Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale

Ever played a videogame with a female character? Chances are, then, that you’ve heard the voice of Jennifer Hale. Ophelia from Brutal Legend. Naomi from Metal Gear Solid. Jennifer Mui from Mercenaries. Bastila from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The female Commander Shepard from Mass Effect. The list goes on and on. So, when you have questions about the future of videogame voice acting, you go to Jennifer Hale.

And that’s exactly what I did. Jennifer was nice enough to chat with me via Skype about Mass Effect 2, voice acting, and, somehow, Moon Unit Zappa. Read on to see the full interview, hear an audio version down at the bottom, and be treated to a special surprise.

Andrew Kauz: This is Andrew Kauz for the Destructoid community, and I’m talking here with Jennifer Hale. Thank you very very much for agreeing to chat with me.

Jennifer Hale: My pleasure.

Kauz: I want to start of by talking a little bit about videogame voice acting in general. You’ve done a lot of it; you must have done something like fifty games by now, maybe more.

Hale: It’s actually quite a few more, and I don’t know how many. I’ve lost count, but, yeah, I feel really lucky.

Kauz: Yeah, it’s a lot, and it’s a lot of really good stuff too. But I just wanted to ask you, how have you seen voice acting change in that time, especially in terms of what’s asked of you and the quality of the final product that comes out of it?

Hale: I’ve seen two things change. I’ve seen the depth of the actors’ involvement in the game grow, which has been great. Because technology has advanced and people are realizing what we can bring to a game, there’s a lot more room for us in the game–a lot more for us to do. And the second thing is perhaps my favorite thing, which is it’s becoming more and more and more realistic each year. They’re letting us just be in the game. It’s very cinematic…it’s getting more and more cinematic, which is awesome.

Kauz: I was going to ask you as a followup to that about the freedom that you’re given as an actress to simply act. Is that what you’re hinting at?

Hale: Yeah, that’s getting to be more and more the case. I think as the visuals get stronger, and the subtlety starts to come into the visuals and the nuance can be communicated by what you see, then what you hear can be allowed to be more and more authentic. We don’t have to push a little bit to get it across because it’s coming across in the visuals so well. We can just really be honest in whatever moment we’re in.

Kauz: Yeah, I’m really interested in that idea of nuance in both voice acting and in the way that the characters are depicted on the screen. What’s an example of a great moment of nuance that you’ve experienced lately?

Hale: Wow, let me think for a second. An example of how that has really come into play recently…well, for example, in Mass Effect 2, there are some scenes now, with the exception of me walking into a bar and trying to track somebody down when you’ve got a bar full of bar noise and everything else going on, in just the one-on-one stuff you can really just be in that moment, with that person, and say what you have to say the way that you would really want to say it instead of having to push it a little because you really had to push past some awkward visuals just because the technology wasn’t there yet. Now, you can really just let it rip, and it has been that way through a lot of the game.

Some of the evidence for that are some of the people we have working on Mass Effect 2. We have Carrie-Anne Moss: she’s a film actress, primarily. She’s very cinematic, obviously, that’s her genre, that’s her deal. We have Tricia Helfer, and the whole style of Battlestar [Galactica], and Michael Hogan, both of them very very close to the hip. Michael Hogan a little bit less so because [Hogan’s Battlestar Galactica character] Tigh was such a great, intense character, but Tricia Helfer from the Sixes is very very subtle, and it works perfectly in the game because we’ve been allowed to be so much more truthful.

Martin Sheen, Claudia Black, and all those guys are just able to slide right in now because the style has evolved to that point. The two worlds are meeting, which is great.

Kauz: I’d like to talk a bit about Mass Effect for a moment, and specifically what the overall approach was in crafting Commander Shepard, both in the first game and leading into the second, and how you and Bioware went about crafting the character especially when there’s, of course, the male counterpart in the mix as well.

Hale: Well, as is still the case a lot, sometimes the female leaders get overlooked.

Kauz: Sadly.

Hale: Yeah. Fortunately that’s changing, and I put a plea out there to everybody listening, please let Bioware and everybody else know that you like it when we have–

Kauz: And I support this plea.

Hale: Yeah, and you want to see more of female Shepard as well. I mean, no skin off Mark’s nose, he does a great job. But, hello!

The approach really, as in any game, it really begins with the geniuses who come up with the ideas and the writers who spend all those hours just working out storyline after storyline, and crafting those storylines so that they develop character, and without them, we don’t exist, and we’ve got nothing to do, and ya’ll have got nothing to play.

It really begins there and goes from there. The producer locks onto their vision, and oversees the whole thing, and then it goes into the director’s hands. We had two great directors on Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. I mean, there’s was such a volume that it took two of them to get Mass Effect 2 done, especially.

