The star of The Last of Us and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor talks about where he's been and where he's going
"A long time ago, a friend of mine told me, 'Your life is a three-legged stool,'" Troy Baker says. "'You have your personal life, your professional life and your spiritual life. And if one of those three things is off, then you don't sit right.'"
It's a zen attitude to adopt, but karma seems to be on the good side of one of gaming's biggest actors. Baker has been in the business for years, but it's been key roles like BioShock Infinite's Booker DeWitt, The Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins and Joel in The Last of Us that helped propel him into stardom. In 2014 alone, he was credited with more than a dozen gaming parts, several of which were breakout performances in the AAA game scene. Looking ahead, Baker will lend his voice to key roles in games such as Batman: Arkham Knight, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain.
For Baker, such a degree of success consistently guarantees one thing: late nights or early mornings, sometimes both. He works anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a day, he says, answering emails, having conversations, working to keep projects moving. In between those frenzied moments of movement, there are kernels of personal time — hanging out with his wife, hitting the gym, eating, sleeping, unwinding.
"The only thing that's typical about it is that it's crazy," Baker says. "I like moving at a very fast pace, and that's one reason why I love this industry so much. It kind of affords that opportunity to be able to really run at a good clip."
Baker's rise to fame shouldn't be mistaken with a simple run, or even a sprint. He's proving to be a master at the marathon.
A year in review, or the unexpected success of Shadow of Mordor
2014 was a good year to be Troy Baker. He voiced the soldier star in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the flamboyant villain of Far Cry 4 and Infamous: Second Son's mixed-up hero. That's to say nothing of one of the year's most critically acclaimed titles, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, in which Baker gave his talents to the protagonist, Talion.
Shadow of Mordor was a hit when it launched, but it was also something of a gamble for Baker — an underdog, in his eyes. Not because the franchise doesn't carry a great deal of clout, the actor adds. From a literary standpoint, it's unparalleled.
But it differs from past games in a very major way: It lacks the pull of the big-name characters fans have come to love. Shadow of Mordor has no Gandalf, Aragorn or even Frodo. Instead, the most recognizable character players got was ... Gollum. (Sorry, Celebrimbor.)
The chance to tackle a new story excited Baker, as did the risk involved.
"If you only go for the sure bet, that's kind of a shitty way to live life," Baker says. "I like taking risks. I like finding something that I can get behind and believe, and people that will allow me to partner with them and really roll my sleeves up and get dirty."
Baker emphasizes this with every role he talks about: the challenge, the involvement, the thrill of working on a project he and the team working on it really love. He points to other games like Sucker Punch's Infamous: Second Son; it did well enough commercially, but Baker had hoped for better.
"If you only go for the sure bet, that's kind of a shitty way to live life."
"Sucker Punch is one of those teams that was like, 'We're going for broke on this,'" Baker says. "I wanted to see that game do even better, because we were so proud of it and we worked so hard on that game … I feel like games like that should have Call of Duty numbers, World of Warcraft numbers. I want everybody to play them."
"Call of Duty numbers" is a space Baker got to know well this year. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare — which, notably, also featured a performance from actor Kevin Spacey — was the top-selling game of 2014.
But though Shadow of Mordor may be missing from a list of best-sellers that includes the likes of Destiny, Madden NFL 15 and Super Smash Bros., it was a critical darling last year. It snagged Best Action/Adventure Game at The Game Awards, grabbed eight wins at the DICE Awards and numerous Game of the Year awards, including the honor for this year's Game Developers Choice Awards. Critics, developers and fans praised the game's nemesis systems, which essentially create endless player-driven narratives.
"What that game showed me specifically, as both someone who makes games and someone who plays games, is that if you provide a platform for people to create their own story, that is what we really want," Baker says. "What really resonated with people were the personal vendettas that they were crafting.
"[Shadow of Mordor] was something that year that I was really, really proud of," Baker says. "Not only for the team — to see a small team work super hard to create an incredible game — but it made me have a lot of hope within our culture of what people really want. 'Here's a world. Go nuts.' And that's what people were drawn to."
"Also, working with Kevin Spacey was pretty rad."
