Over the past 12 years Jessica Straus has made a name for herself in the voice acting world. Her anime credentials include popular series such as FLCL, Wolf’s Rain, Eureka Seven, and Ikki Tousen: Xtreme Xecutor. Her video game resume is also very impressive as she has participated in voice over roles for some of the biggest franchises in the industry including Darksiders, .hack, Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Street Fighter. I recently had the honor of discussing Jessica’s career so far as well as what the future has in store for her.
GC: How did you get into voice acting?
JS: Looking back, I think it was destined for me to become a voice over artist, but I didn’t really know it when I started out.
As a kid, I had an offbeat sense of humor and view of the world. I drew cartoons and put on plays and I had a big imagination. So, as a young adult I followed my heart, I got into acting, went to college and got a BFA in Theater Arts. In LA, I did lots of plays, and also booked on-camera gigs here and there, but when I tried voice over, I just started getting jobs, so it became my “home”. I love using my voice and playing a wide variety of roles. And the cool thing is, you don’t have to look the part to voice a role, so it’s a good fit for me.
GC: What was your first role in voice acting and how did it come about?
JS: It’s been so long I’m not 100% sure of the sequence, however, one of my first roles was actually voicing a little boy and other characters for an educational CD series from Packard Bell. I did my first demo with Nick Omana, who is an icon in the voice over biz. Nick cast me on that.
In games, my first role was a small one of an automated voice on “Blade Runner” from Westwood Studios. I think I got that job from an ad in Drama Logue, a LA newspaper for actors. The really super cool thing was that I got on a game that had some of the original actors from the movie, and I got to meet Joe Turkel, who was Dr. Tyrell, after my session! I love the movie so I was very excited as you can imagine. And, after that little part on a great game, Westwood Studios gave me a lead computer voice role on Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, which was great and a huge challenge for me because I had literally pages and pages of dialogue talking as a computer. Talk about going from “Zero to 60”! Around the same time, I voiced Amazon in “Diablo 2”…which auditioned for that via my old on-camera agent, Larry Masser. Yup, I started out doing computer voices, badass women and little boys. Ah, yes…it all makes sense now. I still get jobs doing those types of voices.
GC: One of my favorite Animes is the .hack Franchise and you did the voice of Pi in the .hack//G.U. games. What was that experience like?
JS: I recall my first session as Pi and being directed by Sam Riegel, who has to be one of the happiest, laid back directors on the planet. We just jumped right into one of her more emotionally intense scenes, where Pi gets “infected” with a black cloud, AIDA, in an attempt to save others. Because I like doing emotional scenes that was a great way for me to start the session! Pi was a nice mixture of feminine and tomboy. I really thought her look was so unique and I liked that she was sexy, had pink braids and wore glasses. Pi evolved over time too, from being a bit more feisty and commanding, to someone who was more practical and a voice of reason. Here’s the PI Infected clip from YouTube:
It has been quite a while since I voiced her, so I don’t recall all the details, and they didn’t give me the script ahead of time, so I was just literally saying her lines without always knowing what was going on in the game. Pi was my first role on an anime game that got a ton of attention; because I got a call for my first out-of-state convention when .hack/GU came out and they were a big fan of PI too. Unfortunately, that convention over-exceeded their budget and never happened, but it was so great to get that first phone call! I was surprised and very flattered. It was certainly an indicator of how popular the game was, and still is. (Later VO sessions of the game were directed by Tony Oliver, who is also a very easy-going, nice director to work with.)
GC: Many don’t know this, but the .hack games are notorious for being some of the rarest Playstation 2 games on the market today with some reaching as high as $170 if they are brand new. 2 games that you were in (.hack Redemption, .hack Reminisce) are currently at #13 and #29 on that list. What is it like being the voice of one of the main characters for such sought after games?
JS: I’m very honored!,… of course. I didn’t know that about the .hack games! I did know they were popular, but I had no idea how popular. Ha! That gets me thinking…I guess I should not have given away my old copies of some of the very first games I was on like “Blade Runner”, “Diablo II” and “Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun”, as they might be worth more too now. (Yes, I played the first two all the way through, and they were really fun…battle games are cool, but boys like them best, I think.) I had no idea at the time how HUGE games would become, including “.hack”. I think it’s really great that you are such a big fan of the game!
GC: Have you ever read any of the novels based on the .hack series like .hack//Cell or .hack//AI Buster?
