Voice Actor Zach Hanks Shares His Experiences – Part Two

This is the second part of Analog Addiction’s interview with video game voice actor Zach Hanks. To view the first and final part of the interview, click on part one and part three.

Q Judging by your SFA page, I’m guessing you still get a fair number of voice jobs and roles in the industry. How do you juggle teaching classes and traveling to different places for voice overs?

A I don’t travel very often for voice over. Voice over for me is now a side career. It was primary when I was LA-based. If you really want to work on a lot of triple-A games and make a name for yourself as a voice actor in the video game industry, it’s really important to be LA-based, especially if you’re going to work union. There is video game work in places like San Francisco, Seattle, some in Texas, some in New York, but the bulk of the triple-A game work that’s paying a reasonable amount of money is in Los Angeles. I do audition from time to time, but I’m getting about five percent of the auditions I got than when I was based out in LA for video games. Last year, I did pick-ups for Infinity Blade Dungeons and several other titles. As far as video games go, that’s it.

During the summer, I did fly out to LA and did Call of Duty: Ghosts. I would’ve had far more titles if I lived in LA. Not being LA-based, it’s much easier for them to get somebody local than fly me out. If I were a celebrity, they’d fly me out. Not being a celebrity, they can replace me. There are plenty of people who have my skills and a voice like mine. Neither my skills nor my vocal quality are unique – celebrities are not replaceable. Though many of them have skills, it’s their reputation [game companies want].

Zach Hanks provides his voice in the mission titled “Loki” in Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Q Voice acting and then acting for an actual show or movie are two completely different experiences I would imagine. What are the techniques you use to bring your emotions into a voice since you’re not actually there on the set to get some kind of idea of what you need to do?

A I think the best way to answer this question is to address that voice acting and acting are wildly different tasks, but that voice acting and acting are also basically the same task. Let me attack both. For acting, you have to memorize your lines; voice acting, you read off of a page. It uses the brain in a different way. I don’t have to use my “reading neurons” when I’m acting. I do have to use my “memory neurons” to recall lines. The reverse is true for voice acting. With voice acting, the story is told through my voice. In theater, the story is told with my body and my voice. In film, the story is largely told with just my eyes.

Unlike animation where you do a full cast record and everybody’s in the room at the same time, you’re almost always alone with video games. I don’t have a scene partner to react to. I have to react to my own imagination. I don’t watch and listen to my scene partner and then react to what they give me spontaneously. I act as if there was a scene partner who gave me something. Whereas acting is going to have more opportunities to react, the voice actor has nothing to react to besides their own imagination, so there’s a deeper sense of “playing pretend.”

As far as how [voice acting and acting] are the same; I’ve got an action, I got something I want, some way I’m going to get it, and something at stake. That’s all acting really is. It’s ultimately playing pretend, and in both situations I’m playing pretend.

As far as how you apply the emotion with video games in particular, there’s no time to prep. You can’t say, “Well I have this process and I have to take 10 minutes to get ready to cry or rage in this scene.” We got 400 lines to do at two takes per line, and we’ve only got four hours, so you’ve got to have an instantaneous process. With TV, you have time to prep. In fact, you have to prep, same with theater and film. With video games, they don’t even give you the script until you walk in the door. When I did Call of Duty: Ghosts, I didn’t know what game I had done until two months later.

It was produced under a codename, but that’s common. You have to have someone say, “Scream for your life, here’s your lines, we’re rolling, go,” then do it and nail it the first time. When I was a younger actor, I couldn’t do that. It was video games that taught me I don’t have to generate an emotion. I just have to act as if I’m having the emotion. My experience is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the audience’s experience. If I feel it, and the audience doesn’t buy it, I failed. If I don’t feel anything, but the audience buys it, I’ve succeeded. I’m a professional charlatan.

Emotions are physical experiences. That being said, when the line is “Grenade incoming,” my job isn’t to “be afraid”: my job is to “scream for my life.” I don’t have to be afraid to scream for my life. I have a task to do, not a feeling to feel. Ironically, if you do the task, and you don’t hold back, that feeling will find its way to you on its own. We can’t generate feelings. If we could, I would generate happy 24/7, the anti-depressant industry would fail, and when people are depressed, instead of going to therapists, they’d go to acting class.

Hanks also voices the role of Gadot, a character from “Final Fantasy XIII.”

Q You said earlier that you did a lot of voices as a child. Is there anybody in the industry that inspired you to do voice acting? Any one particular voice perhaps?

A I didn’t know being a voice actor was a thing to do [as a child]. I was a prep school kid. I was sort of raised to go be a businessman, work in finance or be a lawyer. I was raised to wear a suit and tie in terms of my upbringing and my path. Even when I started pursuing acting and things like theater, film and television, everyone said voice acting is impossible to break into.

Q Why is that?

The competition is fierce. There’s also the trickle-down effect of celebrities who, in decades past, wouldn’t touch work that was “beneath them.” A film actor decades ago, for example, would’ve never done TV. Elizabeth Taylor – film actor – wouldn’t do TV. TV actors wouldn’t do voiceover or commercials. Starting in the ‘90s to my recollection, celebrities were starting to do whatever, with a few exceptions. Take an actor like Tom Hanks; he doesn’t really do TV except for the occasional fun cameo on Saturday Night Live. He was in Bosom Buddies and then went into film, and that’s all he does. George Clooney, pretty much the same. But now everybody wants to do a cartoon voice, so the competition had gotten fiercer. Even the voiceover regulars couldn’t get work because they’re competing with celebrities.

A: Getting back to your question though; is there a voice actor that would leave me star struck? I’ve directed celebrities, I’ve met celebrities, I’ve worked with celebrities in TV, I’ve even hung out with them socially, so I don’t’ get star struck, but I would have to say Peter Cullen. Optimus Prime from Transformers is one of the best heroes and role models in American pop culture. He is dad, savior, hero, warrior, good soldier and general all wrapped into one. He’s also the narrator from Voltron and Venger from the Dungeons & Dragons animated series, and those were three of my favorite cartoons growing up. I would bow down and worship at the altar of Peter Cullen. [laughs]