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

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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?

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.

Zager: I agree! He doesn’t lay the technique on top, so it’s just gloss. He has real range. Same with Annette Bening. And I think Emily Blunt (nominated for “Oppenheimer”) has tremendous vocal range, so well-trained.

With some excellent actors it’s not about vocal training or versatility. Steve Buscemi, for example. He sounds the way he sounds, but it’s just such an interesting and believable voice. Not everyone is Alan Rickman or Richard Burton, you know (laughs).

Gates: A lot of young actors today have a tendency to under-project. They don’t lift stressed syllables. So where I might say something is “a-PALL-ing,” they say “appalling.” No lift. Everything tends to be flat. Nobody wanted to be noticed. Everybody wants to fit in.

If you don’t train the voice, then the voice gets tired … and if audiences can’t hear, then we’re all in trouble! Nowadays, with television and streaming, more and more people put on the subtitles because they can’t understand what the actors are saying.

Phillips: I hear that complaint all the time. With some films, whether it’s the sound mix or the way your TV’s sound is calibrated, or not, the actors’ voices get buried underneath the music. Or the explosions. Or the music competing with the explosions.

Zager: Often it seems to me the microphone gets so close to the actor, it turns into whisper-acting. It takes so much away from the actor’s performance if they’re just whispering. We don’t get the full range of a character’s thoughts and emotions, because it’s just leveled.

You know what’s amazing to me? Say you’re an actor, and you’re having vocal trouble. You’re put on vocal rest. Ideally, you’re supposed to stay in a completely silent environment for the voice to heal. This is the mind-blowing part: Studies have shown that when you’re on vocal rest, you’re not even supposed to listen to any music! Unwittingly, just by listening to music, your vocal folds come together, rub together, as if trying to make that same sound. Your voice is that sympathetic of an instrument. It approximates the sound of the music even if you’re just listening. It’s crazy.

Gates: One of my neighbors is from Ukraine, and she’s doing a lot of work on Zoom. She’s losing her voice, so I’m putting together some vocal exercises for her. This isn’t just about actors; the idea of training and protecting your voice is important for everybody, so we can communicate effectively.

We’re trained to learn how to fly a plane. We train to learn to ride a horse. Why not treat the human voice the same way?


(Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.)