From fighting demons in the “Diablo” franchise to choosing to join the Alliance or Horde in “World of Warcraft,” part of what draws players back to Blizzard Entertainment’s video games again and again is not just the gameplay but the epic stories you get to experience. A key part of what makes these stories so immersive and compelling is the incredible characters you meet along the way. Finding actors that can give these characters life is the task of Blizzard’s senior casting and voice director Andrea Toyias. Backstage spoke to Toyias about casting the highly-anticipated “Diablo IV,” looking for actors’ human stories to cast characters from demon goats to orcs and more.
What was it like casting “Diablo IV”?
“Diablo IV” is a very specific game and I think that some people still have the idea that video games are kind of fun and comical and silly and over the top. More and more we’re not looking for cartoony over-the-top voices; we’re looking for very grounded, gritty, real performances. Voice acting is very hard. When you’re on-camera or onstage, you’ve got your face. You can make a sad face or your blue steel face, but for voice acting, I need to hear the entire realm of the human experience in your voice. That’s really really difficult and I don’t think people realize how hard that is unless they’ve done it. For “Diablo IV,” it’s very dark, very grim. It’s a game of rough existence. It’s been challenging. We’re looking all over the globe because there are lots of accents, to really find performances where people through their voice alone can convey the weight of the world.
“If you’re tired and exhausted and sad and a little bit scared, don’t push that away for the session; bring that into the session—because that’s ‘Diablo IV.’”
How do you get people to that place in an audition?
Oddly enough, we really talked about COVID-19 because what I have to do as a voice director is take our crazy “fantasyscape” and make it real. So rather than going, “You’re in a land infested with demons,” we were talking about COVID-19 and how it’s hard. You’re tired and you’re exhausted and every day there’s more bad news. Think about the weight that COVID-19 has put on you and channel that into your performance rather than going “You’re attacked by an onslaught of demon goats.” That doesn’t make sense to anybody. What does make sense is connecting to your own experience of COVID-19 and knowing and feeling safe enough to share with me the fatigue, exhaustion, and sadness in your voice to connect with “Diablo IV.” It’s actually been quite interesting to cast for a game that’s all about the weight of existence during a time that itself has a weight of existence.
I think for the actors I’ve found so far who’ve recorded it’s almost like an outlet. When they come in on “Diablo IV,” actors don’t have to hide what they’ve been going through for the year. If you’re tired and exhausted and sad and a little bit scared, don’t push that away for the session, bring that into the session because that’s “Diablo IV.” It’s been kind of exciting and hard and heavy, but to let the truth of our own lives come into the game, I think that’s really going to sell the game and make our characters more real and empathetic.
How has the pandemic impacted your work as a casting director?
It’s been really hard. I cast and direct from my dining table, sitting there with the dishwasher going, cats running around. It’s really hard for both myself and for actors because before COVID-19 we’d meet in the recording studio. When you go to the recording studio, it’s go time. I call it sacred space. You walk into the sacred space. The engineer sets you up behind the mic, the door closes, and boom. We’re all transported to a magical realm of creativity.
Now, we’re charged with delivering that same truthfulness and creativity from our houses, and we’re disconnected and lonely and sad. It’s really hard to dive into your creative self and for me to really be present as a director and for the actors to be present as actors because we’re at home. Nobody’s at 100%. For actors to have to bring their A-game during this is very difficult. On the other hand, it’s been amazing because it’s like a bright light in a dark room. The fact that we get to play and create and forget about the world for a little while also makes sessions easier because it’s a great escape. I think it challenges us more, as creatives, to be creative when we’re at home, but it also invigorates us because we get to connect and play for a little bit. The rest of the world is on fire and we get to pretend there are demon goats running around. It’s hard, but it also means more to us than ever if that makes sense.
Where do you look for talent?
There was a time back in the day when we’d only look in L.A. because L.A. is the hub of voice acting. Diversity has been really important at Blizzard with games like “Overwatch.” So before we’d look in L.A. for all the accents, all the energies, all the backgrounds. Now, we really want to find truthfulness in casting, so if we have African or Asian characters in the game, we look in those regions. Could voice actors in L.A. mimic this accent or that accent? Sure, they could. But it’s really become clear to me years ago when working on “World of Warcraft” that when you capture somebody whose own ethnicity matches your character, then you’re also able to connect to their own personal ancestral history and zeitgeist. It’s not about voices anymore. It’s about your truth, your ancestry, your life, your heritage, who you are as a person. I cast looking for people and truth. Because of that we literally cast all over the world looking for the right people.
“ If you want to get into voice acting, are you going to need to do different accents and vary your voice? Yes, absolutely. But that’s not what’s going to make you successful. My five-star actors are the ones who are actors first. ”
What makes an actor memorable to you when they’re auditioning?
I teach a lot of workshops, and I always tell these students who are hoping to get into voiceover, it’s not about the voice. To be an actor in general, and for voice acting for me, your baggage is the clay of your character. Actors who give me successful auditions or come into the booth, take that box off the shelf, take the chain off, open it and go here’s my life story. Here’s all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ll give you anything that you need and I’ll sculpt it with a Russian accent or as an orc or as a demon goat because monsters are people too. So even if we’ve got monsters, there’s still emotion in there.
The people that are memorable to me are the ones that you can tell really are connecting their performance to their own story. There’s a saying that acting isn’t acting, acting is actors borrowing from their own true emotions to bring a character to life. Those actors who aren’t afraid of their baggage, scars, and wounds, and their joys, and they can walk in and open that box and give it to me—and you hear it in auditions when they do that, and in session—that’s what’s memorable to me. There’s a phrase I use, chasing the chills. You know those times when you’re watching TV or listening to something on the radio and without even choosing it, all the hair on your arms stands up or your eyes well up? I feel like that’s your spirit connecting [and] knowing you’re hearing someone else’s spirit, hearing a truth. It’s not about the voice. I wish voice acting was just called acting because that’s what it is. It’s arguably the hardest form of acting that exists. What’s memorable to me is truthfulness.
What advice would you give actors who want to work in video games?
I meet a lot of people who are like “hey I can do 55 voices. Here’s my reel of me doing all these different sounds and characters and it’s funny,” and that’s not who we are anymore as an industry. We’re storytellers at the heart of it. If you want to get into voice acting, are you going to need to do different accents and vary your voice? Yes, absolutely. But that’s not what’s going to make you successful. My five-star actors are the ones who are actors first. I always tell people, they think “oh, I can do voices,” or “I’ve got a voice for radio,” or what have you, that’s great, but you need to be an actor. Anybody that wants to study voice acting or be successful as a voice actor really needs to push their acting limits. Even my actors who are top of the game in the industry are still taking acting classes. The more you can open your heart, the more you can really dive into your truth, the more successful you’re going to be. The best actors I work with are the ones who give me all their baggage, give me all their human story, but on top, can vary it as a demon goat or an orc with textures and sounds and accents. The sound is the background. The acting is the forefront. So the stronger actor they are, the stronger they’ll be for voice acting.
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