By: Kristina Ensminger
Mara Junot gets paid to bring the voices in her head to life. As a little girl, she loved acting and performing, but, more than anything, she loved talking into her dad’s tape recorder. “I found any excuse to talk on this thing and listen to the playback,” she recalled. “I’d read stories, I’d recite my name and address, I’d talk about things on the wall – it didn’t matter what I was saying, I just wanted to record something.”
She’s been the voice for some of the top brands in the world, from AT&T to Microsoft to Coca-Cola, and she’s played video game characters in The Walking Dead(Telltale Games), both World of Warcraft: Legion and the forthcoming Battle for Azeroth(Blizzard Entertainment), and Guild Wars 2(ArenaNet), to name a few. Although the product of voiceover work is ubiquitous in the modern world, many people still don’t know what being a voice actor means.
Some people think voiceover, commonly known as VO, means having a booming baritone and talking like you’re in a movie trailer [see In A World…] or making crazy sound effects like the guy on Police Academy. Not exactly. At its core, being a voice actor is about acting. It just happens to be acting in a sound booth instead of on stage or in front of a camera. And the one thing voiceover is NOT? Reading words into a microphone. “I don’t call myself a voiceover actor to sound fancy,” Junot explained. “This is definitely acting, not reading aloud in an interesting voice.”
Whenever you hear a voice and there’s not an image of a person attached to it, that’s where voiceover comes in – voices in movie trailers, commercials, announcers at live events, even the voice of Siri on your iPhone. There is also more extensive character work that involves playing roles in video games or animated films and TV shows. Those are the most exciting roles to Junot – her heart is in the character work. “That’s where you get to delve into humanity and explore what makes people tick. I’m fascinated by people, what drives them to do what they do, and how their minds work.”
Kristina Ensminger: Did you start out with the intention to become a voiceover actor? Was that your initial goal or did you stumble into the VO world by chance?
Mara Junot: I didn’t even know voiceover existed as a career path until later in life. Growing up, I had dreams of becoming an actor…or a psychiatrist. But I discovered I was sensitive, and once I became aware of how empathic I was, becoming a psychiatrist didn’t seem like a realistic path. I took on way too much energy from other people.
KE: Being an empath may have shut down your dream of becoming a psychiatrist, but I bet it helped with your acting. Were you acting from a young age?
MJ: I acted in a few plays growing up, but I didn’t take acting as seriously as a career path until later. Once I started to pursue it as a career, I hit a bit of a snag. I wasn’t really interested in being in front of the camera or being in the public eye. I valued my privacy and I wasn’t sure how to stay under the radar if I planned on being an actor. So, I tossed that idea aside for a while and did other things.
KE: Is that how you got your start in radio?
MJ: Well, before that, some local companies hired me to be the voice of their internal hold message and voicemail systems. About a year later, I saw a job posting for a part-time job at a charter cable affiliate doing commercial VO work – like small gigs for local grocery stores, that kind of thing. I ended up befriending the producer there, and he told me that the local radio station was hiring a DJ. I didn’t think I was qualified since I had zero experience doing that kind of thing, but he was a former DJ himself and he assured me that I’d be great at it. At the time, I was working at a locomotive and marine parts company – not exactly my dream job. So, I thought, what the hell? – and decided to give it a shot.
KE: Did you have a demo at that point because of the VO work you’d done for local businesses?
MJ: My producer friend helped me put together a makeshift demo to submit with my résumé. I think I read the weather, told some jokes, and introduced some random songs. And I threw in some REO Speedwagon, of course! I got hired as soon as I submitted my application. I found out years later that I was the only one who applied for the job [laughs], so there wasn’t much competition. The program director swore he would’ve hired me anyway. We’ll never know.
KE: How long were you in radio before you made the shift into doing VO full-time?
MJ: I did radio for almost eight years. I was in Houma, Louisiana at the time, and I started out as an on-air personality country station there. Most of the DJs had an alias, which came in handy years later when I started receiving creepy fan mail, mine was Lisa Logan. Later, I got promoted and added a classic rock morning show to my schedule. I also got hired on the adult contemporary station (all owned by the same parent company). So, I was working three shifts a day under two different names – I got A LOT of practice.
KE: So, it sounds like it was a series of happy accidents that led you into radio and gave you the opportunity to practice behind the mic before your big break in the VO world.
MJ: Once I left radio and decided to go into VO, my goals were much bigger. I wanted to be a household name and work with top national brands. No one in my small town was doing anything like that, so I didn’t have an example to follow. Even in New Orleans, which was the closest big city, there was a lot of TV and film production, but not much going on in the VO world. So, I started doing research online and learning everything I could about the industry.
