The Trouble With Typecasting Voice-Over Talent
Why versatile VOs are MVPs
It’s not often that a British person falls in love with basketball. And it’s even less often that it happens to a British female voice-over talent.
But as another NBA season dawns, I’ve recently learned what makes LeBron James the best basketball player in the world today (and we’re not just talking about his stunning, Herculean shoulders).
LeBron can shoot from close, mid and long range (twisting, turning and fading away); he can stop and pop, kiss the ball off the glass, hammer home dunks like an assassin, rebound like a debt collector on commission, pin failed lay-ups against the backboard, slice past defenders off the dribble, pass as though blindfolded, and fire home the game-winning shot. He’s also a 3-time NBA champion and a 4-time league MVP (most valuable player).
You see, the thing that makes ‘King James’ today’s greatest player isn’t just one thing.
Admittedly, we’re different types of performers. But I think it’s fair to say that LeBron and I have a bit in common. The fact that he’s now wearing purple (my favorite color) for the LA Lakers is obviously a bonus! But more seriously, isn’t it great that we both do a lot of things well?
When I first started in voice-over, traveling up and down the UK to voice dozens of radio commercials in a single session, being versatile was a highly prized skill. Today, it still can be, but sometimes isn’t always, and it depends who you’re reading for.
Values seem to be changing. These days, we’re told by some marketing experts that you should choose three words to describe your voice and put that on your business card, website, and email signature. But that’s a bit tricky when you’re a versatile, old school voice talent, who’s rich in experience, expertise and excellence, whose skills fit with dozens of adjectives, and who’s performed for all manner of voice-over genres for 30+ years. I mean, where’s the room on the page for all that?
Maybe having enough room is part of the problem. Maybe today’s voice-over market is so busy that the job is becoming less and less about having a broad skillset built on natural talent and years of experience. Maybe now it’s about doing a couple of things well (or dare I say it, just ok).
When the first ISDN lines were connected in the UK, casting experts thought it was a producer’s dream; that they could choose the right voice every time. And yet 30 years on, I don’t think things have worked out that way. As I understand it, some British radio stations have a roster of voice talent who are used for everything. Yet they’re not often right for everything, because they’re not versatile.
In a competitive, perhaps overpopulated industry, typecasting, or picking someone based on the first five seconds of their demo, might make casting directors’ lives easier. But unfortunately, it discriminates against versatility. It prevents an artist from demonstrating real value by showcasing their wide variety of skills. It also means that clients have less leeway when they change their minds about a project’s sound. This is no problem for the experienced, versatile artist. But for others, it can mean recording sessions that drag, being spoonfed lines, and never getting called again.
Casting based on someone’s age, or their appearance – whether you mean to or not – is another issue. When you bear in mind that voiceover is the theatre of the mind, listening with your eyes simply can’t be done. Relying on photos and ages is biased and has nothing to do with someone’s voice. Vocal ages vary. So if you can sound millennial when you’re 40+, you should be getting work.
And last but not least, there’s suspension of disbelief. Imagination is all part of the act. Just click on my C Beebies demo on my TV & Radio Promos reel. If you think you can hear a woman with a university-age daughter there, then I will buy us floor seats to the Lakers!
So how has this trouble with typecasting come about? Have personal websites and image-conscious social media got something to do with it? Maybe. After all, once upon a time, nobody knew or cared about what their favourite radio presenter looked like. They just liked their voice and what they did with it.
Maybe values have changed.
But for me, versatility is still value.
That’s why a versatile voice will always be – like LeBron – king.
And that’s why from now on, I’ll always cheer for LeBron and why he’ll always be my MVP.
Let’s go, Lakers!