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How to become a great voice actor w/ Fiona Sheehan

Have you ever wondered about how voice acting is different from stage, film, or TV? Fiona Sheehan (Jane Silver, Crypto-Z) shares her career tips, acting secrets, and audition processes as well as drama school advice and the importance of researching your character, a lesson she learned during a flirtatious scene with Ralph Fiennes. Join the conversation with Hadrien Royo and Fiona as they discuss these ideas as well as their creative process in creating Crypto-Z. Voice acting is freedom. Grow your wings and take off!

Follow Fiona on Twitter @MsFionaSheehan

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Jump directly to what interests you

@00:00 : Welcome

02:30: Fiona’s background as an actress

04:10: The art and craft of voice acting

14:00: The freedom in voicing characters

16:30: Fiona’s experience at drama school

24:15: Fiona on transforming into character

Transcript

HADRIEN

Today is the first of a four part series of interviews with the creators of Crypto-Z. I’m gonna lift the curtain a little bit on our creative process and how we make Crypto-Z. Performance is an essential part of Crypto-Z. Actually, it’s more than that. If at any moment we didn’t believe that the situation the characters were in were real, the show would completely fall apart.

So, I thought a good first X would be to simply ask the actors and the team. My first guest is the mesmerizing voice behind Jane Silver, the actress Fiona Sheehan. We’re gonna dive deep in her creative process, how she approach voiceover and acting and how she became an actress in the first place

Without further ado, the mesmerizing Fiona Sheehan. I can imagine this is not an easy time for actors. All the movie and theater productions are shutting down, so how are you doing, Fiona?

FIONA SHEEHAN

I’m doing fine. I mean, it’s strange for everyone, isn’t it? You’ve just gotta sort of keep calm and  carry on as they say and stay home, stay safe. All the slogans.

HADRIEN

I saw on Twitter that you bought yourself a sound kit.

FIONA

I did, yeah. So, I’ve not had a setup at home before. I tend to travel into studios in Central London if I need to record, but given the current situation, it seemed prudent to get set up with stuff, so I’ve done that to the extent that i can in the space that I live in and I haven’t done any jobs from it yet but I have recorded a couple of tests. I’m no expert, but it’ll do for now.

HADRIEN

We’ll get together with Hollis and help you soundproof your room if you need. Do you feel like actors who can work from home have an advantage right now?

FIONA

It’s really difficult to know. In my experience, my agent was reluctant to encourage me to go out and buy kit because at the beginning of all of this, everything was so unknown that they couldn’t guarantee if they’d be able to get work for me.So, I just felt like personally I’ve gotta have a horse in the race. At least if I’m set up, then if the opportunities do come, then I’m ready.

I mean, in time, maybe the studios will set up some sort of safe way of recording where you’ve got minimal contact with anyone else.

HADRIEN

Right.

FIONA

It’s been worrying in that regard for sure.

HADRIEN

First of all, before we dive deeper, people in this podcast know you as Jane Silver, as a voice actress but you’re not just a voice actress. You’re a 360 degree actress. You’ve done theater, films, feature films, TV shows. So, my first question for you is do you see voice acting as a side gig or a separate life?

FIONA

Absolutely not. I consider it to be all part of the same craft. I guess the voiceovers, the commercial or corporate side of stuff feels like a slightly different branch of my career but in terms of the voice acting, it just feels like it’s a different skill set within the same career framework.

Like we were talking about with Jamieson the other night, he was talking about how there are different skills involved when you’re acting on stage from when you’re on set. It’s just the same with audio drama. You’ve got different things to think about, but you’re very much still using your skill set as an actor in creating characters or creating a voice for your character, but you focus things in a different way.

You’ve only got the microphone to perform to, so a bit like if you’re acting on stage in front of a thousand people or if you’re on set and your camera, the single camera is your audience, you have to… With audio drama, you just direct everything to the microphone, so it’s quite specific the way you have to perform. But I see it as all being part of the same wonderful craft that is acting.

HADRIEN

Well, since we’re in the topic, how does this focus kind of translate with your placement, your movements, your gestures, your body language basically? Or you just worry about breath?

