Voice Actors In Their Own Words: The Talent Behind “The 7D”
Kevin Michael Richardson as Happy and (left) and Jess Harnell as Grim Gloom (right) at work on “The 7D” (photo credit: Disney Junior/Rick Rowell)
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
Voice-over actors are rarely seen, not even by other voice actors. They’re confined to a small, sound-proof recording booth until their role is perfected. They may only see fellow cast members as they arrive to, or depart from, their recording sessions. Using only audio cues to relay the complexities of their character’s emotional and physical journey, the voice over artists are left alone to create their character’s unique auditory traits. When a cast does have the opportunity to converge, their delight in seeing each other reaches deafening decibels.
To discuss the creation of their characters in “The 7D”, Disney’s comedic take on the world of the “Seven Dwarves”, eight voice over veterans gathered at the Variety offices and proceed to tease, torment and spread lavish praise to each other for over an hour. In addition to discussing their 7D characters, Maurice LaMarche (Grumpy), Jess Harnell (Grim Gloom), Bill Farmer (Doc/Sir Yipsalot), Kevin Michael Richardson (Happy), Scott Menville (Sneezy), Paul Rugg (Lord Starchbottom), Stephen Stanton (Sleepy) and Billy West (Bashful), along with voice director Kelly Ward, shared important highlights pertaining to their craft. In the first of a two part series, these icons of the industry explain the craft of voice overs – in their own words, (and with the voices of Ozzy Osborne, Orson Welles, Jason Alexander, and countless animated characters)
Marjorie Galas: Here’s an interesting question to ask, because a number of you have worked together on other shows ..
Jess Harnell: We’re buddies!
MG: ..so when there is someone that doesn’t have the experience in the vocal world or doing this type of work, what are some of the first things that you tell them? What are some of the things you help them out with?
Scott Menville: How to turn their pages.
(full group agrees)
Billy West: No one every taught me, I had to tear the staples out and they fell all over the place.
JH: Allow me to illustrate. (MG hands him notes, which he begins turning.) See, if you turn the pages (pages loudly ruffle), on the mike you’re going to hear that very clearly. You separate the pages; it’s not that complicated but it really helps. You lay them next to each other so you have two pages at a time. When we stop for Kelly Ward to tell us what to do, you kind of surreptitiously turn the next one over and now you can see what’s coming.
Maurice LaMarche: I was going to say the Welker lift. You have to grab it by the corner.
ML: He can do it completely as if the whole thing was made of velvet. It’s unbelievable.
Bill Farmer: With Welker, you never hear it.
ML: I never quite mastered it but he did. Welker can do a three or four page run as himself and playing five characters.
Kevin Michael Richardson: Ah man…let’s give him props right now.
(All cheer and discuss how he’s not even a cast member of “The 7D”)
KMR: The man is the mack daddy.
Kelly Ward: Anybody who would come into a process like this, who was new to the procedure, would be very well supported. These people are not competitive, they go help their fellows. This is a real humanitarian and altruistic group of actors and you won’t find that very often in a room like this. Ever again. So this is a special moment.
MG: I was surprised to hear that this is the first time that the full group has gathered together, even though there are a number of episodes that have been recorded.
(The group members debate about what they have actually recorded.)
ML: We realized we weren’t going to get any work done if all seven of us were together.
SM: Too many class clowns in one room.
KW: This specific group has never worked together on the show. Paul (Rugg) has not worked with us….
Stephen Stanton: That’s true, Paul hasn’t!
KW: And Jess has not worked with anyone else.
JH: They keep me separated
MG: So you have a part, you know your character – do you approach your character the same way you would an on-camera actor; understanding the character’s background and building the character up in your mind?
BW: Well yeah, but as far as stage acting, it’s a whole different thing. You have much more of your body to communicate with, where you don’t even have to say anything sometimes. It’s just a look. But we have to convey all of that stuff in one way or another just with this little two inch, what, reed? Strip of flesh? Don’t ever get punched in the throat, that’s hitting you where you live.
KW: It’s a bigger challenge for the seven dwarves because if you approach those roles by their names you fall into a trap. The biggest challenge is for the actors to bring a dimension to the characters, and find other ancillary aspects to give their stories possibilities.
Scott Menville: Stephen had to come up with fifty different ways to snore, and every one of them is a hook.
MG: As you are developing the characters, do you sit down and do script reads together to work off each other and develop a dynamic before you actually develop the sounds?
KMR: Only if we record ensemble.
BF: We have pretty much done our homework by the time we’ve come in, basically. We don’t really rehearse.
BW: We know each other’s rhythms, we are like musicians, everybody has their one two punch. Like sax players, one guys is famous for one thing, another guy is famous for another. Same instrument.
SS: When I read a script now a days, I hear everybody’s voice when I read every line.
KMR: I have to give credit to Kelly because if one of us is missing during the record, Kelly will just fill in with the voice to give the cue line before us …the actual line so we know where to feed off of.
SS: And you actually do all of us pretty well.
(Group laughs and agrees.)
MG: So, when you get the script and read through it, how much time do you actually have before you are in the recording booth, recording?
JH: Two minutes.
