Diablo® III

The Voices of Diablo III, Part One

The Voices of Diablo III, Part One

We recently rounded up a few of the actors behind Diablo III's most memorable voices, and chatted with them about the time they spent working on the game. Today, we’d like to share our conversations with Jonathan Adams (Tyrael), David Sobolov (Azmodan), and James Hong (Covetous Shen).

Click on the tabs below to read each Q&A, and keep watch for more to come in the future.

Tyrael
Azmodan
Covetous Shen
Jonathan Adams - Tyrael

BLIZZARD: So, how’d you get into this whole voice acting gig?

JONATHAN: Well, I was a professional stage actor for like 15 years, and then I came out to LA and started doing TV. While I was a stage actor, I would do the occasional voice gig on the side. My wife has always said, “You should do voice over,” and when I was in Chicago I went for a few auditions, and they didn’t quite work out. When I got to LA, I was doing this television show American Dreams for a while, and I asked my manager if he knew any agencies that might be able to hook me up. One of the first things I booked was the voice of [the] Buick [car company] -- I was the voice in all the Buick commercials for something like 3 years. Then I started doing a few animation jobs -- the first good-sized animation thing I did was for Marvel Studios. I was Dormammu in the Dr. Strange animated movie. That was fun, and it just started going on from there. What I really found was that my stage acting training, and the fact that I was able to translate it to what I did on camera helped me translate it all into voice acting.

BLIZZARD: One thing that’s different about video games as opposed to voicing animation is player activity and the fact that your lines will sometimes get repeated when there’s an appropriate gameplay trigger. The player has to go somewhere, so you’re telling them, “Go left, go left, go left!” How do you handle that -- do you feel like your stage training prepared you, or is it a totally different experience?

JONATHAN: I don’t consider [guiding player activity] part of what I can do -- I feel like I just try to be as honest as possible when I’m doing anything -- that’s my litmus test. “Do you believe it, Jonathan?” is what I ask myself every time I’m acting, over and over, in different permutations. If I believe it, and I’m honest with myself, then I feel like the player will believe what I’m saying is a natural, honest thing.

BLIZZARD: Slight segue -- have you had a chance to play Diablo III at all?

JONATHAN: I’m a gamer; I do play games, and I just got my copy . . . and then I moved. It’s still in a box. I really can’t wait to find it in one of the boxes we have lying around and start playing. I’m gonna be a monk . . . or the demon hunter. Those are the ones that appeal to me the most. I like stealth, quiet, and not too much fuss and muss -- I like to get it over with.

BLIZZARD: What sort of cues do you get when you’re in the recording booth? Do you get to see yourself or your character in motion, or do you get concept art references?

JONATHAN: We get a lot of concept art, and what was really great for Diablo III is that we got to see a few of the cinematics before they were completely animated, so we had a strong idea of the storyline’s size and scope. These characters are almost Shakespearean; they’re absolutely larger than life, they deal with incredible things, but you have to keep them full and realized and human as well, otherwise the audience turns off. I’d also look at the Diablo III website whenever I could, because that was an interesting clue to the direction the series was heading.

BLIZZARD: Did you know the trajectory of Tyrael’s character arc, and what was going to be happening from the beginning of your work, or is that something that got parceled out as you got more lines?

JONATHAN: What was interesting was . . . it changed a few times during the time I was doing it. First it was “How long is Tyrael gonna be the Stranger?” “How long before he realizes he’s an angel?” “What does the Stranger know about being an angel?” “Once Tyrael has the knowledge that he’s an angel, but also has the limitations of being mortal, where does that leave him?” So, I got that information parceled out, and then, during a big three-month arc of work, I got a really good picture of what Tyrael was going to be.

BLIZZARD: You brought the Stranger up, and that ties into another question. We asked you to pack a lot into one character voice. How do you voice a character who is both a human and an angel and has this very different vocal modulation and confidence level at different parts of the game? Do you prep in a certain way for voicing two sides of the same character?

