Modern Warfare 2's Keith David talks voice acting

Q&A: Veteran actor discusses working on 2009's most anticipated title, his roles in Halo 3, Mass Effect 2, and the voice-acting process in games.

It's not every day that one of the most mellifluous voices of all time leaves you a voicemail. But that's just what happened when, due to a scheduling mix-up and an ill-timed bathroom break, I found this message waiting on my phone.

Keith David, in the flesh.

"Hey Tor, this is Keith David. Sorry I missed you. You can get me back at [NUMBER REDACTED]. Thanks so much. Bye-bye."

Armed with David's cell phone number, this reporter got the opportunity to talk with the veteran character actor. Besides an expansive voice-over career that includes his Emmy-winning narration of the PBS series The War, he has worked on around 150 films, television shows, and games. David's big-screen resume ranges from There's Something About Mary to director John Carpenter's 1988 cult sci-fi classic They Live. On television, he was cast in two popular 1990s animated series: Gargoyles and Todd McFarlane's Spawn, where he voiced the titular demon superhero.

However, to gamers, David will be best remembered for voicing the rogue Sangheili known as the Arbiter in Halo 2 and Halo 3. David also lent his distinctive baritone to the role of Captain Anderson in Mass Effect and to gang boss Julius in Saints Row and its sequel. He has also voiced roles in the game version of Coraline, Transformers: The Game, and Lords of EverQuest.

While Halo 3 saw first-day sales of over $170 million in the US, David's next game may be his biggest yet. Last month, Infinity Ward revealed that David would be joining the cast of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which analysts believe may become one of the best-selling games ever upon its November 10 release. Recently, GameSpot got to talk to David about the upcoming actioner, a possible Mass Effect 2 role, and the craft of voice acting in games.

MODERN WARFARE 2
GameSpot: I guess the first question with Modern Warfare 2 is, how did you get involved in the project?

Keith David: Somebody asked me.

GS: So they wanted Keith David, specifically?

KD: Yeah.

GS: When did you actually record your vocal sessions?

KD: I'm still working on it. We still have one or two more sessions to go.

GS: So you're still recording?

KD: You know, what happens is, we go in, we do some, and then they fit it into the game. Then we go back and, if we have to, do something over. But we save the explosive stuff for last, the heavy battle stuff.

David's commander will train US soldiers to fight enemies like these.

GS: So you kind of start off with your basic dialogue and then get into the actual bloody mayhem Black Hawk Down kind of thing?

KD: Yeah.

GS: So what's the name of the character you play?

KD: I'm playing a commander, but forgive me if I don't remember his name right this second.

GS: So you're playing a US commander?

KD: Yes.

GS: Is it a major role?

KD: Well, I haven't seen the whole game yet. But I believe it's a pretty major role. I start training the player and then we take the player into battle. So, I think it's pretty major.

GS: How many lines do you think you recorded for the game?

KD: Oh, my God. Put it this way, I still have 150 lines more to go.

GS: So how many hours do you think that would translate into?

KD: I'm sure all wrapped and done, it'll be 10 hours.

GS: That's just one character, right?

KD: Right.

David in the Mass Effect voice-over studio.

GS: Were you a fan of the Call of Duty series before?

KD: My son is.

GS: So you'd seen it before.

KD: As I was telling Keith [Jr.], I am so wonderfully impressed with the quality of the graphics. I have been in animation for a while now, voicing animation. One of the things that made me want to be an actor was cartoon voices and narration. So I've been watching cartoons for over 50 years, and I marvel at the way CGI has come in and turned things around.

Now, you know as well as I do, the gaming industry has surpassed, in some way, the movie-making industry as far as first-day bankability. I don't know of a film yet that has made a $150 million on the first day, as some of these games have. Well, at least one of them, Halo 3, has. I don't know of another film that has even come close to that.

Scottish actor Kevin McKidd (Rome, Trainspotting) will be voicing one of the SAS commandos in Modern Warfare 2.

GS: Well, they're already saying Modern Warfare 2 might be the biggest-selling game of all time.

KD: Yeah. It's huge. And as such, what I absolutely adore about [Infinity Ward producer] Keith Arem and his work and his team is that they're painstaking. This game looks incredible. I don't play these games and it makes me want to play because it's so exciting. There's always something happening. I'll watch the situations that the player's getting ready to go in and it's like, "Holy s***!"

