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At left, a headshot of Yuri Lowenthal; at right, an image of Venom from Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man 2 Graphic: Matt Patches/Polygon | Source images: Yuri Lowenthal, Insomniac Games

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How Spider-Man 2’s star put Venom in Peter’s voice: ‘Once or twice I hurt myself’

Yuri Lowenthal talks vocal stress, AI, and the possible strike

Yuri Lowenthal is one of gaming and animation’s most prolific and hardworking voice actors. With hundreds of credits stretching back over two decades — the man’s resume is so big it needs its own separate Wikipedia page — we’ve rarely gone a year without the pleasure of hearing his instantly recognizable performances, most recently as Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2.

But what goes into these many roles, and what does voice acting look like as technology rapidly advances toward the stuff of dystopian science fiction? Lowenthal spoke to Polygon about his most recent video game roles, as well as a possible voice actor strike and the importance of nailing down considerations for AI usage and worker health in the Screen Actors Guild’s ongoing contract negotiations with major studios.

Of course, I couldn’t open my conversation with Lowenthal without asking about his returning to the role of Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2, released in October. He’d yet to crack open his early copy of the game when we spoke a few days before its arrival on PlayStation 5, explaining that his self-admitted lack of skill often keeps him from spending too much time with the action-heavy projects to which he lends his voice.

“You know, famously, I’m not great at playing video games,” Lowenthal told me over a video call, rarely dropping his trademark grin. “I famously 3%-ed the original Spider-Man game and then walked away out of frustration. I’d much rather just watch YouTube playthroughs or cinematics all strung together than actually play it. I’m more [into] these days, like, story-based, on-rails [games], maybe a couple of easy puzzles. Cool atmosphere, cool story, not something where I have to learn complex mechanics to fight off things that are trying to kill me every 30 seconds. I just don’t have it in my heart anymore.”

Lowenthal shared that his young son’s recent interest 2018’s Spider-Man gave him a chance to return to it and get farther than he did before, swapping controllers with the 7-year-old whenever either of them would get frustrated.

Despite donning Spider-Man’s virtual spandex a mere five years ago — for comparison, his time as Naruto anti-hero Sasuke Uchiha in both the anime and its various movie and video game spinoffs began in 2005 and continues to this day — Lowenthal’s confidently boyish personality has become almost as synonymous with the web-spinning crimefighter as on-screen actors like Tobey Maguire and Tom Holland. His intimate knowledge of the character, combined with the comfort of working with Spider-Man developer Insomniac Games all these years, means he feels comfortable going off-script on occasion, though even he’s been surprised by the lines they use from recording sessions.

“Every now and then, something shows up in the game I had no idea they were going to use,” Lowenthal said. “Most memorably in that first [Spider-Man] game, I made a joke just for the room, basically. It was an ad lib on a sort of Western-themed quip or joke, and I said, ‘Yippee-ki-yay, mother spider,’ just as an alt, which I assumed they would burn. And then somebody sent me a clip [of the voice line] in the finished game. I had no idea that it made it in. I’ve gotten to a place in working with Insomniac where somebody will say, ‘Did you make this up?’ And I’ll listen to it and be like, ‘At this point, I have no idea.’ Maybe that’s what they wrote, maybe that’s one I came up with. We’re all in the same groove now and we record so many lines that it’s hard to keep track.”

A couple years into recording for Spider-Man 2, Lowenthal was offered the role of Smoke in Mortal Kombat 1, which was released in September. I was curious what he thought of the fighting game franchise’s modern reliance on “stunt casting,” or casting a mainstream celebrity to drum up attention. Mortal Kombat 1, for example, features movie star Megan Fox in the role of fan-favorite character Nitara, while leaving the vampire’s grunts and screams to veteran voice actor Cristina Vee.

Taking care not to disparage anyone involved in the Mortal Kombat 1 situation, Lowenthal admitted he’s of two minds when it comes to stunt casting. His knee-jerk reaction is to wonder why any studio would take an on-camera actor over an established voice actor. But on the other hand, he understands that convincing the entertainment industry’s money people to finance a project becomes much easier if you can point to the casting of a widely known film actor. Sometimes, Lowenthal added, it can mean the difference between something getting made and not getting made.

“As an example, I got to work on a show that was also a game that was also a one-off movie called Afro Samurai,” Lowenthal said. “And if Samuel L. Jackson had not said, ‘I want to be Afro Samurai,’ that never would have gotten made. But because he said yes to that, and it got made, I got to be a part of that, so it’s also hard for me to just sort of write it off and say, ‘Leave it to the voice actors, we’ll take care of it, you’re stupid to hire movie stars.’ That’s not always the case. And to go even deeper, they wanted a movie star for my part in Afro Samurai, but they hadn’t locked down the deal yet. They brought me in to do scratch tracks for that actor, but then the deal fell through and I got to be a part of Afro Samurai, which is still one of my favorite projects ever.”

