Making a Living in Voice-Acting: An Interview with Lia Sargent

Rick DeMott interviews veteran voice actor/director Lia Sargent about how someone goes about making a living in the world of voice acting.

Lia Sargent.

Lia Sargent has been working as a voice over actress since 1977. She mainly works in the world of dubbing anime into English. Some of her credits include Natsume/Aura in the .hack series and Judy from Cowboy Bebop. In addition to anime, shes worked in original animated series, features, educational programs, CD-ROMs, commercials, the stage and live-action TV. With her infectious laugh ever present, she graciously took time to chat with me about her experience with making a living as a voice over artist.

Rick DeMott: How did you get involved in voice over acting?

Lia Sargent: I wanted to be an actress that performed on stage and musical theater but my voice, when I was young, was very weak. I took singing lessons and voice lessons and anything to give it strength, so people could hear me in the theater and so I could sing. I was really a dancer. And when I started taking classes in college in radio broadcasting and voice [classes], I learned that there were jobs out there in dubbing Chinese and foreign films into English. My voice register was right for a lot of the women in those films. So I was sent to an audition through a connection and I got the part and it just sort of snowballed from there.

RD: Where did you go to school?

LS: I went USC and Los Angeles Valley College. I also went to school in Canada for pantomime.

RD: For people who want to get into voice acting would you recommend taking classes?

LS: I think it depends on the person. There are some people out there that are highly gifted. They already have the ability, because probably as a child or in their social life they were always mimicking or doing voices of some sort or creating characters thats just their nature or they were actors doing it. I have found that some of actors who have never taken one voice over class have been the best voice over actors because theyre good actors. Or people are good mimics. Have a good ear, a lot of musicians or a lot of singers.

So across the board no, but for people who have no knowledge of the field and want to broaden their horizons and see whats out there and see the demands of voice over work, then they should take classes. The classes that I took definitely helped me. Its funny because I dont think to myself, gosh, I learned that in school when Im doing it. I think my voice is strong because of the classes and training, but its also strong because I do a lot of voice over work so it keeps building.

Sargent plays Natsume in the English version of the popular .hack series. © Bandai Ent.

RD: To get work does someone need to get a manager, an agent or a management company?

LS: There are people out there that dont have an agent, but through connections are working. Id say that 70% of my work is done through connections, which was evolved through the system. Then there are people who only work through an agency. Now if you have a unique voice, an agency will tend to jump on that and youre better in an agency field. Then again it works both ways. My agent hasnt worked for me in close to two years. I dont even know if she knows that I moved and bought a house.

Id like to get an agent because Id like to get into commercials and theres areas of animation that I havent even gotten into because I have been doing so much loop group work and dubbing. I look at an agency for getting you commercial work and when animation work comes you can do that as well. So agencies can be wonderful, so you have to get them your demo as a voice talent no matter how experienced you are or how inexperienced you are. You have to get into the studio and get a demo.

RD: So when you started out, did you get a lot of cold calls or more recommendations?

LS: I got recommended for most of my work in the very beginning.

RD: Do you find that is kind of common?

LS: It seems to be common in the dubbing world. But then I started getting a lot of phone auditions, where people would call and just want to listen to my voice. There was a time when I didnt even audition for an anime show for years. I just went and did the job, because at that time they werent too particular as long as it was close to the original character. Now there is a little more demand because the anime world has picked up so much. So there are a lot more auditions.

RD: If someone just got off the bus how are they going to get an audition?

LS: Hmmmm I dont know if they can Do they have a demo?

RD: Say they have a demo.

LS: Id find all the studios that do Japanese anime in town. Id submit my demo with a letter saying that Im just off the bus and heres my tape, can you use me? Its as simple as that. For dubbing, they want to know that you did dubbing before. If its for original cartoon stuff than the demo should speak for itself. The large animation houses wont accept a tape without an agency, so thats when Id just submit my tape to agencies. But I dont know how successful that would be.

If you want to get on a series like Cowboy Bebop, Sargent says you have to get a demo tape to the dubbing houses. © Bandai Ent.

RD: How typically does someone with their demo get an agent?

LS: Most voice over agencies prefer [taking demos] if you have a connection to somebody. Like if a client refers you. They prefer that to getting unsolicited tapes. I think that it depends because certain agencies will listen to them eventually. But youd want special attention so that you know if youre even considered or not. A connection is better. But if you have a good demo and mass mail it out, Im sure that an agency will take a listen and consider.

