When director Michael Mann brought Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together to star in 1995's crime thriller Heat, he was doing something remarkable. It remains rare indeed to see two headlining actors, arguably at the peak of their careers and box office potential, split the starring role on a new production pretty much straight down the middle. The two had appeared on the big screen together before, in Francis Ford Coppola's immortal The Godfather Part II of 1974, but had never shared a scene. When they do in Heat, it's movie history, indelible and electric.
Troy Baker and Nolan North have starred together in video games prior to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, but never in a manner that's seen both play such pivotal roles in the same production. Baker, having won awards for his work as Joel in The Last of Us and Talion in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, is emerging as the preeminent male in video game voice overs and performance capture. Other recent credits include Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, LEGO Dimensions (in which he played Batman, having also portrayed the Joker in 2013's Batman: Arkham Origins), and Far Cry 4. He's getting more big gigs right now than any Hollywood star in his or her respective line of acting. And North's résumé is something else: From Call of Duty to Assassin's Creed via World of Warcraft, he's been involved with some of gaming's most played franchises. He was the Penguin in Batman: Arkham Knight, re-recorded Peter Dinklage's lackluster lines as Ghost in Destiny, and played Captain Walker in 2012's unforgettable Spec Ops: The Line.
Oh, North has also played Nathan Drake, the Indiana Jones–like treasure hunting protagonist of Naughty Dog's Uncharted series, since game one, Drake's Fortune, back in 2007. But you probably knew that already. For Uncharted 4, Nathan's long-lost, assumed-dead brother Sam returns into his life, played by Baker, and the two set out on what is being sold as the final adventure for the avatar who made the half-tuck his own.
'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End,' gameplay trailer
I'm definitely not the first person to draw the parallel between what Baker and North are doing in video games with De Niro and Pacino in Heat. And it's not like the two haven't physically faced off against one another in a motion-capture studio—they did just that on Shadow of Mordor. But Uncharted 4 is such a commercial juggernaut, a game that's going to be played by millions, that it's worth asking the question: Who's Pacino in this field, in this relationship, and who's De Niro?
"You know, that's a really good metaphor," Baker says, immediately deep in thought on the subject. If he's ever been presented with the comparison before, he's hiding it well. "I've got to say that Nolan is probably De Niro. You look at those two people, and we don't have anyone else in the film industry who's like that anymore. No matter what they do, they'll only ever be De Niro and Pacino. They can do the worst movies in the world, and their reputations will stay intact. I'd love to have that recognition."
North is quick enough to agree, albeit with a smile and a brief De Niro impression. "It's not bad—I'll take it," he says, adopting a familiar accent, arms crossed and shoulders hunched, face scrunched into an approximation of the New York–born actor's features. He slips back into himself—which, unsurprisingly, sounds a lot like Nathan Drake. "Pacino, bless him, like Troy, tends to overact. So De Niro's always been subtle. He can do comedy and drama. So yeah, I'll take that. The fact that you just equated me to anyone like that is a huge compliment. That's brilliant. It's funny. It's one of those things that you don't really reflect on, but thank you."
North is in a position to enjoy a little reflection, though—on the journey that he's been on as the leading man of Uncharted, a journey that's ending with A Thief's End, and what it's meant for his career.
"The first games I did, I did them because I was out of work," he tells me. "Voiceover people I knew told me not to get into games. They told me to get into animation. But I needed the money, and I wanted to work, so I started doing it. And it was fun. One job led to another, and then things evolved, and I became that guy. People call me a pioneer for voice acting in gaming, but am I really? Maybe, but it's just kind of worked out that way. I've been in the right place at the right time.
"I get caught off guard when someone asks me to reflect, but then you think, Oh wow, this has been amazing. This is one of the few jobs where, after ten years, you get the chance to stop and reflect and go, Wow, we did something really special. I have friends who've done TV, and they don't get the time that I've had with my family, with my kids. I've made the football practices and gone to the plays. I've picked them up from school, y'know, the simple things. Because I've been afforded this life.
"This is the greatest job I've ever had. To be the Indiana Jones, the John McClane, the main guy in something that has lasted so long. There's no such thing as 'Uncharted 1'—we didn't know we were going to do two. We just did Drake's Fortune, and that was it. Then I remember getting the call confirming we'd do a second one, and I thought it was going to be so great. And then that blew up, so we sort of knew there'd be a third game. But I'd be lying if I said that we should keep going. There's a part of you that wants to, because this is fun. But you also don't want to jump the shark; you don't want to make Drake in Space. So you're always looking ahead, but because Uncharted has been such a great success, I have projects lined up. There are new challenges ahead."
Article continues after the video below
North's pre-existing relationship with Baker, forged through a handful of previous projects on which they interacted without having to play close roles, has undoubtedly helped the rapport between Nathan and Sam in Uncharted 4 appear so effortless, so natural. "Nolan and I see each other quite a bit," Baker tells me. "And I'm fortunate enough to be able to have access to him, in the sense that I can come to him honestly, and he can to me, too. We sit down and talk about projects, and more than anything else about what we're wrestling with, more than what we're excited about. We spend more time talking about our fears."
