This story was originally published Jun. 19, 2013.
Rob Wiethoff is in Puerto Rico, and he has no idea what the hell he’s doing.
After following a girl to Los Angeles and bartending to fund a search for acting jobs, Wiethoff caught a break: A producer, after a few drinks, offered him a deal. Wiethoff would fly to Puerto Rico and do some crew work on a film. Perhaps there’d be a small role in the picture as well.
The reality of the situation wasn’t quite on par with the promise. “I’m sure they were selling drugs,” Wiethoff says, with a nervous laugh.
After staying for a week and seeing the sights, there were nothing but empty promises. The producer strung a tale of lost funding and a green light for shooting that was always just around the corner. Every day it was a different story. Every day he came up short.
Wiethoff, who hadn’t even spotted a crew member anywhere, wised up and left.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been fed an empty promise. A girlfriend of a “producer” or a shady agent after a drink or seven had thrown him talk of acting jobs before. They’d all say the same thing: work and fame would be around the corner. They weren’t.
“There is so much bullshit in [Los Angeles],” he says. “I didn’t need to sell my soul to one more wiseass who was going to ‘change my life forever.’”
Wiethoff isn’t a mainstream name, but the video game industry knows his voice well. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen and heard his performance-captured role as John Marston in developer Rockstar’s 2010 hit, Red Dead Redemption.
Wiethoff’s acting was, and is, extremely well-reviewed. But unlike other off-screen darlings such as Nolan North or Jennifer Hale, Wiethoff never used his success to leverage more acting opportunities.
Even a sizable portion of Red Dead Redemption fans wouldn’t know his name. His billing appears in no other game.
Wiethoff simply disappeared.
After wrapping the game in 2010, Wiethoff made his way back to his hometown of Seymour, Ind., and walked right into a 9-to-5 at an industrial supplies company. He has a wife and 18-month-old twin boys. He spends time with his family at his sister’s house by a lake.
It’s a strange end for this one-time actor’s story. He certainly has the support to continue his career — a cursory internet search is filled with tributes to Wiethoff’s character and his memorable voice.
But it’s not what Wiethoff wanted. After a decade living in Hollywood, he simply grew tired of the lies. “You hear so much talk in Los Angeles,” says Wiethoff. “So-called producers say they’ll hook you up with a job. But you hear so much and it just ends up being total bullshit.
”I got to a point where I needed to ask myself if it was worth it anymore. For me, I guess it wasn’t.”
Finding John Marston: Small Town beginnings
Los Angeles was never in Wiethoff’s plan, and acting certainly wasn’t either. Unlike other Hollywood darlings who pursued the stage from childhood, Wiethoff followed the path laid out for small-town boys like himself: sports.
”I never really knew what exactly I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “The funny thing about a small town is that sports is the entertainment, so everyone is into it. I remember looking up to older cousins and watching them compete. “I quickly realized I wasn’t going to be a pro.”
The son of a doctor, Wiethoff enjoyed a privileged childhood with his family. In this small town of under 20,000 — the same “small town” rock legend John Mellencamp calls home — he was free to enjoy wide-open spaces and a good education.
Wiethoff had everything, except a little direction. Without any particular goal, he followed the family path, went to Indiana University and completed a degree in general studies, which he laments is “basically like going to high school twice.”
”I definitely found my partying legs there. I didn’t take it very seriously.” After finishing college, and still without a plan, Wiethoff simply “followed where the wind took me.” He trailed a girlfriend to Chicago where he scored some work as a bouncer for a couple of weeks, then as a recruiter for IT companies. He had no idea what he was doing.
”I always found ways to let things work out and enjoy my life,” he says. “I guess I didn’t have too many cares in the world.”
After his girlfriend moved to Los Angeles, his courteous, small-town charm and happy-go-lucky demeanor prompted him to follow. He quickly got to know some of her friends, and found himself running in the outside circles of some well-known actors.
This is when the promises began.
”I met a lot of cool people, and the girlfriends of those actors and producers kept saying they could get me some acting work, or some crew work,” he says.
He brushed it off as a fun possibility, not taking the offers too seriously. But back in Indiana, working construction under the hot summer sun, the attractive offers became too hard to ignore. What did he have to lose?
”There are a lot of hard-working, good people here. They’d do anything for you.””Hell, I was young. Why not?”
While Wiethoff loved Seymour, and Seymour loved him and his family back, the diverse makeup of Los Angeles provided a nice reprieve from the pleasant but incestuous atmosphere of a small town.
”There are a lot of hard-working, good people here. They’d do anything for you. But everybody can be the same, they take over their parents’ businesses and never move. The same families have been here for generations.
”To go to Los Angeles and experience all the diversity there, it had a huge, huge impact on me. I don’t think less of the people here, not at all, but ... it’s just a big world and I’m glad I got to experience a part of it.”
