The best thing about interviewing voice actors is that they inevitably start doing the voices for which they’re famous. And sometimes, they’ll impersonate other voice actors if you ask the right questions. Which is probably why it was so enjoyable to listen to Nolan North jump between his version of The Penguin and get into a Patrick Warburton impression in a matter of minutes.
For North, the list of characters he’s portrayed is too long to check off in a single interview. Gamers may know him best as the voice of Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series, but his list of credits includes the Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC and Rick and Morty universes. His turn as Tony Stark in Marvel’s Avengers is perhaps his biggest role in the Marvel Universe, and despite the bevy of credits the actor will simply say he’s been fortunate to play so many roles in his career. Just don’t ask him to play Iron Man as well with a controller in his hand as he did in the motion capture suit.
“I found Iron Man the hardest to play,” North said in an interview with Uproxx. “It was easier to play Tony Stark than it was to ‘play’ Iron Man.”
North’s workload as Iron Man in Marvel’s Avengers isn’t nearly as large a role as he’s had in other games. But that’s because the game is a team effort, and he praised the other voice actors he’s paired with, including the character you first view the game through, Ms. Marvel.
“I’m really looking forward to this game. I like the universe,” North said. “And I gotta tell you, big, big props to Sandra Saad, who is Ms. Marvel. Who is new to this, jumped in with both hands and was enthusiastic, excited. And it came across in her performance. I think people are going to love her in this role.”
North spoke to Uproxx about his work in Marvel’s Avengers, his career as a voice actor and how he approaches roles, and what’s changed in the gaming industry since he started giving it a voice a few console generations ago. And yes, he did some very good impressions throughout the interview that you’ll have to take my word on, I suppose.
Uproxx: You’re no stranger to the process of making games and watching them hit the market. But how much more rewarding is to finally see a game get to players and they get to experience your work? I know it can be quite a long wait from recording to the day it ships.
Nolan North: Yeah, there is. There is a long wait and I think the best part of it is once it does drop and, of course, it’s successful. I’ve been really fortunate that I haven’t dropped a lot of bombs [laughs], game-wise. but thats not about me as much as it’s a testament to the developers and all the stuff that they do. The actors get interviewed, but it’s the people that put it together and put our performances in and turn me into Tony Stark, visually, that deserve a big amount of credit.
This game, in particular, is one of the most visually stunning ones I’ve seen. The gameplay is ridiculous. I’m not even a very good gamer but I played some of the beta and got into it and thought ‘wow, this is just cool. It’s fun.’ And I think you can play as so many different characters, so there’s something for everyone. And it’s got the right amount of emotion and humor and action. I’m excited to see how this one more than many in my past, how it’s received.
From an acting perspective you’re taking on a role that’s been done by another actor in a very notable way. For a lot of gamers, that’s the person they’ll think of while they’re playing as Iron Man. Did that change how you approached the role and voicing Tony Stark in any way?
I’m a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr. and everything that the MCU has done for Iron Man and the Avengers as a whole. But if I tried to do an impression here it would just be a huge mistake. You don’t want to do that and the only way I could actually approach this was just to make it as much like me as I could. Because nobody else can do an impression of me better than me.
First of all, there was less pressure because it was an ensemble. It wasn’t like we were doing the Iron Man game right off the bat. It was an ensemble, so I just had to do my part to support. Like they say, the play’s the thing, so I had to do my part. There are some things where I do a little bit of an homage on a phrase here and there, to Robert Downey Jr., and that’s done on purpose. Just to give people a little taste of that. Not an impression, but he phrased things a certain way. And I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t honor that a little bit in some kind of way.
But other than that, it’s just me doing my spin on Iron Man. And Robert Downey Jr. did his spin on Sherlock Holmes, which is a character that’s been played many, many times. He made it his own. So that’s all I could do, that’s all I could be responsible for. And I certainly don’t want to draw comparisons. I want to to be, ‘Oh, it’s completely different.’ So still honoring the character but doing my own thing. And as long as you have the confidence to do that, and everybody on the dev team is on board. That’s the first thing Sean Sky, our director told me: “Make it your own.” So, that’s what I did. And I hope people don’t riot in the streets over me.
I’m sure you’re going to be OK. You have a long list of credits to your name, people trust you at this point.
I’m sure we’re going to hear, somebody’s going to say “This is Nathan Drake in the Iron Man suit.” You’re going to hear stuff like that. It is and it isn’t.
Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. You have a very distinct voice and I can think of a few other voice actors that have very distinct voices doing different roles. I can think of H. Jon Benjamin being Coach McGuirk in Home Movies and also playing Bob in Bob’s Burgers and also a spy in Archer. Patrick Warburton has a very distinct voice, too. Is that something you just embrace because that’s who you are and where the voice comes from, or is there an effort made to distinctly change things with roles. And how hard does that get when you have so many characters to your name?
