Katy Townsend has an adventure every time she has a new media performance in person or in the recording studio. This blue-eyed Glasgow, Scotland native will turn 30 later this year, but she’s already lived quite a life with 29 performances to her credit as an actress (Finding Neighbors, Kill Katie Malone) and voice talent extraordinaire (audiobooks, video games, augmented reality experiences, etc.) as well as credits as producer and second assistant director. This “Cheeky Scot” recently answered questions about her latest role in Mass Effect: Andromeda as science officer Suvi Anwar and her future.
What’s your daily routine or schedule like?
Being a freelancer and a chaotic person by nature, my ‘routine’ is a bit all over the place! It can be hard to tame. But I try and hang on to some staples for structure: I hit the gym most mornings – that shakes things up and the adrenaline seems to spark all sorts of creativity, uncaging super powers! I also Skype with my family every day – we live on the other side of the world from each other and I miss them madly so having that connection is a lifeline. I mostly work from my studio in Los Angeles between projects – the usual nonsense: emails, meetings, auditions, more emails.
When you’re self-employed, you get out of it what you put in. I’ve learned you’ve got to be disciplined and very careful with your time. There’s no choice but to find structure in the chaos, push yourself and hammer away at it daily to see results. Or else you’ll just sit around in your PJs eating ‘fonuts’ all day, watching reruns of Roseanne… Been there. Tasty, but uninspired.
I take classes as well when I can and read a lot – learning about all manner of curious things really feeds my soul. Most of the gigs I book are local – recording studios, film sets etc. But LA can be a pretty oppressive city after a while. When I have time to myself, I love to take off on wee adventures, find a bit of tranquility amidst the madness – even a wee cycle around the lake at sunset or a bit of experimental photography works wonders. Sometimes something crazy will happen – the odd alien landing on my terrace, but it’s rare. My life is pretty simple.
What are the most memorable recording sessions you’ve ever had?
The first session I did for a game called Ingress was utterly bizarre and memorable. It’s an augmented reality game run by Google genius John Hanke. A lot of the game’s content comprises found footage in the style of ‘leaked’ videos and audio tapes which require guerrilla style recording from various locations. I had just been cast for the game and had no idea what I was getting into – it was all very enigmatic!
The first session took place in a beautiful loft apartment overlooking the city in LA. It seemed super fancy and legit but when I showed up, two ‘corporate looking’ blokes I’d never met before were waiting for me – their ‘set up’ was a smartphone stuck on to a tripod by some kind of – stationary clip? Like something a 13-year-old would throw together for a home movie. I was like, ‘Um – you guys are from Google, right?!’ Ha! I was half expecting them to zap me with a Neuralyzer and toss me into the back of an unmarked truck.
However, the game did go on to be a creation of absolute ingenuity and a springboard for their smash hit game, Pokémon Go – so they did something right, eh? But yeah, that was one heck of a creepy intro to what ended up being a fantastical and extraordinary gaming experience!
What are some of the most common misunderstandings or misconceptions about voice work in general and/or about your Scottish culture? What challenges did you encounter and adjust to/overcome in these areas?
With voice acting, it seems many folk think you just stand in front of a microphone and talk – simple as that. I’m glad it’s more complex than it seems! One of the biggest challenges for me pursing this craft was just how exceptionally technical it all is. I come from a background of theatre training and it’s been fun to bring a lot of that knowledge to the table.
With regards to the mechanics of it all, it takes patience and time to sharpen those skills and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But that gives me something to chase! With video games in particular, there’s very little transparency in advance and much of the voice acting is done as a ‘cold read’, which means we don’t get to see the scripts in advance! When you show up on the day, you see the lines for the first time as you read them out loud – and you only get a couple of ‘takes’ for each line. It’s daunting – you’re always on the spot and you have to learn to deliver high quality performances with zero preparation.
