by Mangala Dilip
Roy Samuelson is a huge celebrity, and you may not very well recognize his face. But, there is no way you don’t recognize his voice. This voice-over actor has compelled us to buy amazing products, held our attention while watching movies and TV shows and now keeps us alert while driving and engaging in other mundane activities.
From ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ to ‘Baby Driver’ his voice-over credits speak for his talents. Samuelson tells Meaww some of the tricks of his trade and gives us a glimpse into the incredible journey of a voice-over artist.
You have one of the most recognizable voices in America. What do you look for in a project before taking it on? How do you make it uniquely yours?
I am lucky to have projects in different aspects of voice over — regardless of the voice over project, my focus is on telling a story, mainly through narration or promos. I mostly love using my voice to blend into a movie or series with descriptive narration. With all the different kinds of projects out there, it can feel like a juggle as to what to focus on! I find that when there’s easy movement with little resistance for a project, that’s the best focus for me. I like to find the least friction, and it’s amazing how that changes from one kind of work to another. Lately, I’ve found one particular kind of narration to be my most passionate with the least resistance.
To make the project mine, I’ve found that blending into the story is usually the best choice. I can be a shy person, so I’m not actively seeking the spotlight! But this idea of blending in is more about allowing the spotlight to be on the story, and whatever I can do to make sure that spotlight stays on the story. So, ironically, for me to own the projects I work on, I give it away, right back to serve the story.
From ads to video games to TV shows, you have provided your voice for them all. How is working on each of these different?
To best answer your question, I’ll first start with sharing a common thread in voice-over work: acting. If I’m voicing a gangster hijacking a vehicle, playing a Turtle with karate skills and a fondness for pizza, playing a dad just trying to sneak in a nap, simply “playing myself” as I tell a story about a TV show that you’d be interested in watching, or describe what’s happening in a story, each of these are characters, with motivations, intentions, and reasons for sharing what they are talking about. So based on answers to those questions on motivation, character, and intentions, I adjust the performance to best answer these questions. I find that practice and imagination are the two magic ingredients.
What has been your favorite project so far and why?
On one project the job started with me being handed over a hundred pages of narration, paragraph after paragraph, with audio, visual, and timecode cues. Most cues had to fit within a certain amount of time. We finished in under 4 hours. I found myself getting in the flow of each element working together, and there is an excitement and a sense of life that comes from doing something ice cold like that!
Are there any common mishaps in your line of work that people don’t expect? How do you deal with/overcome them?
One common mishap that is easy to slip into is the assumptions, based on false expectations. One aspect of assuming: it’s easy to think “OH YAY I BOOKED IT THIS IS GONNA LAST FOREVER!” or “Darn, I didn’t book that job I was so right for so, therefore, my career is over.” These are both false perspectives, based on all-or-nothing thinking. It’s easy to slip into this because each job can be unique, and uncharged, and unfamiliar, that its newness makes it seem solid, real, and permanent. I still have yet to find a perfect and detailed guidebook where each step you follow leads you to “career success” – that manual doesn’t exist! I find that by reminding myself of the bigger picture, the long-term perspective has been incredibly helpful in weathering the ups and downs of a career.
Another false assumption is coming into a job with a sense of fixed talent (thinking I know exactly what the job requires), instead of openness to growth. Even with repeat jobs, there are unexpected happenings, unusual surprises, both good and bad!, and changes out of the blue. Being flexible and having a “go with it” attitude helps tremendously for everyone involved, including the voice inside your head.
Bottom line: if I catch myself assuming something, that’s a good time to either speak up and ask about it, or step back and re-evaluate what I’m looking at in a different way. I think this kinda works in real life too.
I understand that Descriptive Narration is your current focus. How is it different from everything else you have done? What is your goal for voice-over work, specifically in this genre?
Descriptive Narration is a special audio track that goes on top of a movie or TV show. In it, I describe the action that sighted people see on screen for audiences who are blind or visually impaired. I treasure the times I’m lucky enough to be brought in to do this work! This job is a combination of a lot of my other experiences in voiceover, all rolled into one! It is cold reading, narration, and staying in the flow, along with a lot of timing and technical adjustments. Descriptive narration jobs usually give me the script a few minutes before we start rolling.
