How I Became a Voiceover Actor

Gráinne Maguire on signing to an agency, finding work and how best to keep your voice in rude health. 'Avoid alcohol, caffeine and milk'

From your commercial demo, it's obvious you hail from Northern Ireland, but which part?

I’m from County Fermanagh but have lived away from home since I was 18, and in a variety of countries and locations, so although the basic accent is the same, it has been twisted and warped a bit over the years.

How did you get into voiceover acting?

Although my background is in languages, I worked in financial services for years and one day, shortly after my 30th birthday, I looked around me and thought, 'What am I doing here? I’m not even trying to do what I really want to do'. So I did a bit of research on the Internet and discovered a Dublin-based voiceover talent agency called Piehole. They provided lots of practical tips and know-how and were really supportive. I submitted a test-read over the phone and got some feedback on that.

I also listened to other voiceover demos online, arranged sessions with a couple of sound studios to learn some studio/microphone etiquette, what to expect et cetera, and did a voiceover workshop. Finally, I did a ‘demo day’ with Piehole to record a demo. My subscription to their listing was accepted, which meant that my demo would be marketed to agencies all over the UK and Ireland. I got my first call a short time later, and it went on from there.

What projects have you worked on thus far?

I’ve mainly voiced TV and radio advertisements. However, I’ve also done some recordings for foreign language teachers, and I can now guide you on a walking tour around parts of Belfast with a recording I did for Belfast iTours in English, French, Italian and Irish, which I particularly enjoyed. My ideal day-job would be doing voiceovers for cartoons and animated movies, as I enjoy doing different accents. (Pixar, DreamWorks – call me!)

How does voiceover acting differ from other performance disciplines?

I’ve dabbled in acting and done some work as an extra in the past but I really prefer to be heard and not seen. With voiceover work, you have to work harder to get your message across. No one can work off your gestures or facial expressions, everything has to be conveyed by intonation, articulation and inflection. The good thing is, it doesn’t matter what you look like and what age you are, it’s all about the voice.

Are there any particular voiceover actors that you look to for inspiration?

There are a few local voiceover artists that I could listen to all day, but I’d really love to be half as good as [late Hollywood actor and comedian] Robin Williams. He had the most amazing range. You never knew which personality would come out next.

What does a typical day in the life of a voiceover actor entail?

Well, for starters there is no typical day. Depending on the type of project, you will normally get a call from a recording studio or an advertising/marketing company asking if you’re available to do a recording, and it will happen pretty quickly after that, maybe even the same day. Normally, you enter the studio and there can be any number of people there to direct the recording, potentially a number of representatives for the client, the marketing/advertising agency, as well as a sound producer and technician. 

For short advertisements, often you will receive the script the minute you arrive and have anything from seconds to a minute or two to do a quick review in the sound booth. Normally, after a quick read-through, with input from everyone in the room, there will be a number of reads – slower, faster, emphasise this word, cut this, add that, say this phrase three times – then you have the final product. From start to finish, the raw recording process can take as little as ten minutes.

How do you find work – do you audition for parts in person, or is it all about your recorded demo?

While tapes are still valid, you can normally send a link to your demo to the various agencies via email to market your talents in general, as most demos are available to anyone online. Also, with Piehole and many such companies, you have an online profile and agencies can search for a particular requirement – male/female, age group, regional accent et cetera – and listen to your demo and contact you directly. Some agencies will have their go-to voiceover artists, or they may remember you from a previous project and contact you. You need to market yourself regularly and keep networking.

How does an actor go about getting signed to a voiceover acting agency?

There are a million ways to go about it. Everyone takes a different route. However, if you’re a complete beginner like I was, I would really recommend doing a workshop/voice coaching course like those offered by Velvet Voice, and contacting a company like Piehole. If you are really serious about getting into voiceover work, you can eventually get agent representation too.

The important thing to remember is nothing will happen overnight. It can potentially take a year to become well-known and to build up a reputation and experience. You really need a good demo and, like any profession, it’s good to have your unique selling point, what makes your voice stand out. You should gear the samples on your demo towards that. It takes a bit of investment, particularly at the start, but if you’re good at what you do, it will pay dividends.

What has been the highlight of your voiceover career thus far?

I still get a high every time I go into the studio to record but the highlight was probably hearing my first advertisement for Disney. I didn’t recognise my voice!

What other advice would you have for the aspiring voiceover actor?

It’s important to look after your voice, but one important thing is to avoid alcohol, caffeine or milk and drink lots of water on the day. As well as doing the voice coaching course, making your demo, take the time to find out about the business side of providing a voiceover service, what and when you can expect to be paid, and how to do your invoices. Above all, stick at it. if you really enjoy the work like I do, it’s worth putting in the time and energy. There will be periods when you are disappointed or don’t get a call for a while, but you never know when someone will want your exact voice for their project.