A Conversation With Voice Actor And Penn State Alum Doug Cockle
An actor’s career is unique. They work endlessly for a breaking role and even after a few jobs here and there, many actors are forced into where the industry wants them. Pigeonholed. Typecast. Playing the same characters, job after job, that agree with their predestined, industry-assigned identity. Penn State acting alum and professional voice actor Doug Cockle would say those roles are a gift, not a curse.
Cockle is famous for his role as Geralt of Rivia in “The Witcher” series. I had the opportunity to chat with Cockle about the industry, his life as a professor in England, and why his role as Geralt was an unusual acting opportunity.
Onward State: You do a lot of work outside of voice acting in video games, I noticed you direct a lot of theatre.
Doug Cockle: I’ve never actually directed professionally, if you’ve looked at my website, all the stuff on there, that’s all university directing. In addition to being a freelance actor I’m also a full time professor at a university here in England. I run the BFA honors acting course at Arts University Bournemouth.
OS: When did you move over to England?
DC: I was trained as an actor, I did the Master of Fine Arts degree in acting at Penn State and I graduated in 1999 and worked as a professional actor. We moved straight over to England actually, my wife is English and American, her family was over here. And I started getting work and meeting people. That was 17 years ago.
OS: Seems like you do a lot of freelance work considering that’s part time.
DC: It’s probably not as much as it looks. There would be double that if I were working as a full time actor. That’s the gamble you play, that’s part of the reason I’m teaching.
Back when I was shooting London Voodoo, we were expecting our second child and I was traveling down to London a lot and I spent about three months helping cast the West End premiere of “When Harry Met Sally,” and so I was working with this high up casting director.
And it was Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry, and I got cast as the understudy for Luke Perry, but I had to turn it down because they weren’t able to pay me enough to support my family in the North and allow me to live in London. Our second child was going to be born during the run of the show. I said, “I’m sorry I can’t take the job.” And she said, “Doug, you know I’ll never be able to cast you again.” That’s the price I have to pay. That was pretty harsh.
OS: So you needed more flexible work and video games fit for you?
DC: It seems to work out, I still do films as well, but I like to do smaller roles that only require a few days on set, so my agent is brilliant, I’ve been with her for 16 years now, she understands my situation. The voice work is a little more flexible in some ways. The voice-work often comes to me now because I’ve done so much of it. They call me in to do a job, but they have three weeks to get all the recording done so I do have to shift things around.
The voice-work is often the last thing they add on, they do a lot of the animation and stuff well before the actors get involved.
OS: Is it better being able to see your character and then apply yourself?
DC: This is actually something I really like about acting for video games. More often than not, the only thing I have to go by is a single still image and it’s usually a drawing, a piece of concept art from early on in development, and they say “this is your character.” Usually I haven’t seen the script, I know nothing about the storyline, I know nothing, I’ve just been brought in to do some voices, or to do a voice. Then the producer, writer, director, whoever’s in the booth with me, they give me the context of the character, where they are, what they’re doing, what kind of character they are. It kinda boils down to 10 or 20 archetypes you get asked to do.
Usually when I’m brought in they want the kind of stoic, hard as rock, but heart of gold kind of character. Sometimes I get to step out of that box and play with something different.
OS: Like The Witcher?
DC:The Witcher is a different beast altogether. I’ve been doing the voice of Geralt of Rivia for over 10 years now, so I did The Witcher and I almost didn’t get brought back in for Witcher II and III.
When they were planning Witcher II they started auditioning the whole series again, they didn’t want anyone they used from The Witcher I, so I heard about this from a friend who had auditioned for Geralt, and I texted the guy from the developers and I said I heard you’re auditioning for Witcher II and you’re auditioning for Geralt and I would be very happy to audition again if you wanted me to. And he said I’ll get back to you.
The director Kate Saxon told me afterwards he was just kinda dragging his heels and they wanted to find someone else, but when he listened to the stuff I did for Witcher I, he admitted there’s nobody else like me…but I almost lost it. If I hadn’t sent that text message it may have gone differently.
OS: Almost sounded like “I can never cast you again…”
DC: Yeah exactly, but The Witcher series has been unique, most actors don’t get to follow something through like that. They go from job to job to job and they’re lucky if they do anything twice. Doing Geralt over 10 years now, has really allowed me to go on a journey with that character, which is really exciting. Because in The Witcher I, he was really stoic and had no sense of humor, not bland, but very serious. Then in The Witcher II he started to lighten up a bit, we had some fun with him and his emotional life became more dynamic. Then The Witcher III, he’s even more so, and in some of the add-ons, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, you see whole different sides of Geralt which were unimaginable ten years ago.
OS: Are you looking for more of that? Do you want to continue breaking out of those archetypes you mentioned?
DC: My students, a lot of young actors, worry about being typecast. And I say look, the industry is going to put you where it wants to put you, you have very little control over your career as an actor. If opportunities present themselves I would snap them up, and I do. When opportunities come along to play different characters, I relish them. But equally, I’m not going to dismiss the same kinds of characters over and over again, because one it’s money and I have a family and a house to pay off and I’m not gonna turn down work that I know I can do and I know I’m good at. And two, if that’s what the industry has said, this is what we want from you, then who am I to say f off?
I think a lot of times young actors think they have an ultimate control over their career, and they don’t. Even the big actors have a degree of control, but even they have to go with what the industry wants to do.
OS: So The Witcher was an anomaly.
DC: I think it’s an anomaly for anybody, any actor. My view on these kinds of things is grab an opportunity the industry gives you with both hands, and if it pigeonholes you, then that’s what it does. Maybe that means you have to step out of the industry and step back in with a new image. Ultimately, when I walk into a casting director’s office, they want to put me in a box, and if that box is going to get me paid and introduce me to other people who may hire me in the future, and allow me to get out of that box a bit, then that’s good. But if you’re not working you don’t have that opportunity to do that.
OS: So then what’s next for you? Is it more voice acting since it’s coming your way?
DC: That’s a good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing, because this year, until Witcher III came out, I was just doing what I do, teaching, voice acting, films when I could, and now this past year I’ve been nominated for four different awards for magazines and things. And I was nominated for best performer at the LA game awards and for the navigator awards which is the national association of video game trade reviewer award, and I was nominated for a BAFTA over here for best performer which I didn’t win but being nominated I feel I already won, you know?
I have the desire to be dad and husband and teacher, so there’s all of that, and then add the slightly egomaniacal nature of being an actor into the mix and you get a slightly toxic formula.
OS: Seems like you’re in a bit of a paradox here.
DC: All actors are, you know? It’s not an easy career path either. Any creative pursuit is fraught with all kinds of perils, it’s not easy. I think actors are particularly vulnerable to that kind of peril. You do have to play the entertainment industry game. You have to evaluate for yourself the extent you’re willing to play that game. I don’t think I’m willing to play it in such a way that risks, I don’t want to gamble my family.
If I can give you one piece of advice, take all the risks you can, until you can’t.
Here’s a taste of Cockle performing “Geralt of Rivia” at the end of our conversation:
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