“There’s a lot of star fucking going on”: could video games be in danger of their Disney moment?

By Kirk McKeand, Tuesday, 21 January 2020 13:22 GMT


Once upon a time, a game series called Onimusha attempted to appeal more to western audiences. Its secret weapon? Jean Reno, a French actor best known for his role as the titular assassin in Leon, armed with an energy whip.

While Reno is an excellent performer, he wasn’t chosen for his skills as a thespian. He was a sly marketing ploy.

Fast forward to 2020 and we’ve seen Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington, disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, and UFC star Conor McGregor pop up in Call of Duty. We’ve seen the iconic David Hayter replaced by Kiefer Sutherland in the role of Snake in Metal Gear Solid. Keanu Reeves is heading to Cyberpunk 2077 later this year, and the guy who played The Punisher on Netflix has been in a Ghost Recon game.

Are these casting choices for the good of the project, or is it just Jean Reno domming demons all over again?

“Are there times where production do what we call star fucking? Yeah, for sure,” Dean Panaro, one of the leading talent agents for video game actors in LA, tells me. “There’s a lot of star fucking going on. It started in the ‘80s when Katzenberg [Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Disney between 1984 and 1994] started putting all the celebrities in animated features. Prior to that, Cinderella and all of those Disney classics didn’t have celebrities in them. They were just great animated films.

“Then in the ‘80s, Katzenberg started putting all of the celebrities in the animated features and then every animation company followed suit after that. Now we are filled with every role in an animated feature being a celebrity. That’s been going on for 30 years. I don’t see that changing any time soon. But for the down and dirty voice acting stuff… listen, every Disney show, every Cartoon Network show, if they have a cast of five, it’s most likely two celebrity names, two voice actors, and one of the writers on the show to be honest.”

Over the last decade or so, along with the rise of social media, more and more video game actors are being asked about their online clout during the casting process. Social media following is now an asset that casting directors are sometimes taking into account, and it could mean the difference between booking a job or not.

“They usually don’t bring it up, so I don’t know quite how prevalent it is, but I have had directors ask me on a couple of occasions, ‘Hey, what’s your social media following like? They’re taking that into consideration on this job’,” Marvel’s Spider-Man actor Yuri Lowenthal tells me. “Personally I don’t think it makes a difference to the project in the end, and I hope it’s a trend that’s on its way out. I don’t think companies have seen a spike in sales when they’ve cast that way.”

This mindset has even seeped into the influencer scene. Alanah Pearce, a video host, showed up as a side character in Gears 5 recently. Developer Playtonic cast YouTuber Jontron in Yooka Laylee, only to remove him from the game when he outed himself as a massive racist. YouTuber Jim Sterling also featured prominently in indie game Jazzpunk. I could go on… So far, this has mostly been relegated to side characters, easter eggs, or voice announcer packs in online games. But if trends keep going the way they are, there’s a chance we’ll soon see an influencer don the skin-tight lycra and ping pong balls of a mocap suit in the not too distant future.

“As far as star power or whatnot, I’ve worked with maybe a handful of celebrities in the course of motion-capture stuff. And so far, at least for me, it’s never been a problem,” mocap expert Noshir Dalal explains. “No one pulls any diva stuff. I think the onus for that is on casting, and from what I’ve seen, casting is usually doing a great job with that kind of stuff. As far as social media following, if that’s a determining factor, I’m probably gonna lose a lot of work! Because my social media is not where my focus is.”

Dalal does a mix of performance capture, VO, and mocap – and that last one is where he has a big advantage. Mocap isn’t as visible as other acting methods, and people who are known within the industry, not outside of it, are more likely to be called in.

“With my skillset, it is a meritocracy,” he says. “Can you do it or can’t you? And frankly, in games most of the time, they don’t have a lot of time to hold your hand on stuff. So, I mean, yeah, if you’re a star or something, you may get some preferential treatment. But I don’t know. I guess the good thing is, if I was just coming in to mocap as an actor who’s never done anything motion-capture wise or whatever, then maybe social media following would be a problem. You hear about that stuff in TV and film all the time. So do I believe it’ll happen more in games? Maybe. I really hope it doesn’t come to the point where like, influencers are getting thrown into mocap suits for however many likes or whatever.”

There was a point where video games felt like a safe space for jobbing actors. The scene had room to birth its own stars, even. Most people who play video games know their Nolan North from their Jennifer Hale and Troy Baker, but it feels like that space is becoming more locked down, with celebrities stepping in to secure key roles. Last year Mads Mikkelsen and Norman Reedus headlined Death Stranding, a star-studded game stuffed with celebrity and influencer cameos. If you look at the credits, you can see established video game actors in there, too, relegated to background roles.

One of the only companies where this trend seems to be happening in reverse is Rockstar Games. GTA 3, Vice City, and San Andreas were filled with Hollywood A-listers, but the studio’s recent output has focused instead on breaking new talent. Here’s what Rockstar co-founder and president Sam Houser said on the topic back in 2008:

“Obviously landing Ray Liotta for Tommy Vercetti was a massive project for us, because at the time actors weren’t doing things like that, and I think we did a lot to introduce actors being involved in games,” via Edge. “And I remember playing Vice City and thinking his performance was fantastic, but something in the months afterwards when I was playing it was conflicting in my brain: was I playing Tommy Vercetti or was I playing Ray Liotta? And it really sort of caught me off guard, and it kept happening to me. To some extent it left me a bit confused, and it certainly made us resolve for future iterations to dial down the use of famous actors. So if you look at San Andreas, there weren’t as many in that game. I think that Samuel L Jackson gave an absolutely incredible performance as Tenpenny, but he’s the biggest star in that game by a long, long way.

