What’s it like to win a major voice over award? Does it open doors that were previously closed? Is it all hype and little substance?
To answer those questions (and more), I turned to Lance Fuller. Lance was shortlisted for a One Voice Award in 2019 ( Best Gaming Performance) and 2021 (Best Factual Audio Book Performance). This year he won the award for Male Best Drama Performance. Here’s my interview:
Lance, you obviously thought it was a good thing for you to submit some audio samples for this competition. Please explain why you believe competitions are important to our industry. Some say we’re comparing apples to oranges, and finding a winner is a highly subjective art.
I’ll start by saying I absolutely agree that finding a winner is a highly subjective art. While there are aspects of art that we can, and do, judge on a technical level ultimately what we respond to is very visceral, emotional, a gut reaction. Examples that come to mind are music like Punk Rock vs playing Stravinsky. Both very moving but with very different technical skills. Those that enjoy one, don’t necessarily overlap with those that enjoy the other. For some they may both appeal but in very different ways!
In this industry it can be hard to keep up your drive and motivation because usually the bulk of your efforts can go unrecognized. What I mean is that we audition far more often than we are cast or booked for a job. Often there is no feedback, and while I no longer feel like not booking a job or a role is “rejection”, you can end up feeling like you’re not sure if what you’re doing is good enough.
Although it might be subjective, competitions can create something to strive for by recognizing what’s deemed to be excellent work. If you’re not in the competition then you can listen to examples of the work that is considered exceptional and use it as a guide to what to aim for. If you are shortlisted you can feel that what you’re doing, in a subjective field, is impacting people. And of course if you win you can then find yourself shocked because you didn’t really expect it! Now, though, you have a definitive marker that others have recognized you and your talent.
I first submitted in the 2019 competition because I felt proud of my work and thought I’d give it a try and was delighted that it was recognized by being shortlisted. After that I submitted again in subsequent years because even if I couldn’t judge my own work objectively, I trusted that the industry professional judges would make a good determination of my skill and impact.
I’d say competitions are highly personal for the participants. I certainly hope I’m doing well and external validation like this is an unexpected way of reinforcing some belief in myself. Competitions can also highlight excellent work that may not have been widely recognized before but that now can reach a wider audience via this mark of quality.
When you nominated yourself, did you feel you would stand a chance, or was it a matter of “nothing gained, nothing lost?”
I honestly wasn’t sure if I stood a chance the first time I submitted, which was in 2019 with my video game work. I knew that I enjoyed the work I was submitting, I found the writing and my performance really funny actually, but I didn’t know at all if it would land with the judges. I had had my video games demo reel made not long before this competition and the producer I worked with was really complimentary about my work. Her reaction made me wonder if it could be good enough for competition!
The great thing about the One Voice conference is that since there is no fee to submit, unlike many other competitions, if you have a feeling your work might be pretty darn good then I think you should submit it. You’ve nothing to lose! We’re often terrible judges of our own work, so let someone else judge because you never know! After being shortlisted that first year it gave me a really nice boost to my confidence, and that prompted me to submit again. I wasn’t shortlisted in 2020, which is of course completely par for the course. I submitted again in 2021 and was in truth really surprised to be shortlisted again (there it is, not being objective about your own work).
For the 2022 competition I knew that the project I was a part of was really special, a true crime spoof podcast called Cold Case Crime Cuts. On its own I was proud to be a part of it because the team that wrote and produced it were unbelievably talented and hilarious, and such a pleasure to work with. The show started being shortlisted and winning various awards and since I was playing the main character in the show, host of every episode, I thought for the first time “this could be a winning submission”. I was still surprised and elated when I won.
On three occasions you were nominated in three very DIFFERENT genres. What did this tell you about yourself as a VO Pro? Do you have a favorite genre or specialty?
I was definitely surprised! I can be both confident in my abilities and still full of doubts, so being shortlisted did help affirm that I was doing good work. VO is a crowded field, as is acting, and yet can also be isolating. It’s just your voice and work on a project so you do the job to the client or director’s satisfaction and try to leave it at that (while always trying to learn and improve).
