“The world has room for only one big boss!”- Solidus Snake
I’ve always been a fan of John Cygan. John’s voice, to me, is one of the most recognizable and best voices in the industry. When growing up I’d refer to him as “that voice” but only up until his role as Canderous Ordo in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did I seek out the man behind the voice. Since Canderous and I had that unforgettable Star Wars adventure I’ve been a fan of his whether it be in animation, film or videogames. Upon getting in touch with him I was happy to find he wasn’t cold like Solidus or as blunt as Canderous. John Cygan, the man behind “that voice”, was an absolute gentleman and more than happy to chat with me. So, in this interview John talks about his career, Stars Wars, Solidus Snake, his work with Pixar and the motivation behind his work.
As far as favoruite voice actors go I would personally put John in my top 3, if not at number 1. He’s an incredible talent and someone who truly loves his work. It was a pleasure to talk with and I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did doing it.
John Cygan- I was born in New York City, one of 12 children sired by my father. Not all from a matching set of parents, so lots of half brothers and sisters. There are actually 6 of us from a matching set of parents. However, they never married.
Retroplayer- When did you decide that acting was your call in life?
John- When I was twelve years old, I was attending a Catholic School and a nun told me that the school was going to be doing its first play; “The King And I” and she informed me that I was going to be in it. She said she saw things in my writing that made her think I was a creative kid. I did the play and was bitten.
Retroplayer- With voice acting, take us through your early experiences of breaking into industry, John. Was it tough to secure roles to help build up your résumé or did you find it relatively easy?
John- What tends to happen in all aspects of the industry, Films, TV, Video games, even the Theatre, when you work with; directors, producers, casting people etc. and you deliver the goods, stay professional, are easy to get along with– (don’t make their job any more stressful than they already are) they want to work with you again and again. That’s how you build up a resume. I started in theatre as a stage actor. That led to a job writing commercials for a radio station in New Jersey–which led to me playing multiple characters in the commercials I wrote–and performed for the other writers in their commercials as well. In time I had a collection of voices that showed a pretty decent range. I took that reel into New York and stared getting commercial jobs. One thing led to another.
Retroplayer- Your first venture into the gaming world was with voicing Dash Rendar in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, John. What was your first impression of the videogame voice over business and did you plan on getting into it in the first place or did you just happen upon it?
John- Dash Rendar wasn’t actually very far from my natural speaking voice. I would say I’m a baritone/bass timber with a bit of rasp. So, yes, Dash came fairly easy for me. But actors are rarely asked to do only one voice in a game. The contracts call for up to three voices. So we’ll often be asked to change and do an incidental character or two. When I started showing off my range, that’s what got me thrown into other games.
Retroplayer- Do you ever get asked about or recognised as Dash Rendar?
John- No. It has never happened. I’ve been recognized from my TV, or Theatre work and then if asked about video games I might rattle off a few titles and if some one has of of those titles they will ask me to do the character I played. When I give them a sample of the voice I used, their eyes widen and sometimes, they freak out. It’s kinda cool.
Retroplayer- John, you’ve been quite prolific in the Star Wars universe by lending your voice to a number of videogames as well as some audio dramas including voicing Luke Skywalker in the excellent Dark Empire. Are you personally interested in Star Wars yourself outside of it providing work from time to time?
John- I love the whole Star Wars mythology. I love what it stands for. I also feel that my work on the “Dark Empire” trilogy was some of the most fun and hardest work I’ve ever done. We had a blast. All working like a live radio show from the 30′s, playing off each other. Really kick ass actors playing–emoting as if it were all happening right then and there. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. When I go in to record 90% of the time it’s just me.
Retroplayer- John you’ve been in some rather big videogame franchises during your career including Knight of the Old Republic, Prince of Persia, Command and Conquer and Metal Gear Solid. Is there any particular role that you’ve played in a videogame that doesn’t get enough attention that you’d like people to check out?
