Last week I talked with the Man of a Million Voices*, Johnny Heller. Named one of the Top 50 Narrators of the 20th Century by AudioFile Magazine, Heller is a multiple Audie Award winner and all-around funny guy. Here, he gives us his expert insights on creating dozens of distinct character voices, some of his favorite projects out of the 500+ books he’s recorded, and what he does to annoy his girlfriend.
Over the last few weeks, I listened to a few of your books. I listened to MASH by Richard Hooker, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, and The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir by Ken Harmon. And what I noticed about all of them is that there are a lot of characters in these books. You really did a great job of distinguishing each of them and not making it seem … it wasn’t over-the-top. You could distinguish the characters, and the voices felt right for the character without it being in-your-face. In the conversations that I’ve had with narrators, you guys tend to talk about “creating a character,” and you make it sound so straight-forward and simple, but what’s that process like? How do you determine what that voice is?
I get that kind of question a lot. Part of it is it comes a little more naturally to me because I’ve always been, I guess, a character myself. The process is, when you have an affinity for mimicry, or in the process of storytelling, character has to come up. Some people do it more than others but what my process is basically straight out of—I studied three years in the School of Performing Arts in Chicago under Ted Liss, Stanislavskian guru. We learned about character development there, in acting class, and it’s still true in audiobooks, which I consider audio a real organic acting experience. But basically, one finds out everything they can about a character from three sources in the book. One, what the author says about the character. Two, what the character says about himself. And three, what other characters say about the character. Much like you would know something about my friend Susan based on what I told you about her, and based on what she said to you herself, you know, that sort of thing. When I read the book, I go through and I have an image, and I think everybody does this almost intuitively, they sort of cast it in their head. Like this character reminds me of my brother, Frank, or this character reminds me of my local parish priest, or this fella, I gotta say, I see Jack Lemmon doing the role or that kind of thing. I make notes that prepare the text of all the characters in it. And mostly, the protagonist, the main guy, is gonna be me, basically. And then the other characters will be based on what they say. I try to get an idea from their voice. Let’s say I think this is a Clint Eastwood kind of guy. Well I’m not necessarily going to impersonate Clint Eastwood. In The Fat Man, of course, I did Jimmy Stewart, I did those guys because it worked for the characters. But you want to be careful you adjust your character. You have to play the scene the author wrote. Honestly, and with integrity, and truthfully. And once you do that, it’ll be fine. If you seem as an actor, unable to say simple words like the and if and cat, then you’ve made some wrong choices and you have to go back and fix it. You can make a bad character choice. I may write down snooty New England guy or I may write down Father Loftus, a philosophy professor of mine from college, or I may write down Uncle Bill and Uncle Bill is a Cockney merchant marine, he has a Cockney accent, and I know what he sounds like. Or I might write down sounds like my mum, she’s British. I have an image in my head and I write a note that links me to it. And then to keep the characters separate, while software programs have a place to bookmark your character choices, I use my smart phone. I’ll do the voice of them and I’ll say, “This is Erin,” and I’ll do the voice that I want for Erin and I have it locked in so that I can repeat whatever I chose for her easily if she’s on page 15 and not again until 278, I can find what I did.
I was wondering how you slipped back into a voice that hasn’t been heard in 200 pages.
Yeah pretty much, I forget, like “What did that sound like, again?” So I go back. With MASH it was particularly difficult because people have their images of who the guys sound like because of the television program and because of the film. I didn’t want to do any of those. I wanted to do it my way, the author’s way, I thought. Because what’s written for the screen and what’s written for television isn’t what the author necessarily wrote in the book.
Yeah, I think that was one of the most surprising and fun parts about listening to MASH was that it was different from what I was used to from the movie and the show. And I liked that. I think it would have been a disappointment if it had been the same.
Well, yeah, if I’m trying to impersonate Alan Alda or Elliot Gould or whoever I choose to do, whichever Hawkeye I want to play, and that’s not what I need to do as an actor or an audiobook narrator. There’s an art to creating characters and some people do it better than others. You can differentiate by pacing, tone, pitch, a million different ways. I tend to speak a little quickly, myself. Other people are m-o-o-o-o-r-e th-o-o-o-u-ghtful, you know what I mean, they’re really slow and easy. And when you do that, it’s a different character. But you still have to play whatever the scene is. I mean even the thoughtful, slow guy can be angry and excited sometimes, and you have to be able to do that. But when you visualize them, it’s easier to play. I visualize. It’s a cinematic experience for me, almost.
When you read through a book the first time, do you hear the character voices in your head as you read through it, or do you try out different variations to get the one that works?
I think the same way you would read a book, I guarantee if you pick up Lord of the Rings right now and you sit and read it, you can hear voices in your head. They’re probably influenced by the films now but prior to the release of the films, every one of us, I mean, To Kill a Mockingbird, if you read anything, Charlotte’s Web, any book, Inherit the Wind—that’s a play, actually—you’re gonna have images in your head of the characters and you will naturally, instinctively in your mind have different tones in your head, only you won’t say them aloud. So when I read, I see what’s in my head, I make a note of it. You do it, too, you just don’t make a note of it. So, I don’t try out different voices. I merely make a note—scholarly, professorial—whatever I think they may be. A jerk wad or real kind. They could be regional: sounds like a Chicago cab driver, you know, whatever. Whatever puts me in the right place so I have an image. If I have seen the character I can do the character.
Do you find that you notice people’s accents and speech mannerisms a lot in your daily life?
