You may not know his face, but you definitely know his voice. Over the past two decades, Nolan North has lent vocals to dozens of video games (from God Of War to Assassin’s Creed) and plenty of big movies too. But his highest-profile gig yet has been the wildly popular Uncharted video-game series, in which he not voices globetrotting hero Nathan Drake but provides his body language too, via cutting-edge performance-capture. With the ludicrously brilliant Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on the verge of release, we met with North in London to talk recording-booth hazards, celebrity fans and his role in Star Trek 2...
We don’t interview many video-game actors. Do you feel like a pioneer?
Nolan North : Uncharted is the best job I’ve ever had. Film, television, whatever — it’s without doubt the best. It’s changed my life. As for being a pioneer, Andy Serkis is a hero of mine and he had a great quote, where he said he was annoyed at people saying, “I love it when you do the voice of Gollum.” He said, “No, I am Gollum. What I do is no different from any other actor, except I’m wearing digital make-up.” I thought that was brilliant.
Is it true your performance-capture suits are the same design as those used on Avatar?
The tailor from Avatar actually made my suit for Uncharted 3. And no, it’s not a hand-me-down from Sam Worthington. My 11 year-old would fit in Sam Worthington’s. I’m 6" 1', 180 pounds. But I’m all ready to go for Avatar 2. I’ll just rock up and say, “I’ve got my own suit. Let’s do this.” James Cameron may say, “Who is he? Get him off the stage.” But I’m sure he’ll come round.
What’s it like wearing the suit?
You have to be really careful with your weight, because they hide nothing. For the first game we had suits that you’d Velcro on. They were brown, so I literally looked like a big walking turd. Ten pounds of crap in a five-pound bag. The new ones are stitched in and they’re even tighter. I went over my bike and cracked a couple of ribs while we were doing Uncharted 3. I couldn’t work out and I started putting on a little weight. And when you’re wearing that suit, boy, it’s not good. For a while there it was gnarly. I went home, apologised to my wife and went for a 40-mile run. If we’re lucky enough to do Uncharted 4, I promise I will be in tip-top shape.
Is Nathan Drake’s face based on yours too?
It is now! My wife, who is not a gamer, just saw some footage from Uncharted 3 and said, “Wow, he really looks like you now.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, in the first game I didn’t really notice it, but he really has more of your features.” I mentioned it to the Naughty Dog animators and they said, “We’ve tailored him to look more like you.” He still has his own bone structure and everything, but he’s maturing. Each game he’s getting older; it’s not like Lara Croft or what-have-you. Which precludes us from doing 'Uncharted 14: Rest Home'.
How much of Drake’s dialogue is improvised?
One thing that’s unique to Uncharted is something called “chasing picture”, where Naughty Dog run a section of gameplay and I’m allowed to ad-lib over it. We call it “panning for gold”. There are a lot of things said that would probably have Social Services take my children away, but there are a few gems that they’ll put in the game.
Does it ever feel silly, making the grunting and panting noises?
|Performance-capture suits hide nothing. They were brown, so I literally looked like a big walking turd. |
The grunts are silly, and if you watched us do it you’d probably laugh. It just looks like two people who are painfully constipated. We do “effort sets” of jumping to make the grunting sounds. Or someone will say, “Okay, you’ve been shot with an arrow in the throat” and you have to go, “HOOOAAARRGH!” I always thought if you put our grunts over an adult film it would be very entertaining. Maybe if my career goes south that’ll be my new direction: I’ll do porno ADR! I’ve actually joked that I should probably have a CD of grunts and efforts — on fire, as a zombie, all that — and just hand it out at job interviews.
What’s the toughest thing to do?
There are stories of people trying to sound like they’re drowning by using water to stimulate the gag reflex, then vomiting in the booth. But the hardest thing - believe it or not - is the running. All of a sudden you realise, “Okay, I need a break because I’m hyper-ventilating.” Because you’re just sitting in a chair, not actually running, pretending to be winded, and all of a sudden you get a little light-headed. And again, it hasn’t happened to me - knock on wood - but actors have literally fainted in the booths.
Andy Serkis drinks ‘Gollum Juice’ to sooth his throat. Do you have your own special potion?
I recently did the Penguin in Arkham City, which is a tough voice, but I’ve never drunk anything special to prepare. Of all the games I’ve done, the only time I’ve ever lost my voice was on Call Of Duty 2, playing a rasping Russian captain on the Stalingrad level. A guy called Fred Tattershaw and I were brought in to do all these snarls for the big fight between Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman — I was Del Toro and Fred was Hopkins. I showed up at Warner Bros. with my coffee, sat down, and then Fred walked in with a bucket of Chinese herbs and lacquers and all this stuff. Because he is one of the foremost people on these monster and alien pictures, and he can do incredible things. He’s a big, barrel-chested guy - a one-of-a-kind chap. He travels with a shamen. I travel with Chamin, the toilet paper.
You’re not usually credited for the big movies you work on. Have you been in anything this year?
I did Super 8. I got a call and didn’t really want to do it, as it was my day off, but I eventually went. During the ADR session, at one point I looked at the ADR director and said, “Do you really need that evacuation warning? It sounds a little unnecessary.” He looked at me and went, “Yeah, that’s a good call.” I sat down and a buddy of mine turned to me and said, “Trust you to rewrite JJ Abrams to his face.” I hadn’t realized JJ was directing the session!
Where’s your voice in the film?
The scream of the bus driver, just before he gets crushed, is my scream. And I did some of the noises of the alien as it’s circling the bus. While I was in the booth screeching, someone said, “Easy, Drake, you don’t want to ruin that Uncharted juggernaut you got going.” And JJ went, “What do you mean?” “Oh, Nolan plays Nathan Drake in Uncharted.” He looked at me and went, “You’re the guy! I’m your biggest fan. My son and I play those games all the time — the opening of Uncharted 2 is possibly the best opening of any movie, TV show or anything I’ve ever seen.” I stayed for about 30 minutes after the session, we called his son, Henry, and JJ’s whole family ended up coming to E3 to check out Uncharted 3. And here’s the kicker. Bruce Greenwood, who plays Commander Pike in Star Trek, is a friend of mine. So at the end of the day, JJ said, “I owe you one, Nolan”, and I said, “Well, you got Star Trek 2 coming up. If you stick me on the Enterprise with Greenwood, we’re even.” He looked at me and said, “Done.” He sent me a letter that says, “See you on the Enterprise. JJ.” When my father saw it, he said, “That’s as good as a contract, dammit!”
Which brings us around to the in-the-works Uncharted movie. How do you feel about it?
|Drake’s getting older; it’s not like Lara Croft, so we wouldn't be able to do 'Uncharted 14: Rest Home'.|
Spielberg wanted to get the rights, you know. His team literally called the day after they were snapped up. But listen, I get the question all the time, “Who do you want to see play Drake in the movie?” When talk first started a few years ago, I was like, “I get it. It’s got to be a big star.” But as time goes on, it gets more difficult to let go of something you helped create. Here’s my take now: if they did cast me, it would be very interesting, because every fan of the game would go see it two or three times. Every fan of gaming would go, “Hey, they got the guy from the game. That’s something unique. Let’s go see it.” Everyone who wants to see me succeed would go see the movie, and everyone who wants me to fail would go see it. I don’t think I’m as big a financial risk to the studio as I used to think.
You have our vote. Thanks for the interview...
Thank you! And one more thing, because I want to whore myself out, if anyone’s interested in how we made Uncharted 3, I have written a book, Drake’s Journal, which is all about the process. I interviewed all the developers, got all their war stories and it’s all in there. Buy it!
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is out on November 2