Jason Liebrecht On Dabi’s Big My Hero Academia Twist
Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia’s Jason Liebrecht opens up on his prolific voice acting career, the industry’s changes, and what’s to come.
This article contains spoilers for My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan.
The anime industry continues to evolve in groundbreaking ways and there have never been more opportunities available for both fans and voice actors alike. Ernesto Jason Liebrecht has cut his teeth with Funimation–now Crunchyroll–since the company’s infancy and he’s been involved with iconic properties that cover everything from Dragon Ball Z Kai, D. Gray-man, and even video game juggernauts like Borderlands 2. 2022 and 2023 have been big years for Jason as two of his biggest characters, Dabi from My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan‘s Zeke Jaeger, experience seismic character arcs that forever change the scope of their series.
As part of 2023’s Anime Milwaukee festivities, Jason Liebrecht gets candid with Den of Geek on the evolution of his roles and range over a career that spans more than two decades, the similarities between his complicated characters on Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia, and the pressure he faced to do that scene justice with Dabi.
DEN OF GEEK: You’ve played so many unique characters between different series, but are there certain traits that attract you to a role?
JASON LIEBRECHT: As you know, we don’t ultimately get to pick the roles that we play, but fortunately I’ve worked with a lot of the same people for a couple of decades. As a result, we get to know each other and people get insight into your personality. You determine who you work and collaborate well with. I think that the result of that is you have talented directors, like Colleen Clinkenbeard, who distinctly seem to take the personalities of their friends/actors in mind when they cast what they’re directing. That’s been the case throughout my career once I primarily got into the whole voice acting realm.
I also feel like what draws me into a character changes over time. If you ask me on any given day, you’ll likely get a different answer. Initially, when I started working with Funimation, it was all young heroes. It was all of these characters that were at the higher pitch of my range. Warriors, but younger ones, who are pure and honorably intentioned. At some point I got–not bored–but ready for something else. The first thing they let me kick out was the Millennium Earl in D. Gray-man. With that one, we actually made a bit of a bargain. At the time, the acting pool was much smaller and they really wanted me for LOBBY, but I really wanted the Earl. We met in the middle and I did both. They just made sure that it was a situation where audiences couldn’t be able to tell that I was voicing the bad guy. With the good guy, they needed to know it was me.
That’s such a rare privilege to get to do.
Oh yeah, that would never in a million years happen today. There’s no way.
It’s so cool to have the feather in your cap.
Absolutely. That’s one of my favorite things. When audiences can’t tell that it’s me doing a voice. It’s great when people know my work and recognize me. That’s lovely and I feel very appreciated. However, when you’ve disguised yourself enough that they can’t tell, it feels like you’ve really pulled off some acting.
In My Hero Academia, Dabi has held onto a huge secret for years now that’s finally come to light. Is it a relief to be past that point and to get to really celebrate that character this season?
You have no idea. I have to admit, I was getting pretty impatient. I’ve had some big beans to spill in the past!
Dabi finally got his big showcase in the recent “Dabi’s Dance” episode. Was it a sequence you studied for a while? Did you do a lot of takes for that big speech?
That was almost all my first passes. I knew that it was coming. Who he is was revealed to me right when it happened in the manga, so that’s how long I’ve been sitting on this information. Since then, initially, I tried to do what I do with Attack on Titan, which is to keep my head in the sand and know nothing. That way I feel like I give a more honest portrayal, especially in those first couple of takes. In this instance, there was no doing that because the fans of this particular franchise couldn’t help themselves. Whenever someone came up to me in line they’d scream it out. When that dam first broke, I just let it, and when people asked me if I wanted spoilers, I’d say, “yes,” as long as he’s not dying. Don’t let me know if I’m dying.
That scene was the most pressure that I’ve felt in a long time. I didn’t necessarily feel it while I was recording, but after we were done I really wanted to have done it all justice, even more than I normally do. I feel like a lot of people were waiting for this moment and that they really had high, high expectations for how it would go. I always come after the Japanese seiyuu [voice actors] and when he does a good job it has our fans hoping that I’ll do the same. A lot of it is positive reinforcement, but that distinctly ups the pressure to an extent. I know there will be some detractors who aren’t into it, because there always are, but you can’t let that get to you when you do what I do for a living.
I also feel like the anime caught up really quickly, too! They waited and waited and waited–and no offense to those who enjoy the hijinks at the high school–but now the anime has properly caught up and it feels like it just happened all of a sudden.
As someone who’s watched from the beginning, it’s so nice to see the tone mature with the characters. It’s so dark now.
Oh yeah, it’s not the same show anymore. It kept with that playful, sitcom-y high school stuff for a while, but the stakes are just so much higher now. That audience has stuck around and they’re evolving with the show.
You also have a bit of a similar situation going on with Zeke from Attack on Titan…
And it’s crazy that those two arcs are happening concurrently! That will never happen to me again. I feel incredibly lucky to have both of those stories happening at the same time.
