Not All Voice Actors Can Be Film Actors – And Vice-Versa

As I make my way through the dilapidated terrains of Horizon Forbidden West’s San Francisco, a journey that I’ve thus far thoroughly enjoyed through my fifty-odd hours, the thing that has made these hours that much more enjoyable has been the game’s protagonist. One of the biggest criticisms I had of Horizon Zero Dawn was that I felt Aloy was an incredibly milquetoast character that lacked charisma. Though her story was interesting, and her vocal performance solid, her dialogue and overall interactions with the game’s NPCs felt hollow and uninspired. In Forbidden West, however, Aloy feels far more nuanced. She’s more confident and grounded, though quick to impatience with those that don’t understand the realities of their world. She has an unwavering drive to save the world, but feels an overwhelming pressure, which brings forth cracks in her will that push her to question her capabilities. All of these character traits are brought to life by Ashly Burch’s well-rounded performance. A performance that captures all of Aloy’s humble heart, awkward quirks, and arrogant follies. A performance that has not only been commended by gamers, but even filmmakers like John Carpenter.

Burch has been lending her voice to roles for nearly two decades. From her breakout role as Mayuri Shiina in the English dub of Steins;Gate, to Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2, to Chloe Price in Life is Strange. The actress is no stranger to the industry, and has consistently delivered memorable performances. Beyond voice acting, she’s also been a regular on film and television, with a smattering of credits on high-profile productions. The most notable, of course, being her role as the undervalued game tester, Rachel, in Apple TV’s Mythic Quest. As the show’s story editor and one of its writers, Burch has a fairly big role in the series’ production beyond just her supporting role. It’s great to see Burch, someone with such a long history in the game’s industry, help take the helm of a big production like this. The show itself, though having its peaks and valleys in terms of quality, has overall been an enjoyable watch. The writing is fairly consistent, and most of the performances are quite good. I say most because, well, one in particular stands out. That one, unfortunately, being Burch.

ashly burch
Ashly Burch as Rachel in Mythic Quest. Image: Apple TV+

Though the writing surrounding her character is a little questionable, at times going out of its way to make Rachel annoying, Burch’s performance left me far from impressed; I often found myself even cringing at some of her deliveries. There was this over-exaggeration with her reactions and a sign-posting of emotions with each line delivery that you’d only see from very green actors in an intro to scene study class. It was jarring, frankly, to see a high-profile voice actress who’d given us a number of award-winning vocal performances, falter to execute on a fairly rudimentary level. I know this comes across as quite harsh, and I don’t write this to say that there weren’t moments through Burch’s performance–particularly from season two onward–that didn’t either make me laugh or feel for her character. It simply wasn’t a performance at the level of which I’ve seen (heard) Burch execute at through her works in video games.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been taken aback by a well-known voice actor’s performance on television. Troy Baker’s minor role in HBO’s live-action adaptation of The Last of Us where he played one of the members of the cannibalistic group of survivors Ellie and Joel have to fight against, was another that made me scratch my head. Baker, arguably the biggest name in video game voice acting, has over four hundred credits and five BAFTA award nominations under his belt. His most critically lauded role, ironically, being Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us. His performance as Joel, for me, is one of the best vocal performances in games period. Imagine my surprise then when seeing him give oddly forced, whispered line deliveries as if trying to put some kind of unnecessary character affectation, and borderline melodramatic reactions to the things happening around him. His performance didn’t take away from the story, and I won’t say that it was outright bad, but as someone who has enjoyed plenty of Baker’s vocal roles, his live-action performance as James was noticeably green when compared to the other actors on screen.

Troy Baker as James
Troy Baker as James in The Last of Us. Image: HBO

As someone who spent years in legacy acting conservatories, read all the books by the great theatre practitioners, and spent close to a decade in pursuit of the craft (to a modicum of success), I know all too well that an actor’s proficiency in one medium doesn’t mean it will translate to another. It’s why you often see a successful film actor who never acted on stage, or had formal theatre training, struggle to capture audiences when trying to make a Broadway debut. That being said, it’s been my experience that a properly trained theatre actor does often make the transition to the screen with far more success. Oftentimes you’ll see movie stars with no such training vanish when having to share the screen with one who has. A well-trained actor can make the jump across mediums, but their success will highly depend on how malleable they are with their craft as each medium requires the use of different skill sets. Film is innately introspective, requiring a performance that is (broadly speaking) psychologically driven and focused on the subtleties, while also being aware of what the camera is capturing. Theatre requires a mastery of the body, and being able to tell a character’s story through the full embodiment of the stage. Voice acting is effectively the same as theatre, though channeling all of that story through just what the microphone is picking up.