FIONA

It’s tricky. A lot of it is sort of instinctive, but I would say that you use your whole body. The breath obviously is important but then it would be if you were on stage or anything. I mean, for instance with Crypto-Z, with all of the physical stuff that we had to convey, I don’t know if you’ve got some footage lurking somewhere but when we were climbing up mountains using ice picks and things, I was throwing my arms into it. You have to act it with your whole body because that comes through in your voice.

So, yeah, I mean maybe… I was gonna say maybe you wouldn’t use the lower half of your body so much but I think you do. I think you use the whole thing.

HADRIEN

Right. I think when you’re in the positioning of listening, when I was working with you and I was listening, my entire focus was on your voice. All the little nuances that could pick up or that would let me inform so I could imagine the world a little bit more, I could be imagining the situation Jane Silver might be in.

But I was wondering if that kind of tunnel vision focus a little bit like X like I guess is something you had to do as well.

FIONA

Yeah, you do. Yeah, you definitely have to do that and you have to convey everything that’s going on physically, emotionally, everything that’s going on just with your voice. You very much have to just focus in on your mic and treat it as though you’re having… Particularly with Crypto-Z in some of the narrative sequences, as though you’re having a really intimate conversation just with one person. But that person can’t see your face. So, you have to somehow bring your expressions into your voice, so there is sort of an extra element there that you have to think about with voice acting.

Layering on something that you might do with a little look or a frown or whatever it may be or a smile. You can hear a smile in your voice as soon as you smile physically.

HADRIEN

I can hear it right now.

FIONA

Exactly, it makes a real difference. I remember that was something that I learned way back when I just left drama school and I was recording my first voice reel. I remember the guy that recorded saying, “Always smile because it makes your voice so much brighter and it really has an effect on sound.” That sort of stayed with me since ever since, particularly for commercial stuff because they want everything to be bright and lifted.

HADRIEN

Right. Just curious. In theater, you have for example and in film you have a stage and all the things at the hands. If you find yourself in this situation you want to explore an emotion or a reaction or something, there’s this immediate playground you have access to, to run across the stage or… How do you process those kinds of instincts or information that comes to you? Is it different from other medium?

FIONA

I guess it happens much more cerebrally with voice acting. It all happens much more in your head because you’ve got to stay with the mic. You don’t have the option to… Obviously, you can do physical movement around the mic but you don’t have the option to run to the other side of the booth which is probably pretty small anyway. So yeah.

HADRIEN

I’m thinking about listeners who might be interested in learning more about this craft or actors who might wanna improve their skills. It might be maybe their main source of income for the time being in the next year. So, I’m trying to get you to describe a little bit of your process to see if there might be something for them to kind of pick on and apply for themselves.

FIONA

Yeah, okay. I suppose it becomes much more about you’ve got to create the world within your own imagination, just as the listeners do when they’re listening, except that when you’re acting it, we don’t have the benefit when you’re recording. You don’t have the benefit of all the beautiful layers of sound that you guys have added in post, you know?

So, there’s a lot of imagination involved in creating that world in your own head so that you can then convey it to others. Something that was really useful when we were recording was that you, Hadrien,  were always very good at sort of talking us through that imagined world before we recorded and helping us envision it.

Similarly, I mean Danielle’s writing gives you so much anyway so combined, that really helped and then you’ve just gotta get it all in your own mind so that you can then think, “Okay, right, so what’s the temperature like here? What am I wearing? How am I feeling about this mission?” You’ve gotta add all of the layers in there and then hope that it translates through the microphone to the listener’s ear.

HADRIEN

Yeah, it’s amazing. Do you have other… You just mentioned costume and I thought that was a really good one? Do you have other tools in your toolbox that you like to pick up to ground yourself into a scene?

FIONA

Well, it reminds me of… I remember at drama school, a note that we were given was find the shoes that your character would wear and one you’ve found the shoes that they would wear, that helps you layer in a lot more of their physicality and their character.

I didn’t physically choose ice boots for the recording of Crypto-Z, but it’s worth bearing in mind that sort of thing and the fact that I’d probably be wearing a really big, padded coat and something around my head and around my ears and sort of trying to focus on the idea that you’re really, really wrapped up against the elements and which parts of your face would be exposed and how that might affect the way you speak or the way you breathe.

