Liam O'Brien Interview
One of our very first voice actor interviews was with Liam O'Brien, focussing mainly on his work for the 'Tales' series. We recently had the chance to catch up with him to talk about what he has been doing since and his recent work as Caius Ballad in Final Fantasy XIII-2. We also took the opportunity to look at his past, including some of his earliest stage productions, and to take a quick glance at what might be coming up in his future.
Liam O’Brien: Pretty damn well. Lemme see, I went from one kid to two kids, so there's that. I now have an heir and a spare. That's the biggest difference in my day to day. I've also managed to stay pretty busy as a professional geek - probably more than ever now. My biggest problem lately is choosing between the three hats I tend to wear. Some months I'm mostly an actor, but other times directing and writing are more predominant. There are 3 Liams, and they don't always play nice with each other. The actor, the writer, and the director each think they're the most important in the bunch. And there's only 8 hours in a day. I'm not complaining, mind you. I thrive on the chaos.
RPGSite: Now, before we move forward there is something that simply must be said – I distinctly remember you with impressively thick hair, so where has it all gone?
Liam: Impressively? Ha! You are much deceived, I'm afraid. Uh, what can I say? It was fun while it lasted? Kidding, I do have hair up there, but I'm not 24 anymore, and I don't believe in half measures (Game of Thrones fans? Anyone?) I actually work out quite a bit these days, so I'm slowly turning into a space marine.
RPGSite: Haha, well, back before your transition we only touched briefly on your life prior to being a professional actor, so what is your earliest memory of being drawn to the world of entertainment?
Liam: The earliest memory I have that points to where I am now is of long car drives when I was 5. I used to bug the crap out of my older sister by jabbering the same nonsense phrases over and over and over again. Little did I know that it would become my living. Then we can fast forward to 8th grade, when the nuns in my catholic school decided to push me into forensics. Not the crime investigation kind. This was public speaking. I would go to competitions and act out sections of prose and poetry. That followed me to high school, and branched off into school plays. The world has never seen a better 14 year old Horatio.
Liam: Acting started in high school. When I first got in, I was just looking for something to do with my time, and sports wasn't it. I was in an all boys Jesuit school, and the drama club had girls from our sister school in it. Win win. So it started as a lark, but snowballed from there. After high school, I crossed the Hudson River and started at New York University. I was in love with the theatre. The acting school at NYU is divided up into various studios, with different styles of training. I got placed in the Atlantic Theater Acting School, which was started back in the day by David Mamet, and has been carried on by his students for a couple decades now. It was great place to get started. I have a lot of happy memories from those years.
RPGSite: When had you decided to act professionally? Were there other options?
Liam: I had been performing in one way or another for several years, but it didn't really occur to me that I could pursue it as a career until my late teens. I was lucky. I had really supportive parents. I'm sure they were more than a little nervous when I broke it to them that I wanted to go to school for acting, but they routed for me anyway. It's a rough road. Only about 5% of actors ever earn a living entirely AS an actor. I did have a back up plan though. In case I wussed out. Almost went to Wesleyan University to major in East Asian Studies. Funny, that.
RPGSite: You did mention to us that before you broke into voice acting you worked as a stage actor. What were some of the productions you were involved in during those early years?
Liam: Well, I had a lot of fun with friends starting our own little rag tag theater company. We did everything ourselves. Built sets, ran lights, all the stuff that young NY actors should do.
My first professional job as an actor was in a production of Harold Pinter's The Hot House, a play about the staff working in an insane asylum. I have a very distinct memory of visiting the loo on a rehearsal break, and Pinter sidling up next to me at the urinals. All I could think was "I'm peeing next to Harold Pinter, I'm peeing next to Harold Pinter."
One favorite production from my early years on stage was The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh. McDonagh is an amazing writer from the UK. You might know his work from the movie, In Bruges. He's written some of the darkest comedies you've ever seen. Heart ripping, hilarious, and nasty. It was my first lead role (I was the Cripple), and I was performing at the Pioneer Theater, in Salt Lake City, in front of 2000 people a night. I'll never forget the electric charge I'd get from that ocean of people. On a side note, I would spend copious amounts of my off hours playing Resident Evil 2 in my apartment in Salt Lake. Nice bit of foreshadowing there.
RPGSite: Are you still involved with the world of theatre?
Liam: One of the only regrets of my career, which I love to death, is that it has lead me away from the theater in the last several years. My last outing on the boards was 6 years ago, in a production of All My Sons, here in LA. I got to spend time on stage with Laurie Metcalf and Neil Patrick Harris, who were both astoundingly good in the show. We almost took it to Broadway. My son was born a few months later, and my VO career was really starting to take off at that point, and 6 years later I'm looking back and wondering why it's taken me so long to get back. I used to do 3-4 plays a year. Now that my kids are a little older, though, I mean to get back. Ask me this again in 2 years. I'll have a different answer by then.
RPGSite: Fellow voice actor Crispin Freeman helped you get your first voice audition. What were you thinking when you walked into the studio for the first time?
