Toonzone Interviews Actor Roger Craig Smith on Being Captain America and Ripslinger
I think I have reached some kind of grown-up milestone, because actor Roger Craig Smith has provided the voice for three extremely high-profile video game characters and I haven’t played any of the games he’s been in. Since launching his voiceover career from his work in stand-up comedy, Roger Craig Smith has been Sonic the Hedgehog in Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed and Sonic Colors (as well as in a prominent cameo appearance in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph), the assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and Chris Redfield in several Resident Evil video games.
Luckily for me, Smith has racked up plenty of credits outside of video games, since he has an impressive and growing list of animated titles on his resume, as well as several narration roles and imaging/promos for KROQ 106.7 FM in Los Angeles. We caught up with Roger Craig Smith by phone to talk about how he got into voice acting, and specifically about two of his recent roles: Captain America on Disney XD’s Marvel’s Avengers Assemble and Ripslinger in Disney’s Planes.
TOONZONE NEWS: Have you always wanted to be an actor or an entertainer of some kind?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: I think so. I think more than anything, it was just that being a general goofball was a fun thing for me (laughs). It was seeking a more appropriate outlet for being a goofball than sitting in detention and getting in trouble with the teachers all the time. I can’t remember if it was pre-school or kindergarten…I think it was the kindergarten production of Charlotte’s Web. There was one speaking line in the entire thing, which is kind of weird because I look back on it and go, “Yeah, I guess it was just a bunch of kindergartners , like walking around and dancing in line to that complicated choreography…”
TOONZONE NEWS: Charading the story, I guess…
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Yeah, something like that. The line was, “Mr. Zuckerman, your pig is going to the fair!” and they gave me the microphone and let me say the line. I probably yelled it or shouted it out. I think about that all the time. But yeah, I was 8th grade class clown, I spoke at my 8th grade graduation, I spoke at my high school graduation, I was in theater arts in high school, and I was in a musical youth artists repertory theater which was called My Art when I was in junior high and into I think my freshman year of high school…or maybe even sophomore year, now that I think of it.
I feel kind of awed that as a grown man, I’m goofing around in a voiceover booth and getting to call this my job (laughs). I think all the time, “How did I get here? What did I do to get to this station in life?” So yeah, I enjoyed making people laugh. I enjoyed goofing off and getting people to laugh with me and at me and all that stuff. I think it was just seeking outlets. Voiceover wasn’t even on my radar for the longest time, and doing standup was what kind of introduced me ot the world of voiceover, because I just kept hearing more people asking me about it. I did characters and voices in my standup act on stage, and people would just start saying, “Hey, you’ve got a good speaking voice,” or “Hey, have you thought about radio?” or “Hey, you do a lot of characters and voices, have you ever thought about voiceover?” And then after a while you start hearing more about that and less about your comedy (laughs) and you start to go, “Maybe I should start to look into this voiceover thing.”
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: It lends itself to it. Ironically, the screenwriting major from Chapman University really helps in this regard as well, because you’re often asked to play around with a line or play around with a character and just come up with some stuff. That’s standup: trying to throw something against the wall and see if it sticks, and if it doesn’t, you go right back to doing something different. So many voiceover jobs ask you to do that, because…”Ah, we’re not really sure about this line and it’s kind of clunky and it’s not feeling right.” And then you just sort of play around with things. In some forms of acting, they don’t want that. That can be a little unsettling to think, “Well, let’s try something until it works,” because it’s like, “I don’t want the rejection. I don’t want to hear you think that my idea didn’t work.” Meanwhile, I think voiceover actors are no stranger to rejection time and time again. Every time you turn on the TV or listen to the radio, you’re hearing all those jobs that you didn’t book (laughs). So standup is great for the notion of just giving it a shot, because boy oh boy, you can do a joke in Irvine and kill, and then you do the same joke in Indianapolis and people are just staring at you going, “What on Earth are you talking about?” and you have to tweak things and move things around. So it’s not surprising to me that so many people have a background in comedic acting or theater acting or standup who find themselves in VO.
