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

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Gates: No. That’s nonsense (laughs). Actors are no different from singers. A great singer, Pavarotti or Leontyne Price, they’re born with good tools. But voices must be trained. Some have more range than others, but you can train a voice.

English is a Germanic language. It’s consonant-based and you have to get your voice where the consonants are. So many actors are confused about how to support the breath. That’s the most important thing. A voice is like a bagpipe; you have to pressurize the air to make and support the sound coming from it.

Zager: Like a lot of (American) voice coaches, I’m a product of the British training system, where they spend tons of time on voice. American actors don’t generally get the benefit of that kind of training. And it takes time to find your authentic voice as an actor. It’s interesting that Merriam-Webster’s word of the year last year was “authentic.” It was one of the most searched-for words of 2023, and authenticity is what we’re looking for in a voice. It’s what connects the inner and outer worlds of a character. If an actor’s voice is telling the truth, you get a really clean, honest, authentic performance.

Phillips: Can you recall a voice you fell in love with the minute you heard it?

Gates: Yes. Claire Bloom. (The English stage and screen star’s film appearances opposite Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier, among others, remain almost too vocally exquisite for human ears.) Growing up outside New Orleans I heard her on albums, doing Shakespeare and poetry. Beautiful voice, beautiful diction. A great sense of the rhythm of the language.

Zager: For me it was Julie Andrews, either in “Mary Poppins” or “The Sound of Music.” Her speaking voice is like her singing, just so plummy. Just round, you know, No air in it. All tone. And very responsive to the text. Completely connected.


Phillips: What does that word “connected” mean in this context?

Zager: Here’s what it means, at least to me: An actor has various “holds,” physical or emotional obstacles, that can prevent that actor from completely revealing what the character’s thinking, or feeling. If it’s a physical hold, it might be a tightening of the belly, tension in the neck, tension in the jaw, or locked knees. All those things need to be released for a complete connection (of the actor’s tools) to take place.

The holds might be happening for emotional reasons, some sort of self-protection or self-doubt. Or maybe they didn’t do their vocal or physical warmups that day. It’s easier to get rid of physical blocks. It’s harder with the emotional ones, because often they have to do with confidence.

Phillips: Let’s talk about some of this year’s Oscar-nominated performances. In “American Fiction” it’s so satisfying to listen to Jeffrey Wright and fellow nominee Sterling K. Brown, and everyone else, handle the verbal exchanges. Meanwhile, with “The Holdovers,” you have Paul Giamatti, who I reviewed at the La Jolla Playhouse 30 years ago, when he was straight out of the Yale training program. Terrific, even then. And now. That’s a helluva vocal instrument there.


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