Samuel Willetts recaps an interview conducted at MCM Birmingham Comic-Con with legendary actors Troy Baker & Nolan North
This past weekend as MCM Birmingham Comic Con, I was given the pleasure of partaking in a group press interview with legendary voice actors Troy Baker (The Last of Us, BioShock: Infinite, Uncharted) and Nolan North (Uncharted, Destiny, Assassin’s Creed.) What follows is a transcribe of that interview.
You two have starred in so many franchises like The Last of Us and Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed…
Baker: Burger King. McDonald’s.
Yes, the big ones. Which fanbase is the most passionate at cons, like MCM Comic Con?
Nolan: *Pointing at Troy* Well, [Troy] was almost just attacked by Last of Us fans and cosplayers!
Baker: It felt like I had Clickers behind me! *laughing* – I don’t know. I think anyone who has the volition to pick up a controller and spend thirty, forty, hours, or more, playing a game is a passionate fan. More so than film or television, arguably. We (Nolan and I) have had success with Uncharted and that is something that changed the game for us.
Nolan: Yeah, for me, the answer’s Uncharted. There’s more men, women, I’ve even met grandparents dressed like Sully. Whole families get involved. It’s something that’s gone on for over a decade. And I’ve done nothing else, so. *laughing*
Is voice acting in a video game that different to something else, like advertising or for audiobooks?
Nolan: It can depend. A lot of games now are using performance capture like Uncharted and The Last of Us did. A lot of times, if it’s not a performance capture game, you record alone. Like, with Destiny, I’ve had one session where I got to work with one of the other actors. Even then, that was just a random session and down to scheduling more than anything else. Animation can also be very different too.
Baker: Yeah, in animation you could be recording in a group ensemble or be by yourself.
Nolan: For me, the biggest thing is that sometimes it can be the lonelier job. Unless it’s performance capture, which is just like shooting television or film.
Baker: Only, the wardrobe is -slightly- different.
Nolan: Yeah but, you wear that anyway.
Baker: I do. I think it complements my figure.
You touched on performance capture as being a growing part of games development and people like Andy Serkis have moved from film into doing video games…
Nolan: Who’s this now? *grinning*
Small-time British guy. Hasn’t done much. – Have you ever thought about taking your performance capture experience into films? Could we have seen you in the Planet of the Apes films?
Baker: You could have…
Nolan: …but they didn’t cast us.
Baker: It’s funny, a friend of mine was in the last one (War for the Planet of the Apes) and I said to him, ‘Have fun wearing the suit!’ He was like, ‘I have questions…’
Whilst performance capture is something that’s very second nature to Nolan and me, and there’s some fundamentals to it, there’s no one game that’s done it in one certain way. The thing I love about it though is that, firstly, like Nolan said, we get a chance to work with other people as opposed to just being in such a vacuum. And secondly, it forces you as an actor to strip away everything that normally helps to inform you about the role.
For example, I had a buddy who was in a film who said that they didn’t feel like they were the character until they’d had hair, makeup, props, etc. Whereas in performance capture, all of that is replaced by someone painting sixty-four dots on your face, a helmet with an attached camera that rests in front of your face and a leotard with little ping pong balls on it. You have to make all of that disappear because in games now, as the medium’s writing has evolved, you’re doing, especially in the case of The Last of Us, very intense and dramatic scenes. So, a lot of times, actors who’ve come from traditional forms, such as television and film, find it difficult to get over the hurdle of what has normally set them up for success is now a hinderance.
Regardless, it’s always fun to watch someone who hasn’t done performance capture before and you see that lightbulb moment for them, like we’ve all had: This is what we did when we were kids. This is playing pretend. This is me playing in a sandbox just on a much cooler scale.
Nolan: Ultimately it comes down to that connection you have with the other actor. I remember Gordon Hunt, who directed the first three Uncharted games, would always talk about being very specific with the person/character that you’re talking to, as you would in an on-camera situation. I like performance capture a lot. People say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing here!’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, everything’s here.’
You two have done such an astonishing range of different characters. I’m curious, apart from the most iconic ones, which have been the weirdest and most fun to do?
Nolan: I have a lot. Sigmund from Ratchet & Clank was fun just because it was so silly to be doing a voice that I used to do for my nieces and nephews. Gosh, there’s so many.
Baker: I love being surprised. Like, when I’m watching Rick & Morty and I’m enjoying the episode and then I hear his (Nolan’s) stupid voice. It’s so much fun.
