Dragon Quest XI’s Shai Matheson Interview
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, which was originally released for the PlayStation 4 in the west in 2018, has won many awards including RPGamer’s Game of the Year. One of most popular characters was the flamboyant and outlandish Sylvando. Elmon Dean Todd had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with Sylvando’s voice actor, Shai Matheson, about his acting role behind the scenes of one of the most popular JRPG series of all time.
Elmon Dean Todd: Could you tell us about yourself? How did you get into acting?
Shai Matheson: I always knew I wanted to be an actor. I was the silly kid in class doing funny voices. Aladdin was my absolute favourite film growing up, and Robin Williams as the Genie changed my life, I think. It inspired me like nothing else. I did shows and performed a bit in school, and assumed it would continue. I just never realised acting was “a job” and was going to be such hard work….I ended up training as an actor in London at a great drama school called LAMDA. After graduating I started working here as an actor, and before I knew it, it’s become my home and where I do most of my work. I never imagined it when I set out — but life happens, right?
EDT: You have worked on other video games and TV shows. Could you tell us what else you have acted in?
SM: It’s always a difficult question for an actor to answer. I cringe talking about what I’ve done. But then this wouldn’t be a very interesting interview if I didn’t, I guess. Haha.
I started out doing mostly theatre and gradually moved into more TV and voice work. I’ve done a number of shows in the past few years, the most recent ones were George Clooney’s Catch-22 last year, and this year, an episode of a show called Brassic here in the UK, in which I played a character that was a bit like “Sylvando on steroids”. I had a blast doing that!
Voice work wise, I’ve done quite a wide variety of games in the last few years. Some as the background characters and some as “named characters. There’s some very exciting upcoming projects I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but some notable ones that have recently come are Bleeding Edge where I play a character called Zero Cool, which I LOVED — he’s so cool and funny and witty! Then there’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, where I voiced the “replicated” version of Nomad, who’s a real badass, which was a cool change of pace from the more over-the-top characters.
I also did a couple of characters on Playmobil’s Top Agents, on their English YouTube channel, which was so much fun, as well as a character called Dollop on a lovely Amazon Prime kids’ show called Jessy and Nessy.
EDT: Sylvando is one of the most popular characters of Dragon Quest XI. Did you expect him to become a fan favourite? Has this led to any interesting fan interactions?
SM: I’m thrilled at how well DQ11, and Sylvando specifically, were received! Considering it’s been out for so long, I’m amazed and excited that people are still so engaged with it — such a great fan base!
Sylvando was only one part of the huge Dragon Quest machine, with some fantastic cast and crew doing incredible work. He’s definitely a result of a collaborative team effort. In most sessions it was myself working with our wonderful performance director Jon, the writer Olly and a 2nd John on Skype from Japan (and the engineers of course who are real wizards). They allowed me so much creative freedom, and I think we all really loved Sylv and wanted to do the best job we could with him, especially as he was quite different in tone to the others. They let me get away with quite a lot of over-the-top stuff in the studio, and luckily it seems to have paid off (phew). But it was always important to try and keep him “real”, and not a caricature, and balance every “fabulous” moment with a heartfelt or grounded one. We didn’t want him to be defined by his mannerisms but by his heart, and I’m so happy that players have related to that and picked up on it.
I don’t think you can ever anticipate how a character would be perceived, and the truth is I was a bit worried that maybe he’d be misunderstood or badly received because of how unapologetic and flamboyant the performance was. I think we knew people might love him or hate him, and I’m grateful that not many people hate him. haha.
I haven’t had any direct fan interactions — probably cause I’m not very active on Twitter… But every once in a while I see some amazing comments or fanart, and it makes me so proud and humbled. I also love how he’s been embraced as a gay or queer icon and that people can see a bit of themselves in him, or feel like he represents them. I think it’s great to have a different type of role model to what you normally see in games. And this is without any of it ever being mentioned in the game, as it’s not really relevant. Sylvando just is who he is and he doesn’t need to fit into any mould. That’s a great way for us all to be.