Yeah, and the landscape, the terrain, how we’re moving physically, how the character is feeling about what’s coming up and what they want to convey to the character they’re speaking to and what they’re wanting to hide.

So, little things like that will make a difference in how you perform it. If i want to reveal something to Felix Bright or sort of get his attention, I’ll perform it in a very different way than if I’m sort of saying something under my breath in reaction to something he said and I’m not wanting to quite reveal what’s going on in my own mind.

HADRIEN

Do you typically decide it ahead of time or you find it on the spot? Given that I tried as much as possible to record actors live together.

FIONA

At least on the occasions where I was recording and I could hear Jamieson at  the other end recording the scene with me, him in LA and me in London. That will change who you perform it potentially because you’re sort of riffing off the other actor and if they deliver you a line in a way that you hadn’t heard it when you saw it on the page, that will affect how you respond to it potentially.

So yeah, there’s a combination of things that you prepare in advance and things that you can be open to changing or reimagining when you’re in the booth.

HADRIEN

How would you go about translating those moments of silence that makes movies so rich when all you have to do is just lean into [silence] and use facial expressions?

FIONA

Yeah, that’s an interesting one because obviously silence doesn’t work in the same way on a microphone because you’re just getting nothing. I think there are times where you can use silence and the audience can read between the lines, but otherwise, if it’s to convey a feeling or a reaction, I think probably a lot is done with breath and little sort of non-verbal noises. Non-verbal noise.

HADRIEN

Did that feel like over acting? Or forcing a little bit?

FIONA

I guess you could put it like that, yeah, because you’re performing it in a way that you never would if someone could see you because you have to give something extra to people when they’re just listening to it. It’s actually something that I suppose I kind of learned from…

I don’t know if I ever told you this, but my husband used to be an actor and there’s a really, really famous long running radio drama soap in this country that he was in for a long time called The Archers. I don’t know if people know it in the States but everyone knows it here. So, there would’ve been a time where I would listen to how he phrased things or little noises that he and his acting colleagues in it would put in to convey something that’s happening in the scene, whether it’s they’re picking up something heavy and you have to make noise to convey that or if it’s just a sort of reaction to somebody else. That stuff is all useful and the best thing to do is to listen to other people doing it.

HADRIEN

There was something very striking to me as I was casting Crypto-Z, to see how much actors who are used to understate their performance on camera expect sometimes the same strategy to work in voiceover or in voice acting. To me, it just kind of falls flat. I don’t have a lot of tips to give to actors, but if I had one, maybe it would be to not be afraid to over act or to push the boundaries even if it feels uncomfortable in voiceover.

FIONA

Absolutely, yeah. From that point of view, it’s actually… Voice acting can be really freeing in that way because… I mean, not that we all want to overact all the time otherwise but for me, a lesson that I had to learn at drama school was that outside of voice acting, you largely… I mean, I guess there’s a difference in theater but you largely are cast in roles according to what you look like.

Whereas with voice acting, it frees you up to play all sorts of different characters. I think I was a bit naive when I first went to train because I was thinking, “Well, you know, I love acting because I love playing lots of different characters and different voices and different physicalities and all that sort of thing,” and of course, at the end of the day, as an actor, you are a product and people are looking for a particular kind of product when they’re casting things.

So, yeah, I very quickly learned that the radio drama classes we had at drama school were one of my favorite times of the week because you could be anything again.

HADRIEN

Right. Right.

FIONA

That’s one of the real advantages I’ve found. Not that I’m sort of massively different from myself in Crypto-Z in terms of my vocal quality but the potential is there,  you know? That’s why I’ve enjoyed voice acting so much. There’s so much scope for playing around and being adventurous in your performance in a way that you probably couldn’t be in another medium.

HADRIEN

You could even be a creature or a cryptid.

FIONA

Yeah, exactly or an alien as I was in Dr. Who once. You can be anything.

HADRIEN

Right. Maybe we’ll have Jane Silver become an alien. I just wanted to track back for a minute because you mentioned drama school a lot and I think it was probably as important to you as film school was to me. What was it like to be you when you got accepted into that school? Just for the record, the school that we’re talking about, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, is probably one of the best schools in the world.

