The world of voice acting has many talents who always bring something interesting to the table. Some actors are best suited for doing certain roles that make use of their particular talents but the best actors are the ones who you never would expect voice a particular character. Actors such as Nolan North may have a recognizable element to their voice which is perhaps used too much in video games, but as we saw late last year Mr. North is a man of many talents having voiced not only the adventurer that is Nathan Drake but the would be Gotham kingpin that is The Penguin in Batman: Arkham City.
An actor who shares such talents as Nolan North is none other than Robin Atkin Downes, another veteran of the voice acting industry. A select few of you out there may recognize Mr. Downes’ name, but you may not realize that he has voiced some of the characters you’ve either interacted with or played as in some of the best and most memorable video games released in the last decade. Besides voicing the otaku that is Travis Touchdown in the No More Heroes franchise, Mr. Downes has also voiced multiple characters in the Uncharted series (the most recent of which was the villainous Talbot), Resistance 3 protagonist Joseph Capelli, and Yasha in Asura’s Wrath.
As an actor Mr. Downes is a man of many talents as he truly can hit an array of voices in his roles – none of which sound too similar to one another. It’s this level of skill which makes Mr. Downes one of the top actors in the industry and in turn makes every game he appears in that much better since we’re guaranteed to have a stellar performance whether it’s in a lead or supporting role.
I had the immense pleasure to chat with Mr. Downes about his career as an actor and a few of his famous roles. I hope everyone enjoys this interview and maybe in the process you’ll be surprised to learn that that voice of Master Miller in MGS: Peace Walker is indeed the same guy who did the voice of James Grayson in Resistance: Retribution.
Ian Fisher: Some people out there may not know this but originally you started acting purely as an actor in TV and film productions before moving over to the world of acting in video games. So what made you want to become an actor and how did you eventually make the jump into acting in video games and animated projects?
Robin Atkin Downes: I was lucky enough to know in my late teens that I wanted to become an actor. I had performed in plays in High School and found taking on the life of a character filled me with a great passion. Later in College I found the only classes I enjoyed were the creative ones. I auditioned for a professional play in Downtown San Diego…it was a dream role at the time, Alan in "Equus" by Peter Shaffer...I got the job!
After that I auditioned for a theatre company, PCPA in California, and after two years of training in the classics and working on stage I moved to Philadelphia to get my Graduate Degree at Temple University. It was there that I earned my Equity card and worked in some amazing productions. I also knew from a young age that I wanted to work in many different mediums. I was a successful stage actor in Philadelphia but there were no opportunities to audition for Film and Television. So I moved to Los Angeles where I began working in Television. I realized that I needed a vocation to support myself in between on camera acting gigs so I created a Voice Over Demo. I signed soon after with Sandie Schnarr my great agent!
Ian: What has it been like to be in the acting industry for as long as you have and see it transform to an extent through more and more actors making the jump to lending their services in video games? Was that something you ever expected to see occur or has it been a complete surprise to you?
Robin: I can understand why so many actors are jumping into games. It's a great gig. There's no waiting in the trailer while they get the set ready and if you are a versatile actor you have the opportunity to play a vast array of roles. You don't get type cast like you do in Film an TV. It is quite amazing how quickly the game industry has grown.
Ian: Being an actor what was it like making the initial jump to voice acting and being entirely isolated from your colleagues in the voice recording booth? Obviously things are different nowadays through the advances of motion capture technology, but was it challenging in either a good or bad way to adapt yourself as an actor and bring the required depth and brevity to your vocal performance?
Robin: I think because of my training as an actor in Theatre and working on TV and Film I had adequate training to prepare me for working solo with the mic. As an actor you use your imagination a great deal. In theatre, you use your imagination to create the fourth wall (the imaginary space between you and the audience) and to create a history for the character. You also use your imagination to specify your surroundings and your background. On many Television shows I worked a lot with Blue Screens and was forced to imagine my part of the scene that would later be created.
So working solo I don't really think of it that way. I imagine myself in the scene with the other actors…I imagine my surroundings. I can usually see the lines of the other actors that I am responding to and I imagine I am in that scene with them. Ok… I'm feeling like Ian McKellan in Extras's...The short answer is… It feels natural to me… I feel very comfortable in front of the mic.
Ian: What has it been like making the jump from traditional voice recording to doing motion capture acting in projects such as the “Uncharted” series or your most recent work in “Resistance 3”? Was such a technological leap something that appealed to you as an actor since it allowed you to interact with your fellow colleagues or was it a bit of an odd thing when you first began to do it since you’re in a barren environment wearing a somewhat odd mo-cap suit?
