Roger Craig Smith's first paid voicework job was a dialysis machine training video for nurses. He made $75 from the gig and it lit a fire inside him.
"I like this job. This'll work," Smith recalled about that experience when I spoke with him recently.
Fast forward to 2013 and he's the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman: Arkham Origins, released today on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC.
In between, he voiced Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5 and 6, Ezio in the Assassin's Creed series, and Sonic the Hedgehog in various games. In this summer's Disney animated film Planes, he played the bad guy Ripslinger. He's also the narrator for Say Yes to the Dress and Thomas on Regular Show.
"When I think back on what I could have imagined that my voiceover career could have become, the fact that I'm doing half of the things that I've done is just insane," Smith says.
The role of Bruce Wayne/Batman is one of the most important roles in his career, Smith admits. But he contends neither the weight of that significance--nor the pressure that came with following up Kevin Conroy's run as Batman in the Rocksteady games--was too much to bear.
His ultimate goal with the character of Batman in Arkham Origins was not to supplant Conroy's Batman ("I can't step into that guy's shoes...it's Kevin Conroy, he's been Batman for decades," he says), but rather to deliver a performance that honors the character and his legacy.
Check out the full interview below.
For those people who don't know, can you talk about how you got started in voice work?
My background was starting out doing some standup comedy before, during, and after college. And essentially I was doing voices and characters within my standup act and it ended up where people in positions of influence were asking me about voiceover work; and who represented me for voiceover work and kind of voice over work I was doing. It was never even on my radar and I never really thought anything about it. But I kept hearing more about that and less about the standup and I went 'Well, maybe I need to go bark up that tree.' So I just took some classes at a place up in Burbank and then sort of cut my teeth for two or three years...and just kind of pounded the pavement. Went out and shook hands, dropped of really lousy voice over demos to post-production places and just tried to drum up as much work on my own as I could. And then eventually came up here [to the Los Angeles area], took an animation class, and sort of 'got discovered' in that animation class by an agency. And the rest is history as they say.
Can you talk about what your very first project was?
Oh gosh. My very first video game project was recorded down in Tungsten, California. And it was Castle Shikigami 2, which I'm pretty sure when released went right into the bargain bin. And it was just a god awful voiceover for a video game. That was my very first video game voiceover job. And we were literally just taking a script and that hadn't even been translated properly; it was just directly translated without interpreting what the meaning behind the words was. And everything was just way wrong and disconnected and disjointed.
I know you've done a lot of work for TV and films, as well. Can you talk about how you compare that experience to when you do voiceover for games?
The experiences are roughly similar. You work really heavily...and rely very heavily on someone to kind of tell you what it is that they want you to do within the context of that particular session. But the difference between video game voiceover work versus anything is...video games can be very, very taxing on the voice. Just physically, you're having to emulate, with nothing more than just your vocal chords, something that a video game character might be doing. Whether that's falling, dying, vomiting, coughing, choking. The different variables of things that can occur within gameplay means that there's a tremendous amount of work that has to be done in a video game session as opposed to an animate session where everybody knows very definitively what the character will be doing in that scene; there is no sort of feedback that a viewer could give to the character in the middle of watching a film. That's where video games are different. You have to cover all of those variables that can spring up within gameplay.
You've done everything from The Regular Show to Disney's Planes; Say Yes To the Dress as well. Now you're on Batman. What experiences from your past did you tap into to prepare yourself for this role?
It's kind of an interesting thing. I don't tend to really want to do a tremendous amount of advanced preparation when it comes to doing anything with regards to a character. Because I know, from my experience, I walk in and I want to listen to what the game developer, what the creative developer, what the producer, the writer, and the director have. They've all very likely been having meetings long before I've been brought in for an audition let alone having landed the role and doing the actual session work they've been talking about a tonality, a vibe, a sense that they're trying to capture with all of the vocal performances. So I don't tend to do a lot of advanced preparation.
[Eric Holmes had Smith read Batman Year 1 to get a sense of the tonality they were trying to work within for Arkham Origins]
But even then, it's more about...I'm going to listen to what the director tells me to do as far as tonality and then from there I'll work whatever I can into it. I don't tend do a lot of 'I'm going to pull from this in order to make this occur' because if I prepare too much, I think I'm doing myself and the creatives...a disservice because I want to be organic and fresh in the approach to it. So I just want to listen to what they want to capture and hopefully I can be the puppet for them.
So when you were working with Warner on this new game, the way you described it right there, it sounds like it was a fairly rigid...they kind of had a view for Batman. But did you have much creative input or flexibility?
