In acclaimed The Clone Wars series several Jedi from the prequels were finally put in the spotlight. One of them was Even Piell, the Lannik Jedi Master. He was voiced by voice actor Blair Bess, who was new to the Star Wars franchise. Exclusively for this site he did an interview of epic length in which he discusses his Star Wars adventure and everything you’d ever want to know about voice acting.
How did you get started in the entertainment business and what got you started as a voice actor?
I’d acted pretty much all my life ever since I was a kid and really got into it in high school and college. I did theater and worked in radio. My Dad had been a deejay, a newscaster, and moved into doing commercial voiceovers in New York, so I was always exposed to the voiceover, broadcasting and advertising worlds. That said, neither of my parents – especially my mom, who actually produced and directed children’s theater – encouraged my desire to perform professionally. They thought it was too unpredictable a profession and, realistically, they were right. I ended up working in production in New York and L.A. because it was “stable work.” I guess in comparison to acting, that’s probably true. I produced and directed voice talent, all the while wanting to do it myself. Most of what I produced was promotional videos, celebrity interviews, some early unscripted reality shows, but it wasn’t until my production work started to fizzle during a downturn in the economy that I started to think about pursuing my passion. I realized that twiddling my thumbs doing nothing wasn’t a great thing, so I told my wife if I was going to sit around and be miserable, I might as well be miserable and try to make a go of something I actually wanted to be doing. She told me if that’s what I really wanted then I should go for it but not to quit my day job (we had a baby on the way, so it was a reasonable request). When I told a friend of mine who was a voiceover actor I wanted to pursue VO, she was kind of skeptical, saying, “All you producers with good voices think you can do this.” But she sat down with me, had me read some scripts, directed me and much to her surprise said she thought I might be able to make a career out of it if I really wanted to dive in. She also suggested I take a voiceover class which I thought, at the time, was kind of weird. There weren’t many voiceover classes back then. Now, it’s a cottage industry. To make a long story short, things happened fast. This is the abbreviated version: I took a class taught by an agent’s assistant. We hit it off. I put together a homemade demo. After much persistence, I got it into her hands. She ultimately became an agent and signed me as a client. I started auditioning like a madman. And, by some weird alignment of the stars, I booked my first job six weeks after I started out. It was a national commercial for American Express. It got me into the unions, both SAG and AFTRA, got me health insurance (but not in time to cover my daughter’s birth!) and kickstarted things for me. I thought I was on my way. But honestly, I didn’t book another job for six months. But I was hooked. I continued to audition and I kept working in production as a freelance writer and producer to support my family. I started booking more jobs, primarily voicing commercials and, after about a year-and-a half, I was making more money doing voiceovers than I was doing my “day job.” I made voiceovers my full-time gig and never looked back. Most of my work was in commercials and promos for TV shows, corporate videos, narrating television documentaries, and then I moved into animation and video games. Trust me, it’s rare that things happen as quickly as they did for me, but I do want to be clear, it didn’t happen overnight and there was (and is and always will be) a lot of rejection before I was able to make a living at it. Also, the experiences I’d had in radio and working in television production definitely prepared me for the transition into voiceover. I learned valuable lessons about timing and storytelling and technical things that still come into play today. But the stars were definitely in alignment for me when I started out in the voiceover world. There are SO many talented people out there in the world, really fine actors, really fine Voiceover talent. And they never get their break or maybe at a limited, local level. Timing is everything in life and having some luck doesn’t hurt either (and I’m not the luckiest person in the world). Also, all you really need is one person who believes in you. I had two. My friend Keri Tombazian, the talented voiceover star who encouraged me to follow my dreams and my first agent Lisa Schwab, who really jump-started my career.
Star Wars fans know you as Even Piell from Clone Wars. How did you get this part?
How did I “become” Even Piell? That’s an interesting story. I was auditioning for a number of jobs at my agent’s office one day and Natanya Rose, the agent who represents me for animation and video games had me read for the part of a “Space General.” Yeah. That’s how it was described to me. A “Space General.” I had no idea it was for Clone Wars because the Lucasfilm people are very hush-hush about things they’re working on. To me, it was just another ambiguous part. I came up with a character voice that I based on an actor who was big in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s named Robert Wagner. He was kind of macho tough, but in a very sophisticated kind of way. So, I took that approach. Stern but gallant. And I booked the job. When I found out it was for Clone Wars and that it was going to be a recurring role, I was ecstatic. I mean… how can you not be jumping up and down when you know you’re assuming the identity of an iconic character from the Star Wars canon? BUT… after winning the part, I almost lost it. The story follows…
Even Piell doesn’t speak in the live action movies. How did you create his voice? Did you get specific directions?