You know, if you go on YouTube and you can look at some actual footage of soldiers in Iraq bombing and sniping, and it is as exciting or--in some cases, not as exciting--as the game. In the game, you don't want to sit around waiting for the two hours for the enemy to actually show up.

GS: I interviewed Ray Liotta in 2002 and we talked about his work on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. He said he had to watch the developers act out some scenes because the graphics weren't done. How far has the process come since then?

KD: Oh, no. My graphics are done. I actually get to watch the thing itself, and the creators, they explain what I'm about to go through. And I'm not always the first one. Some of the other voices are already on there. Tomorrow, I think, is my last session. I'll go in and they will have put in what I voiced up until now. So, I'll get to hear some of the stuff I've done already, which is exciting. [NOTE: Interview was conducted last week. --Ed.]

GS: Does that really help you in your performance, to hear yourself?

KD: Every little bit helps.

GS: Has the process come along since you did Halo 3 and Mass Effect?

KD: Yeah. It's the nature of the development of electronic equipment. As soon as you get a piece of technology, that's only the latest piece that they let you see. It's not that they don't have a generation after that prepped and ready. So, of course, it does improve. You know, sometimes quantitatively, you know.

GS: So your first game role was in Lords of EverQuest in 2003?

Game graphics have come a long way since David's first game gig, 2003's Lords of EverQuest.

KD: Yeah. What I remember about that, you could fill a thimble with. But what we did back then, it might as well have been pinball, because they've come so far.

GS: Now, as someone who has done a lot of voice-over work, are you seeing traditional actors becoming more interested in games as a legitimate extension of the acting craft?

KD: Yeah, I mean, just as it has in the voice-over world. There was a time when commercials were only done by announcer guys. And the announcers were mostly sports announcers, news announcers, and they had a kind of delivery that was stentorian and impersonal in a way. That was the style of the day.

Now we've come a long way since then and the style of commercials have become more like storytelling, more inviting, you know. You're very much more personable. And this is also true in the gaming industry. Now it's not just a disembodied robotic voice telling you what to do; now it is the sergeant talking to you personally, the player.

So now, yeah, we're talking to the player directly. We're interacting with the player. In fact I don't know if the word "interactive" was even in the vocabulary 30 years ago.

HALO 3 & VOICE-ACTING RESIDUALS
GS: Now, you mentioned Halo 3, which actually made $170 million on day one in the US alone. Was it kind of strange being part of such a huge project that was so massively hyped by Microsoft?

KD: Well, I mean, I didn't know anything about that. The result--that took place later. I don't even think they knew. I mean, they didn't know until after the first two [Halo games] came out that it would be as big as it was.

David got a flat fee for playing the Arbiter in Halo 3, which went on to make nearly $377 million in the US alone.

So, I try not to put my mind into other people's pockets, as far as who participates in the profit and whatever. Because we look at those numbers and we are awed by them, because they're awesome numbers. But you don't know how much money they had to spend in order to get there. So, you don't know who has to be paid back. Everybody's got expenses, you know.

Just like the fighter that makes a $50 million dollar purse. He's got trainers to pay, he's got gyms to pay, and there's all that back stuff that he's got to pay. So, as good money as it is, who knows how it gets doled out?

So, I mean, I am happy with what I get, though it would be great if one of these days we get to get residuals.

GS: Yeah, that was actually going to be my next question. The recent threatened Screen Actors Guild strike was partly due to residuals from the Internet. Now I've heard that game voice actors don't get residuals, as you would in a film or a television show.

KD: That's true. We do not participate in residuals.

GS: Do you ever foresee that happening?

KD: You know, I would like to see that happen, for obvious reasons. However, it's my philosophic belief about the world to say that we have seen in more than one circumstance around the world how absolute power corrupts absolutely and greed will destroy.

Now I mean, the producers and the creators, hopefully they are making money. But when you start making multimillions of dollars and billions of dollars, why shouldn't the people who helped you get there also participate? One of these days, it'll come to a head. But that may not be in my lifetime, and I don't worry myself about that. Yes, I do wish I could participate because it would be only fair, in the same way that we have always participated residually in the products that we participate in.

Captain Anderson, David's character in Mass Effect, might not be in Mass Effect 2.

