Are you a voice actor, or looking to direct others? Great! One of the tools that you absolutely can’t go without is knowing how to get into character easily and quickly.
I mean, you’ve probably watched Joaquin’s Phoenix mesmerizing performance in Joker and have thought about method acting. Let me assure you that, normally, voice acting doesn’t require such a comprehensive, brutal physical and mental transformation. It doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park, though!
And, if you think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach, you’re in for a rude awakening! Each actor and actress has their own method for inhabiting a character; some may be more rational and organized, even scientific, others may eschew thought altogether and try to get into a particular mental or emotional state, letting the character come through them, in a way. Everyone has their shortcuts, so, it’s all about finding your own happy (or unhappy) place.
What we are going to go through today are ways in which you – or your actors – can try to learn what method works best for you, and how to be flexible.
Let’s get to it!
Voice Acting basics
You’ve heard it, but you’ve also seen it. Just imagine all the countless animated films, video games, movies, and other mediums with a voice in it. That’s where you’ve been listening to voice acting, in which actors portray their characters through vocal recordings of their performances.
Imagine Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones in The Lion King. Their vocal performances gave life to the characters onscreen, and in fact, even informed their mannerisms. That’s the immediate humanizing quality behind voice acting. While actors perform offscreen, not even embodying their characters, they need to come through emotionally using just their voice talents. Not a small feat!
So, good voice acting is not just about giving a solid performance. It means learning how to get into character, and which tools an actor can use to say more with less.
Sure, there are different types of vocal performances out there; voice actors aren’t always accompanying an animated or cartoon avatar that supplants the physical side of the performance. Some may perform for audiobooks, narrations, or other forms of voice-over. This doesn’t mean that the recording will be devoid of personality, though!
A little goes a long way
Imagine not having a body, and just using your voice as an expressive instrument. How would you attempt to portray a character’s emotional state? Whether it be angry, sad, ecstatic, regretful; how would you make their feelings known to a listener? Can you think about how to transmit a complex interiority, all filtered through a fictional being’s personality and story?
It doesn’t matter if there’s an onscreen representation or not. All types of performance require getting how to get into character. Then, it’s a matter of getting the performance right for the tools at hand. Animation and video games may allow for more subtlety because there’s a symbolic, gestural performance along with the voice; other mediums like audiobooks may need extra inflections or less subtle readings to avoid confusion. Every type of voice acting presents its own challenges.
Also, that’s already attempting to account for the presence of a good script or written backstory and direction about the character.
True, many great characters are constructed in a mix of performance and script. In fact, in animation, it’s often the recorded performances that give rise to the onscreen counterparts’ expressions. Disney famously films and motion capture actors in booths to create the maximum synergy between onscreen and offscreen behaviors.
How to get into character: Know thyself
Ancient Greek words of wisdom. And they’re necessary both in life and in the voice acting gig. Only, in voice acting, you’ll be getting acquainted with you or your voice actor’s alter ego – the dramatis persona they’re going to be inhabiting.
That’s when a good voice actor also needs supplemental material. In fact, knowing how to get into character requires researching as much as doing. It’s not just about trying on a voice and seeing if it fits due to some past association. If you want to rely on well-trodden tropes, nobody’s going to stop you. But, unless you’re looking for something particularly stereotypical and one-note, there will usually be more hurdles than just trying to find what’s been done before.
That’s not saying you can’t look to the past for inspiration, of course. All preparation can entail looking to other performances as well as the natural world for insights. Some actors even model their vocal performances after certain animals or sounds!
And that’s not all. Depending on the requirements of the script, you may also be given extra materials from your voice director; there may be more backstory that can be used to fill out the blanks; there could be extra scripting or directions that may inform the voice actor of intended vocal tics or performance details. The interplay between a detailed preparation by actor, director, and creative team can make or break some projects. The more there is to dig into, the more the character can be fleshed out into a real, tangible person.
Knowledge is power, and having a character’s psychology and motivation not be a complete mystery can help paint a more complete painting. A bad character lives in a vacuum; a good character seems independent, alive on its own merits.
Emotion vs reason
This needn’t be a dichotomy, necessarily. But it’s a fact that many actors will attempt to consciously think about how to get into character. Mostly –and paradoxically – going with either is more instinctual. Whenever an actor faces new material, they’ll be hardly choosing whether they connect to it from the gut or the brain. Even the most methodical actor may have an unforeseen reaction to a character’s arc. Emotional scenes may make a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants intuitive think calmly and rationally.
And it’s not always predictable, either. Just as we have tendencies in life, an actor may tend to go with more emotion rather than reason, or vice versa; trends can absolutely be bucked, though.
A good, flexible actor should strive to be able to use their right (creative) and left (logical) hemispheres. While there’s always a dominant, striving for balance is a good strategy. It’ll allow them the opportunity to analyze, but also to act on instinct. Case by case is what I’m saying.
Still, it’s important to not try to force an actor to go beyond their methods. Unless that discomfort is intended to create a powerful response, it’d be advisable to let pros be pros. If someone’s set in their ways and have achieved success and consistency, let them.
In fact, general approaches may also change within an artist’s lifetime. Robert De Niro likely didn’t prepare the same way for his role as Vito Corleone and Frank Sheeran. Both are masterclasses in acting.
How to get into character: a note for actors
Watch this video and see how voice actors prepare to voice different characters. Sure, a lot of cartoon characters are hardly Shakespearean material, often veering more towards the goofy than the serious. Still, the video conveys some important lessons for actors.
So, an important thing to keep in mind is that while the character doesn’t have a body, you can embody its qualities. How do you do it?
- Use your full body for the performance. Use gestures, motion, poses, whatever gets you into the zone of how this character would move and behave in space. This gets you into their particular mindset and helps you inhabit their energy.
- Utilize the full qualities of your voice. Getting into the character can also be playful. Open your mouth, close it, produce different pitches, try to use some vocal fry if you can do it safely. Try to go for higher-ranged sounds first; lower pitches tire out your voice and can cause issues when attempting to back again. Therefore, many vocal coaches will not make you try to make you go too low when doing scales.
- Make use of the descriptive powers of the script. If it’s full of descriptive guidelines, it’ll help you think about how to get into character. But also remember that characters only truly come alive in the booth. The script informs the actor, and the actor’s performance can alter the final look and feel of a character. Remain flexible and open.
Remember: characters become a sort of permanent fixture in your mind. That makes it easier to get back to them and access that energy when it’s necessary. You learn how they react when they’re happy, sad, stressed, etc. This makes their emotional states a “go-to” when you’ve done the work of mapping out their reactions thoroughly.
Maybe leave it to the pros?
If you’re not interested in starting your voice over career but are looking to provide guidance for actors, good. But you’re still going to be needing actual talent that knows how to get into character, improvise and try several combinations and approaches.
My recommendation is to try out voice-centric hubs and agencies, with actors who have experience and well-curated portfolios. You don’t want any newbies handling voice duties when it comes to doing character work! Sure, you could get that flash-in-the-pan miracle that proves to naturally know most of these things. But, just as hardly anyone can step into a Broadway play without preparation, not many can step into the booth and do a great job first try. If you bet on well-established pros, it’s very likely you won’t go wrong. You can just take a look at their previous work and see if they know how to get into character.
If they can showcase their range and versatility, you know you’ve got a voice hire on your hands!