Interview: Commander Shepard herself, Jennifer Hale, talks voice acting in 2017 ahead of her appearance at Supanova

If you’ve ever wondered why Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series sounds kind of like Miss Keane from Powerpuff Girls, it’s probably because they have someone in common: Jennifer Hale. With a career spanning her whole life, and lending her voice to almost 200 video games and countless cartoons, Jennifer is one of the busiest voice actors around.

Jennifer jokes that “Steve Bloom’s done more [roles] than anyone on the planet but as far as women go I think I have that Guinness [World] Record,” and you know what? She’s probably right. I spoke with Jennifer about her long career and the work which most sticks out for her ahead of her Supernova appearance later this month in Sydney and Perth.

Is there anything in particular that you’re most proud of?

Oh my gosh! I think the thing I’m most proud of is the variety in what I’ve gotten to do, you know with animation it’s everything from Justice League and Avengers, to the crazy silly stuff like [The Grim Adventures of] Billy & Mandy and Power Puff Girls and Kids Next Door. All that whacky kind of stuff. I’ve loved that I’ve been able to do DC and Marvel stuff.

As far as the games go, one of the things I loved the most is breaking the glass ceiling on a game series called Mass Effect. Mass Effect is a trilogy, and in the first two I play one of the player characters – you can play as a male or a female – and the first two pieces of the trilogy had just the male character on the box, and in the third version we get the female character on the box. It was a reversible cover. So if you played Fem-Shep (the female version of main character Commander Shepard) you got to have a box represented, so that was pretty cool. I was really proud of that.

Did you find that female fans of the game really responded to that?

Oh yeah! They’re why it happened, they caused that. They didn’t just respond to it and I’m super grateful for that. They spoke up, they made their presence known. And honestly I find that a lot of men play Fem-Shep, because I mean whose backside do you want to stare at for hours?

How did you get into voice acting?

I was walking down the side-walk and I fell into a hole and I never came out.

I went to a fine arts high school for acting, worked at a video production house as a PA and there was an audio studio next door and they’d pull me next door to do the occasional commercial, and I loved it! I thought “This is crazy I get paid for this!” so I worked it really hard like a business. I ended up going to Atlanta, doing some film and TV stuff as well as some [voice overs] and when I moved to LA cartoons, crazily enough, were the thing that really cracked open to me – and I say crazy I wasn’t actually allowed to watch them as a kid.
My first voice audition in LA was for a show called Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? And I booked the role of Ivy, one of the series regulars, and just kept going from there. That actually was my first video game I did, followed by Metal Gear and then a whole bunch more.

Video games, especially in more recent years, have taken on a bit more of a cinematic style. Have you noticed while video games are taken more seriously, that the role of the voice actor is being taken more seriously?

I think video games are being taken more seriously, I’m not too sure about the second half of that statement. It depends on who you’re talking to. I think the fans really engage with the voice actors, and I think we matter to fans. I’m not sure if the corporate decision makers have quite caught up with the fact that voice actors matter. They’re beginning to, which is great, but they’re beginning to see us as a really valuable part of the team but this is taking a little longer.

I guess it relies on having that one really recognisable role because you get voice actors like Billy West or John DiMaggio for their roles in Futurama, they’re really recognisable voices, and so I guess it depends on how lucky you get with the role you’re given.

Exactly! And there are tonnes of incredible voice actors who are brilliant work-a-day actors, who might throw you in there 3 to 5 or more voices in a single episode of a show, and people don’t know who they are which is a shame because they’re absolutely brilliant.

Is there any major advances in voice acting that you’ve noticed over the years that you’re impressed with?

I have to say in games it’s been really great because when I started doing voice stuff in games, it had to be more presentational in style – almost like theatre – because the visuals weren’t quite there yet. As the visuals have gotten more detailed and amazing we’re able to sit back, and the acting style in many games has moved to a film or TV drama style acting rather than the slightly more presentational. Also I love doing [motion caption] because we then get to bring the physicality of the character to life.

Do you enjoy just being able to sit there and voice the character into a microphone?

Absolutely! And the beauty of it is we largely have our anonymity. If I had done as many on-camera rolls as I have voice over, I could not go to the grocery store in peace. It’s lovely to be anonymous, it really is. It’s worth the pay cut sometimes.

I guess that’s the bonus.

What kind of projects are you involved with at the moment?

I’ve got some amazing stuff going on right now. I’m on an show – we just won an Emmy for Best Animated Series – Lost In Oz, which is an Amazon show. It’s wonderful, I love it!
I should have some Avengers coming back soon, I’ve been working on Guardians of the Galaxy (I think I’m allowed to say that), and Niko And The Sword of Light, which was a wonderful experience.

Game-wise, Mascarada came out this year – an awesome indie game. We’re doing some more of The Long Dark – another incredible indie game. We’ve worked on For Honor, Ubisoft’s new game, which is really great. The player character, you’ve got three choices: you can be a Samurai, a Knight, or a Viking, and you can be a male or a female in each which is pretty awesome.

So lots going on and other things I can’t talk about right now.

You sound pretty busy. Like, you have The Rock for example. People would think he’s the most busy actor in Hollywood at the moment but he has nothing on voice actors.

That’s because of the pay difference. We’re lucky to get over scale. So you have to really crank up the volume to make your monthly overheads. This is the misconception too, we spend a great deal of time working for free. I audition pretty much every day, and that sometimes involves driving – tomorrow I’m actually working at FOX, I can’t discuss the project but there’s a lot of drive time there. If I was just going for an audition it would driving across town, hour – hour fifteen minutes, getting to the thing, waiting, leaving. Probably a 3 to 4 hour endeavour to go do an audition, and then there’s the prep to stay in shape for the audition and all that is work for free.
But that’s part of being a freelancer, so that when we do work our rates are to compensate for that being ready time and all those hours that we work for free to get the job.

As the role of the voice actor becomes more prominent, and they’re more reliant on voice actors in video games, has there been an increase in payrate?

Nope.

Not for the majority of actors. There are some who, like myself, are very fortunate. We can have a bit of respect in that department, which is lovely. Doesn’t often happen, and frankly we have to fight for it almost every time. There’s always downward pressure on our wages, because there are so many people interested in coming and they – the people doing the negotiating are very different to the creative team – and the people doing negotiating view us as replaceable and interchangeable, so the respect there is not what you would think.

You are coming to Australia to attend Supanova-

Yeah!

-are conventions a regular thing for you?

I haven’t done a lot of them in the past but this year has been crazy town, I’ve done several. I have been to Oz before. I’ve been to Adelaide, and I’ve been to Sydney and Perth for cons, and I have people I love in Brisbane – friends and family – and very excited to come back.
I can’t wait to get to Australia! So freaking excited!

You can catch up with Jennifer at the Supanova Comic Con & Gaming Expo in Sydney from June 16 to 18, and in Perth June 24 to 25. For more details head to supanova.com.au