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What’s my inspiration? Find a more motivating VO performance.

Edge Studio

Sooner or later in your voice acting career, you learn that it helps to “become” the character, not just play the character. But how do you do that? Well, sooner or later (probably sooner), a coach or fellow talent suggests (or you have read at that you choose a prototype. There are various sorts of prototypes. You might select qualities from a specific person, animal or thing. Or you might draw them from people all around you. Or you might find them within yourself.

Here are some examples, used by well-known actors …

Sometimes you’ll use selected qualities from a person, animal or thing. For example, for Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp needed to make his character appear potentially dangerous yet sweet-tempered. So he thought of himself as … a dog.

Other times it works if you actually imitate the prototype. Most people, even actors, are not expert mimics, so your imitation will probably be imprecise, incorporating aspects of your own voice and nature — you’ll wind up with a new character. Or you may intentionally veer away from the model. Consider Dan Castellaneta in The Simpsons. As the voice of Homer, he created a character that is simultaneously bumbling, vulnerable, lovable, naively confident and not exactly the best-looking man in the room. His prototype: the versatile character actor Walter Matthau, although Homer is hardly an obvious imitation.

(Many or most of the continuing Simpsons characters have roots in actual actors and other personalities, but here we’re not talking so much about who inspired the writers, but what inspired the actors.)

Melissa McCarthy in the movie Spy took a familiar approach. She reportedly kept in touch with an actual secret agent who really does disguise herself and assume a fake identity. That may or may not be helpful for you to know in an announce booth, but it is a reminder to mentally observe what you can about tone and behavior when you talk with a nurse or a fireman or whomever.

Tom Ford, in the same movie, looked at photos. He already knew from the script that his character was vain and cared about his looks. So, not only was looking at a photo helpful in the usual way (it often can be), the very process of referring to it was right in character. But looking at a specific photo, rather than vaguely imagining some unreal individual in your head, can help regardless of the character’s personality.

Then again, when Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac asked Harrison Ford, who is a real-life pilot, for tips on piloting a Starfighter, Isaac has said that Ford replied, “It’s fake. And it’s in space. So none of that applies, really.”

What do you do then?

Wikipedia lists some 15 supposed (and unconfirmed) inspirations for the character of Indiana Jones, but who did Harrison Ford use as his personal inspiration? Apparently himself. Ford is a method actor. He had been hired just two weeks before the start of principal photography, so there couldn’t have been much time for research. He’s since said, “I know what it feels like to feel fear, I know what it feels like to feel triumph, I know what it is to be figuring out something, so I guess I’m just like Indiana Jones … except I don’t wear a leather jacket in a jungle.”

Drawing from yourself requires raw material, a range of experience you might draw from in revealing your character’s point of view. Casting director Donna Morong has advised in Backstage:

“In order to do that, you must have a larger view of the world and your place in it, as well as the drive to tell an emotional story. … The real “homework” of the actor—absorbing the script by reading it multiple times; researching the author, time period, and references in the script; reading firsthand accounts that relate to your character’s experience—is time spent alone. And it’s just as important to allow yourself time to daydream on your given circumstances. Fueled by understanding of the culture through the arts and politics, you can find your way into the life of your character.”

There’s emotion even in Telephony. But unlike most film and stage actors, the voice actor usually doesn’t have so much time with a script that you can do that sort of homework. So, even with a short voice acting script, having prepared a battery of inspirational resources will help make it real.

Or maybe you’ll just “be a dog.” Different sorts of prototypes inspire different sorts of actors. What model works for you? We hope we’ve inspired you to ask that of yourself.