FIONA

Yes, it’s pretty good. London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Yeah. I remember when I was 17, suddenly announcing to my parents over the dinner table, “I’ve decidedI’m not gonna do my A-Levels. I’m gonna move to LA and I’m just gonna become a star. I’m gonna be discovered in LA. That’s what I’m gonna do.”

I remember my parents sort of reacting and going, “Okay, and so, what will you do when you get there?” Hmm, well, I don’t know. I’ll probably… Well, I’ll see if I can meet some people. “Okay, and there are probably quite a lot of actors in LA. Do you think there might be other people who maybe have a bit more experience or have connections or… You know? How are you gonna make this work?”

So, that sort of gave me pause for thought and I thought, “Okay, maybe I need to measure out exactly how this plan is gonna go before I just launch straight in.” My family, I don’t come from an acting background. Most of my family are medical actually and so, my dad was like, “Well, why don’t you just think about university first and then see how you get on?” So, I ended up going to university and I studied English and Drama. I didn’t fully, fully step away from the dream.

I went to the University of Bristol and I had three of the best years of my life, so absolutely no regrets and then whilst I was still at Bristol, I auditioned for drama school and that’s when I got into LAMDA. It was like the feeling of getting into your dream drama school is… It was pretty special.

HADRIEN

It’s funny. I feel like we have similar stories.

FIONA

Oh, really? Right. Interesting.

HADRIEN

But anyway. God, I have so many questions. You went to study English. Were you acting at the time?

FIONA

Yeah. I mean, not professionally but I mean, the first time I showed any interest in acting was when I was four years old and someone was playing Mary in the nativity play and I thought it should’ve been me. So yeah, it started pretty early and then all through… I used to spend my summer holidays when I was a kid going to do youth theater and stuff and then I eventually got into the National Youth Theater, so then I spent every summer performing plays in London and then throughout university, there was… Well, throughout school I was involved in extracurricular drama and stuff there. Then through uni as well, through all the drama societies and all of that. You couldn’t keep me away.

HADRIEN

You were so driven. When you saw that little girl, that four year old little-

FIONA

She was terrible. She didn’t deserve it.

HADRIEN

I’m curious. Was it her performance you didn’t like or the fact that she was on stage?

FIONA

I remember feeling like there was something about her performance that wasn’t convincing.

HADRIEN

I see. She was just bad.

FIONA

And feeling like there was something… I can’t remember exactly what it was but there was something she was doing physically that I really didn’t think was authentically telling the story, although I’m sure I wouldn’t have said it in those words when I was four. But that’s how I felt. I felt like-

HADRIEN

That’s interesting because for most kids, it would just be the attention.

FIONA

I’m sure, I’m sure it was in part to do with the attention. I mean, it’s probably all to do with the attention when you’re four. But it really felt more serious than that. There was a skill involved that she wasn’t hitting the mark.

HADRIEN

That is amazing. You were just like, “What? I can do better than this.

FIONA

Yeah.

HADRIEN

What did they say? I don’t know if you told them at four years old, “Hey dad, I’m going to be an actress.”

FIONA

I don’t know. They certainly encouraged my enjoyment of being in plays and all of that very much but I remember there was a period through my teenage years, I guess I just assumed it wasn’t really an option as a career. So, I tried to find other things that would suit the same attributes you might find in an actor and I remember for a time saying, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna be a barrister. I’m gonna work in law and be a barrister.”

I couldn’t think of anything worse now. I don’t think I ever really believed it, but it was just something I latched onto as being a proper job that was not alternative. Then I guess, I don’t know at what point for my family they realized that it was… Or for me, for that matter. I can’t really remember when I decided that there was only one way I was gonna go. I think it was probably in my heart for a long time before it was even expressed, you know?

I guess getting the National Youth Theater and that sort of thing will have had a big impact and then once you’re into LAMDA, you’re definitely giving the career a go, the idea of a career a go. You know?

HADRIEN

I’m always admirative of creative people who found their means of expression very early on and continuously created opportunities for themselves in their childhood and teenage-hood to practice it.

