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12 September 2017

FAN EXPO ’17: The Many Voices of Jennifer Hale

By // Games

So, you might not know Jennifer Hale’s name, but chances are you know one of her many, many voices. Perhaps most famous these days for her iconic role as Commander Shepard (lovingly known as FemShep for ‘Female Shepard’) in the Mass Effect trilogy, Hale has been in the voice game for a long time. To name a few: Naomi Hunter in Metal Gear Solid, Black Cat/Felicia Hardy in the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon, Fall-from-Grace in Planescape: Torment, Bastilla Shan in Knights of the Old Republic, Cinderella in Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (and pretty much every other Disney Cinderella appearance since), Ms Keane in The Powerpuff Girls, Jean Grey in Wolverine and The X-Men, Aayla Secura in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Sam in Totally Spies!, Rosalind Lutece in Bioshock: Infinite…the list goes on. She’s also been an absurd number of ‘Various’ voices in everything from cartoons to games to big budget films like Wreck-It-Ralph.

She’s also from Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, which is cool as hell. And she’s a lovely human. For an early morning Q&A, Hale provided a near constant stream of voices from throughout her career (at the request of fans) and surprisingly offered a bunch of financial advice. Her performance as Shepard was enough to make her one of my favorite voice actors, but it turns out the lady behind the voice is a hero too. Which is always fun to find out.

Here are the highlights from my morning with Commander Shepard and so many more:

  • Asked how she started her career, Hale joked, “I fell into a hole. It was a voice booth. I never escaped.”
  • Hale is on a personal quest to help people understand money better. She argues that one of the greatest failures of our system (which she has traced back through history to better understand) is its failure to help people understand how money works, what their relationship is to it, and how to achieve financial freedom. Hale argues that money is like a table with four legs: knowledge, habits, plan, and being (your relationship to money) and runs a podcast to help ‘regular people’ understand money. It’s a surprising opening to the panel (Edward James Olmos launched into a similar speech during his panel a couple years back), but it’s something Hale genuinely cares about and wants to share with people to help them, which is pretty damn cool. She admits to be fascinated with money and her relationship to it and her drive is an earnest one. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but as someone who finds numbers and money somewhat intimidating, I’m curious to hear what she has to say.
  • Her big advice on success is to treat the voice acting business like a business. As the self-employed artists in the readership will know, you have to account for and deduct everything that you buy toward your personal business. Arts pay is always problematic, but it is a great help to be able to sink some of your expenses on your taxes. (Who knew an article on a voice actor at Fan Expo would turn into a meditation on financial planning?)
  • Soon thereafter, the voice acting questions began in earnest, starting (predictably) with a Mass Effect question: did Hale prefer the law-abiding Paragon Sheppard or the law-breaking badass Renegade Shepard. Hale laughs and admits that the Paragon is who she wishes she was and the Renegade is what she wishes she could say.
  • Asked whether it was hard to get back into character for downloadable content (DLC), Hale said she has a pretty solid gut-take on who these characters are and thus is able to snap back into them pretty quickly (which she goes on to prove in the panel drawing up characters from 1999 forward and the next day during the Princess Bride reading, which I’ll cover in a later piece)
  • This was news to me, but Hale had played the iconic Samus Aran from Nintendo’s Metroid series in the classics Metroid Prime 1-3, before being replaced in the highly controversial Other M made by Team Ninja and featuring a drastically different Samus. A fan asked if she had any thoughts on being replaced and the other portrayal of the character. After growling into the mic for a moment or two, Hale said diplomatically: “I don’t own these characters. It matters to me, but I’m not going to get mad.” That being said, there is a new Metroid Prime coming and the crowd enthusiastically agreed to bombard Nintendo with requests to return the role to Hale (which frankly seems like a no-brainer, but we’ll se…)
  • A passing observation: fans love telling her what their favorite game/show/film of hers is, but then invariably ask about something else (usually Mass Effect). It’s very strange.
  • Asked about the end of Mass Effect, she said it was one of the rare times where she disappears into a part. She didn’t want to record the ending (knowing the series would end), but cherished the experience of recording it. Also, as two fans made the ‘I have to go’ joke (famously, Shepard often ends a dialogue with ‘I have to go’), Hale said her favorite line in all of Mass Effect was the final DLC Citadel where she finally got to comment on the iconic line and then practice saying it (it’s a moment of sheer self-referential brilliance in a DLC that goes far to fix Mass Effect 3’s controversial ending)
  • Things took a serious turn and Hale’s activism came into clearer focus during an aside about how her father is in jail for protesting an allegedly corrupt dam-building project in Labrador. While Hale didn’t elaborate, the fire with which she spoke about her causes became more understandable as she took aim at corporate corruption for a few minutes. “We need to stand up and ADULT hard.” Hale declared to applause. Hard to argue with the Commander, after all.
  • As I’d see on display during The Princess Bride the next day, the fact that Hale and legendary voice actor Nolan North are friends is just delightful.
  • Hale was also asked about the voice actors’ strike (more details HERE) which is ongoing; the strike is actually a pretty big deal for the video game industry, and as Hale said, as long as no one in the membership breaks, they’ll succeed. The major issues are: 1) Secondary payment if the game does well (like when Call of Duty outsold Avatar in pre-orders). 2) Transparency about the game they’re in: this one really shocked me, but voice actors often aren’t told what game they’re acting in, one of the lead villains in Fallout 4 for example, didn’t know he was in it until it was released. This makes it almost impossible for voice actors’ agents to negotiate properly not knowing whether it’s a blockbuster AAA title or a cool indie game. 3) Voice safety: often, voice actors are forced to yell constantly for hours (battle scenes, getting hit, etc) and can often damage their vocal chords as a result. Currently, there are no protections for the performers. 4.) Stunt co-ordinators on motion-capture sets. This one is particularly absurd, as these actors are often performing very physical battle scenes without stunt co-ordinators. It was a bold question from a fan, but an important one – as gamers, it’s our responsibility to understand the industry we’re supporting and the trials and tribulations of our heroes.
  • In terms of getting into character, Hale says she relies on the writing mostly and reads each role five times looking for the heroes, the archetypes, and what her role is in the scene. “I’ve experienced all these things so I access my own humanity”
  • Hale’s first love is music; she sang in a band for a time and uses it to inspire her.
  • When asked for her advice to aspiring voice actors, Hale recommended waiting to record a demo reel until they’ve been at it for a while. She said it’s a steep learning curve, but plateaus after a while and that’s when to record your reel. She also recommended writing fake spots for yourself, and not worrying about examples that have aired: “Make the demo for where you want to go, not for where you’ve been.”

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