Laura Bailey Starfinder Alexa interview – ‘I am a nerd and I love it’
GameCentral talks to the actor behind Abby from The Last Of Us Part 2, about her life in gaming and her new project for Amazon.
Almost every job in video games is unsung, with even the most hardcore gamer probably unable to name more than half a dozen ‘famous’ developers. But voice-acting and performance capture is a little different because you can tell it’s all the work of one person, rather than the multitudes behind the rest of the game, and yet very few games make it easy to tell who. If you do bother to look up the credits though there are a few names that come up repeatedly, with one of the most acclaimed being Laura Bailey.
Bailey’s work on The Last Of Us Part 2, where she plays the role of Abby, has been in the news a lot recently but you’ll also know her as everyone from Chun-Li in Street Fighter to Jaina Proudmoore in World Of Warcraft, Rise Kujikawa in Persona 4, Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4, Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man, Kait Diaz in Gears 5, and dozens of other roles.
We recently got the chance to speak to her about a new project for Amazon, which uses the Alexa virtual assistant to create a single-player version of tabletop role-playing game Starfinder. It features the voice of Bailey and a range of other actors, including Nathan Fillion, and can be activated simply by saying ‘Alexa open Starfinder’ and then speaking commands such as ‘Attack Goblin’ and ‘Use healing serum’, just as you would in a real-tabletop game – or an old Fighting Fantasy game book.
We were told ahead of the interview that she didn’t want to talk about The Last Of Us Part 2 too much, which is understandable given she’s received death threats as a result of the role, but we were able to discuss not just Starfinder but also many of her other roles; as well as her views about the current state of the games industry from the point of view of actors.
Given Starfinder is based on an existing tabletop game we also got into her involvement with Critical Role, a web series where she and other professional voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons – just in case you thought she was faking the whole video game nerd thing…
GC: The first thing that struck me about Starfinder is how impressively nerdy it is.
GC: And I don’t use that word in the pejorative sense at all.
LB: No, no, no. I use the term proudly. I am a nerd and I love it. I’ve always loved gaming.
GC: Were you into D&D as a kid?
LB: I didn’t start playing tabletop until we started with my group on Critical Role; we started on Pathfinder and then switched over to Fifth Edition. But I played video games all growing up. My dad was a huge gamer. I used to watch over his shoulder as he would play things like Doom and Half-Life and everything. And I always loved all the Sierra games growing up. I played PC games religiously.
GC: I sometimes wonder what some actors think when they do a game or animation for the first time, with all these weird plot lines and characters. But if you’re playing a… a cyborg queen from the ninth dimension, or whatever, that’s just a Tuesday to you.
LB: [laughs] I’m really good at playing pretend, yeah.
GC: Is that something that was obvious early on for you?
LB: I think it’s like a muscle, you know? That the more you work at it, the better it gets. I think when we’re kids that ability to play pretend and imagine great things is just so natural. And as we get older, we’re kind of trained to forget about all of that. And that’s the beauty of these kinds of games – video games and this game Starfinder – because it really allows us, as adults, to delve back into that play space.
GC: I haven’t had a chance to play Starfinder for myself yet so can you give me a quick overview of how it works? It sounds like it’s essentially a… single-player tabletop role-playing game?
LB: It’s a mixture. It’s like an audio book, but it’s also like a role-playing game. And it’s a super easy thing to pick up. You play it on your Alexa-enabled device and it just kind of tells a story and you choose your character as you begin, you decide what kind of a character you want to play. And then you interact with the environment around you.
You interact with the people that you’re talking to, all through voice commands and all of the things being described and narrated, you’re getting to imagine as you’re playing. And it’s just a really unique experience and I haven’t ever done voice work for something quite like this before.
GC: So are you the narrator or just one of the characters?
LB: I’m one of the characters I play Clara 247, who is an android mercenary.
GC: [laughs] So I wasn’t far off the mark with the cyborg queen!
LB: [laughs] No, I know!
GC: I was looking through your résumé before this and it seems that BloodRayne was your first video game role?
