Mela Lee is a voice actress that has done voice work for countless video games, anime, and commercials over the past decade. Her versatility as a voice actress has landed her a diverse variety of roles including Yuki Cross (Vamire Knight), Rin Tohsaka (Fate/stay night), Rena Ryuga (When They Cry), Rachel Alucard (Blazblue), and Tiki (Fire Emblem Awakening). Her vocal talents also extend to performance as well; Mela is a founding member of Magnolia Memoir, where she composes music and lyrics.
We had the opportunity to speak with Mela during Anime Los Angeles 2017.
Photos by Davies Green
Which role do fans recognize you most for?
I think it depends on which country you’re from. Definitely in Australia people are big Fate/stay night, Vampire Knight, and Blade of the Immortal fans. Apparently all three were on a Monday night block on TV. Here in the States definitely Fate/stay night after Unlimited Blade Works. For games, Celica from Xenoblade, Tiki from Fire Emblem, Tiki from Miraculous Lady Bug. (laughs) I think coming to anime conventions you’ll find people resonate with different characters. That’s what’s great about it, it’s not necessarily what’s your biggest or most recent character was. I have people coming to me for Rozen Maiden and When They Cry.
Is there a difference between doing voice work for anime and video games?
Definitely. Sometimes with games we have to get it done by a set time if it was done in Japanese or Korean first. In most video games you’ll have two clicks and two lines. They’ll show you a rendering, a prototype of your character, so they’re animating to your performance. So you’ll have six or seven hundred lines, you’ll hear two beeps, and say the line twice. You have to imagine where you are in battle, in passing say hello, and if the director wants a third take, they’ll say “Can we readjust? I want you more angry.” or something. It’s blind, not to picture. Very rarely will we have an ADR scene, which is not a playable scene but a story. Then we’ll have a visual to watch, but mostly with games it’s like your 8 year old self and people are like “How did you do it??” When you’re seven or eight you literally had no trouble being like I’m a police officer or a warrior princess. I like games in that respect in that it really ties into that. I don’t want to stay childlike self in an innocent way, but that childlike self like “I got what I need with nothing.
Anime is a little more technical. You are not only trying to recapture a brilliant performance from the Japanese, but you have to do it in English and do it at a very set time with the music. You don’t hear the other actors most of the time, so it’s very much a director’s medium. You just have to trust your director because it’s a much bigger picture. They can hear what the questions and responses was and you cannot.
You’re known for your great performance as Rachel Alucard in Blazblue. So what are your thoughts on the latest game not having a dub?
My first thoughts are positive in that we loved the fan response and how they reached out. Sometimes you don’t know how valued you are until you’re not there. We heard the announcement the same time as the fans did. As a former banker I get that sometimes looking on paper seeing what’s feasible does drive the market. I know they were surprised at the fan response and the door has been left open maybe a little bit. The most positive experience of that was with the direct fan interaction and getting to speak with you guys about what you liked. When I went down under to Australia and New Zealand that I didn’t realize how big Blazblue was. Also at the London Comic Con. We enjoy and love our jobs, but until you go to a convention you don’t quite realize how far a job has taken you. So it’s like you’re traveling while you sleep. People are like “How are you, I loved this!” Rachel is pretty blunt, so it’s not like she’s an endearing character so it’s like people are like “Oh my god I loved you as a Rachel.” But people are like “Can you say ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’” and other voice mail messages. She seems to resonate with people.
You also had a small, but significant, role as Tiki from Fire Emblem Awakening. Did you have any idea that the game would become such a breakout hit?
We love who we work with. The companies are fantastic and you don’t have control over the outcome of that, but of the process. We did it at Cup of Tea and it was really extraordinary, wonderful. We’re doing more with other companies. Success of the game is icing on the cake for us. I’ve been fortunate to work with phenomenal production houses. That’s helped me become a better voice actor.
You hope it’ll do well, but you have no control over that. Sometimes you don’t how quickly it’s resonated but you’ll be at a convention and all these amazing figurines at coming with limited edition. Then you’ll be like “Well, well, well!” (laughs) We don’t get access to some of those things, especially in foreign countries we’ve never seen the artwork because it slightly changes. Probably one of the most exciting things about signing autographs or merchandise is seeing the merchandise! I saw this amazing Good Smile Rin figure that had all her blades.
What was it like voicing Rin over the past decade?
I was really fortunate to revisit her. She was one of my first leading roles in 2006. I was still a banker and analyst, so it gave me some flexibility. I was still a little deer in the headlights. At the time I was doing the initial Fate/stay night I was having to make a decision to go to law school and not do voice over at all. I loved it, but I was like “I need to grow up.” Interestingly within the next two years, Wall Street and the banks had a bit of a crash in 2008, so voice over became my full-time job.
About the time of the crash I was cast as Yuki Cross in Vampire Knight. I had a wonderful director, Kristi Reed, so I was growing as an actress. When we came back to Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works I’d been in the industry for eight years. To get to revisit this alternate universe and a character that really started the ascension of my career to becoming a full-time voice artist was a privilege. The animation was so much more heightened. We were at Anime Expo and they premiered it, it was so stunning. The writing was better, Tony was such a great director. He’s able to get those performances out of you. I love the character so much that looking back when I first started, I wanted to be better. You love it so much and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be better.
