“The Blueberry is pretty sensitive,” the audio engineer told me, adjusting the height of the little black microphone. “Keep it at about your chin so we can avoid harsh plosives.” Bare bulbs and wood paneling surrounded me, and my own voice was crisp through my headphones. My friends over at Stalwart Theater had asked me to reprise my role as Arthur Seward in their production of “Dracula,” but this time instead of a staged reading we were making a podcast. For that Saturday, the little kid making funny voices and watching too much BBC had won – I was a voice actor.
Voice actors have what seems like the perfect job – watch cartoons, play video games, make funny voices and never sit in a makeup chair if they don’t have to. And while in the ‘90s they were all but unnoticed, professionals like Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, Rob Paulsen and Jennifer Hale now enjoy Hollywood prestige, drawing huge crowds at conventions and enjoying some of Twitch‘s most notable success.
The Stalwart Theatre family recorded Dracula over a full workday, 8:00 to 5:00 with a short break for pizza in between. That about counts as a mile in their shoes. So for what my answer to the question is worth, here’s what I learned about how to be a voice actor.
Be an actor first and a voice second. Portraying Seward meant doing the same character study, dialect research, and rehearsal I did for the stage show. There’s an art to changing your voice, sure, but it’s far more important for voice actors to do what all actors must: give genuine, relatable, creative performances that connect with the audience.
Voice actor Liam O’Brien made this point brilliantly in his episode of Geek and Sundry’s Signal Boost, citing Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” as his inspiration. “Every Elven king, lowly footsoldier, and demon voice I do today is inspired by the mastery of language exhibited here,” says O’Brien.
Don’t be afraid to look stupid. You’re not just talking to yourself in a little glass room – you’re taking fake punches, grunting, sweating and breaking down in tears with no more prompting than a voice in your head. Our Van Helsing spent a lot of time shouting instructions and life-or-death advice; when it didn’t ring true, we reminded him he shouldn’t pretend to yell – he needed to really rattle the windows. Always remember that rule #1 is “commit to the bit.”
Actor David Tennant said it very well in his speech to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s 2016 graduating class: “This is not a job for the sane . . . remember it’s all nonsense.” (Watch the full speech here, starting around 27:13)
This is work, and you should treat it as such. Make no mistake here. I experienced the exhaustion of staying on my feet for hours at a stretch, wearing out my voice, and summoning raw, intense emotion over and over again without the benefit of an audience’s energy. Like any job, there’s no sympathy for doing it halfway or turning in a weak performance.
Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” said in her book “Big Magic,” “Creative success depends on talent, luck, and discipline, and two of those are out of my control.”
Follow the work. I got a call for this production from having worked with the director before. The more productions you do the more connections you have, and the more likely you are to book the next one.
Of course it’s not a perfect formula. To quote Tennant again, “The distribution of spoils in the acting community seems so random, so often unconnected to ability or to merit.” But he goes on to say that if you want to be asked back, “Be on time, learn your lines, and be nice; everything else is forgivable.”
At the end of the day I was exhausted and yet fulfilled. The cast had made just a little piece of something we could all be proud of. And while I can’t say I’ve got the insider’s secret for how to be a voice actor, I did confirm the advice of some great success stories.
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