Following on from my interviews with JL8 Web Comic creator Yale Stewart (my most viewed post!), and comic book artist Mateus Santolouco, I had an urge to try my luck again. But who to ask? Luckily the stars appeared to align, as a certain voice actress had just come to my attention on Twitter.
That actress is Debi Mae West, or as I’ve always known her….Meryl from Metal Gear Solid.
To say this was a big deal for me would be a massive understatement. The chance to speak to someone who worked on a game I’ve completed over 20 times at various points in my life. MGS has been my favourite video game for over 15 years now, and a lot of that is down to the voice acting.
So I sent a tweet out to Debi, not expecting anything back to be honest. Much to my delight I soon received a reply. Squealing at my soon to be wife “It’s Meryl!” probably sounded a bit weird. Debi was not only extremely friendly, but was open to the idea of me asking a few questions. The next week was spent worrying over said questions, and getting crazily excited/nervous, whilst telling friends about the opportunity that was coming my way.
Skype’s turned on, and Debi comes on-line. We greet each other and Debi immediately puts me at ease with her laid back nature. I think she’d have been rather annoyed if I’d put her up on too high a pedestal. I’m video chatting with someone whose voice I’ve heard hundreds of times before, but now she’s real!
Before we got into the questions we had a chat that quickly moved through several subjects. Music tastes (Debi loves Radiohead), our pets (I got to meet Debi’s ginger tom and Jack Russell/Greyhound mix), leading into discussing English weather and our accents. She’d heard me talk for about 5 minutes, but Debi jumped straight into an eerily similar English accent to my own, complete with missing t’s and th’s. A great impression, yet never mocking, she explains how she’d love to be reincarnated as English and have the accent. I offer to swap in an attempt to get some Californian weather.
Nerves settled, we moved onto the questions.
D: It’s kind of a fairy-tale story. I didn’t always wanna be a voice actor; I’m actually a singer and went to music school many years ago. My plan was to become a rock star. But when I turned 21 I became a Buddhist, and I got into this very spiritual place, and decided I was going to save the planet. I got into world peace and really concentrated on the most awesome person I could be. I studied acting and was part a comedy group for a while. I waitressed for a long time and gave up on the singing after some vocal cord issues. As you can tell I have a very gravelly voice.
C: It’s very distinctive.
D: It is! I listened back to some of the first MGS yesterday and my voice sounded much higher. I had a friend who did voice-overs, and she took me to do reading for the blind at a local college. I’d record the news for them and that was all I knew about voice work. She deterred me from getting into it. Saying it’s a really tight group of people. 18 years ago it was very hard to get in. I didn’t know anything about it so didn’t put too much emphasis on it. But she phoned out of the blue and said that if I really wanted to give it a go there were more openings coming up for women. Demi Moore was doing some work at the time and I sounded a lot like her. So I got an agent, but it still took seven months to book one job. That lead to a huge job being the voice of a grocery chain. Then I got the role of Lucky in the 101 Dalmatians cartoon series, replacing Pam Segall (voice of Bobby on King of the Hill). The rest is history!
C: It’s funny how sometimes you end up being defined by something you didn’t think would be that important.
D: If you’d asked me 20 years ago I never would have imagined it. I’ve been very lucky.
Q2. From some other interviews you’ve done it becomes clear that Kris Zimmerman (the English voice director for the MGS series) was instrumental in you getting the part of Meryl. How did it all come about?
D: I met Kris after Dalmatians. I was marketed by my agents as the next Pamela Segall. I had to do a lot to match her voice though. I could match her gravel, but to sound like her, as a boy, was a lot of work. So I went out on tonnes of auditions, and I think I met Kris when she worked at Warner Bros. After some work together she was casting Metal Gear as a non-union game at the time. That’s where Mae Zadler (Debi’s credited name in MGS1) came from.
She’s put me in a lot and is my absolute favourite director. She’s intense and knows what she wants. I really love her. We’ve done a lot of games together.
C: It is a rather long list. Note – You can see the list here.
D: I don’t even know who put that list together. Someone once asked me about my Wikipedia page, and I didn’t even know I had one!
C: I find that the best people know how to push your buttons and get the best out of you. Is that what Kris did?
D: Absolutely, that woman knows how to push my buttons. We’re both very strong women and I think she understood me.
Q3. For MGS, did you record lines on your own or was there interaction with other actors?
D: That is one of the most important things Kris did. She had the cast members work together. David and I worked together on most of the game. I was rarely in the booth without him. She created energy between us and really helped us develop the relationship. I think it might have been one of the reasons that MGS was so successful. The game was very different to anything else. Putting us together and the accolades we gained for that, I think a lot of it came down to Kris.
I’ve not worked with other people on any other game. It’s only in the MGS games I’ve been with others. So I had a lot of time with David and Beng Spies, who plays Johnny, the farting dude.
C: Re-watching footage from MGS, I couldn’t help but think that those scenes with Johnny must have been funny.
D: It was. I didn’t talk at all in some of our scenes, but we had to do all the kissing. He’s quite a cute guy so that wasn’t hard! But yeah, working with David was always incredible. It was a great gift that we got to do that together.