Being nominated in three different categories helped me to know that I was flexible in my skills and able to adapt to the different types of delivery needed and do it well. As you know, different types of VO jobs require different types of delivery to match the project, format, genre, etc. which isn’t always easy. It’s not just speaking the words, it’s full on acting. I’ve been lucky to be able to work across a number of genres, and enjoyed each of them. But the specialty that sticks out in each case is comedy.
The video game nomination was for a character I played in Hitman 2 who is smarmy and who acts over-confident but who withers quickly when confronted by the character he encounters played by Sean Bean. In Cold Case Crime Cuts the character, Mason Lane, is very earnest and straightforward, which means it isn’t obvious to himself how not so bright or annoying he is being, which makes him all the more hilarious. I love comedy because it’s, on the one hand, simply fun to play and make people laugh, but on the other hand it can pierce taboos and bring some fun to the seriousness of many aspects of our world.
If you would, please describe what went through your mind when your name was called as this year’s winner of a major award?
I couldn’t attend in person this year so I found out via a Twitter DM from a colleague who was at the awards. They wrote “CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!! ❤️❤️” and it took my brain a second to register what it meant. I turned to my wife and said “I think I just won a One Voice Award.” I was elated and honestly in a mild state of shock. My mind was racing and I was floating on a cloud.
What made it all the more surreal was the background music at the time: a cover of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline being sung in a Turkish restaurant with most of the customers singing along. I couldn’t tell if I was awake or dreaming!
I feel lucky to have been shortlisted previously because that on its own is an achievement that makes me proud. Being shortlisted is sharing the pride with other extremely talented people. Winning, though, is on another level altogether! That was me, on my own, feeling very grateful and proud of my achievement.
What happens once you’re a winner? Do agents you always wanted to sign with, all of a sudden call you?
Well to be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet. It isn’t that I’ve been contacted out of the blue by agents or production houses or CDs. The VO field is crowded and there are lots of other talented and unique voices out there. The difference, though, is that I feel I now have a very specific and special thing about me and my work to share when I reach out to people I’d like to work with.
The other day I wrote to a big name casting director in the US. I would have thought they would be difficult to reach and unlikely to respond. Instead they wrote back within about 10 minutes and said they’d be glad to listen to my work. I have no idea if sharing that I was a recent winner (and sending them the winning submission) made a difference in this case, but it also couldn’t hurt.
I’m hoping that the win, and the project I was a part of that led to it, can open more doors. I think, though, that it will still require me to make a lot of effort to reach out to the industry. Most of them won’t know about the win or me, but this is a great way for me to be able to introduce myself with less self-consciousness. I’d love to get to the point of the industry knocking down my door to work with me, but until that happens I’ll be making sure to use this as a way to hopefully elevate my career.
It’s really lovely how much my wife, my family, my friends have all expressed how proud they are of me. I’m sure too that if I end up tooting my own horn too loudly they’ll make sure to tell me to quiet down a bit.
So how do you truly leverage your win, and is it working for you?
Honestly, I think only time will tell with this one, but I think what I will do now is use the win as a calling card and hopefully a door-opener. I’m hopeful that it could be a way to establish more relationships with industry people that could lead to more work. I’m always happy to talk about the amazing project that the win came from, as I felt so lucky to work with such a talented and hilarious group. Real comedy pros. I think the series, in this case a comedy true crime podcast, was incredible, and I’m finding it more and more amazing each time I listen to it. When you can be a part of what feels like truly great work, it’s a gift.
As for whether or not I know its working, well it feels like early days still, but as I mentioned in another question, the fact that a big name CD responded quickly to my email certainly made me feel like I might have earned the right to introduce myself to the top tier people and, hopefully, be considered a peer.
Were you already active as a VO Pro before you came to the UK?