JS: I’m sorry to say that I have not. I think they just gave me the role of Pi without auditioning….I hope I’m recalling that correctly. I’m very grateful when that happens. I don’t have scripts or MP3s on her audition, so I don’t think I knew what I was working on until I walked into the booth. I had done some Walla on another .hack anime project, so I had some knowledge of the series. However, nothing beyond that.
GC: While I know you best as Pi, most gamers know you as the voice of Juri in the Street Fighter games. What is it like voicing a character in one of the most famous fighting game series’ in the world?
JS: Juri is super fun to voice, because she says so many off-the-wall things that I would never say. I love playing her because she’s got a really skewed sense of the world, she’s badass, and, let’s admit it, Juri is “fun-evil”. She doesn’t care what happens when she says or does anything. Which is really freeing to play. Yes, and she is sexy!…which I never get cast as…NOT! (joking).
I have to say, I had no idea how popular she would become! I’m really grateful for the role and the experience of walking in Juri’s shoes for a while.
I remember going to a convention in Florida after Juri was announced as a character, and they opened the door to a big gaming room where everyone was playing SSFIV and I yelled one of her lines “I’ll get my revenge!!!” and everyone cheered. It was actually a bit overwhelming at the time. However, Reuben Langdon was there to show me the ropes, so it was really a great, fun experience in the end.
GC: Is it true that Voice Director Taliesin Jaffe to imagine yourself with a cigarette and a cocktail while doing the voice of Juri?
JS: Yes, it’s true. I came into the session with a basic idea of her voice and Taliesin helped mold Juri into who she is, as great directors do. I had worked with New Generation on and off over the years, but I think Super Street Fighter/Juri was the first role I did with Taliesin. He really helped me find the details of who she was. Great writing helps too. Juri is unique.
GC: How big of a challenge is it to do fighting scenes? It seems like you would have to get into an angry mindset to do them.
JS: When I first started out in voice over and games, I got a lot of gigs doing action-chicks who fight a lot. I guess my voice fits the heroes, tough-chicks & evil ladies. I’m on over 100 games, thus, I have performed a lot of yelling, fighting , dying, etc. over the years and, at first I didn’t notice it, but a ton of yelling will stress out anyone’s vocal cords….woof!(as in “wow!”). You have to drink lots of water, remember your breath support and how to hold your body and scream with as little tension as possible, do a warm-up & warm-down of your voice, and for those really long or intense fight sessions, maybe not talk for an hour or so afterward. Sometimes longer. It’s like singing in a punk rock band. It can be scary when you lose your voice and you have a session the next day. Hasn’t happened to me a lot that my voice goes, but it has once or twice over the 14 years I’ve been doing voice over. Happens to the best of us voice actors.
As for the emotions of fighting, it can be cathartic and draining at the same time. In my acting training, I thankfully learned ways of accessing emotions without going into my own life experience a lot. Kind of handy, because you don’t have time to imagine that time you were mad at the bully at the end of the block. You just have “be” it…imagine it. Be in the moment.
GC: What was it like doing the voices of Freya and Lana’thel in Wrath of the Lich King. I’ve always heard that Blizzard headquarters is absolutely amazing.
JS: Those roles I did at a studio in West LA with the late, great Brigitte Burdine, who was one my absolute favorite people to work with. I miss her and feel a little sad just typing this… Freya and Lana’thel were both really strong powerful, god-like roles to voice. Lana’thel especially. Her voice was loosely based on Cate Blanchette in the Lord of the Rings, who I loved watching in preparation for the role.
Blizzard has been kind to me over the years and let me work on a lot of their games, most recorded with Brigitte or the just as wonderful, kind and inventive, Andrea Toyias, In LA studios. I did go to Blizzard headquarters in Orange County at the beginning of my career to voice Amazon from “Diablo 2” directed by Jason Hayes, who was awesome to work with. I also did a sorceress for Warcraft III there too. When I went to Blizzard, I felt like I was being admitted to the FBI, and I had to sign papers that said anything I saw, heard or came across when I entered the building was top-secret. I recall being a little nervous, in awe and excited all at the same time. It was pretty darn awesome inside!
GC: How different is it doing a video game compared to a movie or tv show?