Interestingly enough, I went to a Catholic school with red sweaters with white crosses on them and charcoal black skirts. So it was interesting to see myself in this girl, so Rin basically took me from girl to woman.
What was it like being a character like Rena from Higurashi?
I was over at Warner Brothers doing something and I got a call to audition for a role. They don’t tell you what you’re auditioning for because you have to sign NDAs. They played the Japanese lines and she was so high pitched! I’m adorable, but not necessarily a high-pitched character. I read a few lines and then they had me read this “Liar, liar!” line that was kind of dark. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” (menacing voice) and razor blades in a pie and then “Hey Keichi!” (cheerful, high pitched voice) I remember thinking “Why am I here?” but then when they go darker into the scary said, I thought “Oh, I can really add to that.” They were like “We’re going to take a break and then start the session in 10 minutes.” I didn’t realize they meant NOW. That’s another one where you have to rely on your director because it was a little bit crazy. That last scene where she is a crying and kind of psychotic…there’s a lot of emotion in there. It was the first time I got to be really bad. Not to excuse her, but she didn’t always know her part in some of the things happening in the town. Gosh, I loved that show.
Is there a certain character type you like to voice?
Yes, and no. I love in voice over that I can be a three-year-old or a 1,000-year-old fairy that sounds three. But then the next day I could be a warrior goddess, then the next day a pilot or scientist. Then the next day “I’m adorable for no reason!” (high pitched voice) then the next day “I’m a magical being that has wisdom to bestow upon the hero.” (subdued, mature voice) So what I like about voice over is that the production houses give us license to utilized our full character store. You do get in ruts, so if you play a warrior goddess, you’ll do four more warrior goddesses. I did Rozen Maiden and the breakdown was like Shinku, an evil Shinku, and that wound up leading to Blazblue. That’s basically Rachel Alucard. There are archetypes in my group, but when you ask if there’s a favorite…it’s the ones I get cast in.
With Durarara!! it was nice playing Erika, a bit of tomboy, after “Being someone so proper all the time.” (Rachel Alucard voice) to “DUDE! BOOBS!” (Erika voice)
What’s the strangest request you’ve gotten from fans?
I’ve been really lucky, I don’t get crazy requests. I’ve gotten some crazy pictures and I’m like “Wow, thanks for that!” There is a certain fan who likes to draw pictures, tag you, and send them to you. I remember thinking “Wow, thank you!” but then looking at other pictures of other actresses and you’re like “Whooa, at least my clothes were on.” (laughs) Everyone has a different way of expressing it and I don’t think this person meant any harm because they might be fans of pornography or whatever.
When I went to Australia for Supernova the fans were so nervous. I had no idea at the time that three of my shows were playing back to back. I thought I got to go because I was in a show with Vic Mignogna and they had an extra ticket. The fans pay to take pictures with you and this guy comes up and says “Do you mind if I put my arm around you?” At first I was like “Of course not!” right? What I didn’t know was flop sweat was a thing. (laughs) So now I buy two of every sweater because he put his arm around me, God bless his heart, and he was very polite. But literally you heard this squishy sound and I was soaked! Flop sweat isn’t fragrant and he was so nervous. So now people are like “Why do you have four of these jackets?” So, if I like it, and I’m going to a convention, I’ll get three of them just in case because I don’t want to not hug somebody. But that was one of those lessons! (laughs)
If you had to cosplay a character, who would you be and why?
Mmm, I do like Celica from Xenoblade, she’s pretty cute. I would like to do Rin, but the people who do it are so good and I’d feel terrible. I feel like I’d play my characters, but I couldn’t. Then you come to place like Anime Los Angeles where the cosplay is so next level so I’m like “Well, we all have a gift. (laughs) I’m a voice actor and these cosplays are no joke! Stuff like light up Overwatch cosplay, it’s all next level. What would you want to see me cosplay in?
Mmmm, we can see you as Erika. Or Rachel Alucard.
Yeah, I can Erika it out! I was doing a performance for Magnolia Memoirs in Los Angeles. A very talented set designer was dating someone in the show and I was about to meet her for the first time. So I asked him “So where’s your girlfriend?” He was like “She didn’t know you were in anime.” It turned out she was wearing a black jacket, black pants, and a black newsboy cap and then realized that I was Erika from Durarara!! So she thought “She’s going to think I’m cosplaying as her!” So she went out to the car to find other clothes to change into! (laughs)
Any advice for people trying to break into the industry?
YouTube is a fantastic resource. Crispin Freeman has a great podcast, too. But you can go on YouTube and take classes to learn what people are doing that works. Mic techniques, Blue Microphones, Snowball, there are all kinds of stuff you can look up. I didn’t have that when I started. I’m so that old that YouTube was not really a thing in 2004. There’s a lot of free resources. I would say take improv and classes. The thing about voice acting now is you can do what makes you special. It’s not about imitating someone else’s voice. I can guarantee if your best talent is imitating someone else, it’s kind of like you can’t cash check with a forged signature; your money is your actual signature. So if you have a squeaky voice, you can work. If you have a deep voice you can work. I find sometimes that new actors sometime try to be something that they’re not because they feel like that’d be a better thing. There’s enough characters in gaming, anime, and commercials, literally every voice. If you’re not from this country and you have a slight accent, don’t try to get rid of it! That could be money. It’s not like we have a lot of people from Azerbaijan. That way of speaking, that way of interpreting things make you special.