I remember the first time BioShock Infinite was shown off. When I first heard the hardened, yet gentle tones of protagonist Booker DeWitt, it sounded suspiciously like an older, more grizzled Nathan Drake. I thought it was Nolan North. Other people I spoke to thought it was Nolan North. It wasn't Nolan North.
The man in question ended up being character voice-actor Troy Baker. When I ask North over the phone how he felt about Baker doing a mean Nolan North impression, he acts surprised.
"He does a Nolan North impression?" North asks.
"Not exactly. But he sounds an awful lot like you. Did you not hear it?"
"Here's the funny thing: I don't know what I sound like," North replies. "I'm usually doing someone else for most of my day. I come home and take a hot shower and my wife slaps me in the face six or seven times and I'm like 'oh, I'm back!'"
Having so many voices rattling around in North's character compendium of a brain makes him a good fit for Deadpool, a character with, well, many voices rattling around in his brain.
You see, Deadpool has multiple personalities. While Deadpool proper speaks to other characters, there are two other Deadpools inside of him that no one else besides the titular hero and the player can see or hear. These other personas comment, bicker, and crack wise about the adventure, which gives North the freedom to go hog wild with the character[s].
"The idea of being professionally schizophrenic and completely nuts is very appealing to me," North states. "It was like a vocal playground to bounce back and forth between these characters, [i.e.] the different voices of the same character. It's like when you're alone or driving in your car and you're just sort of having that conversation with yourself."
"Everybody talks to themselves. Whether you're psyching yourself up for a job interview or you're shaving in the morning going 'Okay, today we're going to do it,'" North continues. "This is a game where all those inside voices that we have in our head -- even the ones where you're looking at someone talking and think 'oh this guy's a complete asshole. Oh please let this lecture end!' -- all those voices are external voices for Deadpool... It was about tapping into him and letting his stream of consciousness come alive."
Adding a further layer of madness to the game, Deadpool will frequently break the fourth wall. In fact, North tells me there's a part in the game where the character calls up Nolan North. Because why not? Where most game protagonists try to hide the fact that they're essentially puppets being manipulated by this invisible force on the couch, Deadpool relishes in it.
"The idea of being professionally schizophrenic and completely nuts is very appealing to me."Nolan North
"You feel like as a player, [that] you're forming a team with you, Deadpool and Deadpool's two inner voices," North explains. "You're kind of swimming in this crazy, whacked out head of his as his fourth voice, so to speak, as you control him. There are parts where you go to the wrong place and he'll say, 'Hey player! What the hell are you doing? We need to go over there! Let's go!' You're Deadpool's motor functions - you get to run around and shoot and doing those things, but his head's going to be telling you if you're doing the right thing or the wrong thing; if you're boring him or getting him excited."
Deadpool may be a dark, violent character, but it's all in good humor, North insists. "He's talking to himself and the player, and just running around in this world, unapologetically just destroying things, causing mayhem. [But] you're having so much fun that you excuse all the gratuitous violence, and the raunchiness, and raunchy humor, which in today's sensitive world of games and violence, is a refresher. There are no apologies made for this game."
North finds the role cathartic, with plenty of breathing room to ad-lib, but he says that Deadpool is still relatable in a twisted way. "Everybody's got a little Deadpool in them. Everybody's got that dark side."
There's definitely a little of North in there. In fact, there's more than a little of North in all of his roles. The character actor claims that his trick is to put himself in every role, rather than try to create a character from scratch.
"I became a better actor -- on camera, voice-over-wise [and] everything -- when I stopped trying to play a character and played me as that character," North says. "I remember an audition I did when I had to play this assistant to a wedding planner. I just wasn't getting it. I memorized it and I went in and I didn't get the role. When I went back and talked to a buddy of mine who's an acting coach, I said, 'gosh, I thought I really had this.' He looked at me and said, 'You know what? You're playing Chet, the wedding planner.' I said 'Yeah.' He goes, 'Play Nolan, the wedding planner, whose name happens to be Chet.'
"There is an amazing distinction when you realise that nobody else can play something the way you are, and you would be," North states. "I learned this before I started doing Nathan Drake and that's why this is so rewarding to me. That character is me. That's how in real-life -- if Nolan North were this guy who's a treasure hunter with all these circumstances in my life -- these things would naturally come out because I'm putting myself in that situation."
"I became a better actor when I stopped trying to play a character and played me as that character.Nolan North
"I'm a big fan of just keep[ing] it simple," North explains. "When they're simple, they become more real. And when they become more real to you, it's easier for the viewer [to buy into]."
This makes sense. It's hard to be creative in a vacuum, and creating something so distant from yourself is bound to feel less honest. By this standard, even North's more villainous roles are still him, in a sense, only instead of North imaging himself a swashbuckling adventurer, he envisions himself as a spiteful hunchbacked cockney fellow or perhaps a disturbed, seemingly gentle cannibal.
This adherence to sticking to parts of his own psyche may sound limiting, but it's quite the opposite. These days North is trying to stay away from the Drake voice as much as possible since he doesn't want to be typecast. When I ask if this is a concern of his he says, "At a certain point it was," noting that a lot of games where he used his own voice like Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, Dark Void, Shadow Complex, and Prince of Persia all came out around the same time, but were all recorded before Uncharted blew up.
"People didn't know that Uncharted would be this juggernaut that it became. Since the success of that, I've done fewer and fewer characters like that. So I don't really worry about being typecast, because I know I can do other voices."
"I'm actually more attracted to doing characters like that. It's always more fun to play the bad guy. I want to be in games where people go, 'that was really cool' and then they see the credits and go "oh my god! that was Nolan!' That's what makes me happy. I like when people don't recognise it. I'm always grateful to the guys at Rocksteady who cast me to do the Penguin, because it was so far away from what I normally do."
He likens his legacy as Drake to Matt Damon's as Jason Bourne, suggesting that doing another similar role these days would be a disaster. "Jason Bourne is Matt Damon. That's who I see. If Matt Damon went off to play Jack Reacher, you'd be like 'What are you doing? That's Jason Bourne doing Jack Reacher!' It doesn't work that way. It would be a very, very bad choice."
"If another game came out about a treasure hunting adventurer and they wanted me to do it, I'd be like, 'Fine, but we're going to have to put a big accent on this guy. We're going to have to do something different. We can't just do my voice.' It just wouldn't work. If they insisted 'Nolan, you have to do this in your voice. That's what we want,' I'd be like 'alright, but you be ready for the fallout.'"
"That's what happened in Prince of Persia years ago. I remember saying, 'this guy really should have an accent.' And they all said, 'no, no, no. We want it in your voice.' That's what they wanted. And that was one of those games where they [people on the Internet] said, 'he's in everything! I'm sick of his voice!' The last thing I want to do is ruin someone's gaming experience."
So we know North doesn't want to do a character like Drake, but what about the wisecracking adventurer who launched the voice-actor to stardom?
"Everybody asks about Uncharted 4," laughs North. 'I have no idea' is the answer. I really don't. Naughty Dog is busy with The Last of Us, which is supposed to be fantastic, but they've been really, really busy with that. Maybe, once that's finished and the dust settles from all that, maybe we'll know more about the possibility of that. I'm hoping, but I really don't know. The fact that I don't know is always disconcerting, but we'll see."