Ask anyone to name an iconic duo, and they’ll likely give you an obvious response: Abbott and Costello. Kenan and Kel. SpongeBob and Patrick. Barb and Star. (Okay, maybe that last one is just when I ask my friends.)
But the best answer is Ash and PIkachu. There has been no more consistent, dependable pair than the Pokémon twosome over the last 25 (!!!) years. Which is why the news that the eternal 10-year-old boy and his trusty electric rat would be retired from the series next year was unbelievable. It was perhaps inevitable, as all journeys must come to an end. Yet to millions of fans, Ash and Pikachu are the heart and soul of the franchise. What is Pokémon without them?
Bringing that heart and soul to life for the majority of Ash and Pikachu’s quest to become the best Pokémon-training team in the world—which Ash will complete early next year, ending his 1,200-episode effort to do so—were the voices behind the characters. For the past 16 years, the English-language voice of Ash has been Sarah Natochenny. The actress first stepped into the role as a 19 year old; she, like millions of others, grew up right alongside our beloved Pokémon hero. Except that she was giving voice to that coming-of-age experience.
Natochenny isn’t the actress who voiced Ash when many of us started watching Pokémon; that would be Veronica Taylor, who, along with the rest of the original voice cast, was replaced in 2006 after a different company acquired the U.S. series. But Natochenny was, is, and will always be the longest-tenured voice of the iconic character. She even has her own trusty partner named Pikachu; hers, however, is a rescue cat.
There is no one more heartbroken by the culmination of Ash’s journey than Natochenny. But the actress’ career is only getting started, as she tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. We spoke with Natochenny about how she’s taking the news of Ash’s retirement; how her connection to fans has only grown in recent years; and whether she’ll be part of the new Pokémon journey.
Ash is finally the Pokémon master after 25 years. You’ve voiced him for nearly 17 of them. When did you find out that he was finally entering retirement?
I found out on Tuesday, and the news broke on Friday, so they gave me the perfect amount of time to not be burdened with a secret, but also have time to process my emotions and decide how I want to present them to the world. As the voice of Ash, just coming from my perspective, I wanted to put it into my own words.
What was your immediate reaction? Did it come as a shock to you that Pokémon was finishing Ash’s story?
Yeah, it was. I sort of expected it, just based on the storyline, and where Master Journeys [the show’s current season] was going, how he was visiting everybody. I felt like this was a place where Ash’s storyline could come to an end.
But of course I was in denial about it. The news in the meeting definitely came as a shock to the system. Even if I knew it was coming, just to hear those words would have been shocking. I was taking notes during the meeting, thinking, “If this is what they’re gonna tell me, I’ll just be taking notes, and I’ll be in a professional headspace. I’ll be fine.” And then my hand just gave out, and I started crying.
When you’re doing something your entire adult life, it’s an emotional thing. It’s an acting role, and I’ve grown as an actor so much through the course of these 17 years, so this is incredibly meaningful to me. It was really hard to keep it together.
I started off as a fan. I was 11 years old when the show came out, so Ash and I are kind of the same age, too. Canonically, we were born in the same year.
So you really did grow up together.
When I started doing the voice of Ash, I wasn’t that great at it in the beginning. I didn’t know what dubbing was, and in my audition, I had no idea that I was dubbing this [from Japanese into English]. And I definitely got a response on the internet for my performance. I got better over the years, just like Ash got better over the years, and I persevered, and I never gave up.
In 2019, I won a Voice Arts Award, and he won the [Pokémon League] that year. I mean, there are just so many parallels.
How much of your life has been dominated by being Ash during the last 17 years?
For the first, I would say, 15 years, it wasn’t that much, because I wasn’t doing conventions. In the last year, I’ve started doing conventions like once a month, and now I see just how much my work and the show has affected people.
We do this show in a booth. I’m by myself. I don’t have any other actors with me. There’s no one being like, “That was great,” except the director, so I don’t see the fans who are watching this show day in and day out.
But you’ve been a big part of the fans’ lives this whole time.
They write to me, and they tell me that I’ve gotten them through depressive episodes and gotten them through difficult times when they needed a distraction. And I’ve inspired them to draw more and to be creative. I went to the Nickelodeon studios, and I saw all the artists’ cubicles. They all have Pokémon doodles in them. This show has had such a huge impact, and it took me getting out into the world to see that and really understand that Pokémon has given me this position that I’m in … to be an embodiment for what that is.
That must be so inspiring. What drove you to finally start engaging with the fans directly after all that time?
Before [recently], I just didn’t really think about doing conventions. It wasn’t on my radar. I was just like, “I’m just going to be an actor.”
