A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with one of my personal favorite voice actors working in games and animation, Roger Craig Smith. If you are not aware of Roger Craig Smith’s name, you are definitely aware of his voice work. Not only is he the current voice of Sonic the Hedgehog, but Ezio in the Assassin’s Creed series, Chris Redfield in the Resident Evil games, Kyle Crane in Dying Light, and the voice of Batman in Batman: Arkham Origins and the upcoming Warner Bros. Animation film, Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts.
I spoke with Roger about his start in voice work, the journey that led to him being one of the most-used voice leads in video games, and what it is like portraying so many iconic characters.
Hey, Roger! How’s it going?
Good! No complaints.
Awesome! Shall we start?
Go for it!
First off, thank you for speaking with me.
I guess we’ll start at the beginning: How did you get your start in voice over work?
My start came about from me doing stand-up comedy before, during, and after college. I’d always been a theatre geek and a ham for sure. I had a lot of friends telling me, “Oh, you should do stand-up comedy.” I always thought, I have nothing to talk about. What would I talk about?
So, after getting a bit older and graduating high school, I started looking into stand-up and figured I should give it a shot. So I started watching some of the local guys at comedy clubs and ended up just going for it. Thankfully, I was able to develop and do some great stuff down in Orange County. Under the advice of my high school theatre arts instructor, I began voices and characters in my act. While doing stand-up, I also did a lot of hosting and MC work for corporate events where people would come up and say, “Oh, you have a nice speaking voice. Have you ever thought of doing voice overs?” I kept hearing more and more about voice overs and hearing industry professionals telling me, “You do a lot of voices and characters in your act. You should think about voice over.”
Finally, I realized everybody was talking about the voices and not about the comedy. So I figured I should look into that. That’s when it happened. I Googled it, started taking a class here and there, called a couple agencies and asked them what they looked for. Then I started pounding my local pavement and it just started to take root.
Nice! So you went from stand-up comedy to voice work? I feel like you don’t see that often. Usually, it’s people with a theatre background – which I know you also have – but you never really hear of stand-ups going into it voice over.
You’d be surprised! Tom Kenny has a background in stand-up comedy, Fred Tatasciore has a background in stand-up. I’m almost certain Nolan North has done stand-up in his past. What’s funny is that there are a lot of little ties. A lot of people are really musical, a lot of people are very theatrical, but there are weird little ties when it comes to voice over. It all comes down to an element of timing that always seems to come into play with the work that we’re doing. If you haven’t played on instrument, if you haven’t been a singer, if you haven’t been on theatre or on a stage, if you haven’t done anything comically, it can sometimes be a little clunky in the sessions.
But a lot of people have a background in stand-up. It’s just kind of a small world in many ways.
So what was your first voice over gig?
One of my very first paid gigs was doing a training video for nurses who support dialysis patients and the equipment they were going to use. And it was just these silly videos this guy was making– I don’t mean “silly” in terms of “pedestrian” but he liked to have fun and make the learning process fun for the nurses. He didn’t want these videos to be very boring and sterile. So I was doing everything from Yoda to weird sportscaster voices and it was just all kinds of goofy, funny moments here and there.
I think I made 75 bucks and couldn’t believe someone gave me $75 for working just an hour. I was thinking, This is insane! But yeah, that was one of my very first jobs.
[Laughs] What kind of things did you say in a training video for nurses supporting dialysis patients?
It was a bunch of technical jargon mixed in with some sort of motivational thing. I wouldn’t even remember what they had me doing. It was just all over the map. It was just a lot of different things to do.
[Laughs] That is weirdly interesting! I think the first game I remember you starring in was Chris Redfield in the recent Resident Evil games, I want to say Resident Evil 5 was the first one…
Ah, yes! I believe that was my first Resident Evil game, yes.
So how did you go from the training video to Resident Evil? What was the journey like, I suppose?
You know, that was just one of those random things where someone brought me in to audition for it. I think they originally had someone else doing the voice of Chris for something and I don’t remember if they just wanted to go with a different or what, but they brought me in, I did a few lines, and the client liked it. I got the ‘thumbs up’ and next thing you know, I was off and running. So it just happened to be one of those, “Just bring Roger in, have him audition for it, and we’ll see how it goes.”
