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Finding a Hobbit’s Voice

To me it seems like such a strange and funny turn of events – and I’m the lucky guy that it happened to. I don’t quite believe it all, not fully. Can’t get my mind around it. If you had told me twenty years ago that one day I would be sitting in a professional sound studio, recording the character voice of the one person in Middle-earth I felt closest to, the one person I understood more clearly than ANYONE, I’d have said you were nuts. Capital "N" for nuts!

You probably know already, if you’ve read my previous blathering, how I have taken up the banner for Samwise Gamgee. A long time ago he replaced Frodo as the true hero of LOTR in my mind. I have always adored him for his earthy wit and the bottomless well of spiritual strength he possesses; and sometimes it’s just spooky how the rhythm of Sam’s thoughts follow mine as I read. Sam is a kind of mirror for my own soul, I feel. Then again I marvel at Tolkien for creating a character who can deliver such pathos without being overwrought.

So now we come up to the spring of 2002, wherein I have been quite busy working on Tolkien-related projects. One of the more interesting jobs I enjoy is consulting for Universal Interactive, who are currently putting together their console video game for The Fellowship of the Ring due at the end of 2002. Their games are based on the books, not the movies – and the guys in marketing wanted some "professional Tolkien geekiness" within their fold; and so here I am helping them along with website content, etc. That, all by itself, seems funny to me. Not funny "ha-ha" but funny "what the heck??" Then when the big E3 show came around it just turned so much funnier.

Standing in the busy main hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, many screens and kiosks offered samples of the video game at only a certain stage of completion. Visitors were happily playing and clicking buttons, eager to explore this new version of Middle-earth. I overheard one of the Producers talking about the voice of Samwise. You see, all the voice sessions were recorded many months prior and the tracks already edited into the game.... but at this point the Production Team was to make a crucial decision.

What shall we do about Sam? they asked. It’s fine but it’s not fine, they said. That’s not exactly what we want, they said. He’s such an important character.... we’ve got to redo the whole voice, they concluded. I could not stop myself from interjecting: "Hey, you guys ever hear my voiceover demo tape? I’ve been a voice actor for several years or didn’t ya know?" I had NEVER been so audacious! Never so balls-to-the-wall daring! Never have I teetered so far over the edge of anxiety’s precipice! I was grinning and sweating where I stood. With any Grace watching over me from on high would they accept my suggestion or drop it like a hot potato?

A couple of eyebrows raised at my comment. No, the guys had not heard my voiceover demo. No, they had no idea I was experienced with radio and commercial voiceover. And, ultimately, yes, they wanted to hear it in their office the next morning. I would deliver it in person. I was ecstatic. At the very least I hoped beyond hope to audition, just a simple audition.... that’s all! I did not expect anything else but the chance to try. Humility and low expectation is the only way actors avoid being overwhelmed by the daily patterns of rejection so frequent in their lives.

But you know what they say: "Ask and ye shall receive." Truer than true did that truism truly prove. Ha. The Uni Production Team ultimately would not ask me to audition, but instead after hearing the demo they requested me directly to be the Voice of Samwise Gamgee. They wanted someone with a strong background in Tolkien who could not only work with dialects but could bring character knowledge to the job. It was the most unexpected boon. I could not, and to this day do not, believe how it all unfolded. Lucky, lucky man!

I went home and played "Lucky Man" by The Verve, just to get some perspective. For a couple of nights I could not sleep at all.

Fast forward to July 1, 2002. The call time at the recording studio was atypically early – 8:00am. I had my script in hand; my nervous clutches had warped many of the pages from poring over it the night before. My friends will tell you how I kept calling them at ungodly hours, in a panic, asking: "Do you think this voice sounds okay? Maybe this one? Should I try this instead??" It all came out in the wash of course, because I had to abandon all notion of what Sam sounded like. All I needed to bring with me was how Sam would FEEL. The director would take care of the voice work. I could stop worrying about that. All I had to do was know the story, know the motivation, and know where Sam’s heart was.