KE: Was the transition out of radio and into VO fairly easy? Did you start booking VO gigs right away?
MJ: Honestly, my first year was very challenging. I got a few gigs here and there, but it was tough. I was having a lot of technical challenges with my equipment, and I was definitely short-changing myself on rates. In the beginning, though, when you don’t know any better, and you’re making a few hundred bucks to talk for 30 seconds, that seems like a great gig!
KE: How long did it take before things started flowing and you were booking bigger contracts?
MJ: I got a TLM 103 microphone, which was my dream piece of gear at the time, and after about a year of hustling, I landed my first long-term contract with a recognizable brand name. I did a small part for T180 Studios, which was owned by Walt Disney, and then I became the voice of Oreck vacuum cleaners.
KE: And that led you into more corporate work and contracts with other national brands?
MJ: I decided that I wanted to be the voice of the biggest brands in the world – the Fortune 500, if not 100. After I landed the Oreck gig, I auditioned to be the voice of AT&T. Out of hundreds of people, I was the closest match to the current voice, so I got the contract. That was the first step toward the big brand dream. Landing that role gave me a boost of inner confidence. After that, things started to flow.
KE: So, you set a goal to become the voice of the biggest brands in the world, which you accomplished. Did you also set an intention to do character work? How did you go from vacuum cleaners to video games?
MJ: The first video game I did was called Kung-Fu Live(for PlayStation), and the developer discovered me through LinkedIn. I didn’t even have a character demo at the time, so they definitely took a chance on me. Deep down, I think I always knew I wanted to do character work, but I had no idea how to make that shift.
KE: Okay, so let’s do some myth busting. People assume that having a “good voice” is all you need to succeed in the VO world. They don’t realize it’s about more than reading words into a microphone.
MJ: Sometimes people forget that, first and foremost, this is an acting job. Back in the day, being a polished announcer with a golden voice was the “it” thing. So, it wasn’t really about acting – it was about having a certain kind of voice and not straying from that trend. But the industry standard has changed. Now, you need to know how to convey a range of emotions behind a microphone and really dig into a character. Even if you’re just doing a short commercial spot, it’s about a lot more than reading words on a page.
KE: The skill is in making it sound easy, which is why people assume it’s so simple that anyone could do it.
MJ: Let’s say you book something simple like a 30-second commercial spot. You have to take an existing script and read it to time – maybe one second under if not 30 seconds exactly. You have to figure out which syllables to hit, you need to color the adjectives in a certain way without overemphasizing them, and annunciate each word without overdoing it. It needs to sound like you’re having a natural conversation with your best friend even if you’re crammed inside a closet by yourself. A good voice actor will make all those elements come together seamlessly and make it sound very easy – that’s our job.
KE: A big part of any performance is staying present and not allowing yourself to get sidetracked by the voices in your head that take you out of the moment. How do you deal with anxiety or the inner critic voice that tries to throw you off when you’re alone in the booth?
MJ: When you’re auditioning by yourself, especially in the VO business, it’s essential that you’re self-aware and able to direct yourself. I might get a script with only a few words to describe what the client is looking for – no details about the character, no information about the audience. Usually, I need to turn it around in less than an hour, sometimes 15 minutes. So, I look for clues in the script. Voice actors are like professional mind readers. We have to take this abstract idea in the copywriter’s head and figure out how to bring it to life in a way that doesn’t sound contrived. For me, the trick is to find something I’m passionate about to make the connection believable…even if I’m talking about laundry detergent.
KE: So, even if you’re just talking about Tide, you need to figure out what the copywriter had in mind to get a sense of the world he or she created and the intention behind the text.
MJ: Most of the time, the intention is to sell a product, right? But there’s so much more to it than that. What’s the message I’m trying to get across that’s not written on the page? What are they really selling here? Maybe the product is laundry detergent, but they’re really selling a sense of comfort, or safety, or peace of mind. Once I know the emotion, then I can connect it to myself. So, if they’re selling comfort, what makes me feel a sense of comfort? What can I draw on from my own life? And how can I bring that sense of comfort into the present moment?
KE: I know there’s no such thing as a “typical day” in the VO world, but walk me through what a day might look like for you.
MJ: If you’re a full-time voice actor, then you’ll usually have an agent who is sending you auditions and gigs throughout the day. Some people do it on their own, but most people have representation at this level. My world tends to revolve around my phone and my email. It’s a very last-minute business, so everything is urgent.
KE: That’s something most people don’t know about being a VO talent. If you’re traveling or going out to an event or something, you always have to keep your mic and gear with you.
