Interview: Ciarán Strange (Requiem of the Rose King’s Richard III)

Ciarán Strange (he/they) is one of the few British people working as an anime voice actor, as well as one of the few non-binary voice actors. Having made a name for themselves playing Luca Esposito in sci-fi series Astra Lost In Space, Ciarán has moved from the future to the past, playing the lead role in Shakespearean anime Requiem of the Rose King as an intersex Richard III.

We talked to Ciarán about how he got into the anime world, how he prepared for the role, the increased representation of LGBTQ+ characters, and how other British performers can get involved in the industry.

First, let’s start at the beginning. How did you, a voice actor from England, end up working in the traditionally North American world of anime voice acting?

Bizarrely, mostly by accident! I moved to Canada to pursue music. I was an independent rock artist for about a decade before friends I’d made through performing my music at anime conventions (such as Joel McDonald of Gearbox and Caitlin Glass of Funimation) decided to audition me for roles they thought I’d suit. I wound up moving to Dallas, TX to be closer to the studios down here and lived on a friend’s floor on an inflatable mattress for a while, haha… I guess, as they say, the rest is history!

Your latest part sees you in the lead role of Requiem of the Rose King. What was the audition process like?

Auditioning is both tons of fun, and completely terrifying… and I’d just contracted COVID when this one landed in my inbox! My voice was rough and I couldn’t stand up for more than five minutes or so at a time, so I actually recorded it in several chunks with exhausted tea and Pei Pa Koa breaks on the couch or at the bottom of my booth in between takes. Several characters were on the sides, so I auditioned for as many as I was able to before the fatigue wiped me out, and I did multiple takes for Richard in varying voice timbres/types to try and best represent what I could do with him if cast. I did NOT expect it, though… even in the UK, you may have heard me screaming when I found out! (sweatdrop)

Requiem of the Rose King is loosely based on the history plays of William Shakespeare. Did this affect any of your decisions about how to voice Richard?

Knowing the plays definitely gave me a rough sense of the shape his journey was going to take, and the dramatic beats he was likely to experience. And when we meet Richard in this reimagined timeline, he’s younger; he and his brother George (Clarence) are about to become “men” in their own right. So immediately, I wanted to create three distinct “sounds” in my head for him: a very young Richard, when we see flashbacks to his childhood; a rougher, less proper tone for moments he’s closest to his own humanity (whether it’s experiencing fear, or panic, or a sense of true happiness); and a smoother aristocratic way of speaking for use in Court, around other important nobles, and especially the more he ages and accepts his own sinister fate.

As we take each scene, I try to imagine which “voice” he may use in that particular instance (sometimes that one particular line, even). In my mind, I sort of imagine it as… the second voice is the one that’s truer to him personally, but the third is the one he’s forced to adopt to fulfil his “destiny” and obtain the Crown.

Can you share anything about the unique challenges of playing a character like Richard? Has Requiem of the Rose King changed anything about your view of the historical figure who inspired the series?

It’s a very unique take on a character traditionally cast in a more “villainous” light… both by British history and Bill Shakespeare. I immediately binge-read as much of the manga as is available in the west after being cast — I’m the type of actor who likes to know a character’s arc ahead of time, so I can plan out the plot beats in my head. Kanno-sensei’s reimagining of the War of the Roses’ key players is phenomenal; I love the way she’s “crunched” the timeline to bring events closer together, I adore the way she honours the characters Shakespeare laid down whilst completely reinventing them in her own light. And Richard seems to be one of the biggest characterisation changes she’s made.

Because we meet him at a younger age than we do in King Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III, we get to see the “man behind the mask”, I guess you could say — as opposed to being introduced to him as a bloodthirsty, immoral, mocking manipulator, we first see him as an emotionally abused kiddo, and we sympathise with him more and more with every plot development. The build is gradual and painful, and I think it leads to a greater and more powerful connection between Richard and the audience — we feel for him. It kinda reminds me, looking back at my history classes, how what we learn is so tainted by politics and has been so rewritten by the victors, we may have little idea what these nobles and monarchs were actually like… just the way those who survived them wanted them to be remembered. Regardless, anyone who knows the story of the Princes in the Tower has a hard time seeing Richard of Gloucester as a “good man”, heh… but his development in Kanno-sensei’s series does make you wonder how the world these nobles were forced to endure and survive changed them for the worse…

A lot of fans are talking about Requiem of the Rose King’s decision to portray Richard III as intersex. As a non-binary actor, do you find any aspects of Richard’s story especially relatable, and do you feel that your perspective gives extra insight into the role?

Hmm… yes, and no. It’s hard to understand the struggle many intersex people face from the day they’re born. While I knew as a child something was “wrong” — and identified more with boys than girls my age, and male characters in the shows and movies I liked — I didn’t figure out I was transgender and non-binary until I was in my 20s. In Richard’s case, his body has always been “different” to other males, in a time where religion will brand one as a “demon”. So it’s a case of applying some of the same discrimination I face now to myself when I was a child, imagining how it would feel to be physically marked as “different” at such a vulnerable age and by my own mother.

