Imagine our surprise when we realised that the voice actor who played Bioshock’s Atlas was actually Irish? I know what you’re thinking. We thought it too. There is no way that Atlas is Irish, probably just some American actor doing his best ‘paddy’ potato loving leprechaun impersonation. How wrong we were. The voice of Atlas and Frank Fontaine in the original Bioshock and its sequel is played by one Karl Hanover, a Dubliner who now calls stages and theatres the length and breadth of the United States his home. In what is a first for any site out there, TGL spoke to Karl about life, Bioshock, Morgan Freeman, Children’s books, Bioshock infinite and drunk Australians. So we ask you readers, would you kindly read on and discover just how nice and interesting a guy Karl Hanover is. Thank you.
*Warning: Bioshock Spoilers Ahead*
TGL: Karl, tell everyone here at TGL a little about yourself.
KH: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in Ireland in Dublin out in Glenageary on the south side, I don’t know if you know where that is, its half way been Dun Laoghaire and Dalkey. All of my family are still there but most of them are living in either Arklow or Waterford at this point. I went to Blackrock college and then to UCD (university College Dublin) and then I decided I wanted to pursue the acting so I left in 1994, came to San Francisco and started acting then. I hadn’t ever been on stage prior to that. I figured that if I got up on stage the first time id be absolutely brutal so I figured if I was to go 5000 miles away from all my friends, they wouldn’t laugh at me and then I might actually try it a second time without the laughter. And as it turns out, I was actually awful the first time.
TGL: Tell us about that first time.
KH: Yeah its one of those thing you know because when I did arrive and I finally first walked on stage the first night and said my opening line, ‘Bruce said the show was shit’ from this play called ‘Museum’ beyond that I don’t think I remembered anymore of my lines. I completely and utterly blanked and someone else on stage had to basically take me by the arm and walk me through all my blocking and say all my lines for me and my responses and then take me off stage. So it was probably a good thing that I was 5000 miles away.
TGL: What did you study in UCD?
KH: I studied law, so I’ve a law degree. So I kind of realized that you know, about half way through second year I thought that ya, id maybe teach, but after that, I’d never want to be a lawyer.
TGL: How did you decide that you wanted to get into acting? It can be hard for actors to find their feet later in life without any prior experience.
KH: Absolutely. Basically I was around Dramsoc (UCD’s resident student Drama Society) and I had been drawn to theatre but I was too afraid to get up on stage. But I would hang out with people and do set design and all that when I was in UCD. Eventually after that I decided acting was something I wanted to do so when I got to San Francisco I basically just enrolled in classes and started taking very basic classes. What they have here is city colleges. Big universities are really expensive here. But you can just take evening classes at the city college, which is sort of a university that is very cheap and open to everybody and ever city has one. So I just started taking acting classes and then you know, started to do a few plays up there, all on a non professional basis.
So slowly but surely I started to do more and I started to go out and audition for small non union theatre companies and then worked my way up to getting small roles in union theatre houses. Then in 2003 I decided to audition for a master’s programme that was a 3 year MSA in the national theatre conservatory in Denver which basically is free and they also give you a contribution to you rent every week so you just have to go to school full time and get the degree at the end of it. I did that for three years and then when I left there in 2006 I went to New York and spent 3 years working there. Then last September I moved back to San Francisco. The life of an actor is always transitional unless you wind up as a lead in CSI-whatever. It’s an itinerant lifestyle.
TGL: How difficult is it to make it as an actor and get consistent work?
KH: I was really lucky with, for example, the Bioshock thing. I had been going to auditions and stuff and in New York I had an agent. We had a showcase for agents and basically they either sign you or they don’t. I was lucky enough to get an agent and they sent me out on a bunch of auditions and that’s when they actually sent me out for Bioshock. As you can imagine, having never hear or seen anything from Bioshock I didn’t know what was going on at the audition.
I was handed a very short paragraph that was basically for a drunk Australian sitting at a bar and I was told to do it like a drunk Aussie that has to talk about ADAM and splicers. I had no idea what the hell I was reading. Obviously this was before the game was finished. It made absolutely no sense to me. I went to the audition and there were six Australian guys and myself sitting in the room and I was thinking ‘there looking for an Australian guy, there’s no way I’m gonna get this’ but I was like whatever. So I went in and having watched Neighbours (extremely popular Australian soap) as a child I just read it thinking I was wasting their time. Then they called me up and had me come in and do the whole thing and oddly enough I had recorded it. I was in New York at the time and Ken Levine, who created the game, was on a headset he was in Boston and I was hearing him through this headset over the phone line or whatever they had going. He basically started talking to me and saying stuff like ‘you’re not Australian’. I said ‘I know…….I’m Irish’. ‘But I thought you were Australian? We sent all your audition tapes to the team in Australia and asked them to pick the person they thought was most authentic and they thought it was you’. I thought that was odd, but there you go.