Yes, Even Piell doesn’t speak in the live action films. He’s sort of there. Stoic, commanding, strong, silent… But, I came up with something that I believed worked as I mentioned before. And clearly, so did Dave Filoni as he wouldn’t have cast me otherwise. The day I went into the studio with the rest of the cast, I sort of dove right into character. Dave thanked me for being there (thanked ME? I was thanking him profusely). He told me he liked how I approached the character. He also told me that Even was going to die, but that it would be a spectacular death. And, he said, “Who knows? You might be back. Anything’s possible. It’s Star Wars.” So, we completed the session – and doing Clone Wars sessions is so cool because they’re like doing live theater or radio drama. The whole cast is there together and you just plow through the script. It was an amazing experience. That doesn’t happen often in video games and animation these days. Many times, you’re by your lonesome in the studio, reading your lines, acting in a void and then your dialogue gets pieced together later. So, Clone Wars was a pleasant departure for me. And I knew most of the cast because many of us would run into each other at auditions or agent’s offices, so… really fun. Here’s where the story gets good. About a month or so after I did the Clone Wars session, I got a call from my agent Natanya. I was back east doing some voiceover work in New York at the time. She said, “Blair, remember that Star Wars job you did a few months ago?” I cut her off and said, “YES! Are they raising me from the dead?! Are they bringing me back?” Not quite. After recording our session, they decided that they wanted Even to have a Russian accent, rather than a generic American-accented tough guy. So, the accent, the tone, that was all their choice. Natanya asked me if I could do it because if I couldn’t, they’d have to re-cast. I told her, “Russian? That’s actually one of my favorite accents to do!” Which was true, but my response was a little over the top. Basically, they made me audition again for the part of Even Piell. Auditioning for the job I’d already won. No way was I about to lose that part. Needless to say, I auditioned. Again. No harm, no foul, I wanted to be in Clone Wars. It was my role to lose (or win). Even’s accent isn’t quite Russian the way I do it. It’s more of a hybrid Russian/Slavic thing. Easy enough for me because my family roots are in Eastern Europe and Russia. Cutting to the chase, I got a call from my agent a week later and she said, they loved what you did and want you to come in and re-record all the episodes you’re in with the accent you used. So, that’s basically how it happened and how the voice was created.
Can you share some memories regarding working on The Clone Wars? Did you ever meet George Lucas?
You want to know if I ever met George? No. Didn’t have the pleasure, BUT… another funny story. After “re-winning” the part of Even, I went into the studio with Dave Filoni. It was just Dave, the recording engineer and me this time. Dave apologized for making me go through another audition. I told him no problem. I was glad to be there. So, Dave says, “Yeah… well George feels that any character from another planet or a distant galaxy has to have an accent or unique vocal characteristic (something to that effect), so he thought a Russian accent for Even could work.” I have to say, I was dumbfounded. I’m thinking “George?” Like… THAT George. So, I asked Dave, “You mean, George LUCAS? You mean he listened to my audition?” Dave then said, “Oh, yeah, he listens to or watches all of the shows.” Not only did that impress me, I was also blown away, thinking “George Lucas picked ME. Holy sh–!” It was a nice ego boost, that’s for sure.
Working with Dave was great. Really down to earth. Just a normal guy who just so happens to know everything about the ins and outs of Star Wars like some biblical scholar. Very low key. At least in my experience. His burdens are a bit bigger these days, but he was a lot of fun to work with then and I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to work with him more. Terrific director too. He kind of lets you do your thing, but then tailors your performance so that it’s in keeping with the great sum of the whole. Yeah. Really fun experience working with him.
When the Clone Wars were first mentioned in A New Hope back in 1977 I bet no one could imagine we would ever see this as an animated series 30 years later. Suppose someone would have said to you, back in 1977, that you were going to play a part in this, what would you have said? And were you a fan of Star Wars back then?
