Voiceover might seem like a straightforward craft, but it has a surprising number of applications: TV and film for adults and kids, audiobooks, scripted podcasts, apps and other new media. Most of these mediums require a full-fledged casting process to find the perfect voice. Enter Sara Jane Sherman, a career voiceover casting director who, after spending more than a decade as a Disney Channel animation casting executive, started to explore elsewhere in the world of voiceover. Since going out on her own, she’s added adult animation, animated revivals (like Hulu’s upcoming “Animaniacs”), audiobooks, apps, and voice directing to her résumé. Sherman spoke with Backstage about her audition process and where she might seek out the perfect voice.
What is your casting process like?
A pilot can take seven to eight weeks. I might meet with the creators and executive producers, and they’ll pitch me the show. They tell me what they’re expecting or wanting for their voices and if they know the tone of the show, how broad it is, where it’s going to air, things like that. Sometimes they have artwork for me to see, which is always helpful. Then I ask them for sides the actors are going to audition with. Usually, it’s five lines of dialogue with character artwork and a character description. Then I try to get as many actors I think are right to read. I’ll reach out to voice agents, actors that I know, I’ll scout talent online, wherever I can to find the right voice. Then I’ll collect all those auditions and start sifting through them—anywhere between 100 to 500 voices, depending on how specific the breakdown is.
What should actors know about auditioning for you?
I like to make sure the studio hears all I’ve listened to. I don’t just send the yeses; I mark which ones I like the best, but I send all the other ones, as well, just so that they know I’ve done some work on the project. Casting is so subjective, they might want to peruse the other auditions just to see the names on there or listen to a few to make sure we’re in the same ballpark. And then, if there’s time and budget, we’ll do callback auditions in the booth. We might bring anywhere between five and 10 actors per role to read for the producer, executives on the show, the casting director, and the voice director. It gives the actor the chance to meet the team and the team to meet the actor and make sure they get along and they understand each other’s sensibilities. People are recording their auditions at home and you don’t know if it took a million takes or they nailed it on the first try. You want to make sure that it only takes them a few takes and it’s not overedited so that when you hire them, they can just come in and do the job.
What indicates to you that an actor can do voiceover, even if they’re known for live action?
I love to try them out, because somebody might not even consider voiceover, especially if their voice isn’t particularly unique. People who are exaggerated in their performances tend to translate well. I look for people who are inherently funny. Sometimes you don’t know until they’re in the booth and they get the opportunity. It’s one thing to act with other actors and move around; it’s another just to be you in a booth with a mic. It’s a special skill. I have to see if they can adjust.
What should actors know about the casting process behind a TV adaptation of a popular film or a revival?
We can go out to the original actors in the first place, and if they decide that they’re not interested or available, or it’s a kid whose voice has changed, we decide if we want to do a very specific soundalike and try to match it or just [cast] someone who has the essence of that character. We still want to be true to the characters from the movie. If cast is returning, the new actors have to complement the existing cast and help to continue to elevate the series.
Where do you look outside of agent submissions for new talent?
I watch a lot of television and movies. I try to know what’s happening in pop culture, even little YouTube clips or things that become popular on social media. Comedy clubs, sketch, improv, and standup are all great. Sometimes I’ll even Google search if I’m looking for a certain sound or a parody of a certain person. Maybe someone thought they did a really funny impression and put it up online. I always tell actors to be find-able and searchable, because you never know what the casting director is going to try. If you do a particular sound, make sure there’s a keyword search on your website, YouTube clip, or Vimeo so you will be find-able. I try to be familiar with what’s trending and what’s popular so I’m in the know when people start to refer to those things.
What advice do you have for actors who want to get into voiceover or add more voiceover work to their résumés?
It’s not just about having a funny voice. Make sure that your acting is on par with those working in the field, because you will be auditioning right next to the best of the best. I will be listening to the person that is on every single show right after your tape. I’m tasked with finding fresh new voices, but I need a great performance as well. I need great comedic chops. Maybe take some improv classes. Don’t forget to add physicality to your performance. It’s not just putting the voice on and doing five or six lines in one level. Find places in the script—they want me to be happy here; how does that change my voice? They want me to be depressed here; how does that change my voice? Find ways to picture what is happening in the scene so you can create a visual experience vocally and the listener can picture what’s happening in the scene based on your performance.
What technical aspects should actors think about when recording an audition?
First and foremost, listen back to your audition. [Check] if there’s a false start or if you can hear a hiss or maybe you didn’t realize the trash truck came by while you’re performing. Things like that. I pass these auditions on and they’re a reflection of me. I want to pass along auditions that sound good. Try to pad your room a little bit, hang some blankets, maybe record in your closet. Make the room sound not so roomy or echo-y or big. Be pretty close to your mic, but not too hot. You don’t want to be recording across the room and screaming into your mic, but you don’t want to have the mic in your mouth while you’re talking. Those are the big things.
What are the big differences between voiceover and live-action auditions for actors?
There isn’t typecasting. You walk into a room for a voiceover audition and you’re not going to see everyone that looks like you; there is going to be a good variety of people in that waiting room doing those voices. Some people naturally have the voice and some people are putting on the voice. You could see kids and adults coming in and reading for the same roles. I think that’s really unique. You don’t have to memorize the lines, of course. The plus and minus is you’re not always acting with somebody else when you’re actually doing the final performance. We’re not always doing chemistry reads to see how people read together. You’re usually auditioning by yourself.
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