“To be a great actor, you need to be as much a chameleon with your voice as with your face,” says Suzanne Kiechle, voice coach to many film stars. “Remember Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie? He had to use his voice differently for each of the characters he played,” she says. “It’s true for all the roles actors portray. Each character has to have a particular voice as well as a particular look and style.”
Kiechle, recently honored at the White House as one of America’s most distinguished teachers because of her work with students at her Hollywood Studio of Voice, says whether your stock in trade is a distinct character voice or you’re known for your dulcet tones, it’s crucial to learn how to strengthen, modulate and take tender, loving care of your vocal chords.
When I spoke with John Cullum (Holling on TV’s “Northern Exposure”), he was preparing to sing “Ave Maria” at the September wedding of Cynthia Geary’s (who plays Holling’s wife, Shelly). Though Cullum has enjoyed a distinguished acting career in musical theater, classical drama, film and television as well as in commercial voice-overs and narration, his singing career got off to a slow start. “I was hired as a paid singer by two of the biggest churches in Knoxville,” he recalls. “They both fired me after my first solo.”
Despite his subsequent vocal success in a number of Broadway musicals, Cullum says he still doesn’t consider himself a “real singer.” He talks like anyone concerned about performing well at a friend’s wedding. “I’m worried sick,” he confesses. Cullum prepares meticulously for every job he accepts, whether it’s acting or singing, for a friend or for a worthwhile, critical audience. He says preparation is the key to success for working with and caring for your voice.
“Consider your voice a muscle,” he advises. “Warm it up. Exercise it regularly and often. Train your voice the same way an athlete trains his or her body. Strengthen it and protect it from being hurt. If you do, it can develop quickly.” Since vocal injuries can be irreversible, it’s best to prevent damage before it occurs.
Suzanne Kiechle says actors must learn to do five key things. These are: Modulate and project the voice (especially in using “soft” tones), breathe correctly, “place” the voice in order to avoid any tension on the larynx and create an individual sound by simply relaxing—even when screaming!
Why the concern about breathing correctly? “If you run out of air, your larynx tightens. It affects the quality of your voice, and then it will tire quickly,” says Kiechle. There is the danger of seriously harming tired voices. One of Cullum’s vocal chords ruptured when he over-stressed his tired voice while performing in a musical play. “I couldn’t talk for three weeks,” he moaned.
Kiechle recommends that actors expand their range of sound, especially if their voice is distinctive. “Performers who have odd character voices will get attention, but if they can only speak one way, they will be typecast.”
When it comes down to working in films, vocal stamina is extremely important. The grind of doing so many takes can strain the unprepared voice. Cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs can damage vocal chords; a healthy body can contribute to great vocal and breath control.
Creating a distinctive sound can also mean major, major cash. James Earl Jones is probably the world’s most employed actor. His distinguished acting ability and vocal talent are in constant demand. In fact, every time you hear him say, “This… is C-N-N-,” he is paid a fee.
Other actors are cashing in on voice work for TV ads. Among them are: Martin Sheen, Rob Morrow, Christine Lahti, Kathleen Turner and Demene E. Hall, an actress featured in the CBS TV pilot, “Under One Roof,” which stars James Earl Jones.
Hall has a distinguished career in theater, film and television. She also voices national and regional commercials and public service announcements for radio and television. She narrates other film and video projects as well.
Her tips for actors doing voice work: “First, don’t wear leather or anything plastic,” she warns. “It will drive your engineer crazy!” Hall has a working ritual. “Warm up slowly,” she advises. “When you’re narrating long pieces, don’t drink water. Take a mouthful of water, swish it around and spit it out. Your mouth feels good, but it still sounds dry.” She also marks her script to give herself directions for inflection, pronunciation and emphasis.
Hall develops a “sound” personality for each character she portrays. “Where do I place my voice? Is the voice high or low? Do I speak through my nose? Is my tongue heavy? How do I place my mouth or use my teeth? I ask myself all these things.”
Establishing your “true voice” is just one more part of building a sound acting foundation.