How Voiceover Actors Are Stepping Out of the Booth and Into the Spotlight, From ‘Sonic 2’ to ‘Halo’

Available to WrapPRO members

“For so long we’ve sort of been in the background, seen as replaceable,” “Sonic” star Colleen O’Shaughnessy says

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Colleen O'Shaughnessey/Tails

Colleen O’Shaughnessey’s biggest break in her nearly 30 years of voice acting has come with the release of Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” — playing Sonic’s closest pal, the two-tailed fox Miles “Tails” Prower.

It’s not a new role for O’Shaughnessey. For eight years, she’s voiced Tails in video games and animated TV shows, but it wasn’t until this past May that she got the confirmation that she would join the voice cast for the sequel to 2020’s theatrical hit “Sonic” alongside Ben Schwartz as Sonic and Idris Elba as Knuckles.

O’Shaughnessey’s big-screen breakthrough comes at a time when voice actors, after decades of work in animation and gaming, signals a shift in Hollywood to recognize the often undersung talent who bring animated and video-game characters to life (and who often find their roles recast with bigger, more established names in film and TV adaptations).

“I told my agent that if I got this part, it’s a huge win for me, but it’s also big for the voiceover community in general,” O’Shaughnessey told TheWrap. “These characters, no matter what fandom you are in, mean something to people and our voices are a part of it. For so long we’ve sort of been in the background, seen as replaceable, but I hope the studios are realizing that we’re not.”

And though O’Shaughnessey might not be as recognizable as most of her co-stars, “Sonic” fans wanted her to get the same marquee treatment. In February, when Paramount released the theatrical poster for “Sonic 2,” fans of the game series protested that Schwartz and Elba’s names were included on the poster but O’Shaughnessey’s was not. After days of fan outcry on social media, Paramount not only released a new version of the theatrical poster with O’Shaughnessey’s name included but also put her name on a character poster featuring Tails.

And O’Shaughnessey is not the only one riding the wave of voice acting fandom. In Paramount+’s new “Halo” series, Jen Taylor was cast to reprise her performance as Master Chief’s AI companion Cortana, a role she has filled in every “Halo” video game since the series began in 2001. Sony Pictures’ recent film adaptation of the Playstation game series “Uncharted” also gave a nod to hardcore fans by bringing in Nolan North, who voices explorer Nathan Drake in the games, to do a cameo with the new, younger Drake (played by Tom Holland).

uncharted nolan north tom holland
Nolan North and Tom Holland on the set of “Uncharted” (Sony Pictures via Naughty Dog/Twitter)

Since Robin Williams was famously cast as the Genie in “Aladdin” 30 years ago and heavily promoted in Disney’s marketing — against Williams’ wishes — studios have largely turned to A-listers to fill the cast of their animated films rather than professional voice actors.

At the same time, the rise of ’90s kids networks like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, as well as the growing popularity of anime and video games, gave those voice actors plenty of work away from the big screen — from cartoons like “SpongeBob SquarePants” to English dubs of anime series like “One Piece” and games like “Sonic the Hedgehog.”

Now, those two streams are starting to meet as video game franchises are being targeted by film studios to be adapted into theatrical releases, and voice actors like O’Shaughnessey are getting brought along for the ride to appear in films alongside better-known actors.

Todd Haberkorn, a voice actor known among anime fans for his work on “Attack on Titan” and “Fairy Tail,” said that the casting of his peers like O’Shaughnessey and Taylor to reprise their roles in bigger-budget adaptations shows just how invaluable they are to making these characters come to life. Still, he cautioned that the entertainment industry as a whole doesn’t understand that voice acting is a very different craft from acting on stage or in front of a camera.

“The misconception is sort of like if you view acting as a sport and voiceover as a sport, but when a studio head hires an on-camera actor to do voice just because they’re funny on camera, it’s like asking a baseball player to play football. But hey, they’re both sports, right?” he said.

colleen o'shaunnessy
Colleen O’Shaughnessy posts “boothies” of herself at work in the recording studio (Courtesy of Colleen O’Shaughnessy/Twitter)

As an example of those differences, O’Shaughnessey said that she and many other voice actors will, depending on the role, mimic the expressions and movements of their characters in a much more exaggerated way than they would on camera to channel that energy into their voice. Rather than fine-tuning every part of their bodies to reflect a character, a voice actor concentrates their whole being into getting the best performance out of their voice.