TOONZONE NEWS: You mentioned that screenwriting degree for college. Was it just screenwriting, or did you actually do drama classes or other formal acting training at the time?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: No, actually, at the time I was in college I was still doing standup. I guess one of the reasons why I looked at writing…I thought of doing theater, but at that time, I felt like maybe I don’t have those chops to do the triple threat of singing, dancing, and acting. I also kind of liked being part of the production team more than — I hate the term — the “talent” side. I geek out on the technology. I find animation fascinating, I find video game production fascinating. I like being a part of the crew that makes these projects come to life. One of the great things about VO is that I get just enough of that bit of, “Hey, that’s me!” but without it having to be clearly, visibly, “That Is Me.” My voice has been lent to that character but I’m working with all the people that make that character come to life. The director, the animators, the producers, the marketing teams…everybody who goes into making a character what it is. It’s far greater and bigger and far more people involved than just me doing the voice. So I think I chose screenwriting as my major because I thought, “Yeah, this is a good way to have some influence over the creative process, but still be kind of back in the shadows and secretly getting to enjoy it.” Since I was still doing standup I thought writing would be a natural progression. Maybe I’d find myself in a TV writing job someday.
That and it was far more affordable to do screenwriting as my major than writing and directing, where you had to spend your own money to direct your own student film (laughs). It was a budgetary constraint as well.
TOONZONE NEWS: Does that mean that doing on-camera or theater work had never really occurred to you?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: No, what I mean is…at a younger age, I had a blast doing it. And live performance is always so frighteningly invigorating. It’s such a challenge, but it’s so fulfilling in a lot of ways. As I got older, I just didn’t really have the desire for it, and strangely I still don’t. Every now and again I have friends who ask if I ever want to go back to standup, and I say, “Why?” Especially in this day and age with cell phones everywhere, it’s just such a different game. I thought, “You know, no, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t want to subject myself to that kind of…not ridicule, but…it just seems that you have so little control over your product any more. I thought, I really really truly love doing voiceover.
It’s not that I wouldn’t consider an on-camera job, but it’s just not on my wishlist or it’s nothing that I’m pursuing. I don’t have an on-camera agent. I literally just have a voiceover agent, and I still have a literary agent, strangely enough, who’s always calling me and telling me that I need to write (laughs). Literally, about once a year, he’ll call and we’ll chat and catch up, and he’ll go, “Come on man! Get a script! Do it! You should do it!” and I go, “Man, when do I have the time?” So no, I don’t think any on-camera, no theater.
The theater would be interesting. That would be a lot of fun but the strange part of being busy doing voiceover is that you have so conscious of your vocal health and your fatigue, and doing a theater performance, you want to be projecting those lines for, as the old saying goes, “the deaf lady at the back of the theater.” You want to be able to project, and if I do that, I either have to make sure I’m healthy enough to do the theater performance, in which case I probably can’t be doing voiceovers all day long, or I lose out on being able to do voiceovers the very next day because I spent the last evening shouting and screaming and doing all that sort of stuff for a theater performance. VO is my sole focus, at this stage.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’re the new Captain America on Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble. You were also Captain Marvel in the last Avengers show. How did you role as Captain America happen, exactly? Did the earlier role lead to the later one?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Well, it was just an audition process, as most of these jobs are. A lot of people ask, “How did you land the role?” “I went in for an audition.” (laughs) I wish it was something more exciting than that, but there were a couple of different projects that they were trying to slate and I obviously didn’t know what I was going in for. It was just, “Do these lines, do this character, and we’ll see if it sticks.” And next thing I know, I’m getting a call from my agent who’s saying, “Hey, you did that thing a while back for Marvel? They’re calling up and saying they want you to do more tests for Captain America.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s great! OK!”