LB: Oh man! Yeah, BloodRayne! I think BloodRayne was my very first game. It was around the exact same time I recorded another game called Deus Ex: Invisible War, which was not nearly as big as BloodRayne ended up being. But BloodRayne was the first time I was, you know, the lead of a franchise.
GC: That’s an interesting first role because I was going to start by asking how you’ve seen the nature of female roles evolve over the years, given in the early days they were almost solely there for male titillation. BloodRayne certainly was and yet she was also the lead of a multi-game franchise, which is rare even now.
LB: Yeah! And she was tough! You know, she still kicked butt.
GC: It’s an interesting grey area between exploitation and visible representation. How do you feel about it today?
LB: At the time I was thrilled and I think at that point in gaming, I think it served a good purpose. I don’t know at this point if that kind of game would go over quite as well but, you know, everything changes. Everybody’s viewpoints change as we all learn and grow together. So I think it’s amazing how the industry is evolving its female characters and I’m so thrilled to get to be playing the roles that I am.
GC: What would you say was the first character you played where you really felt they were genuinely well-written and interesting? Because I’m guessing that probably wasn’t BloodRayne?
LB: [laughs] When I was doing BloodRayne I was excited about it, but I was so young when I was doing that. I was… man, like 19- years-old when I was doing that. Maybe 20. It was so early. I don’t know if there’s a game that I can think of that I was like, ‘Oh, this is the one!’ But I’ve always loved video games. I’ve always loved this industry. So, really, getting to be a part of it at all was a thrill for me.
That’s probably one of the reasons that I’ve been able to sustain the career that I have, because I do have a passion for this world, you know? And I’ve always understood what the mechanics of the games are. So if I’m doing cinematic dialogue it’s different than cyclical dialogue or just directional dialogue. And I understand what kind of inflection that’s going to be needed, because I’ve played those games.
GC: At this point in your career are you in a position where you can pick and choose roles? What specifically do you look for?
LB: At this point it’s the things that are really interesting and unique, and that I think will move audiences and spark my interest as well. And that’s what this game has done because Starfinder… it’s that theatre of the mind. And that’s one of the things that I’ve just grown to love so much through Critical Role, is that concept of imaginative gameplay.
So that’s why I jumped on this project, because it was such a new experience and we’ve seen how voice commands and everything is being used for task-oriented things. And it’s really becoming so ingrained in our way of life that it’s such a cool thing to get to see voice commands be used for entertainment purposes.
GC: So in this case it was the technology that attracted you? The idea that it was pushing the envelope in that sense?
LB: That and the fact that this game is based on the Starfinder tabletop game.
GC: Oh, so you knew that beforehand?
LB: Oh yeah! I never played Starfinder but, especially after voicing this, I really want to pick it up and get to explore the world in that regard too.
GC: [laughs] That’s great. I did a little bit of tabletop role-playing, back in the day, but it was only the Star Wars RPG.
LB: Oh yeah, the Star Wars RPG. That’s a lot of fun! Yeah.
GC: We never did D&D but we did do a little bit of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well.
LB: [excited] No way, there’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tabletop?!
GC: Well, there was in my day, yeah.
LB: Oh man, that’s awesome!
GC: I remember there was lots of sourcebooks and everything so you could be all these increasingly obscure animal mutants.
GC: It’s great to see how genuinely enthusiastic you are about all this stuff. It obviously helps with the performances, where another actor would struggle to understand the context and tone.
LB: [laughs] That’s the beautiful thing about my career, where it is now, is that I do get to choose the projects that are meaningful to me. So yeah, that’s a really amazing thing to get to do.
GC: When it comes to voice-acting in games in general though, one of the bugbears I always have – although it has become less of a problem more recently – is… have you done one of those dual roles, where you can be a male or female character?
LB: Ah… yeah! Yeah, I did Saints Row The Third and then Saints Row 4. Deus Ex, that was choose a male or female role as well.
