Acting a VO character is more than a vocal quirk.


Holiday Time! The perfect opportunity to observe seldom-seen family members and friends, and take inventory of all the great mannerisms and vocal types, for a lot of great new voice-over characters. Right?

Wrong. If Uncle Harry or Aunt Gladys inspire a character, great. If a quirk or habit can be integrated into a new or existing character, use it. But there’s more to character-building than an eccentricity or a quick imitation.

Character acting isn’t about being eccentric. It’s about being a character.

To be sure, we’re talking here in a different sense from the way “character actor” is sometimes defined in the movies. We all can name many wonderful character actors who sometimes steal the show with their odd behavior or unusual characteristics.

But, rather than focus on their eccentricities, focus first on their characters. Note how many of these actors often play very different characters (often supporting parts) from role to role. Some character actors are eccentric, but their characters are more than a quirk.

In contrast, consider that many leading-role actors tend to play characters relatively close to their own personalities, or a certain on-screen persona. Cary Grant might be considered such an example. For awhile, Adam Sandler and Paul Giamatti were said to be in that group, but have since (as did Grant) also shown themselves very capable of expanding out of their popular type. (And, for a classic example of the opposite approach in a career, Meryl Streep is both a lead actor and a splendid chameleon.)

We should also caution at the outset that this discussion is somewhat theoretical, and the differences might be thought of as a matter of degree, not absolute.

And it’s important to note that random mannerisms have value – as a starting point for developing a character. In fact, many a voice acting character has grown from a bad imitation of someone famous. Or not. They don’t have to be famous. But to be a truly valuable character in your bullpen, you need to develop them. So that whatever the script, you can inhabit them and have a good sense of how they would react. You should also be able to ad-lib as that character.

If a quirk gets you work, great! But it alone probably won’t get you an agent. If you can fake emotion in, say, a commercial about how much you love a car dealership because of the low price they gave you, that’s one thing. If you want to convey genuine emotion for that automobile brand that says love is what makes them what they are ... that’s another thing.

Maybe we can make the point through a couple of anecdotes:

A middle-aged VO wannabe was talking with a friend who is an experienced actor. The wannabe remarked at how his friend had known he was in the audience before the play. One voice, among such a crowd? Even allowing for the brain’s ability to isolate known sounds from all others, it seemed a marvelous feat.

“I’d know your voice anywhere, kiddo,” the actor said. “Your voice is very distinctive.”

For the wannabe, it was a valuable reminder. As he later told his coach, “It’s still hard to realize that my voice is unusual. I’ve had it all my life.”

In truth, it’s also how you use it. There are, in fact, many people who sound like that wannabe, but virtually none in the business who sound like him when everything’s put together. The point is that it’s not the voice or the mannerism that makes a person. It’s the whole.

When you integrate the emotion, the action, the energy, personality, the moment, and everything else (including perhaps the quirks) into the whole, the result can be remarkable. Which leads to our other anecdote:

We recently met a former actor (if any actor can be “former”) who in his younger days was asked if he’d like to play Hamlet on the stage. It was probably above his experience level, but he eagerly – if somewhat nervously -- accepted the offer. During his first performance, something happened that had not happened in rehearsal. As he spoke in one of the death scenes, he was shocked to realize that tears were flowing down his face.

That’s not a quirk. That’s acting.

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