Despite thinking the whole idea was crazy, Wiethoff packed up his car and left for Los Angeles. He nearly turned around a dozen times, he says, during brief moments of self-doubt, but eventually reached the West Coast and started work as a bartender.
Wiethoff would call the city home for 10 years, but in much of that time he never broke into the spotlight. There were some commercials here and there, but nothing to push him to superstar status.
The girlfriends of the actors and producers kept promising him gigs — he never actually met any of the boyfriends — but nothing ever materialized. Several times he was promised work that was just around the corner, and time after time, it would never show.
Such is life in Hollywood. In this city where every waiter has a screenplay, the majority of aspiring actors barely have a chance — and there are always those who prey on the desperate. Rob’s wife, Tayler, was there in Los Angeles during his acting days. The lies were hard for her to watch.
”He’s trusting, and I think it’s because of him growing up [in Seymour]. People follow through here,” she says. “It definitely built him up to trust people a little more than he should have ... he’s too nice for Los Angeles. I don’t think they were very good to him. It hurt me to watch him be that upset.”
The deceit began to grate on Wiethoff, and the possibility of becoming yet another Hollywood wash-up was too close to home.
”I would see guys who were 45 or 60 years old still wearing the jeans that were trendy when they were younger. I just thought, you’re hanging out at a bar like you’re 21 but you’re 45 or 50 years old.
”I didn’t want to be that guy. I was either going to make something out here with what I came here to do, or get out before I turn into that guy. I guess I just didn’t buy in to the whole experience.”
Catching a break
Hollywood is brutal.
The chances for an aspiring actor to get a working gig are extremely slim. The annual television pilot season is just as ruthless as any professional sporting draft. If you even land a gig, you can be fired at any time.
Big-budget voice acting jobs are rare. When Wiethoff landed the role of John Marston, he wasn’t consciously searching for a part in a video game. But one night in December, as he was sitting down on the couch with his dogs at the end of a long day, Wiethoff’s agent called. There was a last-minute audition available across town for an untitled video game project. Would he go?
Unable to come up with an excuse after a trying day, Wiethoff sped across town. What followed was one of the strangest Hollywood encounters he’d ever been a part of.
Wiethoff entered the studio where the audition was being held, and was immediately greeted by 30 men dressed as soldiers. The session runner gave him his lines, and a basket of laundry. Say the lines and fold the laundry, he was told. Keep it natural.
He was rushed, nervous and didn’t have enough time to learn his lines before he was thrown in front of the camera for a test.
”I had no idea what was going on,” he says.
They filmed the short scene only once, and Wiethoff was allowed to leave. Thinking it very easily could have been a waste of time, he headed home. Both he and his agent had no idea what this was all about — until Wiethoff won the role only a few days later.
But Wiethoff is keen to stress the project wasn’t what we know as Red Dead Redemption. The character of John Marston wasn’t even fully formed, nor was the story — it had barely even been started. With so much work having been put into the game’s technical demands, there wasn’t much of a character to even explore.
The game was a big deal, that much was obvious. But there wasn’t much else to go by.
”The storyline was still being written as we were shooting, so it was impossible to know exactly who this guy was or what he was really trying to accomplish.”
It took some time, and some hard effort. But slowly, John Marston came alive.
Bringing John Marston to life
Yet once again, Wiethoff had no idea what the hell he was doing.
Red Dead Redemption was made using performance capture, a technology which has become the norm in big-budget games. Wiethoff would stand on a set with other actors and perform his scenes in a special suit designed to track the movement of his entire body. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, and Wiethoff felt out of his depth. That small-town humility kept eating at any potential sense of accomplishment.
”The whole time we were working on the project, I kept wondering when they were going to figure out that I had no business there,” he says. This was his first major acting gig — if he was going to screw up, this would be the worst possible time.
”I worked with so many extremely talented people that I just knew there would be a day when I would walk into work and they would pull me aside and thank me for my time. That would be the end of it.
”Fortunately, that never happened.”
For as much confidence as Wiethoff exhibits on-screen, he constantly caveats his success. “He always sells himself short,” his wife says.
Those nerves didn’t go away, and they weren’t helped by the fact Wiethoff isn’t much of a gamer. Combined with the fact he was slowly gaining the impression Red Dead Redemption was indeed a very big deal, Wiethoff couldn’t help feeling a little misplaced.
”I kept hearing people say, ‘Remember in GTA when this happened,’ and man, I didn’t even know what GTA was. I had to pull the director aside and ask him.
”There were a lot of times when he’d come up to me and jokingly just say, ‘You don’t know what you’re into, do you?’ And I’d be like, ‘No I don’t!’”
The nerves became less of a problem as Wiethoff grew to understand his character. He drew parallels between his own life and Marston’s quest to save his family. They had both spent years drifting through life, picking up a job here and there.
Now each of them had a sense of purpose they never experienced before. Such conviction demands a sense of confidence — something Wiethoff tried extremely hard to portray.
