Being Nathan Drake - Prima Games

Being Nathan Drake

by Prima Games Staff

There can’t be many lead actors and writers in the games industry who know each other so well they practically finish each other’s sentences. But then, how many can say they’ve been working together on their latest project almost every week since last June, let alone for large, intensive chunks of the past five years?

“I think the auditions were August 2006,” muses Amy Hennig, creative director at Naughty Dog, recalling the date the creator of Crash Bandicoot began casting for its PlayStation 3 debut, an all-new action-adventure called Uncharted.

First and foremost, the studio needed someone to play the game’s lead, Nathan Drake. Enter Nolan North.

“I actually got to see the original audition for the first time right over on those couches,” North reveals, pointing towards a corner of the motion-capture studio Sony has created for the making of Uncharted 3 on its production lot, a 15-minute drive from Naughty Dog HQ in Santa Monica, California.

“Amy brought in her laptop, and, hey, I’m getting old,” he sighs with mock resignation. “But it was funny to see how it’s progressed from then to now. I’m trying to stay in the same shape…”

“No, you’re in better shape,” Hennig promptly retorts. And, North would argue, a better shade of work outfit. “I would never put on another brown motion capture suit,” he insists. “If you’ve watched South Park you’re familiar with Mr Hanky. That’s me – just a mo-cap turd.”

If gaming has an A-list, Nolan North is firmly on it as one of the medium’s busiest, most recognisable stars. But back when the actor, now 40, was a wise-cracking classroom impressionist, there was, of course, no such thing as a career in video game voiceovers.

He took the well-worn route of theatre work before landing a regular role in US soap Port Charles. When work on that wound up, his agent nudged him decisively towards the now chatter-infested games industry.

His turn as lovable rogue Drake propelled him to fame, and prominent appearances as Assassin’s Creed’s Desmond Miles, the eponymous hero of Prince of Persia and Dark Void’s Will Grey are merely his best-known performances.

But such success brings the very real risk of overexposure. His ubiquity has, in the wake of Uncharted 2’s colossal achievement, become something of an online joke, with one gamer going as far as to produce a pair of YouTube videos entitled: “Nolan North is in EVERY game”. Parts oneandtwo, naturally.

Video: EGTV visits Uncharted 3’s mo-cap sessions.

“It’s really unfortunate timing as so many of those games I was the lead on came out at the same time,” North explains. “A couple of them were shot way before and were held up and ended up being released at the same time.”

A victim of his own success, perhaps, there’s little he can do in the case of a series like Assassin’s Creed where “we’ve already established the character’s voice”. But the success of Drake has now afforded him “the luxury of being a little more selective with picking characters that aren’t necessarily my voice, which is Nathan Drake’s voice”.

One striking recent example is a brilliantly eccentric performance in Portal 2, unrecognisable as Nolan North until the credits roll. And one can just as easily point to Call of Duty’s Dr Edward Richtofen or God of War’s Hades as examples of his versatility.

The majority of these roles, though, are of the ‘shuffling papers in a recording booth’ variety. The lead performances in the Uncharted series stand out because of the palpable chemistry between characters – made possible thanks to the faith and finances of Sony in Naughty Dog’s methods.

“We’re in once or twice a week for an entire year,” says Hennig. “For somebody shooting a television show they might shoot an episode a week – we shoot a couple of scenes a week.

“Everyone on the cast are friends, everyone on the crew are friends with the cast, so there’s an ease of communication that makes us all feel free to constructively critique each other’s work try and to improve it, and nobody’s ego gets stepped on.”

Of all North’s roles, Drake is the most successful arguably because the line between actor and character in Uncharted is so blurred. Charismatic, handsome, funny and self-deprecating in person – everything, in short, a socially awkward Englishman should jealously resent – there’s nothing ‘phoned in’ about North’s performance.

“I get to learn their voices and write to them,” Hennig explains. “I know their cadences, I know their idiosyncrasies. Their characters become infused by their personalities. With rare exceptions, the characters are very much [these] guys.”

North agrees. “You can only be a Hannibal Lecter for so many days in a row. But if you’re going to do something like this it has to become part of you after a few years. Otherwise it would seem contrived.”

Central to this is the leeway afforded to North in particular to ad-lib. “I started theatre and stand-up comedy in New York,” he reveals. “[Naughty Dog] let me go, take the leash off and I’m like a puppy in the dog park – you’ll probably get 90 per cent crap, but there’ll be 10 per cent that absolutely works.”

“He’s one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever known,” claims Richard McGonagal, who plays Drake’s sidekick Victor Sullivan and is possessed of an infectious belly laugh that could loosen bowels.