Captain Marvel had a 2, maybe 3 episode arc in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and he was a very, very different delivery than Captain America. It’s one of those weird things that you try not to think about it because you don’t know why you’ve been called in, and you certainly don’t want to think about it, because then I’m going to be, maybe, “aware” of it, and conscious of it and start delivering lines in a weird way because, (click to listen) “Well, they called me in because my voice naturally sounds like this, therefore, I’ll make this BRILLIANT choice,” you know…you’re doing yourself a disservice.
It was just a boring sort of audition process. I went in and auditioned. The VO people always say at its essence, your job is to audition, because if our job was to book work, we’d all be exceptionally bad at our jobs. (laughs) I did a panel at Comic-Con with Amanda Wyatt, the voice director for Batman: Arkham Origins and Assassins Creed, and there were a couple of other working actors who stopped by: Fred Tatasciore, he’s the Hulk, and Steve Blum, who’s Wolverine in Wolverine and the X-Men and everywhere else. I laughed with Steve and said, “So Steve, do you just sit back and let the phone ring to get that work?” and he just laughed, because he’s just like any one of us. You are out there and you are hustling. It’s kind of daunting and sometimes it feels like it’s a numbers game, and it can be in some ways, but you will hustle hustle hustle to get your auditions out there, in the hopes that somebody’s ears perk up and you end up working next week. That’s the name of the game, and you just keep going.
TOONZONE NEWS: How familiar were you with the character before you walked in for the audition?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Loosely. It’s funny because everybody’s heard of Captain America, and hearing different versions of him in the past, but I guess, thankfully, I’ve never really been too much of a comic book nerd or been overly involved with most of the storylines when he’s been portrayed. I don’t look at it as a hindrance. I’ve got enough of a knowledge base, but then I like to come in and be like, “Well, what do you want to do?” It never really influences the read so much because coming up with the voice for a character is most often a collaborative effort between the director, the producer, the clients that are working with the director, sometimes other actors in the booth. You sit there and say, “All right, I’m going to throw this against the wall and see if it sticks,” much like stand-up. If they say “No, we want him to sound older, or younger or faster, funnier, louder,” all these things they throw at you. “Pitch him up, pitch him down, do different things with him. Take out the gravel in the voice. Make him less square-jawed,”…that becomes what drives the character, or what becomes the voice. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to just have somebody going, “Aw, man, come up with whatever you want.” (laughs)
In fact, there was an article where I made a joke…and it was a good lesson for me in cracking a joke. I think it was a newspaper outlet, and I made the joke that, “Yeah, it was great that we had this collaborative effort…working with Marvel on coming up with the character of Captain America for this version of the show,” that kind of thing, “because when I went in for my audition, I did him exceptionally effeminate and British, and it turns out that was the wrong delivery for Captain America.” And, you know, it was clearly a joke, and it came out as, “Roger Craig Smith had a bad audition, but he still got the role, doing it effeminate and British the first time, and was told that that was wrong” and I was like, “What?!? No!!” (laughing)
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Yeah, and obviously, I would never have done that for Captain America, done it with a British accent. I think it sort of fell flat on them, they lost that one.
TOONZONE NEWS: I’ll make sure to clarify whether or not you’re joking from now on.
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: (laughs) There you go! Then put a little smiley emoticon or something!