RD: Wheres a good place to get your foot in the door?

LS: There are voice over places that offer classes. Then they will help you formulate your demo. So they are out there. You can pick up Backstage West or your local performers magazine and theyre listed in there and there are a ton of them. And its all about calling up and finding out the prices and seeing whom youre comfortable with. It doesnt hurt because you definitely get exposed to some degree of what you may be up against. And whom youll be up against. And even meet some of the people who may be bringing you in to audition you, because theyre usually connected to the casting world as well when they hold the classes.

They teach the dos and the donts. It cant hurt; it just costs a pretty penny. If you have the money, great. But if you dont have a lot of money, but you still want to get in the door, there are some lower-end companies that will help you. But its a crapshoot just like acting is. There is so much competition. Id never say go to this place, because it may be terrible for one person, but great for someone else. I say start with Backstage West and see if anything clicks.

RD: So like everything else its up to the person.

LS: Yeah. I think if people read up on it. And asking around. Or read this interview; they may get some answers to where to go. But it can be brutal out there, but for some its a piece of cake.

RD: How do voice-actors deal with some jobs being SAG and some being non-union

LS: If youre a member of the union and you still want to work in a non-union world, which is not highly recommended, there is something called financial core, with Screen Actors Guild and, I believe, with AFTRA. Its something that they worked out so that people could do that for various reasons. But then if youre not a union member, you can work in the non-union world as much as you like. Ill tell you, there was a time when there was so much non-union work going on, and there always will be, that the non-union people were getting more work than the union people. It can work both ways.

Bottom line is that if youre a union member you shouldnt work non-union, in hopes that it will trickle down so that the producers will have a difficult time finding anybody. But that will never be the case, so you really have to protect yourself. Thats why financial core can really be helpful to people. Some are afraid that it will break the union, but there are so many members that there probably wont be a problem.

Sargent behind the mic.

RD: Do you think that there is more union or non-union work going on right now?

LS: Probably union, because of all the television shows, all the Saturday morning cartoons. A lot of dubbing things are SAG. Your anime series. I think its definitely more union.

RD: Whats going on with gaming?

LS: Thats a whole other world. Its wonderful. When Ive been doing a lot of the CD-ROM games, theyve been filming me, but they focus on the mouth. So they can get the movement of the mouth. I enjoy it because its another realm, just another area of doing voice over work. Basically you get the script and its like doing an original cartoon, but youre not synching anything. Or sometimes you get a Japanese scene and you have to fill the same links with English. The game world definitely encompasses various worlds of voice over work.

RD: When learning to do loops for anime, is that something that people get naturally or is it something that people have to work at?

LS: I think there is a natural flare for it. Ive helped people get a better handle on it, if they werent comfortable with it, because there are little tricks. You help them get into the character more and understand what will and what will not work. For the most part, there are people who will get up to the microphone and immediately understand it whether they have done it before or not. They just jump in and do it. Of course those are the people that you want to stick with, because even with training and training some people are so disconnected. You have to be connected to the character on screen.

RD: When getting into the industry, how much is hustle and how much is talent?

LS: Thats a good question and one of the biggest pet peeves and nemeses of the industry. Voice over work is a funny thing and for animation there is a quality of voice and an energy that someone has to have in order to do animation. Also the demand tends to be that you should be able to do more than one voice. You should be able to do a multitude of voices in animation because they want you to come in to do them, so they save money not having to pay another actor. But also the timing of it moves much quicker if you got one actor who is doing a multitude of voices.

So the talent there has to come in, but putting that aside, there may be an actor who has a quality of voice that is so right on, because its so hard to get that kind of voice out of just a regular guy. So that person might get called in to do just that character and might not be very talented. It might be a person who has a really deep voice or a froggy throat. But it doesnt mean that all the people with those voices cant act, but there are some. For some of those people it works and they can get a running series. But Id say for the most part in the animation industry you have more talent than hustle. And then in the commercial world you have less talent and more hustle. Thats just off the cuff.

Features and commercials are where the money is in voice over work. © DreamWorks LLC.

RD: Do people working in animation voice over tend to float between animation and commercials?