John- I play a couple of really cool characters in “Mafia II” and the game is visually stunning. I’m very proud of it. Also, “Call Of Juarez II” and “Dead Island” I also have three titles coming out within next year. Two of them are HUGE franchises, but until they are released I am not permitted to say one word about them. I have signed very detailed contracts to that effect.
John- No. Kris Zimmerman, the voice director on the project, had used me as “Melfice” the evil brother in “Grandia II” and had seen me go to the dark side as an actor. She called me in to read for Solidus, told me just how deep and dark this guy was–twisted really. I felt that virtually every word that came out of this guy’s mouth had to sound tortured. Like it was coming from a painful place. I guess it worked. Kris gave me the gig.
Retroplayer- Take us through a typical day of the recording process of MGS2, John.
John- There were parts of the day where I’d sit in the waiting room at Salami Studios and Kris would be working a scene with David and Raiden, then David would come out with his laptop and go back to writing “The Hulk” and I would go in the studio booth and work on scenes that we didn’t have together. Then there were times where 6 or 7 of us would be in the booth together for a scene. I think the scratchiness of the Snake brothers took it’s toll on both David and myself. By the time we were done, I couldn’t speak for a week after.
Retroplayer- How do you view Solidus as a character?
John- Driven. A sole purpose. Single and simple minded. (I don’t mean dumb) Like the recent events in Norway. Twisted as it is, that guy in his own sick mind had found a way to justify what he did because HE believes it is right. Even when you play the bad guy, the character himself can’t believe he is the bad guy. Solidus hated the way others ran the world and he was going to fix it.
Retroplayer- John, Solidus adopted the main character, Raiden, at a young age after murdering his parents and raised as a killing machine. Do you think Solidus viewed Raiden as a real son or rather just as something to be used and moulded into a tool of war?
John- I think the closer Raiden came to becoming a killing machine, the more Solidus felt a “father’s pride” in much the same way Dr. Frankenstein felt a “father’s pride”–or perhaps, a “creators” pride.
Retroplayer- John, seeing as Solidus is, compared to Liquid and Solid Snake, a perfect clone of Big Boss was there ever talk of you perhaps voicing Big Boss when he made an appearance in MGS4?
John- If there was, I was not privy to it. I think it is important, while theses are clones, to keep the voices separated because that is the only way you can keep from confusing your audience. And, as you know Denis, the deeper you delve, the easier it is to get lost.
Retroplayer- Solidus, like any great villain, truly believes in his mission, John. Did you portray him as a purely “evil” force or did you try and inject some humanity into him despite having a complete disregard for human life that stood in the way of his mission?
John- Honestly, it was a long time ago when we recorded this, so I’m having difficulty remembering the beat by beat moment I played. If memory serves, I think Kris and I agreed that any showing of humanity was to be used for manipulation purposes only. Either the player or Raiden to get him to do what Solidus wanted. I think Solidus had negated humanity because it smelled like weakness.
Retroplayer- John, seeing as the latest Metal Gear Solid game, MGS-Rising, is the works would you ever be interested in stepping back into the Meta Gear universe?
John- Yes! In a heartbeat! I’d pay with a scratchy throat for a week after, but would gladly do it. One, I respect the work these game creators do; it is extremely hard, takes forever and everything down to the most minute detail has to be technically, functionally perfect. I get to record over a day, sometimes two and go home. That’s just the beginning for them. And Two, it’s a blast! I love what I do.
Retroplayer- John, Metal Gear Solid is a very cinematic franchise. In terms of storytelling and character development do you feel that videogames are beginning to rival TV and film?
John- According to the numbers I’ve seen, they have surpassed motion pictures grossing over 12 billion in 2008- 2009. But here’s the better tell-tale sign: When pitching animated, adventure and action movies to the major studios, now, it is a virtual requirement that there be a video game version of the movie. Having said that—I must tell you that I’m not so sure that is a good thing. I don’t know how good it is to tell writers that they must re-write and re-structure their ideas and movies just for the purpose of making the movie marketable as a video game. It’s a dangerous road we’re on as artists when we are forced to work backwards from marketing and not forwards from creativity.
