“Who votes to take the vehicle into the creepy underground tunnel?”- Liara T’soni

As some of you may know last year I put together the Definitive Mass Effect cast interviews. I didn’t get everyone but those I didn’t get were next on my list. Who was top of that list? Why, Ali Hillis, of course. Since hearing her outstanding performance in Mass Effect as Liara I’ve been a fan of hers. To me Liara is an example of a truly incredible female gaming character. A lot of time in this industry of ours female characters are never quite done that well. Well, though many games in recent years are changing that I believe Bioware is top of the pile with characters like Liara, Jack and Ashley. Ali’s portrayal of Liara in the orginal Mass Effect presents us with a very innocent, fragile yet strong character. Over the course of the game and through her interactions with Shepard we can see Liara change, evolve and grow. Rarely in a game have I seen (or heard) a character develop in such a nuanced way. It’s simple, underplayed and very effective.

I must also admit that, before interviewing voice actors, I go through a phase of thinking, “will I still look at the character the same after this?”. There’s a slight element of being afraid to peer behind the curtain because it might ruin the magic. Does this ever happen? Not really. I do however look at Liara differently now in the way that my respect for her has gone up tenfold. That said,  I was very pleased to find that Ali was lovely to talk with. We got on great! She was a true joy to interview and, in my opinion, provided me with one of the best TGL interviews to date. I loved it every minute of it and I hope you do too.

This is part one of a two parted interview. Part two will be posted this Friday. Enjoy.

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Retroplayer- First off, tell us about yourself, Ali.

Ali- Well, I like dogs and I lived in the States my whole life but moved around a bit. I grew up in theatre and started doing it when I was around eight years old. I did community theatre, theatre in my schools and then after leaving college I went to live in New York City because I wanted to do Broadway. I’m a singer as well- Opera trained.

Retroplayer- Nice!

Ali- <laughs> Isn’t that sexy? So I went to New York City to do Broadway and started doing some independent film there. I booked the show Law and Order so when I saw that cheque I thought, “Oh that’s kinda cool. Kinda bigger than my theatre cheques”. So I packed everything up and moved out to Los Angeles and I booked my own pilot TV show for fox- I actually got lucky and booked my first guest spots only a few weeks after moving to LA. That made me happy because it made me realise that I was a player in the Hollywood game. Anyway, fast forward and I’ve done a lot of TV and film, loved every minute of it and fell into gaming. Mass Effect was my big introduction to gaming so Liara was my first really fleshed out character in videogames. I’m just really really happy with what I do. I still do TV and film, and hope to do theatre again when i can find the time! I love working in every medium and acting in games is just as important to me as acting in film. I’m also very active in the animal rescue community and that’s very important to me.

Retroplayer- At what point in your life did you realise that acting was your call?

Ali- Well, probably when I was around eight years old but I was in denial for a very long time. When people asked me what I was going to do when I grew up I’d usually say I’d be a librarian or a fireman or… a garbage collector or something else. <laughs> So even when I was doing a lot of theatre in my high school, (and I was very active in my school- picture Liara as a cheerleader, oh boy,) I was ready to admit I’d be a garbage collector, and that it would probably be more of a reliable career choice than choosing to become an actor!”

Retroplayer- Liara as a cheerleader? I’m sure the images are online somewhere by fans.

Ali- Ohh, I bet. I’m sure it is. So all through school I was in denial that I was going to be an actor even though I was doing it actively. When I got to college I received a full scholarship to major in vocal music, but i ended up transferring into the theatre department. Then I just realised that I was going to make a go at being an actor somehow as I was already making money doing it. I was accepted into the actors equity union here when I was fourteen so I was already making money as an actor when I was in high-school so I just realised that it was a viable career for me. But I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would do anything on camera and voice over was the furthest thing from my mind because I didn’t even know it existed. I just expected to go to New York City and perform on Broadway. That was my plan. I do hope to go back there someday too.

Retroplayer- Tell us about your work ethic. How do you approach your work?