LS: I was just on a panel and the other actor with me was strictly commercials, promos and a few trailers. He doesnt do any animation and he could do it, because hes gifted and has a good ear, but I think that hes so wrapped up in getting out there on that kind of stuff with his agency that he never ventures down the path. He had nothing to say about cartoons and animation, while I was there with all the animation and cartoons. I think you get caught up in your particular world and you think there is a fear that youre going to dissipate the one area that you worked so hard at. Or youre going to fail [laughs] and you dont want to fail. Id like to get into commercials, because it would be something different. And also the money would be good.

RD: Would you say that there is more money in commercials than animation?

LS: I think so. But when youre talking about feature animation like Aladdin and Shrek, youre going to make good money, because youre going to get it on residuals, get it on DVD pay. But Id venture to say that you can make a good killing on a commercial. Like for an instance, I know the guy who does the voice for Southwest Airlines, Youre now free to fly about the country. That guy has bought a Spanish freakin villa in the Hollywood hills overlooking the city. He does some other work, but thats what really pays the bills. And thats one line. Unless you got something like The Simpsons, which plays over and over again, Id say that commercials pay more. But I think it depends. I know people who do promo work who make $3 million a year.

RD: Man, I gotta get a cold or something. In a world

LS: Yeah. In a world That guy, megabucks.

RD: How did you move over into voice directing?

LS: This company that hired me a lot for voice over work. Id do so many shows for them. They use to put me in the booth by myself and direct myself when they couldnt be there. So one director was too busy, so he goes, Lia, you can just do this yourself, cant you? I think in the process of working long enough with an actor, the actor starts saying, Oh, I can do that better or Let me fix that or I know what you mean. The actors will let the director know that they pretty much know what theyre talking about before they even say it. So I started directing myself and then they got so much other work that they needed another director so they asked me to do it.

RD: So what is the role of the voice director; is it like a film director?

LS: It can be. It definitely can be. If the performance of a line is not believable then I try to help them focus as an actor to help them do the line better. As opposed to saying do it harder or do it faster, I try to give them an actors motivation or a visual. The tempo is a little different though. Because you have to keep up the energy loop after loop after loop. And theres little rehearsal time. But sometimes you just have to jump to the results and give a line reading just so that it gets done. So you can keep the momentum going.

RD: How long does it take to dub a whole a half-hour show?

LS: Most of the time a company will do a multitude of episodes at the same time, which are all 22 minutes usually. So if one characters in all three episodes, youll work two hours, if you have 50 loops. Most people average 25 loops an hour and some will scoot up to 50 loops an hour depending on the character and how fast they are and the director, the engineer and the equipment.

Sargent says there are two worlds in feature voice over  one for celebrities and one for the voice over actors. © Disney Enterprises.

RD: On original animation, do actors get a chance to play with characters?

LS: The feature world has become like two worlds in one. One world is the celebrity world. The other world is actors who have been doing it a lot longer than the celebrities have. I think that in any voice over world there is some room for play and change of the script. You know Robin Williams is going to do what hes going to do. I dont think there is any guidance with Robin Williams on how much he sticks to the script or not as far as the written word. Hes always has to stick to the plotline, but I think when you get a Robin Williams behind the microphone, youre going to get creativity way beyond the written word.

There are probably some people who are not celebrities who do the same thing, because they feel so comfortable with it. And they feel they can add to it. So any time an actor can sweeten or add to it, I think theyre always going to welcome that. Bottom line, if you have a good director than they know where it needs to go and the guidance is there and it will all come together. I think the feature world has much more freedom for creativity, because they have more time.

RD: Whats your advice to someone who wants to breaking into voice acting?

LS: Id say connect with anybody who is already in the industry and in the teaching world. Banging on doors is really probably the only way to do it. The more doors you bang on the more opportunities are out there and you never know who you could connect with. Part of it is being in the right place at the right time so thats why you give yourself as many opportunities as you can. So thats why its phone calls or door knocking. Some people will resent this, but you have to more on and just know that there are some people out there that will understand it and appreciate it and there are other people who will slam the door in your face.

Dont worry about it because there are different kinds of people. Putting your name out there and writing it down in big bold letters so theres no secret. After awhile, when people keep hearing your name enough, there is a sense of validity there and it validates you. And someone says, Ive heard of him; Ive heard of her. It doesnt hurt to put yourself out there. Then youll soon find out. If everyone is saying forget about it or youre not getting any work than perhaps its not for you.

Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. He recently contributed to a coffee table book on the history of animation for Flame Tree Publishing, which will be released Sept. 2004. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Prods and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that position, he served as associate editor of AWN.

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