Well, I think a lot of my characters do something different. Like, the Penguin (Batman: Arkham). Or Dr. Richtophen (Call of Duty), or some cartoon voice acting I do, they’re very different. I know Patrick Warburton pretty well, and he and I were joking one time and he said “I don’t know how you do all these voices, you just did three characters in that.” And I said ‘You just do that one?’ And he said [doing an impression of Warburton] ‘Yeah, I just do this one.’ And I said ‘It’s working out for you pretty well.’ And he says, [does impression again] ‘Yeah, yeah it is. It’s working out pretty good.’
But he has that very distinct thing that became popular first on Seinfeld when he played (David) Puddy. For me, when I first started doing animation and games the best performance is the one where you didn’t recognize the guy. Then you start doing more and more and it’s just, there are people who say ‘No, we want that voice.’
I’ve joked about it in interviews before, I think my voice kind of fits a lot of characters because it was somewhat unremarkable. It’s not something that is very very distinct. And just my body of work now makes it more distinct. But, especially in characters where I’m doing performance capture, it’s different. Tony had to be my voice and the dialogue is going to take care of things. Tony Stark is going to say things very different than Nathan Drake is going to say. So while the voices are the same in certain parts, the words basically, are going to be very different. He’s going to be talking about different things. Tony speaks a little faster. So while it’s the same tone and sound, it’s a different cadence, it’s a different sentence structure he uses.
I think you can watch an on-camera performance by Brad Pitt, let’s say. In Oceans 11 he has a certain way of talking that he has in something different like Fight Club or something like that. So there’s just different ways to do it. People ask me ‘Do you like doing those more?’ Or [in character] ‘doing the Penguin and talking like that?’ Well, it doesn’t matter they’re all different. That’s the thing I like about voiceover more than on-camera things: I’m able to play more character-y parts. I’m not limited by my physical appearance. So it’s just fun, it’s a bigger sandbox and there are more toys in it.
I was curious if you ever go back and check your work, so to speak, with a game once your acting is in the finished product? Do you have to play through the games you’re in or is there just too much now to play through?
No, no I don’t go back and check. It’s too late, I can’t fix it. I can’t change it. I’m not a very good gamer. I’ve played a few things I was in. On my retro replay YouTube channel I played through Uncharted 1, 2 and 3. Because I had never played that game, those games. I found out I was not good.
My kids play, my boys play and I’ll watch things there. It’s interesting because I don’t like to watch myself when I do on camera stuff. But in animation and in gaming I like to see how they took that performance from months earlier and turn that into something. So I’ll watch a lot of the games my boys will play or I’ll see people online, but this work is for the fans. It’s for the players out there and as long as they enjoy it there’s nothing for me to check. That’s the bottom line: I just want to give a good enough performance so that the dev team takes it back, visually makes it stunning, the designers make the gameplay fun and being part of that collaboration is what’s very, very important to me. Because it’s an experience.
It’s not something you just watch, you are in it. You’re Iron Man, I’m not. I voiced him and did his movement but you shoot, you run, you jump. You do all those things. And that’s what is so important.
Making a video game is such a fascinating process, and maybe a lot of people don’t know how complex it is and how much harder it’s gotten since you’ve gotten involved. What’s one thing that maybe has changed the most since you got into voice acting in games?
It’s the technology that keeps evolving to make it a more realistic and expansive experience. I think my side of it doesn’t change much. My side, my job is I’m an actor. I’m not a voice actor, I’m not solely on camera. I’m an actor. Give me a mic, give me a camera, give me a live audience. My job is to deliver a good performance no matter what it is. And that doesn’t change.
Yeah, there’s different techniques and stuff but mostly it’s ‘How do I find the most truthful performance in any given medium I’m in. What’s amazing is watching what they do with these performances. Starting out doing motion capture early, we had cue cards. And I’d say ‘hey, I’m from on camera. I can memorize these.’ They go ‘oh we may change them from here to there,’ and I’d say that’s cool. But the other actors, we’d walk around and have cue cards on poles in the middle that we had to walk around. So you’d be talking to somebody and your eyes would be looking to the right because they didn’t know how to capture facial animation at the time.
Then we went to facial capture and helmets, and the helmets were like diving bells at first and heavy and awkward and they made them lighter. This different company comes in with a different rig and now it’s a camera on it. This has a light, this has a D light that you don’t see. And it’s amazing, and it’s all way above my pay grade. I’m just not smart enough to understand how the works.
But then you see the final product and what they do with it. In this job in particular, I know we’re doing promotion for this but I say this completely genuinely: it’s some of the most amazing gameplay I’ve ever been involved in. The blend from the cinematic to gameplay and in-game cinematic, the movement, the visuals, the detail is astounding.