I can’t imagine anyone other than George Lucas knew what to expect when Star Wars was released back in 1977. If he didn’t have a “bible” for the ensuing films, he sure must have had something in his head. If you look at mentions of A New Hope and other key nuggets as brushstrokes on a canvas, the picture becomes a lot clearer as time goes by. Ultimately, you end up with a masterpiece. And, no… I’d never imagined in 1977 as I watched Star Wars for the first time with my then-girlfriend and ten-year-old brother in a theater in New Jersey that I’d ever have anything to do with what ultimately became a phenomenon. Frankly, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life. I was nineteen, I was in college, wanting to be an actor, but realistically thinking I’d end up writing. Either that or being a lawyer – which is what my mom wanted me to do (“Do your acting in Court,” is what she’d say). What I do know is that, like everyone else at the time, I was totally awestruck in the first few minutes of the film. For some perspective… I was about ten or eleven when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out and was blown away by the opening of that film. All the stunning visual effects featuring spaceships and space stations, astronauts at work. The suspense. Confronting a whole new world. The creepiness of the unknown. There was plenty of that. HAL… a distant relative of Droids. Remember, 2001 was released before we’d ever set foot on the moon, so to see that and visions of space and its connections between machine intelligence and human experience and the future was extraordinary. But Star Wars! Whoa. That elevated special effects and storytelling to a whole new level. I’m not the first to say it, but the film really revolutionized what we take for granted when we watch any film featuring special effects or digital effect today. Plus, the depth of characters and the strength of the narrative. So, was I a fan? Yeah, I guess you could say so.
What do you think of The Clone Wars series and especially the story arc of your character Even Piell?
I think The Clone Wars series is revolutionary in and of itself. Stylistically, animators were using CGI, but never with the level of visual sophistication as seen in Clone Wars. Again, these are just my opinions. And I think that sophistication continues with the storytelling aspects of the series. Clone Wars elevates animation to a whole new level of storytelling both visually and narratively. You can also see how Clone Wars informs the production values of a lot of video games these days, not just the shooters, but video games in general where there’s narrative action. Seriously, never once do I feel like I’m watching an “animated series.” No, it’s a series. Forget the labels. It’s all about the story. And when the voice actors are playing those roles, they’re not thinking in the back of their minds “Oh… I’m just a cartoon, I’m a cartoon…” No. They are those characters. Just as though they were doing live action in costume, in character in front of a camera – but all there in their heads and voices. When you watch James Arnold Taylor in the studio, you’re seeing and hearing Obi-Wan (okay, minus the cloak). Same with Ashley or Matt or Dee or Tom, or any of us. It’s not just “voice” acting, it’s acting acting.
As far as my character arc went, or goes, since we all tend to live on through these productions… Well, I hated having to die. But, as Dave put it, it was a “spectacular death.” First off, actors like to work. And it’s not all about a paycheck, although getting paid to act is certainly nice. What I really enjoyed – and would have loved continuing to do – is really delving into the complexities of Even Piell. Here’s this little guy who is totally in command of the situations he faces. He’s a brilliant warrior, not just physically but mentally. He’s respected and a natural leader. At least that’s how I played him. He doesn’t act as though he’s invincible but doesn’t dread death nor is he afraid of it. Because, hey, you never really die in a galaxy far away. And everything is bigger (literally and figuratively in his case) than the individual. I think that’s one of the biggest themes in Star Wars: that the role we play in life isn’t just about us, it’s about how we can contribute to the greater good. I think Even captures that. It was cool to play a character so unlike myself. Which says a lot about me if you just reverse all of the strengths of Even Piell. It would have been fun to hang around for a few more episodes.
Of all the characters you have voiced: which one is your personal favorite? And why?
In terms of characters I’ve voiced – and I’m not just saying this for the benefit of the folks reading this – Even truly is my favorite when it comes to other characters I’ve played in animated shows or games. I think it’s because he’s a hero. It’s great to be heroic. And a very clearly defined character. I think that’s why so many actors are drawn to action films or superhero roles or Shakespeare. Heroes and villains. Those are favorites for most actors. And quite honestly, I love playing bad guys or tough guys. Because I’m neither of those things. But it’s fun to pretend. Also, having me re-read to win the part of Even pushed me into having to use a more character or accented voice. That really takes you outside of yourself as a voice actor. So, Even Piell. Definitely. That would be followed by a role I had in the new Batman Unburied podcast on Spotify. I play Lt. Kitch, a crusty police detective. That was fun.
Suppose you had the chance to pick any character you like to voice. Which character would you choose, and why?
If I could play any other character? You mean in Clone Wars or are you asking me if I’d like to play Yosemite Sam or Daffy Duck? Or some other Warner Animation character? Or… Fred Flintstone? That would be fun.
I meant anything, but in Clone Wars?
Chancellor Palpatine, but why settle for me when you can have Ian Abercrombie? I think that goes back to the whole idea of playing evil. It’s nice to be the villain. People hate you, but they talk a lot more about you when you’re the bad guy. Their emotions become more amped up. You never dread the hero. But the villain, oh yeah… that always brings out a visceral response. I wouldn’t have minded Tom Kane’s part as the Narrator either. One of my earliest gigs was playing “The Narrator” in a play I did in 3rd Grade. So… that would have been cool too. No way could I replicate Tom as Yoda though. No. Way.