There are definitely some parts that hit close to home as a trans-masculine person — such as Richard binding his chest to hide its feminine shape, insisting he isn’t a woman, talking about how his body will never grow as strong as his brothers’ no matter how hard he trains… I feel like those are the moments I can really dig into myself and bring out a bit of that pain, that frustration, and that rage at the world for making me “less of a man” than my mates. All in a controlled environment, of course! It’s never a smart idea to open that can of worms unless I’m ready to bring myself back down with a bit of aftercare when I step out of the booth and back into reality.

We are gradually seeing more nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters across many genres in the anime world, some fanciful and others more grounded. While many unfortunate tropes still persist, are there any themes or expressions which you’d especially like to see portrayed more overtly (rather than in subtext alone) or in a more positive context?

The use of subtext is a common theme I’ve noticed, in order for a creator or mainstream studio to boost their projects and get them out to as many queer folk as they can in a world that is still extremely conservative. And also, just because metaphors and subtext are nifty and beautiful in their own way! As a community, we’re constantly torn between wanting to see more of ourselves in fiction in any way possible, and needing creators to be more overt in establishing queer characters as queer.

Personally, I take my hat off to any project that states beyond any doubt that an LGBTQ+ character is in fact gay, lesbian, asexual, transgender, non-binary, intersex, etc, because it’s always a “risk” to align oneself and one’s work so definitively with a minority group that is frequently the target of hatemongers and bigots. It places a target on one’s back, and can even lead to a lack of support or funding. However, when a creator isn’t clear about a character’s gender identity or orientation, queer fans can find themselves dog-piled and dragged for “daring to imagine” a specific character is LGBTQ+. So it’s a double-edged sword. Personally, I’m chuffed so much media is being adapted that features strong queer characters, even in leading roles — and I’ve found that a lot of manga and anime tends to explore queer characters BEYOND their queerness, so it isn’t their only personality attribute. We’re seeing more gay romance stories, more non-binary and trans characters, more intersex characters… and I’m hoping as these stories prove popular, we’ll see even more in the very near future!

The fact that an intersex character is being played by a non-binary actor feels like a step forward in terms of diversity in casting. However, you are also the only British voice actor in a series which is set entirely in Britain (and occasionally France). How would you encourage other British performers to take part in anime work?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I’ve been living in (and touring!) North America for over a decade now… but, courtesy of the COVID-related lockdowns in 2020, remote voiceover work has really taken off, and is actually becoming more of the norm and less an exception to the rule. I’ve dubbed every single episode of Rose King from my home booth, and several of our cast members are living outside of Dallas! It’s never been easier to connect with studios both indie and mainstream — but, at the same time, there’s never been more competition out there for roles, too. I definitely know of studios who either cast or are working to cast actors overseas, and multiple actors currently dubbing anime from the UK, Australia, Canada, even Malaysia! So they’re proving it’s very possible, and I imagine the amount of international talent we see working will only grow in the next few years. So if your dream is to chase a career in voiceover, now is the PERFECT time to get on it!

I recommend starting out in indie/college projects to get your feet wet and hone your skills, or check out some local theatre troupes. Acting classes are a must — even seasoned journeymen and veterans are constantly learning, soaking up information to expand their skill sets. But always double-check that the folk you’re learning from have a flourishing resume of more than just a couple years, and are still actively working, as this industry changes so fast (especially now). Your next goal will be to “build” your booth space, and I use the term “build” very lightly — you don’t need to order a professional set up, or even construct anything out of pipe-‘n’-drape. Many anime veterans you see featured multiple projects per season simply work out of their closet. Layers and layers of blankets on the walls, floor, and ceiling act as a fantastic stand-in for “soundproofing” your space and giving it a softer, less reflective tone. From there, you can add plushies, clothing, pillows, cushions, and/or acoustic foam squares (intermittently, not all-covering!) for diffusion and baffling. Remember, it doesn’t have to LOOK good — just SOUND good!

Once you’ve got a decent space to record in, you can look at obtaining a mic, interface, and DAW (industry standard is currently the TLM-103, but an SM7B is fabulous for getting started, especially with a great sounding space, and doubles as one of the best podcasting/streaming mics you can buy too!). There are some brilliant websites out there you can Google which are dedicated to how to become a voice actor, and some really terrific communities to help you find work and also friends. I highly recommend the Voice Acting Club server on Discord; it was founded by Kira Buckland (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean, Demon Slayer) and many up-and-coming actors have credited it with helping them find work. Other than that, while I hate to use the term “networking”, being a stellar and supportive member of our little online community (especially on Discord and Twitter) can definitely put you on the map as someone to keep an eye on!

Anime dubbing presents additional challenges over other projects and fans often inevitably compare the English dub to the Japanese cast. Do you like to listen to the Japanese performers’ take on a character when preparing for a role, or do you prefer to work directly from your personal interpretation of the character from the script (or source material)?