Nolan: *in Scroopy Noopers voice* Feel that? That was Pluto. Just shrank a little.
Baker: Fred Tatasciore is here this weekend too and for the last three seasons of Family Guy I’ve heard Fred in every episode. Especially when it’s a friend, you get excited and feel like you’re celebrating with them. It’s like watching someone run a fifty-yard touchdo-… I am in the wrong place to make that comparison.
*In an English accent* It’s like with football though… *pauses*
Nolan: Keep going…
Baker: No, that’s as far as I can take that metaphor. *smiling*
To me, everyone one of those small roles has somehow advanced you further. A friend of mine said it’s all about singles and doubles. Another baseball metaphor. I never make sports metaphors! It’s not about hitting out of the park every time.
Nolan: There’s another one!
Baker: Nobody understand-
Nolan: This is my life! He’s like this when we’re having lunch! Blah, blah, blah.
Baker: Metaphor. Metaphor. Metaphor. Dick joke!
Nolan: Here it comes…
…and there it went!
In terms of ‘hitting out of the park’, The Last of Us was one of those rare projects that really exploded and became a huge part of the landscape of video games. Could you talk about how exciting it is to continue that with The Last of Us Part II and the pressure that comes with building off such a big hit?
Baker: There’s certainly a lot of pressure. We felt that pressure during the development of the first game. I’ll never forget the first time that Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann walked Ashley [Johnson] and I through the exact same pitch that they took Sony through to get the game greenlit. An hour later, during a break, I turned to Ashley and said, ‘Do you realise that if this thing fails it’s because of us? They have the pedigree, they’ve got the idea. It’s all on us.’ However, after two and half years of shooting, you realise that you have a great team of people that will make sure that you don’t fail. And the thing that I love about video games specifically, and The Last of Us is a great example, is that it’s not just one person that a character rests on. It’s the animator, the modeler, the shader, the coder. It’s so many people that go into the creation of a character in a game and the creation of that game as a whole.
As for coming back to The Last of Us, you start to ask yourself a lot of questions: ‘Do I have what it takes to do this again? Will people love it?’ The beauty of being under the auspices of Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann is that those questions are irrelevant. We’re not doing this so people like it. We’re doing this because it’s honest and we’re doing this because we believe we have a story to tell. The second that we start making something that we think you’ll like, that’s when we fail. Neil writes honestly, he asks us to perform honestly, and ultimately all that we want to do is make a game that we want to play. So, if we can do that then I think everyone’s going to be happy with it. So far though, it’s a fantastic story and a fantastic game. I’ve done a bunch of playtests and it’s fucking awesome. I can’t wait for it to be on shelves.
When you have a successful project, like The Last of Us, there’s sometimes an expectation that the sequel will be more of the same. Will The Last of Us Part II be a very different experience?
Baker: For sure.
Nolan: Everyone dies.
Baker: You die, actually! When you play.
Nolan: Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.
Baker: When we did the trailer that we released at PSX, in 2016, the second that we stepped foot back on set it was just heavy. I think that’s because of where we left of, in The Last of Us. It’s not a bright and cheery game. This is no different. People ask me, ‘Wasn’t it a lot of fun to do The Last of Us’, and I tell them, ‘No!’ There’s a burden on your back and you feel good about what you’ve done when… I don’t know, Nolan blew me off with the Bruce Willis thing.
Nolan: We’re just begging for the next question.
Baker: Yes! Please!
Q: What franchises would you love to be involved with that you haven’t already worked on?
Nolan: I’ve always liked Red Dead Redemption. I’ve always loved cowboy movies, Sergio Leone, the spaghetti westerns.
Baker: I feel the same way. I think one of the greatest moments in gaming, for me, was crossing over into Mexico and José González’s music begins to play. I knew that gaming had changed when that moment happened because I’m using a joystick to control this cinematic moment. And I was like, ‘I want to do that! I want to be in this game!’
Houser brothers, if you’re reading this, it’s not too late to cast us! We’ve worked together…
Nolan: Yeah, we do.
Baker: I’m from Texas.
Nolan: I was named after Nolan Ryan, who is from Texas.
Which roles have really challenged your vocal range and training?