Absolutely. Yes. Unlike other people, I don’t try to get away from people talking too loud on their cell phones. Especially if they’re Eastern European or something. Especially in New York, it’s such a melting pot, you hear some amazing voices, and I’ll chat with the guy at my fruit stand. He’s, I think, Iranian. I chat with the newspaper guy, who I think is Pakistani. I try to get their cadence down. You chat with people and find out about who they are. I could never do Eastern European before. Now I can because I worked hard at it. And also I watch a lot of movies. A lot of films from the ’30s, like I stole for The Fat Man, have everybody you want. All those B films, they’re great.
I am fascinated by people who can do accents because I can’t do any accents, at all. I can’t get my head around how you can listen to somebody else talking and then make the same sounds they do. How do you do that?
I don’t know the science behind it. I know I can do it. I grew up with a British accent. My mother’s from London and I had a British accent until the time I was 7 maybe, but I couldn’t say the letter R, so I sounded like a British Elmer Fudd for the first few years of my life. And my grandmother’s from Ireland, so she had a great brogue and she was with us quite a bit so I could impersonate her. I could always impersonate everybody. So I’ve always had an ear for voices. I’m not really good at French, as people have pointed out. My sister speaks it fluently and I sound like Pepé Le Pew. I can’t do a strong French guy. I watch enough television, I try to pick it up, and I try to just nuance it a little bit because no matter what I do, if I do a French guy too long he ends up sounding like a Jewish deli owner. I don’t know why.
The one time that I ever slip into an accent, my mom’s family is from the very southern part of Kentucky, and so they have that mountain drawl. And when I’m around my family I start talking the way they do and I can’t help it. I can’t not do it. Do you ever find that happening to you after a day of recording, is it ever hard to shake that voice that you’ve been doing for the last six hours?
No, because the main voice I do in all my narration is pretty much my own voice. The narrator, the protagonist, is me. I do sometimes, if I’ve found a character or a voice that I enjoy, I’ll do it a lot to annoy my girlfriend Jo Anna Perrin.
Do you know what the largest number of distinct characters that you’ve done for a single book is?
Let me think. I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. Certainly there were a lot of different guys in MASH. I did a book called Lightning Fall: Novel of Disaster by Bill Quick and that had a whole—the United States gets nuked and all these bad things happen—there’s a bunch of voices. I don’t know how many, though. That’s hard to say. Lot of different people there. … I suppose I’ve done as many as 30-50 in a given story.
Yeah, I think there’s probably at least that many in A Tale Dark and Grimm.
Oh, those are wonderful books. All those books. They’re funny. Yeah, I didn’t think about it, I do get a lot of character books, don’t I?
Yeah! I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever listened to audiobooks that had this many characters in them and like I said, it was all three of them. Maybe it’s because I listened to all three of them in a short time period that it really stood out, “Man, this guy does a lot of different voices!”
You should listen to The Eighth Dwarf. It’s really great. It’s a Romanian dwarf around the end of World War II. There’s all these German Nazis, and Romanians, and Americans, and Brits. It was a lot of fun. A lot of characters in that. I’m doing a book now, almost a 19-hour book I think it’ll be, about General George Marshall, and I’m not doing any characters, just reading the book.
Well and I did notice that you won an Audie for The Happiest Toddler on the Block, which I imagine is not lots of characters, but it’s also probably something that lots of parents in desperate need are listening to, clinging to your voice, so hitting a different market with that. What’s been your favorite project? Do you have one?
That’s tough. I really, really enjoyed the Grimm series. I enjoy film noir and mystery quite a bit. Obviously, I like humor. There’s a guy called Troy Soos who writes baseball murder mysteries about an early-1900s baseball player. He goes all over, plays ball with the greats, and he solves murders while he’s there. Mickey Rawlings is the character and there’s probably 10 of those books out and I’m doing one on my own now, amidst all the other projects that I have. Troy Soos, he’s a wonderful writer out of Florida. I love those.
Is there anything else you’re working on now that you want to tell us about?
Let’s see, the George Marshall biography is quite interesting. I was a history major, so that stuff fascinates me. I just did a book that’s gonna be great. It just came out from Recorded Books, called Blood Sport and it’s about A-Rod’s biogenesis scandal. It’s by the guy of the Miami Weekly who actually broke the story. In fact I got a note today from the author telling me he heard the book and really thought it was a fabulous job, he’s really pleased. And that’s always nice to get that. I’m finishing up, hopefully this week, a real long book about the history of Chicago, from its founding all the way up to the World’s Fair in the 1890s.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Johnny, and we’re looking forward to all you have coming up! Check out the clip of The Fat Man below. I enjoyed the incredible range of characters in all of the titles I listened to from Johnny, but The Fat Man was especially good. This is a novel about Gumdrop Coal, the elf in charge of the Coal Patrol, dispensing coal to naughty children for centuries until he’s abruptly fired and then framed for murder. With appearances from Tiny Tim, Frosty, Ralphie and his Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, Misfit Isle, all the Whos down in Whoville, and the eight maids a-milking, it’s the perfect combination of childhood Christmas nostalgia and hardboiled noir, a combination I never knew I wanted but that is just deliciously wonderful. I want to listen to this book every December. And Johnny does a perfect job capturing the voices of both the classic Christmas cheer characters and the seedy underbelly of Kringle Town. Take a listen and then add it to your Christmas wish list!
The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir. By Ken Harmon. Read by Johnny Heller. Audio published by Tantor Audio.
*It has come to my attention that my previous title for Johnny Heller, The Man of a Thousand Voices, is already claimed by noted voice actor Mel Blanc. Therefore, I am upgrading Mr. Heller to The Man of a Million Voices because, although he has probably not quite reached a million characters yet, I think he’s up to the challenge.