JONATHAN: My basis for Tyrael was Tyrael as man AND angel. “How would a person sound if he knew he was once an angel, but now has human limitations?” That kind of juxtaposition is fun to play with in fantasy and science fiction -- you get characters like Data on Star Trek who’s so much fun to watch, because he’s human and robot, and you’re watching him struggle with what that means. That’s what makes those characters fascinating. What I did is [project] what Tyrael would be if he knew nothing about being an angel, and he was simply human, and he had just woken up. That character was the original character, minus his divinity. And then, later on, he was the same character -- but minus his humanity. The baseline was the human & divine character, who could be haughty at times, like “I’m above it all,” but he loves humans, he loves people.

BLIZZARD: “Subtracting the humanity” sounds like a hard thing to do.

JONATHAN: Well, you think of yourself as detaching from the human race. Humans are . . . not exactly below you, but not quite up to where you are, like a dog or a cat. You still love your dog, you still feed your dog, but you’re not gonna have a conversation with your dog and expect him to answer you. You always know they’re not like you.

BLIZZARD: You’ve got a period in Act 3 where you’re fighting alongside the player -- you must have done a lot of fight recording, a lot of sword-swinging type stuff. What was that like?

JONATHAN:  [laughs] I don’t like fighting in games. It’s a hard vocal couple of days. It’d be the same as trying to fight -- not the same exactly, but your whole body gets completely tired. You get very, very worn out. When I was in college, my friends and I had a band; we played one live gig in front of a bunch of people. I was the singer, I sang the whole time, and by the end of it my voice was shot. I hadn’t realized how hard I’d been singing because I was so incredibly nervous. Those fighting days are just like that. You’re so worn out -- to me, it’s incredible. It takes a lot out of you. But we stretched the recording sessions out.

You also have different kinds of fighting. “Ok, you just got hit by a big sword.” [vocalizes] “Aaagh.” “Ok, now you got hit by a dagger.” [vocalizes] “Egh.” Different sounds for different things.

BLIZZARD: Is it all sort of the same “fight session” recording?

JONATHAN: We’ll have two or three recordings that’ll be two or three hours each of just fighting, because you can’t really do more than that. You’re swinging your sword, you’re blocking, you get hit, you’re hit with a spell. You’re running all over the place. “El’druin!” keeps coming out. Those kinds of things.

BLIZZARD: The story of Diablo is pretty dark, it’s fairly bloody, it’s a little brutal, lots of people die -- how do you have fun with something like that?

JONATHAN: I like fantasy, I like science fiction -- I was a D&D player when it was just a little cardboard box with pamphlets in it, and your characters were fighter, thief, wizard, cleric . . . .

BLIZZARD: Oh, man, the Red Box. Classic. Good times.

JONATHAN: You had those six-sided, ten, twenty, twelve, four-sided dice; it was a lot of imagination-based fun. I used to play Neverwinter Nights and games like that, Icewind Dale, every Sid Meier’s Civ game. To me, it’s just fun -- it doesn’t really affect me that much.

BLIZZARD: I wanted to ask you a question about the craft, too. Do you think that if someone is extremely hard-working and determined, sends out a lot of samples and reels, and really tries, is that enough to get involved in voice acting, or is it more that you have to have a certain voice in order to find your niche?

JONATHAN: There are all kinds of voices in voice acting. Everything. The fact that I have a deep, powerful voice is a leg up for me, and it puts me in a bunch of different niches as an actor. But I also think that the main thing you need to do is not necessarily get yourself out there, but to practice. Like any instrument, you have to learn to play it. Fortunately, I’ve had on-the-job training over the past 5 years. I think that the quality of the performances I’m doing now is a lot better than what I did when I did that first Dormammu character on Dr. Strange. I don’t just rely on the fact that my voice is deep and strong. I really think acting is a craft. Talent helps -- if you have talent for it, that’s great -- but it’s not gonna get you all the way there, nor will just doing a lot get you there. I’d say it’s like 70% craft, 30% talent. Your talent will help your craft, but you really have to keep working at it.

BLIZZARD: Jon, thanks so much for your interview.

Jonathan Adams - Tyrael

BLIZZARD: So, how’d you get into this whole voice acting gig?