Ali- Well, I had a teacher at fourteen that taught me to “drop it at the door”. I think that’s a very good lesson for anyone. As soon as you walk into your place of employment you drop whatever is in your mind and clear your head so you can do your job. There’s another one I try and live by and people reading this interview might laugh but it’s “if you’re on time your late”. So I try and be a bit early to everything I do. You know, to clear my head, get my cup of tea and get ready for what I’m about to do. I pretend for a living so I need to clear my mind in everything I do. They’re two big ones and another one is “act before you think”. If you do this in real life you’ll run into a lot of trouble but as an actor it’s the best thing in the world to act before you think. We don’t get any scripts for Mass Effect ahead of time. It’s one thing I love about voice over is that there is no preparation. I get into the booth and I work from the hip for the whole thing. I love things that are improvisational because it comes out more real and more spontaneously.

Retroplayer- You’re first game was Xenosaga: Episode 2. What was your impressions of the voice over business?

Ali- When I did Xenosaga I had experience with the wonderful company that was making that game and the audio engineers that were working on it too at a little recording studio called Cup of Tea- it’s my favourite name of a recording studio! Cup of Tea, I love it!

When I did Xenosaga I really wasn’t privy to the fact that you could make a career out of doing voice over for videogames. I wasn’t even sure what that game was because we were putting the words into flaps- we were doing ADR- instead of being able to use our own inflections and our own timing. We had to try and make our words fit into the Japanese flaps. I had never done that before and I had never done a game before so the only voice over things I’d done before that were commercials and doing my own ADR for my own films. Like, we’re doing a scene in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang or Must Love Dogs and an aeroplane flies over head and we have to re-record the lines in the studio. So that was basically the extent of my experience with that kind of thing <laughs>.

That was really a huge challenge and I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t sure about the style, was I supposed to make these characters real? were they supposed to be more cartoony? I just wasn’t sure. When I go back and listen to Xenosaga I really had no clue what I was doing. Well now I play Karin in series and games of Naruto so now I know how to do it and it’s a whole different ball game. But I hope, I hope when the fans listen to Karin and look back to Xenosaga they’ll see that I have developed. It could be funny to listen back to it. I’d love to go back and take another crack at Xenosaga, those guys were so good to me, sent me my free game and everything.

Retroplayer- You’ve also been in quite a lot of TV and film, Ali, with roles in films such as The Ultimate Gift, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Heartbreak Kid and on TV in Memphis Beat, CSI and The New Adventures of Old Christine. In terms of preparation and execution is acting on screen much different from that of voice acting?

Ali- You’ve done your homework. I love it! To answer your question, no. Lets start off with the audition process. With voice acting you might get a small piece of dialogue. I think for Mass Effect I auditioned with four or six lines. We get a brief character description and sometimes we get a photo. The photo helps enormously. Just seeing Liaras face would help me develop the character. Sometimes the descriptions are really great and about who this character is while others times it’s a piece of a storyline and doesn’t really give you an impression of who the character is, it just tells you about their role in the world.

In on camera audition we usually gets things called “sides” which are three or four scenes to read. They don’t give us full scripts as they don’t want it leaked online so, like, everyone knows how the guy was killed on CSI or whatever. <laughs> So we just read those scenes but we have more to work from. When it’s a movie I’m still surprised they give us full scripts because nowadays people will put those scripts directly on the internet and it’s really sad as, you know, I don’t wanna read it, I don’t wanna know the ending of a film before I see it.

With voice over you’re more or less developing the character on the fly. If you book the role you’re walking into a studio were you normally don’t get a lot of description about the character when you come in. Although, I must say that with Mass Effect voice director Ginny McSwain she was very thorough with helping me to understand who Liara was, who the Asari were, what this world I was living in and my experiences from the past and where I was at present in the game. She was fantastic at setting me up for this role as was Jack Fletcher with FFXIII. If we don’t understand who the character is it’s hard for us to come to a place of specificity and that’s where I need to come from as an actor, I need to know as many layers of this character as possible. I don’t treat a film role any differently than I would with a videogame role. I got very lucky and booked some very big games back to back and I just thank the people who trained me in my life because I think it was this specificity that helped me understand the character that probably helped me get the role because they hear thousands of auditions. Something I hear from the producers is that they’re running between jobs and they’re having to listen to voice auditions from the MP3 player in their car. But I didn’t book Liara because they thought, “what actress in TV and film do we use?” I booked it because I read some lines and they thought that this was the voice they wanted. I got lucky that I chose something that made sense to them for Liara and then Ginny and I made sure we honed that character and made her very specific before we entered into recording.