I had a blast! I worked with Liam O’Brien and Stephanie Sheh – they were my directors – and it was just a dream come true. It was one of those things where it started to dawn on me about halfway through where I started saying, “Man, this a pretty popular gaming franchise, right? Like this is going to have a few people noticing what we’re doing here.”
They were just cracking up, saying, “Yeah, it’s… it’s gonna be a big one.”
“Oh, okay… cool. I didn’t… didn’t really think about that. But here it is!” Yeah, that was arguably my first really big video game role as far as getting to portray a lead character and it was a ton of fun.
That’s awesome. And you’ve played him for three games now, right?
Yeah. I guess technically, if you’re counting Resident Evil Revelations and some of the other ones, there might even be a couple more here and there along with DLC packs. But RE5, RE6, and Revelations, which was for the handhelds, right?
Yeah, though I am pretty sure it was later ported over to consoles and PC.
So they ported it. Gotcha.
Yes. And a little bit after Resident Evil 5, came what I want to say you may be best known for: Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed II series of games.
Yes. That was another– just incredible stroke of good luck. I went in and auditioned for a character that I knew nothing about. When I got there, they said they were looking for an Italian accent. I just said, “Okay, I can give it my best shot. I think I can do Spanish.” They just said, “No, we’re going to get a dialect coach, so it will be fine.” But that was literally just showing up for an audition on a Friday. Just throwing a little vocal stuff at the wall and hoping that it sticks.
Turned out that it did. Next thing I knew, that game lasted well beyond one game. With all of these projects, you never really know if anything is going to go beyond right there or if it’s going to turn into more than one job. But it turned out that the fanbase liked the game and liked the character, so Ubisoft stuck with developing the game and the story over the course of three games. It was a huge honor to be a part of that.
And do you play a lot of the games that you’re in?
Almost always, yeah. Sometimes, there are games that I have yet to get to that I want to play eventually. But for the most part, it’s the only way I get to see what everyone has done. It is a major collaborative process to get a game made and doing a voice is a very, very, very tiny part of what goes into game design. Since we get to record before we even get to see videos of the finished product, the only way I get to see what becomes of the work that I have done is to buy the game, pop it in, and play it.
I also watch movies and TV shows that I’m a part of because I just want to see if I’m developing bad habits that I want to be aware of or need to change, if when I deliver these types of lines that I’m sounding sterile or boring or whatever it may be. So yeah, when it comes to video games especially, I want to see what they’ve done in the end to create this collective vision of so many people. It’s fun to see how it all comes together.
So as someone who plays video games, I’m sure you were very familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog before you started working on that franchise.
Absolutely! Going all the way back to the Sega Genesis.
How did you feel going into that? Did you audition for that one also or were you brought in?
Again, it was just another one of those situations. Most of the work that happens in voice over is basically acquired in that way. It’s all just going in, auditioning for it, and, like I said, hopefully it sticks. It’s a boring response, [laugh] but that’s what it is. Someone calls me from the agency and says, “So and so wants to see you at this studio“, you go in, sign in, they let you know what you’re auditioning for and have you sign a non-disclosure agreement so you don’t talk or tweet about it, and next thing you know, you’re reading for Sonic the Hedgehog.
I wondered what they were doing now with the character and if they wanted me to match a previous voice. They said, “No, we’re going to do it a little differently. Just do what you do and we’ll see how it goes.” And it sounds boring to do it that way and it’s one of those things you try not to think about too much because there are so many decisions that are made that you have no influence or control over. A lot of this business is just a crap-shoot. You just hope that your number’s up. I went in, auditioned, got a couple calls, I think there was a callback and afterward, I got to be Sonic in a game.
And you really just assume you’re only going to do it for one game and then maybe they’re going to find out that you don’t know what you’re doing, fire you, and move on. It is always a stroke of good fortune when you get to continue a character. Having done it since 2010, it’s an honor to be part of such a large franchise and such an iconic character. One that basically defines the brand of Sega. Much like you have Mario for Nintendo, Sega is Sonic the Hedgohog. To be any part of a character of that profile and caliber is a huge honor.
