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In Conversation... Voiceover artists Cissy Jones & Richard Reed

27 March 2019

During a flying visit to the UK last year, BAFTA-winning voiceover artist Cissy Jones (Firewatch, The Walking Dead, Darksiders) joined a select group of BAFTA Crew Games Members for a unique Q&A about her craft, the industry and, in particular, her insight on how to find voiceover work in games. BAFTA paired Jones with Crew Member Richard Reed, himself a developing voiceover actor (Elite Dangerous: Horizons, Total War: Warhammer II), for an exclusive one-to-one chat. Here’s what they had to say...

BAFTA/Thomas Alexander Richard Reed                      

Richard Reed: What was your journey into voice acting? You came from the tech world, right?

Cissy Jones: I did. I have a business degree and a Spanish degree. I never took a day of acting in my life. I worked in the Silicon Valley for about 10 years and hated my life, a whole lot. One day, I had a fortuitous conversation with my now husband about dream jobs, and I said mine was to do a voice on The Simpsons. But I thought you probably have to know someone in Hollywood, you know, or be famous. I didn’t even know it was called voiceover.

About two weeks after that conversation, I was getting ready for work in the morning and I heard Nancy Cartwright, who’s the voice of Bart Simpson, on the radio promoting The Simpsons Movie, and she mentioned a voiceover school near me. I went that day to sign up and started taking classes that week. Two years later, I quit my job and moved to Los Angeles.

And the rest is history. Where were you before Los Angeles?

I was in the San Francisco area, so not too far away. About an hour’s flight.

So, if you didn’t come from an acting background, how did you get your acting chops? Was it just the training at the school?

That was a big part of it. But I’ve always been a ‘dramatic’ person. [Laughs] I always had a flair for drama – you know, the tears come easily. I’ve always done accents and mimicry, but I didn’t know you could actually make money doing that. So, I learnt a lot through the school, through meeting various people, and working on scripts and hearing feedback, and working with my peers and hearing their feedback. Something about it just clicked. When you’re doing everything wrong it’s like your banging your head against a steel wall, but when it’s right, it just comes together like it’s a zipper. That’s how it felt, just like a zipper.

You felt like this was your place. You didn’t feel like an imposter.

Well, let’s not go too far. [Laughs]

“I’ve always done accents and mimicry, but I didn’t know you could actually make money doing that.”

I guess we all have imposter syndrome in our own way. [Laughs]

I think that’s just part of being an actor. What I mean is, I think all creatives have imposter syndrome to some extent. What saved me, truly, was that I met incredible people in the industry, like [casting director] Mary Lynn Wissner, and my agent, Dean Panaro, who pulled me aside and said, “You’ve got it. So develop it and call me when it is ready for public consumption.” And that’s kind of what happened.

How long did that journey take – weeks, months, years?

It took me about two years. And that’s considered relatively quick.

Yeah. I think it’s important for anyone who wants to get into this to know that everybody’s journey is different. Some take six months. Some take six years.

All different. There were people in my classes who had been taking them for years. Part of our job is not only to seek out instruction and coaches and the like but also to be open to what they say. So often you get an actor in front of a director and they fight the direction and fight what they are trying to give them. A director’s job is to help you deliver the thing, but if you’re fighting the thing you’re never going to deliver the thing. I saw a lot of that, which I think ended up holding people back.

Yeah, I think some people think that’s the actor way – ‘I have to be dramatic to produce drama.’

Which doesn’t always work out very well.

How do you cope with the rollercoaster of the work? Particularly, when you’re down low, when you’re like, “Please, just give me an audition at least!” [Laughs]

Ah, the peaks and valleys. The valleys are a bitch! [Laughs] It’s all about finding ways to keep your confidence up. There are so many sources around you saying that you can’t. Everything is out there to tell you you can’t..., you’ll never..., why would you...?

So, when you hit the valleys, it’s important to remember you can. Always. You can. Sometimes it just takes time. Find a workshop of peers and go read with them on a weekly basis, and get up to snuff and stay current. Talk with your agent, if you have one, make sure they are happy with what you’re submitting, because maybe people are just tired of hearing your voice for a hot second. Find a new coach and work out with them, that always helps shake it up a little bit.

