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Off-Camera Oasis - Voiceover work has become increasingly attractive

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By Rachel Fischer

Picture a world in which you could be famous and rich, but still lead an anonymous enough life to shop at the supermarket or eat at Taco Bell. Doesn't exist, right? If you want to be a star, better expect to pay the terrible price--curbside and courthouse scuffling with paparazzi, secret Malibu weddings, deadly Paris car chases.

Only there's no such pricetag on Jim Cummings' notoriety. He works in his chosen field, Hollywood acting, just about five days a week, owns property in Ventura County, and earns a "nice seven figures," by his own admission. Cummings is well known to those within the industry but can still go to 7-Eleven for his beloved Slurpee without any interest from the public.

Cummings is a voiceover actor--a calling that can boast high pay, steady employment, and creative satisfaction. "Voiceover is the perfect profession, if you can do it right," said Paul Doherty, vice president of the voiceover division of Cunningham, Escott, Dipene talent agency.

Certainly, voice acting is nothing new. Back in radio's golden age, performers relied solely on vocal talent. But in this age of visual overkill, more and more performers are rediscovering the charm of making a living by word of mouth. So rewarding is the voiceover field that many who've taken the plunge have lost their initial desire to be on-camera kings or queens.

"People who started out on-camera sometimes end up doing only voiceover," concurred Sandie Schnarr, head of the Los Angeles voiceover-only talent agency Sandie Schnarr Talent. "I don't have anybody saying, 'I long to be on camera.' They don't have to deal with the nonsense of cattle calls, or worry about their clothes and how they look. It's easier on the ego, because you deal less with casting directors and audition through your agent."

In fact, Schnarr herself has rejected on-camera agenting because "in voiceover, it's all about the work. People are nicer and it's definitely less dysfunctional." But, as Doherty implied, such on-the-job rewards only go to those who can truly master the discipline. Voice acting, say most in the field, is such difficult work that it baffles even the most talented of performers. "It's so subtle; just a little turn of the phrase or change in inflection can get you or lose you the job," said Doherty.

In voiceover, added Jeff Danis, senior vice president of the voiceover division at International Creative Management. "All you can rely on is your voice; it's almost like a game of charades. You can't rely on hair and makeup or props and expressions. While you have to be a good actor to do voiceover, good [on-camera] actors can't necessarily transcend into the voiceover realm."

Other Voices, Crowded Rooms

But more and more actors--from the struggling to the superstars--are trying to do just that. Which is good and bad news: While voiceover work's profile is rising and its workers are becoming more highly respected, competition has correspondingly increased.

"It's harder now to get a voiceover job than it was 15 years ago," noted Schnarr, who added that there is some resentment from veteran voiceover performers toward the movie stars that have infiltrated their ranks and won higher salaries.

It should be noted that stars don't always win the day: Schnarr reported that client Kath Soucie beat out such household names as Meg Ryan for the voice of the sexy animated bunny in the sports pic Space Jam. Soucie, Schnarr clarified, is more than gorgeous enough to go on-camera, just in case anyone assumes that vocal performers lack the genes for the screen.

While the field has indeed grown more crowded, opportunities for new voices still abound. Whereas jobs used to be parceled out among the same small group of (mostly male) actors, "Voiceover is less elite than it used to be," said Doherty. "It's never been more democratic when it comes to the selection and range of voices used." That has also translated into better opportunities for women, who are finally starting to be used as the voices for car commercials and film trailers.

Katherine Moore, the national director of communications for the Screen Actors Guild, theorized that voiceover work has grown more attractive to the acting community because "there's a scarcity of work and performers are realistic these days, knowing that the more adept they are at performing in a variety of media, the more chances for work there will be.

"It's a burgeoning area," added Moore, whose office came up with statistics about voiceover pay. SAG rates are $359.95 per day for a principal off-camera actor on a unionized commercial shoot, for example, as compared with $478.70 for an on-camera principal in the same type of venture.

With cash and a creative challenge as part of the bargain, it's not so surprising that many performers who once dreamt of a life in front of the camera now prefer the voiceover booth. "I love what I do," said Donna Rawlins, a voiceover performer of 10 years standing. Rawlins, who originally came to L.A. with rock 'n' roll stardom in mind, currently has no less than three national commercials out. (She's the voice of Tilex cleanser, Rosetto pasta, and Sears batteries.)

"Theatrical actors are viewed by the public as being better off--but I don't buy into that," noted the performer. She still attends some on-camera auditions, but she doesn't love them. "[That world] seems so much more neurotic."

Newer voiceover performer Susan Eisenberg, who is repped by the same agency as Rawlins, Abrams Artists Agency, harbors on-camera ambitions. (She recently appeared on the small screen in 1950s attire, plugging Howie Mandel's talk show.) But voiceover has been good to her--she was the voice of Moet Chandon champagne last year. Though voice acting wasn't part of her original plan, she's developed a passion for it. Citing such screen and voice regulars as Hank Azaria (The Simpsons, Godzilla), Eisenberg said she will continue in the field even if is she is cast on-screen.

Sweet Sound of Success

If Eisenberg is very lucky in the voiceover field, she can look forward to having the life enjoyed by ICM clients Townsend Coleman and Jim Cummings. Coleman, the familiar voice of both NBC's "Must See TV" Thursdays and the nightly promos for Jay Leno, works five days a week, collects art, and just bought a new home.

With a dizzying array of voices at his command, Coleman is in demand for voiceover work in TV, commercials, and animated film. "I have zero interest in on-camera work," Coleman explained. "I have a short attention span and voiceover is as immediate as you get. I'll go in to NBC, do eight or 10 promos; I'm in and out in half an hour, boom."

Cummings, the highly successful voice actor mentioned early on, has turned down enviable offers for on-camera gigs. And why shouldn't he, with a resumƒ that includes the voices of Winnie the Pooh, Smokey the Bear, and one of the California Raisins? Recently, he narrated promos for the WB Network and voiced the film trailer for Small Soldiers.

He calls himself a "vocal sponge"--Cummings has done everything from subbing for Christopher Lloyd in the singing scenes of the animated film Anastasia to voicing the scary centaur in Hercules and talking up Nissan in an upcoming car commercial.

Cummings said he has friends who are major celebrities--and that their lot in life seems much worse. So when younger actors ask him--as they do more and more these days--how to get into the voice business, his answer is very upbeat.

"You make a demo tape, you shop it out--then make lots of money and live happily ever after." BSW/D-

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