Grodd, Guardians and the Perils and Rewards of Voice Acting. An Interview with Actor David Sobolov
David Sobolov is known for his work as a voice actor playing creepy villains, scary aliens, and edgy heroes on television, in games, and in feature films. He’s the voice of Drax in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy animated series on Disney XD and Gorilla Grodd on The CW Network drama The Flash. David is the voice of Shockwave on Transformers Prime, Azmodan in Heroes of the Storm (and two previous games) for Blizzard, Terrorrblade in DOTA 2, Bumble Blast and Krypt King in Skylanders, The Annihilator on Disney XD’s live action series Mighty Med, and Lobo on WB’s Young Justice and the game Injustice: Gods Among Us.
David was the voice of Depth Charge on the classic Beast Wars Transformers series, Tatsurion the Unchained (aka Bob) on Kaijudo, Lt. Vasquez in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Jul M’Dama in Halo 4, Dr. Garret Bryson in Mass Effect 3, Robocop in Robocop Alpha Commando, Lord Tyger on Spiderman Unlimited, and Spookie Jar on Sabrina: The Animated Series.
His face and voice were featured in the on-camera performance capture role of Rios in Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel for EA, and in the feature film Sparks. You’ll hear David speaking German in the first Call of Duty game, Klingon in the feature film Star Trek Into Darkness, English as the Gorn on the Star Trek Enterprise television series, and as both Gorn and Klingon characters in the game Star Trek Online.
David studied acting with the legendary Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
I got a chance to speak with Mr. Sobolov about his career, his characters (including Gorilla Grodd) and about some of the unknown issues that voice actors face in the work place.
Deron Generally – Thank you for taking the time. I wanted to start with your acting background. I saw in your bio that you studied under Stanford Meisner (famous acting teacher who students included Tom Cruise, Tatiana Maslany, Steve McQueen, Sandra Bullock and Alec Baldwin) and because you do a lot of voice acting, what lessons did he teach you that you find useful when doing voice roles?
David Sobolov – There’s a phrase that he would use which was “Acting is living truthfully under given imaginary circumstances.” So you can’t get circumstances more imaginary than video games, animation and The Flash. You are living these crazy circumstances but trying to make them real and that really is the key. It’s much more interesting to watch anything where it’s just a voice that’s animated if what they’re doing has a basis in reality instead of just putting on a voice.
Deron Generally – Right.
David Sobolov – You have to have something going on underneath. Even if it’s a crazy, wacky thing vs a serious thing, there’s still a story, there’s still emotions, there’s still relationships and all that comes from play and those are all things that I learned how to do with Meisner years ago.
Deron Generally – I did wonder how that would work because I have heard from a lot of voice actors who talk about the challenges of recording dialogue for video games and there are a lot of video games in your bio (Guild Wars, Mass Effect 3, World of Warcraft: Legion). I’ve heard that the experience is more difficult because you’re dealing with snippets of dialogue or story so you don’t really know what the big picture is. Which do you find more challenging, voice acting for video games or animated series and why?
David Sobolov – I think video games are more difficult for the exact reason you mentioned. You don’t have all the dialogue. Sometimes you have cut scenes with dialogue and sometimes it’s just sections; you don’t have the other person to play off of because usually you’re recording on your own and you also don’t get any advanced word on the script. You show up and you get what you get and sometimes you’re even getting additional characters beyond the one you thought you were playing. So you really have to learn how to act well on the fly. If you can develop that instant performance skill, you’ll do well in video games. If you need a lot of rehearsal or you need a lot of deep thought going into these parts you might not. You have to be able to make it seem compelling quickly and not have to take a half hour to get ready because you just don’t have the time with video games.
Deron Generally – On that note, what is your opinion on “Performance Matters”, the SAG-AFTRA strike against the video game industry?
David Sobolov – I wasn’t involved in the negotiations, so I’m not really privy to what happened in the room, but what we are unhappy about, especially people who do a lot of these things, is the amount of screaming that happens is pretty intense and just giving us lozenges is not really cutting it. It isn’t like an office job. You can do that for eight hours. You can’t scream for eight hours. You can’t really even scream for four hours. It’s not a matter of us trying to be precious and say “Oh we’re divas and we want to just make this easy”. It’s the fact that we want to give compelling, world-class performances and they’re asking us to do things that are almost superhuman. If they want us to do things that are superhuman than they need to realize that they are going to have to increase their budgets and have us do fewer hours. You can really only do that for a couple of hours and then you’re not even going to give them the performance that they want.
