When most hear the word “Actor,” images of their favorite film or TV star spring to mind. Faces like Chris Pratt and Tom Cruise or Rachel McAdams and Emilia Clarke. But there’s another mainstream format that affects both the big and little screens whose performers aren’t afforded the same star treatment: Voiceover. Many of these stalwart artists are already part of your day or instrumental in your favorite entertainment but are too often not on that pop-to-mind list. But that’s slowly changing.
The two front-running mediums that employ voiceover actors are video games and animation. Though you can’t watch a commercial or listen to the radio without hearing their work, games and cartoons are staples of current pop culture. You wouldn’t be ready to hang yourself the next time your kid sings that song from Frozen or to see if your significant other will ever talk to you again after those 300+ hours in Skyrim without them. Receiving a fraction of the notoriety, voiceover artists pour just as much emotion and passion into their work from behind a mic as conventional actors do in front of a camera. So let’s expand your pallet a bit.
Read these video game franchise titles and tell me what they all have in common: Resident Evil, Batman: Arkham Series, Elder Scrolls, Skylanders, Destiny, Diablo, Final Fantasy, Saints Row, StarCraft, XCOM, WoW, Mass Effect, Star Wars, Gears of War, Halo, Dragon Age, Command & Conquer and – neither last nor least – Fallout.
The Answer: Courtenay Taylor.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the name or if a voice actor never occurred to you, but let’s fix that going forward. Courtenay has amassed one of the most accomplished resumes in not only an under-appreciated industry, but one still literally and figuratively dominated by the male voice. Her contributions to your at-home entertainment have not only helped expand the social consciousness about voice acting, but they’ve also helped in moving women to a more prominent and equal role as games and other animated forms of entertainment continue to evolve and become increasingly complex.
She’s not only involved in the gaming world, but in animation and live action as well. So enough from me, Ms. Taylor was kind enough to take time out and talk with me about bad career advice, spending years alone in a booth and the importance of pet adoption – don’t worry, she talked games too. So here’s what the Fallout 4 star had to say:
onFiction: So how is everything going for you? I know you have a lot going on.
Courtenay Taylor: I just finished a session for Firefly, so I’m happy that’s chugging along. Yeah, just trying to schedule life at the moment. And a lot of craziness for Fallout 4.
oF: For those who might not know you by name, you have one of the most impressive voiceover resumes I’ve ever seen. What led you in that direction?
CT: I actually, I guess I kind of backed into it. Going to college I thought, “I need an easy A.” So I took an acting class. And so I guess I was starting pretty late because most of my friends were doing plays in school. I really liked it – it was not an easy A – so I decided to continue studying once I got out of college. So I went to theater school thinking I would probably go in the direction of TV and film. And I ended up applying for a Masters program in New York and the guy just lit me up about my voice. He said, “You have this terrible voice, you have vocal cord nodes. They can hear you in the back of the theater, you can’t sustain that voice.” Nobody had ever said that, people had always been complementary about my voice. So it was really like a slap in the face from this guy. I left, bursting into tears on my way out. I went back to one of my acting teachers and she, thankfully, was one of the first people to mention I should try voiceover. I didn’t know what it was, but she had a similar voice to me and she suggested I go take a class. When I went in, my interest was immediately piqued. I got behind the mic and was like, “oh yeah.” I knew from the minute I did it I just loved it. And then I started booking from there. The idea of doing any other kind of acting just fell by the wayside. I moved down to LA to do voiceover in particular and that’s where my career really started going. I ended up about five years into it starting to do some on-camera, which I guess is the reverse of most people. Nobody starts out doing voiceover first [laughing].
oF: If you are the first, you did a pretty good job of it.
CT: I started off doing commercials, and couldn’t get hired for video games for quite some time actually. So it’s nice to hear I have such a nice resume because for years I was banging my head against the wall wondering what I was doing wrong. But like everything that’s really worth it, it takes time.
oF: Obviously you do both live-action and voiceover – one is behind a mic and the other on a stage or set with other actors – what are the differences in how you prepare?