Q4. I tend to ‘talk with my hands’ a lot. How animated are you when voicing a character?
D: Yeah, my boyfriend makes fun of because I do a lot of conducting. Because you don’t get to use your body and it’s just your voice I think it gets your energy up to move and to use your hands.
Q5. You’ve spent a lot of time with Kris Zimmerman, but did you get to spend much time with Hideo Kojima?
D: I may have met him once on the first game, but most of the time they had a young American guy with us who was fluent in Japanese who worked with us.
C: I only ask because I wonder sometimes how he arrived at the ideas we see in the game, and what sort of person he must be like. Some of the stuff he comes out with is quite…crazy.
D: Yeah, I mean how did he think of the diarrhoea? Was he sat on the toilet thinking about what happens when you’re in a war and need to take a dump?
Q6. Haha that is quite a thought! Maybe we won’t dwell on that one. Moving on…how did the process of recording change between MGS1 and MGS4?
D: It was different mainly due to the years that had passed. I’m not a gamer, on any level whatsoever. I gave away the gifts Konami gave me and had left it behind, so didn’t really know what was going on. I remember riding away with Snake…David at the end of the game. But I knew that Snake and Meryl had a special relationship, unlike anything else I’ve worked on. So it wasn’t hard to bring that back. It was great to see each other after all the years.
The main difference was the mo-cap they did for 4. We had to match the actors movements, which I think in the end added to the game experience.
Also, David was getting the recognition he deserved as a voice actor, and helped us all get paid better for our work. He had changed as a person a lot, with his success at writing X-Men and Hulk. We had a lot of fun and lot of laughs in the booth together. It was a joy and was very nostalgic.
C: It paralleled real life in a way then, with there being a long time between you seeing each other and a lot changing in that time. Watching the first meeting of Meryl and Snake in 4, and now knowing this, you can see how that came together so well.
D: I wouldn’t have been able to fabricate that, without David being there with me. I distinctly remember seeing him for the first time, which makes me tear up a little bit. It was great to go into an amazing studio, knowing what had happened for him and for me, though on different levels. It was very cool, and we’ve both come a long way. We’re both still in the game and in the voice acting game. It’s tough, and a lot of people who used to do it a lot aren’t so much now. Meryl was more successful too, running her own unit and she got to show Snake how far she’d come.
C: Sounds as though you relate to Meryl a fair bit.
D: Oh I definitely relate to Meryl! It’s funny; we look sort of similar with the red hair and physique. They created her before I was involved though, so that’s not intentional, but I think it was cast pretty well!
Q7. I was going to ask if you had to work on your ‘Meryl voice’, but it seems to be basically your normal voice. It’s odd, having played the game so much, to be talking to the voice that I’ve heard so much.
D: I was listening to the recordings, and back then she was directed to be a little higher. But that’s easy to do when you have a studio mike right up close, rather than projecting your voice, like I am now to reach the laptop mic and you. But yeah, it’s me. Older Meryl is just me now!
In God of War 3 I was full on scary ass witch, and you probably wouldn’t know it was me.
At this point Debi asks if the recording is being disrupted by someone using a leaf blower outside. Courteously she offers to sort it/them out, but I decline, everything’s fine. Through the next reply she offers once again. If I wasn’t at ease already I would be now. She’s showing me a fair bit of respect for a random chap from Twitter asking questions.
Q8. We touched on it previously, but mo-cap is prevalent now, especially in games likes Uncharted. Would you be interested in doing that or is that outside of your interest?
D: I did do mo-cap once. It was a very simple role in a driving game but it was a lot of fun. If I was asked I’d definitely say yes. A lot more now they cast the body and the voice as one. They can just do the face and the eyes or they go full package. I’d be happy to do it, though I’m a little older now! Not as limber as I used to be but it’s really cool.
Overall though, I do a lot less games now. They are very hard on your voice, and to be honest the violence kinda freaks me out. I do a lot more promo work, with my career taking a bit of turn. Although with all the tweets and fans that have come out, I am hoping for something to come out of that. I’d love to do some more games.
C: Just to go a bit further with mo-cap and how that links to another topic, the video of Kiefer Sutherland’s introduction as Snake showed him being mo-capped.
D: Why do you think they decided on that?
C: There have been some strong opinions on it all over the internet. But Kojima said he wanted someone who could portray the character in his late forties. Considering Hayter is 44, I found it quite odd. Many people still believe that Kojima is playing mind-games with us and he will still be involved. It wouldn’t be the first time he played a trick on us. But a lot of people aren’t pleased about it.
Note – With the release of the first part of MGSV due out soon, it has become increasingly apparent that David Hayter isn’t involved and that Sutherland is indeed now Snake.
D: I see that, and I understand. After Metal Gear Solid came out – I don’t know if you knew this – but David basically wanted more money. He said “I know you guys (Konami) made millions of dollars from this game, and as the main character I want more money”. They (Konami again) said that they would replace him then, and they couldn’t replace him. They had a big audition all over town, and they could not match his voice. So they gave him the money! You know what? He deserved it. So I’m sure Kiefer Sutherland is making a shit load of money.
