Hellsing Ultimate: The Interview

by Zac Bertschy,

Years ago, director Taliesin Jaffe, voice actor Crispin Freeman, and producer Jonathan Klein collaborated on the first English language track for the TV version of what would become one of the premiere anime franchises in America - Hellsing - and produced one of the most celebrated English dubs in the history of the medium. Now, in 2006, these three artists - along with the entire original cast - have come together to once more bring the series to life. We sat down with them for a candid chat about diving in to Hellsing Ultimate.

ANN: How do you feel about coming back to this four years later, the same roles, in some cases the same dialogue, how do you feel now?

TALIESIN: Kinda like Never Been Kissed meets Night of the Living Dead; like going back to high school five years later.

CRISPIN: It's like a nostalgia trip – like going into a strange house but finding all your grandmother's furniture there. You stumble across a chair or a table and say, ‘I know that!’ but it's in a different setting so you're not quite sure what's going on. It's an interesting sensation and you get this feeling down the back of your neck. It's a déja vu feeling of remembrance where you say to yourself, “We did this four years ago, didn't we?” and then you realize, ‘No we didn't. This is actually a new show.’”

The architecture's different. Which is cool; many times in acting what will happen is, especially if you're doing a theater piece or a film, you do the project and when the project ends you say, “Ah… now I know how to do the project.” And you think to yourself, now that I've actually done the show, we should start rehearsals again and do it from the beginning. You almost never get to do that! But in this one you do. We did Hellsing four years ago and we've watched the DVDs and we've picked it apart in our own heads because we're perfectionists about what we could have done better and what we could have improved and it's like, “Well you want to improve it, here, do it again!”

JONATHAN: I think it's just the opposite for me because when we did the first one four years ago it's like “oh shit, how are we gonna do this?” We didn't know who we were going to cast as the vampire we didn't know anything at that point. Now it's like “Can't we just get back the original cast?” That was a BIG if. If we can get that back, then we're set. But then if this continues, and hopefully it will continue, we have to take baby steps to ensure that we're doing it right in the first three or four episodes.

Do you feel more comfortable doing this material that you've technically done? And do you find yourself more concerned about that material?

CRISPIN: It doesn't feel to me like we've already done it. And it's not worrisome to me. It's sort of like the Twilight Zone to me. It's sort of an interesting sensation. What is this I'm feeling? And it's not the same, and it's funny because I have to make sure it's not the same, because the writing is different and the plot and the story are different. So there were decisions that were made based on how we did the TV series that don't necessarily apply to the OVA because it's written differently. So you have to make sure to stay with what's right in front of you, because if you try to make it like something else, then that's sort of like insisting that it be just like the Japanese. If you're constantly trying to reference some other idea of what you think it should be, rather than dealing with what it IS, then you're going to get yourself into trouble. So I have to keep reminding myself that even though I've played this before, that doesn't mean that I know exactly what's going to happen. I have to be in the moment now with the character and I have to deal with the fact that the characters are slightly different. There's a different spin on the character's relationships and I need to stay true to that now.

So returning back to this material… do you find that this new material is… I don't want to say “better”, but I know it's different. Do you find that it's giving you more freedom, or less?

TALIESIN: Very specifically I took the first job, the first Hellsing series because I read the manga. But then when the show landed on my lap, I was like, I love this. It's not the manga at all; it was this whole other creature, this classic vampire story. So I took a very classical vampire story and made a very classical vampire story. And now what I have, with the OVA, is NOT a very classical vampire story. It's almost an entirely different creature. Again, I keep saying this, it's a Hammer film now and I like Hammer films. It's going to sound different straight through.

JONATHAN: Four years ago, besides Hellsing, the only vampire anime anyone ever thought of was Vampire Hunter D. Now in the four year span there's been tons of these vampire shows.

TALIESIN: Well, there was [Vampire Princess] Miyu too…

JONATHAN: Well you have tons of this stuff and you have these sort of Hellsing-inspired anime. And now we're coming back to the original, so where do we go from here with regard to that? And yes, we have to be true to the manga, which is great, but now it's like “let's get rid of what we know as the original series and put that back in”. In some ways I'm glad we're doing this, but in other ways I'm wondering if it is that we're late now, or behind everyone else?