Do you still do workshops or go see new coaches now?

All the time. And I have to change them. Because I’ll work with one and they’ll be like, “Well, you’ve got my technique. You know how my technique works.”

Do you think that’s why people suffer from the big dips? Because a production company can think, ‘OK, I know your thing. I want something different for this.’ And that’s just the way it is.

Sure. We’re always in danger of being overplayed. That’s what makes some of the greatest video game actors so incredible, because they can slip into any character and you don’t even know it’s them. So, yeah, I think you always have to be working to stay sharp, because if you’re not, someone else is.

What about when you’re riding a wave and you’re doing well, how do you remain humble and composed? Whenever I’ve been booking a few jobs back-to-back, I’m always thinking, ‘This is going to crash soon’.

Well, it’s a double-edged sword... Just maybe know there’s going to be a valley coming at some point, so start talking to people about coaches they love, look for the trends as they’re changing, and how they’re changing and why. You know, are commercial sounds altering a little bit to maybe more millennial stuff? Are video game characters going darker and more nuanced? Are animation characters getting bigger and broader? It’s your job to know the market.

To prepare for the apocalypse.

Pretty much, yeah. Big Brother VO style.

“It’s your job to get out there, so people know who you are and why they should work with you.”

What skills do you think you need to be a good actor?

Obviously, acting. But just as important is networking. If you’re not getting out there, if you’re not getting your name out there, if people don’t know who you are, they are not going to come to you. It’s your job to get out there, so people know who you are and why they should work with you. What’s your brand? Are you cool? Can they go grab a drink with you afterwards? Some of the best jobs I’ve had are because I knew someone beforehand and they were like, “Let’s do this thing together.” “OK, cool.” That’s how I won a BAFTA. [Laughs]

Well, winning a BAFTA helps with name recognition. [Laughs] You mentioned branding, I assume you know your own brand. Have you found ways to work around that, to avoid typecasting? Do you get typecast in video games?

I do. I have strengths. But as soon as I get shovelled into the ‘Mom’ role, afterwards I go out and work with somebody on developing ‘Evil Queen’ or something. Or I work in trailers. Again, it’s just finding ways to stay sharp.

Do you feel voice acting roles for women are evolving?

With technology changing in the way that it is and tools becoming easier and cheaper to use, you’re able to get games made by smaller teams that are more nimble and more capable. So, you’re starting to see a broader range of experiences and voices, by way of character. It might not be a mainstream thing, so it might not be Call of Duty, but it might be something about suffragettes or a little boy dying of cancer, you know.

Just different stories. Do you ever get offered a role and then think you’re not right for it? Or do you always see it as a challenge?

I guess that’s imposter syndrome. I get that, sure. The weird thing is, most of the roles I book, I know at the audition. I just get that little shiver down my spine and I know I’ve booked it. With the exception of What Remains of Edith Finch – god, I wanted that one and I didn’t get it! [Laughs]

I will say to that end, my super power is forgetting auditions. I have learned that for sanity’s sake you have to let them you go, otherwise they will haunt you and drive you insane.

“It doesn’t matter what you look like, how old you are, what colour your hair is... It matters that you can bring the character to life.”

I think the American market does a lot more auditions than the British one. I guess maybe that makes it easier to forget an audition because you’re on to the next one and then the next one. Have you come across morally difficult characters? For example, I played a character, a fantasy character, but he was a racist – he hated anybody who wasn’t from his realm. It was fantasy, but it was some pretty heavy stuff.

I think if it serves the story. I struggle with guns a lot. They’re so eponymous in games that it’s really hard to get away from them. Sometimes you just have to find a way to make peace with it. I mean I’ve played some awful characters, but they’ve served the story and they’re not who I am.

You have to see around that, don’t you? They can be interesting to play though.

Yeah, sure. Look at Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds – he was so bad, but he was so good at it. It served the story, because when he met his end – sorry, spoiler alert! – it was stand up and cheer time in the theatres. Just great!