Liam: God, that's a fuzzy one… I kind of remember the little room I auditioned in a decade ago. I was pretty into stuff like Ghost in the Shell and Akira when I was in high school, and I know I was thinking " I hope I don't F this up". But I remember the actual gig more than the audition.
Liam: My first VO job ever was working on an anime series called Boogiepop Phantom. This was another moment when I got lucky, I think. I know from my experience directing anime dubs later on just how tricky it can be trying out newer actors. Dubbing takes a really specific subset of skills to do it well, and the budgets are super tight, so there sometimes isn't time to hold a new actor's hand through their first session. When you do bring someone new in, it's usually to do incidental bits and background chatter. You get to feel them out a bit, and they get to just dip a toe in and try the dubbing water. But on Boogiepop, I landed a character who was the center of an entire episode; a creepy little teenager who had trouble differentiating between his dating sim games and an actual girl. It wasn't the lead of the show or anything, but it gave me a chance to prove myself. That led to another anime, and another, etc.
I actually wrote a page for Yuri Lowenthal and Tara Platt's book, Voice-Over Voice Actor that recounts a somewhat insane moment from that job. But I'll do Yuri and Tara a favor and just point you toward the book. If any of your readers are looking to learn what it takes to get into this line of work, their book's a good starting point.
RPGSite: So, a few years ago we spoke about how throughout your career you had built a reputation for characters that ‘show signs of insanity or are complete evil geniuses’. Today we’re here to talk about your role as Caius Ballad, the villain in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Do you just enjoy embracing your dark side?
Liam: I am the John Malkovich of game VO. I love it.
RPGSite: Before working on XIII-2, you voiced several Cocoon Inhabitants in the original FFXIII but how familiar were you with the characters and story of that game?
Liam: So-so. I had watched the initial trailers that came out. And I know a lot of the people who worked on it. I'm buddies with Ali Hillis, Troy Baker, and Laura Bailey from the cast, as well as Jack Fletcher, who voice directed the game. So I was familiar with the characters, but not the story. Jack had to lead me through, which is the job of a good VO director. Which he is.
Liam: Yep. Like all video game roles, our first knowledge of roles come from audition sides. I was given a character sketch, a brief paragraph of description, and a handful of lines to record. That's it. Honestly, most of my take on him came from looking at his expression in the sketch. His story and his motives came later, during recording.
RPGSite: Now you know him a little better, how would you describe him to someone else?
Liam: Resolute. Caius doesn't change a great deal in the story. That's Serah's role in XIII-2. I don't want to spoil anything for gamers, since it's just come out. But he has a single thing he is trying to accomplish, and he just leans into it and moves forward. I might also use the word "David," as well as "Bowie".
RPGSite: Official descriptions often paint him as calm, rarely displaying his emotions. Was it a challenge to balance that sense of detachment and containment with the need for him to still have sufficient passion to be compelling for the gamer listening?
Liam: No, I loved every minute of it. I have always been a gamer (though my free time is low these days) and, along with a million other JRPGers, I loved Final Fantasy VII when it hit. As my VO career has grown, I've always dreamed of landing a solid role in the Final Fantasy universe. And of course, I already had some time there, in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and the remake of Final Fantasy IV. But getting to be in the latest installment of the series is a real badge of honor for me.
RPGSite: I was going to mention your prior experience as Red XIII and Kain Highwind. Just how good does it feel to have worked on one of the most famous role playing franchises so many times?
Liam: There is no question I feel lucky. I feel lucky to have been such a part of the FF universe, as well as all the other projects I get to do. I've been elves in Middle Earth, an Autobot on Cybertron, a blue skinned, teleporting X-Man, a 13 year old shinobi with murder in his heart, multiple deities… The list goes on. And I still shake my head in disbelief that I get to do it all for a living. It's like someone took my childhood dreams and shot them into space on a rocket. Very thankful.
Liam: Tough call. We might not have much of a future. But if mankind can avoid blowing its own head off, I'd take a trip far enough ahead to get me a cyborg shell, à la Ghost in the Shell. Then, I would take my indestructible body back to the Middle Ages and rule as a god over the Celts.
RPGSite: He is also, shall we say, a flamboyant dresser. Would you say purple is your colour?
Liam: Purple hair and feathers were big talking points during recording, let's just put it that way. I'm a little simpler. I like blue, black, and white. And zombie T shirts.
RPGSite: In addition to acting, you also work as a writer and director. Now, we all know that to go for a job as an actor you have to audition for the part, but how do you go about applying for the role of voice director on a particular video game?
Liam: My directing work has always blossomed out of my acting. Earlier on, when I was dubbing anime, folks started to notice I had a decent head on my shoulders and a grasp of the genre. So eventually, I was asked if I wanted to adapt scripts and direct. (Pro tip: never say no to anything. You'll figure it out). Down the road, after I had been cast in Naruto, I was asked to adapt that show, and later to stand in for Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (who I adore) when she couldn't be there to direct. That lead to polishing scripts and directing VO for some of the many Naruto games. All that allowed me to build up XP as a director, so that eventually, people had enough confidence in me to offer the seat on Resident Evil 5.