Are you finding this more difficult or less difficult in terms of a challenge?

CRISPIN: The wonderful thing as an actor is that when you're working on a character, you're trying to own that character in a way. When I first came to LA I felt like I had a lot to prove. Alucard was the first big role I got; I started working with Jonathan, and I was directing Strawberry Eggs and I felt like I had a lot to prove. I was the new kid on the block. Now I'm in a position four years later where I don't feel like I have to prove anything. And that's a good thing, because now I'm focusing not on making sure that what I do is good enough but I'm making sure that the story is coming across well enough. There's a slight shift there as an actor. There's a reason why older actors tend to be better is because they've proved themselves and now they're focused on playing that character as well as possible. So for me it's quite freeing in a way to come back to this story. Sort of like singing a song that I haven't sung in four or five years and coming back to it and saying to myself, “well, I have a lot more experience and a lot more life behind me now when performing this role than I did the first time”. Sort of what it must be like to be Mick Jagger to go and sing Paint It Black or something. He sang it as a young rocker when he was young and scrappy and wanted to get it out there, but when he sings it as an older guy, it's going to have a different resonance to it.

Now the big white elephant in the room whenever anyone talks about this - is that everyone expects this one to be better than the TV series. This is supposed to be a “better” representation, the animation is better, the story is better. Would you say that you are expecting a better final result? Do you think that this will be more lasting than the TV series? Or are you saying it will be two different experiences?

CRISPIN: I would question the whole white elephant premise. If you're going to call something Hellsing Ultimate, that sort of implies that it's better than the Hellsing we made before. So it's hard to get past the title of the show without setting up some sort of  set of expectations.

JONATHAN: Perhaps they're saying it's the last one.

I'm just curious about your take on the whole “better than the original” issue.

TALIESIN: The original Hellsing TV series was an angry rebel – it was definitely a spitfire. We would have fights tooth and nail sometimes. And I think that was good. It turned up the creative energy that we had.

I take full responsibility for every battle that I won for the show and every battle that I lost for the show. And I've often said that if I could go back and change certain things certainly I would, although funny enough the things I would change don't exist in this new one, and the couple of things about the new one they're being very nice about.

JONATHAN: This time last year at AX, Geneon took us out to dinner with Hirano and basically said “Go ahead and talk and see what's going on”. Originally (on the first series) when we had questions, they said, “Well give us your questions and we'll take it to Mr. Hirano.” And they were afraid to take it to Mr. Hirano because he was busy writing the manga and, he supposedly had a reputation for being close to the deadline for all his manga deliveries. I think most manga artists are like that. So they didn't want anything to sidetrack him from getting his manga delivered on time. I don't think that any of the questions made it to him. I think it just went to the producers in Japan and sometimes the producers didn't understand the nature of the question. So we were like “this is not what we're asking. We know what it means; we're asking you why this character is called Arucard and not Alucard…” and the only person who could answer that was Hirano. And it was a bit of a battle but Taliesin really stuck to his guns.

TALIESIN: Yeah I'm trying to think if there was any other show that was as physically taxing…

JONATHAN: The point is you have to reach a compromise and we reached a compromise that worked for everybody. I think we're all happy with the end result.

What do you hope to get out of revisiting this material; What sort of impact do you want it to have?

