Roger Craig Smith is best known for serving as the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog in countless projects since 2010, but he's also famous for breathing life into characters as varied as Ezio Auditore da Firenze from the Assassin's Creed series, Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5 and 6, and Batman himself, taking over as a younger version of Kevin Conroy's iconic take on the hero in Arkham Origins.
We spoke with Smith about Sonic's upcoming appearance in Disney's Ralph Breaks the Internet, the secret to Sonic's enduring popularity, as well as some behind-the-scenes secrets of working on some of the most popular video games ever made.
Let's start out by talking about the new movie! Ralph Breaks the Internet! What can we expect from Sonic the Hedgehog in this movie?
Oh, all the drama, all the action, all the... No, I'm kidding. (laughs) There's already a little trailer that's been released that features Sonic interacting with Ralph and telling him how to properly pronounce the word "WiFi." So, in comparison to the first Wreck-It Ralph, with Ralph Breaks the Internet, we actually get the chance to see Sonic literally interacting with Ralph. Sonic was essentially on a PA announcement in the first movie. He was in the subway station and kind of set up some exposition of, "these are the rules of the universe," here in Wreck-It Ralph's world, where if you die outside of your own game, you don't regenerate. In the trailer that's been released, you see that he's actually getting to go toe-to-toe with Ralph and that there's a familiarity and an interaction there, which is different from the first one. And, obviously, this is not a movie about Sonic the Hedgehog, so to have a little cameo like this is phenomenal. But there's some good little interactive bits between the characters.
So you've voiced Sonic since 2010. There have been so many different kinds of games: Sonic at the Olympics, Sonic in Super Smash Brothers, and so on. When you go in to record, do all these different projects kind of bleed together?
No, not really! It all depends. We have gone through some transitional elements. In the early parts of me taking over in 2010, we were still kind of toying around with the voice print and what we wanted for each individual game. Sometimes it's a little more youthful, sometimes it's a little more serious, or a little more comedic. Every single time we go in for a game, it's a different session and there might be a different tone. Obviously, with the Sonic Boom games and cartoons, we were taking a lot more comedic license with the characters, so it was a little more attitudinal and theatrical, in some ways. With a lot of the video games, especially recently, we've gone back more that action version of Sonic. It just all completely depends on what they're hoping to capture with each individual project. Each one is sort of unique unto itself.
For you, what unifies the character? What makes Sonic?
Attitude! Sonic's always just kind of had a lot of self-assured... I don't want to say he's cocky, but he's a really self-assured guy. He might be a little arrogant here and there, but at the end of the day, he's always trying to do what's right, and to right wrongs and do good. I would say attitude. Attitude is always there with Sonic. That, to me, is what established him... If you think back, to before the character even had a voice, back on the Sega Genesis, if you put the controller down and left it, the character would start tapping his foot and look around, like, "hey, let's go," which is an attitude. For Sonic to be Sonic, there has to be a little bit of that... Not "edge," but definitely a self-assured confidence.
Sonic has been around for so long. He's had his ups and downs, it's not a secret, but unlike so many mascot platformers who kind of fade away, he always comes back, and he's... He's at a high point right now. What do you think is a secret to his evergreen appeal?
I think there's just something that you kind of like about this fantasy world of fast-moving, fast-talking, fast-thinking characters that just really works for it. Who doesn't love a good hero? That is Sonic. He's a hero. He's easy to like because, even though he is ultra confident, at his core, he really appreciates his friends. He wants to help the little guy out. All of that is there to make him an endearing character, and it doesn't hurt that he's bright and colorful and fun. I think all of that plays into it, but I don't know if there's one specific thing you could nail down and say, "That's the secret to this character being enjoyable."
I'm sorry, the answer we were looking for was, "he has a great voice actor." But your answer was good, too.
Ah, there you go! I would have gone even farther and said he has a really handsome voice actor. (Laughs). Ya know, I can't take any credit for that sort of stuff. Obviously, I'm not the first one to have voiced Sonic and won't be the last, hopefully. I hope the character has decades and decades more of just being an endearing icon of this industry.
When you're playing a role that's been done by someone else, like Sonic or Chris Redfield from Resident Evil, do you look to the performances from previous entries for inspiration?
That's entirely up to the company that's hiring me to do the job. I will always try to do research and find out where the character has been, just so that I know that if I walk in and the direction from the producers or the creatives is that, no, we don't want to do anything like that, I'll know what to stay away from. But, very often, if you're talking about something like Sonic or Batman, or that kind of thing, you have to kind of remain true to what's already been done, as long as they're saying that's what we're hoping to do. It's really not up to me. I just have to approach it from a case-by-case basis, especially when you're talking about characters that have already been done. That's truly up to the creative people that are hiring you to do the gig, whether they want you to stick with that or not. That being said, I will always go back and take a listen to what's been done so I have that knowledge of, okay, that's where the character has been, and now, if they're trying to do something vastly different or similar but with more of an edge or youth or older, I'll know where to start tweaking the character so that we can capture that.