CT: You get a ton more prep time as an on-camera actor. You go in usually with the sides that are a chunk of what you would be doing. Oftentimes when you get a script the initial footwork is done for you and with voiceover it’s a lot of cold reading. Just even the timing of things is different. I’ve gone in for TV shows and been shooting five days later and I’ve have the script in my hands since I booked the part. I might have three days I might have a week depending on if it’s television or a movie I might have quite a bit longer. And, conversely, with voiceover I’ve walked in and they have been like, “we’re doing this thing that you auditioned for two months ago and we’re also going to have you do these other two voices. So, how is your Scottish accent? And this one is actually a beam of light with no body. That’s the third voice. So how is your beam of light with no body?” And I’m like, “it’s great!” I mean, I always do beams of light voices. So you just have to be ready for everything and have no self-consciousness when they start throwing you curveballs. But I like the cold readings. You never know what’s coming for better or for worse.
oF: Because it’s like that are you always working on new voices just so you have something ready for when those surprises happen?
CT: Oh yeah. I am definitely always making note of people I meet. The other day we went to Starbucks and there was a barista there and I swear to God she was putting out a voice. She was like, “two extra tall lattes, no soy! [in a sharp cartoony voice]” And I started giggling because I thought it was funny and that she was probably just bored. If I were a barista, then I would be doing, “soy latte now! [funny mechanical voice]” So the entire time we were there she kept using that voice, because it was her voice. So I walked out of Starbucks trying to remember her pacing because she put no particular emphasis on any particular word, it was all the same emphasis the same pace the same enthusiasm. And it seems counterintuitive for voiceover, but it was so different compared to the cadence and rhythms of how people normally talk. I immediately thought I need to remember this barista girl.
oF: I imagine people watching is an important part of what you do?
CT: There is, there is a lot of people watching and thinking about people. And it helps to be good at accents, or at least be able to sell them if you’re not that good at them. And to just pay attention. With voiceover I feel like there’s always homework but no particular assignment. But on camera acting it’s like there is an assignment so now the study. One is sort of the reverse of the other because there is so little time. Certain games I worked on are very generous and give me the script in advance and often times you even get to see who you’re talking to and the context of the scene so you get to start making deeper choices. So I prefer to get it if I can but it’s also fun to fly by the seat of my pants.
oF: I’ve gotten mixed answers from other actors on this in the past, but how does the aspect of basically flying solo on most voiceover work affect you? Does it help that you don’t have to wait or rely on other actors, or is it harder to be in the scene or moment when it’s just you and the sound?
CT: I guess it depends on who the person is that’s saying the lines. Certainly if you have a great actor that you’re working with it’s going to be a lot of fun to work together in the room and play together. If it’s someone that’s just going to be reading the lines the same way every time, then it doesn’t really matter to me. The imaginary person in my head is saying the line in different ways, so to say I prefer one over the other really depends. I’ve had no actors in the room but a really great director that’s given me tons of stuff behind the mic and I’m totally happy to just work like that. But it really just depends on who the person is and how willing they are to play. I know it’s a big hiccup for people who are normally on-camera actors because they are really used to having it, but after 13 years of sitting in a room by myself, I play against myself pretty well. I and me have a pretty good time.
oF: Fallout 4 is obviously going to be huge, and I think Firefly is going to be huge – two more huge names to add to your list – do the fans and fan bases for those franchises still surprise you?
CT: I actually haven’t done any conventions since Fallout 4 was announced except for one in New Zealand. The announcement was literally a couple days beforehand, so it hadn’t really rolled out. The most interaction I’ve had with Fallout fans in particular is on Twitter. And I think I probably put it out of my mind when I got the job. I knew because I worked on Fallout New Vegas that it was a huge franchise and had some very devoted fans. Having worked with Bioware and Capcom on Resident Evil I knew all of these big franchises had some really devoted fans. I think I kind of put that out of my mind while I was working on it. Up until it was finally announced it wasn’t totally clear. Once that happened I got a better idea how devoted everyone is. It’s amazing! They are super bright and funny, sassy fans these Fallout fans, and I’m excited to get to meet some of them in person because I’m sort of limited to talking to them in 140 characters. So I don’t think I’ve have a full Fallout experience it, but it’s coming.
oF: Obviously the content is not made public until the game’s release but this latest Fallout project has been particularly secretive. Does that make it more difficult for you or is it just business as usual?