With the final season of Attack on Titan gearing up, has it been exciting getting to watch that series come to a close? The level of enthusiasm for it all is kind of unprecedented.
It’s exciting. I’m a little sad that it’s going to end. I kind of came into Attack on Titan late, even though Zeke has been a presence in that series since its inception. He’s super mysterious, not unlike Dabi. Both of their initial appearances were quite similar in terms of the feeling. I’m stoked. Zeke’s become a main character–and rightfully so–so it’s sad to say goodbye on that level. He’s a Titan, so he’s got an expiration date, and he knows it. When people are like, “Do you know what’s going to happen?” I’m like, “Well, I’m gonna’ die.” That’s not a spoiler. We’re all going to die, but this guy knows precisely when he’s going to die. No, I’m not worried, but definitely a little melancholy along with excitement.
Do you find yourself intimidated by any roles or are there any characters that you immediately would rule out playing, or do you trust your director to help you find the right take?
I don’t know if it’s specific to roles. I know that I’m a funny person in real life. I’ve played in comedies before, but relatively rarely. So when I’m cast in something as the comic relief, that initially concerns me a little bit but then I remember that I have this tool in my toolbox. Just lean on the director and trust.
You’ve voiced a lot of video game characters. Are you a big gamer and have you played the games that you’ve worked on and is that a fun experience?
It’s a little surreal, but I don’t have a lot of time to do it. The one that I did the most of that with was Borderlands 2, and I still think that’s a great game. It’s my favorite installment in that franchise, and it’s not just because Mordecai talks a lot. If anything, I’ve muted the game when it’s a particularly damning part of a level when he’s barking in your ear. It’s like the voice in your head, but suddenly now it’s playing through all of the speakers. Yeah, that’s distinctly surreal and annoying, but mostly I don’t have time to play them.
You’re the lead in an upcoming feature, Rear View Cataclysm, which also has your voice acting collaborator, Elizabeth Maxwell. Was it nice to get to work in that capacity and already have a short hand with her?
Elizabeth got the audition first, called me, and was like, “Jason, this character is you. It’s not just like you or someone you could play well; it’s pretty much you.” I read it and she was right. I couldn’t believe it. So she suggested that I come to the audition with her and read with her in the scene. So we worked on the scenes together, read for her audition, and she knocked it out of the park. But they were also like, “Holy crap, who is this?” when it came to me.
Would you like to do more on-camera acting? Is that something you’re looking to move more towards?
Absolutely. It’s interesting because I feel like voice acting is technically more difficult. Just in terms of how you only have one of your weapons. When you have your full body at your disposal–when you have everything–you have all your weapons. When you’re behind the mic you can only express yourself with one thing, which is naturally more challenging. Especially when you then need to maintain the series’ degree of honesty. In something like Attack on Titan, it has a film-like feel. It’s over the top in moments, sure, but it’s over the top when it comes to graphic violence and intensity. The acting, however, is really grounded in reality and very realistic. Truly conversational.
And I’m sure it’s just naturally restrictive when you also have to match mouth-flaps and making all of that work.
JL: Oh yeah, when it comes to anime–anime specifically and dub work–you’re absolutely right and it’s another set of restraints. Lines need to start here and end here. Then you’ve got the flow of the language, matching the mouth-flaps, rewriting on the fly. We also do this stuff cold. We don’t get the scripts in advance. It’s great training for all kinds of other acting. I still want to be on screen. I still want to kick some ass and take some names. I still want to be in an action movie or join one of those hero universes.
Well, a live-action My Hero Academia movie is happening. Clearly you need to work your way into that!
They’re doing a live-action Borderlands, too! I had a lot of people who were like, “You’ve got to figure out how to get in there. You could do that!” I’d love to have a read.
You’ve been voice acting for over two decades at this point…
It’s my 21st year.
Your voice acting career can drink now!
This is true!
In that time, the voice acting industry continues to change in exciting ways. Have you noticed these changes and what shifts have affected voice acting since you’ve started?
I don’t think I noticed them as they were happening, but it’s gradually gotten much better. There’s a much higher quality and more solid acting than there used to be. Even when I started. One of the first people who gave me a break in the industry was Chris Sabat, but I think that he was truly fascinated by what I did in theater and how I studied this craft for much of my life. That wasn’t the standard. Many voice actors now have that same background, but it wasn’t the same 20 years ago. 20 years ago, it was a novelty, so I stood out as a real actor. Voice acting has definitely come a long way, for the better. There’s also a much bigger talent pool now. Back in the day, there were certain roles that I knew I would get simply if I read for them. I knew I’d be in contention. I don’t know that anymore. I don’t begrudge anyone, but there’s so much good talent out there.
My Hero Academia’s current season streams on Saturdays on Crunchyroll, with episodes also airing on Adult Swim’s Toonami programming block.