Voice actors have a tough time of it, don't they? Seldom afforded the same of level of attention as their onscreen peers, it's not as though they're exactly invisible. Hell, Nolan North has become so prolific for his work in recent years that his name was one of the listed voice options in Saints Row IV. Nevertheless, somewhat unfairly, it tends to be the case that unless an A-lister provides their talents, regardless of quality, a game's voice cast passes most players by.
Still, it's no small feat for any actor to remain associated with a franchise for 15 years. And while the follicly challenged Agent 47 may be a man of few words, his intimidating presence owes much to the talents of South African voice actor David Bateson, who has worked with Danish studio IO Interactive since the release of Hitman: Codename 47 in 2000.
Since then, Bateson has seen the Hitman franchise evolve both from a technical perspective and as a global brand, with two critically maligned but financially successful Hollywood adaptations to its name.
Now published by Square Enix, the game series continues to go from strength to strength, with Bateson's talents remaining a consistent creative aspect throughout. With production underway on the series' sixth outing, released in March 2016, I caught up with the actor to discuss his work.
'Hitman' (2016), E3 2015 trailer
VICE: Hi David. You've been involved with the Hitman franchise since the beginning. How did you come to work with IO Interactive?
David Bateson: While doing a voiceover at a studio in Copenhagen, I was asked if I'd be interested to record the voice of a little game project that some colleagues of theirs were working on, on the side. They were five guys, some or all employed by Nordisk Film and this was their project, which they hoped might make some cash that they could then use to develop other projects.
I remember looking at the one of the sequences and said yes straight away. It looked so cool—dark and moody, and it had that film noir feel to it. I gave it a shot and did a Philip Marlowe film noir voice. That's evolved since.
So your background was in voice acting long before taking on the role?
Oh yeah. I was pretty much living off doing voiceovers by then. I started in radio plays back in South Africa where TV only first came to the country in 1976 and was totally lame. Everyone listened to the radio. I just walked in to the recording studios one day and asked if they needed young voices. This led to a test, which led to juvenile roles in these radio dramas.
I was 19 when I started and when I moved to Denmark in 1992 I was introduced into the industry by my theatre boss in Copenhagen, Vivienne McKee, who played Diana, Agent 47's handler, for many years. I owe her big time.
Were IO looking for an actor to model Agent 47 on, or was it coincidental that you came to influence the way he looks?
You know, it's one of those urban myths and I quite like it that way. Agent 47 and I obviously go back to the beginning together. I believe at some stage he began to look more like me. I even played a hitman in a film back in 1993 and, generally speaking, if I end up in a film or TV series, I'm quite often asked to play the type of role who either does or threatens to do bad things to people. It's quite weird—I am so not that person. In the theater I play all types of roles from Shakespeare plays to Mamet or Pinter.
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How would you say the character and, by association, your performance has evolved over the course of the past 15 years?
You know, whatever people may think or say about this franchise, Agent 47 and I have grown and evolved together. It's rarely heard of—an actor having the chance to play the same character for over 15 years and counting. From that initial Philip Marlowe private detective voice to now has been one hell of a journey.
I remember recording a whole game in an afternoon. Absolution, however, took four to five sittings of four hours each, with another three or four people in the room, all directing me and discussing how dialogue should be approached. The atmosphere of the gaming experience has intensified incredibly over the years. I remember being able to introduce breathing sounds to gameplay, which added a texture and a tension to the hits. It helped make him more real—and scary.
Do you find it easy to return to the role every couple of years?
I will say that playing Agent 47 has become much more instinctive over the years, but the guys at IO Interactive have also been with him for many years. It must be interesting for them, to hear their dialogue and their months, if not years, of work come to life from storyboard to final gameplay. I feel an incredible responsibility toward IO Interactive and the fans, of course, to live up to their expectations.
On that note, for a time you weren't initially scheduled to return for Absolution. A lot of fans weren't happy about this, so it was great that you came back. Can you shed some light on what actually happened?
I think they were entertaining other creative directions like all companies do. They often reevaluate, but then they invited me back which I was grateful for. I was personally blown away by the sincerity of the fans' sentiments in wanting me; of what they thought I had brought to the character. Deeply touched and very humbled.
Changing tack slightly, how has the use of motion performance capture affected your relationship with the character? I understand William Mapother was hired to perform mo-cap for Agent 47 in Absolution.
I must admit, I was envious of William Mapother getting to mo-cap Agent 47. I have always wanted to do it. There was a chance earlier this year. I was at a voice-over conference in Atlanta, Georgia and IO rang to say they might have a few days of mo-cap work for me in London… But it didn't happen, I'm afraid.
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Finally, I've got to ask about watching the character you helped create being reinterpreted by Hollywood. 20th Century Fox have made two films based on the franchise. I recall a lot of fans were quite eager for you to play the role yourself when the first film was announced.
Yeah, I remember that. That one petition got 20th Century Fox rattled or at least annoyed enough to get it pulled off the internet. They had signed up Timothy Olyphant, one of the actors from Deadwood—a fine actor, by the way. However, he's too good-looking and somehow too young-looking without hair to play Agent 47.
I was pleased they got Luc Besson to produce it and keep it a European film along the lines of Leon. Unfortunately, the movie crossed back over the Atlantic and became an orgy of slow-motion violence with a gorgeous love interest. Which game did that come from?
Portraying a coldblooded manufactured super assassin isn't an easy task, by any means. The actor has limited means to express himself emotionally or in any way reveal his humanity. This could limit the audience's interest or empathy for the character of Agent 47, but I know how I would do it.
Hitman is released in March 2016.
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