Of that much I was confident.

I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Greenberg again, the special Tolkien consultant to the production, and the session sound director from WXP, Brad Spear. These two would be outside the sound booth, directing and advising. My good buddies Rob Irving and Jeff Everett, both producers on the Tolkien Team, were there in fine spirits. However much my nerves were jangling, it was a great comfort to sit and relax with these guys before recording began. You could not ask for better people on a project like this.

The first dialect I tried out was a wildly exaggerated, Monty Python falsetto. You know, that Terry Jones-in-a-wig kind of voice. "Oh, look, there’s a penguin on the telly!" It was so ridiculous I thought it just might fit. Well, maybe on a gag-reel.

Putting aside all jest we got right to it. I was alone inside the recording booth.... a familiar and comfortable place. Putting on the headphones, all other sounds were silenced around me. I could see the others through the glass, sitting around the mixing board, talking busily. I could not hear them but I could often read their lips to catch what was going on. A lot of coffee cups exchanged hands. The script was propped up before me on a music stand, the huge microphone craned in front of me like an apple before the horse. I was ready.

We worked on the dialect, just the dialect sound, for 15 minutes before getting something satisfactory. I tried every variation of British and Scottish that came comfortably to me. Some of my slips into Irish were clearly not working. And, strangely enough, I could not get the voice of Roddy McDowall out of my head. You remember, he recorded Samwise in the Rankin/Bass version of The Return of the King. It was rough going at first, but then I landed on something that worked. It was a smaller voice (Daniel would hit the button on his console, allowing me to hear him speak from beyond the glass, saying, "Not so deep, we want this to sound like a smaller person.") that really didn’t sound like me at all but, again, it was comfortable.

The next four hours I will never forget. I had to hit some of Sam’s emotional notes that I always heard in my head while reading the book but had never tried to vocalize myself. He was terrified of Gandalf catching him in the act of eavesdropping. Then he was thrilled at the thought of seeing the Elves. He was sometimes upset (with Bill Ferny) and sometimes scared (facing down Old Man Willow) but always he was a simple gardener who found himself in extraordinary circumstances. Once or twice we stopped and looked at the original book which I had brought with me – just to check the veracity of the dialogue. I even had to make all the effects sounds like grunting, shouting, laughing (which was a nightmare) and the "Ow, I just got stabbed by an Orc!" sounds too.

It wasn’t my voice. It was someone else, really. I must say it felt very strange.

Gandalf, too, was scheduled for recording that day. He strolled in, wearing a fine Hawaiian print shirt and smooth khakis. This voiceover actor was none other than Tom Kane! You know him as Professor Utonium on "The Powerpuff Girls" and also Darwin on "The Wild Thornberrys." What a thrill to meet him in person! I rushed into the sound booth, shook his hand vigorously and spouted, "Tom Kane! I can’t believe how cool this is! You’re one of my heroes!" which is quite true. He is a giant in the world of cartoon voice over. He was funny, gracious, and very down-to-earth. I could have kicked myself for not bringing a camera. Afterwards, he gave me an 8 x 10 picture of Professor Utonium and autographed it for me. Who knew I would be so extra lucky on this fine day?

Ultimately, when all was done, my throat felt kind of thrashed. Empty bottles of spring water were littered about the studio, I had polished off so many. It felt good to finally sit and look at the Producers’ faces of approval. Okay, well.... at least I think it was approval. There is one thing I never assume while on a job: "That was pretty good." Instead, I’m usually telling myself, "Man, I could have done better." I suppose that’s just my way.

There you have it. That was what it felt like to give him a voice: to become Samwise Gamgee.... to be a vessel for him. I will never really know if I did it "right." Or even if I did it "competently." That is not for me but for the listeners out there to decide. At the end of the day I am simply grateful to even be part of this marvelous process.

It is exceedingly difficult to put your own identity aside and just feel your way through someone else. Although I certainly do not compare to him, by any stretch, now I know how Sean Astin must have felt, in a way. I can’t tell you how much more I admire him as an actor.

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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