Michael Phillips: Some actors just have that voice. Here's why we listen

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Some actors have it, and we love it: a speaking voice so naturally musical or mysteriously pleasing, that millions the world over respond with variations on the same reaction: I’d listen to this actor read the phone book.

Or: That actor could make the Yellow Pages riveting.

Or, simply: What a voice!

It’s the actor’s indelible trademark and most telling instrument. (I’m using the word “actor” for women as well as men.) We lean into certain voices for their cello-like beauty. Other voices function like an entire symphony of stage-trained expressivity, size and impact. Still others we come to know from the movies, or TV, or audiobooks or whatever, favor an insinuating and confidential key. In Shakespeare’s words, it’s the “speak low if you speak love” approach.

I think about actors’ voices a lot. I hear them nearly every day of my life. Most of us do. Take Sam Van Hallgren, the producer and co-founder of the long-running podcast “Filmspotting.” (Disclosure: I have guested on “Filmspotting” now and then.)

After seeing “American Fiction,” which is up for five Academy Awards including for best actor, Van Hallgren posted a dozen words on X: “Jeffrey Wright has the best speaking voice. Are we agreed on that?” Yes, Sam! Yes! It’s not Tom Waits-level gravelly, exactly, but one with precisely the right amount of gravel spread atop the smoothest vocal pavement. Wright’s voice serves the screenplay and often saves a scene.


This year’s nominated performances run a fascinating gamut of vocal quality, from Annette Bening’s thrummy alto (“Nyad”) to Colman Domingo’s singular baritone delivery — subtle, lulling, assured — in “Rustin.” Are such voices born, or made? Can vocal training turn ordinary instruments into extraordinary ones? Is it luck, skill or both?

I got some answers, along with well-rounded vowel sounds and crisp final consonants, from two experts. Linda Hughes Gates is Head of Voice at Northwestern University’s Department of Theatre. Jill Walmsley Zager, formerly the voice coach at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, is now freelancing and currently the voice and dialect coach for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of “The Chosen.”

Our separate conversations have been combined and edited for length and clarity.

Phillips: Linda, is an actor’s voice simply a matter of what they’re born with?


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