Definitely. And you say that it is a boring process, but a lot of what you do ends up “sticking to the wall” as you put it. You end up getting a lot of those characters like Sonic, Ezio, and Chris Redfield where, after your first game with them, you were always brought back for more.
And I’ve lucked out with all that. There’s no algorithm, there’s no book to read, there’s no pill to take that makes all that stuff happen. I’ve just been very fortunate. I’ve really lucked out that I’ve been able to do so many characters of varying backgrounds and types. I’m always baffled by it. It’s always one of those moments where I focus on What do I have to do tomorrow? What do I have to do next week? What do I have to do next month? Next year? And it’s moments like this where somebody goes, “You voiced this character, this character, this character…” and I go, “Oh, that’s right! I did do that. Wow, what a trip!” So much of it goes by so quickly and you’re barely experiencing any of it and barely present in the moment for most of this stuff. So having those moments where I remember that I got to play that character and be a part of that experience – it’s surreal. I keep using that word in a lot of interviews, [laughs] but that’s kind of how this existence is for getting to voice superheros and talking blue hedgehogs and talking airplanes and being on TV and being in films and being on the radio. It’s all just an absolute dream come true and just a stroke of good fortune.
Speaking of talking airplanes, I know you’ve been doing a lot of work with Disney lately, including playing the main villain in Disney’s Planes. Was that also just an interview and it stuck, because usually they go for–
Exactly. It was one of those weird things. I was there doing some work on the Tinkerbell series of videos– or DVDs I should say. There were still DVDs back then and not so much of the digital and Internet copies now. But I was leaving a session and there was a model airplane hanging from the ceiling, a Cosair airplane from World War II.
I asked the casting associate, “Who built the model?” He asked, “Which one?” and I said, “The Corsair right there.” He asked me how I knew what the plane was and I told him that I am was huge aviation buff as a kid and still am. I haven’t gone to an air show in a long time, but I am a big fan of airplanes and just flying, in general. I started pointing out other planes like, “Yeah, there’s a B-24 right there. What’s going on with all the airplanes?” Then he just told me, “Come over here,” pulled back the doors and showed me the war room where they were developing what was going to become Disney’s Planes. When I saw it, I just said, “Oh my gosh! Are you guys doing Cars, but with airplanes? Like, in the sky?!” He said, “Yeah!” Then I just said, “If you guys need anything. I mean ‘Plane B’ in the background of a bar scene, I would kill to be an incidental character in this movie. Is there anything in the pre-production process: animatics or scratch V.O. or anything like that? I would kill to be a part of this.” And he said, “Yeah, we actually do need some voices coming up. We’ll audition you for that and see how it goes.”
We did some scratch work and they asked me if I ever thought of voicing the bad guy. I said, “Sure, why not?” Before that, I was doing scratch for a whole range of characters including Dusty. So, I started voicing for Ripslinger and putting it into animatics. Then, there was a table read they were doing in front of John Lassiter and they wanted me to read for Ripslinger at the table read. The whole time, I’m just thinking, I’m part of a production team and this is what we do. It’s great to be a voice, but really and truly I am part of a production team. It just so happens that I am on the – and I hate this term – “talent” side of things, but I like being in the production of this. So, I’ll do the scratches and I’ll do the table read, then they’ll bring in someone else, a celebrity, to replace me and that’s fine. It’s going to suck, but that’s part of my job. It’s what I do.
The table read came and went. Then, next thing I know, I get a call from my agent and he tells me that Disney is offering me the role of Ripslinger. He laughs and says, “So, this is how this works. You can accept the role and say that you’re not going to do your scratch voice over and let some other actor do it. Then, towards the end of production, they’ll bring you in–” and I just started cracking up. I said, “Hell no! I’m doing all my pre-production work. This might be all we get!” So I kept going in, doing it all, and knocking on wood every time I was in one of those sessions. The director, Klay Hall, would laugh at me when I did it and I just kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m here.”
There were two of us from all the different actors at table read – Carlos Alazraqui and I – that made it into the final film. That, in and of itself, is a stroke of luck that they made Ripslinger an American-accented racer. Had he been of a more specific ethnic background, I more than likely wouldn’t have been able to do it. They might have hired an actor from that particular region, so a lot of that is just luck. Though, they said that John Lassiter wanted both Ripslinger and El Chu’s voice actors, that we both “got” the characters. It was three years in the making and I got to walk the red carpet. Getting to bring your mom to your first big film premiere, just as I had promised her, was the dream come true. I’m a huge Disney fan and being part of anything Disney in any capacity – let alone being one of the starring actors in a Disney film – was just absolutely incredible.