I was not a VO pro before I moved to the UK. In fact I had never done voice over before. I came to the UK for my Masters in Acting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After deciding to live here, because I met my British wife, I faced the daunting task of figuring out how to be an American actor in the UK. I was based in Glasgow at the time and for several years. I wanted to find out what I could do while not being based in the more international center of acting that is London, where many more jobs for Americans were available.
I had read about voiceover and wondered if it was something I could do remotely. I started learning more about it and buying my first bits of equipment and figuring out how to record in a clean and quiet way in my home. It all seems so different now, many years later, when I have a full sound booth and all the gear I need for at home and remote recording.
What actually really got me started, though, was working on a play with a Scottish actress who said “you have a great voice, you should do audiobooks.” She put me in touch with a studio that she worked with, I recorded some samples, and in short order I was off to recording my first books. It was my first professional voice work and I, of course, felt unprepared, especially when I compare it to my prep now for audiobooks. But it was the first step and this career is nothing if not a journey of learning and improving.
I kept reaching out, practicing, searching for other opportunities and slowly some came. VO became a part of my actor portfolio, it wasn’t my primary goal. Over the years, though, I’ve had better and better opportunities, many of which I found myself, and I was really enjoying the work. I have definitely seen a career progression. Since my voice career started here in the UK I have mainly focused on the work I can secure here, even if that ultimately has global reach (like the video games I’ve worked on). Now with this win I hope to break myself more into the market of my home country the USA since I have the accent, the citizenship (for any work legalities) and I am fully set up at home for recording.
As for what’s fun about it, in a way it’s a more interesting and fun acting challenge because it’s just your voice. All the character, nuance, emotion is only in your voice which is daunting, but also freeing. You can really go for it in audio and create some amazing characters and scenarios that might not work the same way in a visual format. Video game acting is SO MUCH FUN!
It is often said that The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by the same language. You’re an American VO living and working in the UK. Does that make it more difficult for you, or easier? What made it more difficult or easier and why?
I’m not sure if it’s easier or more difficult because I mostly only have the experience of working in the UK. That being said, being an American and native English speaker in a country with almost the same, but at the same time a very different version of English, is fascinating. And frustrating. And illuminating. It’s a complicated relationship.
Being genuine American here is an advantage because you have an accent that is real and not faked. You carry with you all the cultural knowledge and baggage of your home country which adds to the depth and realness of your characters. It’s funny, but I think that living here has made me feel more culturally American. Some people gravitate towards the culture of their adoptive country. You can’t avoid it to some degree as you pick up the lingo, learn the way people do things in your new home, learn what you can and can’t (or at least shouldn’t) say and do. On the other hand you are never mistaken by the British for being British and therefore you can start to lean into your own stereotype even more.
Add to that the fact that most of my work is based on my being a genuine American and you just can’t help but lean into your type. I suppose that may have helped make it easier by being a niche in this market. There are times I wonder if it’s harder because there are cultural assumptions I still don’t know about, or can’t grasp because I’m not originally from here. Being married, living here for over 10 years, and having many friends and experiences has helped me to pick up many things that you can never get just from visiting a place.
I do often think, though, about how much more knowledgeable I am of UK culture, history, and accents than I was when I lived in the States. I read and hear comments and assumptions about the UK, its history or various accents, from people living in the States and many times they sound uninformed or based on stereotypes. I wince now when I hear people talk about either the USA or the UK and reduce it to a cultural stereotype, as if one news story or one group can come to represent the whole of diverse nations with numerous viewpoints, backgrounds, accents, histories, and more.
With technology being what it is these days, do you think it still matters where you are located as a VO? E.g. Is it just as easy to book work for you in the US as in the UK?
I would like to think it has changed, though I’m certain there’s still parts of the industry for which location matters. For example I was recording in London area studios on video games. This seemed necessary as the director and engineer would be present and they could Skype in the client. Over the past couple of years, though, I’ve had cases where, for example, I was quarantining before another job and the game recording date lined up exactly then. I have a booth and full home studio so I sent off a sample, they approved, and we did the whole game recording from my home. That was for a AAA game so obviously the quality was high enough for that.
