The man behind Nathan Drake: I "get paid to do what used to get me detention"
- January 14, 2010 10:38 AM PST
How do you go from daytime soap operas to blockbuster video games? Nolan North, who's lent his voice to numerous notable characters like Uncharted's Nathan Drake, tells us his story of how he became such a prominent name in the world of voice acting.
Nolan North, who's voiced characters in numerous games, is probably best known for voicing the Uncharted series' protagonist Nathan Drake.
Nolan North is everywhere. You probably wouldn't recognize him in public. But if you've played an action game within the last decade -- say, Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, or even Halo -- chances are you've heard his voice. A lot.
"Basically I'm getting paid to do what I used to get detention for in seventh grade," the 39 year-old says. You know: witty one-liners, impromptu theater, and uncanny voices with impeccable delivery -- the tools of his trade. "I'm humbled by all this. I feel blessed."
It wasn't always like that. In the late '90s, North was a struggling actor; one of millions that regularly descend upon Los Angeles to become the next big meal for paparazzi. In 1997, he accepted the role of a power-hungry doctor in a short-lived soap opera called Port Charles, his "first real gig."
"I thought I wanted to be an actor," he remembers, at least in a traditional sense. In fact, like many, North didn't really know what he wanted to be when he grew up. The New England native attended the University of North Carolina on a baseball scholarship and got a degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter for a year, then landed in soaps after moving to Hollywood.
Shortly after starting, North showed his true colors. "I was always messing around with voice impressions on the show," he says, "clowning around in between sets." For a good idea of what it must have been like, pay attention to the beginning and end of this video.
At the time, North thought nothing of the off-camera impersonations. But an agent by the name of Pat Brady did. She approached him about signing with CESD, a talent agency that specializes in voice work, and he did. "She took me under her wing and provided opportunities."
Good thing she did. In 2003, ABC canceled Port Charles, and North was out of a job. By then, however, he had already worked on a handful of games, and the gig was looking up. It wasn't full-time, but by the following year, video game roles started dominating his portfolio.
Click here for more screens of Uncharted 2 on PS3.
"I had a feeling it was going to be big," he says. "I had to reinvent myself as a voice actor."
Despite starring in some of the biggest video games this generation, Nolan North is not a superstar. And since he is known for his voice, not his looks, he probably never will be.
While aspiring celebrities would call this a major bummer, North calls it a perk, if not the best thing about his job.
"I feel terrible for Brad Pitt. The anonymity of voice over is one the biggest advantages of the job. You make a great living, support your family, and nobody's going to bother you."
Speaking of money, North admits to being as much a superstar as he is multi-millionaire. "Hardly," he says. But the way North graciously talks, it's obvious he enjoys a comfortable life "with a big backyard" in Southern California.
"My all day is probably 4-hour days," he says. It may not be The 4-Hour Work Week, but 20 hours a week isn't bad. One that lets him "be a dad and husband more than most people."
But all this is still new to North, whose career was in low gear until 2007, when he voiced and animated an Indiana Jones-like character for Sony Computer Entertainment over the course of an entire year. "Things started blowing up when I did Uncharted," he says, calling it his multi-platinum-selling "big break."
From there, the number of knocks on his door quickly escalated. "The industry talks amongst itself, and it grew," he says. When he later auditioned to voice the new Prince of Persia a year, Ubisoft wanted him to use his own voice, even though with exception to Uncharted, he almost always feigned more imaginative voices. "Now I don't even have a headshot," he says, which is a must for aspiring actors.
In other words, he's arrived.
When North started in games near the turn of the century, he mostly recorded a few short lines here and there to humanize what had traditionally been mute characters. As video game storytelling evolved over the last decade, so did the need for more narrative, so North enjoyed more work. "I found my niche," he says.
Nowadays, his resume reads like a who's who of action games: Halo, God of War, Call of Duty 2, Ratchet and Clank, Unreal Tournament 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, and hundreds more. "I can't even count," he replies, when asked how many. Most recently, he's starred in Dragon Age: Origins, InFAMOUS, Prince of Persia, MadWorld, and of course, Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed 2. He's also lent his voice to characters in upcoming titles such as Dark Void and Alpha Protocol.
When asked about the number of expletives some games employ to force mature dialog, North laughingly says, "Oh, I've said some filthy things! Often times I'll ask the developer, 'What does that even mean?" As such, much of his work is off limits to his kids; that is when he's not playing Lego Star Wars with them.
Undoubtedly, it was North's voice that put him on the map. But thanks to rising demand for more fluid animation in action games, he has begun using his on-camera skills again. Only this time his acting is veneered with computer graphics, that is to say motion capture (aka "mocap"), which is more commonly used in sport games to record life-like movement and facial expressions. "It's like doing theater," he says of the experience, "but I don't have to shave."
Unlike the first game, North recorded his motion capture and voice work simultaneously for Uncharted 2.
For the first Uncharted, North says he recorded the animation, then went to an isolation booth to dub the dialog. For Uncharted 2, Sony recorded both mocap and dialog at the same time, something North calls "a perfect blend." Plus, "You don't have to wait on set for 14 hours only to film for two hours," he says, describing an annoyance live action actors always deal with.
But voice acting is still his baby, something he knows well. "Good voice acting is when you don't notice it, like how you don't notice the dialogue in a movie -- it's just part of the story."
It's also his bread and butter. "I was nominated for Best Voice at the Spike Video Game Awards this year, alongside Jack Black and Mark Hamill, thinking to myself, 'Really?' I owe a lot to this industry."
If you couldn't already tell, Nolan North is a grateful individual. He calls both his career and life "fortuitous" and realizes he works in a field which is, for the most part, fun and games. Especially when compared to digging ditches or filing TPS reports in an off-white cubicle.
In disbelief of his success, he says, "I'm constantly waiting to be found out; for someone to say, 'Jig's up! You're having too much fun!' If they don't figure it out, I'm putting 'He got away with it' on my tombstone."
He even takes the defects of the job in stride. After he was vaguely credited as "other voice" in Halo: ODST (instead of his real name) for his role as Romeo, he shrugged it off. "Probably just a mistake," he says, without daring to call it thankless.
Since he's not a star celebrity, North still relies heavily on his agency to drum up work, and periodically takes on minor TV acting roles to fill in the gaps. Again, North handles the day fees with dignity. "There's no pressure when going in for an audition now, since I've worked on such big games."
When asked if he thinks video game voice actors should be entitled to royalties, he replies, "In all fairness, hundreds of people are working 12 hour days for several years to make a game, so it's unfair for me to expect residuals, given the amount of work I contribute," he candidly says. "I don't own the company; I'm lending my voice."
Besides, 2010 "is gonna be a busy year," he says with a smile. There are sequels to Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed 2 that need to be done, not to mention "a couple of other big premiers that are still unannounced."
All in a day's... er, I mean half day's work.