I don't want to make it sound like I've got no input whatsoever. Every now and then you'll come across a line where you go 'this feels out of character. I don't feel that Batman as a character would say this.' And it's collaborative in every sense. It's not necessarily that they are going to sit there and say 'you are going to do it this way and be happy and move on.' They definitely know what they are trying to do. Usually the creative director, or producer, or director from the game company will have a very clear idea of what it is that they're trying to capture. But then if it's a great collaborative effort, then they also realize that an actor might step into the booth and in taking on the role come up with some kind of new angle or different approach to whatever line might be in there or whatever sort of tonality they're trying to capture. And they might say 'Oh, that's actually really interesting. Let's go there.' And so you've definitely got room to influence and play around with things. So I like to think of it like I'm a member of a production team much more than I am just some actor that's going to show up and tell everyone how brilliant my decisions are going to be. It just doesn't work that way.
How many weeks or months did you spend in recording sessions for Batman: Arkham Origins?
I would say over the course of at least a solid year that we've been working on it--that doesn't imply that it's five days a week that we've been working on it--but it was from the time that we started with some of the auditions to working on some of the earlier sessions, I would say over the course of a better part of a year. It's definitely been one of the more involved games with regards to voiceover work that I ever worked on. They worked a lot. They worked very hard on the script. They worked very hard on capturing all the vocal performances from all the actors and took it very seriously. Obviously everybody involved, I'm sure, was aware that we were going to be under a microscope considering what we were doing with such a beloved franchises.
You join a very short list of voice talent behind the role of Batman; was that weight, the significance of that, daunting during recording sessions?
Obviously now I can take a step back go 'oh holy cow. here we go' [laughs]. But no, if anything, I don't ever try to think about anything like that because I don't think I'd be doing the production company or even the fans a service. I think I'd be doing more harm than good. I will listen to work that I've done and in the past and I hate it [laughs]. I could have done so much better with that. You birth your little baby and send it into the world and hope that it does well.
Your character in this game plays against The Joker, played by Troy Baker. What was it like working alongside Baker for this project considering The Joker is very multidimensional--a little bit humorous--and your character is more rigid and reserved but pretty direct.
It was great. And if anything I almost like the mystery of those times when I don't get to work with him. And there a couple times where I would show up and Troy would be finishing up a session and I would just get goosebumps listening to his performance because it was so chilling and so...what he's doing with this role in my opinion is incredible. Because it's not an easy thing. [Mark Hamill] has done it obviously before him. There have been other actors who I think have interpreted this character and they...I think they struggle more with the little nuances with keeping a character like The Joker, who is so sadistic and so evil and yet so silly and so funny, they can take it to a point where even though it's a fantastical character, they can take it to a point where you just go 'Ahh, I can't buy it.' And Troy, what he's done with it is just so incredible. He's playing all those little subtleties and turns on a dime with that stuff but does it to a point where it's chillingly believable. So like I say, Batman kind of lives in a certain little box and The Joker lives in this ginormous circle that can go all over the place. And with that comes the difficult task of trying to do it believably and yet also go to all those different parts of the circle without going so far that people start rolling their eyes at the performance and Troy has not done that in the least.
But at the same time, I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. Just because Batman lives inside that box … I think I've heard you describe it as a horizon to hit; it's still something that you have to work toward and hit right on the head to get it right.
Absolutely. It's definitely not lost on Troy and I that with regard to previous performances...those performances are honoring the character. Every bit of motivation for me came from 'I want to make sure that I'm paying close attention to the fact that we're staying true to the character.' I'm not as concerned with a prior performance because we're doing something that is a prequel. So we knew that we had to make sure that we don't step so far out that people would have a hard time understanding. And with Batman, there's a fine line between he's still figuring some things out so he's got lessons to learn. And we don't want him to be this uber-defined version of Batman.
You referenced the past voice actors; a lot of noise was made when it was announced that you would replace Kevin Conroy as Batman. The decision makes sense from the game's story standpoint, as you're playing a younger Batman. But the Internet still lashed out, being the Internet. How did you respond to this?
"Of course people are going to have their initial reactions and all I can is look, whether you would have cast somebody different...I showed up to a job opportunity, I auditioned, I landed a role."
I automatically always know that it doesn't matter what you do...I don't know if you're aware of this...the Internet is kind of a negative place. It's the craziest thing, right? You wouldn't think. I know from doing anything you're just going to have people who are frustrated. And I totally understand that because these are characters that people are very, very passionate about. But at some point, it's like everybody's freaking out about Ben Affleck, but why don't we give the guy a chance and see what he's going to do? Haven't we all been surprised by Heath Ledger? Who would have thought that the guy that was in [A Knight's Tale] ended up delivering what is hands-down one of the most amazing performances in film.
