The Walking Dead Cast Interview
Actor : Brian Sommer
Character Danny St. John
Brian Sommer appears in episode two of The Walking Dead as one half of the creepy sibling duo Danny and Andy St. John. As the group heads out to look for food they come across the two brothers who look suspiciously portly.
Brian has a massive list of video game credits to his name now boasting over 100 games and 250 different characters including old favorites from Monkey island and Sam and Max right up to League of Legends and Rift.
This turned out to be one of the funniest interview we have done so we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did making it. To get us started we got a bit of back ground on Brian.
A very broad open question to get us started but can you give us a little introduction to your background?
Well first of all Anthony, thank you for interviewing me. It is always great to connect with the gamers and audiences who experience the projects I have worked on. I have always said, “Ultimately I work for the YOU guys”. If it weren’t for the gamers I might be living in a van down by the river! So the short Brian Sommer story would go something like this: I am a native of the sunny golden state of California. I was born in the mid ‘60’s (and survived that quite nicely, thank you). I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and led a pretty ‘normal’ suburban life. TV was a big part of my life and entertainment was always something I had always been drawn to. I did some plays in High School, but never considered acting or entertainment as a career. The old time radio shows were re-re-re-broadcast on one of the local radio stations and I fell in love with them. They truly were ‘theater of the mind’. My Dad did a short stint on-air at one of the San Francisco radio stations and later moved into the record business (for the younger readers, just think of a really big black CD… That’s what a record was). We always had some kind of tape recorder at home (again, just think of a really big Ipod with a lot of moving parts), so my three goofy brothers and I were constantly recording silly sketches and commercials. I never thought that could actually be something I would later be paid to do.
How did you get into the voice acting profession?
It all started at Disneyland. Being a native Californian I went to Disneyland quite often. Later in life I would bring a video camera to the park with me. The funny thing is, usually I would just keep the lens cap on and point the microphone toward a speaker to record the audio. I loved (and still do) the great voiceovers found at Disneyland. There was on particular attraction (ride) at Disneyland that had a very profound effect on me. Adventure Thru Inner Space was an attraction in Tommorrowland. It featured a ride through the “Mighty Microscope” which ‘shrunk’ the guests down to the size of an atom. You then traveled through ‘inner space’. Compared to today’s attractions, it was fairly void of special effects. But the one thing it did have was an amazing narration by my personal idol, Mr. PaulFrees. Paul did a lot of work in the park’s attractions (the ghost host in the haunted mansion, several of the pirates in The Pirates of the Caribbean etc). His narration in Adventure Thru Inner Space was fascinating to me. It had such weight to it. Paul brought out the wonder, excitement, and danger of the journey the guest was taking. Even though I rode that attraction many times, I always wondered “will I make it out safely” each time I experienced it. That is a ‘home run’ for a voice actor. Paul’s performance enhanced the attraction and brought emotion to the visuals. It was then that started to learn more about the craft. For many years it was just an avocation for me. Learning about some of the great voice actors from the golden era of radio. It wasn’t until half way through another career that I started to view the business as a potential career for me. That is where Samantha Paris comes into the story. Sam runs a voice over academy in Sausalito Ca, (just on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco) called Voicetrax. She was a guest on a local radio show (Ronn Owens on KGO) many times, and spoke of the school. I wrote the phone number down and put it in my desk. I probably stayed there for a year or more, and then one day I picked up the phone and changed my life. I attended the school for a year and a half and learned TONS about the craft and the industry. I was then signed by a talent agency in San Francisco and I have been a voice actor ever since. I could not be happier. You truly know when you are doing what you are meant to do. Voice Acting was my calling.
Do you play video games? If not do you play or at least watch someone play the games you have starred in to see how they turned out?
(Do you get a free copy of the game?)
I have to be honest with you. I have not played a video game since Atari first came out (PONG!). It was a lot simpler back then, and my caveman brain could get a handle on it. These days there are so many buttons and switches and so much happening on the screen that I just get lost! I don’t know how you guys do it. Recently the folks at telltale got all the voice actors together to play through an episode of “The Walking Dead”. When our character came on screen the let us take control of the game. Well I was immediately reminded that if these games were real life, and the only way to survive was to play well…. I would have been dead a long time ago!! Thank God I don’t get paid to PLAY the games. There are a lot of talented folks that contribute their skills to make these games and characters as vivid and wonderful as they are. Artists, writers, directors, producers, programmers etc. I guess if we used the analogy of a car, you could say that I produce what comes out of the radio speakers, but the engine and suspension are just a mystery to me. So you don’t want me to get behind the wheel. But thanks to the internet, and all the wonderful gamers, there is a lot of footage of the games on video sites like YouTube. So I have seen a lot of the scenes that include the characters that I voice. It is great fun to finally see them come ‘alive’.
Yes, I have received some free copies of games in the past. They of course are immediately handed over to my gamer friends who have the talent to put them to good use.
We ask all our voice actor friends this as I have always had the perception that being a voice actor is harder than the more traditional onscreen roles as you have to reply solely on your voice to carry the whole role and that you can’t depend on normal human interactions such as body language or facial expressions.