CRISPIN: That's a question of directorial writing intention. What's the impact of the artwork? I have not seen enough of the show yet to know what the overall message of the story is. So as an actor my job is mainly to make sure that I am portraying a believable character. And if I start thinking form a directorial writing position after only having seen the first few episodes I can't really speak with any authority. I don't know. When I direct a show I try to watch all the episodes so I do understand the overall intention but I'm not in that position now. So in terms of intention it's really up to the creators of Hellsing and up to Taliesin as a director to decide what the overall intention will be, because if I was directing Hellsing it would be different because we have different points of view. When I come in as an actor I try to give my best performance. Taliesin will hear it and say, “That's great. That's believable, but now I want THIS kind of read,” and I have to say, “Yes, it's your show. You're the conductor and you have to pull the sypmphony together.” If I insist that my version is the way it should be then I'm playing off key with the rest of the orchestra. So I have to say, “Yes”. My job is to figure out what Taliesin is saying and do it in such a way that it's believable his way too. And what's nice is that we're all in the same place. But I can never say that I disagree with Taliesin and my point of view on the show is superior. It doesn't matter what my point of view is; I'm not directing. The reverse happened on Strawberry Eggs when I was directing. In fact, Taliesin said as much. He came in to do some voice acting for me and he was having a little trouble getting into character; finally, he said “Oh, I get it, it's like theater.”

“Yes,” I replied and he said “Great, let's go.” That's not the way he would have directed it but once he understood my point of view as a director we were on the same page.

That leads me to my next question. When you walk in and get ready to start one of these projects and get ready to do this character again, what are your major inspirations? Where do you draw from?

TALIESIN: The old one was Dracula, Glass Darkly, Sigmund Freud's commentary on Dracula from the 1880s and then lots of punk music – lots of Sex Pistols, black metal… You have to be willing to throw around words like Catholic and Protestant like they're racial slurs, licking blood off knives, sex, blood, more sex, homosexuality, even more sex, and lesbianism. All the things about the European vampire myths are about repressed sexual tendencies which is why once those old stories became a little bit more mainstream and acceptable, then we got the vampires who were homosexual or like the Ann Rice type. So now we have vampires who are very feminine or are hyper sexualized. All European monsters have that vibe, they kind of connect at that base.

This new one is very different. With this new Hellsing series, coming years later, the dialogue is different; it's very much like the Hammer films of the 40s and 50s and even the early 60s stuff. It's kind of funny; you go from something that is kind of campy and stupid to oh my god that clown is eviscerating that child and now it's looking at the screen at me. That Evil Dead 2 vibe. I can't quite… due to other things in my life I can't quite get that heavy anger vibe I had on the first series anymore. And I don't need it. These characters are so much more sure of themselves, their relationships are so much more well defined.

CRISPIN: It's sort of similar to when I did the Revolutionary Girl Utena series. The Utena movie has a really different point of view from the TV version. So I found myself a little weirded out playing Touga because the movie version of Touga is so different from the television Touga character. So I find myself in the same position now and I'm glad I had that Utena experience because it took me a while back then to realize that I was trying to portray the motivations and intentions of the TV series version of the character in the movie and they're different animals. And now I have to do the same with Hellsing. It's great to talk about the Hammer films of the 40s and 50s, because the first Hellsing series is more classical with a punk rock feel and the OVA has a much campier element. There's this underlying, tongue in cheek feel to it. So yeah, from the ground up it's very different.

When you heard this was being produced, were you excited?

TALIESIN: I wasn't expecting to do it. I was very much of the mind that if they if they call then that would rock, but if they don't then I'm very curious to see what somebody else does. I'm very busy, I have a lot of stuff going on. It's like being called by the CIA. If they call me I'm going to go and step up to the plate. If they like what I did I'm going to come in and knock this thing out of the park.

JONATHAN: I think I was excited for several reasons. One, it was our first sequel. We never had a sequel before. I love the original series and any chance to have the original cast back to do it again was totally exciting for me. But then there was also the fear of “can I get the original cast back”, but we were like “we'll cross that bridge when we get to it”. And Geneon was very generous and very interested in helping us.

CRISPIN: Once Hellsing Ultimate was announced as something that was going to happen the fans immediately started contacting me and asking if I was going to play Alucard again. What they need to understand is that I'm not in control of that question. Still, everyone kept saying “well it's yours isn't it?” as if I could walk up to Geneon and tell them how to produce their show. In the end, it's not up to me, it's up to Geneon to hire me back. Fortunately, they did and I'm grateful for that. I think that in the age of the internet where people are able to post on bulletin boards about anime and people in the anime industry actually read those posts, fans are unaware of how much influence they can have. Anime fans have influence in a way that is just starting to happen in other segments of the entertainment industry, and I think it's important that if you're going to have that much influence then like the saying goes in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”. If you are going to have that much power, then you need to take responsibility for that power. So when you ask me if I'm going to come back and play Alucard, that's the wrong question. The question should be, would I like to play Alucard again? Of course, I'd love to play Alucard, but it's not up to me. It's up to the producers who decide to hire me. I can't force my way into playing the part. I'm the employee, not the boss.