Retroplayer- I find it amazing that you booked two major characters so close to each other- Lightning and Liara. Most of the time voice actors get to voice one massive character in their entire career. Plus I can imagine that, because they were so close together, that the combined fan response was overwhelming.

Ali- I mean, it’s awesome, man. I’m am so grateful and there are so many amazing people in the voice over industry that I’ve met and I was really living under a rock when it comes to gaming and how huge the community is. And when people refer to gaming as an underground thing I’m like, “have you been to comic-con?” <laughs> I take a lot of pride in what I do. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’ve been honoured with such strong and independent female roles. But not in a bitchy way, you know? They’re not women that are trying to take over. They’re just women who don’t need help. They’re not crying to be saved. They’re in a power position but they’re honourable. I like that.

Retroplayer- Yeah, in many ways women in the games industry are still portrayed in a very immature way but I think Liara is a great example of a brilliant female character.

Ali- Thank you. We recorded Mass Effect without any picture. I recorded Final Fantasy XIII with a picture because at that point they had finished it in Japanese. But in Mass Effect we record without a picture so Bioware has to piece it all together which must be… I can only imagine. So, mostly it’s about hearing, like, Jennifer Hale and all these amazing voice actors in my headphones and answering back to them. Sometimes not though and I have to react to nothing but luckily I’m working with good directors and they put me into the right place.

Retroplayer- Have you ever met some of your fellow Mass Effect cast mates?

Ali- Yeah, Jennifer Hale is awesome. She invited me to be her plus one at the Spike TV awards. We got to walk the red carpet, had a really great time and she was nominated for an award. I was so proud of her and I was there supporting her. She’s a hoot man, she’s so much fun. When we get together we have so much fun and we both love the fans. I may be attending a convention in Florida with her called Expcon in October if any of your readers want to come along.

Retroplayer- Do you think voice acting is evolving?

Ali- Yeah, I think the more realistic the graphics are the more authentic it needs to sound.

Retroplayer- Yeah, you listen to voice acting in games ten years ago and it pales in comparison to what is expected now.

Ali- Yeah and I do think that is a real tribute to the gaming companies for being so on the ball and developing the technologies. I mean, two years ago at E3 Steven Spielberg was in the room when they were showing off Halo Reach. I think he is also learning from these technologies that gaming is coming up with. I did my first motion capture for a game that I’m not going to tell you what it is- nah, not gonna tell you- but it was really an amazing experience and I can’t wait to do more mo-cap. I got paid to learn, which is always my favourite thing.

Retroplayer- Speaking about mo-cap I recently met up in Dublin with Alesia Glidewell. She does voice acting and mo-cap but was also the face model for Chell in Portal 1 & 2. I have to say, it was kind of bizarre at first to see this face that I was so used to seeing but in person.

Ali- That’s why I like doing voice only Skype interviews like this. But I get a lot of people who meet me in person and who ask if they modelled Lightning after me. I’m like, no. <laughs> She was developed a long time before I was involved. It is interesting how you sometimes, sometimes start to resemble your characters though. Troy Baker, who played Snow in Final Fantasy XIII, it’s wild how he resembles some of his characters, especially Snow. There’s a wonderful company out here called PCB, they do Saints Row and they’re on the cutting edge with using new technologies. The motion capture stuff they’re coming up with is just beyond.

Retroplayer- The more I talk with voice actors and once I get over the fact that they’re that voice I’m learning that they’re much more than a voice and can’t really be pinned down to one thing.

Ali- Yeah, I’m with you on that. I think parts of us are in the character. I try and bring something of myself to each character no matter what the medium. But I go through the same thing as I’m hearing just their voices on the headset. Before I met Dee Bradley Baker I never would have though he looked like that- his little guy, he was thin and in shape and when he does his voices I imagine him being this giant 300 pound beast of a man. But he’s awesome. Pretty interesting guy. I don’t not resemble some of my characters, as you can probably see on the net because unlike some voice actors my picture is around quite a bit just because of my on-camera work. But I think it can be disturbing, can’t it? You see someone from a game but their features are different. When I say features I mean breasts! <laughs> It’s weird when you see yourself in a game all puffed up. I haven’t really had that but I’ve seen it with friends of mine. It’s like, “look it’s me, only better!” <laughs>

Retroplayer- That’s what Rana McAnear, whose face was used for Samara, she says they gave her “space boobs”.