Ginny McSwain and Chris Borders…they would come in with the vision given to them by Bioware and describe to me what the environment was, because the environment is so key in any game because every world is different, and should be. As an actor it’s our responsibility to key into “What is that world?” and “How do I live in that world?” and “How do I get done what I have to get done?” and “Where do I come from?”

Fortunately, all of that was made really clear. Shepard’s not just an ass-kicking commander, she’s a person with a history and an agenda, and stuff to do, and stuff she hates to do that she has to do, and stuff that she likes to do that she has to do, and a demeanor that she has to carry herself in all the time to be a commander, to be the first human Spectre, to really fill those shoes right. And then there are little moments where it falls apart, and how does she put it back together?

And then in Mass Effect 2, just the way that whole thing starts is crazy, the whole history of Shepard, that thing is just wild.

Kauz: Leading into Mass Effect 2, what can players expect from Shepard this time around? We know some of the story so far: the basic idea is that Shepard is on this suicide mission. So how do you see Shepard as a character as having changed since the first game, and how much did you try to change your performance to fit that?

Hale: She has seen a lot more, if that was even possible. She absolutely has. She has been through a hell of a lot more. But the thing that hasn’t changed is that she’s keeping her eye on the ball. She knows what she has to do; She lives for her mission, and she will get it done, no matter what. That is the same.

The circumstances that she finds herself in are very different. There is an element in this story that she’s having to deal with that she does not like at all. But it’s sort of a necessary evil. So how she manages that has been something to constantly address. And Martin Sheen plays a role in that. And that’s all I’m going to tell you!

[Note: At this point I tried unsuccessfully to tear more information from her. No dice! I edited my pleas and groveling out. Because, honestly, who wants to hear that?]

Kauz: You’ve managed quite an impressive set of a lot of different performances. We’ve got Commander Shepard, of course. We’ve got Bastila, we’ve got the characters that you’ve done from the Tales series, we’ve got Jennifer Mui from Mercenaries 2. I mean, it’s an unbelievable list, and then we can bring in all of your cartoon work and television work. But the thing that has always impressed me is that there’s always something different about every single character that you play. Sometimes it’s something really subtle, sometimes it’s incredibly drastic. What do you do to achieve this massive range of characterizations?

Hale: Thank you.

Kauz: You’re welcome!

Hale: It’s nice that that has gotten across. It’s specificity. It’s all about specificity. If you’re general in your approach to playing characters, and you’re playing “a commander,” frankly that’s uninteresting. I think you’re cheating [the people] who play the games or the audiences who watch or listen. I think it’s lame. I don’t think it’s doing your job.

I think you have to be incredibly specific about who this person is, why they say what they say, why they say it how they say it, and what they want. When you get into those specifics, the writing will take care of you.

It’s also really fun to stretch and expand. When I started, god, eighteen years ago, I had three characters I could play. I could play me at whatever age I was, I could play me ten years younger, and I could play a valley girl. And that was all I knew how to do.

Kauz: I have to hear your valley girl.

Valley-girl Hale: Oh my god! No, really? You’re kidding!

Regular Hale: The hilarious thing was that it was based on this old song I heard. One of the Frank Zappa songs, Valley Girl. And in it, his daughter Moon Zappa did the valley girl. And years later, I ended up in acting class out here in LA with Moon. And it took me a year or two to tell her. I was like, “You started my whole career!” She was the only character I could do. She just thought that was hilarious. She was a really nice person. So that was a funny little circular thing.

The thing that has helped me the most are my peers. I remember when I got my first animation job, it was a cartoon series. And I was scared to death because when you do a series, you’re a regular character, but they also hand you an incidental role or two or more every week to do. You know: Woman of a Corner, Little Boy Running from the Truck, Mouse, Insect, or whatever it is. You had better figure out how to do it, because you’re getting paid, and you’re in there, and you’re a professional who’s expected to be good.

Man, I jumped into class immediately, a couple of different classes taught by a couple of really great animation directors and actors, and the other thing I did is just sit in those rooms with people like Frank Welker and Dee Baker…gosh, everybody…and just soaked it up. as much as I could, just watching and learning how they did it. And that was the greatest thing ever. I mean, I worked with Rob Paulsen, Jeff Bennett: some of the most talented people on the planet. It’s heaven.

Kauz: Yeah, I’d really like to ask about the idea of working with others. I imagine that in a lot of cases your voice acting turns into kind of a solitary experience once it comes time to record.

One of the biggest games from last year was Uncharted 2, which was this really cinematic, highly narrative-driven experience, and what they did was they had all of the actors come in well before everything got off to a full start, and they had them do full theatrical-style acting with plenty of improvisation, physical acting, and they recorded all of the motion capture and everything. Have you ever had the chance to do something like this, and if you haven’t, would you be interested in doing that?

