Part 9: Behind The Scenes - Voice Actors 1
Now that we've had an introduction to the game, the city of Los Santos and the first of (many) main players... it's time to take a behind the scenes look at the talent used to bring those characters to life.
Like videogames' distant cousin The Animated Movie, the use of celebrities for voices has become a familiar publicity device for the last few games in the GTA series, such as Vice City, Vice City Stories, Liberty City Stories and, of course, San Andreas.
Where GTA is different from many animated movies, however, is that in general the choice of voice actors for the characters is used not just for publicity's sake, but because they suit the character perfectly. Many people imagine a "voice" for characters they read in books or play in videogames. That has its appeal, but a well acted, well chosen voice actor can lift a good game to a great one... while a poorly chosen voice actor can take you out of the game. Happily in San Andreas, the former is the case.
Let's take a look at some of the characters you've become familiar with up to this point in the game:
Carl (CJ) Johnson - Young Maylay
Young Maylay is a voice actor and aspiring rapper who runs his own record label - Maylaynium Muziq. The legend is that Maylay got the role of CJ after auditioning without realizing he was auditioning. On the phone with DJ Pooh (I swear, that's his name) who was writing for Rockstar Games at the time, people from Rockstar were listening in on the phone call and thought his voice sounded perfect, and asked him to come in and read for them. Another contender for the role of CJ was allegedly 50 Cent, the mumbling, bumbling, can't outsell Kanye West to save his career rapper who turned the part down and went on to release his own videogame where he plays himself beating up a bunch of people because he's so awesome. If you hadn't guessed by now, I'm not a "Fiddy" fan, and I'm incredibly relieved that he didn't get the part.
Sean (Sweet) Johnson - Faizon Love
Carl's big brother and leader of the Grove Street Family is voiced by comedian/actor Faizon Love. Faizon's first voice work was playing the part of Robin Harris in the animated movie "Bebe's Kids", replacing Robin Harris who died before the movie was finished. Outside of Sweet, he is probably most recognized for his part as drug dealer "Big Worm" from comedy "Friday", starring Ice Cube. Oddly enough, Faizon looks more like Big Smoke than Sweet.
Kendl Johnson - Yolanda (Yo-Yo) Whittaker
While she hasn't featured much as of yet in the game (that all changes in the next update), Kendl plays an important part in the game as a form of conscience for CJ.... in so much as she kicks his ass when he isn't being all that he can be. Kendl's voice actress is Yolanda Whittaker, known as Yo-Yo, a Grammy nominated rapper and the current afternoon DJ for Los Angeles radio station KDAY. Yo-Yo's music has been highly lauded for actually talking about female empowerment and denigrating the blatant sexism of rap music. She has often collaborated with Ice Cube, both in music and in film - appearing on Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted album and in the movie Boyz N the Hood. She also appeared in Menace II Society, which also featured Clifton Powell (Big Smoke's voice actor) and which, oddly enough, was parodied in the movie Don't Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Juice In The Hood, which featured Faizon Love.
Big Smoke (Melvin Harris) - Clifton Powell
Continuing the trend of crossover between voice actors, Clifton Powell not only appeared in Menace II Society (as Chauncy) but in the comedy sequels Next Friday and Friday After Next (Faizon Love appeared in the original). He has appeared in a number of movies - House Party, Dead Presidents, Rush Hour, Bones, Next Friday and Friday After Next, Ray and Norbit to name a few. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Clifton Powell is that he was born in 1947. Take a look at that photo, you should look so good at 60!
Lance (Ryder) Wilson - MC Eiht
MC Eiht was one of the two MCs in early 90s group Compton's Most Wanted before appearing in - you guessed it - Menace II Society. Unlike other voice actors in GTA: SA, however, he has made few other movies, appearing only in a few clunkers after turning down roles in different comedies. He was involved in a highly publicized feud with DJ Quik over a perceived "diss" on a mixtape, and peace was made between the two by - of all people - Snoop Dogg after friends of theirs got involved in several fights. Eiht's most recent work was on Snoop Dogg's "The Blue Carpet Treatment" on the single "Candy (Drippin' Like Water".