Is that a fair comment or do both professions have their own positives and difficulties?
I currently teach at Voicetrax and this question is one that is often asked by my students. Which is more difficult, Voice Acting or On-camera/stage acting. I think your comment about the difficulties of voice acting is very accurate. I often address the limitations of voice acting by asking, “What does a raised eyebrow SOUND like”. While on-camera actors have the added tools of facial expressions and gestures, voice actors are limited to just their voice. So it certainly can be challenging in that aspect. On the other side of the coin though, the ‘live’ actors have to deal with so much more than the voice actor. They have to be aware of cameras, cues, props, and other actors in the scene. These can certainly cause a distraction if not dealt with correctly. So each of the crafts have their difficulties. I will stay very comfortable in my dark quiet studio thank you. You ‘live’ actors can deal with all that other jazz.
Do you think Voice actors get the recognition they deserve? It is often quite hard for the fans to put a face to the voice and although they could be huge fans they might walk past you on the street without recognizing you. (Although that might be a good thing too)
The anonymity of voice acting can be a plus for some folks. I, for one, am quite happy not being recognized. Many fans have reached out to me via email to share comments and compliments or ask for some advice. I am always flattered and honored by these. I have always focused on being humble and find no need for the spotlight. After all, we are only part of the characters we voice. As I stated earlier there are many talented folks that bring these characters to life. Voice acting is a funny thing if you think about it in terms of ‘recognition’. If you and a friend are discussing a movie you saw recently, you might say, “Robert Deniro and Sharon Stone had this great scene together”. But if you are talking about last nights “Family Guy” episode, you would say “Peter and Louis had this great scene together.” (as opposed to Seth McFarlane and Alex Borstein). So it is our characters that are the memorable ones. Yes we do give vocal life to them, but we should never think that we are a bigger star than the actual character. After all, you are not playing a video game to hear Brian Sommer, you are playing to experience the characters as they move through the adventure. But on a whole I think that voice actors do not get as much credit as others in the industry. As long as my name appears somewhere, where those who might want to seek out the information can find it, I am perfectly happy with that. So your interview is most appreciated.
What other projects have you worked on that our readers might be familiar with?
Currently I have about 100 video game titles to my name, and 250 characters. So it is anyone’s guess which ones someone might be interested in or familiar with. Some of the bigger projects have included: Phantasy Star Universe (I voice the main bad guy, Renvolt Magashi), Sam and Max (as Brady Culture, Jorgens Monster), The Boneville series (as one of the Rat Creatures), Tales of Monkey Island (as Judge Grindstump and Bailiff Hardtack), Hellgate: London (as Lord Summerisle), League of Legends (as Warwick, Tryndemere, and The Yeti), Assassin’s Creed: Bloodline (as Barnabus), Bakugan Battle Brawlers: Defenders of the Core (as Drago), Rift (as the Faceless Man and many others), and Diablo III, (as various snarling monsters).
How much work is involved in recording high quality voice work such as appears in the Walking Dead, what is a typical day like?
The limo usually picks me up around noon….. (ok you’re not falling for that. Besides, only Don La Fontaine could get away with that). With any craft, you can’t just walk into the studio and ‘hope’ to do well. The video game industry is a mult-million dollar business and they are not going to just hire some schmuck off the street to ‘read’ some lines in a silly voice. We definitely have fun with our work, but it is WORK and we have to approach it as such. Usually we will know what character we will be voicing at that session. Depending on the game, and the role of the character, the session could vary in duration. I have had 10 minute sessions and ones that have lasted 4 or more hours. Scenes like the ones in Walking Dead can be rather intense. After all, voice acting a scene were you are being stabbed with a pitchfork while your leg is clamped in a bear trap are not ones to be approached lightly. If you are approaching our character with the intensity needed for the scene, you can really work up a sweat. There is a lot of ‘physicalizing’ for such scenes. If you stand at the mic with your hands in your pockets and try to act out a brutal attack, it is not going to have the same presence as if you are physically acting it out. (remember kids, STRETCH before you pick up that pitchfork)
What is it like working with someone like Teltale especially on a project as good as the Walking Dead?
Everyone that I have had contact with at Telltale, from the writers to the directors, have been fantastically talented professionals. Going back to what I was saying earlier, it takes a lot of talented folks to make these characters and stories come alive. I have worked with Telltale on many projects (Bone, Tales of Monkey Island, Sam and Max). The Walking Dead is just the recent evidence of what happens when you get a lot of brilliantly creative folks together to work on a project.
So to the actual game how do you start getting into character especially one like Danny who is quite creepy?