MJ: I can’t remember the last time I went anywhere and didn’t have my backup mic and recording gear on me at all times. There are definitely people who have a less chaotic schedule – every genre is different. In my case, I work with a lot of news station affiliates, so that means I could get called at any moment for a breaking news segment. It’s the same deal with promos and trailers – those require quick turnarounds. Sometimes you only have 10 or 15 minutes notice to drop what you’re doing and find a place to record.
KE: How did that change your day-to-day life? Did it require a bit of a lifestyle shift when you got into VO more seriously?
MJ: It took me a long time to get used to the idea that my voice is my instrument. If I were a musician, it would be pretty obvious that I’d need to take care of my instrument. I’d keep it protected in its case, keep it tuned, shine it up, whatever. But when it’s your voice, something you use for everything, it’s harder to manage. But that’s part of the job – taking care of your voice and being conscious of not overdoing it.
KE: What do you do to take better care of your voice?
MJ: I’ve learned there are certain things that aren’t good for me. I can’t stay out late. I can’t drink alcohol the way I used to. I need to hydrate more. I can’t have caffeine or dairy before a session. And I can’t be in loud, crowded places where I have to scream over people to talk. Vocal strain is real! And it will kill my career for a few days, which I can’t risk. It was definitely a lifestyle adjustment, but my worst day in voiceover is better than my best day in the corporate world, so I’ll take it.
KE: Getting paid to be a ranger-captain in World of Warcraft seems like a pretty cool gig!
MJ: I love playing video game characters! These days, video games are almost like films, and sometimes they have bigger budgets. They’re so cinematic and the acting that’s required is phenomenal. I also love having a platform where I can tell the story of a woman expressing her power. In some of these fierce warrior roles, I’ve been able to tap into this fearlessness and channel intense emotions – pain, anguish, desperation, and righteous anger. It’s such a blast! And it’s very cathartic.
KE: Tell me more about Alleria Windrunner (your World of Warcraft character). You’ve shared in the past that you tapped into some dark places inside yourself in order to play that character.
MJ: There was so much I loved about Alleria. She lost almost her entire family to the war, so she went through a lot of pain and loss, and she went to some dark places as a result. In the story, she learns to tap into the endless void, which is a dark, volatile energy. The closest comparison I can think of is the dark side of the Force in Star Wars. Basically, she learns how to use the dark energy in the endless void for good. But people don’t trust her because she’s tapped into a dark power. She’s showing people that darkness can’t be avoided or feared – it has to be faced. And once you confront it, you can work with it.
KE: I bet these character roles are a nice break from commercial work and corporate gigs. Do you get to jump around, scream, make crazy sounds, and go wild in the booth?
MJ: Yeah, in other genres of VO work, it’s all about being soothing to the ear or having a friendly conversation. You have to be conscious about not being too loud or yelling at people. But in video games you have a lot more permission to get crazy and delve into the full spectrum of emotions. I think that’s why video games are becoming so popular as a medium for storytelling. They’ve come a long way from Ms. Pac-Man!
KE: What about live VO gigs that take you out of the booth? I know you were the announcer for the VH1 Divas show…
MJ: Yes! I was also featured on a “Powerful Women of Warcraft” panel at BlizzCon 2017 with a group of incredible voice actors, and that was streamed to over 3 million people. Growing up, there weren’t many heroines for me to look up to. There were a few – Wonder Woman, Ellen Ripley in Alien, Sarah Connor in Terminator – but those characters were few and far between. Lately, there have been some bad ass roles for women, especially in video games, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play some of them. If I can use my voice to create a positive impact and inspire young girls, there’s nothing better than that.
KE: A big part of this StandCreative series is inspiring the next generation of creators. So, imagine a kid who’s out there dreaming about being the next big voice in animation or video games, what would you say to them? What’s the best way to get started in the VO industry?
MJ: If someone is really serious about doing this, they should get a voiceover coach in one of the major markets (New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago). I’d also recommend taking acting classes and improv classes. Improv throws you into the deep end of the pool. It forces you to think on your feet, find your true voice, and it helps you develop empathy, which is crucial in this work.
KE: It also forces you to take risks, screw up, and embarrass yourself, right? Those seem like important lessons for most people regardless of their career path.
MJ: Absolutely! My best advice would be to just pay attention. Pay attention to people. Learn to see their strengths and weaknesses, and ask questions about why those things exist – relate those experiences back to yourself. To me, it all boils down to this: learn to love people, be interested in their stories, and live your life with passion and curiosity. If you start there, then the possibilities are endless.