would be really nervous. I’ve seen so many things, one of the things in the Mother’s Rosario arc that I really loved was the Medicuboid.
Getting to see that it allowed them a new life. So certainly it is beneficial for many people and obviously these characters have found a strength because of existing in this virtual world that they did not have that strength in the real world.
There definitely are perks to it. I don’t know, I would have to see how it works out for other people, but I wouldn’t be like, ‘I’m so excited to be a beta tester!’ I guess I’m very much like Asuna in that way. She is not a beta tester and I wouldn’t be a beta tester either.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Is it surreal to realize that ten years of your life has been connected to this character? With the tenth anniversary of SAO upon us, did you originally imagine Asuna would be such a big part of your life a decade later?
CHERAMI LEIGH: Yeah, Bryce (Papenbrook) and I didn’t believe it! It didn’t feel like it’s been ten years for us.
Then he was going through his phone and he sent me a screenshot and it said nine years ago. It was our first convention that we got to go to together. And I said, ‘This is so weird!’
But when we think back on it, I mean, I got engaged during the first season of the show and I had just moved to Los Angeles. It marked the beginning of a lot of things for me moving to LA.
To look back ten years ago and see what my life looked like then and what my life looked like now. And getting to have Asuna as a companion on this journey is absolutely surreal.
I never would’ve thought that when we worked on this show ten years ago, that I would get to be playing this character for ten years. And we’re still doing more projects for Sword Art Online, which is pretty incredible.
Getting to meet families that come up, or young people that come up and say, ‘This was the first show that I saw. This was what got me into anime. And since then I’ve seen all these other shows…’
When I was watching anime as a kid, the shows that were getting people into anime were Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball and Pokémon.
And now for some people that show is Fairy Tail, for some that show is Sword Art Online. It’s really a great honor. It’s absolutely surreal!
I never would’ve imagined when I started working in anime right after high school, that I would ever be in a show that had run for so many episodes that people had said, ‘This was my gateway show into anime.’ Which is very, very cool.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Is there a scene in Sword Art Online you feel was the most difficult for you to dub in the series?
CHERAMI LEIGH: There’s usually one or two scenes in every single film or in every single season where I’m like, ‘Man, this one is rough!’
I know for Sword Art Online Progressive Part One, I was recording it from home because it was during the quarantine period and there’s a scene where Asana is really defeated, isolated, and depressed. And yet she has to keep going.
She has to find the strength. If she gives up, she could die in this world. And while we were recording that, I was dealing with feeling really frustrated and depressed from being isolated and not being able to do on-camera work. Not being able to see my friends, not being able to travel and see my family.
And you know, we were told when everything started, it’s gonna be two weeks. We were like, ‘Okay, two weeks we’ll take a break!’
Well, then the studios were like, ‘It’s gonna be longer than two weeks.’ We need to start recording. And so we were kind of navigating all that. But when it kept going on and there seemed to be no end in sight and we still don’t know how long we’ll be dealing with this.
It was really hard to be like, ‘Well, where is the light at the end of the tunnel?’ And so while Asuna is kind of dealing with this, how am I gonna get out of this?
Where is the light at the end of the tunnel for her in that scene where she’s kind of fighting in this dungeon? That was a really hard scene to do.
And we had to find the light and just right where Alex (von David) would say, ‘You can be a little more angry, you can be a little bit more depressed, you can be a little bit more frustrated.’
And then he is like, ‘I think that might be a little bit too frustrated. I think that might have a little bit too much grit or strength or anger. I don’t know if Asuna is quite there yet. There might have been a little bit too much gravel in your voice on that.’
So kind of trying to find that perfect balance where it was still Asuna, but it still had a little bit of me. It still felt desperate and it felt angry. And you could see that she was starting to turn into a fighter and a warrior, but she was broken and she was tired and she was worn out.
That was a really tricky scene to navigate and hit just right. It was perfect way to end the film when we watched it.
Bryce (Papenbrook) sent me a text and he was like, ‘You in the dungeon scene was so good! I was welling up. That was so hard to watch.’
I was like, ‘We got it! If Bryce said that was the right mark, then we got it!’
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I appreciate your time. It was great to talk to you.
CHERAMI LEIGH: It was great to talk to you! It’s good to see you again.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: And remember Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night will stream on Crunchyroll starting on November 24, 2022.
CHERAMI LEIGH: Yes! Something else to be thankful for on Thanksgiving!
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