Acting, and that one sports analogy
Baker doesn't consider himself the kind of actor to simply show up on set and read lines. He studies his characters in what he affectionately dubs "homework." That means discussing the character with game creators to get a better sense of their motivations, and reading. Lots and lots of reading. He compares it to studying for a dissertation or thesis in college.
Take his upcoming character in Uncharted 4, for example. Baker assumed the role of Sam Drake, Nathan Drake's older brother, after a recast. When Baker approached writer Josh Scherr for source material, Scherr directed him to literature on pirate culture, as well as some Wikipedia reading.
Research, and especially the reading, never ends if you want to create believable characters, Baker says. Compare it to someone on a Law and Order- or CSI-type show, where they rattle off technical jargon with the kind of aplomb that comes from memorization. Still, it's not true understanding — and it shows, he says.
But that's not to be confused with overthinking each part. Baker says his process is to not have a process when it comes to acting. As soon as he starts to think about it too much, he's doing a disservice to the character.
"A really great director told me one time, 'That moment that you're about to go into exists there," Baker says. "'It doesn't exist anywhere else. It doesn't exist in the parking lot, or in your car as you're driving to set. It doesn't exist in makeup or hair. It doesn't exist over by craft services. It exists at that exact moment.'
"When you are trying to be in the moment, and you're walking around the stage or the set and you're thinking about how your character feels about this moment and everything, you come in so full of your own shit that you're not open to anything that's actually happening in the scene. Because you're expecting your other actors to respond the same way that you are."
Baker compares it to football players talking smack at the line of scrimmage. As soon as the play begins, the chatter cuts. All they're focused on is the man in front of them.
"That's the only sports analogy I can make, by the way," he says.
On Feb. 14 of this year, a Twitter user sent Baker a strange request: "Can you please stop making video games? The only reason I won't play Dying Light is because I got enough of your voice."
Troy Baker isn't in Dying Light; that's Roger Craig Smith.
Baker tells this story to illustrate a point. The same handful of actors are beginning to act as public-facing ambassadors for the games, and it's a double-edged sword.
"I love doing that, because I love talking about the games and projects that I'm proud of and excited to be a part of," Baker says. "But because of that, now we know who Troy Baker is. Now we know who Nolan North is. Or Laura Bailey. Or Travis Willingham.
"[People] start ascribing these roles to us when we're not in it. There's so many things on my IMDb and Wikipedia that I'm like, 'I never did that.' ... It starts working against you and you start having to tiptoe very carefully around this minefield."
Baker doesn't buy into the idea that an actor's body of work could be condensed into a single performance. He points to Nolan North, who is perhaps best known as the voice of Nathan Drake. But to label North as only Nathan Drake is a disservice; people don't know what kind of range the guy has, Baker says.
"He's the most talented person working in the business," Baker says. "But he's so good at just being Nolan. That's the guy you want to hang out with. That's the guy you want to have drinks with. That's who people cast in their game. But he can do anything.
"I can't control when the game ships, if it's going to be good, if people like it."
"It's just so funny when people are like, 'I'm tired of it,'" Baker says. "No you're not. You can't get enough. You just know that you're tired of that name."
And, as an afterthought: "You know, Bradley Cooper a lot of the time sounds the same way. He looks a lot of the time the same way. It's a different character."
Still, there's something to be said for being a recognizable name in games with a good reputation. Baker says he snagged the role of Sam Drake in Uncharted 4 after Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann reached out to him.
"Neil was like, 'We're changing this character up fundamentally, but we're on the clock. We need to move fast. Who do we know that we trust, that has a relationship with Nolan, that can jump in here and we know can pull this off? Get me Troy Baker.'
"And that is probably the greatest compliment, honoring, that you can possibly think of, that in someone's mind I'm a solution to a problem."
Ultimately, Baker can control the projects he's a part of, but not when they come out. He points to The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite and Batman: Arkham Origins, which were all released within a few months of each other. But, all of those games were delayed. It was the perfect storm of AAA game releases, and Baker was right in the middle of it.
"I can't control when the game ships, if it's going to be good, if people like it," Baker says. "All I can do is my work. And if I leave the stage or that booth feeling good about my work, then that's it. It's not about awards; it's not about accolades; it's not about how many units you sold. That's all I care about: In that moment, what can I do with that character that resonates with this game, with the team, that we're all proud of.