The ins and outs of the entertainment business loom large in many video game performers’ minds these days, due to ongoing negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and a group of major studios that includes Insomniac Games and Warner Bros. Games, which published Mortal Kombat 1. Voice actors represented by SAG-AFTRA authorized a strike in September, and as of now, union reps are still trying to hammer out a fair contract for members covered by the interactive media agreement.

While “artificial intelligence” is a bit of a misnomer, AI usage forms the crux of SAG-AFTRA’s concerns. The rapidly improving technology is getting to the point where, if allowed to run rampant, voice actors may be called in to do a single job and then watch as an algorithm mimics their tone, inflection, and cadence without the need to continue paying or ask permission from the human being behind the original performance. Lowenthal equated it to being “puppeted” and emphasized the need for consent from all parties, even in the case of not-for-profit fan works, to prevent exploitation.

“If we could work [AI] out, I think pretty much everything else is in a pretty good place,” Lowenthal said. “None of us are anti-technology or think we can stop any of that stuff. It’s just that the technology could easily be used to exploit the people who helped develop it, namely the actors. And with the current temperature of corporate greed, I think that could easily happen, even if a lot of people are well-meaning. We’re trying to open a dialogue between the companies that are creating and using the AI and actors to establish some best practices, some protections, some guidelines now so that, going forward, we can avoid the whole exploitation thing.”

It remains to be seen if voice actors will go on strike, but they’re no strangers to withholding their labor if it means better working conditions. During the last round of negotiations, SAG-AFTRA went on strike against a similar group of video game developers and publishers for over a year starting in late 2016 when an agreement couldn’t be reached on a new contract. And while compensation was the chief concern at the time, the striking voice actors also got employers to make a commitment to work with the union on the issue of vocal stress.

Talking doesn’t sound all that exerting, Lowenthal explained, but when a voice actor spends hours recording, it can really do a number on their vocal cords, and the strain only increases when they’re asked to grunt or scream. Most jobs now limit sessions to four hours, and if things get intense, they may take a break at just two. It’s all about ensuring voice actors don’t injure themselves and employers get the best performances possible —common goals that are more easily achieved when studios bring in folks familiar with the art form.

“In the case of Spider-Man 2, there was symbiote stuff that’s not normal Peter Parker Spider-Man, and I was really pushing because I really wanted it to sound different,” Lowenthal said. “I really wanted people to see the difference between regular old friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and ‘with great power comes no responsibility’ Spider-Man, and once or twice I hurt myself. Kris Zimmerman, the voice director at Insomniac, and everyone at all levels, they were always trying to protect me. But every now and then I’d get excited and wouldn’t even know how hard I’d pushed until later that day and probably should have called it an hour before we called it.”

Venom in Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 Image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Enthusiasm-related vocal injuries aside, one thing that Lowenthal made explicitly clear over the course of our conversation was just how important Peter’s journey with the symbiote was to everyone who worked behind the scenes on Spider-Man 2. Taking on the alien parasite doesn’t automatically flip a switch in Spider-Man’s mind from good guy to jerk; rather, it influences him subtly over the course of the story, which naturally called for Lowenthal to adjust his performance from moment to moment depending on where in the script they were. And since big projects like these are often recorded out of sequence, it was necessary to develop a shorthand; Peter’s early experiences with the symbiote, for example, were compared by those in the studio to the initial stages of substance abuse.

“Every now and then I would do something and Kris Zimmerman would be like, ‘That’s Pete later on down the line,’ or she would confirm with a writer or a producer in the session [about where we were at] in the game. Sometimes we would have to go back [with the understanding] of, you know, Peter’s just tried cocaine for the first time and so things are still happy. He’s super excited and he’s having a good time.

I haven’t played much of Spider-Man 2 yet (sorry, Yuri), so it’s hard to square the endlessly optimistic actor I spoke to last week voicing someone who, in his words, loses his humanity and becomes “part animal, part creature.” Maybe that’s why Lowenthal is the perfect Peter Parker and, ultimately, what makes the character’s journey so impactful. When I asked him if he had anything else he hoped to impart about the ongoing contract negotiations and a potential strike, Lowenthal remained steadfast in his union’s goals while also reserving empathy for those who may not understand why drastic measures are sometimes the only way to improve working conditions.

“We still don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out, but there are certain things that we’re fighting for right now that we know if we just sort of lay down and take it, like we have in the past on certain technology-based things, we’ll never get it back,” Lowenthal said. “This is where we take our stand and hopefully everybody can come to some sort of agreement. I know it’s complicated. It’s easy to sort of pass judgment on one part of the negotiation, not knowing from the inside how things work. Trust me, none of us want to strike. Striking hurts everyone and everything. We only do it when we feel like it’s of the utmost importance to creating a sustainable future for what we do.”