Phil LaMarr Phil LaMarr

How many actors can convincingly play a school nerd, a distinguished old owl, a stoned alien, and nine other roles — all in the space of a few minutes?

Phil LaMarr certainly can, but then he has an advantage: he’s a voice actor. One of the most gifted around. His résumé includes Futurama, Family Guy, Justice League, and the title character in Samurai Jack. In this enlightening video from Vanity Fair, he puts his vocal (and improv) talents to work by bringing 12 different characters to life — with only single drawings for inspiration.

LaMarr’s highly entertaining performances double up as a meta-commentary on how he develops characterization. In a few cases, he plays the character as both a goodie and a baddie, changing his delivery accordingly.

He riffs on archetypes — thus the owl acquires a stuffy English accent — and even on industry trends. A typical school whizz-kid starts out geeky, before LaMarr adjusts his voice: “He might be a little bit cooler, cos, you know, nerds are running all the studios now!” The video also reveals the extent to which physical gestures can enter the process of voice acting.

LaMarr made his name in sketch comedy before his career as a voice actor took off in the late 1990s. When he started out, “Voice acting wasn’t a thing.” Although he says he stumbled into this line of work, he nevertheless has advice for those who wish to emulate him:

With acting — or with anything — the key is: find a way to do it. If you have friends who are artists or animators, they’re going to need voices. Go in there, help them out. You’ve got to get in your mic time, you’ve got to get in your practice… Every role you’re given is a problem to be solved. There’s a character on a page — how do I make that real for an audience?

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