Toeing the Line: It's about their voices, not their faces
By Ray Richmond
November 8, 2013 | 4:57 p.m.
You have heard Jess Harnell, Carlos Alazraqui and Gary Anthony Williams before, even if you've probably never heard of them.
Maybe you've heard Harnell in one of the three "Toy Story" movies, or "Finding Nemo," or one of the other Disney-Pixar films in which his voice has appeared. You no doubt heard Alazraqui as the famed voice of the Taco Bell commercial Chihuahua intoning "Yo quiero Taco Bell!" And perhaps you heard Williams in the acclaimed animated series, "The Boondocks," giving voice to Uncle Ruckus.
The bottom line is that while all three men have enjoyed more than their share of live-action acting moments in film and TV, their vocal chords are more renowned than their names and faces. And they're OK with that, as making your primarily living doing voice-overs — much of it for the kiddie animation world — is a pretty nice deal.
"There's rarely a day where I feel like I have to go to work," said Williams. "I consider what I do an absolute joy."
Added Harnell, "It's the greatest job I could ever hope to have. I get to use my animation and creativity. And unlike on-camera acting, it isn't limited to what I look like. I've played old women. I've played little kids. I've played animals. And trust me when I say I am actually none of those."
Alazraqui noted, "I get to create a make-believe world for kids. How great is that?"
All three men are entrenched these days in the Disney world in Burbank. Harnell plays the voice of Cedric, the royal sorcerer, in the Disney Junior animated series "Sofia the First," which premieres its first primetime special "Sofia the First: The Floating Palace" on Nov. 24 on the Disney Channel (Nov. 28 on Disney Junior).
Alazraqui and Williams, meanwhile, can be heard in the new animated series "Sheriff Callie's Wild West" — described as the "first western for preschoolers." It rolls out exclusively online at watchdisneyjunior.com and as a Disney Junior app beginning Nov. 24.
In the latter, Alazraqui portrays the wise old desert tortoise Tio Tortuga, while Williams voices the joint roles of Dirty Dan and his brother, Dusty, a couple of Old West miners who like to stir up trouble.
Few would argue that voice-over work is a pretty sweet gig. You can show up for work unshaven in torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt and it doesn't much matter. But for that reason, the job is highly coveted — and a legendarily difficult fraternity to bust into
"We all started at zero," Harnell assures, "and we all heard how tough it is to find work. It doesn't come easy. You have to stick with it. And you've got to be good."
Indeed, the general public largely has an impression of voice actors being simple readers.
"It's real acting," assures Alazraqui, who has a slew of feature voice credits, including Disney's "Planes."
"There's a lot of preparation involved. Kids can tell the difference when you aren't fully in a character," he added.
If the anonymity of their craft might seem like a double-edged sword — trading facial recognition for privacy — none of the three guys finds much down side to that. Perhaps a larger issue is the use of superstar celebrity voices to sell studio animated films, taking the big work away from the legion of professional voice artists.
"I think it bothers some of my compatriots more than it does me," Harnell says. "I've still been blessed to get roles in a lot of movies."
Harnell and Alazraqui agree that they have less problem with it if the star puts out the effort to play an actual character (such as Ellen DeGeneres in "Nemo") rather than simply their own vocal persona (like Ray Romano in the "Ice Age" films).
"I'm much less impressed when they just sound like themselves," Harnell says.
Williams points out that with the rise of Comic-Con, the notoriety for he and his ilk has increased and "it's a little harder to travel under the radar," he believes. "Those Comic-Con guys know every voice I've ever done."
The flip side was the time he read for a voice-over gig in Atlanta that was looking for "a Gary Anthony Williams type."
He didn't get the job.
"Apparently," Williams concluded, "someone was more me than I was that day."