Voice Actor Laura Bailey Interview: Notoriety Can Hurt an Actor’s Career
If you were to encounter Laura Bailey at, say, the frozen food aisle at Trader Joe’s and have a chat about how much you both love the Mac & Cheese they have there, you probably wouldn’t realize who you were talking to. But as a veteran of dozens of games, including Resident Evil 6, Catherine, Persona 4, SWTOR, Saints Row: The Third, Final Fantasy XIII and Binary Domain, you’re probably familiar with her work.
But Bailey’s talent lies in changing her voice to such an extreme that you might not recognize her work from game to game, and you’ve certainly not heard her normal speaking voice in any of her effort.
Bailey told me, however, that being a vocal chameleon can come in handy for a voice actor. In fact, she says it’s a good thing that her work is not always immediately recognizable.
“It’s nice,” she said. “I think we get to play a wider range of characters because we don’t necessarily have that same notoriety [as screen actors do].” Bailey even went as far as to say that being particularly noticeable might even damage a voice actor’s career, at least in the short term.
“I think you might lose jobs because of your recognizability. They might think you’re oversaturating the market. ‘Why would I want to have you in my game when I’m trying to make something cool and original. I don’t want to use the same person that’s been the lead in five other games. I want somebody new.’ I think it’s almost better if your name isn’t completely recognizable in this industry.”
That being said, of course, there are still a number of developers and publishers who will hire name screen actor talent for games. When that happens, unlike when someone like her is hired, PR will without fail point it out to the press. There is some debate about whether a celebrity’s presence in a game will actually impact sales, however, and Bailey shared a relevant anecdote to illustrate that.
“One of the games I recently worked on, they wanted a very controversial celebrity to be in it, and there’s not really any reason for her to be in it other than the fact that she’s on Google searches, and if her names comes up, then the game might pop up,” Bailey said.
“But what does that translate to the gamer world of people who are willing to buy a game? People that are fans of her aren’t necessarily gamers, and they’re not gonna want to spend sixty dollars just to run around and hear her voice every once in a while. And then the gamers that actually would play that game might actually not pick it up because she was in it.”
There is another issue that comes up when a studio hires a famous screen actor for a role over someone who is primarily voice talent. “The difference between what a celebrity gets paid on a video game and what we would get paid is astronomical.”
But, as was made clear this week when it was announced that Kiefer Sutherland would be playing Snake in Metal Gear Solid 5, hiring a celebrity can get people talking.
Folks like Bailey, on the other hand, often don’t even have their presence in a game acknowledged prior to launch, and sometimes she’s not even allowed to discuss what she’s working on until consumers can see her name in the game credits.
“It sucks so hard to not know what you can’t talk about and what you can. I just make a habit of not saying anything unless the game is out or unless I’ve received specific permission from the producers,” Bailey said. “A lot of times the trailer will come out, our voice will be in it, and they still say ‘you can’t say you’re in the game.’”
Bailey insisted, however, that she and most of her peers are not bitter about that. “I guess sometimes it feels a little sad that the work you put into it may not be as acclaimed just because your name isn’t as famous. But that’s what we signed up for as voice actors. I don’t think anybody – well, that’s a lie – I don’t think most people got into this industry to become famous. A lot of [screen] actors, that’s their goal. It’s not to act, but to be famous.”
That being said, Bailey most definitely does have a fanbase, built from more than a decade of doing weird things with her voice across games, anime and Western cartoons. But she said she doesn’t think that matters too often when it comes to getting work. “Sometimes they’ll cast because they’re fans of yours and they want you to work on their project,” she admitted.
“Sometimes I think that they just don’t know what kind of fanbases some voice actors have. They may not think it’s anything they can bank on. And I wouldn’t say it is necessarily is anything you can bank on. I mean have these people on Twitter and Facebook that say, ‘I’m gonna pick up this game because you’re in it,’ which is awesome, but the percentage of gamers out there that are my fans is so small. It wouldn’t create a big spike in their sales.”
Bailey is happy doing what she does, and, make no mistake, she makes a good living doing it. She and her husband Travis Willingham, also a voice actor, just bought a new house in a not-shit part of Los Angeles.
“I’m doing better than when I was doing anime for a living, for sure. It’s a nice living. If you’re working a lot, it can be nice. When I began voice acting, I did not think that I would be able to make what I make doing that. On top of just the video games, we have cartoons that we do and commercials and stuff like that. It all adds together. Travis and I both do the same thing, so it’s nice that he’s doing very well as well.”
There’s another reason Bailey has reason to feel optimistic about her work. The way that studios incorporate actors in the development process is slowly evolving, and while she admits that what she describes below “doesn’t happen very often,” that it does happen at all is a step forward.
“This one that I just worked on, they brought us in at the beginning, and we did a whole read-through. We talked about characters and where they’re going to go and maybe changing this and doing this. We went to the actual studio where the director and everything was. Just so we could go, at a very early stage, talk through the script and see where scenes could go and stuff. It was really cool to get to be there for that.”
The landscape for voice acting has been gradually changing over the years, and when Nolan North took the gaming community by storm in Uncharted, some folks began to pay attention to the people behind the voices in their games. Some developers have long appreciated that voice acting is a craft and not just something any random person can do, and the movement toward performance capture is solidifying that idea even more. We’re still a long way from arriving at the point where voice actors will be considered bona fide marketing tools, and some publishers seem to be actively against using them that way, but the people are beginning to appreciate that their game experiences would likely not be nearly as enjoyable without skilled voice talent behind the mic. Respect is coming, slowly but surely.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist who contributes to Kotaku, VG247, Gameranx and Appolicious in addition to Game Front. Follow him on Twitter.