YOU’LL NEVER HEAR the shoot-’em-up Western Gunfighters of Casa Grande mentioned as one of the seminal films of the 1960s. But there’s an argument to be made that the movie -- or at least the radio ad -- launched a phenomenon that has had an impact on every single moviegoer in the 40-plus years since its release. See, it was the Gunfighters radio promotion that first introduced Americans to the smooth, deep baritone voice of the late Don LaFontaine, a then unknown radio writer, producer, and recording engineer who stepped in to narrate the spot when the announcer who had been hired to do the job failed to show up.
It might sound hyperbolic to ascribe such importance to a now-obscure movie preview. But if you’ve been to a movie theater and have sat through the coming attractions at any time since Lyndon Johnson was president, you’ve heard LaFontaine’s voice exhorting you to see such flicks as Get Smart, Meet Dave, The Terminator, Shrek, and on and on. In fact, LaFontaine voiced the narration on more than 5,000 films -- sometimes he recorded up to 26 sessions per day -- which makes him the single most prolific actor (based upon signed contracts) in the history of the Screen Actors Guild.
While LaFontaine, who was interviewed by American Way before he died in September, was certainly the most ubiquitous voice actor, he wasn’t the only option in Hollywood. Today, about 20 men (there are no women who work consistently in this capacity) provide the voices for the movie trailers that studios rely on to lure audiences into theaters. Working primarily from their own home studios — a departure from the days when they had to brave Los Angeles’s notorious traffic to do their work at different recording studios, something that LaFontaine, in such demand, did in a limo -- these select voice actors have carved out an enviable niche. With consistent voice work in commercials, promotions, and trailers, they can bring in seven-figure incomes annually, and do so without even having to change out of their bathrobes.
And they can trace their lineage to La- Fontaine, who actually began his career penning scripts for trailers and is credited with creating still-used catchphrases such as “In a world where …” and “one-man army.” Although these men are some of the most active actors in Hollywood, you won’t find paparazzi skulking in their bushes. LaFontaine, who appeared in a commercial for the insurance company Geico, was even an exception in that he was recognized in public.
GEORGE DELHOYO has heard it all before -- from friends, strangers, and even deliverymen who come to his house with a package. They can’t believe he gets paid so well to do what they’re convinced is such an easy job. “Everybody thinks you just talk. ‘All you do is talk? Oh man, where do I sign up?’ ” says DelHoyo, who was a longtime theater, film, and television actor before a friend hectored him into trying voice-over work as a way to earn extra money. Now, DelHoyo, who is fluent in Spanish, gets a steady stream of bilingual voice work for TV promos, commercials, and film trailers; he has worked on The Happening, The Polar Express, Hitch, and Shark Tale.
Clearly, though, if voice-over work were as easy as most people believe it is, there would be a lot more folks working in that capacity regularly. One indication of how difficult it is is the fact that the small coterie of trailer narrators is usually sought out by the production companies making the trailers, so there are rarely auditions for roles. Matt Wright, who started out as a writer, director, and producer of radio commercials, work he still does, says there are plenty of people who have a technically better voice than he does. But Wright -- who credits his entrée into the voice-over business to a mid- 1990s shift away from the so-called “voice of God” narrator and to a more informal, conversational tone -- has come to believe that the quality of a person’s voice, while important, is hardly sufficient by itself.
What matters, he says, is the ability to perform under pressure -- reading the one-or two-page script should typically require only two to three takes, and at most, five -- and with authenticity. “If you can walk into a studio situation under high pressure and look at something on a page that you’ve never seen before and read it cold in a way that sounds like you are thinking of it at the moment, then you have a shot,” says Wright, who has been the voice of trailers for movies such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Dan in Real Life. “It’s that talent that most people really don’t have.”