EDT: How did you learn about the role for Sylvando? And could you tell us about the audition?
SM: It was just another audition through my agent, with a great games studio I had done some work for before, called Side UK. This was all the way back in early 2017 (I think). I was actually up for Prince Faris as well, which I thought was the one I would more likely get (I have Middle Eastern blood). Sylvando was just the fun “long shot”. I was given his picture, had a notion of an accent based on his name (or I think they suggested it as an option) and him being a performer, so I just went for it — and it clicked! The director seemed to like it and encouraged me to experiment, and a few days later I got the part. At the time it was the biggest character I had ever played in a game so I was quite shocked (and honoured), and well…. very nervous. But it all worked out in the end.
EDT: Were you aware of the Dragon Quest series before getting the role of Sylvando? Have you played any games from the series?
SM: I definitely was aware it existed, and that it was a big franchise, but I never played it. I’m sorry to say I’m not a gamer.
EDT: Since completing your voice-over for Dragon Quest XI, have you gone back and played it yet?
SM: Obviously as it’s such a big part of my work I’d love to get into it, but I also know that it would take over my life and I’ll wanna play 24/7. I already watch way too much TV, and this would certainly consume any spare time I have! But I have seen some of the YouTube gameplay and cutscenes — and loved it. It was also great to see (and hear) the other performances, which you don’t always get to do while recording. Everyone did such a great job on it! No wonder people love the game so much!
EDT: Sylvando is an over-the-top, expressive character full of charisma and integrity. How much do you resemble him in real life?
SM: Haha I wish I had half his charisma, confidence and resilience! I can be a bit shy in real life (as my name suggests), except when I’m working or with close friends. But when I do “let go” I am quite expressive and I think that carried through to Sylv. Like I said, since I was a kid I found comfort in creating characters, and with Sylv I definitely got to explore a wide range of performance! I certainly like to make people smile, so we definitely have that in common.
EDT: Are there any memorable lines or favourite moments from the game that you enjoyed doing?
SM: I mean, there are so many — he does get some great lines and crazy moments! I really couldn’t choose, sorry! It’s quite funny (to me) that some takes I did in the studio as a joke made it into the game! I love that! I do like when he imitates others (like Michelle), or plays “Sterling Silva”, etc. — basically any time I was allowed to go even more silly than I already was. I loved doing the “yoohoos” and “whoopsies”, but I also like the moments when he’s just stripped bare and talks about his feelings, or opens up, and his dad stuff, etc. That was a nice challenge — to show the contrast in him… Oh, and of course when he kicks serious butt as a badass fighter! I especially liked recording random fight and spell sounds. That’s when you really get to create some “unusual” sounds.
EDT: After its original release on the PlayStation 4, Dragon Quest XI S was announced for the Nintendo Switch with extra cutscenes and content. How was the recording handled for the new content? Did you return to the studio once again, or did you record it initially with the original content?
SM: I did go back into the studio for new material, which was SO exciting! When we finished originally I was sad to say goodbye to him, and didn’t realise they’d be bringing us back for more, so it was a real treat to get to revisit him and see the lovely team in the studio again.
EDT: Did you face any challenges for voicing Sylvando? And how was this role/project different from your previous acting roles?
SM: Well, he’s a fantasy character in a fantasy world but, as I touched on earlier, you still want to make him feel real and have heart and weight as well as “performance”. This sometimes was a challenge given his animation was pretty flamboyant most of the time. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with flamboyance — on the contrary, we relished in it, but it was important that it didn’t seem like a cliche or a stereotype. That it came from a place of confidence in his abilities and characteristics, and being unafraid to be who he wants to be! We always said he chooses how to define himself rather than be defined by how others see him! He’s a real jack-of-all-trades and when you think you’ve got him figured out, he’ll surprise you with something unexpected!As an actor, there was some extra work in maintaining a consistent accent and tone, finding light and shade. He was definitely the most “over the top” character I had ever played till then. But I was so lucky that I got the freedom and a support to try different things in the studio (and they didn’t always work, the outtakes would be quite something).
