Phil LaMarr’s Luminous Humor Shines on SAG-AFTRA Strike
“Okay! So…. Hi, nice to meet you—I’ll be the one doing the voice of your dead father.”
Awesome Con 2017 had provided fans the chance to ask LaMarr anything during his hour-long Q&A; this was part of LaMarr’s response to a question about Samurai Jack and the differences between working with Greg Baldwin and the late Mako Iwamatsu. Mako’s daughter had come to a recording session with her son (also named Mako) to see Baldwin perform the role her father held for four seasons before his passing. LaMarr continued the story:
“And, you know, as an actor, you kinda want a heads up with something like that. But, to his credit, he just went in and did the job. And I remember looking out while he was doing some of the lines, and I was watching Mako’s daughter, and while Greg was talking she just…closed her eyes. And leaned back. And just listened. Yeah, she…she complimented him afterward on the job he did, which, I’m sure, must have taken a lot of the pressure off. And then the internet came.”
LaMarr balanced buoyant language with heavy subject matter unlike anyone I’ve seen. Nothing but LaMarr’s words parted the silence of the room. A bond between speaker and listener was established from the beginning, unspoken but altogether understood. Then, without warning, the connection with LaMarr would shift to the sea of fans as everyone erupts in laughter. LaMarr’s vigilant delivery of himself persisted throughout the Q&A, but his jovial persona did not go unchallenged. When asked about his work in video games, it wasn’t long before the current SAG-AFTRA strike became a topic of conversation.
But first, he made sure to bring up his long-running attachment to video games as a fan:
“I’m of two minds. On one hand, as a person who plays games, I love it. I remember when the hugest technological advancement we had was Turok. ‘Ohhh, look! You can move forward! Only about thirty feet then the smoggggg is there.’ But no, what I’m seeing is…games are becoming not just more cinematic, but more emotional. There’s more feeling to it. You know, let’s be honest, in an old game—DOOM—not a whole lot of…feels.” He added a gravelly texture to his suddenly deepened voice, “I’M COMIN’ FOR YA!”
Without removing the weight of his words, LaMarr’s impromptu dialogue acted as a humorous method to connect with the audience throughout the entire Q&A.
“As an actor, I love it because they’re becoming more and more performance oriented. It requires more acting. The problem with that is, of course, the way the industry is currently structured, you can’t make a living doing video games. Like…I made more off an episode of Pound Puppies…” A communal laughter interrupts LaMarr. “…I did—than off of Metal Gear [Solid] 2. Which is—that doesn’t even make any sense, right? Which is why we had to go on strike.”
“…Currently, SAG-AFTRA—the actor’s union—is on strike against eleven video game companies including EA and Activision,” he punctuated.
As LaMarr’s tone shifted, so too did the fans’ response. Laughter was replaced by an immediate applause. “Thank you for your support,” LaMarr said, “but it does sound like you’re clapping for me being out of work.” Cue the laughs.
“The fact of the matter is there’s all these things—half of which people already do. You know, like, in video games there’s a lot of screaming? Most smart producers know that after two hours, there’s nothing usable. ‘AHHHHHHHHHH!’ If you did that? After two hours?” LaMarr let out the faintest squeal–a sound no combination of letters could emulate.
“But when we asked them to put it in the contract that a session of screaming would be limited to two hours, they were like ‘…No.’ But half the companies already do it that way. ‘…No, they don’t!’ Yes, they do!
Plus, they refuse to put in the contract that they have to tell you what game it is you’re working on. Like…
‘Thank you for applying for this job!’
Ah, what company is this for?
‘MmmmmI’m not at liberty to say.’
…Okay, so once I get the job and we’re discussing my salary, you’ll let me know?
LaMarr’s improvised chats benefit from his pool of impressions. SAG-AFTRA’s strike is monumental, but LaMarr never let the weight of the situation prevent his comical wit from emerging.
“You know, I understand at an audition you don’t just send out that it’s ‘The new Call of Duty!’ or whatever, but the thing is when you’re offered a part in Call of Duty as opposed to some little first time game that you’ve never heard of, it’s like…if I KNOW it’s about to sell 600 million units IN A WEEK…” The room collectively roared with amusement as chuckles muffled LaMarr’s words, but he’s quick to recapture the attention.
“And it’s weird because since the strike we’ve had like…almost 40 companies come to the union and go ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds fine to us,’ and sign the contract with those terms in it. But EA and Activision are like ‘We can’t! We can’t keep track of who’s buying the games. We don’t know—man, you want us to keep track of how many units were sold?’
…Yeah, we kinda figured you guys did that already.
‘It’s a digital media, it’s just—it’s just not possible. Activision only has two people in that department! They can’t handle all that paperwork.’
So…who counts the 25 billion dollars [or so] that video games made last year?
‘It’s one guy and he’s reallllllly stressed.'”
Stifled laughter acted as a lighthearted, vocal backdrop for LaMarr’s mock conversation. With important issues presented in a humorous light, doom and gloom were made unwelcome. “…But that’s sort of an old media idea that if they’ve watched it, they’ve paid for it. NOT SO,” LaMarr exclaims. “But yeah, when it comes to the point where I’m not doing enough paid work, watch me out on the streets yellin’ about it.”
SAG-AFTRA has been on strike since October 21, 2016—the longest strike in the labor union’s history. Even with lengthy video game development cycles, we’re already starting to see effects on the industry. But issues like secondary compensation, vocal stress, stunt coordination, performance capture volume, and transparency do not define Phil LaMarr. The current SAG-AFTRA landscape extends beyond just video games; however, nothing derailed LaMarr from his passion for performance and the people his voice impacted.
Awesome Con 2017 afforded both LaMarr and his fans a moment of harmony. Whether it was a story about filming Pulp Fiction with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, a sentimental discussion with fans about Samurai Jack, a line unexpectedly delivered in Hermes’ voice from Futurama, the first minute of “We Are The World” sung with eerily accurate impressions of each vocalist, or the struggles currently facing SAG-AFTRA members, Phil LaMarr exuded positivity.
And we could all use a little alacrity right now.
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