GC: With those, I almost always pick the female character simply because I expect the female voice actor to give a better performance.
GC: Not technically perhaps, but at least I know they won’t be doing a bad Clint Eastwood impression.
LB: [laughs] Right, right.
GC: I’m sure it’s not the actor’s fault, it’s what they’re being asked to do, but it’s always that super gravelly voice that doesn’t exist in real life nowadays – because nobody smokes enough cigarettes anymore.
LB: [laughs] Mass Effect was a good example of that.
GC: That was the one I was thinking of.
LB: Yeah, the male voice is very masculine, and Jen Hale is the female voice and I chose Jen Hale because I love her. And I played through the game like that. But even Saints Row, the male voices in that were not necessarily super masculine sounding. I think a lot of games are getting really amazing performances that kind of are across the board. You know, it doesn’t have to be super, super manly or super, super feminine. It can be wherever you want it to be.
GC: I think there are also less obvious clichés for female actors to have to avoid. If you were told to do an impression of Sigourney Weaver, or whoever, I don’t think that would come across as so obviously fake.
LB: My auditions that I’ve gotten, they’ll have Sigourney Weaver sometimes as a reference of what they’re wanting or Angelina Jolie or… anything that you’re doing, there’s going to be a reference point for it. But then it’s up to the actor to be able to bring their own unique brand to that, their own take on the role.
GC: That’s interesting. So they will give you a character or an actor to try to emulate?
LB: Yeah. It’s not every time, but a lot of times they’ll be like, ‘Here’s an idea of what we’re thinking’. And it’s up to you, as the actor, to go, ‘Okay, you’re not looking for that specific voice type necessarily but…’ Like, if you say Angelina Jolie, it’s not that they’re wanting Angelina Jolie’s voice, it’s that they’re wanting the presence that she gives in a specific film.
GC: How much input do you have into the writing and characterisation of the roles themselves?
LB: That depends on the project. A lot of things that I work on are very… involving and they do want my input or are open to things that I bring to the table. And then other times, you know… the story is written and you do it the way it is. And that’s fine too.
GC: And you do a lot of the motion capture as well, don’t you?
LB: Yeah, yeah. With motion capture it’s a lot more open for that because, you know, you’re filming it. So there’s the opportunity to go, ‘Well, what if we played it this way? What if we did this instead?’ Whereas something like Starfinder it’s just recording sessions and because of the way the world is right now, because of COVID, nobody’s really going into any recording studio.
So all of the recording that we’re doing for this is in home studios. So there’s not really an opportunity to go, ‘What if we changed the lines like this?’ Because the story is the way it is and, you know, it needs to be that way. But they do go, ‘Hey, if you feel you want to change up a line or if this feels more natural to say it a different way feel free to play around like that’. Which is really cool.
GC: I’m basing my knowledge of how these things are recorded based purely on a Tom Hanks anecdote on a chat show…
GC: But I remember him describing how he would sit on one side of a big screen and just say all the lines a hundred different ways, just in case they needed it that way. Is that similar to some of your work?
LB: It depends on the project, yeah. A lot of times people will get like a whole bunch of different takes, with the different inflections, just to see how it’s all gonna play together. But what I’m seeing more of now, and this is the way we’re recording on Starfinder, is we’ll have multiple actors either in the booth or, the way this is over Zoom or Source-Connect or however we’re recording. So I’ll get to hear the other actor in the scene with me.
So a lot of the dialogue that we’re doing has a more natural feel to it because you are genuinely reacting off of somebody. Most of the times when you’re doing lines one at a time and they’re getting a whole bunch of different takes, it’s because the other actors aren’t recorded around you yet and they need a variety of things to see what’s going to play once everybody’s put together.
GC: There was the story the other day about The Last Of Us Part 2 having alternate endings and I wondered whether that’s something you were aware of? Because the character of Abby seemed to evolve quite a bit over time.
LB: Oh yeah; sure, sure. With a project like The Last Of Us or Gears Of War, or anything that’s a huge project where we’re filming it, we’ve sat down and talked through the story and talked about all of the different beats before we ever begin the filming process of it. So yeah, I know front to back what that story is going to be.
