Nope — I didn’t narrowly escape a wave of horrible traffic accidents or barely survive a fall from a high place…nothing of the sort. “Cheating Death” was the name of a Georgia Lottery voiceover script for which I was hired, and I was to play a character I never thought I’d be asked to voice: Death.
I was accused of a lot of things upon entering the voice acting world, but a “baritone” was not one of them. Nor was “deep voiced”, “gritty”, “movie trailer guy”, or anything else that would suggest that I could ever sound even remotely like the Don LaFontaines, Ben Patrick Johnsons, and Ashton Smiths of the world. Even my agent, Sally Neal, once said I’d never compete with ‘those guys’…which is why I was so surprised when she said I’d been chosen to voice one of the most dark and grizzly characters in existence.
The funny thing is that I was actually trying for the other character in the script, “Guy” (who was later renamed “Steve”), and Guy/Steve was supposed to be just some average, ordinary man. I recorded the usual two or three takes in my home studio; picked the one that ‘felt’ the best to me; and sent it off to the agency hoping, as always, for that rare and somewhat miraculous booking to occur.
Later that day, just for fun, I recorded Death’s lines and spliced them into my original audition just to see if my version of Guy/Steve worked in conjunction with Death’s lines. I kinda liked the way the two characters sounded together, so I sent the second version off to my agent hoping to get some feedback about my acting, timing, delivery, etc. What I didn’t know is that she sent this second recording to the folks at BBDO instead of the first one. If you’re interested, here is that second recording of both Guy and Death:
When I got the booking, I was ecstatic — expecting to play the part of Guy/Steve — never pausing to verify which part I’d be reading until much later. For nearly an entire week I rehearsed Guy/Steve’s lines, but the day before the session, I began to feel a little anxious about it all. Just to make absolutely certain I was, in fact, supposed to read the part of Guy/Steve, I wrote Sally and asked which one was my character. She responded, “Death, I think.”
Wait a minute. Seriously? I had read Death’s lines almost as a joke, just for grins really, and then to get hired for the part?!? I didn’t even rehearse the character; how did I get this? Surely there were some basso profondos that had auditioned for Death…what happened? Okay… Well… I guess I’d better get ready to do this for real. Man, I sure hope I can hang…
My first inclination was to jump online and search out other versions of Death recorded by other voice actors and try to glean some tips and techniques on how to get “that sound” (whatever that may have been). But then I thought about it again and decided not to. It occurred to me that if I showed up at the session sounding like someone (or something) different from my audition, the producers might wonder what happened to the guy they ‘thought’ they hired. So I decided to stick with what had gotten me the gig. Check out the script (image to the left) complete with tons of session notes scribbled everywhere!
The next day I was on my way downtown to the studio, and it was a perfectly dreary, dark, and rainy day — just right for my character. When I arrived, I met the session engineer, two producers, and the other actor Mike Stoudt (also from my agency) who played the part of Steve. There was also a third producer patched in via ISDN from Los Angeles, so at any point Mike and I might have to take direction from as many as three people at a time.
The session was a blast. We ended up reading two radio scripts and one television script with a collective total of over 100 takes. The first 15 or 20 takes were really just warm-ups, and then the real direction began: “Slow down the pacing…”, or “Now, interrupt each other. Step on each other’s lines…” or “Tom: try to sound more irritated in the third line…” and “Mike: act a little more nervous and scared in the beginning…” And after witnessing the producers twist Mike’s delivery — literally turning him into Steve — I discovered why they hired him: He really nailed the essence of Steve’s character. I was honored to watch him work.
As a drummer, I am often confounded by music producers who can shape my part into something far better than anything I could have come up with on my own, and it can get a little frustrating at times too, considering that I’m the drummer — not them! But what I finally learned was this: it’s not my job to ‘guess’ the perfect part; instead, it’s my job to ‘play’ the perfect part regardless of the origin of it’s inspiration.
Same goes for voice acting.
Here is the final radio edit for the 60-second script of “Cheating Death” — enjoy!
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