Anime usually appeals to a younger demographic, and I know that in the past, that younger audience may have had no knowledge of the way business gets done in the entertainment industry. However, I think those days are going away. I think that the fan will have to take responsibility and acknowledge how their buying practices affect what happens in the entertainment industry. It's important for them to understand this, and many of them are figuring it out. They said to themselves, “I get it! If we want to have Crispin back then we need to tell Geneon that it's in their economic best interest to do so.” That's their power. It's no longer a monarchy where a bunch of crotchety guys in Hollywood decide what gets produced and the mass audience has no control anymore.

Now that a fan that has that kind of power he or she becomes more of a lobbyist. It's like going to Congress and saying, “We want our bill passed. We want our favorite actors in this and we want this and that to happen.” I don't know if that's good or bad, but it's the way it is. The flipside problem with that of course is that just because you're an expert on something, that doesn't mean you're any good at producing it. Just because you're a very good consumer doesn't mean that you are a very good creator. But it's also true that the consumer knows what they want and that has to be taken into account. Audiences tend not to like it when stuff gets adulterated. I think that's why Hellsing Ultimate exists; it's because someone wants to go back to a notion of Hellsing that's closer to the original manga. That's appealing to the fan base.

TALIESIN: Crispin raises a good point because the anime industry, unlike the film industry, has the ability to hear what he fans have to say. And when they see forum posts online concerning whatever issues exist, a lot of the companies take heed. It used to be like “it'll never happen, the companies will never listen to us”, but that excuse doesn't work anymore. The point is that it can happen; you just have to make sure they know why it should happen. Let the companies know what reward they'll get from making your wishes happen.

I think that when people have criticisms about quality or things like that, they should be heard. Does that mean that everything should be dictated by the fans? Of course not; sometimes the mob doesn't know best. But I'm grateful to the fans. The gatekeepers have to start dealing with the power that fandom has.

Back in 2001 when you worked on the original Hellsing you were working with what was considered an A-List, top shelf title among a sea of top shelf titles. The industry was completely different then. Now you are working on one of the very few sure things. Is that influencing the way you work on this title? Does that make you more relaxed because you know it will be a success?

CRISPIN: There is no guarantee that Hellsing Ultimate will be great just because the first one was. The success of Hellsing Ultimate depends on each of us doing our job to the best of our ability. We have to work well as a team, and I think that we do, so I think it's going to be great. Even so, we can't think about the production as if there's a guarantee that it will be good. Then we'll get lazy and complacent and get ourselves into a lot of trouble!

JONATHAN: I never believe that anything is guaranteed to be a hit, but I think it helps the chances because it already has a core following that goes with it and I appreciate that. It's one of those titles that also appeals outside fandom, into the mainstream a little bit. I trust these guys implicitly; they know their stuff. I want them to do what they did on the first one but approach it with a fresh angle.

To wrap up, if there was one title you could've worked on but never had the chance, what would that have been?

CRISPIN: It would be Escaflowne, because I always wanted to work on the English dub for that series; more recently, I'd have to say Tokyo Godfathers, because I would like to play Hanna.

TALIESIN: My old school fetishism runs to Legend of Black Heaven, Akira, Rose of Versailles, but I have a weird answer in that I want to work on something new. I have a dream to restart the Classics Illustrated animated series. Doing the Fall of Rome as an animated series, Nicholas Nickleby, or even War of the Worlds.

JONATHAN: I love Monkey Punch's Lupin the 3rd! That or I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when they recorded the original Star Blazers just to see how those guys did it back then without the benefit of digital technology.

Special thanks to our guests for their graciousness in granting this interview.

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