I've never actually sought out directing jobs. Not directly anyway. I definitely could. I've reached a point where I occasionally wonder if I might lean full on into directing VO. I'm good at it, and easy to work with, which is the magic formula. But I still have one foot planted in my acting work. So for now, I'm happy to keep doing what I'm doing, and take on the odd directing gig when it presents itself.
Liam: Definitely. But not to the point of paralysis. I have always loved Resident Evil games, and when I was asked to hop on board, I had zero hesitation. I had years of VO work under my belt, and even more years working on stage. It was certainly up a notch from past jobs, but at its core, my job is ALWAYS the same. I'm good with dialogue and I'm good with other actors. At the core, all we're doing is play make believe. We just have better special effects than most people do.
RPGSite: How do you approach a game that you are directing compared to one you are acting in - how familiar do you have to become with the game, at what stage do you join and leave production, what kind of hours do you work, etc?
Liam: No two games are the same. Sometimes, all a company wants is to hand you a script, and have actors march quickly through the studio, getting 1-3 takes per line, just recording it as quickly as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, you're talking to the devs about the game as it evolves, and are helping create characters from scratch almost. I've had jobs where I'm in the chair at 9am, and I get in my car at 10pm. Hard work, but very worth it. No matter what the circumstances, though, the voice director has to know the story like the back of his hand. Games can have tens of thousands of lines now, and you're not always recording it all in the order in which it happens. I have to have a rough idea of where I want performances to be in my head, because we usually record one actor at a time. And it's up to me as a director to guide all the actors through whatever the hell is going on. On the acting side, you have very little idea of the big picture. You only know what you're told when you show up, whatever there is time for.
Good VO in a game takes THREE things. Having good actors, as crucial as they are, is not enough. You need good actors, good writing, and a good director. Oh, and ample time helps a lot too. If you've ever wondered why one of your favorite actors is amazing in one game, and not quite as stellar in another, there is a good chance that the budget or other circumstances didn't allow for much exploration or digging, and the work was just blasted through. Again, every game is different.
Liam: Being an actor helps a lot. We can speak in the same language or short hand. And I think I try to hold onto the freedom you feel during rehearsal. I like to do dispel any sense of difference between myself and the actor- as if I'm some sort of auteur who is there to move them about like a chess piece to get what I want. That's not my MO. We're always just 2 actors figuring shit out. A lot of my actors have made it a point to tell me how much they like working with me because of that, which is nice.
RPGSite: How about the reverse, does being a director help when you are acting? And how do directors react when they realise they have one of their own in the booth?
Liam: When I started directing, my acting on mic actually benefitted. A lot. I was suddenly spending endless hours with very talented actors, whereas in the past I had been on my own, with nothing else to compare my experience to. Now I was able to learn from my peers - I could see what worked, what didn't work, and my tool bag, as it were, got a serious upgrade.
As for the reaction of other directors learning about my own work at the controls, I tend to be a little careful how and when I bring it up. When I'm an actor in the booth, I always want to shelve directing and just be a blank slate for them. And I don't want directors I'm just meeting to think I'm arm chair quarterbacking in my head the whole time, so I sometimes hold it back at first. It always comes up eventually, but I'm definitely cautious about it.
But I have great friendships with wonderful directors who know about my Swiss Army Knife career. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Kris Zimmerman, Jack Fletcher, Chris Borders, Keith Arem (just to name a few) are all very good friends who I love, and am still in awe of their work, even after years of working with them.
RPGSite: With two Resident Evil games on your resume, is it possible that you will soon be behind the reins once again for the newly announced Resident Evil 6?
Liam: Anything's possible. Time'll tell, I guess.
RPGSite: Time is running out but before we say goodbye, we must talk about your writing. One project you have been working on is the English adaptation of the new X-Men anime. The source material is an American comic book, so how well has it translated to the Japanese style of animation and storytelling?
RPGSite: You starred as an actor in the earlier Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, so how do the two shows compare and differ in tackling the same characters?
Liam: It's all about the execution. The characters always have the same personalities and traits at their center. But how that center is portrayed can vary. If you look at Warner Brother's multitude of animated projects, Batman is always Batman. But the way his core being is portrayed from series to series is tackled in different ways. You see the same kinds of differences between the X-Men anime and Wolverine and the X-men. Emma Frost is a clear example. She's always an ice queen and two steps ahead of everyone. But in the one series, she is portrayed as British and especially untrustworthy… In the other, she is American, and clearly has better intentions or motivations.
RPGSite: And finally, you once gave voice to the personification of War in Darksiders. This year sees the release of Darksiders 2, starring Death. Will we have the chance to see and hear War again?
Liam: Magic 8 Ball says: "Outlook cloudy."
RPGSite: Liam, thank you so much for your time. It’s always a thrill.
Liam: 100% my pleasure.
Our thanks again go to Liam for being as generous with his time as we remember him being. For more on Final Fantasy XIII-2, click here for the ultimate resource crammed with news, media, reviews and more!