The sessions move at a fast pace – getting it right first time is ideal whilst injecting as much purpose or emotion into the dialogue as required, convincingly enough to make it sound as natural as possible. Gee-whiz. It’s one hell of a workout and it frazzles your brain a wee bit!
The greatest misconception about being Scottish is that we’re all mad, rowdy alcoholics? Hmm. Do people think that? Perhaps iconic films like Trainspotting have fed into that gnarly perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I love those films and adore that gritty side to our culture – and we’re not all just sitting around sipping tea and chatting about the weather either – but there’s more to us! Scottish people are some of the kindest, most quietly humble and humorous souls on the planet – if I do say so myself! Proud of my roots. But aye, I will take a wee whisky, thank you very much!
What did you know about the Mass Effect franchise before you were cast as science officer ‘Suvi Anwar’?
Well, I knew that it was a gigantic space epic and wildly popular – and I could identify an Asari a mile away! The aliens are awesome and pretty distinctive. I had often heard that it was similar to Star Trek in concept and impact, and knew that the voice acting in the Mass Effect games was renowned for being really great – Jennifer Hale being the most exceptional example – so I felt confident and curious going in.
It was only once I was cast and went back and played the original games that I gained a greater understanding of the genius behind the universe – and ultimately fell in love with the franchise. The characters, relationships and intricacies of that world made a real impression on me and I was ecstatic to be part of the next chapter.
What surprised you or inspired you during this Mass Effect experience (before, during and after your work)?
I was surprised by how intensely connected I felt to my character. The dialogue in my first session felt quite clinical and gave very little away about Suvi’s essence, but as new aspects to her character unraveled over time, I became captivated by her. She was a joy to explore! In moments, I was mesmerized by our similarities and equally intrigued by our differences.
Our core values and philosophical ideas seemed to align somehow, along with our mutual fascination with human existence. Her raw, emotional wisdom caught me off guard, her sensitivity felt very real to me and those profoundly pensive musings stayed with me long after I’d left the studio. Hopefully the players find her intriguing and gain a little something from her character.
With regards to inspiration in general, for me it can often come from the most unconventional of places – something hilariously trivial, abstract interactions, lingering tragedy, funny wee stories that I just can’t seem to shake off – or even just the ‘godliness’ of nature. I’ve discovered that inspiration can present itself in unlikely moments and propel us forward with lightning force, willing us to create something – anything! I find the gaming community very inspiring. Their wild passion and loyalty to these stories and characters really sparked my initial interest to pursue this. The people make the experience and their love for this is incredibly infectious. Their imagination makes it all possible.
Please describe your experience joining this franchise installment and how technology (e.g. VR) affects and enhances your performances/work.
It’s been brilliant! Being part of an amazingly popular franchise is thrilling and engrossing – it’s hard not to get lost in the worlds you help create. With Andromeda, from the moment I stepped into the studio and popped on those headphones, I was transported and my imagination got caught up in a wonderful affair with this new universe.
Not only do you become immersed in these worlds, you also become part of the communities. The fans of these games embrace you like a new pal and that’s really cool. It’s like being back at school but this time no one’s trying to kick your ar** or shove you in a locker!
With regards to enhancing technology, I’m learning about the incredible effect certain microphones can have on my vocal performances – they’re uniquely intricate. The high quality microphones we used throughout the sessions offered a very crisp, true-to-life sound – but we switched to a special Neumann microphone when I narrated the Golden Worlds trailer – and wow – the difference was insane! That microphone was remarkably sensitive, enhancing intimacy and capturing all of the delicate, silky nuances and velvety tones of the voice as if by magic. It really complimented the heightened, other worldly ‘epicness’ of the trailer.
Although VR wasn’t part of this project, it’s something I’ve dabbled in and definitely catapults the gaming experience to an off-the-charts level of escapism. There’s no doubt in my mind that as the lines between reality and virtual reality become unfathomably seamless, the gaming world – and human experience as we know it will look completely different in coming years. That’s something I’m excited to see in my lifetime!