For Baker, coming into a series as massive as Uncharted brought with it a heap of uncertainty, doubts about how he might complement the vibrancy of the franchise, and the fan base's appreciation of Nate and those closest to him. "With The Last of Us, we all knew that it could fail. With Uncharted 4, though, the feeling I had was: Don't be the reason this fails. I told Neil Druckmann, the co-director, that I didn't want to be the reason this game sucks. He sat me down and just said: 'It's a really good game. Don't think too much of yourself that you could be the one that brings it down.' I think part of that is down to the natural ego that actors have, though. I moved from a position of fear into faith, through trusting these other three hundred people making the game. I listened to who they wanted Sam to be, and then all I needed to do was get myself out of the way.
"But I didn't want to come in and try to do it my way," he continues. "I wanted to do it in a way that I fitted into the DNA. So it was the coolest thing to walk onto the set on the first day. I wasn't first up for a shot, so I got to sit back and watch. So I'm watching Nolan, and Richard McGonagle, and Emily Rose, play Nate, Sully, and Elena respectively, and I can totally see them as those characters, in my mind's eye. And it's like, you watch these people transform, without them really having to do anything. They're just being themselves."
Where North ends and Drake begins is something of a blurred line, that's for sure. Nowadays, even with the physical anonymity that voiceover work tends to provide, North is frequently recognized as the wisecracking hero of what is, unquestionably, an interactive entertainment behemoth. "People will shoot me a look, when they hear my voice," he says. "I'm also on this show in the US, Pretty Little Liars, and people tell me: ''My girlfriend's watching the show, and all of a sudden I hear this guy talking and I'm like, That's Nathan Drake.'"
"I don't do this to be famous, though," North continues. "I once asked Bill Murray if it's great being rich and famous, and he told me: 'Rich is good. Famous, not so much.' It's such a ridiculous term. I've always strove to be respected in what I do—and to just keep working, and to be a good soldier. This is a job. You first get into acting, and you're thinking about Hollywood and all this stuff. But then you realize it's a job like anything else, and you have to go and deliver a performance."
"A friend of mine told me, 'Fame is when people know you, notoriety is when people know your work,'" Baker says. "And that's what I want to do. Actors always say bullshit like this, but it's really the truth. I don't want to do this so that I'm famous; I want to do this so that people see what I'm doing, and think: I want to do that, too. If I can do the best, and inspire someone who really should be doing this, to do this, then I've done my job.
"I think that there's been a stigma attached to games in the past, that's put actors off getting involved. But I sat down with a friend of mine a while ago, who'd been offered the role of the lead in a little show on HBO called True Blood. He turned it down because he said it was TV. And I said: 'That's not TV, that's HBO.' But at that point, the feeling was that TV was death for an actor. You go to TV to die. But now look at it. That's where everyone is clamoring to be. Kevin Spacey is on a Netflix show. What? So you have this paradigm shift, where now people want to go to where the art is being made, and if cinema is doing big, pulpy, popcorn spectacles, but TV is getting into the minutia of the form, and building characters, then people will flock to that. And I fully believe that games are the next iteration of that.
"I've seen people like Kevin Spacey and Kiefer Sutherland look at games and realize that they're really, really interesting. This is a compelling medium for actors, as it allows them to stretch in ways they've never experienced before. So I think that stigma has lifted. We've put it in a coffin and set it on fire."
'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End,' Madagascar preview footage
Whether or not Drake himself—hell, be that Nathan or Sam, or both–ends up casket-bound come the end of Uncharted 4 remains to be seen. Even if I'd reached the end of the game (I've not; I'm four and a half hours deep at the time of writing), of course I wouldn't spoil the climax here. Baker calls his time working with Naughty Dog, on The Last of Us and now Uncharted 4, "life changing," and for North, there can be no doubt whatsoever that playing Nathan Drake totally transformed his career, and his way of living. Now that his run as Drake is over (at least according to the game's makers), how does that feel?
"Well, I don't ever have to say goodbye, because I can always pop that disc in, and play again. I do believe that we've created something here. Gaming now is a true art form, and the place that I would say is pushing the boundaries of entertainment more than any other medium. We have a decade of work within it that will live forever. This has been fantastic, and the feeling is bittersweet now, sure, but I'm not going to shed a tear."
Instead, he shoots another smile, infectiously sincere. While Heat showcased Robert De Niro's inimitable intensity, the movie is only ranked 13th on his highest-grossing projects to date, with The Godfather Part II way down at 24th. If North truly follows suit, it could be that what he does next, with Uncharted behind him, becomes even bigger than what he's been a part of with Naughty Dog. I don't know what the gaming equivalent of Meet the Fockers might be, but if anyone's going to be in the right place, at the right time, to make it happen, it'll be North. And you just know Baker's going to be bagging the plum roles for the foreseeable future, too. He'd be wise to learn from missteps in Pacino's filmography, though: Nobody needs gaming's own Gigli.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End will be released, exclusively for PlayStation 4, on May 10. More information at the game's official website.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.