It's a Wonder: The Voice Actors of DC Universe Online Speak Out
Kevin VanOrd discovers what it takes to bring a beloved comic-book character to life in DC Universe Online.
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This statement will reveal my impending old age to anyone that reads this, but here goes: to me, Lynda Carter will always be Wonder Woman. As a young child, I was obsessed with the television show in which she starred, and it was my introduction to the raven-haired Amazonian princess.
Alas, it is obviously time for me to let go of my childhood crush and admit the character has evolved since the days I watched a bespectacled Diana Prince twirl around and explode into her Wonder Woman disguise. And who better than Susan Eisenberg to take Carter's place as my mental image of such a goddess? Eisenberg is the voice of Wonder Woman to modern audiences; she's performed the role in Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Injustice: Gods Among Us.
She also inhabits the role in DC Universe Online, a game which takes its superheroes very seriously, and as well it should. I approached Eisenberg and several of her colleagues, all of whom voice larger-than-life characters in SOE's online role-playing game, to find out how they unleash their inner heroes and villains. When comic enthusiasts are so invested in a character, how much pressure is there to get it right? After all, superfans are known for being vocal about both their likes and their dislikes. Luckily, Eisenberg understands just how seriously she needs to take her role.
"There is always pressure to 'get it right,' "she says. "As I've said many times, playing her has been the biggest privilege of my career, so I always want to do her justice (pun intended). But with Wonder Woman and Diana, that's the gift, too because there's a built-in fan base which cares enormously for what you're doing. And with social media, you're able to communicate with them directly, which is a fabulous bonus! When I first recorded [the role] for DCUO, I couldn't wait to share it with the fans because they've been with me since I started on Justice League in 2000."
She adds: "[Wonder Woman] is a superhero, but also a woman. She's tough, but she can be very tender. She believes in doing what's right and standing up for it. And she's loyal. At this point, because I've been playing her for so long, I have enormous affection for her. She's very real to me."
She's real to the fans too, of course, as are other beloved figures. They've become part of mainstream consciousness. Shannon McCormick knows a thing or two about playing a character with a storied place in pop culture: he voices the Riddler in DCUO (as well as Shazam and a variety of other characters). When I think of the Riddler, I immediately recall Frank Gorshin from the 1960s live-action Batman television series. (Boy, I really am getting old.) Your mind may very well leap to Jim Carrey's performance in Batman Forever. Either way, you probably have an idea of what the Riddler sounds like and how he behaves. Is there a chance for anyone else to stand out in the role when one or two actors are so heavily associated with it?
"Many of these characters have been interpreted many times over and will be interpreted by many others in the future," says McCormick. "Fortunately there's still room to bring your own interpretation to these roles. I think every voice actor's ultimate goal though is to bring life to a character as best they can, be it an iconic one or a new character that no one has ever heard anywhere before."
Even more fortunately, the Riddler is a juicy role that gives McCormick plenty of opportunities to ham it up. "Being a villain is great--you usually get juicer lines and you can really lean into them. The thing to remember about villains is they're better and sometimes even scarier when they still have a certain humanity to them. They're not the villains in their own heads. In their minds, they're the hero! It's easy to go overboard, but only if you're trying to ape what evil sounds like, rather than just….being….evil. And I'm sure I've had to dial it back, but that's what the director is there for. Our job isn't to just nail it out of the gate, although that helps when we do. Our job is to make a version, an interpretation, and then let the director shape and steer the performance."
Speaking of being evil, actress Samantha Inoue-Harte has had to get in touch with her nefarious side. As DCUO's Lust Demon, she had to be both evil and sexy. But, you know, not too sexy, and like McCormick, she had to work to reign in her enthusiasm. She says, "The Lust Demon recording session for the most part was pretty strange. Mainly because the dialog for the character was extremely provocative and well… she was extremely scantily clad. She was very sexy. My natural instinct is to channel a Jessica Rabbit-esque voice but the director explained that due to ratings issues, the character couldn't sound toooooooo sexy. Otherwise it would have pushed the rating for the game into a different category. We had to really reel in my acting because it was hard not to sound too… explicit. So I would say, that felt very unnatural and I really had to pull back on that character a lot."
A character like the Lust Demon doesn't inspire the same kind of fanboy frothing Wonder Woman does, however. I couldn't help but wonder: how deeply do you have to dig into a minor role? It's hard to imagine that even Meryl Streep would devote too much emotional energy to method acting when the part involves only spouting off a few lines of dialogue. Inoue-Harte has embodied major and minor comic characters alike, and the difference in how she approaches each is striking.