Then he goes ‘ok, so. Do Danny DeVito’. And I went ‘I don’t do impressions’. I’m the worst at impressions in the world. I can maybe do one of the Python’s doing a woman. So I said I don’t do impressions and he said ok so do what you think DeVito would sound like. So I did it with the Bioshock piece and then he asked me to try it again with different things. I recorded five little tiny bits and he kind of went ‘alright I might be in touch with you again’. So then a couple of days later I got a call and he said he wanted me to come in and record for Atlas and Fontaine. I didn’t know what that meant but I though ok, I’ll come in. Then I realised it was a bloody huge deal. When he gave me the script there was no ones else’s dialogue, just random lines. I had no idea of context, no idea the game took place under water, I had no idea at all.
TGL: So wait. They we’re looking for an Australian accent but stumbled upon your Irish accent for Atlas by accident?
KH: That’s exactly it. What happen was, he basically said ‘I was listening to you the other day and we’ve already recorded all of these lines with somebody else’ and he said that person did a phenomenal job but they actually think they want to go in an different direction, purely from the point of view of a different type, rather than anything wrong with what the first guy did. So they were thinking would you be able to try an Irish accent. They said ‘you know we may or may not use it, but we’re curious’. I said I was happy to give it a bash, what do you want me to do? I thought about things that he might know. So I told him that Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing does a Dublin accent, he does his own accent. I said, I could try something like that and he said ya, go for it. So I did that and he liked it. When it came to Fontaine he wanted me to do a Chicago accent but I didn’t know if I could do that. So he said there’s the character Eddie Dane in Miller’s Crossing, the big sort scary dude. He was a thug guy and kind of hates Gabriel Byrne’s character. So I said id try it and do it as if I was doing an impression of him.
TGL: Do you think you impressed Levine so much that you made him change his outlook on Atlas from what original voice actor Greg Baldwin did?
KH: Here’s the thing, I never met Greg. So ultimately they had recorded it and it sounds great but they wanted to go in a different direction. So my assumption is that they were referring to Greg. It’s funny though, cause you’ve just reminded me, Levine said that when he first wrote it, he thought of Morgan Freeman for Atlas and Fontaine but he said obviously we ‘can’t afford’ Morgan Freeman. Imagine Morgan Freeman as Atlas? That would have been interesting.
TGL: So tell us a little bit about the Irish influence the game now inherited?
KH: When I got the script (I never met Levine, just spoke to him on a headset) he said I’ve done a few changes so I really have no idea if Moira and all that Irish-ness was in the original script. I don’t know if changing Atlas into an Irish person changed the original story. It may or may not have. But he did say to me he made changes. A couple of times, we’d have lines during recording like ‘kick my ass’ and he’d say ok, help me out here, an Irish person isn’t going to say kick your ass. I said we might’ kick your arse’ instead and he was like ya maybe I’m not sure. So between us, only once or twice maybe, wed trade ideas and changes or whatever. He wanted to hear more Irish. I’d suggest something and ask him ‘what about that?’ and he’d be like ‘ok maybe’ so there were a few changes but the bigger picture I don’t know about.
TGL: How long did it take to record for Frank and Atlas?
KH: That’s a really good question. I remember when they sent the script to me, I collected it from my agent or whatever and I think it was like 40 pages of just dialogue with no responses but it had stuff like ‘sub level three’ or it had ‘he picks up a wrench’ so I’d be a bit confused cause I obviously hadn’t seen the world. I had literally no idea what they were talking about. So I went in and because I didn’t know what was going on they gave me some kind of an overview of what they were trying to do. Ken would tell me through the headset what was happening and I would say the line in response. And then he would tell me that maybe you’re a bit more worried here or your being chased here or whatever. He very much coached me threw it and it ended up taking a good bit of time. So I would say, I think I went in for 5 days but they weren’t all full days. I remember there was some problem with one of the sessions we did because the mixing boards hadn’t recorded something so there was a real problem. So I had to go back in and do a chunk of script again. I think in all it was 4 or 5 8 hour days and a few short sessions.
TGL: How did you get into character?
KH: Your standing in something that’s maybe twice the size of a phone booth. There’s a music stand in front of you and a script with a big window. Then you have a bunch of tech guys looking at you so it is a bit weird. I found it very tiring. It’s hard to get into character. Ken would always tell me what to do if I wasn’t sure. He’s a very good director. I would be wrecked when I would leave recording. But I loved.
TGL: Did you realise in those early days, how huge a game Bioshock would become?
KH: It’s funny, I’m not much of a gamer I must confess, more because I’m crap at it anything else. I’m literally all thumbs and nothing else. I’m rubbish. I never got very far in the first Bioshock. I never even attempted to play the second one. But then there’s that thing of hearing your own voice recording. After about 10 minutes you don’t want to hear yourself anymore. It’s clearly a really good game but I haven’t even sat down and done it, but I have watched people play through it which is very fun I must say. I actually had a friend call me up who didn’t know I recorded it and just one day out of the blue he asked me ‘I’m playing this game called Bioshock and there’s a guy in it that sounds really like you, it’s amazing.’ Only recently I was in the pub and a friend just kind of discovered the game and he no idea I did the game. He was talking about Bioshock to the group and everyone started smiling because he didn’t know I was actually in it. He had no idea it was me cause I do sound slightly different.