Aside from knowing the genre (by watching a trailer of a feature, or knowing a sense of the flavor of a tv show), I dive in, mostly not knowing what’s going to happen, and make guesses as to what’s about to happen, and adjust to things that are happening. It’s easy to fall through the cracks with a blubbering word mispronunciation; and when that happens, it can be hard to get back up into the flow. I’ve practiced failing in many ways during my voice over experiences. Each failure has given me new (and hopefully better!) ways to respond to similar circumstances in the future! My goal is to continue to grow my skills and double the current opportunities for TV shows and features, by expanding the exposure of this kind of narration to newer audiences, like commuters.
This specific form of a voice-over, as I understand, was initially used to help visually impaired fans, but it is now being commercialized. What are your thoughts on that? How appreciative are you of the fact that people can now listen to the description of TV shows like they would an audiobook?
I think this expansion to greater audiences is really exciting! You are right with the similarity to podcasts and audiobooks — both of which are growing in popularity (I live in Los Angeles, so I assume it’s because people are commuting for sometimes a dozen hours a week!). Some audiobooks link up to digital reading devices, where the audiobook picks right up where you stopped reading. I imagine TV shows and features can also benefit from this audio description service — for drivers. It’s obviously unsafe to drive and watch — but to make it easy to drive and hear, right where you left off? How great is that! And with all the original produced audio included! It sounds like such a great opportunity for everyone who uses this service. And it already now exists on many streaming services! It’s just kinda buried. I’d love to see a “drive” feature for these streaming services. And the best part is the more people demand it, the more opportunities for the blind and visually impaired to have even more selection of media! Again, everyone wins.
Have you ever wanted to try/have tried voice-over work in other languages? If you haven’t, what language would you like to debut with?
I voiced on a TV pilot that had its own language. I loved exploring how to enunciate the words and phrases, then how to say it in a way that sounded real, and not like I was reciting. (My brother lives in Japan; the first time I visited him, I was enthralled with the language and experience of navigating in a world where I couldn’t read, speak, or understand most symbols. I felt like a 4-year-old discovering reading, and in the best way possible! The new language learning felt like that.) It exercised some unique learning synapses!
Have you had moments where people do not recognize you in person but are able to place you as soon as you speak? Could you tell us your funniest fan encounter?
I remember one time I was going through a particularly bleak time in my life and career. I had recorded several hundred promo spots from home, and my only exposure to it was sending that audio file out — into what felt like the ether. I was questioning a lot of my efforts, wondering if anything was happening and if it was time for me to give up and throw in the towel. I had an audition at a new studio, and came in, wrote down my name, and sat down. The director came out and called my name, asking if I had seen the copy. When I answered, she lit up: “I hear you in my car every day!” At that point in my life, I felt like I was hiding under a log, in a distant forest, but yet, without knowing it, I had been a part of her commute. When I find myself questioning the seemingly useless efforts, I like to remember this story — not that “I was heard” — but that sometimes, I may not know where things may lead.
A funny fan encounter was when a friend of mine and I randomly stopped at a restaurant in the middle of central California one weeknight. A patron seated at a table next to us came up to both of us — within minutes, she named a movie he starred in and pointed out that I sounded “like that guy in that commercial” – and sure enough she was right for both of us. I hope she’s in casting now because she sure has the memory recall and the ears!
What are some of your most exciting upcoming projects?
In addition to some upcoming commercial work, this fall I’m coming back to some series I narrate. It’s a great team, and even though I only come in a few times a week for a few hours, there’s a genuine joy to see the smiling faces and collaborate together. I deeply appreciate that collaboration: most of my work is in isolation in a booth, where I read a script and send an audio file and get feedback in an email. Having the person to person interaction brings a life and an immediacy to the work. I love all voice-over, and I’m excited my representation brings me varied opportunities, so that I don’t need to be pigeon-holed into only one kind of voice over.
What are some of the items on your career bucket list?
In addition to doubling the series and features for Descriptive Narration, I’m looking to get to the point where I not only work as often as possible but also still have time for rest and some ease. I do love the hustle of my work, either in a studio booth on a job, or auditioning, or better getting to know people in different aspects of the business (that alone always expands my perspective out of my own isolated experiences!). But I’ve not had the feeling of being bored in a while, or a day or so where I had no commitments or obligations. So if I’m doing all the work I love, and still having moments of quiet, that sounds like a welcomed novelty, just for a few days. Hmmm. Maybe I can sneak in a nap right now…