I mean, in the karmic sense, everything goes around and comes around. You see examples all the time, when you see some of the great philanthropists, the manner in which they give back to the everyday guy who helps to make them get where they are. Those people are far happier than the people who die worrying about every penny they pinch.

MASS EFFECT 2 & DREAM GAMES
GS: So, are you going to be in Mass Effect 2 as well?

KD: I hope so. I hope they ask me. We'll see.

GS: Is there some kind of particular genre of game you want to be part of?

KD: I like to work, man. That's my criteria. I do it and because of the quality and caliber, and the creators are becoming more creative and therefore it's more fun to participate in.

GS: Is there a game out there you wish you had been in?

KD: I'm not familiar enough with the games to say, but I do know that my son plays a lot of games. I'd like to play a lot more games.

GS: According to your IMDb page, you've been in around 150 games, movies, and television shows. Are there any of those that you would have liked to have seen turned into a video game?

David in They Live.

KD: Gargoyles. Spawn. I would have loved to see Spawn: The Game. What would that look like? Wow. That could be fun. [NOTE: There have been several games based on the Spawn franchise. There was also a 1995 Sega Genesis game based on Gargoyles. --Ed.]

GS: I took an impromptu survey of guys around the GameSpot offices, and They Live came up as a dream game adaptation from your resume. Is there going to be a sequel to that, by the way?

KD: I've heard some talk; there's nothing confirmed as of yet. Like I said, hopefully when it comes up, I'll be there.

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Discussion

261 comments
TheRealUser101
TheRealUser101

Activision, being Modern Warfare 3's publisher, is showing the games multiplayer at the Call of Duty XP convention on September 2. All of the Modern Warfare 3 perks, weapons, maps will be shown there. MW3 is going to be great.

HydraRizlim
HydraRizlim

"Scottish actor Kevin McKidd (Rome, Trainspotting) will be voicing one of the SAS commandos in Modern Warfare 2." hmmm..15 years ago pripjot o.O Oy susy *slashes*

Dreski83
Dreski83

"well... its not out there for air" one of the best lines ever delivered by David ;)

kingNael96
kingNael96

so the training missions gonna be done by the US instead of the British like in cod4

valttu
valttu

So, will the commander be a part of the task force or will there once again be a separate campaign for the U.S. guys?

nobikung
nobikung

Guys, there is a website just set up containing cool stuff from Modern Warfare 2 here, www.modernwarfare2reviews.com. Enjoy!

zskrabs24
zskrabs24

they live is an amazing movie. best 15 minute fight scene ever!

Phaselinear
Phaselinear

Another perfect job for me in a "imperfect" world. Where do I sign up for this gig?

FidelSarcastro
FidelSarcastro

the fist fight between Keith David and Roddy Piper in They Live is in my top 3 greatest cinematic street fights... all over Sun Glasses.

fetusfart18
fetusfart18

Yeay yeah, everybody talks like the only voices DiMaggio ever did were Marcus and Bender. he also did the voices of Wakka and Kimahri in FFX back in '02.

chaoscougar1
chaoscougar1

keith david is probably one of my favourite voice actors, he is always so good and voices his roles perfectly

raverrozza
raverrozza

plus keith david is so good in one of my favourite films of all time the thing as chiles. "CUT ME LOOSE! GET ME OUTTA HERE! CUT ME LOOSE!!" amazin.

raverrozza
raverrozza

bender and fenix are voiced by john damaggio. i cant remember who does niko but it aint damaggio.

rabidseastar
rabidseastar

@garcia jx, I don't know about him being Niko but I know for sure that he voices Marcus Fenix as well as Bender.

garcia_jx
garcia_jx

I think the guy that voices Niko does the voice for Bender from Futurama

garcia_jx
garcia_jx

I knew he was the arbiter; I read on Wikipedia about a year ago. Cool interview.

unknown2007
unknown2007

He also did the voice of Julius in saints row 1 and 2. i think he did a pretty amazing job in both those games.

PS3_noob545
PS3_noob545

WOW i never knew he was the arbiter in halo 3 i would have never quessed it! Any why good interview and cant wait to play MW2 preodered it the first day you could lol oh and if you guys dont kno yet theres anthor multiplayer video it shows a new game type called flag runner click this link to wacth video =) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4PMRFkx07g&hd=1

Abe-Froman_SKC
Abe-Froman_SKC

Is it just me or does the commander in Dead Space look a little like Keith David.

aussie_gamer13
aussie_gamer13

Im really excited about Kevin McKidd voicing someone. Ever since I've seen Rome he's been one of my favourite actors.