BW: Did you ever drive with your knee and hold a script, and try to eat breakfast at the same time?
BF: One to two days, usually.
JH: Well, the cool thing is, with acting a lot of times they are basically hiring an actor based on physical appearance to some extent. But something like this you have to create this voice that may not be close to what our real voices sound like. You know, my Grimm voice is nothing like what I really sound like, it’s this tough guy speaking deep in his chest. So you create this thing and you hope that it’s going to work as a piece of a puzzle with what everybody else is doing. The funny thing for me is, I have the character down, when I can have a conversation with you as that character, and know exactly how he’s going to respond. I know how he’s going to laugh, how he’s going to cry. I know how he’s going be angry, I know what he is going to say if you ask him about any given situation. That’s when you have the character, and that is when you are ready to get on the field and play ball with the big boys, you know?
MG: I know you are all professionals, but do you ever have those times when you just say I really need a moment to think about this?
BW: You have to have inspiration. You can never just say OK, I’ve hit the wall, I will just recycle this or that. Um, it’s very tough to do that, because of pride. And you want to be challenged as much as you can. I say that earlier. You look forward to challenging yourself and to what’s put before you …but the directors.
SM: Which is why Steven Stanton has 50 plus ways to snore. To this point, in the next episode he’ll come up with more ways.
BF: I always find that everyone just wants to do their best, but I always find that if I can entertain myself, because l think we are probably the hardest critics on our own performance …you go out and say oh what was I doing on that take. Uh, you want to do your best, so if you can entertain yourself, generally the audience will be entertained. So, I always put that as a bench mark. If I can make it as funny as the line really is in the performance, I think I’ve done my job.
SS: And when he does his job, it inspires everybody else to do theirs.
BW: Yeah, the same tide raises all boats.
SS: When somebody is that funny, you think, well I can’t sit down and not do something as good as that…
BW: Fuel injection.
JH: Another skill set that comes in handy is you put your troubles in a bag and you leave them at the door. No matter what else is going on in your life, you have to go in and kick a** because it is broad comedy and it is funny, so you have to bring a lot to that party. So there is a separation mentally.
JH: Yeah, exactly, we shall overcome.
KMR: We don’t suffer from mental separation.
MG: A few of you are on other shows right now. How do you differentiate between other characters so that as viewers are watching they are not saying, “Oh that is the guy that is also on…?”
BW: Your job is to not be noticed. You hope that everything blends in and that somebody wouldn’t instantly recognize you, but they have heard us for years. People will say “I know that is Jess Harnell”, “I can hear Moe!” It becomes part of your DNA after a while.
ML: They will let you know if one character sounds like another character. “Oh, out of stuff again, huh?”
KRL: Yeah, that is a challenge between being a regular and being a recurring on a show. Sometimes on a show you are reoccurring you are not there for a few months or so, I tend to forget what I sounded like. They usually have to play back a scratch and I say “That was me?” But once you get it in your ear it comes right back to you.
MG: In preparation for when you’re getting ready to work with this job or any job, are there certain things that you do? I know that some voice over actors will only drink room temperature water before working, for example.
BW: That’s goofy! You know, it doesn’t matter if I gargle with Listerine or if I eat cookies or chips. You can either do it or you can’t. What do you mean, an actor prepares? How do you prepare for getting thrown out a window?
SM: I’m glad you said that, because when you were asking the question I was thinking, “Well I don’t do anything.”
KMR: I love to stretch, I love to do the old traditional stuff that they teach you in school. I listen to a variety of music, I listen to songs that have very high notes and very low notes and in between and I sing each one on my way to a job. I’m warmed up by the time I get there. And that’s personally what I do.
JH: Moe is famous for his warm up.
ML: My warm up? I didn’t know it was a warm up, it’s more of a compulsion. I warm up with Orson Wells.
(His Orson Wells impersonation is quickly drowned out by the group cheering and laughing)
ML: It opens up my throat; I can go where he was vocally. Oddly enough, Wells was a huge cigar smoker. I have found my Wells has gotten better since I quit smoking seven years ago. That is the best warm up I can ever do, was when I quit smoking.
BW: For people that do voices it’s like delivering lines that all have to have some sort of melody. It’s music, you’ve got the lyrics and the chords and you reach for peaks and valleys.
Paul Rugg: Good writing will have the music and the lyrics in the lines.
BW: Yeah, you are on the outside looking in, and suddenly you are part of it. Um, my warm-up was to watch Green Acres. (Starts speaking in “Green Acre” character voices) “I’m waiting. We’re all waiting.”
KMR: If you don’t have a fun time recording, the audience isn’t going to have a fun time watching us. We really try to have fun with what we do.
BW: You better laugh at this, because this is what it is all about.
KMR: We may be in a recording session and we might break into “My Three Sons“ ….
(Everyone starts singing lines from “My Three Sons” and “Green Acres”)
BL: Do you hear that rumbling sound? That’s Walt rolling over in his grave. It’s shaking all of Southern California. I simply give you the seven dwarves and you smeggie it all up!
Coming Up Next Week! “The 7D” cast discuss their work on the show an creating the seven dwarves for a new generation.