I’ve done numerous jobs remotely and I think that will only grow. On the other hand, for any number of reasons, I’m sure some will prefer that you are local and can come to their studios. I’ve been told about companies that only want to hire locally based talent, which may suit what projects they do. So location matters for some things and I don’t know when that will change. On the other hand location doesn’t matter for a large chunk of VO work especially if you are set up well at home and can manage the time differences and dealing with the complexity of being paid from different countries.
Why do you think British actors are generally better at doing American accents compared to Americans trying to do British accents?
Well that’s an interesting question because I initially wasn’t entirely sure I agreed. But then I realized I could think of many more British performing a passing American accent than I could the other way around. I’d guess it is because the UK has clearly had an enormous influence and influx of American TV, film, and music over the decades. Whereas in the US we have had a tiny fraction of British TV, film and theater. The examples of British accents in US productions have historically also been more stereotypical, as a villain or royalty.
The accents of the UK are incredibly varied and even the generic English RP is not really a natural accent. While Americans have heard some British accents they have not been as constantly inundated with them as the British have been with American accents, so they aren’t as natural or second nature to Americans. My wife said she grew up with so many American films and TV shows that she and her friends used to speak in American accents with each other for fun as kids. I think that happens a lot less in the USA.
By the way, has your own English accent and use of the language changed much since you came to the UK, and if so, in what way?
It feels impossible to me to imagine a person’s speech not being affected in some ways by living in a different country, even if both are native English speaking. I’ve definitely picked up some of the lingo and specific ways people will speak to each other. It’s communication and you want to be understood, sometimes for the smallest of things, so you adapt. I think for a while I was changing the American way I said Water (wah-der) to the more British (wah-tuh) because I’d try to ask for a glass in a pub and they’d rarely understand what I said. In that case it’s just they’re not expecting it, even though they surely know what I’m saying, just hearing it in the American pronunciation.
I certainly had relatives say I picked up an accent, but no one in the UK would think I have anything other than an American accent. My relatives would hear me say a UK place name and claim I now had an accent, but instead I was simply pronouncing the name of the city correctly as locals do, and not the American way. Additionally since I work predominantly in my natural accent and other regional American accents I think it has, in some ways, bolstered my native accent rather than slipping into a more UK accent. There’s so many accents here, and not just British, that there isn’t much need to conform except for very specific situations. The subtleties of regional accents here also means that it is incredibly difficult to master those and therefore many actors focus on RP English, just to have an option in their actor toolkit. British actors do the same with General American – which is hard to describe except to say it just sounds American but not regional or specific.
Apart from being an award-winning voice over artist you are also an accomplished photographer. Is photography just a hobby for you, or is it more than that?
Photography has gone back and forth from being a hobby to a side job several times. It’s based on how busy I am in the acting world and therefore how much I pursue the photography business side. They’re both businesses and therefore finding work and promoting yourself can take up a lot of time. I did, though, have a video and photography business in San Francisco before I moved over. I continued that by taking headshots for other students while I was in drama school. I’ve kept it up as another income stream because I absolutely love it. It originally stemmed, though, from my love of the captured image.
Photography is magical. It freezes a hyper specific moment, angle, frame, and subject in time. We get to see something in a way that we literally can never see it in real life while also looking photographically real. I love the way a headshot with its combination of lighting and framing can capture such an compelling look on a person’s face and it makes us want to meet them and know more. I love how a stunning sunrise can take your breath away and make you want to share it with the world. Sometimes that means more than simply pressing the shutter button.
It can also mean cropping, adjusting exposure or saturation, compositing multiple images in order to capture what it both looked and FELT like to me at the time. When you can do that and share it with others, it’s a glorious feeling. One of my favorite pastimes in San Francisco (and Glasgow and London) was walking around with my camera. It makes you look at the world in a different, more focused way.
There are tons of great headshots on your website. What -in your opinion- makes a good headshot, and is it wise for someone as invisible as a voice over artist to invest in one?