Do you work a lot in the studio, or do you find yourself working more in your own home studio these days? Do you have a preference?

I audition mostly from home, but I do my sessions mostly from studios. Why I love working in a studio, number one is human contact, but number two is they will usually have an engineer who knows what they’re doing. It’s like having good lighting if you’re on camera – a good engineer is worth their weight in gold.

What are the challenges that up-and-coming voiceover actors are likely to face in the current climate?

There’s so much out there it’s just about figuring out where to tap into it. I think that’s where people are struggling the most. If you don’t have an agent, how do you get opportunities? How do you get an agent? How do you go about meeting the developers if you want to get into games? How do you start making a name for yourself if you haven’t booked a game? It’s a scary prospect, but it can be done. I think Rachel Naylor is a great place to start, with The Voice Over Network and everything that she’s done particularly here in the UK and in parts of Europe. She’s built something really incredible.

Do you see voice acting continuing as its own entity, or do you see it bleeding more into performance capture in games?

Performance capture (PCap) is incredible. It’s also incredibly expensive. So, until it becomes a little more reasonable for people to have in everything, you’re not going to see it in everything. And not everything calls for performance capture. In Firewatch, for example, there’s no body to performance cap.

One of my dear friends runs a studio in LA and they do a lot of performance capture. She says most voice actors don’t know how to use their bodies, they’re not great at PCap, but the on-camera people, who do know how to use their bodies, aren’t great at voiceover. So it’s about finding that perfect union. Again, it’s about learning new trades, new skills and flexing the muscle, and staying sharp at it. That’s my next journey, getting more experience at PCap, so I can tap into that market. 

“When you hit the valleys, it’s important to remember: you can do it. Always. Sometimes it just takes time.”

Is audio drama a big thing in the States?

Do you mean like radio plays? Yeah, there’s a little underbelly right now. It’s not a mainstream thing yet. We’re seeing more podcasting, that kind of thing. Slowly but surely it’s coming into the conversation, but it’s not there yet.

There seems to be a huge amount of passionate attention on games right now, and hand-in-hand, voice acting and performance capture is like a goldmine at the moment. There’s so much focus on it. Why do you think that is? Why now and not, say, 10 years ago?

I think we’ve reached a point now where games are bigger than film and television. People can spend 1,200 hours with a character and it becomes like your friend, so it’s less like a computer game and more like spending time with trusted pals. That’s really interesting. As film and television roles typically go to on-camera celebrities, people who have a theatrical background are starting to see this path into continuing to do what they love but actually getting to gig for it. And there are so many options.

Were you a gamer before?

No, I’m a terrible gamer. I die in everything in like five seconds. It’s bad. [Laughs]

Well, I’m a gamer and that still happens to me. [Laughs]

My problem is I learned to play on the old school NES pad, so instead of playing with my thumbs I want to play with my finger and forefinger so I can run real fast and jump. But when the new pads came out and it was all thumbs, I got scared.

How did you get into voiceover?

For me, I started at drama school and I’ve been playing games all my life. I came to voiceover from a radio drama background. I had a teacher who suggested I should get involved in some radio drama and so I came through that way. I have a normal acting agent, but I was getting fed up with being cast in roles that I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t brilliant at doing it, but you do it because you have to. Whereas I find with voice work it’s much more thrilling.

Yeah, it doesn’t matter what you look like, how old you are, what colour your hair is, what type of shirt you wear to the audition. It matters that you can bring the character to life.

Where do you see things going?

I really don’t know. I do see more performance capture, but, as you said, it depends on the piece that you’re working on. If it’s a Call of Duty or action games, you know you’re going to be working in a performance capture suit. I do worry that we’re moving towards more multiplayer games and away from narrative-driven stories. When I was a kid, single player games were all you had, and they were amazing. You could have really strong, emotive responses to playing those games.

I feel there’s always a place for narrative. It’s less expensive to create. And as long as more people are creating and their talent is being fostered at places like BAFTA, to learn what else they can do with their voice, then narrative will flourish.

More about Cissy Jones can be found here.

More about Richard Reed can be found here.

BAFTA Crew is now open for applications. More information can be found here.