And on the other side of Disney, you are the voice of Captain America in every animated series and game following the first Avengers movie.
Yeah. Well, in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, it was Brian Bloom and he is still involved in the online game, Marvel Heroes. But that’s the reality of what we do, too. People always ask now, “Oh, are you the voice of the young Batman now?” or “Are you Captain America from here on out?” No, never. None of that exists. There’s no contractual obligations to this and they don’t owe you anything for even an entire series. It doesn’t matter. But again, a huge stroke of good fortune to be involved with Disney for Avengers Assemble.
It’s also another dream come true I get to portray a superhero who is not only a super cool superhero, but as an American, playing Captain America doesn’t get any better. Being under that Disney umbrella and the Marvel umbrella is just incredible. It’s an absolute honor to portray something this iconic again. And at a time when the live-action films are just so cool. Winter Soldier just had me thinking how amazing all those fight sequences were and Age of Ultron is going to be epic!
Oh, it really is!
Yeah, I can’t wait for that one. It just looks amazing.
And you also play Captain America on Marvel’s live entertainment, as well.
Yeah! You’ve got Marvel Universe Live and The Marvel Experience. I know that Marvel Universe Live is coming to all sorts of different cities for years now and The Marvel Experience, both have incredible technology that they’ve developed to do this live-action stuff. The Marvel Experience is this traveling domed show that has this crazy technology that they’ve incorporated to have you immerse yourself into the experience. It’s just a blast to be a part of it. I have friends text me now and again, “Did you do some Captain America live stunt show. Because I’m here with my kids and I swear that’s you, dude.” And I’m just like, “Yup, that’s me!” [Laughs] And they’re like, “No way! So cool!”
It’s a blast! It’s Captain America. Getting to be behind a voice over microphone at any point in time is an honor in itself. It’s a fun job. But getting to play such iconic characters, it just doesn’t get any better than that. So to be a part of a live stunt show or a live interactive experience or a LEGO video game, all of it is such a mind trip. It has me thinking, Yeah, I get to be a part of this history, this lore of these iconic universes that have been created in the world of comic books. So to get to voice any of those characters in any capacity is such a huge honor.
And on the flipside of Marvel, you are the voice of Batman. You portrayed a younger Batman/Bruce Wayne in the last Arkham game, Batman: Arkham Origins. How did you feel going into that? Because Kevin Conroy was not just the voice of Batman in the first two Arkham games, but the definitive voice of Batman since the ’90s with Batman: The Animated Series. How did you feel diving into that character? Especially since you weren’t trying to mimic Conroy, but take the character somewhere else.
Yeah, it was both elation and trepidation. It’s one of those things where I booked the role and Troy [Baker] and I were looking at each other and saying, “Okay. Man, this can go a lot of ways.” It can either be received well or it could kind of blow up in our faces. And we would totally understand why, because you don’t want to mess with something as coveted as Batman of the Joker. Knowing that Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy have established what fans have come to know as these characters and their vocal portrayals for over two decades was just like– “Wow! You know, guys, let’s hope we’re all going to pull this off.”
But thankfully, we had the protection of it being an origin story. We were going back in time to tell where these characters came from. That made it a little bit more– It eased us into this and fans will understand that we’re not replacing anybody because you cannot replace those guys. They created the legacy of what these animated characters will sound like for most fans.
What’s funny is that there have been a lot of guys who have portrayed the voice of Batman and the Joker in many different projects. But when it comes to the Arkham series of games, because they were so lauded by fan and critics alike, a lot of attention was placed on that. So, we knew going in that a lot of eyes were going to be on us to see what we do with these characters. Obviously, Troy [Baker] with his monologue delivered at New York Comic Con put any critics at ease. Thankfully, with what Kevin Conroy has established as the voice of Batman, we were able to steer the voices into an earlier version of what fans have come to know as the voice of this character. So let’s do something – as Troy put it in one of our interviews – that is a point on the horizon of where these characters could go and is it believable. If so, awesome. If not, shoot, we gave it the best we could. It seems it was received well enough that the fans got it, thought it was okay, and knew we weren’t trying to replace anybody or step outside and ruin the character, but paying homage to what these other actors and gifted people have established. Going into it: I can’t believe I get to do this and, Holy cow! Let’s see how it goes.