There are other issues too because a lot of times we’re doing on camera work. It’s performance capture and motion capture. In those situations, they’re not really treating it like a film set. There are professional standards that have gone back like eighty years. For instance, there is supposed to be a stunt coordinator to make sure that when you do something a little physical that there’s someone making sure that its choreographed and safe.
Deron Generally – Right. That makes sense.
David Sobolov – They don’t have that. Sometimes they do, but they’re not required to and on some sets, people have been injured. Also, if a game has a $100 million dollar budget, they’re making a billion dollars and you’re walking in and making $850 dollars and walking home, it doesn’t really seem fair.
Deron Generally – Yeah. It doesn’t.
David Sobolov – If those were films, you’d be making tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands for those roles. We’re not even asking for anything close to that. We’re just asking for a very small performance bonus if the game does really well and that’s been resisted as well. So, it didn’t really seem like we could move on under the circumstances. We wanted it to be more of an entertainment product and not so much a software product. To be brought up to the standards of the rest of the industry.
Deron Generally – I can absolutely see your point. As a long-time gamer, I can tell you one of the determining factors for me when buying a game is the story and those stories are nowhere near as immersive if they don’t have compelling characters. I know I couldn’t deliver the level of performance actors are required to give for those experiences.
David Sobolov – When I did Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was recently re-released, I played Lieutenant Vasquez. It was one of the larger roles and I lost my voice for six months. I thought my career was over when that was done. That was a change for me. It was a realization for me of what was possible and I really pulled back from the screaming after that. Theatrical contracts don’t allow for short hours. Our contracts for video games is four, which is bad enough, but theatrical is usually eight. I did a film and we went for seven hours and everyone just sat down and said “We can’t do this anymore”. I was literally straining my voice trying to tell them (whispering) “We just can’t do this anymore.” (Laughs) So video game, that kind of acting, is definitely the most challenging. You might have a couple of pages of that for an animated series, but you’re not going to have four hours of it.
Deron Generally – I have a friend who lives out on the west coast who wants to get into Voice Acting. I know you’ve been asked this a lot, but any advice for someone thinking of getting into the profession?
David Sobolov – The first thing is that it’s about acting. It’s not just voice and you need to have somebody whose learned how to act. You can take improv classes at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade). The Groundlings is a really great place for you to go. It’s an exercise in saying yes. People will throw these bizarre ideas at you about these characters and you have to be able to say yes to that and run with it. There’s a website called www.iwanttobeavoiceactor.com that Dee Bradley Baker (Phineas and Ferb, Handy Manny, Young Justice) started and that really does answer a lot of questions along those lines. He’s definitely taken care of us in these interviews and that’s the place where people can get their questions answered.
Deron Generally – So I’m a huge Marvel and DC Comics Fan. I really enjoy your portrayal of Drax the Destroyer on the Guardians of the Galaxy series. What is your favorite aspect of the character of Drax?
David Sobolov – When things aren’t literal, he doesn’t really know how to process that so it becomes very humorous because he ends up delivering a lot of very dry humor due to his misunderstanding. That’s probably the most fun part of that character.
Deron Generally – What was the process that led you to the role?
David Sobolov – My agent at CESD Pat Brady had an opportunity for a guest role, a one off role on Ultimate Spider-Man for Drax and I didn’t know who he was, but I tried for it and I got it. That was the beginning of the Guardians of the Galaxy animated world. They kept going with the Guardians appearances and the casts were changing. I’m the only original person who was cast who survived all the way to the animated series.
Deron Generally – I saw that in your bio. You’ve come back to play Drax on Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H as well as the Disney Infinity games.
David Sobolov – When we did the animated series casting, I had to re-audition for the role. I remember during the audition, our director Lisa Schaffer was there and I asked her if she had any notes for me, anything I needed to keep in mind for my performance and she said “I’m going to learn from you.” Since I’ve been doing it for two years. Didn’t mean she was going to automatically cast me, but she did want to hear from someone who’s been doing it awhile. Luckily, I worked in with the rest of the cast and I got to keep the role.