JONATHAN: Well, I was a professional stage actor for like 15 years, and then I came out to LA and started doing TV. While I was a stage actor, I would do the occasional voice gig on the side. My wife has always said, “You should do voice over,” and when I was in Chicago I went for a few auditions, and they didn’t quite work out. When I got to LA, I was doing this television show American Dreams for a while, and I asked my manager if he knew any agencies that might be able to hook me up. One of the first things I booked was the voice of [the] Buick [car company] -- I was the voice in all the Buick commercials for something like 3 years. Then I started doing a few animation jobs -- the first good-sized animation thing I did was for Marvel Studios. I was Dormammu in the Dr. Strange animated movie. That was fun, and it just started going on from there. What I really found was that my stage acting training, and the fact that I was able to translate it to what I did on camera helped me translate it all into voice acting.

BLIZZARD: One thing that’s different about video games as opposed to voicing animation is player activity and the fact that your lines will sometimes get repeated when there’s an appropriate gameplay trigger. The player has to go somewhere, so you’re telling them, “Go left, go left, go left!” How do you handle that -- do you feel like your stage training prepared you, or is it a totally different experience?

JONATHAN: I don’t consider [guiding player activity] part of what I can do -- I feel like I just try to be as honest as possible when I’m doing anything -- that’s my litmus test. “Do you believe it, Jonathan?” is what I ask myself every time I’m acting, over and over, in different permutations. If I believe it, and I’m honest with myself, then I feel like the player will believe what I’m saying is a natural, honest thing.

BLIZZARD: Slight segue -- have you had a chance to play Diablo III at all?

JONATHAN: I’m a gamer; I do play games, and I just got my copy . . . and then I moved. It’s still in a box. I really can’t wait to find it in one of the boxes we have lying around and start playing. I’m gonna be a monk . . . or the demon hunter. Those are the ones that appeal to me the most. I like stealth, quiet, and not too much fuss and muss -- I like to get it over with.

BLIZZARD: What sort of cues do you get when you’re in the recording booth? Do you get to see yourself or your character in motion, or do you get concept art references?

JONATHAN: We get a lot of concept art, and what was really great for Diablo III is that we got to see a few of the cinematics before they were completely animated, so we had a strong idea of the storyline’s size and scope. These characters are almost Shakespearean; they’re absolutely larger than life, they deal with incredible things, but you have to keep them full and realized and human as well, otherwise the audience turns off. I’d also look at the Diablo III website whenever I could, because that was an interesting clue to the direction the series was heading.

BLIZZARD: Did you know the trajectory of Tyrael’s character arc, and what was going to be happening from the beginning of your work, or is that something that got parceled out as you got more lines?

JONATHAN: What was interesting was . . . it changed a few times during the time I was doing it. First it was “How long is Tyrael gonna be the Stranger?” “How long before he realizes he’s an angel?” “What does the Stranger know about being an angel?” “Once Tyrael has the knowledge that he’s an angel, but also has the limitations of being mortal, where does that leave him?” So, I got that information parceled out, and then, during a big three-month arc of work, I got a really good picture of what Tyrael was going to be.

BLIZZARD: You brought the Stranger up, and that ties into another question. We asked you to pack a lot into one character voice. How do you voice a character who is both a human and an angel and has this very different vocal modulation and confidence level at different parts of the game? Do you prep in a certain way for voicing two sides of the same character?

JONATHAN: My basis for Tyrael was Tyrael as man AND angel. “How would a person sound if he knew he was once an angel, but now has human limitations?” That kind of juxtaposition is fun to play with in fantasy and science fiction -- you get characters like Data on Star Trek who’s so much fun to watch, because he’s human and robot, and you’re watching him struggle with what that means. That’s what makes those characters fascinating. What I did is [project] what Tyrael would be if he knew nothing about being an angel, and he was simply human, and he had just woken up. That character was the original character, minus his divinity. And then, later on, he was the same character -- but minus his humanity. The baseline was the human & divine character, who could be haughty at times, like “I’m above it all,” but he loves humans, he loves people.

BLIZZARD: “Subtracting the humanity” sounds like a hard thing to do.

JONATHAN: Well, you think of yourself as detaching from the human race. Humans are . . . not exactly below you, but not quite up to where you are, like a dog or a cat. You still love your dog, you still feed your dog, but you’re not gonna have a conversation with your dog and expect him to answer you. You always know they’re not like you.