Well, you did a great job to the point where Warner Bros. and DC have brought you back in for more Batman. Not just on those to Arkham Origins titles, but in the upcoming Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts film, which seems quite different from all the other direct-to-video films they’ve done for Batman. It looks more colorful and has all of the animal villains against Batman.
What they are going for with this one is a much more accessible, family-friendly, G-rated Batman that is going to introduce this character to a younger audience. We did a panel at Wondercon where we were premiering the film and Will Friedle, who voiced Batman in Batman Beyond, had said that one of the writers on the series believed there should be a Batman for everyone. There are different versions of Batman with different voice actors and on-camera actors that have portrayed Batman. Arkham Origins is a much darker version of Batman in a game that is not designed for little kids. But Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts is a much more family-friendly, much more accessible version of Batman that all fans can enjoy. One where the whole family can get together and watch this film. There are a lot of elements of comedy. Lots of great, funny interactions with other heroes and the villains, but still a tremendous action sequences and a ton of great writing. It’s woven into the fabric of Batman with such quality. What DC and Warner Bros. always accomplish phenomenal products and this family-friendly approach is no exception.
We were all sitting there [at Wondercon], wondering if the jokes were going to land and if the action sequences were going to be cool. Sure enough, they were. We had the audience laughing at the right spots, which was phenomenal. It just speaks to how many people are involved in this and passionate about all of these characters and the projects in their entirety. Everybody along the way is just so passionate about the Batman universe and being a part of it in any way. Everybody is just honored to be there. What they’ve got with this particular project is a lot of people pouring their hearts and souls into the project, having a blast doing it, and honored to be a part of it.
So let’s talk a bit more about your current animated series work. Frankly, your IMDb page is daunting.
Oh, thank you. But, it shouldn’t be daunting. [Laughs]
You’re doing Avengers Assemble (which we spoke about), Regular Show, Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Sonic Boom, and Clarence. I guess the question I have is how are you doing all of these around the same time? Because you seemingly voice every other non-main character in Regular Show.
I have no idea. It’s been nuts! You have already heard me say that it’s just a stroke of good fortune. I just can’t figure it out. I think if I were ever to be conscious of how it is that I’m doing it, then I might be thinking too much about that than just trying to deliver a solid audition. It really is just good fortune that people like what I do. I hopefully will keep throwing a bit of variety out there with things that people will want to keep working with me and, if not, so be it. There is a right and wrong voice for all sorts of things and a lot of people want to be a part of this industry. The fact that I get to be a part of it is incredible and a huge honor. There’s no, “Let me tell you how I booked all those roles,” because I don’t know. I just try to goof around, be funny, and do the best I can with what someone is asking of me. If they like what I do, cool. If not, then they’re going to find someone else to do what they want done.
But being a part of Regular Show has been an absolute blast. J.G. Quintel has got to be one of the most creative and nice guys I’ve ever met. And working with Bill Salyers – the voice of Rigby – and Sam Marin – the voice of Pops, Muscle Man, Benson, and RGB2 – are just some of the nicest, unassuming, talented people you can ever hope to work with and creating awesome art. Even appearing on Clarence and voicing Belson and Percy is no different. The writers on Clarence are phenomenally gifted and everyone there is doing a phenomenal job. I love the sweetness and the heart that show has while also being very funny, lampooning adults and children alike.
It is nuts to do all that stuff. To do radio imaging for a local LA radio station that I grew up listening to is unreal. To be narrating a dress show on TLC (Say Yes to the Dress). To be narrating Crashers shows on DiY and HGTV. To be narrating a show about a vet on NatGeo Wild. It’s nuts! How I got here is beyond me and when people ask, “How did you do it?” I just keep saying, “I don’t know. I just keep trying to do what I do and I don’t know what it is that I do.” I’m worried that I’m going to wake up one day and my agents are going to call and go, “Yeah, so the industry has figured out that you have no clue what you’re doing. So you’re no longer in the industry.”