Of course people are going to have their initial reactions and all I can say is look, whether you would have cast somebody different...I showed up to a job opportunity, I auditioned, I landed a role. And it's not as if I once I get that role I go 'Aww, yess. I can't wait to bury this character and piss off everyone out there. It's going to be so much fun.' No, my approach at all times is OK, we have work to do because this is a very beloved character and an amazing franchise and it's a huge honor to be a part of it so I've got to do everything in my power to make sure that I honor the honor of getting to portray such an iconic character. It doesn't really bother me to see the negative stuff. And you just kind of listen to it...a lot of it is just founded in ignorance anyway. Maybe this was the mastermind plan of the folks at Warner Bros. the whole time. But [people] are saying, I can easily understand how this version of Batman would turn into Kevin Conroy's Batman. And it's not as if I have any kind of competitive element between Kevin Conroy and myself...nothing like that that exists, as far as I'm aware. And I can't step into that guy's shoes...it's Kevin Conroy, he's been Batman for decades. It's what he does. And he's one of the best at it.
I am not Batman. If you looked at me on the street you'd be like 'Oh my god, that guy is the voice of Batman?' I'm short. I have gray hair. I dress poorly. I certainly don't look at myself and think 'that's right, I'm Batman.' No. I have been given an opportunity to work with a lot of really creative, very smart people that work at Warner Bros. Montreal and I...maybe I have a little bit more of a tangible...you can shake the hand of the voice of Batman, but I am not the character. I certainly don't think of myself as this character.
In terms of significance and importance for your professional career, where would you place this role as Batman?
Easily one of the top three. I'm definitely not going to necessarily name off all the top three because I have so many people who would say, 'Who would win in a fight? Ezio or Batman?' It's just insane, man. The year I've been having is surreal. I keep overusing that word. When I think back on what I could have imagined that my voiceover career could have become, the fact that I'm doing half of the things that I've done is just insane. I keep wanting to wake up and say 'Oh, that's right, it was all a dream.' [laughs]. I've been one very, very lucky guy to portray all these characters, but I would say Batman for sure ranks in the top three for me.
Voice work today, you obviously know, is not what it used to be. Studios now are capturing facial expressions and in some cases full-body motion. But this wasn't the case on Batman, was it?
No. Not that I'm aware of though. I know that there was a camera there sometimes; I don't know if it was to capture a facial expression or if it was just to see what we're doing. I tend to focus very much on just the vocal performance. I get very self-conscious if I know I have to also be worried about what I'm doing with my face.
Have you seen, there's a new PlayStation 3 game coming out from Quantic Dream called Beyond: Two Souls? [This interview was conducted before Beyond: Two Souls was released]
Yeah. With Ellen Page.
They're doing something very interesting there where they're doing full-body capture; two actors working together; and they say it brings a whole brand new level of realism and authenticity. If this is the way things are going, do you think you could adapt.
I would hope so. One of the limitations that I've been running into is very often, because I'm only 5 foot 5, the way that my body mocaps, it mocaps like a short fat little 14-year-old kid [laughs]. So I might look more like the Penguin than I would Batman. And typically your heroes are going to be at least 6 foot 4. There's a part of me that feels like at some point, why don't we just take live-action, fully rendered, on-camera scenes with whatever actors you're going to use and have those be the cutscenes and we just go back into the digital world to play the game. We're making games at the end of the day. Maybe I'm ignorant in this, but a game can have incredible cutscenes, but if the gameplay isn't there, then what are we doing? We're not making a video game at that point; we're making a short film with interruptions of some sort of feedback experience of a game. And if that isn't really all that great, then why did I spend $60 on this when for $12 I could go down and watch a movie. It'll be very interesting to see what the industry does with all this technology. It's a very fascinating time to be part of this stuff. When it's done well, I think it's incredible. When it's overdone, I have found myself in a number of games going, alright, where's the skip feature. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. We're gambling with multimillion dollar production budgets and time will show whether or not that approach was correct.
This new Batman game has a degree of skepticism from fans, because it wasn't made by Rocksteady, the guys who made the original two games. What do you think will make this game unique and compelling and a pillar of the franchise?
I think it's the fact that we're starting at a different time in Batman's career from what we've seen before in previous games. We're not trying to necessarily...I don't think there's a competitive element [between Rocksteady and WB]. I can't speak for WB Montreal vs. Rocksteady on this stuff. I know that they were working in collaboration on the mechanics and things of what everybody's already come to know as the Arkham franchise like fight mechanics; that kind of thing. In terms of story, it's just that we've got a fresher perspective to take with this. We haven't seen the definition of all these characters. This is where Batman is going to learn what it means for him to become the Batman. And the relationships that he wrestles with. I don't want to give too much away here. If it was so vastly different, then I think you'd be alienating that hardcore fanbase and you can't do that. We have to pay homage to the characters.