EDT: Were there any other characters you really liked from Dragon Quest XI?
SM: Oh, that’s hard – I think everyone did such a good job! I enjoyed how “dry” Hendrik was and that Sylv was always trying to crack his defences. Rab made me laugh. Veronica was super cute… So many more!
But I have to say my absolute favourite is Davé, and that’s because he’s voiced by our voice director Jon! It cracked me up so much in the studio, and I loved imitating his voice back at him as a joke!
PS — I also like the Headless Horseman a lot… because I played him!!
EDT: During my interview with Lauren Coe (Veronica), she mentioned meeting you a few times on her way out of the studio. Did you meet any other actors for Dragon Quest XI?
SM: Yes! I did meet her and she was so sweet! At that point you have very little idea who’s who, or what the others sound like, let alone look like. You only hear more snippets as time goes by. The thing is it’s all under so much secrecy, so we’re not allowed to talk about what we’re doing even to other actors in the building, so you might never know that the people you’re meeting in the hallway are your game buddies! But Lauren and I did know, because we were introduced.It’s funny sometimes after the release when you see the cast list and realise you know some of the people in the game! I recently worked on a radio play with Joseph Balderama who plays Don Rodrigo (Sylv’s dad), and didn’t even realise it was him!
EDT: Outside of acting, what other pursuits or hobbies do you have?
SM: I’m so boring… I love films, theatre and endless TV. I guess I’m very lucky to work in what is traditionally a hobby for others, but then it does mean my hobby is also my work and my work is my hobby. Did any of that make sense?
EDT: Could you tell us about any projects you’re working on, or plan to work on in the future?
SM: There’s a few exciting games coming up that unfortunately I’m not allowed to talk about yet! Apart from those, I did a game called Chicken Police, coming out soon, which is a cool film noir-style mystery where all the characters are animals. I play a chicken detective called Marty. So much fun!
There’s also another Playmobil Top Agents coming out sometime soon, I think, and some other stuff in the pipeline. And of course there’s Ghost Recon, Bleeding Edge, and the Amazon Prime show I mentioned, all out fairly recently.
If you live in the UK, or can find it on a streaming service near you, I highly recommend Brassic, especially if you’re a Sylvando fan. Haha.
EDT: The Dragon Quest series is a cultural icon in Japan, and has a strong following throughout the world. Dragon Quest XI has won many awards, including Game of the Year for RPGamer in 2018, and like the previous games of the series, will likely be revisited for many years onward. How do you feel, knowing that you contributed to its success?
SM: So many talented people worked so hard “behind the scenes” before us actors ever got involved, and they deserve all the credit and the awards! It’s that team effort that has resulted in the success of the game! My part was very small in this – but I am very very proud nonetheless, and am thrilled that people like what I did and have connected with Sylv. I loved doing it so much – so it’s very rewarding that others feel strongly about it too. It seems the game has some very loyal and dedicated fans, and a strong community around it – which is great! I’m especially touched that some people, especially younger people, have found inspiration and a connection with Sylvando, and a significance that goes beyond the game itself. That’s really special and makes me even prouder!As an actor you want to be associated with quality work and a good story, get to work with nice colleagues and make people entertained – I got to tick all those boxes with this game – so I’m truly grateful. “Truly truly!” 🙂
RPGamer and Elmon Dean would like to express our deepest thanks to Shai Matheson for letting us learn about the behind-the-scenes recording process of Dragon Quest XI and for answering our questions. Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age, the enhanced version of Dragon Quest XI, is currently available for Nintendo Switch and will launch December 4, 2020, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via Steam and Microsoft Store. The Xbox One and Microsoft Store PC versions will be included as part of the Xbox Game Pass subscription service. Follow Shai Matheson on Twitter: @shaimatheson