TOONZONE NEWS: Is there something specific or any kind of inspiration that you’re drawing on to find Captain America’s character?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: You know what? This is a term to be used cautiously because, “America’s Greatest Generation,” right? There’s a certain inherent sort of…not a Boy Scout quality, but it was a simpler time when “Men Behaved Like Men.” There’s just a sort of goodness and doing things by the book and speaking and acting and behaving with integrity. All those things that are at the essence of that time in our nation’s history, that I try to keep that there. Sometimes, you also gotta remember, you’re doing a kids’ cartoon. He might come across as too stilted or too square-jawed. The direction Collette Sunderman, the voice director for Avengers Assemble, always calls it is “fists on hips.” If I deliver a line that sounds a little too casual or too contemporary, she’ll just say, “Hey, get Cap back with those fists on hips,” and it becomes one of those kind of “Buy War Bonds” type of ads from back in the day. He’s out there, and he’s a leader, so you try to speak with authority and with integrity and with some clarity, to keep him sort of tied to his roots in that era, even though he’s contemporary (or futuristic, depending on how you look at it). You try to retain an element that he’s not somebody who just drove on the 405 freeway and is in Southern California. This is a guy from the 40’s, and it’s important to try and retain that element, but not try to have it sound like he’s just a stick in the mud thing and no fun. I sort of try to retain a little bit of a militaristic, “Yes ma’am, No ma’am” by-the-book type of delivery, but again, I’m working with Collette and Man of Action and all the Marvel people, and we all kind of collectively help create that version of Cap.
TOONZONE NEWS: Cool. On the other side, we’ve got Ripslinger in Planes, who…well from the previews I’ve seen is really not so much like Captain America.
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Nooo.
TOONZONE NEWS: I read that your family was big into aviation so it was kind of a big deal that you even landed this part, is that right?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Sort of, yeah. We grew up close to El Toro Marine Base. I can’t remember when it was, they used to have F-4’s and then they switched over to F-18’s, but they had all manner of aircraft. At the time the Tustin Marine Corps helicopter base was also still open, so you’d have Sikorskys and Chinooks, and it was common that you’d always hear helicopters or airplanes. I was a huge airplane buff as a kid. So inherently, being that close to it, my Dad and I would hop on our bicycles and ride down Irvine Boulevard and take it all the way to go find a spot near the Marine base, and you’d just go watch the Blue Angels. For free (laughs), just watch the Blue Angels doing their air show over El Toro Marine Base.
To this day, if I get on a plane, I want the window seat. I’m just fascinated by flying. Not enough to get my pilot’s license, oddly enough, but I just love all things aviation. I was such a big plane geek as a kid, with airplane pictures on my wall, so getting a chance to play Wings Around the Globe Rally Racing Champion Ripslinger…he’s the Formula One racer, he’s just so cool. It’s just a dream come true, and especially for a company like Disney. I’m a Disney nerd, been an annual pass holder since forever, and I love all things Disney and to get a chance to play a bad guy in a Disney feature…I’m beside myself. Typically, VO guys aren’t supposed to be in these roles when it comes to a project of this caliber. But Klay Hall, Traci Balthazor, John Lasseter…to give me this opportunity is just incredible.
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Yes. I was actually working on a Tinker Bell film, and walked out and saw a plane hanging from the ceiling. I asked about it and the casting director said, “Yeah, come check this out. We’re doing Planes.” This was going back to 2009, maybe 2010, and I just said, “Look, I know you guys are going to have animatics and you’re going to need scratch, and I would kill to be part of anything like that if you would consider me for part of that process.” We did a table read in front of John Lasseter, and from there, the story I’ve heard was that they said, “Yeah, we’ll stick with this guy.” After a while, it was like, “There’s the character.” It’s just a huge opportunity. I still have a hard time believing it (laughs). Like, in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Nah, they had a celebrity and that guy got sick.” (laughter) Or, you know, and then after a while they just got used to hearing me in it and they just said, “Ah, forget it. Let the kid have the part.”
But yeah, it went back to doing scratch and helping out with animatics after the table read, and from there they offered the role to me. I can remember my agent even saying, “Do you want to do your scratch?” because sometimes, you can be offered the role and get another actor to do your scratch VO, and I laughed and said, “Are you kidding me? We’re doing everything we can! I might only GET the scratch. So let’s go do the work!” The joke I had with Klay Hall and Jason Henkel, the casting director, every time I walked in for another session, I would knock on wood. I’d say, “I can’t celebrate this, it’s too near and dear and too much of a dream come true. If it comes to fruition, to be a bad guy in a Disney animated feature…” About airplanes of all things? I said, “This is just…I’m geeking out, going back to being an 8-year old kid and watching the Blue Angels buzz my house.” It’s just incredible.