“I can’t sit down when I’m recording. Some do and I don’t know how they do it,” O’Shaughnessey said. “For me, when I put it through my body, it comes through my voice much clearer. When I play Tails, I always am thinking, ‘He’s a young boy, so how does a young boy stand? How does a young boy gesture?’”

Those techniques aren’t always understood outside of the voiceover community, even among some of those big-name stars who get the plum animated film roles. Keith Arem, a sound producer and President of sound and VFX company PCB Productions, said that some major actors that he’s worked with understand those nuances — he names Elba, whose voice acting credits include Disney’s “Zootopia” and “The Jungle Book” along with “Sonic 2,” as one of them — but others have required a serious crash course in Voiceover Acting 101.

“Sometimes, on-camera actors aren’t prepared for the level of work that comes with dubbing, or motion or facial capture or the other things that we do at PCB,” Arem said. “They are talented, no doubt about it, but their strengths don’t always translate into our world.”

Despite the unique skills voice actors provide, Haberkorn has seen examples in his career of how the entertainment industry at large sees them as somehow “lesser” than their onscreen counterparts.

“I was with an agency many years ago that had a ‘celebrity’ branch and a ‘voiceover’ branch, and I asked why that was, and I was told that one phone call in the celebrity branch could be worth a $3 million contract so they focus more on that,” he said. “This wasn’t 30 years ago, this was very recently.”

But O’Shaughnessey, Haberkorn and Arem all feel optimistic that this is starting to change, and that is because of the value that younger fans who grew up on video games and anime place on their work. For years, Haberkorn has seen the audience for fan convention panels with voice actors grow, and being a part of those panels has allowed him to see firsthand how much fans of the shows he’s worked on want to know more about the people behind their favorite animated characters.

“It’s so amazing when I’ve been at a convention and I’ve heard people tell me, ‘I drove eight, nine hours to see you,’ or when I’m promoting a show I’m in on social media and someone tweets, ‘Oh, you’re in that? I’m definitely going to check it out,” he said.

The demand has become so great that he and Arem are teaming up with the producers of Los Angeles Comic Con to start a new convention based entirely around voice actors. The convention, called AVOX, will be held in Pasadena this July and will not only feature panels and autograph sessions with dozens of voice actors but also workshops where attendees can learn about voice techniques and the inner workings of the voiceover industry.

Voice actor Todd Haberkorn (Courtesy of Todd Haberkorn)

“We want to create a space where people don’t just get autographs or attend Q&As but actually see these actors work their magic and weave these characters completely out of their own imaginations,” Arem said. “They’ll read a script and come up with a character on the fly or do improv with one of their most famous characters and really see how they do their work in the recording booth.”

It has been a long time coming, but the numbers show just how much the voiceover world is creeping into the mainstream. Earlier this week, Netflix’s creative director of anime Kohei Obara said that half of the streamer’s subscribers worldwide watched at least one anime show in 2021, while video game adaptations like “Arcane: League of Legends” and “The Cuphead Show” are also among the animated shows greenlit by Netflix.

While Paramount is continuing to develop “Sonic” and “Halo,” Universal will be releasing an Illumination animated adaptation of “Super Mario Bros.” this Christmas and could develop more Nintendo franchises as part of its partnership with the video game giant. And while Sony’s plans to develop its Playstation games into films and TV shows are more live-action oriented, some planned films like “Jak & Daxter” may require some voice work, and dubbing the anime films that Sony is bringing to theaters via Crunchyroll definitely will.

And when it comes time to find voices for those roles, Haberkorn said it’s time for voice actors to show what their worth, not just because of their growing fan base but because of the resume they bring that can rival any on-camera counterpart. “These are video games that are wildly popular and are worth billions just like these big movie franchises in large part because fans love the characters, but for so long the marquee value of the characters and the IP has been cut off from the value of the actors,” Arem added. “Now, that’s starting to change because there’s a growing understanding among the public of what we do.”