GC: So those alternate endings were real possibilities when you started?
LB: We filmed on that project for years, probably I think five years. So I heard many different iterations of what could have happened and then I’d get a phone call going, ‘Okay. So, here’s what I’m thinking, this is what’s going to change now!’ So yeah, things change all the time in those long-term projects.
GC: What’s it like going from an intense character and storyline in The Last Of Us Part 2 to something lighter? I imagine that must be a great relief?
LB: Definitely. I mean, the variety is, is what I live for. [laughs] And if everything was The Last Of Us, if everything was Abby, I would be a pretty depressed person [laughs] ‘Cause that’s some really heavy stuff. It’s so nice to go from a project that is so big… and I was recording The Last Of Us and Gears 5 at the same time. So those were both very big projects that were filming giant action sequences.
Gosh, I was doing that at the same time that we were filming Spider-Man as well. So for a few years there, it was like big, big, big. So to be able to take on a project like Starfinder, it’s just a nice change to do something super, super intimate. And that’s what this game feels like when we’re recording it, because it is in the home studio and it’s just pleasant listening to other people’s voices. And it’s, like I said, it’s this mixture of like an audio book combined with an adventure. So it’s calming.
GC: I love that it sounds like something you would genuinely have played on your own if you weren’t involved in it.
LB: [laughs] Yeah. It genuinely is!
GC: So how long is the whole adventure? If you play through it all?
LB: Every episode is around 90 minutes long, I think, depending on how you play. Because you know, certain players probably would explore more than others. But I think it’s probably gonna end up being around 13 hours of gameplay.
GC: Oh, okay.
LB: It’s like six episodes of gameplay. It’s nothing crazy intense and you can pick it up and put it down as you want. Which is nice for me being a mom of a toddler. A lot of times, if I’m gaming or if I’m doing something, and he runs in the room, I immediately want to put down what I’m doing and help him.
GC: The other general point about voice-acting, which I think has gotten more exposure recently, is how relatively few of you there are. There’s like you, Jennifer Hale, Nolan North, and Troy Baker and between you that seems to be 50% of all voice work on your own. You can see why developers do it, because they always get a good performance out of you all, but do you think that’s something that needs to change?
LB: Well, I think it is changing and I think there are… I think the people that are doing it are there for a reason, you know? I’ve had the benefit of being on the other side for a lot of auditions – they’ll have an actor doing the reading against another actor that is auditioning. So I’ll get to see a lot of actors come in and do their auditions. And it’s funny because so many people are talented, but the people that are used over and over again on video games, there’s a reason for it.
They come in and they get it and they nail it and they understand the world and they just tend to book projects more than other people. But there’s a huge crop of voice actors that are super talented that are up and coming. And I have no doubt that in the next few years we’re going to be seeing a lot of new talent.
GC: Because there was that controversy over you playing the role of Nadine in Uncharted. But I think you’ve said now that you wouldn’t have taken that role if you’d known more about the character beforehand?
LB: The thing about Nadine that happened is that the character design wasn’t created when I auditioned for her and when I was cast as her. And it wasn’t until after we’d started filming that I found out. I’d already done a full scan in with my face and everything. Then the character design artist came up with that design and I saw her and I realised that, um… she was black and I’m not.
And so it was a very different sort of situation. If I had seen the character before I auditioned then, no, I wouldn’t have auditioned for that. And it was a learning experience for sure, because now anytime I do auditions for anything, I ask what the character design is. Because I don’t want to take away a role that should be offered to another actor.
GC: That is the problem when you have only a relatively small pool of voice actors, that the chances of one of them being a minority is greatly decreased.
LB: Definitely, definitely. But I think opening up the door for that is incredibly important. And I think more characters need to be showcased, that are diverse, to open up that door for more actors.
GC: Okay, well sorry for overrunning but it’s been great to talk to you.
LB: No, thank you!
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