TOONZONE NEWS: You can check a whole bunch of things off your bucket list with this one.
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Oh, yeah! At this point, I just go, “Man! There’s not much else I can ever hope to accomplish (laughs).” It’s just incredible. I heard someone say recently, “Man, lightning struck, didn’t it?” and I said, “Yeah, it certainly did!” It’s an incredible opportunity. In just about over a week, I’m going to be on a red carpet, and for me, a guy who just fashions himself as a member of a production team and not somebody who would be on a red carpet, it’s just…I’m nervous as all get-out. I’m going to fall! I’m going to trip on the red carpet.
TOONZONE NEWS: Let’s say you get a new piece of copy and your agent says, “OK, you gotta turn this around, record this, and I’ll submit it for your audition.” How do you approach that challenge of self-directing? What do you do to own that copy and make it your own?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: For me, I loosely skim the specs to see what they’re asking for, and truthfully, I try to think, “What world does this person or character or thing live in?” From there, I say, “OK, I’m going to do a pass as written.” Depending on how long the copy is, I’ll try to give them what they’re asking for, and then I’ll give them a “Look, this is what I think will be involved,” or what this character might say. Just a little bit of an ad-lib or a little bit of pre-life or post-life for the line to say, “Look, I understand what you’re going for, here.” It’s a vibe and a feeling and somebody who can understand the universe that this character lives in.
Sometimes, you don’t have the time for that, sadly. Sometimes, it’s, “No, you have to get this to us right away, and I know you’re in-between sessions, but crank this out and get it out to us.” So much of it is, sadly, that shotgun approach, and just throwing it against the wall and hoping it sticks. Hope you do well enough on this one that you get a callback. So it is an ever-fluctuating, ever-changing tap dance of trying to figure things out, but with animation, I try to really pay attention to the stage directions being given, if you get any, in some of the scenes, and be like, “OK, I’m going to add a little out-of-breath over here, and a little chuckle over there,” or maybe just an ad-lib that’s just being true to the essence of the line but is completely different from what they’ve written, to kind of perk their ears up. Because you figure they’ve got to be listening to hundreds of these things, if you’re lucky enough to have them listen to everybody’s audition. So if there’s anything you can do to say, “I get the character, I know what you’re going for here, and here’s my comedic timing, and here’s my grasp for what it is you’re going for.” Then you go, “Man, I hope they like it!” (laughs) It’s like trigonometry. You do what you have to do to pass the test, and then move on and forget it because you’re probably never going to use it again in your life.
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Correct, you’ve got Batman: Arkham Origins that’s coming out on October 25, for all gaming consoles, there’s Avengers Assemble on Disney XD, Regular Show on Cartoon Network on Mondays, Say Yes to the Dress on TLC, Yard Crashers/House Crashers/Bath Crashers on DIY TV…trying to think of what else. The unfortunate thing about my side of the business is that usually, there are so many projects that we can’t talk about because they haven’t been announced yet. I know they announced the LEGO Marvel game, but I don’t know the exact release date for that. There’s not much we can even say about that, but I’m doing Captain America for that, which is a lot of fun. I love the LEGO stuff. I think that’s about it as far as upcoming projects. Unfortunately, there are so many things that I just can’t talk about until they come out or until they’re released. And go see Planes August 9!
Toonzone would like to thank Roger Craig Smith for taking the time to speak with us, and Diana Dixon of Persona PR for setting up the interview. Keep up-to-date with Roger Craig Smith at his official website. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble airs on Sundays on Disney XD at 11:00 AM (ET/PT), and Disney’s Planes arrives in theaters on August 9, 2013.