It’s a bit nebulous, though, right? Like, how can I not be myself? I am, after all, myself. Yet as I continue to coach others in their voiceover careers, I see a persistence of low-grade anxiety and “in-my-own-skin” discomfort. An audition arrives in our inbox and the questions begin. Where do I start? Who are they looking for? What do they want? Do I fit the spec, and If I don’t, can I jury-rig myself into it make it work? What if I can't? What if I'm not good enough? And then… all of a sudden… imposter syndrome sets in. Ugh. We ask ourselves this litany of questions because we really want the job. And we want the job, not only for the paycheck, but because we have this misguided notion that getting the job somehow validates us - not only as voice actors, but as worthy human beings. And this is where our thinking falls apart. No booking validates your worthiness as a human being. Your existence does.
After all these years, I consider myself a fairly versatile voice actor. I work in many genres: commercial, promo, narration, animation, and video games. But the older I get and the clearer I become about who I am, the more I forego auditions that aren’t a good fit. I know myself. I know what I’m capable of, and I know to what I want my name attached. God bless my agents for sending me copy with such specs, but I have long since passed the ability to sound like I’m in my 20s for the simple reason that I’ve lived for over 55 years. There’s no getting around it. Even older women who have voices in a higher register rarely sound like authentic teens and young adults so, honestly, we should just stop trying. It only serves to feed that pesky imposter syndrome we're trying so desperately to shake. Wisdom achieved through life lived is impossible to hide in our voices. Moreover, we ought to welcome our wisdom, for goodness sake. We've earned it. So much of the security we experience in the booth comes from knowing and embracing who we are outside the booth, plain and simple. Now, I must add the caveat that animation is a different animal altogether as those characters, while still needing to be grounded and believable, tend toward heightened interpretation. Many hilarious, young-sounding characters are voiced by ridiculously talented, older v.o. actors. It’s a different, nuanced use of imagination and quite specific to the genre. Just so we're clear.
One of my favorite examples of the power of knowing who you are comes from an experience I had some 20 years ago. I was booked as a “real person” on a radio spot for a bank, the name of which I cannot recall. Voice actor Steve Mackall was booked as the announcer. Neither of us had auditioned, but rather were recommended by our agents and hired directly. While Steve and I were not interacting in the spot, we were in studio together; a practice I love and miss in the age of home studios, let alone the age of COVID-19. I was reading the body of the copy and he was buttoning the end with a sizable paragraph of announcer vo. I was given little direction as I seemed to fit the spec, so most of the session was spent on Steve’s delivery. The producers on the other side of the glass loved Steve for his presence and quick wit, yet continued to direct his read straighter, more buttoned up, and deeper into his register on each subsequent take. This went on for a while, and no take seemed to satisfy. The silences on the other side of the glass grew longer between takes, and there began to emanate a palpable discomfort coming, not from Steve, but from the production room. We all knew it wasn’t a fit, but Steve knew most of all. Before starting in on yet another take, he chimed in with his affable good cheer and said “Hey Everybody. Before we all go mad with a million more takes, I gotta say, I’m not your guy. No harm no foul, man, I just think you want a big booming announcer and that ain’t me.” Sure enough. There was an instant, collective sigh of relief. The producers were effusive with their gratitude to Steve for saying what they feared to say, so as not to make him feel badly. Little did they know they didn’t and couldn’t make Steve feel badly, because Steve knows he’s a professional, knows exactly what he can deliver, and most importantly, knows who he is. It's a session I'll never forget and, even after all these years, it’s a lesson I still take to heart.
Lest you think Steve Mackall’s display of confidence was just a random one-off and not an elected way of life, a few years later a producer Steve had worked with previously booked him on what would be a lucrative national TV and Radio campaign for Arby’s. The producer hired Steve because he knew him to be a funny guy and loved working with him. Once the session began, however, it became clear the campaign required a deadpan, Steven Wright sort of delivery, which is not Steve Mackall. At all. As Providence would have it, a few weeks prior, Steve had met a voice actor/comedian by the name of Robert Cait, who Steve knew would be a perfect fit. Again, Steve stopped the session, pushed through the kindly protests of the producer, and gave him Robert’s number. Robert Cait had that Arby’s account for 8 years.
How self-possessed must one be to stop a session and let go of such lucrative work? How much must a person trust that the work which is meant to be will be? Steve’s brand of delivery and humor is unique to him and he knows it. He carries himself in the world and in his career with a high level of confidence knowing what belongs to him belongs to him, and what does not does not. One of the most beautiful consequences of this kind of self-possession is that by stepping aside, Steve ultimately served the client, allowing for the best possible outcome for the project. And the karmic domino effect continued: That producer hired Steve on several projects over the years knowing from experience Steve would always have the success of the project as his objective, first and foremost.
You might be wondering just who this Steve Mackall guy is. He lays pretty low, but you can check him out here. You’ve heard him on a variety of tv and radio spots and campaigns, and maybe even seen a film or two he wrote. But his signature voiceover work is as the promo voice of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, as well as Seth Meyers and SNL - a trifold campaign he’s held for over a decade. His style and delivery are so unique, his voice has truly become the unmistakable brand of NBC Late Night.
If you want to find your unique place in the world of Voiceover, take courage and be brave enough to do the work required to know who you are. And then, go be you. It's a life-long process, to be sure. But seek to accept your weaknesses as well as your strengths, because distinguishing ourselves, by definition, means casting off who we are not, right alongside accepting who we are.
The world needs you to be you.
Trust and Be Brave,