21 NovRaphael Sbarge Audioblog: Mark Meer Q&A Part 1
Raphael Sbarge (Kaidan Alenko, Mass Effect; Archie/Jiminy Cricket, Once Upon a Time) interviews Mark Meer (Commander Shepard, Mass Effect). In part 1, they discuss improv and voice acting.
Raphael: Mark, are you there?
Mark: I am.
Raphael: Hey, man. Thank you for doing this, on the fly.
Mark: Not at all; thanks for having me.
Raphael: Yeah, this is great. We met—the first time, essentially, you were wearing a very inconspicuous costume at the Atlanta Dragon*Con.
Mark: Ah, well, I was wearing an obscure costume. I’m not sure if you could call it inconspicuous.
Raphael: [laugh] Obscure. Kind of “old country,” kind of.
Mark: Yes, I was dressed as an obscure super-villain from Marvel Comics: The Super Adaptoid. Some of your nerdier fans may know who that is.
Raphael: Yeah, well, point of fact, you were dressed as Commander Shepard, and you were …
Mark: Oh, no! But if you’ll recall, the very first time that we met, on the Friday, I was wearing the remnants of a Super Adaptoid costume …
Mark: Yes, yeah. I had white contacts in, muscle padding and the costume itself, so. Yeah, I was somewhat in disguise, because our first panel was actually right after the Superhero Costuming Forum‘s big Marvel Comics Avengers shoot.
Raphael: That’s so funny. Now the thing that’s so cool is just that you, obviously, love playing these games, and you’re, effectively, sort of a self-pronounced “geek” yourself.
Mark: I am. I am, most certainly. And my action-figure collection proves it.
Raphael: Oh! Tell me about your action-figure collection, tell me about that.
Mark: It takes up the lower floor of my house, basically. My wife has been very kind and has ceded the basement to my hobby.
Raphael: Oh, my goodness! Are they all sort of wrapped in the original wrapping and…
Mark: No, no. See, I’m not one of those “smart” collectors who keeps things in boxes, so that they accrue in value and worth. I take them out of the package immediately and put them on the shelf. They’re basically worth the plastic that they’re made out of.
Raphael: You can play with them!
Mark: Oh, sure! Pose them, look at them. They’re great. But, yeah, I do have some figures that would be worth something–if they were in the original package. They, sadly, are not, and so they’re worth nothing to anybody but me.
Raphael: That’s great, though, that’s great. But you’ve got your action-figure museum in the basement. That’s fantastic.
Mark: I do, yes, yes. And, y’know, puppets, and props.
Raphael: Do you give tours?
Mark: Oh, sure, yes. Anyone who comes by is generally taken down into the basement and shown “The Museum of Awesome,” as some of my friends call it.
Raphael: That’s so great! That’s so great. Well, in terms of what I love, Mark, about kind of what I know of your story, is you’re kind of like the “hometown boy who kind of like, gets the coolest part ever in playing the lead in this huge game,” and basically pushing out any possibility of the so-called “name” doing it. You kind of rose to the top. It’s such a cool story.
Mark: Well, I’m, yeah, certainly very grateful for that opportunity, too. And, of course, BioWare is based here in Edmonton, and I’m an Edmontonian. I’d been working for BioWare since 1999, 2000, in various roles, but this was the first time I’d been cast in the lead. So it certainly was a thrilling experience.
Raphael: But then, you have a huge amount – I mean, you’re a writer, as well as also you’re in a whole bunch of comedy and performance troupes. You’ve performed all over the world, I guess?
Mark: Yes, that’s right. I mostly do improv theater, actually; that’s kind of my focus, more or less. I actually just finished a 50-hour-long improv show that we do annually here in Edmonton. We also do one in London, England. But this one was, yeah – so it’s a 50-hour-long show that most of the actors stay up for – without sleeping. It’s one continuous narrative, all the way through, and this year happened to be a Game of Thrones parody.
Raphael: Oh, my gosh. What is it like, in hour 47, when you’re trying to sort of move towards the finish line?
Mark: Oh, in hour 47, it’s just like, oh, geez, we could probably go for another day, because you’re pretty exhilarated to be reaching the end, by that point. I do have to say: I’ve done this 21 times now, all the way through, and I don’t get the hallucinations anymore. I used to—I miss them, somewhat. I still get very tired, certainly, but you don’t reach that wall of craziness anymore. I think your body just gets used to it.