Robin: Let me just say that I love performing motion capture. I wouldn't say it's a jump. It's like going back over my career and being able to use all that I've learned and loved from stage, television and voice over and using all of those skills.
Although you are surrounded by a lot of technology and your wearing the tech it all comes down to the basics of acting: creating a character, making an honest connection with other characters, and making strong specific choices to bring that character to life! I think the suit is great. It's sort of silly so there's no room for big egos on the stage.
Ian: Now I know that in the voice acting industry most actors aren’t able to cherry pick their roles as is the case with certain film or TV actors. But with that being said, when you go in to audition for a project or you hear about something through the grapevine, what elements do you look for in the characters you portray? A lot of your more memorable roles have been heroes like Travis Touchdown from “No More Heroes” or the Irish resistance fighter Sean in “The Saboteur”, both of whom are somewhat average day guys in extraordinary circumstances. So do you look for roles that allow you to bring a human side to your roles or is there something else?
Robin: I think through the audition process I try to bring something to the role that no one else will. I try not to make the obvious choice. Add some layers to the character. Although there are some projects where I know exactly what's going to get me the job. In those cases I will give the read they want to hear first and then switch it up on the second take. Mainly I'm excited to play roles that are well written be they protagonists or antagonists. Thanks for mentioning Sean Devlin. I was very proud of that project [The Saboteur]. I had a great time working with everyone at Pandemic. It's unfortunate that the game didn't receive the publicity it deserved…
Ian: Personally I think you’re one of the top voice actors out there since you’re able to do all these different accents and put these slight spins on your voice that allow the character you’re portraying to really stick out. But with that being said it is sometimes different to know what sort of balance to strike when you’re doing more of a traditional hero role like that of Joseph Capelli in “Resistance 3” or even the dragon rider Rohn in “Lair” as far as knowing what sort of tone to take in your voice so it doesn’t sound too similar to other performances you’ve done?
Robin: Thanks for the compliment. It's a balancing act and I definitely don't want to be labeled as a voice actor that always sounds the same in every role. I take pride in the fact that most of my characters are very different. Each character has a different history, motivations, different levels of vulnerability. Luckily most of the games I work on have great writing so the characters usually leap off the page. It's using instincts and skills to make the character unique and believable in the given circumstances of the story.
Ian: By far one of your most memorable roles you’ve portrayed recently has been the otaku turned wannabe assassin Travis Touchdown in the “No More Heroes” franchise. The “No More Heroes” franchise has a lot of love not only due to the gameplay it offers but the incredible acting from people such as yourself and castmates like Quinton Flynn and Josh Keaton. What was it like working on the “No More Heroes” games and having some very unique albeit occasionally strange material to work with?
Robin: Thank you. No More Heroes is definitely a unique project. Suda 51 is quite a character and brilliant game developer and Kris Zimmerman who I work with often is a great director. We experimented quite a bit with Travis. Trying to find the right voice…The material was out there. It's not often you find yourself on the toilet or jerking off a sword! Kris and I had a lot of laughs working on the project. And aside from the shenanigans there's a lot going on in the script that most people miss. I hope to see more of Travis in the future.
Ian: Being someone that has worked in the film & TV industry and has seen video games evolve more and more throughout the years what do you think the next evolution of video games will be as far as storytelling is concerned? You’ve worked on the “Uncharted” franchise which has some incredible writing along with “Resistance 3”, which amidst all its sci-fi action offered a grounded tale of a man trying to save his family. So do you think video games have caught up with the film industry in respect to telling engaging stories and do you think there’ll be a point in which games officially eclipse films & TV as far as delivering the narrative tales people want to see?
Robin: Yes. I think video games have caught up and tell engaging stories. There's no doubt. Uncharted is a great example. Incredible writing and I think the driving force behind the success is obviously Amy Hennig and the Naughty Dog team. I think they have found a great balance between epic story and engaging gameplay. It looks like a movie and it's a blast to play. The same with Resistance 3. Like you say, amidst the sci-fi action is a heartfelt story of love and a man risking everything to save his family.
I think in the future you will see a more immersive experience. I believe we will find ourselves playing inside the game similar to the holodeck on Star Trek and interact with the characters. I think we are living in a time when movies and games are on a collision course. When they collide it's going to be one amazing explosion. As far as delivering narrative tales that people want to see I can certainly think of many games that eclipse many of the movies I've seen lately. I think we're dealing with a lot of movie Velveeta…I'm getting tired of remakes!