You mentioned Batman. How intimidating was it for Arkham Origins, to be young Kevin Conroy?
Immensely! Obviously, you know that, from the get-go, you're gonna be under a spotlight and the scrutiny of this passionate fanbase, and I get it. The only thing I can hope to do is just kind of, ya know, bring everything down to a very small, little universe for me, and not think about "boy oh boy, I hope this is received well!" I just have to listen to my director and work with the creative people who are trying to create this new project and then make sure I'm delivering what they are asking for. That's really and truly all I can do. The minute I start to think outside of that job, then I'm not present. It's a hard thing to achieve in this business, to remain present. I would do myself and the character and the fans and the folks that have hired me a disservice to not just try to do the best I can do in that moment with each and every single line to try and deliver a top-notch performance every time.
I might get attacked for saying this, but I really do think you do a better job in Arkham Origins than Kevin Conroy did in the first two.
I can understand why people would argue with you, and I would probably say the same! (Laughs) But I appreciate the compliment and I'm glad that people out there that understood what it was that we were doing, and that it wasn't to replace Kevin or to act like he's not capable of doing this. They simply, as a creative group, were trying to do something different, and a little more youthful, and they wanted younger actors to do that particular project. The whole time, as Troy (Baker, voice actor for The Joker in Arkham Origins) put it in an interview back in 2013, was there were these points on the horizon we had to keep in mind while we were delivering the dialogue so that fans would understand, "Okay, this performance is the origin story of something that will become the canon of Kevin and Mark's performances." The fact that people go, "Okay, you're not my Batman but you did a good job," I take that as the highest compliment. I'm not my Batman! Kevin Conroy has been my Batman since we were growing up, so I get it!
You got to play Ezio in Assassin's Creed. That was across three games where you played him as a young man to in his sixties. Can you tell us about the process of playing this character for three games in a row and following his life like that?
I know the word "honor" is thrown around very loosely, but it's an absolute honor. To get a chance to voice a character, almost literally from birth – I didn't do the baby sounds – but we're introduced to Ezio in Assassin's Creed II as he's being born. To play a character from adolescence all the way through to his demise, it was just a huge honor. When I see how successful the franchise is and has become, it's a neat thing to think, "Okay, I was a part of getting to be one of the few people who's had the chance to really flesh out this character across three games." To say that it's an honor is an understatement. What a unique gift to be given as an actor, to be able to portray a character at all these different age ranges! I was very fortunate to be able to do that. I would sum it up by saying it's a massive honor. There's literally not a day that goes by that I don't think, "how crazy is it to have been a part of something that is just so cool and has become a part of the gaming universe." These are recognizable characters, and the Assassin's Creed universe is sort of unique to itself, to be a part of that, let alone to be part of it over the course of three games and really establish that brand, it's just a huge honor.
Did you have any role in shaping that character? Did you get to be more hands-on, creatively, as the games went on?
We did! That was a neat thing that kind of happened in the beginning. That's the difference between playing a character where you're the one creating a thing where... You don't have to worry about anybody saying, "Oh, you're not my Ezio!" We did get a chance to develop that character. Assassin's Creed II holds a very special place in my heart. The crew of people that I worked with on that game in particular, I think we were creating this new person, this new human being. It was a neat element to Ezio, he was not a super hero. I think we tried to be mindful of keeping him believable and grounded, even though it's kind of a fantasy world. It's neat being able to figure out who this guy is, and at certain points go, "Ah, this feels out of character," or "That's pushing the lover boy thing a little too far and now he's unlikable," or "No, let's have him go full-blown rage here," and all that kind of stuff. It was a unique opportunity to have as a voice actor, to get in and work collaboratively with really creative people who were also comfortable with you being collaborative in that role, getting to say, "I think he'd sound like this, I think we should try this, what do you think about that?" And everybody having their input on shaping that character is a really neat thing.
I think that's a recent development, probably within the last decade, that voice actors really get to put their mark on the characters they play. Would you agree with that sentiment?
