The voice-over world is filled with them.
On-screen and off-screen.
Most of these characters are very likable, but every now and then you’ll encounter a rotten apple, an arrogant bully or a troll.
A week ago, I ran into one of them at a New York audition. I’d seen him before at some other place. He was an older guy, dressed in a classic three-piece suit. His tan was as fake as the color of his hair. When he spotted me filling out the sign-up sheet, he bellowed:
“Hey, Danish guy, I’m surprised to see you here. Did you finally decide to join the big leagues?”
I tried to ignore him, but he went on:
“Tell me, are you union yet?”
“No, I’m still happily non-union,” I answered. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’d like to take a look at the copy.”
“Well, we all have to start somewhere, I guess,” he continued. “I was non-union for a while, but then the serious work started coming in. This was back in the day when nobody was working out of a walk-in closet. Of course you wouldn’t know this, but I got my big break when guys like Beau and Joe were first making the rounds. Joe just published a book called ‘Living on Air.’ Have you heard about it?”
“Could you please keep it down? I’m trying to focus,” said a pale, nervous young man standing in the corner.
“I will ignore that,” my colleague continued. “Real pros can prepare their script anywhere, regardless of the circumstances. Am I right, or am I right?”
The way he said those last lines… there was something about it. It sounded like a commercial from the fifties or sixties.
Then he turned back to me.
“Let me ask you something, my European friend. What did you think of that Pepsi audition?”
“What Pepsi audition?” I asked.
“You know, the one that every agent in North America sent to his entire Rolodex yesterday,” he answered. “Are you telling me you didn’t get the memo?”
“I don’t think I did,” I said.
“No worries,” he responded. “You’ll get there. Give it some time. It only paid $4,000 for a thirty-second spot anyway. It’s ridiculous.”
He paused a moment to take a breath mint.
“Here. Have one!” he offered. “These things are small but very strong.”
“No thank you,” I said. “I’m okay.”
“Take it from me, you need one,” he said. “I know today’s director. He can be hard on people, and if there’s one thing he can’t stand, it is bad breath. I did my first gig with him when he was still in Kindergarten, so to speak. I remember teaching him a thing or two.”
I took a mint, hoping that this would shut the man up. Of course it didn’t. I really had to go to the men’s room, but he cut me off.
“Speaking of money,” he said, “the other day a client called me in a panic. The guy they had hired to do the VO had laryngitis and they needed someone to record a tag line ASAP. ‘We can only pay you what we promised him,’ they said. ‘How does six grand sound?’”
He looked directly at me and continued:
“Guess how many words were in that tag line?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “Three hundred and fourteen?”
“Five,” my friend. “They gave me six grand for five words. Now, that’s what I’m talking about! Not that it’s all about the money for me. Oh no. At a certain stage in one’s career, one stops looking at money the way most people look at money: as a way to pay the bills. Do you want to know what money means to me?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said, as I was getting more and more annoyed.
“To me, money is a sign of respect,” he answered. “And do you know what’s wrong with the voice-over industry today?”
And before I could say something he carried on:
“There’s no respect. No respect at all. In fact, I didn’t even want to be here because the pay is lousy, but I’m doing this as a favor to my agent. Today I’m taking one for the team! Now, Peter, what agency are you with, these days?”
I told him.
“Never heard of them,” he said. “They must be new. I’ll be honest with you. It took me a while before I found a reputable agent. When you need ‘em, they don’t want you, and when they want you, you don’t need ‘em anymore. Isn’t that ironic?”
“What’s the problem? Am I boring you?” he asked.
“No,” I lied. “I’m just stretching the muscles in my face. I do that to warm up.”
“I see,” he said. “I used to do that too, but when you’ve been around the block a couple of times, you’ll discover that it doesn’t make a difference. If they like you, they like you. If they don’t, you’ll never hear from them again. As long as you don’t take things personally, you’ll be fine, my friend. By the way, you’re auditioning for the Frank-character, right? Don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you a bit young for this role?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “I’ve played older people before.”
The guy was really getting on my nerves. I almost wanted to walk out but he stopped me. Before I had a chance to put the script back on the table, he said:
“Do me a favor. Let’s hear it. Give me couple of lines. Just for fun.”
Anything to shut you up, I thought, and I began reading the script.
He stopped me after the first two sentences and scratched his ear.
“Are you sure your voice is okay?” he asked. “You sound a bit hoarse. Did you recently recover from a cold or something?”
“No, I just had the bubonic plague and I’m still contagious,” I said.
“Ha, ha. Not very funny, Mister” he said. “Do you mind if I give you a few pointers? You sound like you could benefit from some coaching. Don’t worry. It’s on the house.”
“Don’t bother,” I replied. “I think it’s my turn to audition. Goodbye!”
As I was walking toward the booth, an unconvincing “Break a leg” echoed through the hallway. Boy, was I glad this conversation was over!
The air in the studio was stale, but the director couldn’t be more pleasant. “Did you meet Dick?” he wanted to know.
“You mean the older guy with the fake tan in the three-piece suit?”
“The one and only,” said the director. “He’s a royal pain in the ass, isn’t he?”
“You’re right about that,” I said. “He told me the two of you go way back.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said the director. “Before the internet, Dick was one of the top guys in the industry. Give him a script and he could sell you anything. Not anymore. These days, my clients want a natural voice. Not one of those old-school announcer types. As far as I know, Dick hasn’t booked a decent job in years.”
“Then why is he here?” I asked.
“He’s an old and dear friend,” said the director. “Every once in a while I ask him to come in and read for me. He loves it. And then we get to talk about the good old days. You should hear some of the stories he has to tell. He knows everybody in the business. Unfortunately, most of his buddies are no longer with us.”
All of a sudden, the studio swung open and one of the assistants stormed in. “Jerry, you better come outside. It’s Dick.”
We ran to the waiting area and saw a small circle of people looking down. In the middle was Dick, lying on the floor in a strange, twisted way. He looked in pain.
“I’m so sorry, Jerry” he said. “I must have slipped on something and I fell. It hurts like hell. I might be out of commission for a while. Don’t cast that audition yet.”
“Don’t you worry, Dick. We’re calling an ambulance,” said Jerry. “It will be here in a few minutes.” And to the group: “If you came here for the commercial, the audition is over. Go home.”
As I was collecting my things, the ambulance crew rushed in. Dick was lifted onto the stretcher and we left the building together. Lying on his back, he looked fragile. Then he pointed his finger at me.
“I want to tell you something,” he whispered. “Come closer.”
“You know, Peter, you sounded darn good in there. When I’m back on my feet, I’ll put in a good word for you with my agent. You’ll be joining the union in no time.”
“Well, you better get better first,” I smiled.
“I promise,” said Dick. “I owe Jerry an audition!”
“That’s right,” I said. “Break a leg.”
“Don’t worry,” said Dick.
“I think I already did!”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
photo credit: Nicolas Alejandro Street Photography via photopin cc Please note: the man in the picture is just a man in a picture and not the subject of my story.
PS The characters of Dick and Jerry in this blog post are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. I created these characters to be able to share some of the intimidating things that have been said to me and other colleagues over a number of years.