And, yeah, even in the early days—the narrative, it would get weird in the, sort of, early-morning hours, like, say, 5 a.m. or 7 a.m., when the audience is pretty thin. But during the prime-time stuff, like getting right to the end in hour 47, everybody’s firing on all cylinders, no matter how much sleep they’ve had.
Raphael: That’s so amazing, I mean, talk about like, going into battle, like going to war with your compatriots.
Mark: Yeah, it’s sort of like a vision quest, I think.
Raphael: laughs] Yeah, it’s gotta be. I mean, you must love those brothers and sisters like your family, at that point, having survived that. That’s incredible.
Mark: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things to do, actually. And, as I say, we do one in England, as well. So the next one will be, I believe, in January of 2013, in London.
Raphael: Amazing, amazing. And, so then, your background for this, as an actor, in terms of your training, and stuff—does that really come out of, I mean, did you really start to be … well, how did you evolve into doing the comedy troupe work that you do. Because obviously, you’re a writer as well, but how did it find you, or you find it?
Mark: Well, it basically all came from the same source. It was doing a show here in Edmonton, at the Teen Festival of the Arts. Up to that point, I had been almost exclusively a, sort of, science guy, as opposed to drama. In fact, I didn’t even take drama in high school, because my high school didn’t offer it—I came from a small town. I had to take art by correspondence.
And, so, when I moved to the city, I was going to university, and, as I said, I was enrolled in science, actually. In biology, on the premed track. And, so, I had never really acted before; I didn’t even know about improv. Most people, by that point, had done that in high school. And, so, when I discovered it, I just really took to it—and then immediately dropped out and became an actor. So don’t follow my example, kids.
Raphael: You’ve done so much voice work: … Jade Empire, Dragon Age, was it Baldur’s Gate? …
Mark: Yes! Baldur’s Gate I’m actually revisiting that, because the enhanced edition is coming out from Overhaul Games, and they hired me to come back and play some new MPCs, and one of the main villains in the new modules. And that’s a great group—because that is one of the very first voiceover jobs I ever did for BioWare.
Raphael: What was it like, the first time you did a voiceover gig? I mean, it is its own particular medium, isn’t it?
Mark: It is, but, again—my experience with drama was very limited when I was in high school; so the closest thing that I got to acting, or improv, or anything like that, was probably Dungeons & Dragons. And, I DMed and played, and that was the closest thing to acting that I had done, up to a certain point.
And then, of course, when I moved to the city I got very into improv and sketch comedy, sort of at the same time, and using improv as a tool for generating sketch comedy. And when this first BioWare job came along, it was just an audition, you know—at this point I was going to auditions and, as you know, you audition for everything: for commercials, for video-game voicework, for plays. This one really excited me, because Baldur’s Gate is, of course, based on Dungeons & Dragons. So for me, this single line that I was auditioning for was, like, one of the most coveted parts I could ever audition for—and I ended up getting it. And ended up being a single line in the final cut scene of Baldur’s Gate II.
But, ultimately, I think all of my work with BioWare led from that—largely because they were still doing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons-based games at the time, and I had a shorthand with people from BioWare. When they brought me in, they could put me in the booth and say, “This guy’s a 15th-level Paladin,” and I’d be able to go, “Oh, so he’s Lawful Good, then, and he has a holy avenger,” and things like that. So I knew about Dungeons & Dragons, and I think that’s why BioWare was eager to keep hiring me back all through the years.
Raphael: Yeah, I would say you’d be such an enormous asset, because you could also help them kind of develop a character. I found that when you’re finally called into the recording booth, invariably the lines have been sort of slaved over. But did they, in your case? Did they ever sort of encourage you to kind of play, and kind of improv? Or, kind of, jazz on the theme, and see what comes?
Mark: Well, with Shepard’s lines, in particular, of course, there’s not a lot of room for improv, because Jennifer Hale and I—who does a fantastic job of playing the female version of Commander Shepard—Jennifer and I have to say the same thing, we have to say the same lines. And occasionally, they’re open to things like, “Well, this is a bit of a mouthful to say; can we phrase this sentence this way?” You know, that whole thing of: It’s pretty easy to type that line. But to say it out loud is another matter. And so sometimes they’ll allow us to make changes like that; but for the most part, no. We’re sticking to the script and working with the writers and what they’ve given us.
There’s a little more room for improv in things like the incidental parts I’m doing, like, say, the Vorcha or some of the comedy/relief characters I do in the games.