I think it’s like everything changes but it stays the same. It’s such an oxymoron, but it’s true. And I’ve got the luckiest part of this: I just have to keep doing the best performance I can and they just keep making it better and better. So the industry is probably making me better than I could have been on my own. So I’m very, very fortunate and I have no intention of slowing down.
A lot of game designers say the last 10 percent of making a game is the hardest part and it’s also where most of the game comes together. For a long time you just don’t know if it’s going to be good or work or even get done. Most of the time you’re not involved in that last 10 percent, but can you tell when you’re doing lines and working with a script that the project will be good or does it not become clear until much later?
From my perspective, I always go back to the writing because any story you tell, it’s the writing that it really comes down to. What is the story? What are the characters? What are there intentions what is their interaction like?
And then you blend it with gameplay, and you have some of these really, really successful games. For me, I may not be involved in that last 10 percent unless we’re getting pickups, last-minute line changes. But I always joke that these dev teams work at the Willy Wonka chocolate factory. Nobody knows how these teams work or how they make it, but boy you can’t wait to eat it. For me, they take our performances, bring it into that factory and make it what you get to play and what it’s all about.
It hasn’t really changed anything I do, I don’t know exactly how to put my finger on it to be honest with you. Does that answer my question?
Yeah, I think so. For fans I think a lot of the time it’s a black box. You see a game is delayed and say ‘That’s unfortunate’ but don’t really understand why or how that happens. But Crunch in gaming hasn’t gone away and, even in games you’ve worked on, there’s no set schedule or period for when a game gets done or streamlined process for completion games all follow.
Well, from my experience one thing, I remember (Uncharted publisher) Naughty Dog talking about this, I think every dev team goes through it. You set a deadline, you gotta get things done. So you’re getting things done, you set a time, and then somebody says ‘hey you know what would be cool?’ And everybody goes ‘Yeah, we’ve got time for that.’ And something in that makes someone else go ‘You know what else could be cool, though? Oh, wait.’
You’re dealing with people who are incredibly intelligent and incredibly creative, and they’re always going ‘Do we have time to do this?’ No, we really don’t, but oh wow, that would be amazing. It’s like you have a set list of things you need to do, 10 things. And by the time you get down to nine and 10 you’re adding 11, 12, 13, 14 on to that list. Because they so desperately want to make the best product they can for people. They want to do that.
And I think, personally, it’s why a lot of these companies are going to these DLCs. Because rather than waiting for two years and we’ll put it in a second game, or the next sequel. I think, creatively, they come up with new ideas or ways to enhance things or an offshoot storyline. And now that’s maybe why we’re seeing games get DLC a few months later. We’re going to get our game out, we’re going to make our deadline and give people the game and now we’re going to give people more content that we wanted to do if we had time, but here’s an idea: let’s give them an additional add-on.
I think that helps them deal with the crunch to get the last bit done to satisfy deadlines and all that. It’s an incredibly complex and strenuous business, but it’s super rewarding. It’s really people working at what they love to do, and that’s what I love about it. People are very dedicated to what they do and it’s important to them.
I remember talking with guys at Naughty Dog during the Uncharted years. They’d spend hours trying to get these gunshots, these squib hits, to look just right. Well, the squib hit has to look different from the different caliber shot and it also has to look different how it hits the rock as it hits steel or or hits glass. That all has to be hand done.
I remember thinking ‘Are you kidding me?’ And for, like, two years, particle artist are making these small things look so perfect. And they’re so good at it. It’s, most people just get the final product. But when they learn about what goes into it, they’d be amazed.
You’ve been in a lot of different universes in your career. Star Wars, DC, Marvel, it’s really impressive honestly. Is there one in particular that you had always wanted to work in when you were growing up? Any roles that mean more to you personally?
Star Wars, I was a Star Wars guy. We were actually doing a cool thing with Star Wars property with EA and Amy Hennig a while back that I was involved in that got shut down, which was super disappointing, just because that was different. But I’ve gotten to be part of that universe as well.
The funny thing is, yeah, I’ve gotten to be involved in a lot of different things that I never thought I’d get to be a part of. I never really thought I’d be an actor, tat wasn’t really a thing I thought about. I will say something interesting about Iron Man: because of the movies and Robert Downey Jr. it became one of my favorite superheroes.
So when this came along, it didn’t fulfill any childhood dreams, it fulfilled an adult bucket list item. And I think it kind of felt like the right fit. I have a bit of a sarcastic sense of humor and that kind of, he made it so relatable and if I could take anything that he did with the movies, I hope that people get the wit and relate-ability.
Even though Tony is a billionaire, he was still relatable to people. He had this vulnerability that all great characters have. And to be able to be vulnerable and still be a superhero is an incredibly interesting thing to portray. So I would say this game and this character is something I’m going to be thankful and grateful for this for many years to come.