CT: I think most game companies are pretty secretive. It’s pretty second nature to most of us to be respectful of NDAs. You have to be really conscious about it because you really want to respect every company. They’re each different and how much they want revealed. Bethesda in particular is wanting the players and fans to discover this new game for themselves. For them to be having fresh eyes and be the first ones opening that gift. So they really don’t want that to be marred by leaks or buy things that we say and I totally respect that. The amount of work and attention to detail and love that Bethesda has for this game, the whole franchise and for the fans is enormous. So I just want to be super respectful of that because I appreciate it too and want to 100% support that. It doesn’t affect my process in the booth. Thank God there is YouTube and the Internet so I can do my research without having to ask people. It’s just second nature now to kind of put your head down, do your work and be real clear about what you can and cannot talk about.
oF: The Firefly project has almost been the opposite with information trickling out on and off over the last couple years.
CT: Every company is different. I’ve even worked for companies that after the game came out they did not want me talking about the game. They wanted a particular character to remain mysterious and I get that. That’s their process and that’s their franchise and I have to respect it. With Firefly it’s a known quantity that’s tied into a TV show and a movie. It’s just a different beast I think. Different companies handle things different ways. I’ve had companies tell me, “tweet away! Get out there and talk about the game.” Because maybe the game is more about gameplay and the gameplay nuances versus story or a particular storyline they don’t want revealed. We all try and err on the side of caution, and I think Firefly is aware of how interested their fans are and how this can really move that project forward, creating buzz and keeping people excited and interested. In games have different timelines. It’s a lot easier to keep momentum going when the window is a short period of time that you are promoting that game than if you’re doing it over a period of a couple years. Does that make sense [laughs]?
oF: Firefly is particularly interesting because it’s been so long since the TV show and film and the fans are still so passionate.
CT: That’s the interesting thing, it shows how important fan interest and fan interaction is. We’ve all seen with Fallout and Bioware and Firefly that things come in, they come out, they change. Because the fans are an integral part of this whole process and I think for the Firefly franchise, if those fans hadn’t been dedicated this entire time there would not be the interest that there is.
oF: I know I keep saying this, but you have literally been a part of almost every A+ game franchise. I mean I knew your name and knew of the big titles you were a part of, but once I started looking at all your credits I was amazed. How have things changed in the time that you’ve been doing game voiceover? From the size of the games to the importance of story, what about the experience has changed or evolved for you?
CT: It’s definitely a much more cinematic feel for a lot of games. There are some where gameplay innovation is more important than an overarching story, but for the ones that are based in storytelling such as Mass Effect the fans have embraced that kind of work so much and are so involved in these games that are cinematic. I’m thrilled, because when I used to think about being an actor if you think about doing on camera work you think about these epics or these action films with stunts and with explosions, with love stories and all the things that make these sweeping movies that we’re so attached to and I feel so lucky to get to come in and voice characters that do these things. These last couple of years especially have been so sweet with getting to play these kinds of characters that have such nuance and dimension to them. I’ve walked out of the booth thinking this is more than I could have ever dreamed as an actor. I walked out in tears, I walked out and had to go home and sit down and have a glass of wine because the stuff that they are writing is comparable to any huge cinematic endeavor. It’s a dream come true. Honestly. I’m thrilled to see more opportunities for women to take a lead, take the reins in these games and not be portrayed as the sort of normal tropes. There’s huge interest on screen and in voiceover for women to play these roles that would be traditionally designated for men. Or at least have a female player-character. It’s a great time to be a woman in voiceover.
oF: That’s a really great point. I think Mass Effect is a game that’s helping to right that ship because you can pick to play with a female character and every line of dialogue and every aspect of the story is there the same as if you were playing with the male version.