Besides voice acting you have acted in TV series like ER, Dragnet, The Practice and Boston Legal. What do you prefer? Voice acting or acting? And why?
Even though I’d done theater when I was younger before getting into voiceover, voice work is where things really started to happen for me. That’s what actually led to my doing work in front of the camera. People sort of knew who I was from commercials I’d done, so it gave me easier access to a film and television agent. It gave me some degree of credibility as a performer, I guess, not really sure. Sort of like, oh, people pay him to do commercials so he must be okay, let’s give him a shot. There’s definitely something to be said for being on-camera, but it’s a totally different experience. It’s a more physical thing. What I mean by that is you can get kind of pigeon-holed, like does he or she or they look the part, do we believe in them when they’re physically in character and in an environment, are they inhabiting the character? So, it’s not just how you’re doing your lines. It’s a combination of things. It’s sort of the “whole picture.” Whether you’re acting for the camera or for the mic, you’re playing pretend. That’s what acting is really all about, pretending; using your imagination to bring someone or something to life. I mean, the words, the actions are on the page. It’s the actor’s job to make then come alive. There is a degree of physicality when you’re doing animation or video games. If you’re doing your job, that is. Because you are sometimes physically acting out your role, even though the only people seeing that are the directors, producers, recording engineers. And even though I like acting in front of the camera or in front of an audience, voiceover is really more satisfying on many levels, at least for me. Because people aren’t looking at you or typecasting you. You can be anyone. It really doesn’t matter what you look like. If you can bring the character to life in another person’s mind, that’s all that matters. Meaning, do you believe in what you hear, do you see it in your mind. You can be a short squat Yoda-looking guy like I am in real life and sound like a real tough stud, like Han Solo or an evil SOB like Darth Vader. Doesn’t matter who I really am in the flesh, it’s about who you THINK I am in your imagination. Oh… and you don’t have to memorize lines when you do voiceovers. That’s pretty nice too.
What advice would you give someone who is reading this interview and wants to become a (voice) actor as well?
First off, the most important thing about acting — any acting — like I said earlier is the ability to let yourself go and play pretend. Because that’s really all acting is at its core. It’s not magic. It’s just make-believe. Four year olds do it all the time. Let’s play Cops and Robbers. Let’s play Mommy and Daddy. Let’s pretend I’m a Wolf and you’re Goldilocks (I know, different stories). That’s acting. In front of an audience, in front of a camera, in front of a mic. If you have the ability to let yourself go and just have fun with it (even if it’s dark, dramatic, or a tragedy), you’re kinda sorta on your way. Training helps. You don’t have to get an MFA from Yale’s Drama School, but training does help. How to move, how to find your character, how to work with your fellow actors, how to work in front of a camera or a mic, how to… just be. With lots of people looking at you and losing themselves in the world you (and the writers and directors and everyone else involved) create.
Now, I’m going to speak specifically about voice acting. Most important: be realistic about your goals. I don’t want to be harsh, but I’ll tell it like it is, because I’ve been on both sides of the mic and both sides of the camera for over thirty years. Acting, singing, dancing, writing, painting, photography, sculpting… No matter what your calling, pursuing a career in the arts is a tough road to hoe. And doing voiceovers can be a little deceptive. Because most people can talk and read and they do it every day and they have a nice or unique voice, a lot of people think that’s it’s an easy business to break into. It’s not. First and foremost, you have to understand that doing voiceovers is as much about acting as it is about talking. When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I do voiceovers, a lot of times they’ll say, “Oh… I can hear that. You have a really good voice.” But it’s not about the voice or sounding good. It’s all acting. When it comes to commercials, it’s the ability to tell a story and sell a product or a service and be a character all the same while. Oftentimes, agents or casting people will get a breakdown that says, “We want ACTORS. We don’t want announcers” or “We want a non-announcer Announcer.” Really. This is what they get. That’s what producers are asking for in commercials. What they don’t seem to get is playing the role of “The Announcer” requires as much acting ability as playing a character in an animated series or video game or a commercial. It’s ALL acting. So having a nice voice is nice, but it’s not what the business is about. If you sing in the shower and your boyfriend or girlfriend or your next-door neighbor tells you you have a great voice (or maybe even shut up), don’t take up opera as a hobby and expect to make it to the Metropolitan Opera House in five weeks (average length of a voiceover workshop). Okay, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Did I say be realistic about your goals?