"When I found out I was cast as Isis I read every comic with her in it that I could get my fingers on," Inoue-Harte says. "I really wanted to know as much as possible about the character. SOE has a fantastic comic book library and I utilized it a lot. I watched a ton of episodes of the live action Isis television show and watched every episode of every cartoon, which starred Black Adam. 52 became a huge part of my life for a period of time."
Inoue-Hart continues: "Isis is a very…. tragic character. In 52, she is a slave who then rises up to Goddess power level when she and Black Adam fall in love. She essentially makes Black Adam into a better man, but then the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse kill her. The loss of Isis causes Black Adam to go into a rage and he tries so hard to resurrect her from the dead and each time he fails. Felix Faust is able to revive her but physically takes advantage of her and tricks Black Adam. She is driven mad from all the horrible things that have happened to her and honestly, who could blame her?"
"And that all happens right before I come into the picture. If I had not researched everything I could on the character, I would probably not have such a deep connection with the character. For a character like Isis, I feel it would be wrong to not make the attempt to get into her head. Now, if it's a random monster or civilian in the game… that's a different story."
McCormick concurs. "You don't really need to get into minor characters' heads all that deeply," he says. "And even major characters you can pull off without having to know tons of backstory. The important thing is to get the sound right. It's not just reading the lines, but making the lines sound lived in, even if it's coming from a character with only one or two sentences. If you know, hey, this guy is trying to get this across, or serves this purpose in the plot, you can pretty easily play the intention. That's just how I work, though, others may need more context to get the role to feel right for them."
Eisenberg is careful not to be too dismissive of the bit parts, however. "There are a lot of instances when your character doesn't have a lot of lines," she says, "but as an actor, whether it's with an animation or a commercial script, it's your job is to make them come off the page. If you're playing [Wonder Woman] and you're speaking the lines, 'Meet me at the watchtower,' or 'Great Hera,' you're speaking in her voice, not your own. Knowing the character and committing to her, is what makes the performance memorable."
The success of these performances doesn't just lie with the actors, but with the project's voice director. Several of these actors sang the praises of DCUO voice director Alex Keller when they spoke to me, and as well they should: the game's voice work is synced well and dialogue between characters sounds natural. That naturalness isn't necessarily easy to come by, though: actors typically do not interact with each other during recording sessions. As Eisenberg told me, "Voicing a video game is different than other animation projects because you're recording without other actors to play off of in the session. That's why the voice director and the writers are so important to the process: they become your partners. They're not reading the lines with you (unless you beg them); but instead, they're navigating it alongside you."
'DCUO was one of the first games that allowed me to explore the deeper registers of my voice.'
Recording in a vacuum like this can complicate matters when you want to nail your readings. "In animation, you still know the story, you know what line another character has just said and how they react to you, and you can play with that," explains McCormick. "With video games, you're mostly talking at characters, the players, whose actions you don't really know, and who don't have dialogue themselves. So you have to conjure up context more on your own to get the emotions and nuances right."
On the other hand, video game voice sessions can be liberating. Inoue-Harte has done extensive work dubbing Japanese anime, so for her, performing voice work for DC Universe Online has actually proven easier. "I feel the process goes by a lot quicker and is more fun," she says. "I have a deeper understanding of the characters than I ever do with anime. The major difference is that video game voice acting for DCUO is prelay [that is, recorded before the scene is animated - ed.], whereas for anime, you have to act according to a previously animated character."
As a fan of both video games and animated film and television, I wanted to know more about these differences--and Inoue-Harte luckily had plenty to say. "When I voiced for anime, a script with the exact number of words align with the number of mouthflaps that appear on the screen. There have been times when the mouthflaps don't exactly correspond with the words on the script. So already, you are at a severe disadvantage. Also, reading from a script that was translated from Japanese to English and then naturalized for American audiences mean that I get more flack from fans when the English dialog doesn't match the Japanese dialog."
Ultimately, Inoue-Harte has greatly enjoyed working on DC Universe Online. She says, "DCUO was one of the first games that allowed me to explore the deeper registers of my voice and allow me to have a lot of fun doing things outside of my comfort level. We always try and explore what things I can do with my voice and I get cast as larger than life iconic characters."
Inoue-Hart's work as the Lust Demon is certainly evocative, but for me, it all comes back to Princess Diana. The Wonder Woman I knew in my youth was the one that fought Nazis with the help of the upstanding Steve Trevor; she was the television superhero of my childhood. As the voice of Wonder Woman in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, Susan Eisenberg represents the same for viewers of that era. Fans look up to Wonder Woman for various reasons, but Eisenberg says it best: "She [is] essentially a woman with a very strong sense of nobility, a leader."