Jennifer Hale has appeared in a great many more games than you probably realise. The person behind the voice of the female Shepard in all three Mass Effect games is also responsible for Metal Gear's Naomi Hunter, SOCOM's HQ, and even the grunts and groans of Metroid Prime's Samus. And of course her spookily good British accent as KotOR's Bastilla. Amongst literally hundreds of others, in gaming, TV and film. We caught up with Jennifer as she drove through LA, to ask how she came to provide so many of gaming's iconic voices, the combination of anonymity and fame, and which of the Commander Shepards she's voting for to appear on Mass Effect's cover.
RPS: You do lots of voiceover work for film and TV as well as games. Is gaming different from other voiceover work?
Hale: I find it particularly demanding. Say when I do animated series, I’m typically working with the cast, and we get to interact with each other, and work off each other’s energy. In a four hour session you’re swapping back and forth about who’s in the hot seat. When you do a game it’s basically like doing a one-woman show for four hours. The level of focus that’s demanded, and intensity, energy applied and imagination and concentration is very specific.
RPS: Have you had any experience of sharing a studio for games?
Hale: We did that in Metal Gear, a bit. Kris Zimmerman was directing, and we got to do that, and it was fantastic. I did that on another project with Kris, Onimusha Buraiden. But it’s very rare. It’s wonderful when it happens – man, is it ever. But it’s very, very rare.
RPS: Obviously intonation is so crucial. So how do directors get around the lack of someone to respond to?
Hale: Sometimes, on extraordinarily rare occasions, you’ll be able to hear the dialogue of the other person. That’s only working with BioWare, because they have a very specific system that allows that to happen. However, working with BioWare I tend to be the first one recording my stuff, so other people work off me, but I’m not always necessarily working off of them. To get around it I read really fast, I read as much as I can, because you don’t usually get the scripts ahead of time, because they’re highly confidential. The producers are given mountains and mountains of work, and it’s extremely difficult to get anyone anything ahead of time, so it’s basically the art of cold-reading and acting on the spot. I’ll ask physically where am I, what’s going on, how much ambient noise, how much battle – just standard acting questions. But you’ve got to hold them all in your head, you’ve also got to know your history with the other person you’re talking to and what you want from them, and then drop into that moment, and let it rip.
RPS: Was voice acting always the direction you were aiming for?
Hale: No, no. I was a singer first. I did go to a fine art school for theatre, but I preferred film acting, and I moved to Los Angeles to focus on that. I really did the voiceover stuff as a matter of practicality. I was only ever familiar with the commercial side of it, but one of my very first auditions was for a cartoon series – I never really watched cartoons as a kid, I was always outside, or reading a book. So I went into this cartoon, and it happened to be one of the lead roles in the series, and I booked it. So it was the convergence of singing, acting, timing, and the ability to manipulate my energy in particular ways, and from knowing mic technique, that all came together. And then I got training from a couple of the best voice directors who at that time were teaching.
RPS: Which series was that?
Hale: Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? I thought it was how cartoons worked. It was one of the first shows on regular network TV that met all of the educational TV requirements in the US. Our cast was four regulars. We were equally divided between genders, we were completely racially mixed, it was little to no violence, amazing information every week, perfect for kids. And I thought that’s what cartoons were! And my next series was something called Skeleton Warriors, there were ten cast members, to of whom were girls, and we blew stuff up and cartoon maimed each other every week.
RPS: You then went on to be in lots of the big Cartoon Network shows, so when did videogames become a part of all this?
Hale: Actually, my first videogame ever was the Carmen Sandiego videogame! I didn’t understand. I was like, “What is this for? How many flags? How many flags am I saying the name of?! Nine hundred lines, really? That’s crazy! Wha... I don’t... wha... okay!”
RPS: And you’ve gone on to play some pretty major roles in games. Would you say Shepard is the most famous one?
Hale: Gosh. Bastilla [from Knights Of The Old Republic] is also quite popular, and Naomi Hunter [from the Metal Gear series] as well. Those are probably my most known. Apparently I’ve done over one hundred of them.
RPS: And maybe even more famous without anyone knowing it’s you is Samus in the Metroid Prime games.
Hale: I suppose so, yes. There wasn’t a lot of talking there! Although I think my most iconic role is probably Cinderella [Hale plays Cinderella in Disney’s DVD sequels to the film], but people don’t know me from that. Cinderella is Cinderella, and I’m very invisible in that, as it should be.
RPS: So do you ever play any of the games you’ve voiced for?