Do you ever get recognized for your work as Chris Redfield or Ezio or Sonic. I can imagine behind behind you at Starbucks and hearing you place your order and being surprised.
You know what, I have never been recognized in public. It's an interesting thing. Every now and then I'll wonder...it might be one of the employees at Starbucks, somebody might be a hardcore gamer...but I've never had anybody go 'Did you do the voice of anything?' The only time it's happened was on a phone call on for a retailer that I was ordering some furniture or something and at one point this woman, she says, she was verifying my address for delivery, and she just said I have one more question 'Are you the voice of Batman?' And I went 'Ohhh, what?' She said, 'Yeah, my kids have been watching this video all weekend and it's all their talking about and they play the games all the time.' And I go, 'Well, I'm not in the games...that's not me...technically I am…' Then she asked about something else and realized I was on Say Yes to the Dress and then she got excited about that [laughs]. But it's never happened. I've never had somebody recognize me physically, outside of maybe a convention. That's the best part of my job.
I don't want to ruin the magic of those characters. And it's one of the reasons that Troy and I really weren't doing the voices at Comic-Con because, as voice actors, it's a great opportunity and it's awesome to be able to go out and meet the fans. But in no way do I want to ruin that experience for anybody. It's like, no, you're a fan of the character, you're not a fan of me. So hopefully I, as the voice actor, can do a good enough job so that you will still love that character and that version of the character that I have lent my voice to, but if you see me do it, it might take you out of it.
You do have a very unique perspective on that; have you gone back and played ACII or Resident Evil 5?
Oh, for sure. It's a blast. I hear it from the work side of things, and I go 'Oh, I wish I had done this better'. Or when I'm playing The Last of Us, I go 'God, Troy nailed it.' It's research for me, but then again, it's fun.
So I guess if you can turn it on mute and still have fun with it, it's a good game.
I think so. That's the whole point of video games. Gosh. Think back to Astrosmash on the Intellivision; think back to early Sega games, long before we had voices in games, we still loved playing games. The fact that we put such a heavy amount of importance on the vocal performances these days, I don't think it can excuse the fact that you still have to have solid gameplay. At the end of the day, when I'm in the middle of a Call of Duty game, I'm not necessarily concentrating too heavily--when hand grenades are being lobbed at me and there's a chopper overhead--I'm not thinking 'These vocal performances are wonderful' I'm thinking about what I have to do to gain the reward or whatever it might be; the objective of this. If that stuff isn't there, then I don't care how much decoration you put into your voices and all that kind of stuff; you gotta have the solid gameplay.
Absolutely. I agree. I have to ask you, because you brought it up before. What's your take on Ben Affleck playing Batman in the new movie?
Gotta wait and see. Honestly, I could care less. If anything, more power to him. What a huge opportunity. I know the guy's a father, so imagine what this means for his kids. It's such a huge thing. I fight the urge to have cynicism and pessimism when it comes to this industry all the time--and especially the Internet because it's a bastion of 'Are you kidding me? Whatever, dude.' But let's be honest, until we know what version of Batman they're going to go for and what he's going to do with it, what's the point of wasting the energy over getting concerned about it. I would love to just be shocked and surprised because I actually thought Christian Bale has done a phenomenal job with the character; it's been a really awesome ride for the total of three films. It's an incredible opportunity for another actor to go do something with it. And I think it's awesome. I think it will be just fine. Only time will tell and we'll have to wait and see.
That's just the nature of the Internet.
Yeah. And it's no different than all of a sudden the Kevin Conroy things comes out and [people say] 'WHAT?! WHO?! SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!' And then they hear a couple trailers and suddenly they go 'Well, OK, I get what they're going for. We'll see.' And then the game comes out and they're like 'This is great. It turned out it's a really great game.' Because it's not just me. It's not my voice. It's the character of Batman. I want to do everything I can to make sure that the character is still loved and that everybody goes 'This is an awesome version of Batman and we're OK with it.' Life goes on. We've got such bigger fish to fry at the end of the day...hopefully we do. Hopefully we all have much bigger fish to fry.
I would hope so as well. You probably can't talk too much about any kind of future projects, but safe to say you're working on something new?
I've got stuff in the works all the time. That's one of the best and the worst things about the job is just that it's rare that I get a chance to even talk about things that are coming out. You don't want to ruin anything. It's an experience-based form of entertainment, so you want them to go out and live the game as much as they can. But yes, there are projects in the works and I guess, stayed tuned. Follow me on Twitter.