There’s all kinds of opinions on what makes a great headshot and what is essential, what is the current style, etc.. Casting directors will tell you first and foremost it has to look like you and not an overly glamorous version. When they see you in person or on a tape they want you to look like the person they chose for an audition based on your headshot. Outside of that you want to create a subtle sense of character and mood. In some ways, though, you don’t want to do too much because one person’s interpretation of an image is different than another’s. Therefore trying to capture an image that has life in the eyes, that suggests more than a mere snap of the person sitting still, that suggests a story to the person is essential.
At the same time you want the image to be restrained enough that a casting director or director can envision you in the role: as a doctor, law enforcement, farmer, politician, etc. It may not be entirely essential for voiceover but since VOs are a business and you are a brand, which you are trying to sell to prospective clients, a photo can help in showing who you are. We see this in other areas like corporate settings, or small business websites, all the time.
You told me that at one point in your life you studied in the Netherlands. What did you study, and what brought you to the Netherlands?
Ending up in the Netherlands was something of a last minute decision, though I’ll say up front that it was one of the best in my life. It certainly changed my outlook and therefore the course my life took. I was approaching my senior year and my mother kept encouraging me to look at courses abroad. I looked into it pretty late and all the slots of the well known places, including the native English language countries, were full but they still had room for the program at a school in the Netherlands.
Now admittedly I knew exceedingly little about the Netherlands but being a country that had prioritized teaching English it meant that even though I didn’t speak Dutch I could study there because the instruction would be in English. I ended up having a broad but general series of classes but one that stood out was a class on American studies. It thrust me into the middle of a group of European students talking about and studying the culture of my home and birth. It sounded funny at first, an American taking an American studies class, but it proved to be illuminating and again changed my worldview. I saw how others saw my country, its influence, its positives and negatives.
It was an amazing way to strip away the veil and the myths that you are shrouded in when you grow up in a place. I personally wish everyone had the opportunity to live in another country for at least several months as it may drastically change how you view the world. I’m positive as well that I wouldn’t be living in the UK now if I hadn’t experienced living abroad at that time.
Back to voice acting. You have won what some regard as the equivalent to an Oscar in the voice over world. Does this mean that you have peaked and that there’s nothing more to strive for? If there is, what would be your next big goal?
To be honest I hadn’t heard of it in those terms before! But I’m thrilled to hear it. I definitely think there’s more to keep striving for. If anything it feels like I’ve crested one peak only to find a much larger peak and much more climbing ahead. While I hope that the award may help to open some doors, it certainly doesn’t mean that the world is beating down my door. I can now use this to introduce myself to new people, as a marker of quality in a crowded field, and hopefully move myself onto a wider variety of projects.
I would love to work on more video games, in animation, and of course more lucrative commercial work too. All of that takes a lot of work to get into or to build up. Now that I have an award I feel like I’m no longer questioning my ability or whether or not I’m “allowed” to approach higher profile types of work, which is a great boost to expanding my career. I also, though, recognize that nothing is a given in this challenging industry so with each new step I learn there are many more steps to take, much more I can learn, before I can move up. It can feel daunting but it’s also exciting to consider the new possibilities.
There are a number of people I’d love to work with on future projects. In animation: series like Love, Death, and Robots or Big Mouth on Netflix with casting directors like Ivy Isenberg and Julie Ashton. Video Games like those made by Naughty Dog, such as the Last of Us part 2 and Uncharted 4 with casting director Rebecca Dodd. Any Disney Pixar film. And any other projects that can match the comedic inventiveness of Cold Case Crime Cuts.
Thank you so much, Lance, and congratulations on your win!
Full disclosure: I was one of the judges for this year’s UK One Voice Awards. Click here if you want to know more about what it’s like to be a judge, and how I pick my winners. Click here to go to Lance Fuller’s website.
Lance Fuller says
Thanks for the interview Paul! It was a fascinating series of questions that made me have a good look at myself, the industry, and what it might all mean. I really appreciate it.