[Laughs] Well, you’ll get enough work before that happens, right?
I hope so! From your lips to the Powers That Be’s ears.
Now, the last game you worked on that has come out was Dying Light, so I wanted to talk a bit about that. Dying Light is from the same developers who did the first Dead Island game, Techland. How did you feel coming into that game with that group and again with Warner Bros. to voice their new hero?
How many times can lightning strike? It’s not lost on me how those things are coveted in this industry and are very few and far between. I treat every one of these things like it is very likely going to be the last time. This is going to be the last time I portray Batman. This is going to be the last time I get to do Captain America. This is going to be the last time I will be doing the lead voice in a video game. None of that even matters. I’m just here to work. So the fact that I get to work as well as be the lead voice in something is unreal and it was no different with Dying Light‘s Kyle Crane. I’m talking to the casting associate and asking, “Are you sure they want to go with me?”
I got an opportunity to voice a character that was a little more on the realistic side of the fantastical world they created with a zombie apocalypse. Voicing Kyle Crane as a fallible, imperfect human being who is still trying to figure things out as opposed to Chris Redfield – whom fans are going to draw comparisons to because they’re going to hear similarities in my voice, obviously – but the characters couldn’t be farther apart from each other. Chris Redfield is almost cartoonish in his capabilities and Kyle Crane is very much a real human being who is struggling to figure out what is going on in the world around him and what his role is in all this while trying to get it right. It was a nice chance to approach some of the more humanistic elements in a game world that is sort of fantastical. Keeping this guy somewhat realistic was challenge and a blast to be a part of.
I knew just in looking at what they’d accomplished and the game being delayed, I knew that fans might be a little cynical about that. But would you rather have a game rushed to market to land at some arbitrary release date and have the game be so deeply flawed that it’s unplayable or would you rather have a company say, “Hang on. We’re going to pause production and get this done right,” like with Techland doing what they did on Dying Light. The one thing that I always complain about in Hollywood versus video games is people trying to turn video games into Hollywood when the industry is not. It is an interactive artform and medium that needs excellent gameplay. Otherwise, all these beautifully-rendered cutscenes and phenomenally acted lines of dialogue don’t matter for anything if the gameplay isn’t solid. And I can hop online right now and see friends still playing Dying Light because that open-world, parkour environment, the leveling-up, and the skill-tree building allows you to keep going back and play that game. Techland just knocked it out of the park with that. They created a game that some people will laugh at the storyline, but there are a lot more elements to it. If you allow yourself to be invested in it, there are some pretty interesting moments with some very interesting plots going on throughout that game’s script. But beyond all that, the gameplay itself, which I would argue is the most important thing out of any video game, must be rock-solid, a ton of fun, and allows you to keep going back to it. Techland really just hit a home run with that one and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Before we finish, what games are you playing right now?
I have been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto V and GTA Online with my brother and a friend of mine, Mitchell Whitfield, who is another actor on Transformers: Robots in Disguise, which is out now on Cartoon Network. We hop on and do stupid stuff like fly helicopters and just crack each other up, in general. Thankfully, the older I get, the more responsibility I have in life and gaming has changed. A lot of my buddies are having kids and the notion of staying up until 3 o’clock in the morning, playing a six-hour marathon of Call of Duty, makes those days few and far between for us. The type of gaming I’ve been doing and the purpose of gaming serves in my life has sort of changed. I find myself in those situations where I’m gaming just to relax and have a bit of escape. So lately, GTA Online has been my game of choice.
Awesome. Thank you very much for speaking with me, Roger! I really appreciate it.
Thank you very much!
And Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts comes out when?
May 12 on video-on-demand, DVD, Blu-ray, digital download, all that stuff. Just Google it and you’ll find all the details! This is why actors don’t do all this stuff. [Laughs]
Again, thank you very much and it was a pleasure speaking with you.
Likewise, Nick. I appreciate the time. Thank you, dude!
Once more, I would like to thank Roger Craig Smith for speaking with me. It was such a fun interview and I look forward to seeing what else he has coming out. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.
Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts comes out on May 12, 2015 (tomorrow) on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.