After ‘Isle Of Dogs,’ Courtney B. Vance Hopes You’ll Hear His Voice Everywhere

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Looking back through Courtney B. Vance’s filmography, it’s actually shocking how little voiceover work he’s done – especially considering just how great a voice he has. When I brought this up to Vance – who is the narrator of Wes Anderson’s new animated film, Isle of Dogs – this did seem like a bit of a sore spot. And hearing Vance’s voice in person, it’s kind of insane he’s not narrating every movie. But as Vance explains, there was a shift in Hollywood where producers wanted celebrities and not voice actors, so Vance was left for a while on the outside looking in.

Not that this stopped Vance’s career, which is now storied – and Vance takes us down his long road, reminiscing about everything from The Hunt for Red October –Vance missed a chance to ride in the real submarine — to his film debut in Hamburger Hill – a film whose cast of unknowns are now all pretty famous.

Vance is an actor with stories, and sometimes it’s best just to listen to them. And Vance couldn’t help but also bring up the success of Black Panther, and it’s obvious how proud Vance is of that film for a few reasons, including the tremendous performance of his wife, Angela Bassett.

It feels like you should have been doing Wes Anderson films for a while. I hope you do more.

We will all push him in that direction. He needs to have some color in his films.

I’m actually surprised you haven’t done more voice work, because you obviously have the voice.

Me, too. Me, too. I mean, it’s tough to crack. And the voiceover business has changed. It used to be these guys and gals and they did all the voiceover, and then it switched to the celebrity-driven piece. And so the folks who used to do voiceovers couldn’t get anywhere near it anymore.

When I was a little kid, it would be like Frank Welker, who did Megatron in Transformers, but he did voices for everything and he wasn’t like a famous person.

Nope. And you don’t even know that that was Tom Hanks or some other celebrity. You know, it’s amazing the way the business has shifted. And then the clients, they don’t know, these corporate types – they don’t know what voice they want. And then if they hear that Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts wants to do a voiceover, then they want them. So, consequently, I got caught in-between that. Because potentially I was starting to do some voiceover things but then the business shifted to celebrity and then you’ve got to refocus on your work in the legit areas so that they’ll be able to say, “Oh, he’s got an Emmy, he’s got a Tony.” You know, “We want him now.”

And now you’re a celebrity.

We want him now, he’s a celebrity.

And you actually have the voice…

Yeah, you know, I really enjoy doing voiceovers. I really do. Or after you do a film, you do the ADR. I really love to, “beep beep beep, boom.” You know, being able to get your lips matched up with what’s happening on the screen. That’s a little bit of an art form. Most people don’t know that it’s even a part of the filmmaking, all the little sounds and the gasps.

So how did this one happen? Does Wes Anderson reach out to you?

No, Wes reached out. So, we’ve known each other and, you know, a lot of times people have to be coaxed into looking in a different direction. So I just think that someone probably said, “You know, what about Courtney?” “Oh, wow. Yeah. Would he do it?” Boom boom boom boom – hey. And, you know, that’s how it goes.

Well now you should be part of his troupe.

Yes, I want to be part of Wes’s troupe. I sat down with him and Harvey Keitel yesterday with Harvey’s wife, which was very fun…

I bet there are fun stories there…

[Laughs.] There were some stories being told there about Gene Hackman and George C. Scott…

Did you bring up John McTiernan?

No, John didn’t. John Irvin came up. So it was really, really a wonderful, wonderful time of just comparing notes. And, I mean, I love Harvey Keitel. I just keep seeing him in Thelma & Louise.

I would pay money to watch that conversation.

There’s some stories, yeah. We had some fun. It was good.

Thelma & Louise has been on cable a lot recently….

It’s so good. So good. Brad Pitt as a young whippersnapper.

Speaking of cable rotation movies right now and John McTiernan, The Hunt for Red October is on nonstop right now.

Yeah, that’s Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. I was just talking to somebody else about that film. It really holds up.

Oh yeah, it does.

Scott Glenn, yeah.

What was that set like?

We were on the Paramount lot and it was really my first big budget film.

Hamburger Hill doesn’t count?