Ali- Too funny, I think so many of the women in games have the same body. That’s why I like Lightning. She was a little less well endowed. She was more tomboyish.

Retroplayer- Back to Liara. What is it about her that interests you?

Ali- I think in Mass Effect 1, for me at least, Liara was all about discovery. I always try and find an essence, a simplicity of a character and I think Liara is extremely complicated but I tried to find the simplicity in her. I think, especially in Mass Effect 1 before she started to evolve, that almost everything was a discovery but especially in her relationships. She was always the scientist and always absorbing and even though she was deeply emotional she was observant and very reactionary in the way she went about things. I felt that her eyes were always looking, her ears were always listening and she was very aware and almost child-like even though she was 106 years old. And as the games progressed- and Bioware and I talked about this- that she almost started to take on more human attributes and becoming more emotional, more present in her situations than observant and standing on the outside.

Retroplayer- Is some of that growth as a character down to her relationship with Shepard?

Ali- Absolutely, absolutely. We all love the “by the goddess” scenes. <laughs> We love “embracing eternity” now, don’t we?

Retroplayer- Give me an impression of a typical day of recording for Mass Effect.

Ali- Well, we record at Technicolor Studios in Burbank, California. Of course, working with Ginny McSwain was an absolute joy and she was really to one who helped us all, helped all the actors to develop our characters and basically lay the ground work for the characters in Mass Effect. Bioware and Ginny really worked with us to develop these characters because we didn’t have any visuals, maybe a photo, but they build the games simultaneously to us recording our voices. That was great working with Ginny and now we work with Caroline Livingstone. So she’s on the headphones- the “cans”- I walk into Technicolor Studios, I grab my tea , I walk into the booth and there’s an engineer behind the glass and Caroline on the headphones and she leads us through the world of Mass Effect. She really has to paint the picture, as did Ginny, of the scenes we’re in and what we’re reacting to. Sometimes we’re ahead of the visuals they’re making for the game so we might record a session and have to come back in and do it again because they realise that we recorded in lower volumes, in lower pitches and more hush tones and that scene became more explosive so we have to record it with more urgent dialogue. It’s a massive, massive coordination process on Biowares part. I don’t know how they do it.

But yeah, we record on and off. Like we might do a week of recording then won’t record for three weeks. Compared to games like Final Fantasy XIII where you record it all in one go Mass Effect is a work in progress.

We joke a lot, we have a lot of fun. Caroline is pretty funny and I always excuse of her of being drunk. She’s not, of course, but I’m like, “Caroline, you on the vodka again?” because we get giddy in there. <laughs>

Retroplayer- Maybe she’s half Irish which means she’s drunk half the time?

Ali- <laughs> We get punchy in there because the poor girl has been recording back to back sessions and/or I have with different games. We don’t waste time at all in the booth. We’re very efficient but at the same time some good laughs come out because anything you say in Liaras voice is pretty funny.

Retroplayer- So for The Lair of the Shadow Broker which was the third DLC for Mass Effect 2-

Ali- The turd?

Retroplayer- <laughs> I know, that’s my Irish accent again cutting corners on my TH’s.

Ali- <laughs> Turd means something totally different here, you know that right?

Retroplayer- Oh yeah, I know. It was the…third.

Ali- I’m kidding. Oh it’s so sexy to me that’s why I make fun of you.

Retroplayer- When I try and pronounce TH’s I sound sound, just wrong.

Ali- Yeah, me too. I actually have to take a little lesson from you Irishmen. When talking in the microphone and you use a H and you make what we call a fricative, it has too much spit in it. <laughs> When you’re playing Liara and you end up being spitty it just doesn’t feel right. I’ll take a lesson from you and if you listen my TH’s will sound a lot more like yours.

Retroplayer- See, that’s why I wouldn’t be a good voice actor, I cut corners too much.

Ali- No! You’d be a great voice actor you don’t say “ththththththththt!” You gotta print that!

Retroplayer- <laughs> I will try and print what you just said.

Ali-ththththththththt” <laughs> So, today I learned something from Denis. I learned how to say turd. Denis thought Liara how to say turd. We we never want a fricative into the microphones.

Retroplayer- My legacy lives on, you know.

Ali- Absolutely. I will think of you every time I say “third”. <laughs>

Click here for part two!

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