I don’t know why it just didn’t sit the same way [with me] that it’s been sitting this year. … Maybe it’s because Master Journeys is such a culmination [of the Pokémon story]. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling it subconsciously. But I just wanted to get out there, and once I felt it [at a convention in October 2021], I was like, “There’s something really powerful here.”
How many of the fans that you encounter grew up with your version of Ash, versus those who have been watching since it started with the original voice cast?
It’s both. But I do get a lot of kids and teenagers, and people who say to me that they grew up with my voice.
Have you met any of the original voice actors, like Veronica Taylor, the initial voice of Ash?
Yeah. Once. I’d really rather not talk about it.
That’s totally fine. You perform alone, which is pretty common with voice acting. But have you bonded with the other members of the cast as well?
Yeah, that’s been really fun. We all lived in New York before the production expanded to LA, so we would get together a lot. I made some really lifelong friends on this show. I can’t say that I’ll miss them, because I’m going to see them just as much as I saw them before—it’s not like we were ever working [in the same room] together. We’re still gonna have dinner and hang out.
Ash’s journey wasn’t just yours, but that of the entire cast and crew of the show too. How did hearing the news that the show was moving on from his story affect them, when you all found out?
We were collectively sad. … I took the meeting [when we found out that Ash’s story was ending] on my phone, so I couldn’t really see very much. I couldn’t see all the tears. But I was told that one actor left the room at some point. I don’t know if that was an emotional reaction, or if she just had something to do. [Laughs.]
The producers were [also] very clearly trying to hold it together. They’ve been with me for a long time. These folks have known me and watched me grow up from being a kid to this adult, you know? So I think they tried very hard not to let it show.
It must be even harder when it’s not really your team’s decision either. You’re the cast for the English version of a Japanese show.
Yeah, you have got to respect it. [The producers of the anime] are some of the most creative people on the planet. They had a show run for 25 years successfully. Once we went to Netflix. you could see how popular it was, because it kept popping up to number one. It was always in the Top 10. … That’s very rare, so I trust whatever they’re going to do next is going to be just as wonderful and exciting.
Have you been following the fans’ responses to the news online? Have any of their reactions surprised you?
The surprise that I got was at the convention that I did [last] weekend after the news broke. A lot of people were asking me If i’m going to voice one of the main characters in the new series. And I’m like, the fact that you care and even think to [ask that] is so flattering and surprising to me. … You would think they’d just be like, “Goodbye. Thank you for so many years as Ash,” and that’s it, all done.
I’ve got no idea, obviously, [of whether I’ll be back for the next iteration of the show]. But you know, I’m very open to that. I don’t know if it’s realistic.
It makes sense to me—as fans of cartoons in general, you start to become attached not just to the voices, but to the voice actors too.
Yeah. I will always be here. I’ll always be the voice of Ash … and present myself that way, and remember everything that this did for me.
I had so much fun being able to stretch all the muscles within this one character. It’s such a great thing for an actor to do, and it made me better. Fans over the years have commented on how I’ve gotten better.
It’s so unique to play one character for so long. It must also be exciting, because you’re constantly getting these new, young viewers coming in.
Yeah, and parents are showing it to their kids. And those kids are going to show it to their kids. I’m not worried about this era of Pokémon disappearing. I think it’s [like] Mozart. It’s going to be around for generations to come, and people are going to love it and reference it.
Other than Ash, who are your favorite characters from the show, and why are they Team Rocket?
[Laughs.] I was gonna say Team Rocket! Oh, they’re so mischievous. They’re so exciting. … They’re just iconic in my eyes, because I grew up with them.
I remember with my first director on the show, I had to shout “Team Rocket!” And this director made me do it, like, 30 times. He was doing an impression, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna do it exactly the way you’re doing it.” He’s like, “No, it’s, ‘Team Rocket!’” I’m like “Team Rocket, Team Rocket! What was the problem?” So there is a very specific way to shout “Team Rocket,” apparently.
Amazing. Last question: What is your favorite Pokémon?
I mean, I think Pikachu is the cutest animated character that’s ever been drawn. And [longtime actress] Ikue Otani’s voice, just—my god! She’s brilliant.
Beyond that, I love Meltan. My favorite Pokémon to play on the show is Buneary.
Oh, you got to voice some of the Pokémon, too?
Yeah, I played 21 of the Pokémon. … Actors already on the show would also play some of the Pokémon, because there’s so many of them, and we’re already in the booth. We’re already there.
Those are good choices. Meltan, I think, is an underrated pick.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.