What do you do personally to keep your attitude and morale high during production and recording sessions?
Well, it’s hard not to stay upbeat – there’s always a cheeky wee spring in my step when I’m doing something I love! That’s exhilarating and I know it’s a real privilege to be able to do that so I don’t take it for granted. I’m filled with so much gratitude. But I often have to remind myself to chill out a bit – I suffer from wild anxiety and like most folk, I’m ridiculously self-critical but that’s something you learn to shake off over time. There’s a solace to understanding that perfection doesn’t exist and I’ve realized that when I stop being so hard on myself and striving for unattainable nonsense, I’m just a happier, more balanced person – and a more relatable, more honest artist.
But at the end of the day, I work in entertainment and it’s meant to be fun and inspiring, isn’t it? The future of our civilization doesn’t depend on it! I’m not Dr. Suvi Anwar! We all face darker days but I’ve learned that a wee bit of optimism goes an astronomical way – and it’s unbelievably contagious. You never know whose life you’ll enrich with a few kind words.
Beyond that, the gaming community never fails to amaze me. Last year, I suffered a devastating personal loss shortly after Fallout 4 was released and my whole world collapsed. The Fallout 4 fans showed me such kindness and compassion through that terrible darkness and kept my spirits from fading – perhaps without even realizing it! Otherwise, I may have just wriggled into a black hole and never come out again. There’s lots of very special people out there. The support I’ve received has been incredibly healing, inspiring and uplifting – but you have to pay it forward! I try and pay a little back with my work and more importantly, the way I treat others in return.
How do you incorporate your own personality while meeting performance requirements and desires from producers and crew?
Oh, it’s a tricky balance! It always feels good to stamp a character with your own genius – or bring a cheeky side of yourself to the part. You usually get cast for a role based on your ability to bring the team’s vision of the character to life, along with the unique qualities that you bring to the table.
As an actor, you generally don’t have much involvement in original development or dialogue, but instead add intricate layers to what’s already there – colouring nuances, injecting a touch of raw honesty and perhaps a few of your own quirks to the role for a truthful performance that aligns with their vision.
Sometimes this process comes more effortlessly, like with Suvi. We’re pretty similar by nature – I got to play around with my more vulnerable, dorky, loveable side – and I adored that! The palate of the human soul is immeasurable – I love exploring the most baffling depths of myself through performance. Sometimes the darkest nooks of ourselves hold our greatest truths – buried in shame, tangled in terror and grief. All the juicy stuff! The most skilled actors and artists aren’t afraid to reveal their less favorable sides and be truly hideous in moments.
But you have to be able to laugh at your own ridiculousness too! I’m getting pretty good at that. Ha! And if you’re not having fun with it, who’s interested in engaging anyway?
Also – I’ve found that taking risks with my work is important – if the director(s) or writer(s) don’t like where you’re taking the character, they can always tell you to dial it back – they’re usually not afraid to tell you if it sucks! Ha. Or they’ll just, you know, fire you… Horrifyingly enough, that happened to me last year, but it’s a campfire story! It was a huge opportunity and I was wholeheartedly devastated at the time, but wouldn’t have changed the way I approached that character – I felt that I made her uniquely mine and my skin’s a wee bit thicker from those hard knocks, albeit bruised.
I’ll always feel that my most innovative performances are born from absolute boldness and glaring honesty. For me, the more of myself that shows up on the day, the more ‘human’ the character becomes – warts and all – and the more likely an audience is to connect. That’s what this is all about for me – human connectivity! Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for?
What are some of your future projects?
Bits and pieces! Frustratingly, I’m working under NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] for most projects. If I told you, I’d have to – you know, whip out my Neuralyzer. Mostly games, animation and some live action stuff, as well as producing several of my own projects. I ‘announce’ everything on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in the least obnoxious way possible, so if anyone wants to join me on there for some hijinks, they’ll be welcomed with open arms!
Thanks very much.