Another important thing about voice acting is having the ability to listen. I mean REALLY listen. You have to listen to direction and be able to decipher sometimes very conflicting direction. Because in a writer or producer or director or casting person’s head, they’re hearing a very specific sound or voice. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to communicate what they are looking/listening for. They just “know it when they hear it.” Most actors hate getting line readings, where a director might say, “No I want it to sound like THIS” or “I want you to do it like THIS.” Actors typically HATE that, mostly the ones on stage or screen. But for me and for many voice actors, if the director or producer isn’t getting what they want, I’ll flat out say, “Why don’t you tell me how you want me to do it? Give me a line reading. Really, there’s no ego here. I want to give you what you want.” Unfortunately, they’re not always able to do that because if they could, they’d do it themselves and my fellow performers and I would be out of a job. Then again, oftentimes it does make it easier for you to give them what they want if you let them give you a line reading and you listen. It’s a process you go through together. They tee things up and you play with it. It makes the whole process easier. Ultimately, you’ll get there.
Another even more important thing about listening goes right to the heart of voice acting. Oftentimes, you’re asked to sound like a particular character. Having a good ear, the ability to mimic other people or, say, a human version of a tiger, that’s an important thing. Listening to nature, listening to the folks around you, picking up their nuances, tone, accents and being able to incorporate them into the role you’re asked to play is so important. Going back to Even Piell. They initially asked for a “Space General.” Totally vague request. But think about it, what does a “Space General” sound like. You’ve heard them before in movies, on TV, streaming online. They’re… well, commanding. They can be cops, or platoon leaders or authoritarian leaders. They can be gruff, they can be smooth and sophisticated, Shakespearean, any number of things. But you have to take in the sound of commanders you’ve heard before you and integrate what they sound like into what you bring to the table and make it you’re own. When they had me re-record Even Piell, I didn’t reinvent the wheel. All I really did was overlay a Russian/Slavic accent onto the commanding character I’d initially created. There’s a great book called “Steal Like an Artist.” The idea behind it is that all great artists “steal” or “borrow” from other artists. That doesn’t mean ripping them off or plagiarizing them. At its heart it means look at what others have done or are doing, think about it, learn from it, integrate it into your own vision, and come up with something original, that’s all your own.
One great thing about animation and video games is, the actor is oftentimes given a visual prompt at the audition. The artists will have done renderings or illustrations of the characters they’re creating. It really helps the actor. For example, along with the character’s lines, you may be given an illustration that depicts the character. Say it’s a winged creature, half-human/half-mutant animal. It has the head of a bird and a body like Duane Johnson. Webbed flippers for hands and feet. It’s coloring has a bluish hue. That’s what you have to work with. Lines and picture. And, oh, a direction from casting that might say, “Zanator is an angel on the planet Thoraxis. When Gileon, a master necromancer arrives with her minions and conquers Thoraxis, Zanator is forced to choose between his fellow angels and the Gileons. Gileon herself is a master strategist and has mind-bending powers and conversion abilities, but Zanator has winged-strength and the power to resist even the mightiest tyrant.” Yeah. Really. Those are the kind of things you get. So, what do you do in the fifteen minutes you have to prepare for your audition? You have to read the breakdown, look at the illustration and come up with a voice. SO… Zanator looks like a bird. A very buff bird. How would Zanator sound? Birdlike? A bird on steroids? What kind of a bird? Would his voice be soft and angelic? Which is an interesting choice for a buff bird. Or would it be harsh and kind of hawklike and cawing? These are choices you have to make. And being able to integrate what you’ve heard or listened to in nature… birds, commanding people, how people on steroids might sound, intelligent people, blithering idiots… all of that goes into creating a character. And guess what? You may be able to tick off every box and come up with a brilliant character and have an exceptional audition, but if it’s still not what the writer, or animator, or director is hearing, thinking, seeing, or feeling, you probably won’t get the job. Because ultimately, only one person does. And there are a lot of us out there. The actor has to GRAB the listener from the get-go. Same thing happens when you audition for film or television. You hear these stories like, “When so and so walked into the room, we all just looked at each other and before they even spoke, we knew that they were the one. They just walked into the room and owned it. They WERE (fill in the character’s name) even before they said a word.” Being the voice (or image) in someone’s head. It’s sometimes as simple as that. So, listen. Listen to directions, listen to your dog or your cat or your pet hamster, the sound of the wind… Because all of it is useful. Oh, and really listen to your fellow performers because you can always learn something from them.