"What I want people to focus on — and what I replied to that guy on Twitter — [is] maybe just focus on the gameplay and characters, not the person who's playing them. Don't focus on the actor."
Revisiting The Last of Us in film
"I wouldn't want to do it," Baker says.
Despite cries from fans, Baker is resolute in passing Joel's torch off to someone else when The Last of Us completes its transition into a film. He's happier to be able to disappear behind that role in video games, as opposed to becoming the face of the character himself.
Baker thinks about Joel more than any other character he's ever been. It's his hope for the character to be respected and honored in a new way.
"I love Joel so much that all I care about is him being represented as best as possible," Baker says. "Ashley [Johnson, the voice of Ellie in the game] feels the same way. These are real people to us. We love them so much."
When it comes to casting Joel, Baker has a simple wish: to find someone who is genuinely interested in the character. And if, God forbid, the opposite happens — the actor's lines fall flat, or there's no soul to be found there — well, that's kind of a win for Baker in its own way.
"Either it's this incredible performance and a completely different take on the character, and I get to learn something about Joel that I never knew," Baker says, "or the guy sucks, and I'm like, 'I'm the only person that can play Joel.' So it's a win-win."
Still, Baker wants to see the film soar. There's no mistake about that.
"I want it to succeed because I believe in the story, and I believe in Neil," Baker says. "If it doesn't succeed, that says something else. If it doesn't have the same impact as a movie that it does as a game, that to me says something really powerful about games."
The actor remains insistent that the only role he'd want to play is one he's talked briefly about in the past.
"To maybe play a clicker or a Firefly in the movie would be awesome, just for people who give a shit and know, 'Hey, that's Troy!'" he says. "And then I get killed by Joel."
Not exactly glamorous, but one hell of a hat-tip.
Full or bust
Troy Baker's future in games is one tied up in secrets. Asking questions enters the "what we can talk about" category, of which there is very little. There are the known projects, like Uncharted 4, and there are the franchises he'd like to stay with, like Shadow of Mordor, should there be more. The rest is left to dwindle in forced silence.
If the future does hold one thing for certain, it's more work in the game industry. Baker can't imagine himself ever leaving by choice.
"I think that if I ever feel that I'm in that position, there is going to be a line of people that I trust with bats in hand ready to kick my ass," Baker says. "It goes back to the very first job I ever had — this pilot that never got picked up, but I got to work with someone who became a good friend of mine, Lou Diamond Phillips.
"We were on set and I asked him, 'At what point do you — ' and he goes, 'Stop.' I hadn't even finished asking, and he says, 'What I'm hearing from you is that you somehow believe that at some point in time, you will have arrived. And that's never going to happen. So if there's something that you truly believe in — that's the right thing to do — you do it, regardless of the risks. But you ask for it now. You don't wait until you feel that you've earned the right to ask that. You do it now, and either it goes full or bust on you.'"
Baker's success in recent years has given him the chance to pursue other opportunities. He was approached by a company in London, one starting to create content for the virtual reality space, that has encouraged his dream to produce.
"It'd be kind of fun to be on the other side of things, really working with something from the ground up and putting things together."
"If I look at myself as just an actor, then I think invariably this thing will run out," Baker says. "The train will pull into the last stop at some point. And I love this industry so much, and I believe in it so much, that I want to find a way that I can somehow still stay active in it."
He's drawn to directing and producing, in part because of working with people like Neil Druckmann. It's given him the chance to understand what directing looks like; it's not about being in control, Baker says, but surrendering control.
"That's something that I think I'm probably going to more transition into, somehow behind the camera as opposed to in front of it," Baker says. "I always want to be able to act. That's something that I love doing, especially in this medium. But it'd be kind of fun to be on the other side of things, really working with something from the ground up and putting things together. So who knows? Maybe there's some opportunities there."
The appeal for him will remain with things that are character-driven, story-driven. Baker sees the current gaming landscape in flux, swinging from major focuses on story or gameplay to somewhere between the two. That's a fine fit for him; he hopes to find partners that want to pursue incredible stories and grounded characters in an experience that can still engage a player.
"I don't believe I'll ever believe that I'm at the point where I'm like, 'Boom. That's it. There's nothing greater that can be done,'" Baker says. "All I care about is ... 'What's the best work I can put in that myself and the team believe in?' I just leave it at that."