‘Mass Effect’ Voice Actor Courtenay Taylor on How to Find Success in Video Games

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Photo Source: Electronic Arts

For three years Courtenay Taylor worked as a commercial voice actor before she was introduced to the world of video game voice acting. She moved to Los Angeles and people suggested she do video games because of the tone of her voice. Unsure about what she was doing, she auditioned for about two or three years before she was cast for additional voices in a “Star Trek” game and at the same time as a judge for the “American Idol” video game. Here she started to learn and understand the parameters of the work, and she’s been a staple in the medium ever since, voicing characters in the “Mass Effect” franchise, “Resident Evil” franchise, and “Fallout 4.” Beyond voice acting for games, she’s also worked on a number of animated series including “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes” and “Regular Show.”

Backstage spoke with Taylor about how she approaches voicing a video game character, the challenges of working in the industry, and what aspiring video game voice actors need to know to succeed.

How do you approach voicing a video game character?
I work in visual images so I try to figure out what kind of a movie it is in my head. We don’t have a script. I trained in ACT in San Francisco and I did lots of acting classes, but because we don’t have the tools up front to sit there and be like, “I’m going to break down these scenes, there’s an arc.” It’s moment by moment. If there’s a visual, that’s always super helpful to make decisions about your voice, but sometimes we don’t get a visual. So for me, it’s looking at the moments, they’re usually just little paragraphs we get and looking at it from like a strategic perspective of what is this little trait available to this person?

If she’s an older warrior, I’m going to think about her age and maybe give my voice a little more gravel and wear and tear. Once I’ve established the tone and her physicality, it’s looking at those little paragraphs and being like, in this paragraph I can show she’s a fighter. In this paragraph, I can show she’s a mother or mother-type. In this paragraph, she’s assembling troops. How does she do that? Does she stamp her sword on the ground and do it by fear or does she speak with a lower tone and make people draw into her? Sometimes there’s a more obvious answer like this is the blockbuster movie version, and then there’s the answer like maybe this is where you see her humanity and slide these things in...

A lot of the time, all you have is what’s on the page. You have to figure out audible ways to fill that in because you can’t do it necessarily through a motion that people can see so being able to say a line and imagine that you’re holding someone’s head in your hands and leaning into that. What does that sound like and feel like? You have these little opportunities to do that so you give them the arc without having seen it.

What are some of the challenges of working in video game voiceover?
I definitely learned my lesson about taking care of my voice because I hemorrhaged my vocal cords and was on vocal rest where I could not speak at all for three weeks. I had panic attacks during that time, I was in tears. It was so frustrating. You don’t realize how much even if you have a sore throat and you aren’t supposed to talk, you can still talk over the phone and make a reservation for dinner, you can still ask someone to bring you something. When you’re on complete vocal rest, you’re just texting and typing messages on your phone to hold up to people. It takes so long to get anything done, and before I was one of those people that was like, “eh, whatever, I’ve got this voice and I always sound like this and if you can’t do this work, don’t do it.” Then that happened to me and I became a huge proponent of vocal health. That was a huge challenge.

I’m not a singer and I did not sing before I did this work so I’m learning a lot of the things people can already do for the most part. The singing, the breath control stuff, being able to get to the end of a line without taking a breath. The physical work around this work has been challenging for me like body control if I get nervous. When I started a new job for this huge game, I’m playing a character I wouldn’t normally play and she’s like the commander of all the commanders. I think we did six lines in an hour because it was a lot of checking back and forth and stuff. Just being there and being new in the room, and being excited for the job and then having to do something that was down deep the entire time. I walked out and I was like, “oh my back hurts, my back hurts y’all!” Learning to physically relax between your takes and doing diaphragm work, all that stuff.

Then the challenge that every one of us faces is you don’t have all the information. You have to make decisions quickly in games and make strong choices and run with them until somebody says that’s not it. Because a lot of the time they’ve thought about what the character looks like, they’ve thought so much about the world, but again it’s between the lines and you have to fill in. So when people say how do you train for this? How do you prepare for these jobs? The prep-work is not always for that job. It’s to strengthen your tool kit so when that job comes along you can say to yourself, “how about a hammer, a chisel, a paintbrush?” You have already done that work so you can just reach in and grab stuff and have it and be like, “I know how to use this tool I have it here.” So accent work [for example]. I’ve walked in and the people were like, “great so, this one is going to be Scottish.” A Scottish accent? Great. That’s the work I have to do before I get the job.

Do you have any tips for someone walking into their first video game audition?
If you’re walking into your first job, relax as much as you can. Wear shoes that you can feel the floor. I wear high heels a lot and I always kick my shoes off when I’m working because I need to feel the floor to ground myself. Be really aware of your breath. I always bring a pen or pencil and paper. There’s a lot of people now who are getting into the game and everyone works on iPads, but for me, I’m writing down key words all the time. I get nervous too and I forget to listen or I can’t listen due to my nerves, so I’m writing down things that they’re saying and also I have to remind myself to breath before the lines so I can get through to the end of the line and she is as strong in the ending as she was in the beginning…Don’t be afraid to bring what you need in. There’s this one actor who said, ‘if you’re still using paper, you shouldn’t be doing this,’ and I heartily disagree with that. Whatever your learning style is, own it. Don’t be afraid to ask for a pen and paper because in games as well it’s like fun for them to just make up words that I can’t pronounce so when you’re going to give me the name of a place with seven syllables, I’m going to need to write that down phonetically. Whatever it takes to physically ground you and take good care of yourself. Show up early, show up prepared.

What advice would give to aspiring video game voice actors?
Take an acting class. I had someone say to me I heard you’re a voice actor, I want to get into that. So I start talking to him about how you’ve got to take some acting classes and he stops me to say “I’m more interested in the voice part and not the acting part.” When you say that, and this is the most important thing, I ask who’s your favorite voice actor and inevitably they’ll say like Jennifer Hale and Steve Blum, and I’m going to tell you, cool, you’re going to audition against them because there’s no caste system in this world. If you think you can beat out Steve Blum for a job, you just go. Until you are like, “yea, this is competitive with those people,” go back to work. Go back and keep learning and keep doing. Don’t wait 10 years, but know that’s the level you’re competing against. Bring who you are to it, but also make sure your tool box is full…You have to make sure you do your best, but your best has to be “I’ve done all my work, all my research, I know the tone, I know the script up and down, inside out. I can read the phone book in this character” because those people have already done that work.

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Lisa Granshaw
Lisa Granshaw is an editor at Backstage.
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