Officer Eddie Pulaski - Chris Penn
Best known for his role as "Nice Guy Eddie Cabot" in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (and for being Sean Penn's brother) - Chris Penn appeared in numerous roles over the years, including six movies between San Andreas at the end of 2004 and his death at the start of 2006.... that's six movies in just over a year. He often played tough guy characters despite his less than physically impressive stature, and Eddie Pulaski was no different - a pit-bull asshole who just keeps pushing and pushing at you. At this point of the game, he has only featured once but gains a more prominent role soon - and despite his fleeting appearance so far, we already know he is a racist, offensive, crooked, murdering bastard. But Pulaski's character and Chris Penn's lengthy list of movie appearances is as nothing compared to....
Officer Frank Tenpenny - Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in every movie ever made, including all those to be made in the future. If you're working on a funny little home movie with your buddies, Samuel L. Jackson will show up at some point onscreen, if you accidentally leave your camcorder on he'll end up in front of it, and in homes all over the world young couples are staring in confusion at their nannycam as Samuel L. Jackson shows up to berate the babysitter.
Jackson brings a depth to Tenpenny that makes it truly easy to hate him. A big fish in a small pond, Tenpenny is happy to lord it up over the gangs and ghettos of Los Santos. Making money from drugs, guns, prostitution and every other scam he can get involved in, Tenpenny is much like Denzel Washington's Alonzo Harris in the 2001 movie Training Day and Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackie in television series The Shield. He's a cop leading up a special unit designed to deal with the gang culture in his city, and instead takes advantage of his position to consolidate power and make a great deal of money. Completely immoral, Tenpenny is not above murder to get what he wants, and appears to take a sadistic pleasure from taunting those he has under his thumb. It is an easy character to be played up as too hammy or vaudeville villainesque, but Samuel L. Jackson gets just the right mix of charisma, corruption, arrogance and danger to pull it off. Very few people could pull off Tenpenny's character, but Jackson gets it just right. Believe me, you will HATE this character before the game is even a third of the way through.
I should also point out that much like Alonzo Harris in Training Day, Tenpenny's character is (probably) based heavily on Officer Rafael Pérez who was part of the Ramparts scandal of the late 1990s.
For those not in the know, The Ramparts Scandal refers to the most widespread proven case of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department. The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (C.R.A.S.H.) anti-gang unit was found to have more than 70 officers found guilty of criminal misconduct, including Pérez who was found to have stolen six pounds of cocaine from the evidence room. When arrested, he inadvertantly revealed he may have played a part in a bank robbery masterminded by Officer David Mack, who was also in the C.R.A.S.H. unit. C.R.A.S.H officers were also implicated in the shooting death of rap star Notorious B.I.G, and it was also revealed that Death Row Records (linked to the Bloods gang) hired off-duty police officers as security guards. There are many recorded cases of police abuse of power, including cases where officers would line up black youths at parties and assign them fictitious crimes to be charged with at the officer's pleasure.
In a slight turnabout on the usual course of events, C.R.A.S.H. in GTA:SA is actually LESS corrupt and over the top than its real life counterpart, as it is limited to only three officers (and one of them, Hernandez, is not an overly willing participant.
Please note that all the above is actually pure speculation on my part - it seems likely that C.R.A.S.H. in the game is based on C.R.A.S.H. in real life, and that Tenpenny is based on Pérez, but there are probably any number of other influences as well.
The above represents only a tiny portion of the voice actors in this game, and you'll be introduced to those as they come into the story. For the moment though, I want to offer kudos once again to Rockstar Games for the sheer scope of what they created. In an industry where a "city" is usually a backdrop behind one street with buildings that you can't enter - Grand Theft Auto is not just a city full of streets you can move around in, but a STATE where you can move through three different cities, pass through the countryside and small towns and all the time you're doing it - thousands upon thousands of citizens are walking, talking, driving, FLYING, swimming, lounging, shopping, drinking, eating, fighting, training, stealing all independent of each other. While it isn't the Radiant AI of Oblivion (which itself wasn't the Radiant AI we were promised) the game simulates a living, breathing city wonderfully. On top of all that, Rockstar didn't take the shortcut of feeding a few lines of dialogue in for the pedestrians to repeat over and over to each other all in the same voice. FORTY FIVE different voice actors provided dialogue for the various gangsters you see roaming the streets of San Andreas, and TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN different voice actors provided dialogue for pedestrians.
When Rockstar does something, they do it right!
That's it for todays behind the scenes update. Next update will be back to the story, and will tell the tale of CJ's attempts to make peace between his sister and brother, illegal street racing and even more illegal house-breaking.