BLIZZARD: You’ve got a period in Act 3 where you’re fighting alongside the player -- you must have done a lot of fight recording, a lot of sword-swinging type stuff. What was that like?

JONATHAN:  [laughs] I don’t like fighting in games. It’s a hard vocal couple of days. It’d be the same as trying to fight -- not the same exactly, but your whole body gets completely tired. You get very, very worn out. When I was in college, my friends and I had a band; we played one live gig in front of a bunch of people. I was the singer, I sang the whole time, and by the end of it my voice was shot. I hadn’t realized how hard I’d been singing because I was so incredibly nervous. Those fighting days are just like that. You’re so worn out -- to me, it’s incredible. It takes a lot out of you. But we stretched the recording sessions out.

You also have different kinds of fighting. “Ok, you just got hit by a big sword.” [vocalizes] “Aaagh.” “Ok, now you got hit by a dagger.” [vocalizes] “Egh.” Different sounds for different things.

BLIZZARD: Is it all sort of the same “fight session” recording?

JONATHAN: We’ll have two or three recordings that’ll be two or three hours each of just fighting, because you can’t really do more than that. You’re swinging your sword, you’re blocking, you get hit, you’re hit with a spell. You’re running all over the place. “El’druin!” keeps coming out. Those kinds of things.

BLIZZARD: The story of Diablo is pretty dark, it’s fairly bloody, it’s a little brutal, lots of people die -- how do you have fun with something like that?

JONATHAN: I like fantasy, I like science fiction -- I was a D&D player when it was just a little cardboard box with pamphlets in it, and your characters were fighter, thief, wizard, cleric . . . .

BLIZZARD: Oh, man, the Red Box. Classic. Good times.

JONATHAN: You had those six-sided, ten, twenty, twelve, four-sided dice; it was a lot of imagination-based fun. I used to play Neverwinter Nights and games like that, Icewind Dale, every Sid Meier’s Civ game. To me, it’s just fun -- it doesn’t really affect me that much.

BLIZZARD: I wanted to ask you a question about the craft, too. Do you think that if someone is extremely hard-working and determined, sends out a lot of samples and reels, and really tries, is that enough to get involved in voice acting, or is it more that you have to have a certain voice in order to find your niche?

JONATHAN: There are all kinds of voices in voice acting. Everything. The fact that I have a deep, powerful voice is a leg up for me, and it puts me in a bunch of different niches as an actor. But I also think that the main thing you need to do is not necessarily get yourself out there, but to practice. Like any instrument, you have to learn to play it. Fortunately, I’ve had on-the-job training over the past 5 years. I think that the quality of the performances I’m doing now is a lot better than what I did when I did that first Dormammu character on Dr. Strange. I don’t just rely on the fact that my voice is deep and strong. I really think acting is a craft. Talent helps -- if you have talent for it, that’s great -- but it’s not gonna get you all the way there, nor will just doing a lot get you there. I’d say it’s like 70% craft, 30% talent. Your talent will help your craft, but you really have to keep working at it.

BLIZZARD: Jon, thanks so much for your interview.

David Sobolov - Azmodan

BLIZZARD: What got you started down the path toward becoming a voice actor?

DAVID: I was originally a French horn player. I did pit orchestra work, played in small ensembles, and then I started getting into stage acting. About 15 years ago, in Vancouver, an agent saw me, and basically said, “You’ve got a voice that’d be good for villains. You should come do cartoons.” I started booking pretty quickly. In the arts, you have to kind of gravitate toward where they’re willing to pay you. It seemed like that was the most viable path for me. I think a lot of people who are interested in getting into voice acting have no idea how to do it; it just sort of fell into my lap that way.

BLIZZARD: How does theatre translate into voice acting?

DAVID: Theatre hugely translates into voice acting. As you’ve seen in Diablo III, you have to be so much bigger than life. Azmodan, in the Black Soulstone cinematic, is larger than any human being could ever be. To even attempt to fit into that in a realistic way, you have to be very theatrical. You want to be huge in your characters, and let [the directors] bring you back if they need to. A lot of people who do what I do come from a theatre background – it really does help a lot.

BLIZZARD: Diablo III was in development for several years. How did you stay focused on the character over that period of time?