Deron Generally – I don’t know a lot about voice acting, but I am curious. Do you guys record together or do you record in separate booths?
David Sobolov – We try to record together like a radio play. That does work out much better when we can work off each other. We also entertain each other. It’s really fun seeing all the other people performing and being impressed with their work really. We make each other laugh.
Deron Generally – I want to get into The Flash and I know there isn’t a lot you can say without spoiling, but I would be remiss if I didn’t try to get some information. Grodd is my favorite Flash villain from the comics and I wonder; What is your process for playing Gorilla Grodd?
David Sobolov – Well, let me as you as a fan. Were you skeptical that they could pull it off?
Deron Generally – I think, TV wise, I wondered about the budget. I didn’t think they couldn’t pull it off because the technology is there but I did think about the budget. I thought that they could do it right by not showing him that often. The way they depict him on the show itself is so well done, that I actually want to see more, which is why I’m looking forward to the two-part Gorilla City episode.
David Sobolov – Our post-production producer Jeff Garrett has told me that the Grodd episodes cost 50% more than any other Flash episode. So there’s definitely a cost involved. I’m hoping, in the future, the costs go down and you get to spend more time with Grodd if he returns. But, you know, I’m grateful for the one or two episodes I get every year.
My process is that he (Grodd) doesn’t know that he’s a gorilla. He’s come from circumstances that he really doesn’t understand. He was created in a lab. It’s a different canon than other incarnations of Grodd. I didn’t really have to go back and study too much and I got to play with what’s in front of me. There seemed to be an underlying sadness with the character, added sadness which makes him a little more human. In fact, we added so much sadness that in the second season, we had to go back at the last minute and change the entire final scene before he was sent off to Earth 2. It was so sympathetic that it made Barry Allen look like the bad guy. He (Grodd) is the villain and you don’t want to show too sympathetic a villain.
I have a feeling that when he comes back, he’s not going to be very giving or loving to the humans since they all betrayed him. The characters evolving and you will see some evolution in him which makes the plot more interesting. They do a great job of writing on that show and giving them a more intelligent gorilla gives them more possibilities.
Deron Generally – This next episode that you appear in is two-parts. With more to do, is there any additional pressure that you feel regarding your performance?
David Sobolov – It’s really about being true to what’s in front of you. I’ve been doing this about 25 years and I think pressure isn’t the right word for it. I think responsibility is more appropriate. I certainly want it to be good. I try to do everything I do in this business with a lot of integrity, especially when I play a character like this who people cherish. I’m the keeper of that character right now. It’ll be passed on to someone else after I can’t do it anymore, but for right now I have him and I want to make sure that he’s entertaining. That he’s fully fleshed out. Jeff (Garrett) and I worked really hard together to try and accomplish that.
Deron Generally – Is there anything that you have coming up on your career that you would like to tell us about?
David Sobolov – In my office I have a 1959 menu board from the Washington State Fair. On that board, in chalk, are all the projects I’m working on. I’m going to look on that board and see if there is anything I can tell about that isn’t under a Non-Disclosure Agreement. There’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which has its third season debut in March on Disney XD. There’s a series that I’m a regular on that I can’t tell you about. (Laughs)
There’s a list of things I would love to tell you about, but I’m not legally allowed to. There’s some super cool stuff coming down the pipe that I’m excited to be a part of, but I can’t talk about.
Deron Generally – I completely understand.
David Sobolov – I am very fortunate and I do not take it for granted. I know there are a lot of people who would love to have an acting career and I am grateful to be able to have one.
Deron Generally – Well, hopefully once these projects come out, we can talk about them.
David Sobolov – Yeah.
Deron Generally – I did have one last question. Is there any character that would be a dream character for you either live action or animated?
David Sobolov – I’ve always wanted to play Batman. He’d be a brooding Batman, but hopefully, I’ll have that chance someday. That’s one character I would like to play.
We ended our interview with me talking about how big a fan of the game Skylanders my oldest son is and he graciously sent him a signed picture of the character Bumble Blast, which is being framed and hung with honor as of this publishing.
David Sobolov’s next performance as Gorilla Grodd will be on the two-part episode of The Flash titled Attack on Gorilla City which airs 2/21/2017.