CT: I think that more, in all forms of media people want to see themselves represented. And even if they are represented they might not want to see or be a person that’s just like them. And I see more and more diversity and casts on camera. I also hear from fans who discuss how they don’t want to play as them because they already are themselves in the day to day. When they show the different things you could look like in Fallout, the way you could change your character and they show Brian’s character in a sparkly red dress and heels and everybody laughed about it. But you know what? I don’t play with a sparkly red dress and heels on. It’s gonna make your play through a lot different, so try it. And I think people are starting to realize it isn’t about having the same-voiced white guy literally manning every game. People want diversity, they want choice. When I play I never look like myself. I make choices that I would never make in real life. Half the beauty of gaming is that you can play it through like everyday life or you can play it through like a completely ultimate reality. And who doesn’t want to try that?
oF: I think that’s one of the aspects of the expanded storytelling. It’s already escapism, but now you can change so many things for yourself.
CT: And I think also – not to get too crazy deep about it – it has effects in society at large when you present that, when you give people opportunity so they can know something different than they know in their everyday life. You’re going to promote a whole different level of acceptance and curiosity in other people and places that you didn’t have before. That to me is real change. That’s a real societal change that will be coming from that curiosity, that familiarity with things that are necessarily you. It’s really important.
oF: Feel free to get deep. We like digging in!
CT: Well with Jack, people were just not into her. They’d say, “she’s ugly, she’s got a weird haircut, she’s got tattoos and a scary weird storyline.” There was some very negative feedback on her originally. I was really happy with the way she turned out because I got so much feedback. I was ready to hate her then I got into the game and started to work alongside her. She was on my team and I eventually got to love her. I think familiarity breeds not contempt, it breeds acceptance and I think that’s huge. It makes me really happy to go and have these women come up to me at conventions who are not in the conventional look of a woman or a little different and say, “thank you for playing me. Thank you for playing my version of a woman.”
oF: With characters like Jack, the story is obviously already laid out so do you get any creative freedom or the ability to make choices regarding tone or emotion for the characters?
CT: It depends on the game. I have noticed also a newer trend in games, a realism in the acting. There’s a a lot more pre-life, there’s a lot more post-life to the line. It used to be very clean, they didn’t want a lot of breath or anything like that before and after. So sometimes depending on the game you can improv or add a few things. So if there’s something I can’t seem to make work they’ll say, “change the line. Do what feels right for you or your character.” And other times it’s, “we really have to use this line but you can give me a little something beforehand.” And sometimes they’ll use it and sometimes they cut it. They generally say if you’re going to improv before or after you give a little edit point. If they like it or it’s funny or it works they keep it and sometimes it’s just the thing that got you to jump off into the line and they just cut it, “It was great it didn’t work but it got us to where we needed to go.”
oF: Is there anything like writing or directing that you plan on moving towards?
CT: I’m super curious about directing. I would love to sit in and sit over some of my dear friends’ shoulders and orchestrate this madness. More and more I get to see a lot more of the project than I used to, so working on projects long-term has definitely piqued my interest in how to keep the machine chugging along from a director’s perspective. I’m very interested in starting some charity projects. I feel like the voiceover video game world is not untapped, because there are some great charitable things springing out of it. There’s a lot of funny generous people that do this work. I’m trying to cook up some stuff that will get people to the right places, to the right sources to help make some great charitable things happen.
oF: That’s a great idea and you’re right, you hear a lot about film and TV and philanthropy, but you don’t hear that much coming from the video game realm.
CT: There’s some great video games for the military groups and I’ve done a little bit of work with Wounded Warrior and a couple other military support groups, but I know a lot of people that do this work that are animal-friendly. A lot of us post and repost about adopting animals. I just think there are a lot of people in this industry that have a lot of strengths and talents that can be used for good and haven’t been tapped yet. So my next project will be tapping them and sending them to the right places.
Listen for Courtenay as the female protagonist in Fallout 4 hitting stores and digital download November 10th. I’m definitely playing as the girl now! Or the guy with a sparkly dress and high heels. Or as the…