You might not know Troy Baker’s name, but if you’ve played a video game in the last decade - you certainly know his voice. With his dulcet tones bringing life to some of the medium’s most beloved characters (Sam Drake, Batman, Booker Dewitt) and literally hundreds more, Baker has established himself as video game royalty – and a bit of a vocal booth rockstar. Essentially, he’s the Brad Pitt of video games (sorry Nolan North).
Yet despite Baker lending his surprisingly versatile voice to everyone from Wolverine to The Joker, it was his role as The Last Of Us’ Joel that really elevated him to the big leagues.
Sitting down with Stealth Optional, Baker admits that auditioning for Naughty Dog’s plaid shirt-loving protagonist was the first time that he felt truly nervous in his acting career. The year was 2013, and despite Baker having already appeared in well over 200 games, Naughty Dog’s PS3 swansong was the first time he’d been offered a lead role in a AAA game.
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Read on to discover Troy Baker's initial, nervous impressions of reading the role of Joel...
Baker thought, "I am not right for this role"
"Before The Last Of Us, I was getting all these kind of second, third tier games which were great roles, but no where near the scale of the AAA, Naughty Dog kind of stuff. I was such a huge fan of Naughty Dog and their games – especially the Uncharted franchise – that when I got the opportunity to read for one of their games, I was A, instantly excited, but B) frustrated… because I saw the character description and was like 'oh, I am not right for this role - at all.'"
Seven years on, it’s hard to imagine anything but Baker’s gruff southern drawl coming out of Joel’s increasingly haggard-looking face. Yet as the voice actor entered the building where he’d nab the role of the lifetime, he instantly felt crippled by imposter syndrome. Pacing frantically outside the audition room, Baker reveals that despite his vast experience, the gravity of the role suddenly had his stomach in knots.
"I was terrified because I realised that this really meant something – that this wasn’t just a normal audition." While it may sound laughable now, when Baker walked into that room, he immediately began to feel that everything about him was at odds with who Joel was as a character. He even started to worry about the way he, the voice actor, looked.
“I remember walking onto the sound stage – the production office that they had off to the side - the holding room for the rest of the Joels,” he says with an infectious laugh, “ and I sat in the chair. All around the room there was the character that was on the piece of paper in my hand, and then you have me with this bleach blonde hair, ratted jeans - I just really wasn’t Joel.At. All.”
Baker admits that he came dangerously close to giving up on his dream right then and there. "I had this moment where I said I could leave now, and no one would know that I was here", Baker admits with a nervous smile, "I literally had backed up and put my hand on the door knob, twisted it and turned it open, ready to leave when suddenly I hear 'Troy?' and they called my name. And I took a deep breath and walked in."
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So in that initial audition, what was going on in his head?
Casting his mind back to that first audition for the role of Joel, Baker remembers having a lot of nerves.
"All of that fear - and the insecurity that I had - it completely blinded me from all of the work and preparation that I had done for that character, and the truth that I knew about Joel that no one else knew.
"It didn’t mean that their truth wasn’t as good, but I had my own truth about Joel and it turns out that that’s the truth that Neil Druckmann AND Bruce Straley and everyone at Naughty Dog wanted to tell. It’s funny, really," Baker says with a thoughtful smile, "my fear almost prevented us from being able to tell that version of Joel’s story…"
While Joel was of course always written a certain way in the game’s script, each actor brings with them their own vastly different interpretation of a character. It’s strange to think now, but if Baker had let his anxieties consume him, the Joel that we all know and love today simply wouldn’t exist. "If anyone else had been cast in that role you would have got a different version of Joel’s story," Baker muses, "But I think that the one that we told obviously resonated a lot with people."
Yet it is not just fans that should be thankful that we got the Joel that we did, for Troy Baker, it’s a moment that he treasures every single day. "[After The Last of Us] everything changed for me. That game changed my life, it changed me as an actor and it changed me as a human. It gave me – in my opinion – the opportunity to tell one of the greatest stories ever told."
Since taking the starring role in Naughty Dog’s zombie franchise, Baker has found himself in huge demand, working on everything from beloved animated series like The Regular Show to acting alongside Norman Reedus in the multi BAFTA-nominated, Death Stranding. He may not have had Joel’s look down, but for millions of gamers around the world, Baker embodied a character that they will remember for a lifetime.
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