I almost always listen to the original Japanese seiyuu’s take on a character before auditioning. For one, considering we’re localising something that already exists, I want to see if I can represent and celebrate what the original studios (or creators) decided a character should sound like. Secondly, some directors are actively looking for the best voice match, so it would be self-sabotage to not at least have an idea of what that is! We’re often allowed to give multiple takes in our auditions, so I’ll try one that matches the seiyuu as best I can, and perhaps a second which changes it up and adds in more of my own ideas of pitch, timbre, or attitude. With Richard in Rose King, once I realised the seiyuu was the legendary Saiga Mitsuki, I… I’ll admit, I had a teeny tiny anxiety attack, haha! It can be intimidating to know you’ll be measured against a titan of the industry, especially because so many of my co-cast in the English dub are titans in their own right, too. But it lights a fire under your butt and makes you even more determined to knock it out of the park, and make your cast and crew proud to work alongside you.

Is working with ‘simuldubs’, recording during production or the series’ initial broadcast, a more challenging process, or is it very similar to recording for a Blu-ray release? We have seen a lot of broadcast schedule adjustments during recent seasons owing to the pandemic; does this affect scheduling for voice actors too or is the process fairly smooth from your perspective?

When it comes to anime, I’ve mostly worked on simuldubs. From an actor’s standpoint, it can definitely be a little terrifying and intimidating — so I can only imagine the pressure from a director, writer, or engineer’s POV! There are definitely positives, such as not having to wait months and months for stuff to drop (as opposed to full series drops, or even video games where you can wait years…), and I personally love the workflow of meeting with your director a few times a week to work on the upcoming episode! The pandemic definitely threw a wrench in things, especially at the start/middle of 2020. But the tech-heads and other geniuses in our industry developed ways to get around quarantine rules with remote recording, and now work has never been easier! (And of course, when you’re working from home, trousers are optional. ;3)

What would be your dream role, whether from an existing manga adapted into a future anime, or something completely original that you haven’t seen before?

Ahhhhh, I have a few… an LGBTQIA+ manga that I adore is getting an English serialisation this summer, Stripping The Flesh. I’ll be straight with you, pun not intended — if you’re transmasculine, it can be a painful (yet cathartic) read, I’m not sure I’ve read anything that hits so close to home before this when it comes to my journey and struggles and emotions as a transgender man in the public eye. If that were ever to receive an anime adaptation, I just hope I have the chance to audition and give it my best! I dream of playing an idol too; the Love Live! series is always so well written and has such deep, interesting characters. As a touring artist and songwriter (and… rockstar?! Gah! Can I call myself that?!) I would absolutely adore playing a role where I get to sing in-character. I’m also a little obsessed with superheroes, so… yeah. Stuff in that vein, haha. Call me if you need a trans dude to play Marvel’s Hawkeye… (shifty eyes)

Apart from the series you have performed in, are there any other anime out there you are currently watching and would recommend?

I cannot recommend Sasaki & Miyano enough! Kellen (Goff) and Joshua (Waters) are doing a fantastic job with the lead roles, and it’s another wonderful LGBTQIA+ anime getting a solid dub. Ranking of Kings is a beautiful story with really unique character design. David Wald directed a dub for The Stranger By The Shore, a gay romance movie, which was heartbreakingly good. Akudama Drive and The Case Study of Vanitas are incredible. Oh, and, and! I can’t not recommend the first anime I ever got to play in — ASTRA: Lost in Space. It’s thrilling, hilarious, sweet, tragic, and has so many twists and turns your head will spin. Let’s just call it Among Us: The Anime, haha. Check it out, it’s worth a binge!

Finally, do you have anything you wish to say to your fans at Anime UK News who may be reading this?

Anything and everything is possible… more so now than ever before. No limits, beans. Whether you want to be part of this industry, or just enjoy the fruits of its labour — country borders are proving less and less of a hurdle with each passing year as humanity grows to a point we can all connect with one another via technology. I know first-hand how isolated you may feel living on an island far across the Atlantic from where a lot of the action seems to be happening, but if you put your mind to it, if you plan your path and have the stones to follow it through thick and thin, even oceans can’t stand in your way. Because there is ALWAYS a way. Whatever your dream is, whether it’s related to anime or not, please don’t be afraid to chase it down! And this time next year, you could be looking back at this moment, and how far you’ve come since you made the choice to do the thing you know in your heart you were put on this planet to do.

You can follow Ciarán on the Twitter account @CiaranStrange.

Ian Wolf

Ian works as an anime and manga critic for Anime UK News, and was also the manga critic for MyM Magazine. His debut book, CLAMPdown, about the manga collective CLAMP, is available now. Outside of anime, he is data specialist for the British Comedy Guide, is QI's most pedantic viewer, has written questions for both The Wall and Richard Osman's House of Games, and has been a contestant on Mastermind.

More posts from Ian Wolf...