No, that was not a big movie. We were in Makati, Manila, and there were no trailers, so it would rain and we were sitting in the rain. No, that was not a big budget movie. That was all our first films. On The Hunt for Red October, they built these huge gimbals for us to dive and to do all things like we’re on the sub. I think each of them were worth $2 million — it’s probably $20 million today — these huge platforms that moved and dove and rose. And I think somewhere along the line they got this newfangled camera that did all that stuff. And so the gimbals, never reused — $4 million, $40 million today, just gone.

That’s a good answer for what that set was like.

We were just on the soundstage and then the camera started going in between us as we were working. And it was a great group: the Russian sailors and the Dallas sailors and Scott [Glenn]. Scott was so wonderful. James Earl Jones and I had just finished doing Fences, and so for him and I to be in a scene together was just, wow. James is now, I think he’s 87 now, and just went to Harvard, he got an honorary doctorate. So, very cool.

When Hamburger Hill came out there were a lot of Vietnam War movies coming out around that time.

We were going over there, over to the Philippines… What was the one with Charlie Sheen?


Platoon was coming back. They were coming back just as we were going over and we knew that they were ahead of us and they would come out first. So there was all this jockeying to see who was going to be the first one to shoot their Vietnam movie and Platoon came out first before Hamburger Hill. If Hamburger Hill had come out first…

I think people are rediscovering it a bit. The cast is now full of known actors…

Yeah, right. Don Cheadle was in it, Michael Boatman, Dylan McDermott, Steve Weber. It was an all-star cast…

Just not yet.

Just not yet.

That should be on the poster when it came out, “An all-star cast, just not yet.”

With Hunt, Tom Clancy was huge at the time, and I really, really, really wanted to get that role. And I was in a play at the Public and there was a whole saga about them letting me out of the play. But they let me out of the play and I went and did the film, but I didn’t have a chance to go on the sub because I missed that with the play stuff. But Sean Connery was at the height and Alec Baldwin was the new up-and-coming young leading man type. And so everyone knew this thing was going to be big. You know, John McTiernan, the director…

Yeah, Die Hard did pretty well.

Right? So we were poised for it to blow up and it didn’t disappoint. So it was a wonderful thing. Fences, Hunt. Six Degrees happened after that and so I was really just moving and grooving. It was a real wonderful time.

When you’re walking down the street, what do people bring up? I assume Johnnie Cochran comes up a bit now. When your name comes up, it’s like one of those things where someone always mentions something different. I think that’s good.

Yes, it’s very good. I do different things. I’ve been blessed to be able to do different things

I’m assuming nobody’s like, “Oh, Space Cowboys!”


Though, if someone does, that’s someone you should talk to. That’s probably a conversation.

[Laughs.] Yeah. Clint Eastwood, I love him. It’s just wonderful. The career has been varied and I’m sure it’ll continue to be that. There will be moments when things like a Black Panther happens to us. You know, what happened to my wife…

It’s still going. Still number one.

Still number one.

Which is amazing, because movies don’t do that anymore.

No. It’s a movement. It’s a movement. Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s good for all of us. It’s good for everyone: for people of color, it’s good for women. Because it wasn’t just black folks that went to the theater, it was return visits by everyone. Because, initially, you couldn’t get near the theater, so all those people couldn’t get near the theater because of all the presales, now then there’s a whole other wave with them going to the theater now.

What did she say to you before it came out? Was she like, “Keep an eye on this, this is going to be a thing”?

I mean, again, because as an actor, there’s the part that you do and then there’s the film could be lost anywhere. It could be lost in the doing of it, it could get lost in the editing of it, it can get lost in the marketing of it. So she knew what they did, but it doesn’t mean that the studio is not going to tank it somehow by not marketing it the right way.

Marvel seems to know what they’re doing when they come to marketing.

They do, and the president of Marvel emailed…

Kevin Feige?

Yeah, Feige emailed Angela and told her that he was so grateful for her doing the piece and said that he thought that this was the best, the finest movie Marvel had ever made.

That’s high praise.

He said this one was the best one that they’ve ever made, that Marvel has ever made.

Well that’s amazing. And it’s not stopping.


And you’re not stopping.

No, I’m not going to stop, Michael. I’m not stopping. Not going to stop me. I’ve come too far.

They’ve just told me I’m out of time…

Well, you do have to stop.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.