PAX 2011: Speaking With Commander Shepard’s Voice


For Jennifer Hale, providing the voice to a generation of iconic game characters is more challenging than most people might think.

Jennifer Hale’s name may not sound immediately familiar to you, but I can guarantee that you’d recognize her voice. She was Bastila Shan in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Samus Aran in the various Metroid Prime titles, Ophelia in Brütal Legend, and Commander Shepard in all three Mass Effect games. At PAX Prime, Ms. Hale took a little time to chat with me about what it’s like working as a voice actor who’s particularly well-known in the videogame industry.

Hale’s voice-over work began while she was still in high school, thanks in large part to her job.

“I used to work in a video production house, Leo Ticheli Productions, next to an audio studio; so I’d often run over there and do spots. I’d also gone to a fine arts high school and had an acting background, too. So, when I eventually moved out to Los Angeles, my first audition was for a cartoon called Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? and I booked it. I didn’t watch a lot of cartoons as a kid, so I kinda threw myself into learning as much as I could about it.”

Hale’s career has actually spans across movies, television, and games. While a large portion of these roles have only featured her voice, she’s also appeared in person on shows like Charmed, Just Shoot Me, and E.R.. Contrary to what people might think, though, there’s a significant difference between these two types of acting.

“You get to create the visual and go to further extremes with animated shows… you get to go a little outside the box; it’s more comedic and more interesting. In that aspect you can push it. In videogames, you take what they tell you, but you have to have the whole environment set in your head. What’s the ambient sound? What just happened?

“You’re often not working in a continuous scene. You’re often just working in pieces, so you need to consider what the other person is saying, what are they behaving like, and what are they seeing. It’s all in your imagination, which is the biggest challenge with voice acting in videogames.”

For Hale, creating her character’s identity is a bit of a collaborative effort between herself and writers.

“I have so much respect for writers and what they do,” she stated. “I owe service to the writer. It’s all about bringing the writer’s vision to life. That is my sole purpose for being there … quite often they’ll have pictures [of the character] or pictures from other parts of the game so you can get a sense of the artwork or a sense of the world you’re inhabiting.”

That said, Hale’s first big role was in the 1988 TV movie A Father’s Homecoming, and it initially seemed like she was destined for more traditional Hollywood roles. Obviously, her career didn’t work out like initially expected, but she clearly doesn’t have any regrets.

“Voice over work takes so much of my time that I don’t have as much time for [live-action roles]. I never expected to end up quite where I am,” she said, “but I love it.”

However, in spite of the fact that she’s become to a generation of iconic characters, Hale doesn’t play that many games herself. According to her, this is because of her limited amounts of free time.

“I have so little free time because I am so fortunately busy with voice acting that when I do have it, I go outside,” she explained. “Tom Bissel wrote a piece on me for the New Yorker and he made me sit down and play Mass Effect 2; I’d never played a game before that… It was very interesting to actually play the game. Being at an event like PAX is fantastic because I get to see the people [games like Mass Effect] are meant for.”

The actress’s next big role is reprising Commander Shepard for Mass Effect 3. It’s inarguably a dramatic character, one that has developed quite a bit over the course of three games. However, Hale pointed out Shepard’s final starring role will feature some major developments for her.

“[Shepard] has such an incredible focus and a singular driving mission. Every character has high stakes or an imperative. With her, it’s huge – I mean, the stakes are galactic, it doesn’t get much bigger than that – but this is such an intense experience.

“In Mass Effect 3, they’ve loosened it up a little bit. There’s a little more emotional life. Shepard doesn’t operate from her emotions, she operates from her mission. Period. This time around you get to see a little more emotion.”

Of course, Hale is also going to return to BioWare’s Star Wars universe in Star Wars: The Old Republic, too. After that, we’ll have to wait and see (and listen for) where she next pops up. It seems safe to assume that it won’t be long before she provides the voice for yet another iconic character that gamers all fall in love with.

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