Hale: It’s one of my favorite things. I did a project for EA that ultimately didn’t get off the ground, but it was with a phenomenal crew: Bobby Coddington and a bunch of people over there. [NOTE: this may be the canceled EA project Tiberium] And we did what I guess is the equivalent of a pilot presentation for a TV show. We spent a few days up in Vancouver in the suits with the mocap stuff on. It was one of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever done because you really get to be there. It was just awesome.

I actually made a great friendship out of it with a wonderful actress named Cara Pifko. She and I got to butt heads, and it was so much fun.

So, yes, I’ve had that experience, and I’m regularly volunteering myself for “suit duty” as I call it: for getting in the mocap suit and jumping in and doing that. I would love nothing more. Absolutely love it. I mean, I also rock climb, and I’m really physically active, so I would love to do the stunts.

In fact, I got in trouble on that shoot [with EA] for climbing the scaffolding. I’m like “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” Cara and I were together, and we both got in trouble. But I love that stuff, I absolutely love it.

Claudia Black [Chloe from Uncharted 2] and I–it was down to us and maybe a one or two other people for one of the Drake jobs–I can’t remember the name of the game.

Kauz: Was that for Uncharted 2 as well?

Hale: Yes, that was for Uncharted 2.

Kauz: So you had tried out for that game?

Hale: I did!

Kauz: Awesome!

Hale: Ironically, when I read that character, Claudia was exactly who I thought of, and it turns out that’s who they cast, which was, frankly, brilliant. But I was bummed because I do love the game, and I adore the director. And Nolan North, who is the lead in that game, is fantastic. We worked together on Wolverine and the X-Men. It was just–I love suit duty. I was bummed to not be able to do that, but Claudia’s so phenomenal. I mean, big-fat thumbs-up to her, because she’s awesome. But yeah, I love working in the suit. Love it, love it, love it.

I did have the good fortune on Metal Gear [Solid] 4. We were brought in together. Dave [Hayter] and I worked together a lot; we had known each other for a long time…over ten years. So, it was fun working together on that. And Christopher [Randolph] and a couple of other groups of us got to work together on that in the same room at the same time, which was awesome.

Kauz: Yeah, I saw another interview that you did–a video interview–where you guys were all in the room together. You guys seem like you have a really great connection, and I think that comes out in Metal Gear Solid 4 as well. You all just work well together.

Hale: Dave and I actually met…I think it was like ’96 or something. He was the Captain America in Spiderman and we just became buds, and we’ve been buds ever since. He’s great: great guy, super talented, obviously, but also just a really fun guy.

Kauz: What do you think that game developers at this point in voice acting could do to make the experience better for you?

Hale: As an actor?

Kauz: Yeah, just in terms of allowing you to put out the best work that you can possibly put out.

Hale: Put me in a suit! Let me be the visual as well. You can change any parts you need to. You can put any face on it you want to, but let me be the body and the voice. That would be the only thing I would ask for.

Kauz: And that really is, at this point, pretty rare still, right?

Hale: Yes. In my experience it is extremely rare.

Kauz: All right, now, of course, I have to ask the tough question.

Hale: Oh no.

Kauz: Is there anything really exciting right now that you’re working on that we should know about?

Hale: Oh, there’s some great stuff that I’m working on!

And if I told you I’d have to kill you.

Kauz: Any very very subtle hints that definitely couldn’t get you in trouble?

Hale: No. Actually, there’s an iron curtain there and never ever will get behind it. I do not ever–I will not do that to those people. But there’s some great stuff.

Kauz: So, some really exciting stuff?

Hale: It’s exciting, and it’s been an exciting year, with Mass Effect [2] and Brutal Legend and everything that’s been going on. It’s awesome. It’s really awesome.

Kauz: I did not know that you did Ophelia [from Brutal Legend].

Hale: Oh really?

Kauz: Had no idea until I looked it up.

Hale: Fantastic!

Kauz: And that just goes to show how varied your performances are.

Hale: Thank you. Well, there’s also a business element to it too. You want to keep working, you had better come up with something different to sell.

Ultimately, it’s a business, and you had better have a good business head about it, or you’re going down.

Kauz: Thank you again for agreeing to chat with me.

Hale: My pleasure. Thank you, and a big thank you to everybody out there who’s playing and listening. I promise to keep doing my absolute best for you.

So, that’s that! Another huge thanks has to go out to Jennifer. It’s extremely evident that she cares a whole lot about her work and her audience. Otherwise, would she have done this?

I rest my case.

Andrew Kauz