Nolan: There was a voice I did for a cartoon for Nickelodeon called Breadwinners and I was a Viking beaver, Oonski. *In Oonski’s voice* And Oonski talks like this, but…
Baker: …Twenty-six episodes later…
Nolan: Yeah, actually they were eleven minutes and it was fifty-two episodes. They got a second season too, so it’s like one-hundred-and-four episodes. He wasn’t in all of them but a lot of them. He also sang, or growled, like he was in a heavy metal band. So, you do it, and you say to yourself, ‘Oh man, I nailed it,’ and they go, ‘That’s great! Can we just try it again but a little louder?’ Meanwhile, I’m like, ‘Urm… *cough* okay!’ It’s literally just one of those voices that I will never audition with again because you walk out and your voice is three octaves higher and just gone. Though, if I can’t sustain it, I shouldn’t audition with it.
Baker: Joker was the one for me. I greatly respect Mark Hamill for what he did in Batman: The Animated Series because he -is- The Joker to me. But, I watch him and I see how effortlessly it flows out of him and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s just no fair.’ Because, every session, if I could complete a four hour session which typically I could not, I was covered in sweat and exhausted. Typically, Amanda Wyatt, our booth director, would call sessions to a close early because we felt like we were getting diminishing returns with my performance. With The Joker, it’s the mania and the way that Mark never makes it sound like he’s never falling into a rhythm and always chaotic, to me, is far cooler than what he does as a vocal quality. That’s the one though where I got the gig and I turned it down twice because I was petrified.
Nolan: You got a lot of fear issues.
Baker: A lot. This helped me get over a lot of them though, it really did.
Nolan: Yeah but this is just like The Last of Us.
Baker: I almost walked out on The Last of Us. Literally, I was standing up from my seat to leave because I’m looking around the room and saying to myself, ‘That guy’s gonna get it. That guy’s gonna get it. That guy’s gonna get it.’ I almost stood up to leave and they went, ‘Troy?’, and I went ‘Yep!’ And I came -this- close to walking out of that audition. So, moral of the story is don’t ever let fear be the reason that you don’t do something.
Nolan: See. We learned something here today.
Baker: Didn’t we?
Recently, there’s been news about the production of film adaptations of The Last of Us and Uncharted. How would you feel seeing someone else play the characters of Joel or Nathan Drake? Do you feel like a film adaptation is a worthwhile venture?
Baker: If there was to be a Last of Us movie, I hope that it’s good. I just hope that whoever plays Joel, whoever plays Ellie, whoever plays those characters, doesn’t want to try to do what’s been done in the game because it’s already been done. It has been successfully produced and released out there as an art form. I want to learn something new about the characters. I want them to show me something new that I never knew about them. It’s what makes Shakespeare great because everyone’s interpretation of Richard III or King Lear is completely different. When Martin Freeman did Richard III it was completely different from anyone else and I thought that was an incredibly cool take on that character. You don’t have to like it but it’s something new. So, if they do that, I just want to walk away going, ‘I never knew that about Joel. I never knew that about Ellie.’
Nolan: In terms of Uncharted, movies are made with movie stars. Could I do it? Yes, but at this point I’m getting older. I joke that by the time that this is made I could play Sully.
Would you play Sully, if offered?
Nolan: *In an impression of Sully* Sure. – As far as I’m concerned, I’ve made four movies. As an actor, I’m looking for the next thing. What’s next? What’s fun? I’ve played this role for so long and I would do another one but it’s like Harrison Ford. He has nothing to prove as Indiana Jones but they throw a truck of money at him…
Baker: …and we get The Crystal Skull.
Nolan: Troy’s response was a great answer, just see what someone else’s take is. If it were to be done, I’d do someone younger so that if it does become successful it can sustain a series of films. No one wants to watch me run around, especially me.
Baker: I would.
Nolan: I will say that I still think it’s a better idea to turn films into video games than to do it the other way. I’ve said for a long time that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would be a phenomenal game. For one, you have a strong female lead and I would work on my accent to play Mikael because that I could do.
Baker: I will say this too, as a closer. The BAFTA Video Game nominations were announced this week and I am incredibly impressed and glad that BAFTA was leading the way in the fact that all their nominees were either a female lead or a person of colour. I think that it’s not someone motivating a political agenda but a response to what’s happening in games right now. For that very reason we have Shadow of the Tomb Raider coming out, a strong female lead, the last Uncharted (The Lost Legacy) was two strong female leads, What Remains of Edith Finch also. I’m excited to see what’s happening in games because it shows that it doesn’t have to be a square jawed guy with a gun and that opens up opportunities for us as characters as both protagonists and villains.
Nolan: I lost my last BAFTA nomination so I’m not feeling so kind to them. *smirking*
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is available now for PlayStation 4.
The Last of Us Part II is scheduled for release on PlayStation 4.