Ian: To an extent it seems like acting in video games is somewhat brushed aside by some people across the board, whether it’s traditional voice acting or mo-cap work. There is definitely an audience out there that respects and appreciates the work actors such as yourself put into video games, but we’re far from seeing the Emmys or Golden Globes put a “Best Acting in a Video Game” category for the annual awards. So what roadblocks, if any, do you think there are when it comes to a wider audience accepting acting in video games, or at the very least appreciate the skill that’s put into it?
Robin: There are a lot of fans out there who appreciate the work like you said. I just think it will take a little more time. More and more award shows are popping up. Let's face it, if there is an audience for the shows they will air. There are certainly enough fans out there that can make it possible.
Ian: As far as moving forward as an actor is concerned, what sort of elements do you wish more games would go towards when it comes to establishing a story or narrative structure? You’ve been in some incredible games that feature complex and deep stories but you’ve also been in some rather straight forward games that have had very basic stories, which is completely fine given what they were trying to achieve. But as a whole is there something you wish more video games did as a whole, whether it’s trying to flesh the characters out through realistic dialogue as in the “Uncharted” series or perhaps tackle some slightly adult themes as was the case in “No More Heroes”?
Robin: Video Games are still a relatively new industry if compared to the history of film. I think it's important for game developers to continue raising the bar. As each new leap in technology occurs the possibilities grow. I do hope that more games incorporate mocap as part of their process. It produces a more realistic organic feel to the game and certainly helps the actors make a connection and I think because games are becoming more like movies that realistic feel is important. I enjoy all video games. I like the fact that they are diverse in story and gameplay...it's a very creative medium. I hope that all game developers don't start pursuing the same theme or type of game.
Ian: What are your thoughts on the topic of whether or not video games can be considered art? There are a lot of strong opinions on both sides of the camp but despite whatever advances video games make as a medium there’s still no defining decision in the matter, even amongst core gamers. As an actor who has been entrenched in the creative side of video games for well over a decade do you think video games can be considered art the same way as high-end Oscar caliber films or fine pieces of art?
Robin: Well let's see… Acting is an art form and we are certainly imitating life in video games. Pictures… Animation…Art forms…I don't see how anyone can argue otherwise. Video games are most certainly an art form.
Ian: The amount of characters you’ve portrayed over the years has been extremely diverse but is there one character you would love to portray again or portray for the first time if you haven’t gotten the chance to tackle it already?
Robin: There are many characters I would like to portray again. So many of the villains I have played in games and cartoons and on camera have died unfortunately. There are many I would like to bring back to life. Thankfully there are many characters that I have played that you will see again. I'm just not allowed to talk about them until the games are released. I'm working on quite a few sequels this year! It's an amazing time to be involved in this growing industry! I'm so lucky to be a part of it.
Ian: Folks can currently hear you in Uncharted 3 and the new Thundercats cartoon that airs on the Cartoon Network, but are there any upcoming games we can expect to hear you in or projects that you want to let your fans know about?
Robin: There are several big game titles coming out this year that I am involved in. Unfortunately I can't talk about them. I'm always updating my website as projects are released.
Thanks for mentioning Thundercats. I'm very proud of the show and It's always wonderful to work with the Great Andrea Romano. It's always fun to work with her and she works on amazing productions. Superman Vs The Elite was just released…I worked with Dawn Hershey, Michael Chang and Bruce Timm on the project. Joe Kelly penned the original Comic it was based on and he wrote the screenplay. I play Manchester Black the leader of the Elite…It's a fantastic animated film.
Resident Evil: Operation Racoon City has been released. I'm looking forward to playing that. I play Dee-Ay in the project. I've been guest starring on The Regular Show and I'm working on a brand new animated TV series to be released in the Summer. I'm also working on several big budget films to be released this year, "Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters", "Jack The Giant Killer", and "Snow White & the Huntsman." All the other projects I'm not able to discuss but tune in to my website for updates!
I want to extend a huge thanks to Mr. Downes for chatting with me and sharing some incredible insight on his career and process as an actor. As someone that has played hundreds of games over the years I’m still amazed to find out that Mr. Downes has voiced so many characters in games and never once did I think it was him – which is the true testament of an actor’s skill.
To stay up to date on the latest happenings in Mr. Downes’ career then head over to his website or to his Twitter account to see what he’s up to when he’s not portraying an otaku warrior or the savior of humanity.