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Erika Ishii may not be a household-name but the genderfluid actor’s voice is recognized by millions of gamers as Valkyrie, the star of Apex Legends Season 9. In April the online game, which has been declared the best modern battle royale game by the game review site IGN, reached 100 million unique players, and that audience is getting to know Ishii’s very butchy character Kairi Imahara who grew up in the “shadow” of her father, Viper. Her official bio concludes, “But even though she had her ladies, her liquor, and her love of the sky, she was still obsessed with finding the man who’d put her father in harm’s way: his commander, Kuben Blisk.”
Ishii uses she/they pronouns and says they identify as queer, pansexual, or bisexual, or just say, “I am attracted to humans.” In addition to her role as Valkyrie, they voiced Ana Bray & Kridis in Destiny 2, and had roles in Cyberpunk 2077, Fortnite, and Sailor Moon. She recently spoke with Out Traveler about their career, her Hollywood roots, and their favorite places in Los Angeles.
For the uninitiated, what is Apex Legends?
Apex Legends is a free-to-play online battle royale game available on all gaming systems. The short version is that 20 teams of 3 players are dropped onto an island and gather supplies and weapons, then fight it out until only one team is left standing. One thing that makes the game unusual for its genre is its compelling and grounded characters, relationships, and extensive lore. (I may be biased but also, I was a fan of the game before I was cast!) What’s even more remarkable is its intersectional inclusiveness.
Tell us about Valkyrie.
She’s a badass flyboy following in the footsteps of her ace pilot father (a fan favorite villain from Respawn’s previous game Titanfall 2), but finally striking out to make a name for herself. I’m similarly thrilled to be continuing the legacy of this incredible game and to be representing communities I belong to while diving into this whole, layered character. She’s mixed Japanese, she’s lesbian (and not in a tokenized way, but she embraces her sexuality while not being defined by it), but more than that she’s cool. And a bit of a hot mess. So, I get to represent that aspect of my identity as well!
How have you built your career while staying authentic?
Early on, I got the unfortunate old Hollywood advice: “Don’t disclose your sexuality or politics, you don’t want to lose work!” and “Make yourself likeable to everyone!” I was lucky to quickly be assured by my friends and community that was not [necessary]. On the contrary, I have benefitted from being very public about who I am, both in finding a like-minded community and in booking roles that resonate. The industry is beginning to recognize the value of authenticity and inclusion. It makes for better art and it’s what the majority of the world wants to see. We’ve got a lot of work still to do, but even in the past couple of years I’ve seen better roles and more attempts to cast appropriately for ethnicity, sexuality, and gender identification.
In addition, where traditional Hollywood was lacking, tabletop roleplaying games and other online projects have allowed me to create the characters and stories I wanted to see in the world. I think it was a real game changer for me when I created a bisexual, nonmonogamous, and radical progressive character for my Vampire the Masquerade show and the community’s response was an overwhelming, “Yes please, more of this!”
Ishii in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles
Tell me about your activism. What drives you?
I hope to change the world through stories and the communities that form around them. I am endlessly inspired by my friends, family, and online community. My twitch channel viewers have raised well over $100,000 over the past few years for numerous charities covering a myriad of causes: National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI), The Trevor Project, Black Girls Code, The Okra Project, Worldbuilders, ACLU, ExtraLife, and more. Friends have fundraised at my 24-hour livestreamed parties by doing things from Jello-wrestling to pie-throwing, eating spiders, writing, and reading erotic fanfiction, and lighting each other on fire. So many nerds who are passionate about pop culture just want to be as heroic as the characters they admire. When given the chance, they more than prove themselves worthy.
Ishii in a scene from the short film And Then by Jenn Ravenna Tran
Tell us about visiting someplace you were afraid you wouldn’t fit in.
In early 2020 I was in Japan shooting a wlw [woman loving woman] short film (And Then, by Jenn Ravenna Tran). I wasn’t sure how my style and presentation would be received, and I did feel a bit out of place, although almost everyone was very polite. But when we filmed in a “girls-only” queer bar in Shinjuku called Goldfinger, the owner and regulars were thrilled to welcome us in and told us the history of the bar and the community pride in that area. It felt like that community spirit transcends global cultures.
Ishii at the Tokyo lesbian bar Goldfinger
You were in Vampire the Masquerade: L.A. By Night. Can you give us a vampire’s guide to LA at night?
I haven’t hit the town for... oh noooo over a year, due to quarantine, but in the before times I loooved exploring all of LA. Every neighborhood is different. There’s goth or emo nights at places in Hollywood and Echo Park. My favorite place in town is The Magic Castle, but you must be a member or convince a friend who is a member to take you. My go-to used to be the Santa Monica pier and downtown LA’s bars and fine dining. For a quiet moment, go to Griffith Observatory at dusk. Find an isolated spot and watch the city start to light up. When I was a struggling performer, I’d get frustrated and drive up there on my own, look out over the town, and remember everything I love about it.
I’m a bit of an animation/sci fi/Comic Con nerd. Where should folks like me go in LA?
Heck yes. Where shouldn’t you go?? Love our local comic shops and nerd bars (Guildhall, thank you for welcoming our raucous post-twitch show nights). Specialty shops like Geeky Teas or Little Tokyo’s pop culture shops or galleries like Q Pop. You can do studio tours! Warner Bros has costumes and props from their films in a mini museum. And I don’t care how many times I go on that Universal tram tour, it’s still movie magic to me.
You’ve got family roots in Hollywood. How does that influence how you see Hollywood/L.A.?
Oh boy! I get to give my Hollywood Dream Speech! Everyone in LA is here with a dream. The cost of living is ridiculous, the traffic is awful, it moves at a grueling pace, and the hustle can be discouraging. But people bear all that because they’re dreaming of something, and they hope to find it here. Before he was thrown in an internment camp, my grandpa was an artist at Disney who went on strike with the animators when they asked for better treatment. Both my parents were below-the-line crew members and in their time worked grueling hours. Their hard work and dedication to the crafts they loved inspired me.
What’s your favorite insider tip for tourists visiting Hollywood?
Don’t just go to the tourist areas. Yes of course WeHo (Hamburger Mary’s and drag events, bars, and more) and Hollywood landmarks are great, but find the hole-in-the-wall dive bars and unassuming strip mall sushi places. Go to an improv show and an open mic night (As a former frequenter and performer I warn you they might not always be good but you will definitely see funny people you recognize from shows.). Definitely follow that with an unmarked food truck. Downtown’s fashion and fabric districts are A Vibe. My home away from home is Little Tokyo.
Ishii in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo
What’s your favorite queer spot in Los Angeles?
Wherever my hot friends are hanging out. I’m serious. There’s gay communities and events everywhere. But the thing that’s really special in LA is when you find your people, who encourage you to be who you are and make you feel you belong. And then it’s wherever you find your favorite regular watering hole.
When you were a kid you appeared on the sit-com Full House. The Full House house in San Francisco apparently still draws tourists. Are there any other real world locations your fans can go?
(I’m not in many shows that have real world landmarks but...) It’s fun in LA By Night that all of us are very familiar with the LA landmarks, so we’ll bring them up in improvised ways sometimes: a specific grave in Hollywood Cemetery, Griffith Observatory, or Watts Tower. Some viewers have told us when they’ve visited Los Angeles, they’ve visited places we’ve brought up!