There’s a reason, then, that these people are called voice-over actors. They don’t just read a script into a microphone; they actually act, and it’s a type of acting that even seasoned professionals may struggle with, usually because of the compressed time frame. “We have just a matter of seconds to process direction and internalize it and then deliver a performance. There is very little time to build a character or develop the work, other than the quickest sketch,” says Wright. “It’s why actors from the stage, TV, and film often find voice-over work more difficult than they’d imagined.”
THOUGH ALL VOICE-OVER actors work under similar time crunches, each has his own unique approaches to prepping his voice, getting into character, and delivering an exceptional performance. Wright and DelHoyo, for instance, warm up their voices with exercises before a gig, while LaFontaine looked upon his voice as a muscle that was well-trained and strong enough that he didn’t need any prep work. Although it might sound otherwise, none of the men interviewed for this story drink prodigious amounts of whiskey or smoke. In fact, LaFontaine avoided coffee, believing that it could muck up his vocal cords, and DelHoyo insists that green apples can help clear his throat and make his voice crisp and clean.
Generally, LaFontaine would receive the script for a trailer via fax, and he’d simply glance at it in order to know the genre and structure of the piece. “I’ll glance at it to get the gist of what I’m selling,” he said. “Is it a comedy or a horror picture or an action film?” Once he had that information, which guided him regarding the tone of voice to use, he spent no more time reading or studying the script, because he felt as though doing so might take away from the authenticity of his read. “Spontaneity is very, very important,” he said. So, too, is veracity. And LaFontaine said that while voicing a trailer script, he absolutely believed that every line he spoke was true. “The way I can justify that is, even the worst movie ever made is someone’s favorite movie,” he said. “And I’m talking to that person, and it’s my job to be as convincing as possible.”
DelHoyo is a bit more methodical in his approach. He says he usually reads a script a few times, makes some notes, and asks the producer questions about how quickly they’d like him to read, which music will fortify his narration, and, of course, what tone they’re looking for. “Is it Knocked Up? That informs me of the feel or the attitude or the character of the piece,” he says. Having played a lot of roles in Shakespeare plays, DelHoyo believes he has a good sense for which words capture the essence of a sentence; he picks those out and emphasizes them. “[Take,] for example, the sentence: What if there were a secret world deep within our own?” he says. “To me, the words that matter are secret and deep.” DelHoyo says he takes care not to emphasize too many words though, as that can tire a listener. “If everything is important, nothing is important,” he says.
Wright likes to see a cut of the trailer whenever possible. That way, he can see how the script integrates with the images, music, special effects, and overall energy of what the audience is watching. He equates his role to that of a member of an orchestra: Only by reacting to what everyone else is doing can he perform at his best. “If everybody in the orchestra had to phone in their part and they were unable to listen and react to other members of the orchestra, you can see how that might not work as well as getting everyone together and rehearsing,” he says.
Having done many, many trailers, Wright says that he has built a repertoire of characters that fit the varying movie genres. He uses those as a starting point and then tries to modify his performance based on what the producers want. “If you’re asked to work on a slasher film, you know it’s not going to be [lapses into quick, peppy voice], ‘Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween 4. Rated R!’ ” he says. “You know it’s going to be down here somewhere [switches to a deep, slow, ominous voice], ‘Now the nightmare is back.’ You might start there.”
These varying techniques, though, are just that; they’re not a secret formula for success in the voice-over industry. Not surprisingly, LaFontaine was asked all the time about how to get started in the business. What he told people was the same thing an established Oscar-winning actor might tell someone struggling to get into movies. “I say, ‘Look, here’s the simple skinny of the thing: Of the six billion–plus people on this planet, you are the only person who has led your life and you are the only person who has your unique view of the world, so you have to bring that to everything you do,” he said. That means you somehow have to bring your own experience of love or pain to what you’re reading -- something that is hard to do, much harder than focusing on the mechanics of reading out loud.
“So many people are … concentrating on the timbre of their voice. They’re concentrating on getting every word pronounced correctly. They’re concentrating on all the stuff they shouldn’t be concentrating on,” LaFontaine said. “What they should be concentrating on is saying what’s on the piece of paper and saying it honestly.”