You can’t use certain vocal inflections you’re used to as a voice actor on film, because it’s unnecessary. Certain grand gestures and movements you’d make on the stage as a theatre actor will be too much for the screen, and unseen in the recording booth. And certain subtle reactions that could communicate a world of emotions via a close-up shot in film, would go unnoticed by a theatre audience. As such, I feel both Burch and Baker’s aforementioned live-action performances are examples of two incredibly talented voice actors taking what they were used to doing in the recording booth to the screen, resulting in performances that come across jarring and far too green for two experienced actors such as themselves.

It should go without saying that this goes the other way, as well. One of the best games I played last year was Cyberpunk 2077 Ultimate Edition, a title that I’d put off playing for three years in hopes that CD Projekt RED would do right by their fans and fix their game from its disastrous launch. Thankfully, they did, and the result was phenomenal. Not only has Night City become one of my favourite fictional cities, the stories within it are possibly the best I’ve ever experienced within games. These stories are propelled by thoughtfully written characters, most of whom are voiced spectacularly. This, however, does not include the performances by a couple of Hollywood’s biggest current stars: Idris Elba and Keanu Reeves. Now, I am fully aware that writing this would be considered blasphemous by many. Because we all love Mr. Elba and Mr. Reeves. Rightfully so, as these two gentlemen–the latter in particular–have provided us with some of the most iconic performances in recent years. So having them team up and lend their voices to such a high-profile game is beyond exciting. However, when taking a moment to separate that excitement and actually critique their work, some of the issues I outlined in my previous paragraph begin making themselves very apparent.

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand
Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand

Keanu Reeves’ performance as the impassioned Johnny Silverhand simply felt… out of place. As a pistol-wielding, chain-smoking, anarchy-touting (in)famous rocker-boy, Silverhand is gloriously written as an endlessly charismatic character who never backs down from his beliefs in sticking it to the corporate man. Yet, nearly every line Reeves delivers comes across as stilted, wooden, and uninspired. Not only as if he’s simply reading them from the script as he delivers them into the mic, but almost as if he doesn’t even understand the words Silverhand is saying. There were countless times where one of Silverhand’s lines was written with an obvious emotion in the writer’s mind, yet the way Reeves delivers it completely negates that intention. Many in modern film discourse undervalue Reeves’ abilities, with some outright calling him a bad actor. I couldn’t disagree more. Sure, he’s definitely had bad scenes in less-than-stellar films where his performance leaves much to be desired, but he consistently is able to bring a vulnerability to his roles even when such a trait isn’t required; this is particularly true for many of his action-packed films. Unfortunately, he brings nothing of the sort to his performance as Johnny Silverhand. None of the anger and angst that’s rooted within the writing of Silverhand is explored to any effect by Reeves, and it’s unfortunate.

Where my thoughts on Reeves’ Silverhand are more pronounced, I’m less bothered by Idris Elba’s performance as Solomon Reed, mainly because of how forgettable his work in the role is. Like many, I was excited to watch the endlessly suave and charismatic Elba take on this role, but was left thoroughly disappointed due to just how unremarkable Elba’s performance was. Not outright bad like Reeves, simply forgettable. Aside from some technical aspects, like Elba continuously not “driving through” his sentences and oftentimes mumbling through certain deliveries, nothing really offended me about his work in this role–but nothing grabbed me, either. He failed to grasp the full extent of the misaligned moralities of this intriguingly written character, and somewhat like Reeves also gave straight readings of his lines; the difference being his deliveries at least consisted of the appropriate emotions, even if they were generalized.

idris elba
Idris Elba as Solomon Reed

It all goes to show that simply having known names attached to a project doesn’t mean the end result will be a captivating one. A part of this also comes down to ego and willingness. Video games are still looked at with an air of judgement in the entertainment world, as such many actors (especially stars) may not be willing to put in the work to fully embody the role and the mechanics of the mic; instead are simply there for the paycheck. Not saying this was the case for either Reeves or Elba, but it is something that should be noted. Once again, trained actors can absolutely cross mediums. Mark Hamil’s greatest performance is arguably his voicework as The Joker in both Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham games. It’s simply about an actor’s ability to shift their tool set to accommodate the needs of the medium.

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