“So something happened there and, you know, it’s not something that I say is a final decision forever, but certainly I think with Young Maylay, what he did with CJ [in San Andreas] made him very, very human to me… It’s weird to talk about relationships with video game characters, but I have them. It wouldn’t be right to say there was doubt between Tommy Vercetti and me, or whatever, it’s just that it sowed a seed, and I think we’ve evolved from that now, and I actually think what we’ve ended up with is stronger. And also, I’ll be honest, it’s easier to work with someone who’s keen and enthusiastic, and not been in hundreds of films. It’s much easier to work with them. To get good performances in games is very difficult. You know, sometimes you get a famous person in and they literally just read off the script, they want the cheque, and they want to go. I find that insulting and depressing.”

So the reason Rockstar changed its approach was twofold: recognising a famous person in a game, particularly when they’re the playable character, has the ability to create a strange disconnect. I can understand this perspective, having recently wrapped up Death Stranding, a game where I always felt like I was playing Norman Reedus instead of his character. The in-game posters for Reedus’ AMC motorcycle show probably didn’t help. Then there’s the fact that actors who aren’t famous leave their egos at the door. They’re hungry and willing to listen to the expertise of the technicians and directors working around them.

“[Celebrity actors] are either working for scale because they want to be a part of the zeitgeist, or the video game wants those guys so much that they’re able to negotiate an ask very, very high above what the union minimums are,” Red Dead Redemption actor Benjamin Byron Davis explains. “That’s a case by case.

“I will say this: one of the things that has befallen actors of a certain age and of a certain class – speaking as a middle aged, middle class working actor – there were opportunities that were unique to us that more established talents were not considering. Now we’ve moved into a place where there’s no onus on a name celebrity doing a Capital One commercial or doing, let’s say, any sort of commercial that they used to go overseas to do. So there’s always going to be a bit of tension, I think, among less-established talent when they see well-established talent move into real estate where they thought they were safe.”

On the other hand, celebrities could have a positive impact on the scene. Video games don’t need legitimacy – they’re already relevant and anyone who believes otherwise is only highlighting how out of touch they are – but it could raise more awareness for those who aren’t interested in educating themselves. Perhaps a Keanu Reeves fan hasn’t played a game since the NES days and they’re considering jumping into Cyberpunk 2077 at launch. Imagine that being your first experience with modern games – it has the potential to blow minds, to open people up to the joy of interactive experiences in 2020. Elsewhere, it could help educate on what goes into these productions and how far video game acting has come since the hammy days of PS1-era Resident Evil.

“Obviously some people are a little apprehensive about [famous actors coming into video games],” Red Dead Redemption 2 actor Roger Clark says. “I think it’s great. It’s bringing more awareness as to how the performances are done and it’s more and more people becoming aware of performance capture. A lot of these guys, I hope, will go back to their regular jobs on The Walking Dead or whatever and say: ‘Wow, I just worked in a completely new medium and it was fascinating.’ And the next time they have to work on mocap in one of their films, for example – like Marvel do it constantly now and I’m sure James Cameron is crunching it out for his next Avatar, too – is that more and more film actors need to know about this now. As that awareness and understanding gets heightened, it’ll eventually be passed on to the fans.

“There are so many Mads Mikkelsen fans and Norman Reedus fans, I think Death Stranding was the first game a lot of people played in a long time. I think it brought a lot of non-gamers into the industry late last year because of those guys. We’re much more likely to go see a film because of who is in it than buy a game because of who is in it. I think gameplay will always be the main motivating factor as to whether or not you buy a game. At least it is for me. If there is an actor who I like in it, that’s definitely going to influence my decision, but I always look at the reviews and what the gameplay is like. I think that’s the main motivating factor. These stars getting into gaming now is a trend that I don’t think is going to go anywhere.”

The only thing we need to be careful of is the scales tipping too far. In an alternate dimension, Rockstar’s policies never changed and Clint Eastwood played the role of Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2. In that hellworld, we would never have been introduced to the acting talents of Roger Clark and the rest of the game’s brilliant cast. Game studios and casting directors need to keep that in mind to ensure we have a pool of exciting, fresh talent portraying new characters in games. Adam Jensen wouldn’t be the same without the signature growl of Elias Toufexis. Solid Snake lost his soul when David Hayter got sidelined. Even Netflix’s The Witcher series would look completely different if Henry Cavill hadn’t been inspired by Doug Cockle’s turn as the White Wolf. We need to remember this if we don’t want video games to have their own Disney moment.

Fortunately, there seems to be one big hurdle standing in the way of famous actors taking over the scene entirely: scale. Triple-A games often have hundreds of actors, and roles are a collaborative process between different departments, from actors to stunts to animators. Then there are hundreds of developers working behind the scenes, too. That means residuals are tricky – after all, how do you even split them fairly? And that’s where A-listers make a good chunk of their money: via royalties – repeat fees paid to the artist post-launch.

“Until they start giving major actors either a tonne of money upfront or residuals, they’re just not going to care that much. Residuals are how these actors live,” Dean Panaro explains. “They only do a couple of features a year, maybe one feature a year, and then they have to live off those residuals. Until video games have some sort of residual structure, I don’t see en masse actors doing it like they do for Disney features or even TV animation. Actors, in my opinion, like animation a lot better than video games because there are residuals.”

After Ray Liotta wrapped up work on Vice City and realised how successful the game had been, he commented via his agent that he should have charged Rockstar more money. He wanted those residuals. “I hate that kind of chat,” Sam Houser admitted back in 2008. “It’s like, be cool. You know? I hate that – it’s so cheesy. Like he’s saying, ‘Next time I’m really going to pin it to them’. Well, how about we just killed off your character? So he doesn’t exist – there is no next time. That’s how we handle that.”

Maybe we have no danger of video games going the way of Disney any time soon.

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