DAVID: Well, you have to use your skills every time you go back into the studio as a voice actor. They’ll play you a reference of what you did last time, and it’s pretty organic. You remember where you were, emotionally and physically, and you just jump back into the role.

The very first scene I worked on years ago was the [Black Soulstone] cinematic. It was out of context; I didn’t quite understand how big of a part I was going to have in the game when I did that cinematic. We worked on those few lines for maybe two-and-a-half or three hours, and I don’t think we even finished it that day, I think we just did some of the lines just to get into the character.

I also recall the time you guys took me down to the Blizzard offices in Irvine just to provide “voice” to the movement of the character. They showed me Azmodan’s animations, his feet and big arms, on the screen, and we recorded live, next to the picture. Most of the material was recorded here in LA where the majority of the voice talent is, but it really speaks to the quality of the project that you brought me all the way down to your offices, even though we weren’t doing any dialogue at all, just so you could bring that extra bit of reality to the character.

BLIZZARD: So, how do you go about lending your voice to a demon?

DAVID: There’s an acting technique that I was taught by Sanford Meisner, a very famous acting teacher in New York several years ago – it’s to “live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances.” This world doesn’t exist, but you make it exist. If I’m not really Azmodan in that moment, if the people at home don’t believe it, they’re gonna go, “pssh, this guy’s just phoning it in.” It has to actually feel like I’m this huge, amazingly powerful evil guy. So I just kind of get into the space, I get into feeling the power, the size, the weight of the character – all the different aspects that you’d really feel if you were living as that person. It’s a skill you develop over time. But I also think it’s something you can either do or you can’t. You can learn about acting and get performance experience, but you either have to be able to jump into that, or you just can’t. Luckily I’m able to do that, so I keep working.

BLIZZARD: Do you remember how long on average you’d spend in the recording studio?

DAVID: Probably 2-3 hours. There might’ve been a four hour session in there somewhere, but this particular character seemed to come, I wouldn’t say “easily,” but it didn’t feel like a huge stretch beyond what I was able to do. And the directors, Andrea Toyias and Andrea Romano, made me feel so comfortable with what I was doing. I never went, “oh, I’ve been here for hours and hours.” The time just flew by.

BLIZZARD: The growls and everything must take a lot out of you.

DAVID: You just want to make sure you’re rested, especially if you have a lot of jobs going on. There are some days where I have to just not talk to anybody, and text to save my voice. If I know I’ve got a big week coming up – if I’ve got a video game session while I’m on a couple of animated series – I have to be able to sound like that character did last time, and if my voice is gone, he’s not going to sound very good, is he? Also, I’m pretty tame in my personal life. I’m not going out partying, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, don’t do drugs, and I just take care of myself.

BLIZZARD: For a guy whose job is to get killed by the player, Azmodan has a lot of lines. How did you stay menacing?

DAVID: Well, I think having multiple recording sessions helps. You can only keep that level of intensity up for so many hours, so you do three hours here, three hours there, and when you put it all together, it might be 20 hours of work, but it’s all stuck into one act, so it actually feels more intense than it would otherwise. There’s no way you could keep doing that all day and all night.

BLIZZARD: Azmodan doesn’t really have any lips; how did that influence your delivery?

DAVID: I wasn’t aware that he didn’t have lips until late in the recording process. I think you just have to ignore that, and it’s up to the animators to make it work. I can’t act without my lips – it doesn’t work! We did do some things that made him sound extra fat and a little bit muddy. He was very much [David uses the Azmodan voice] down here like this. Super low, super grumbly. It was an extremely quiet performance, almost whispered. And they blew it up in production to make him sound really huge. That gave Azmodan a level of intimacy he wouldn’t have otherwise . . . a scary intimacy, a level of menace.

BLIZZARD: Is it more fun to play a villain?

DAVID: Oh, yeah. It’s fun. I like intelligent villains. It’s what I gravitate to. They always think they’re gonna win. They have so much confidence; there’s not a thought in their mind that they won’t prevail, and they love torturing their enemies. I’m doing something with my hands now like a puppeteer . . . when they get someone in their grasp, there’s an evil sense of play, where they’re in control. It’s very sadistic, I know, but it’s fun to play something so far away from myself.