As Wiethoff spent weeks, months and even years delving into the script and finding the character, John Marston took form.
In his review for Eurogamer, Simon Parkin described Marston as a man who “clings” to his heritage, “a man in search of purpose and redemption in a world slipping from relevance.”
The act of motion capture only served to show how fully Wiethoff embodied this sense of world-weariness, apart from merely providing a voice. His confident swagger and movement became a hallmark of the character. The way he slinks into a saloon, or pauses to furrow his brow to reflect on a difficult situation, portrays a depth rarely seen on video game screens.
Wiethoff gave Marston a palpable sense of weariness and regret, which is partly why the character has been so well received. Unlike so many gaming protagonists, Marston is not a hero — he has already started the game as a criminal.
”John Marston didn’t fear anything or anybody. The only thing on his mind was completing the work he had set out for him and getting back to his new life with his family.
“I loved that no matter which character I was working with, I was able to shoot a look or allow body language to get a point across. That kind of communication is only understood if it’s being communicated by someone who has the confidence to use it.
”I think that having the ability to walk around with confidence, true confidence, speaks louder than any words ever could.”
That confidence comes in part due to Wiethoff’s passionate nature. He does nothing half-assed — it took him two days and several design drafts to construct a toy box for his boys.
”He would be saying his lines into a recorder and then playing them back to hear what they sounded like,” says Tayler Wiethoff. “He’s the same way with any project. He has to put all of his energy into it, otherwise he felt like he didn’t do it right.”
The effort shows on screen.
The structure of filming the game wasn’t straightforward. The actors would work for a couple of weeks, and a month or two might pass before they’d be back in the studio again. Rockstar would give Wiethoff enough notice to prepare, but it wasn’t a 40-hour workweek.
This continued for two years. It took over Wiethoff’s life.
Shrinking from the spotlight
Large projects like Red Dead Redemption have a huge impact on the game industry, but it can be easy to overestimate how life-changing these titles are for the people involved.
The game was one of the biggest releases of 2010. It sold 8.5 million copies in the first financial year alone. But Wiethoff didn’t get rich. During the two years of filming he remained a bartender. He was able to splurge on a motorcycle and certainly earned a more than livable wage, but he’s not living large.
And he certainly didn’t call attention to himself. Wiethoff has no major social media presence, apart from a couple of Facebook fan pages. He deliberately avoided the spotlight; just after the game was released, he and Tayler made the decision to give up on Los Angeles and move back to Indiana.
A strange decision, given Wiethoff was coming off the biggest acting gig of his career and would undoubtedly have had the opportunity to pursue more work. But in the end, the city conflicted with his plans.
”Tayler grew up in Los Angeles, and she didn’t want to raise kids there because they get to a certain age, and it gets too expensive and too hard, and she just wanted to go to a small town,” he says.
Children were certainly one reason. But the voice acting industry takes some of the responsibility. Although the industry tends to glamorize success stories such as Nolan North, who rose to prominence as Uncharted hero Nathan Drake, or Troy Baker, most recently the lead in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, these are anything but the norm.
Many voice actors rely on a steady diet of small jobs to make a living, and doing any better is exceedingly difficult. Courtnee Draper, the voice of Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, even considered quitting acting, and pursued a degree in law as an alternative career path.
Despite his success and headline billing, a sustained career in the industry is not what Wiethoff had in mind. After being built up and let down so many times, he chose not to put up with the deceit anymore. He walked away.
”I had a cool experience; there’s no guarantee I’ll ever have anything like it again. I thought, screw it, if anyone wants me for anything, they’ll call me.” So Wiethoff left Los Angeles behind. Once again, he became a small-town man. So far, no one has called.
Disappearing for good
For Wiethoff, who isn’t predisposed to grand notions of fame and fortune, living in Seymour isn’t just peaceful. It keeps him honest.
“Back here, not only do they not know about Red Dead Redemption, but they don’t care. I’m not famous here — I’m just Rob Wiethoff.”
Wiethoff hasn’t given up on Red Dead. He attends comic conferences every now and then. But don’t expect to see him in another big-budget game anytime soon. “I’d be thrilled if it was something I wanted to do,” he says, “but I have obligations now I didn’t have before. It’s different.”
Red Dead Redemption is above all else a tale of fatherhood. Marston is motivated by the need to reunite with his family. He wants nothing more than to leave the world of crime and work on his farm. He wants to be a decent and honest man. In the end, that peace is robbed of him.
Wiethoff is in many ways living the life Marston wanted all along. Fatherhood has changed him, stabilized him. No longer content to just follow wherever the next opportunity arises, he is content and peaceful with a young family by his side, by his sister’s lake house, in this quiet pocket of Indiana.
”I think having responsibility other than myself is something that changed me,” he says. “It’s changed me in a good way.”
Video: Pat McGowan, Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Matthew Sullivan, Warren Schultheis Music: Robot Science