“He’s always coming out with funny stuff, and so what I do is just shut up, listen and react to what he says, so it gets this comedy dialogue going back and forth. But I just depend on him.”

Unusually for an actor, North is involved in the casting process itself. “It’s hard sometimes: it’s a small community. There was a bunch of people that I knew reading for Flynn and they were great. And then Steve Valentine, who I don’t know, came in and he was Flynn. You’re just like, that’s the guy!”

“You cast hastily or badly, you’re screwed for ever,” says Hennig. “You cast well and it’s smooth sailing forever.”

A key difference between Uncharted and many other games – including Rockstar’s technically ground-breaking L.A. Noire – is that the full performance is captured at once – voice and movement – with all actors on set together.

It’s familiar territory to anyone with theatre, TV or film credentials. The harder part of the job, according to North, is all the content gamers take for granted.

“The [actions] that are most challenging are the in-game ones,” he says wearily. “If you’re a player and the cinematic ends and Drake’s like this [stands up straight], if you move that thing to the left, I have to do the move to the left, whether it’s a run or walk.

“It’s done right in the middle on this little board and it’s exhausting, kinda tedious, but that speaks to the details. Because when you move that guy, the response is immediate.

He adds: “And we don’t just play Drake and Sully. Sometimes I’m mo-capping the guy whose neck I’m breaking. Everybody kind of doubles up on that when necessary, so it’s a real collaboration.”

In recent years, a flood of celebrity talent well-established outside the bounds of gaming has been tempted to cash in on its massive popularity. Fable III alone featured the voices of Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Simon Pegg and Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley.

But a trend that could be seen as a threat to the careers of gaming thespians doesn’t worry North. “For me, it’s interesting that movie stars aren’t really interested in doing it, but actors are. There is a freedom and a beauty in doing this, that is associated with a decent pay cheque as well, that is just like going back to your roots of black box theatre.

“It’s not like, let’s give Vin Diesel a million dollars for Riddick and he’ll do a session. It’s changed.”

Does he feel he gets enough respect as a games performer from the rest of the acting world? “You’re always going to have naysayers,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve gone to jobs now, on-camera jobs, and I’ve had one of the production crew come up and they’re like, ‘Can you sign my Uncharted?’ And others see it and they’re like, ‘You’re Nathan Drake?!’

“I know people who used to do video games and said you’ll eventually move on to animation. Now they’re trying to get back to this. The short answer is: who cares? If they have a problem with it, good. Stay away from our playground.”

One thing Hollywood can’t keep its greedy claws out of is a successful games franchise. And the results have been, almost without exception, astonishingly awful. Nevertheless, with Three Kings writer David O. Russell at the helm of the big screen adaptation of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, there’s cautious optimism for the end result.

“I know lots of people will be sceptical,” admits Hennig. “Anybody who wants to make an adaptation of Uncharted is in a very difficult position, because our schtick is we’re playing in the movie sandbox, knowingly, winkingly saying, ‘Hey, we’re playing on all the tropes – we’re in on the joke together.’ If a movie did that, it’s eating its own tail.

“Honestly, I would much rather have the guy who made Three Kings making the adaptation of Uncharted than someone else. He’s incredibly talented so people should throw him a little trust I think.”

For North, it poses a different problem: the gulf in Hollywood between what constitutes ‘fame’ in movies and games.

“I would love to play myself, but if I were the producer of a movie, would I want to put all my financing behind a proven box office star or someone unknown? It’s a very big financial risk that people take,” he concedes.

Besides, apart from the occasional bewildered voice-spot when out shopping, Nolan is a star who gets to lead a relatively normal life. “The anonymity is preferred,” he insists.

There’s talk that North will be offered a walk-on part in the movie, but US star Mark Wahlberg is linked to the lead role. The less said about his involvement in 2008’s Max Payne film the better.

North adds: “As long as we keep making the games and it doesn’t infringe on my job here I think it’s fantastic that David O. Russell, and whoever he chooses for his cast, go out and make their movie and their version of this.”

For gamers, at least, the prospect of another shoddy, inauthentic Hollywood adaptation is likely to prove little more than a minor distraction ahead of the massively-anticipated release this November of their Drake’s third adventure.

“Uncharted 2 was not the pinnacle and it’s up to the public to see if 3 is,” says North. “If 4 is Drake in space and he’s fighting alien shark people, it’s over. But until then, we avoid the shark people and the moon and I think we’re OK.

“One of the biggest reasons this game is so successful is [Hennig’s] writing. I’ve done film, TV, other games, and nothing I’ve ever done is better written. And it’s hard to do this,” he adds, moments before waddling back on set in his rubber suit to capture a new scene.

“Naughty Dog really are going more in-depth than on any game I’ve ever done. And I’ve done a couple…”