Well I tried hanging around schoolyards in the afternoons, but somehow that did not work out the way I planned it. I have always loved playing the bad guys. Give me a character that is off his rocker and I will sign up for it every time. They are just so much fun. Take your typical Disney film and remove the villain, what do you have? A bunch of people and farm animals skipping along and singing in the woods. Its only when the baddie arrives that you got yourself a real story!! Danny St. John was a great character to voice. I actually took some inspiration from a TV character. For those of you who enjoy the show “30 Rock” you will no doubt know the great character that Jack McBrayer plays: Kenneth Parcell. Kenneth is an overly happy naive good old boy from Georgia. Well I thought to myself, “I wonder what Kenneth does when he is not at work?” Every time the news interviews the neighbor of the serial killer they all say the same thing, “He was a kind, quiet, family man”. So for Danny I just envisioned Kenneth Parcell in his alter-ego. A homicidal, child molesting, cannibal. Acting is just that simple kids!!! But seriously, when I am at the mic recording a character like that, one that is not being played as a comedic villain, you really have to put him in your head. You have to say some very nasty things, but ENJOY saying them. Even though I may not have the same interests as Danny, when I am voicing him, I have to enjoy what he enjoys. We actually recorded Danny three times. The first session we played him on the lighter side. When the producers listened to the recordings, the thought we could go a bit darker with him, so I was brought back to the studio and we added some vocal affectations to Danny (stutter, and breathing). There were a few lines where we really turned up the creepy factor on Danny. Well when that session was reviewed, it was decided we went too far, Danny was revealing too much too soon by being too creepy (one of his lines was actually omitted completely from the game… too bad to, it was pretty damn creepy), so we came back in for a third time, and married the two performances together to give you the Danny you experienced in the game. As Goldilocks said “Just right”. Although I doubt Ms. Locks was referring to Danny at the time)
Did you turn to the comics or to the TV show to get a feel for the tone of the Walking Dead?
When it is a character or project that I am not familiar with, I do try and do some research beforehand. That way I can come into the studio more prepared and we can hit the ground running. I was told that the game would emulate the graphic novels more than the TV show, so I did take the opportunity to review those. The fantastic work by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore was certainly a great inspiration for understanding the atmosphere of the game. With writing and illustrations like those it’s no wonder the show and game are a hit.
Your character Danny St. John turns up in Episode 2 as one of the brothers that offer to help “feed” the group. What are your impressions of Danny? Evil or survivor?
Even before the walkers arrived, I think Danny had some major screws loose. It was hinted to me that he was in fact a serial killer, and a child molester before the apocalypse. So when it came time to ‘change the menu’ I don’t think Danny even batted an eyelash. It was business as usual for him. I think the rest of the family was trying to cover up for Danny. His mother and brother I think were pretty sane before the walkers. But when it came time to either starve or chow down on the neighbors, they went along with Danny. Who knows, the speculation is half the fun in experiencing folks like the St. Johns.
What is the recording process like? And does it vary much from company to company?
I would say that the recording process for a video game is pretty standard across the board for most developers. We will discuss the character before the session begins and read a few test lines to nail down the personality and voice. Then we just roll up our sleeves and get to work. Generally the recording scripts will contain only our characters lines. We will take one line at a time and run it two or three times. If the director gets one that he likes, then we move on to the next line. If there is a line that could be delivered in several ways (depending on the scene) the director may read the line proceeding it (the line of the other character in the scene) to give us some idea of the context. If there is still some uncertainty, we may record it several different ways, just to make sure we have covered all the bases. If the character is going to be having some scene where there is strenuous vocalizing, we will leave those for the end of the session. No sense in running the risk of blowing out the actor’s voice before we have a chance to get the majority of the lines in the can.
Is recording solo something you just get over or does it still feel strange to be in a one way dialogue?
Whenever possible, I always prefer to have the other actors performing the other characters to be there. Recording as a group makes it much easier to react to the dialog. But the majority of the time we are recording by ourselves (called “Recording Wild”). As an accomplished actor, you simply have to imagine what is going on in the scene, and ‘hear’ that other character speaking so you can react to it properly. If you don’t, it will not sound organic and genuine. As George Burns once said “Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you got it made”.
Do you get to hang out with the other voice actors? We can see that many of you have worked on the same projects.
Frankly they are all just a bunch of drunken reprobates, and I would not want to have anything to do with them…. (again you are not falling for that)
There is a core group of us here in the Bay Area that work on a lot of projects together, but we rarely have the opportunity to see each other outside of passing by each other in the hallways of the studio. Recently we have been getting together for some video game events. Meeting fans and answering questions. This had led to more social time together. It’s always nice to ‘talk shop’ with other professionals (even if we are all just a bunch of drunken reprobates)
What’s next for Brian Sommer? Have you any other exciting projects coming up?
I am staying busy (which keeps me off the streets and out of trouble). I am in the studio regularly trying to take over the universe, or tie some damsel in distress to a railroad track. Most of the projects that are in production now have Non-Disclosure Agreements, so I am not at liberty to mention any (darn). But keep an eye (um EAR) out. I am sure I will be coming soon to a console near you. I did just finish up some work for Murder She Wrote, I believe that has already been announced so I am OK with revealing that one.
To finish up as we are Ireland’s biggest Independent Video Game publication we do like to ask everyone if you have any connection to Ireland? Ever been here on holidays? Or planning any trips soon?
If your country is half as beautiful as your postcards it is breathtaking. It has been on my list of places to visit, but I have not yet made the trip. I most certainly look forward to it.
If you would like us to include and contact details so our readers can keep up to date with your work?
I am always happy to remain connected with the fans.
My Website is www.BrianSommer.com
My Youtube is www.youtube.com/briansommervoiceover
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