I’ve had sessions where I’ll do something really super evil, and then I’ll just start laughing. It’s the total opposite of who I am; a pretty affable, calm, pleasant person. I’m always playing mean guys in games.

BLIZZARD: Azmodan sounds like he has a tremendous amount of modulation in his voice, a ton of reverb, but you doing the voice without any modulation sounds very similar to the Azmodan I hear in the game. Do you know what was done in production to modify your voice?

DAVID: They put a little reverb on it – that’s about it. I don’t know how this stuff comes out of my face, but it does! I work with guys who do lots of crazy voices, like Dee Bradley Baker, and I just go, “What? That came out of your face? You’re a human being, right?” I have my thing – the super deep, evil thing – and he has his thing. Somebody once told me that I get a lot of video game work because, apparently, my voice is really easy to process. I don’t know why – just the deepness of it.

If a character that has a super deep voice has to scream, it’s pretty hard to do. Azmodan never really had to raise his voice very much, because he had so much weight as a character, people would just listen to him. They actually kept bringing me back, like “less emotion, less emotion, more focused emotion.” It was in a very tiny space, like I was always whispering in somebody’s ear.

BLIZZARD: I’d never considered that the level or timbre of your voice would affect how easy or difficult it’d be to record you.

DAVID: One of the biggest challenges that I find in video game voice acting is when a super deep-voiced character has to be in a battle. They want so much more intensity – but they want it to be that focused intensity. It sometimes physically can’t happen. Think about human nature; if somebody came up to you with a knife, and you were fighting back, your voice would go higher!

BLIZZARD: Voice acting is something that lot of people are interested in, but many of those same people don’t have the foggiest idea of what goes into it. Do you think that anybody who really works hard and puts a lot of resumes out has the capacity to be a voice actor?

DAVID: Without trying to sounding conceited, the reality is that Joe from accounting can’t walk up to the microphone and be Azmodan. Everybody finds what they’re good at. Dee [Baker] is good at, well, everything, but he’s good at crazy wacky stuff, I’m good at the villainous characters, the dramatic characters – we all have our thing. People have to identify what they’re good at, market themselves, and get tons and tons of practice. It’s a process. I didn’t arrive in LA and have a career handed to me on a silver platter. I had to prove myself.

If you just want to start out, you might do improv theatre just to get ready for everything. In a video game session, you often don’t get to read the script in advance – they put it in front of you and they say “go.” I have to give a quality performance from the minute I open my mouth. There’s no second chance. Everything has to be at a certain level; even if you give a great audition, you kind of have to be known in the business for a while before you get the chance to do something as prestigious as a Blizzard game. They’re not just gonna let anybody do it. I guess the answer to your question is that it takes years – years of practice, years of dedication.

It’s important to not let anybody squish your dreams, though. If you really believe in yourself and you’re good at what you do, you’ll eventually find your audience.

BLIZZARD: One more question! In the game narrative, Azmodan’s dead. By our count, he’s been killed millions of times at this point. Do you think there’s any chance of him – of you – coming back?

DAVID: This is a fantasy world – it doesn’t matter if you’re dead. If you have clever enough writers, anyone can come back to life believably. I’d love to keep going with this character.

BLIZZARD: Thanks so much, David!

James Hong - Covetous Shen

BLIZZARD: Hi, James! I read in your biography that you lived in Hong Kong – what was that like?

JAMES: I was there in Kowloon, educated during grade school from the age of 5 to 9. Everything you do in life adds to your art, and that gave me the sense of adjusting to a whole new world, of the Hong Kong atmosphere, which, as you can imagine, is great. Getting a piece of toast from an old man who used to be hunched over on a street corner near where I stayed – he would make toast for some reason, and you could buy it for a penny. Little images have added to the roles that I play – you have, in your games, a lot of those dark images that are in my memory.

Education in the Chinese grade school was great – not the most pleasant thing, but certainly it becomes your background, it enriches who you are. I think everybody should open themselves to travel and experience. Don’t you?

BLIZZARD: Yeah, absolutely. Do you still go back pretty often?