Blythe31
Blythe31

Wow, this just looks and sounds great. gameplay is easily going to be amazing, but i'm glad every aspect of the game is getting as much focus and time spent on it. This is going to be such a good release.

1r3ap3r
1r3ap3r

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Icehearted
Icehearted

I've always thought he has one of the smoothest voices in showbiz, and I love that he's doing so much in gaming. We've come a long way in this field folks. Remember the voice acting in Resident Evil? Anyway, cool actor. Totally dig his work! :D

Intrakitt
Intrakitt

luckyspades: He's been in some good movies. Remember The Thing? Platoon? Dead Presidents? Just check out his resume sometime...He has a pretty impressive and varied career as far as being an actor goes.

Tharkun89
Tharkun89

@mojomaniac Developers spend thousands upon thousands of hours making these great games. if u hav a problem with something in the game, and think u can do better, then do it yourself the bottom line is, if something is in the game, people will use it and it is perfectly fair. u dont b**ch about something, u find a way to beat it....at least thats wat a real gamer does.

Inconnux
Inconnux

@mojomaniac please, don't think that 'I don't know what I am talking about'. Ive been playing CoD 4 since its release. First noob tubes are far over powered, spawn points are idiotic and have been since the very FIRST CoD. You should never spawn and get killed immediately... Airstriking spawn points when you first spawn is irritating and moronic. Both the last 2 points could be fixed by allowing 10 seconds of 'invulnerability' or at least make it a server side option so people can choose which servers to go on. Martyrdumb is for noobs, pure and simple and the only servers I play on will kick people for using it.

TheBlackSpeed
TheBlackSpeed

Can't wait to hear Keith David. I've always loved the voice work he does, plus his voice is just simply amazing and rare.

breadisgood
breadisgood

Keith David is the man, cool to see he's in MW2.

Dualmask
Dualmask

Good ol' Goliath himself. He's got a very distinctive voice that really works well for a lot of game characters. *Sigh* I've always wanted to get into voice acting.

metalkid9
metalkid9

@cockneyscouse, that's why the cod series are getting overrated more and more. If it wasn't for the marketing strategy of Activision the series would've dies a long time ago.

thorsen-ink
thorsen-ink

@cockneyscouse What are you implying? This interview was booked with an external PR agency with no ties with Activision. We just wanted to talk to Keith David.

NuKkU
NuKkU

i liked this guy and captain anderson was one of my favorite characters besides myself in mass effect :D

cockneyscouse
cockneyscouse

It's going to be hard to find an objective honest review for this game when it's out. Clearly a lot of websites in Activisions pockets already on this one.

metalkid9
metalkid9

@stuckboy, I can still prove that GTA4 sold more on 360. Here is how it goes. Since GTA4 sold double the amount on the 360 version than the PS3, then if you calculate it, so basically 2/3 X 310 mils = 206 mils. That's around how much the 360 version was sold. So even just on 360 version of GTA4 outsold Halo3. Now I could care less, I just like to put out facts and people can worry as much as they can (you can tell from the thumb downs I got on my previous post) about how much their favorite game or console is sold since not even a cent of that money is going to those people who are buying these games. you can thumb down me all you want but the fact is the fact. PEACE OUT!

LOVERPS3
LOVERPS3

what he talking about!!! lol

IAmDazzle
IAmDazzle

KD wrecks. As Maid Marian about it lol.

GOR_TAK
GOR_TAK

The most exciting thing in this whole interview is hearing that a "They Live" sequel is being talked about in Hollywood.

soiled_mole
soiled_mole

Keith Davids voice is amazing he easily had all the best lines in Halo 3

Lordx67
Lordx67

Hate Activision, love Infinity Ward

grillman9
grillman9

I'm really excited about this game!

kavadias1981
kavadias1981

@graydon20_basic Exactly. I totally agree. After all, Hollywood is constantly basing its movies on games these days. Hollywood has long lost its creative spirit, video games are the new king of media.

graydon20_basic
graydon20_basic

Here is yet another great example of why video games > movies. Not to mention AAA games destroy movies in terms of revenue, the storylines are much much more engaging that hollywood crap, and often the story is at the discretion of the player, as most games are non-linear or have multiple endings.