John- Most likely Solid Snake. I have found in my career that I’m usually the hero or the villain and sometimes both. And sometimes, both in the same character!
Retroplayer- John, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t ask about one of my favourite videogame characters of all time you voiced, Canderous Ordo from Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic. While the script for any Bioware game is extensive that of KotoR was massive. Tell us a little about your views on the character of Canderous and, as an actor, were you satisfied by his personal journey over the course of the game?
John- Well, as you noted, it was a long arcing story which could take many turns. As Canderous, I served you, the player and championed your cause whatever you chose to be. As such, I have to record tons of dialogue if you chose to be a Jedi and more if you chose to turn to the dark side and still more because the game was gender specific. Many lines had to be re-recorded to include him/her, she/he, etc. Having said that, I loved the project because Canderous Ordo had his own story to tell and got to tell it no matter who he served. Again, Star Wars projects are done by the top talent in the business on all levels, writing, graphics, music–everything. I am more than satisfied, I am most proud of my Star Wars projects. And the bonus for me? Shortly after the game cam out, my then 7 year old son saw a Lego of Canderous and had to have it. His daddy was a hero because they made a Lego of me. That’s when I knew I made it.
Retroplayer- Are you a gamer yourself? If so, what do you play?
John- I appreciate games, but do not have the time to dedicate to them. My now 13 year old son keeps me up to date. The games I mostly play are sports games like Madden Football, NBA Basketball and such.
Retroplayer- John, you’ve also worked on a number of Pixar films including Cars, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 as the voice of Twitch. Tell us a little about working with Pixar, a company that for many would be considered the pinnacle of modern animation.
John- That is the biggest blessing in my VO career. I have gotten to work with the most talented people in the industry. Everything Pixar touches, they turn to gold. That’s not by luck. They are very hard working people who care about every frame of every movie they make. And they know that the most important word in any movie is STORY. About 15 years ago I attended The Robert McKee story structure seminar. A very famous seminar that most professional screen writers, story editors, industry pros either know of or have taken. It wasn’t cheap, several hundred dollars for a two day seminar. When went into the LA Design centre auditorium, about a —600 seat venue if memory serves—Pixar had bought out two entire rows of seats. When I chatted with some of Pixar’s people on a lunch break, I learned that not a single one of them was a writer for Pixar. I was told that everyone at Pixar is sent to learn the importance of story. Animators, editors, computer geeks, everyone at Pixar gets to put in their two cents. No ego, just good storytelling. It’s an honor to work for them and everyone who does feels that way.
Retroplayer- Favourite character you’ve ever voiced?
John- Too tough to call! WOW! Toss up between Luke Skywalker in Dark Empire, Satal, in “Takes of the Jedi: Dark Lords of the Sith”
Retroplayer- At this point in your life what is your main source of inspiration, John?
John- My son and my daughter.
Retroplayer- What advice would you give to any young people who wish to become a voice actor who are reading this right now?
John- Read Read Read! Everything. And when you read a character, don’t start with the voice. Start by understanding that character’s point of view and your inner voice will help you determine what that character should sound like.
Retroplayer- John, Solidus’ death scene was extremely iconic after falling from Federal Hall and reaching out for the statue of George Washington. How do you want Solidus Snake to be remembered?
John- As the example of misguided passion that he was. Passion is a good thing until it takes away your ability to hear others.
Retroplayer- What’s next for John Cygan?
John- I have just wrapped a play here in Los Angeles that was so well received that it was extended, twice! It’s called Moose on the Loose
www.mooseplay.com. The reviews were stupendous and we had a blast. Being on stage really helps me keep my acting chops in tune so that I can do the other work with focus and confidence. On the video game side I have: Lord Of The Rings, Reckoning, Scanner. All three projects are in production now, all recorded, but can’t talk about.
Retroplayer- Do you have a message for all of your fans on TGL, John?
John- All any of us on this side of the microphone can say is, thank you. Thank you for following our work and letting the gaming companies know what you think of it. I’m glad we got a chance to connect every now and again. Enjoy!