Recently I was fortunate enough to attend Connecticon, a relatively small and intimate multi-media convention in Hartford, Connecticut. It is there that Jon St. John, the infamous voice of Duke Nukem, hosts a yearly panel where he speaks so off-colour that Duke is rendered a conservative Christian father by comparison. In fact, the room is off-limits to anyone under 18 while Jon is in there.
After the panel, GodisaGeek.com caught up with the intensely humble and profoundly profane actor to get his opinion on various facets of the ever changing video game industry.
NATURAL TALENT AND THE GROWTH OF AN INDUSTRY:
At the age of 14, Jon’s friends encouraged him to seek employment at a nearby radio station, clamouring over his natural broadcast voice. It was this decision that caused him to be in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocked many years later.
“I was a production director at a radio station in San Diego when one of the top video game casting directors, Lani Minella, came into the studio. She happens to live in San Diego as well and she was coming in for a commercial project and, as the producer, I started messing around and doing character voices because she was doing character voices and one thing lead to another and she was impressed by my vocal range and ability, and use of dialects, and said ‘you really should consider acting for video games.’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot.’ Among the first few games I did was Duke Nukem 3D,” he muses, his low register voice rattling my speakers via Skype.
The context of this opportunity didn’t illicit the same reaction that it would have had it been presented today.
“I really didn’t think much of it at the time, to be honest,” he continues. “There was nothing being done at union scale so the pay was merely a couple hundred bucks here and there. It was really no different from doing a commercial project. I mean, it was more fun because I was acting instead of just reading commercial copy,” making light of the latter’s banality.
“Really, nobody had any idea that video games would be as huge as they are today; bigger than the film industry. I mean, we have conventions dedicated to video games but back then I really didn’t know what to expect.”
Jon recalls vividly the moment that 3D Realms pitched the Duke character to him.
“I was blown away by the fact that when they first said ‘Yeah we have this game, Duke Nukem’, of course I laughed. I think whenever anybody hears the name ‘Duke Nukem’ you laugh a little bit. I didn’t know much about video games but I was playing Wolfenstein and Doom back then; really liked Doom. They said, ‘well, think of it as Doom on steroids. You’re now going to have a personality in this first person shooter game, and the character is going to speak.”
“When they told me that, and when I thought about how much my friends at the time enjoyed playing Doom, I was like ‘Oh my God, this could be big’. They’re going to actually put voices into video games now? This could be really cool.’ Of course I had no idea how huge Duke Nukem 3D was going to turn out to be.”
CREATING ‘THE DUKE’:
While the character himself wasn’t written by Jon St. John, you would be hard pressed to find a better fit for the character. In terms of personality and voice, Jon was more than up for the task. Jon required all of 30 seconds of coaching before landing on the proper tone for the character.
“On the phone from Plano, Texas was George Broussard, president of 3D Realms. He was one of the creators of Duke Nukem along with Randy Pitchford and a couple of other folks. So anyway, George Broussard was on the telephone listening in on a recording session from Texas,” remarked Jon, setting the scene.
“Lani Minella, as she was directing the session back in San Diego, said ‘think of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Grit your teeth together and do one of those lines.”
George liked his attitude and the gravel in Jon’s voice but had some reservations. “Duke is a big, buff dude on steroids,” he explained. “Let’s take it down a pitch or two and see what happens.”
So Jon followed the instructions. It was at this point that he gave birth to the iconic voice.
“That’s the voice we want right there!” exclaimed George.
But Jon didn’t get to fully bring the character to life until Gearbox took over the Duke Nukem franchise.
“I got to put my own personality in when Duke Nukem Forever came alone. All of the earlier games were directed and I was always told to keep my teeth clenched and always talk in kind of a monotone voice. But when Duke Nukem Forever was being developed, the folks at Gearbox said ‘We don’t need to direct you. You’ve been Duke forever and you know who Duke is. Do it however you want to do it. I was like, ‘Wow! Really?’”
It was more than just a pandering pitch on Gearbox’s part.
“They had somebody listen in on the phone just to make sure I was delivering the lines that they wanted but I got to put a lot more personality into the character. You know, I no longer had to speak with my teeth clenched all the time and I could use more inflection so you get more wise ass comments from Duke like ‘I better not see that on Ebay kid.’ I can’t imagine, in the old way I did Duke, being able to deliver a line like that with any emotion so yeah, I got to put my own spin on it, even a couple of adlibs made it into the game.”
A CHANGING FIELD:
Jon St. John is a big proponent of keeping voice work reserved for trained and capable voice actors. As a result, he is a big fan of voice work in the video game industry.
“Here’s the beauty of it: As I mentioned earlier, the video game industry is actually generating more revenue than Hollywood movies. Now a great deal of the work I do is union scale which means I am going to make a pretty good chunk of money to do a video game instead of hundreds, we’re talking about thousands of dollars now. I don’t know that it’ll ever get to a point where any residual income can be made by a voice actor on video games because tracking them and piracy and all that stuff is so hard to keep up with. I’m just glad to see that it has come so far. There are so many games in development at all times that there is a steady stream of work for folks in voice acting, like me, who may have been screwed out of really great jobs they want to do, such as CG films.”
Unfortunately, Jon can see the same fate in store for the video game industry.
“It is happening in the video game industry now; there are Hollywood actors getting involved. I see that as good and bad. Bad in that they will take roles away from me and my fellow voice actors. This is the only way we have to make a living. The Hollywood celebs, they don’t need this work, voice acting is not their thing, they look pretty, I have a face made for radio. To me, it’s not fair. I can’t take work from them but they can take work from me that they don’t even really need. Yeah, I’m pretty pissed off about it.”
DUKE NUKEM FOREVER:
Naturally, before I let him go, I had to ask him how he felt about the tenuous development of Duke Nukem Forever.
“I didn’t really give it a whole lot of thought, to be honest. Video games are a very small percentage of my work. I wish that I was doing video games on a regular basis. If I were recording a new game every week I would be thrilled but there just aren’t that many roles for me,” he confessed.
“I get the big voice roles obviously because I have a lower timbre. I don’t get a lot of the roles that I feel I could get because I’m pigeon holed a little bit by the Duke Nukem character. A lot of director/producers, they like me and they know who I am but they think I’m a bit of a one trick pony and that I can only do Duke Nukem and they don’t want their characters to sound anything like Duken Nukem. Incidentally, I don’t get any of the auditions in the first place which is really not fair. I wish they’d give me a shot because I can create many different voices. So there’s an up and a down side to being Duke.”
Jon isn’t just blowing smoke with that final statement. You needn’t search any further than his role as Sweet Tooth in Twisted Metal 4 to confirm Jon’s versatility as a voice actor.
To Jon, that role serves as the antithesis to Duke and functions as a powerful demonstration of his range. The fact that Sweet Tooth is a maniacal clown is just a bonus.
In his panel, he revealed that he longed for the opportunity to land a role as Batman’s most popular nemesis, the Joker. He then quickly dispersed any skepticism by launching into a spot on impression, albeit in the context of a reading from 50 Shades of Grey; further testament to his sense of humor.
With Mark Hamill retiring his Joker, that opportunity may present itself sooner than later. Fingers crossed, Jon.