I would! Gaming didn't use to have a ton of those types of performances. Back in the day, in the earliest days of voice acting, they would just use programmers or people who were working in the game company to come in and do the voices. Later, they could hire performers and actors who could perhaps do a better job of helping create an immersive environment for the player than, say, Joe from Accounting... If you can hire people who really do this sort of thing, then you can get a better performance, and a more immersive and, therefore, interactive experience for the game. Yeah, it's kind of weird to think, Assassin's Creed II is celebrating its ten-year anniversary next year. Resident Evil 5 goes back to some of the early days of me doing facial motion capture for a character like Chris Redfield. Getting to be an actor in the booth and doing this sort of thing, it was kind of new territory. Now, you see the results. They work with actors, the fans responded across many different types of games to say, yeah, this is great. This adds to the enjoyment of the interactive medium. I'd say, yeah. Within the last ten to fifteen years, we've been exploring what it means to hire performers to do these things so that you, as a player, get to sink that much further into that interactive world.
Before we move on from Ezio, I've gotta ask: how long did it take to nail the phrase, "Requiescat in pace?"
(Laughs) Ya know, I don't know that I ever nailed it! It's funny, that was me working with Ida Darvish on Assassin's Creed II. She was my dialect coach. She would literally come into the booth with me. We spoke a lot of Italian in AC II, and she would come in because that was obviously not my native language. She would say the sentence in Italian and I would parrot it back to her, and she would make sure the pronunciations were all correct, and then we would finesse a performance from that, and that would be me working with Amanda Wyatt, my voice over director at the time. It was like, alright, if we got the thumbs up from everybody, then off we go. But (in Ezio's voice) "Requiescat in Pace" was a fun one, because as a native English speaker, I want to sit there and say, (in Smith's regular voice) "Wreck-We-Esque-It In Payce!" (laughs!) Thankfully, I had taken a number of years of high school and college Spanish back in the day, and Italian and Spanish kind of share some of the same rules, here and there. And we were also given the challenge of playing around with the language and the delivery of these lines that would still make sense to a Western audience. We started calling it "Italian-Spanglianish" towards the end of working on the game, because there were just certiain things where we had to loosen up on the accent here and there. So, I apologize to Italian fans all the time, saying, "Look, I know I'm not dead-on with it," but it's always nice when someone goes, "No, it's actually not that bad! You're good!" The rest of us might not hear it or thing anything of it. "Requiescat in Pace" was easier than some of the other things... There were some words that were absolute tongue twisters to try to say while also performing.
For Ezio and Chris Redfield, I feel like you're in a unique position where you played them in their own games as well as in fighting games, Soulcalibur and Marvel vs Capcom. How do you stay in character when your voice work is mostly screaming and getting punched?
You just try to find the vocal register that you've established for the character, and do screams and yells as close to that as possible. It gets a little tricky, and I've run into this in sessions before, where somebody wants you to come in and do three different characters for a game, and it's a fighting game or a military game. And they say, okay, you're a military sergeant and you're 50 to 60 years old, and everything's just screaming and yelling. You have to let them know, there's only so many ways to do this... The minute you have me start screaming and yelling, it might start to sound similar, because that's just how it goes. There's only so many ways to scream and yell with a voice. It's really hard to do in a completely different vocal register. I usually pick a particular line of dialogue. If I'm doing Chris and I feel like I'm not locked in on the voice print for Chris, all I have to do is just go, (in Chris's voice) "Wesker." And I'm in. That's Chris. That's him. If it's Sonic, it's like, (in Sonic's voice) "Sonic Speed!" And there it is, that's it, that's the guy! And if it's Batman, he's just as low and as brooding as you can get. But with Captain America, he's more "fists-on-hips" and barrel-chested, so you just kind of think of a posture and a voice print that you would deliver the diallogue in, and when it comes to screaming and yelling, you try to stay as consistent with that character as possible.
You've been great. Resident Evil 5 is one of my favorite co-op games ever.
That's awesome. It's a fun, and underrated... Well, not underrated. It was received well for its co-op gaming. But it's such a fun game to play with a buddy. Of course, I always play as Chris. And I do require that when somebody is playing as Sheva, I keep on pressing the button to call out to Sheva, and then she keeps on responding, "Roger." So I get to hear my own name being spoken by Sheva! It's a fun game, I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Chris is like this John Henry figure. People always make fun of him for being so ripped, but it's because he's not infected with viruses and artificial enhancements!
That's true! I've always said, it's all the boulder-punching. You're like, "what?"
But it's the summation, the culmination of all that, I love it!
Of course! And Wesker is dying in lava but still has the presence of mind to scream out, "CHRIIIIIIIIS!" You can't beat the fantasy world of Resident Evil! It doesn't get any better than that.
Absolutely. Thanks so much!
- Ralph Breaks the Internet/Wreck-It Ralph 2 (2018) release date: Nov 21, 2018