JAMES: Yes, I’ve been back there. When China was just opening up, “taking off their uniforms,” so to say, I was there for months, making “Marco Polo.” This is when China was still China, and not full of hotels. Most of what I saw in Beijing – not most, but half of it is just razed and modernized now. American fast food is all over the place. It’s kind of sad to see all of that go, but, again, that’s become part of my background.

BLIZZARD: Can you tell us a bit about how you got your start with acting in general?

JAMES: The start of my career was in 1953. I got on a quiz show with Groucho Marx. I did some impersonations, including Groucho, Peter Lorrie, Jimmy Stewart. That got out to the United States audience, and I got a huge reaction – they said the 2nd biggest fan-mail Groucho ever got on that program. That started the ball rolling. I got an agent, and my first role was in Soldier of Fortune with Clark Gable.

BLIZZARD: You’ve had an amazingly broad career since then. You’ve done a lot of film and animation; I know you personally from Mulan, Kung Fu Panda, Big Trouble [in Little China], and you’ve started doing video games.

JAMES: I’d like to see if one of these days if I could put my name in the almanac as the actor with the most character roles. I think I hold that record, though I’m not sure.

BLIZZARD: If you don’t hold that record, you’re definitely in the running. Yeah, you should see about that.

So, I was curious – with all the film and animation work in your background, do you do anything different to prepare for working on a video game?

JAMES: A little bit. Video games are a separate entity – the biggest entertainment industry of late. So you do have to approach it differently, certainly differently from an on-camera job. On camera, you have to fuss around with wardrobe, makeup, get into character – I think of all the work I did for “Big Trouble in Little China,” for Lo Pan, with different makeup, months studying the role. Now, with video games, you don’t have all that trouble getting into a role physically, but it’s a different approach – you read the script, study the character, and find out what the purpose of the character is, his history and mission, what he’s trying to accomplish, and then you go in and do the voice, and from that point the voice director takes over. You can go in in your pajamas and do the lines, and it’s okay.

BLIZZARD: Tell us about your time in the studio recording for Covetous Shen on Diablo III.

JAMES: We went down to the LA studio – it was always the same studio, I remember it well. Andrea Toyias was always behind the booth giving me direction, and she’s a great voice director. I remember that I had to do a LOT of takes. The director was very meticulous – it was one try after another until we nailed it down, because I didn’t exactly have a picture of what was happening in the game. I had a vague idea, but have to I rely on the director to guide me through the scene with clues.

I remember goofing around and doing voices from Big Trouble to make everybody laugh, and then moving right back into the game voice. One has to have some fun with it, obviously. I think you see that; hopefully the player gets to see the sense of humor we put into Covetous Shen.

BLIZZARD: I think they absolutely have. You’ve got what’s probably the quirkiest voice in the game – it’s super idiosyncratic, and I don’t think anyone else sounds like you. When you did the voice for Shen, did you do any ad-libbing, or was that entirely pre-planned?

JAMES: I tried to do some ad-libs. I kind of snuck it up on them – I’d do a few lines that Andrea thought would be good for the game, and then throw in a few ad-libs, whether it’s a laugh or a quirky comment that I think Covetous might do, because he’s a sneaky little character, you know? He kind of gets under your skin one way or another. By the time I’ve done a voice three or four times, I know what I want the player to feel, and that’s the whole gist of the game. That’s the craft with games – just through your voice, to draw the player into a situation that he possibly has not thought about, and lead him in a direction to solve problems.

BLIZZARD: Your character in Diablo III is very wise, but, as you pointed out, he’s also a bit silly, kind of a trickster-style character. How do you balance those two qualities? They seem almost like they’d be a little opposed.

JAMES: In a way, it’s tough; in a way it’s not. I’m that kind of person – I love to poke fun and stimulate other people to action. I hate the status quo. With food, like Covetous, I like to taste different things. When I sit down to a dinner, I try to get other people to order something that I like too, so I can eat off of their plate. When I eat Chinese food, I order more dishes than I can possibly eat so that I can try each one of them. In that sense, Covetous is not too different from the real James Hong – we’re just out to grab some fun out of life.

BLIZZARD: Do you remember how long your recording sessions were? Were they 4-hour long marathon sessions, or shorter sessions?