I can see how his voice is similar but I don’t get why. To me…you can see that David has so many fans. Why change it.
I’m not gonna bite the hand that feeds me. I haven’t been asked to come back, but I’m sure that if he understood how much the fans like David, then he’d be silly not to bring him back.
D: Speaking of which, I tried to message David on Twitter the other day, after he introduced me to his followers, and it wouldn’t let me. He added me and now doesn’t!
C: Breaking news! Getting all the gossip.
At this point Debi tweets David to ask where he is. I made a joke about being hidden in a box somewhere (quite the comedian). I don’t believe he replied.
Q9. You pretty much just answered this one. But would you come back to Metal Gear if offered the chance?
D: Oh my God come on. I love Meryl. I’d be so honoured. Knowing who I am now and myself as a voice actor I feel I could bring a colour to her that wasn’t there before. I know that there are other women out there who are very famous game voice actors, like Jennifer Hale. But every time someone finds out I’m Meryl, they freak out. I don’t know if that’s just what happens with every game, and I don’t know why Metal Gear has such a special place in people’s hearts.
C: At the time there was nothing else really like it. The game play was great, but it was also like watching a film. There were large portions where you just put the controller down, and listened. To you, to David, to all the characters. Detractors would say there is too much. But when you’re invested that doesn’t matter. You get into it and roll with it or you don’t. For those who do get it, they’ve spent a lot of time listening to you and getting involved. So to then meet you and freak out, I can understand it as they feel as though they’ve spent a lot of time with you already.
Q10. What is your favourite line as Meryl? Does anything spring to mind?
D: La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo always comes to mind. But yesterday I was watching some footage from MGS4, between Johnny and myself. I said to him “I want a real wedding with flowers and a cake, and I want to be a bride. Take me home Johnny.” I’ve never been a bride myself or been interested in the cake and dress, but I thought that was a really cool line that Meryl got to say.
Q11. You’ve done a lot of work outside of games. It’s quite eclectic. Is there much work you actively chase, or do you generally just hit up a lot of auditions and hope for the best?
D: Voice acting has the most auditions of any part of acting. There are so many voice over roles – for computers, on air planes, in shops, commercials, games, radio…it goes on. There are a lot of opportunities. I often do the audition and then let it go, or I’d drive myself crazy. But my love right now is doing sports promos. I’ve done NFL and ESPN, along with Women’s Basketball. I’m really hoping to get the job for soccer on FOX. But with all this nostalgia, I’m hoping that the people at Konami get in touch!
C: Well, Kojima has said each time that it would be his last game, so who knows what else he could make. Maybe Johnny and Meryl could go to war as Man and Wife!
Q12. So what are you working on at the moment?
D: I just did a couple before speaking to you. I’m currently the voice of Discovery Health (American TV channel) and Investigation Discovery, where I’m the voice of the Ladies Killers crime show.
C: Considering I watch that channel a lot I’ll have to listen out for you!
D: Yeah! I’m still the voice of Tsunadae on Naruto too, who’s a witch. Do you know Naruto?
C: Yes, I don’t watch it myself, but I’ve got a younger Sister and a lot of her friends know it really well.
C: Who would win between, Meryl and Tsunade?
D: Oooo I don’t know. They are both bad-asses. In this show she is a very powerful woman, like a medicine women, and she can heal people as well as leading and teaching people. She’s like Meryl; she got big tits and she fights in heeled shoes!
I mention that there seems to be a theme in the characters that Debi plays, to which she retorts that she hasn’t got big tits! Taking the high ground I comment that I meant their attitudes!
Q13. Last question and it’s a tough one! As my blog is ‘Super Duper Stuff’….what do you think is Super Duper?
D: I think it’s super-duper that I get to do voice overs for my job. It’s allowed me to do some really cool stuff that has made a difference. In my spare time I throw big dance parties with DJ’s that have raised a lot of money organisations to help children and the environment. So it’s super duper that I was chosen by whatever force of nature to use my voice to make a difference. The characters I’ve played have made a difference in people’s lives and I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people. I’m completely in awe of what has happened to me and I’m so, so grateful.
C: I think a lot of people would agree that they’re pleased you’ve had the chances too. Eugh, getting a bit gushy there!
D: No, I appreciate that, I’m a gusher too so I appreciate it. I’ve generally marketed myself a certain way for work, and I’ve let slip the whole gaming part of it. Jennifer Hale does a lot of work on the social side, and that’s not something I’ve ever really done, so I’m inspired by your gushiness to maybe put some more energy into bringing my voice back into the gaming world.
C: Thank you for time Debi. As someone who has spent a lot of time with Meryl over the years it’s been a real pleasure to get to talk to you.
D: Oh you’re welcome. Good luck with the blog and everything in the future.
Now that I’ve had the time to cut out a lot of embarrassing fan-boy gushiness from myself, I hope you enjoyed it. To get the opportunity, and for Debi to so lovely about it all, is amazing. Thank you Debi.