It’s funny, I did that way back in 2006 and even when they came after me to do the second one for the little cameo, I had to playback some of the old ones because I didn’t know if I could do that voice again. But you know they had to try and coach me through it the second time.
TGL: How close is Atlas’ voice to your real voice?
KH: Its one of those things. I’m from Dublin. I took Miller’s Crossing as a template. That was what I was going for but I wasn’t trying to do an impression of Gabriel Byrne by any means. I have a very soft accent. I didn’t want to do an impression. I did what I thought it sounded like but naturally. Listening yourself you can hear how close it is from my own accent. I’ve been living here in America since ‘94 so I’ve the edges taken off my accent to some degree. There’s a few things that have changed.
TGL: Was it fun working with Irrational Games on Bioshock?
KH: I had a blast. They are a really nice bunch of people.
TGL: What about Bioshock Infinite?
TGL: I don’t know anything about the game other than what I’ve read online myself and the sequel was a surprise to me. I only discovered it like a month and a half ago.
TGL: If you got the call to contribute your voice to a character in Bioshock: Infinite, would you do it?
KH: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Sure, there making the movie too. I’d love to work with Irrational again. I would definitely work with them again, especially on a new game like Infinite.
TGL: Ok, tell us. How many times do you think you said the phrase ‘would you kindly’ during the recording process?
KH: Oh, I have no idea actually. The friend I mentioned to you who called me up saying he thought I sounded like the guy from Bioshock, actually showed up one day with his copy of the game and asked me would I write ‘it’ on the box. I asked him ‘write what’? He goes ‘go on, just write it’. And I was staring at him cause we recorded lines several times and we had a session that messed up so it actually didn’t seem that ‘would you kindly’ was the most common phrase I used actually so it was news to me when the game came out that that was what was going on. I hadn’t been paying attention when I was saying it which was probably very clever on Ken’s part that he didn’t tell me because I might have shaded it differently. I was just recording lines so I would get a chunk of it and he would never tell me that this was a really key phrase that I needed to say carefully. So it was news to me that I had been controlling things up to that last section. I had no idea. So it was very clever. I didn’t ham it up or anything. I would just say it naturally like, ‘would you kindly go over there’ you know. Ken never said it was important which was very clever direction. He was very clever.
The other thing about the Irish thing was that when I went over to do the cameos for the second game, they told me that they had just got back from Ireland. They actually had gone over to Dublin and had worked with several Irish voice actors on the second game which is very cool. I don’t know but Id kind of like to think that because they ended up going with me in the first one they kind of thought, ‘lets go to Ireland and actually get actual Irish people’. So there’s a part of me that hopes I had some contributing element into some other Irish people getting some work.
TGL: Bioshock aside, tell us a little about what you’re doing at the moment and your theatre work?
KH: Well I’m kind of taking a break from the theatre. Basically after grad school I moved to New York for three years and did the theatre thing and voice over work and a few other things. I was bouncing around the country doing gigs then I came out here cause my girlfriend is out here. Actually as of last month my fiancé is out here. So we decided since her family is here and that I love San Francisco it’s probably a permanent move. So when I got here, I decided I wanted to take some time off and get a regular job for 6 months. Being a regional actor can be hard. I can’t wait to go back out, be a fool and do it all again. So actually I’m working in the American Conservatory theatre at the moment, it’s a big huge 100 seater theatre, a beautiful old building. I’m actually the house manager. So I’m taking a break from the acting but I’m also illustrating a children’s book at the moment too separately. I’ve an audition in a week and a half so I’m going back out auditioning again. I’ve been doing acting straight since 2003 so I needed a break. I’m a firm believer you need a life off stage too. You don’t want to end up doing the same old same old in the theatre. I do all sorts of different things, I write and I paint so every now and again I like to just do different things.
TGL: Do many if any Bioshock fans ever get in touch with you?
KH: I think your pretty much the first. There seems to be some confusion. When I first googled Atlas I found that it was apparently done by Greg Baldwin. I don’t think so! That was a bit strange. So it’s one of those things that ya, I was a little confused and taken aback. My name isn’t listed on the box for the first game, but it is for the second game. I should explain. It’s actually a union thing. It’s an acting thing over here with the screen actor’s guild. I was not a member of the guild when I got hired for Bioshock and so you can still work and get paid the going rate but one of the things is you can’t have your name on the box. I had no idea that the game was going to be big and popular so I thought, ya whatever. So when we did the second one, I asked to get my name on the box cause I’m a member now. They we’re like ‘ah cool yea’.
TGL just wants say a huge thank you to Karl for being an altogether great guy for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to us here. I’m sure you’ll all agree that he did an incredible job as Atlas. Let’s hope he gets that call off Irrational to do something in Bioshock: Infinite. We never get tired of hearing his voice.
Congratulations on your engagement and all the best for the future.