JS: Very different. Video games you usually do everything alone in a dark box with 2-10+ people looking at you through the studio glass. You rarely, if ever get the script in advance so everything is improvisational and you have to perform on the spot and be quick to take direction. Movies/TV you are on a set with a bunch of people most of the time, you get your lines in advance, and sometimes you even get to rehearse with other actors! The only time you get to work with other actors in voice over is in Walla sessions and some animated series. Mostly, I use my imagination for all the “who, what, where, when”…when I’m voicing a role in a game.
GC: What was your experience like doing the voice of Sasha in Infamous?
JS: Oh, she was probably one of the most evil, screwed up ladies that I’ve voiced…and boy, was she fun to play! I imagined that she was talking into the player’s ear, seducing and hypnotizing him at the same time while black oil coursed through her body. I’m mean, she got pleasure out of really weird stuff. Sasha is half woman, half possessed demon-lady…Since evil roles are some of the most fun to play, it just doesn’t get any better than Sasha.
GC: Whenever you are doing the voice of more than one character in a game like Killer is Dead or Klonoa, do you ever worry that they will sound too much like each other?
JS: I don’t recall worrying about that at all on those two games. I’ve actually had VO jobs where I voice quite a few more characters on one project. In general, roles that are different in age, pitch, size, emotions, etc. are relatively easy for me to make them sound different. I really like playing different characters and exploring my vocal range in the booth. If the roles are the same age and basically described in the same way It can be a little more challenging. I ask the director if I can pitch them higher/lower than the other, or add an accent, or make them emotionally different, or all of the above. And sometimes the director will say, “yes, let’s do that!” and sometimes, “no, it doesn’t matter that they sound similar because they are in very different parts of the game.” So, in the end, it’s up to the director if they want two roles to have a similar sound. ‘Cause I always do my best to give ‘em different…it’s actually a great part of the job that’s fun for me to explore.
GC: Is there a character that you’ve done that you would say is a lot like you personality wise?
JS: I’m really not like any one of my characters. In fact, I’m often cast in roles who are opposite who I am. I did say in one recent interview I might be a combination of early Anime roles: Blue from “Wolf’s Rain” and Taruto from “Magical Meow, Meow Taruto”. Blue is multi-leveled in her personality, with many stages/emotions in her life, and Taruto is a sort of goofy, innocent role. Both become heroes, in a sense, and don’t know that they have great powers. I’ve found looking back on my life…that their paths could sort of mimic mine in a way. However, in the end, there isn’t really one role that I’m like.
GC: Do you have a “Dream Role” that you would like to have that you haven’t had the opportunity to do so far?
JS: Oh, there are so many great roles out there…some already voiced by some great voice over folks. I think I’d just like to play more funny, wacky characters in general. I like to play characters that make me laugh, and, make other people laugh. Who doesn’t want more laughter in their life? The goofier the role, the better.
GC: Do you have any advice for any of our readers who might have an interest in getting into voice acting or anything Theater related?
JS: If you love to act you will find ways to do it. Get in front of people and act. Do Community Theater, study in school, take an acting class, and sing. Voice over is not just about doing voices…it’s about being a great actor, having good improvisational skills, and being quick at taking direction. And, in games, being versatile, having vocal knowledge & stamina and being able to think/create on your feet is a must. Exercise your imagination. Be constantly creative. Practice, practice, practice. And if you really love to act after that, then pursue a career in voice over, and then you are “in business” for yourself.
I think these days, it’s even more expensive to get a voice over career off the ground, compared to when I started out. Here’s some websites that give some great advice to getting into voice over. Anime may have other different ways in, however, all roads to VO start with a love of acting, perseverance, talent and business sense.
http://www.bobbergen.com/faq.htm (Bob Bergen)
http://www.spokenword.com/#!vo-faq/c1rk7 (Beau Weaver)
GC: Are there any upcoming projects or conventions that our readers will be able to see you at?
JS: I’ve done conventions in the past, but I have not been actively pursuing them at the moment. That said, I’d love being invited to conventions and I enjoy flying out to meet the fans….hint, hint…to any gaming conventions. I do have some exciting game projects coming up, but I can’t, per the norm, discuss them. NDAs abound.
I do take the time to chat with the fans on my Twitter & Facebook pages. Fans are welcome to come join me on Twitter or Facebook. Links are on my website : www.jessicastraus.com and also below.
YouTube I’m trying to be on more, and, it’s a good place to view some videos of my previous work.