FIONA

Yeah. I loved it. I think the other thing was that… I still say this about myself to a degree that I never was an outgoing kid. Outside of my group of friends or whatever, I could often be quite shy and so I think I found… This is a narrative that you hear over and over again actors say, isn’t it, that their acting was a way of them expressing themselves. It’s a cliche but for me, I think it was true in that I suddenly found a way of being able to stand up in front of people and have people sort of listen to me and feel like I could hold their attention.

When you’re a shy person, that’s not something you’re used to doing really and I still find that now. I’ve been asked before to do speeches at friends’ birthdays or whatever it might be and because you’re an actor, they assume that that’s very much something that comes easily to you, which I’m sure it does to many actors. But not all of us and when I got married, I’d consider myself a feminist but I didn’t give a speech at my wedding because I was like, “Thank you, I’m happy to bow to tradition on this occasion.” I think for me it was really an outlet of expressing myself. Yeah, for sure.

HADRIEN

You would have no problem giving a speech if it was a character giving a speech.

FIONA

Totally, yeah and if there was a script or if I’d heavily workshopped who that character was and what their world was. All of that is fine. It’s a completely different thing and it’s quite hard I think for people to understand that.

HADRIEN

Yeah, I think it’s because actors use their own body to create and it’s probably very clear for the actor to know who is inhabiting the body right now. Is it the character or is it just them? Or is the character pretending to be another character? Anyway. On that same note, when you’re approaching a role, are you looking for similarities between you and the character? Or do you find that you want to transform into them?

FIONA

I guess that totally depends on the character and the context. For sure, I think there are… A lot of the time, you’re always gonna bring elements of yourself, your characters are always gonna be in some way based on who you are because you’re drawing from your own imagination and your own experiences as a human being in real life.

For instance, in The Duchess, I was approached by a duke who was talking to me and giving me lots of attention and so, I had to act…

HADRIEN

The duke was played by Ralph Fiennes, right?

FIONA

Yes, yeah. So, there wasn’t really much acting that needed to be involved with that because there I am, it’s my first ever job and I’m in a shot just with Ralph Fiennes. So, I’m sort of starstruck as I’m acting and similarly, I have to be this young girl in polite society that’s being spoken to one-on-one by this powerful duke. Yeah, there can definitely be an overlap of your real life experience and your character’s experience, for sure.

HADRIEN

Thinking about our listeners again, in the audition process, do you come in completely in character or do you like to bring as much sense of self as much as possible?

FIONA

I know a lot of actors like to walk into a room in character and that helps them then to do the audition in character. I personally feel sort of uncomfortable with it because it feels like I’m not then having an authentic conversation with whoever I’m meeting. I prefer to sort of then click into gear when I need to, when I’m reading the material.

But I think that’s quite a personal thing. I think it’s different for every actor. I think the most important thing is just to try and be as calm and confident and have done as much work and research as you possibly can, just be as prepared as you can, which will help you feel calmer and more confident in the room.

HADRIEN

What do you do for that? Do you read books? Do you watch other films? Do you look at other actors?

FIONA

Yeah, all of the above. I remember when we were shooting The Duchess that Ralph Fiennes and I were sort of improvising this conversation between these two people. I clearly hadn’t done my research on the period and he asked me whether I was there with a chaperone and I said no, I was here on my own. He went, “Really? No chaperone?” and I was like, “Shit.” I obviously really messed up there.

So yeah, I think it’s always good to know, to do your research around the context and around the period for sure.

HADRIEN

Well, there you have it. In order to be an effective actor, you have to first tell the story. Thank you so much, Fiona, for doing this.

FIONA

Well, it’s my pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed myself. So, thank you very much.

HADRIEN

I hope you guys really enjoyed this conversation as well. If you’d like to ask questions to Fiona or me, it’s not too late. You can always text us. Also, we are currently developing a series of courses and one of them will be on acting, voiceover, and speech. We’ll probably also have private workshops, so if this is something you’d like to hear more about, feel free to reach out.

Next week, we are going to meet with Danielle Trussoni, author, novelist, andwriter of Crypto-Z. So, stay tuned. Thank you very much for listening and I’ll see you guys next week.

Listen Everywhere

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Created By

  • Hadrien Royo
  • Danielle Trussoni

Starring

  • Fiona Sheehan as Jane Silver
  • Jamieson Price as Felix Bright

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