Hale: No, I’ve never played a game really, until I was just interviewed for the New Yorker. I think it’s the issue coming out this week or next week. Tom Bissel, who’s a wonderful writer – he wrote a book called Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter – I guess he mentioned me in there and it ended up being a story, and he made me play Mass Effect. I’d never played a game before!
It was very interesting. It drove me a little bit crazy, because when I was in the game I could see the tweaks and adjustments I’d love to do. But it was good, and I’m sure that that experience has informed Mass Effect 3.
RPS: Do you ever consider which games you’ll record for?
Hale: It kind of falls in naturally. The kinds of games that I just don’t feel so comfortable with, I’m not really suited for. There are some brilliant people who are much better at that than I am – they should be doing it. I’ve been in auditions for games and animation where I’ve thought, this is someone else’s gig. They’re funnier, or they’re more this character than I am.
RPS: So, have you encountered the lovely term “femShep”?
Hale: Yes, I have come across the term! You know what – whatever it takes to get the female version of Shepard out there, I’ll take it.
RPS: How did you react to finding out that only 18% of Mass Effect players pick the female Shepard?
Hale: Yeah, you know… that doesn’t really ring true with the response I’ve gotten, but hey – BioWare knows what they’re doing.
RPS: My motivation to play female is that when there’s an opportunity to play an interesting female character, I’ll take it.
Hale: Yeah, good.
RPS: Are you surprised more people don’t do that?
Hale: I think it’s habit, largely. And I think they’re maybe less aware of the option. It’s not something that has occurred to them, and the marketing materials are all male Shepard. Although that’s changing. There’s the vote on Facebook where you can vote for which “FemShep” should be on the cover of the game.
RPS: So do you have a preference?
Hale: I like the one with the freckles!
RPS: But none of them have red hair, and that’s what Shepard looks like!
Hale: Yeah, see, the one with the freckles has a bit of red hair. It may not show up in the artwork, but the pictures I saw this weekend at ComicCon, she’s a red-head.
RPS: So how involved do you get with the Mass Effect games?
Hale: I throw my heart and soul into the words that I’m given, and do my absolute best to bring that to life. That’s the extent of my involvement. It is up to me to not drop the ball at one of the more critical stages of bringing this character to life. It’s up to me to really keep that sharp, and I take that very seriously.
RPS: But you were at ComicCon with BioWare?
Hale: Yeah, I had a couple of different BioWare things to do there, I’m working on a couple of different BioWare games right now.
RPS: We’ve lamented for years that voice acting has for too long been undervalued, and it’s certainly improving now, but it’s still very rare for a name to become known. So what have BioWare done differently?
Hale: I don’t think any of us are known. We’re still invisible. I think that with the body of work, and momentum and consistency of us voice actors getting work, we’re starting to get a little bit of a following, and I think that may be shifting things a bit. You can liken it to the very early years of the movies, when they wanted to keep the stars anonymous, but then they started to get a following. It was the later generations that really benefited financially and in terms of notoriety. I don’t know if that will happen in games or not, but I guess it’s my role and my fate to be where I am in the history of the whole thing.
RPS: So could gaming eventually produce its own stars?
Hale: I don’t know. It would be a bum to have missed that boat, that’s for sure! It’s quite possible, although, as cheesy as it sounds, the player is the star of the game. That’s the beauty of games – that it’s you that inhabits it. It’s not about someone else, it’s about that you get to be that person, and if I do my job right, I as a person disappear. Your experience is primary.
RPS: Having gone to ComicCon, is there more of a temptation to become a known face in this industry?
Hale: Um… It is tempting sometimes, because there’s always that part of us that wants credit, acknowledgement, validation for what we’ve done. But I have to say I love the anonymity. I could walk through ComicCon, and no matter how many people who might be a fan of what I do, we’re in proximity and no one knew. I’m invisible. If I’d have done as many on-camera roles as I’ve done voiceover I couldn’t go to the grocery store in peace.
RPS: And that outweighs the temptation of fame?
Hale: I think the question is, what are the perks? The thing I would love about the fame is what I could get done with it. Again it sounds cheesy, but the good I could do, the money I could raise for things, the impact I might be able to make beyond just myself. Right now when I want to do some good, or change some things, or help people, I have to work like anyone else – I don’t have the advantages of celebrity to draw upon. That would be my main focus, my absolute passion, if I had more celebrity. Not that I don’t already contribute – I don’t think there’s any excuse for not contributing, for not giving back. It would just be increased quite a bit.
RPS: But the rest of it would make it not worthwhile.
Hale: Nooooooooo! Honestly, I think if you’re meant to be a celebrity you are. I am of the stature I am, so I’m exactly where I should be.
RPS: Thanks for your time.