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.
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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.

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.
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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