JAMES: They averaged between 1 and 2 hours – sometimes a little longer, sometimes shorter. I like variety, and I can only be really good in a period of 2 hours. After that, I start fading. I worked with Frank Sinatra on a film called Never So Few. I’ll always remember that, because we’d rehearse a little bit – Frank didn’t like to rehearse too much – and then when the camera was ready, Frank shouted, [imitating Sinatra perfectly] “All right, you got one take, and that’s it!” Everybody’s trembling and shaking because they’ve gotta get things perfect in one take. That’s what Frank did – he was a great one-taker.

BLIZZARD: Knowing that as a series, Diablo can be a bit on the dark side – hacking up zombies, violence, etc. – how do you keep it fun or light? How do you have a good time with it?

JAMES: It’s a very important question – throughout my career, I’ve done some ‘heavy’ roles, serious roles in Chinatown and so forth. It’s very important that you get into doing a voice, making a game work for yourself and for players, but once you’re through acting – or through playing – you’ve really gotta divorce yourself from [it], and find your own self again. I find myself, when I’ve done a role, naturally repeating lines over in my head as I’m driving home – and I’ve got to get out of that, get back to reality and my real relationship with people and what I’m doing. Do something else – play baseball, go dancing – and get back into your real life. I don’t know how else to put it, but it’s very important to keep a yin and yang balance.

BLIZZARD: What was the most fun part of portraying Covetous Shen?

JAMES: He’s a jeweler. He makes jewelry. He takes bits of gems and makes a better whole out of them, and crafts for the player. Though he would like to find a particular gem for himself – he is very greedy and very selfish in a sense – in the meantime, he does a great service, helping the player add gems to weapons or equipment. It gave me a thrill to know that I’m actually helping the player. Hopefully that comes through in my role.

BLIZZARD: Do you think there's more to Covetous? That maybe he’s a deity? Do you think he’s just messing with the player?

JAMES: I like to think that he’s a deity of some kind. To me, he’s probably an outcast among the deities, who was thrown onto [Sanctuary] because he was naughty. Now, he’s just doing his deeds. He’s a scrounger. He looks for little pieces of jewelry, and tries to make something out of everything that he finds. He looks like a bag man, and he’s very sarcastic, but his knowledge is great. So there’s something behind that knowledge – how he got it, and how he became a maker of jewels is a big mystery.

BLIZZARD: One thing that I hear quite a lot from players of Blizzard games is a general interest in the craft of voice acting, so I wanted to ask you about that. Do you think that it’s possible for anybody who’s determined and hardworking enough to get into acting or animation for games, or do you think that you need to have a certain talent, that your voice has to sound a certain way or you have to meet a particular niche, a voice that people identify with a certain build or nationality?

JAMES: I think it’s both. How I more or less got into this is that I used to talk to myself a lot, as a lonely child, mimicking this and that, and that became sort of the training grounds for being a voice actor. I never thought of it as that, but it became very valuable. Changing their voice is something most young people do, whether in their childhood or later in life. You simply take that innate talent and train it. There are voiceover teachers here in Hollywood, because doing voice work is a different craft than just acting on stage. When you do a voiceover, you’re sitting in that chair alone with a microphone – that’s your whole surrounding. You have nothing else but your innate talent and imagination to rely on. You have to know how to apply your training, your surroundings, your spirit, your soul, and what your imagination can create. Some people that I’ve heard do voices, I sit there and I’m amazed, totally amazed by what they can do. There are so many good actors around. There’s no easy way to do it – it’s a crowded field – but once you get into it, and directors and producers come to rely on you, you’re gonna get a lot of work, whether it’s doing characters or just doing announcing.

BLIZZARD: Are you into jewelry at all, or was that just acting?

JAMES: Into actual jewelry, no, into crafting, yes. As a young child, I loved woodwork, metalwork, making go-carts. I still love to create things and draw. As far as helping the player as Covetous Shen . . . I do wish I’d get a tip from time to time. At the least, I hope the players can give me a ‘thank you.’ Maybe they can go to my Facebook page and thank me for showing them a good time as Covetous Shen. It’s a fun page.

BLIZZARD: I know you’re really busy; thanks for spending all this time talking with us, James!

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