On November 20, 2007, a game was released that would essentially define a small generation of gamers. At the heart of this story is a soldier who must save the galaxy from a universal threat and along the way, he recruits a ragtag team of aliens and humans. Through his leadership and unmatched combat and biotic abilities, he was able to defeat the enemy and save the galaxy from utter destruction.
To say that Mass Effect made an impact on the gaming world is an understatement. It received critical acclaim from critics and gamers alike. It won numerous awards. The universe that BioWare created is one that has been virtually unmatched by any space opera-style game that has come after it.
But while the developers at BioWare are rightfully credited with the success of the game, the real stars of the franchise were the voice actors who portrayed iconic characters such as Liara T’Soni, Garrus Vakarian, Tali’Zorah, and, of course, Commander Shepard.
Recently I had the incredibly opportunity to interview Mark Meer, the voice behind Commander Shepard and a spectacular Dungeons & Dragons nerd. We talked improv, theatre, Dungeons & Dragons, and voice acting…but mainly Dungeons & Dragons.
Renee Lopez [RL]: So I just wanted to thank you again for taking the time to talk with me. I know you are an incredibly busy person and I appreciate you taking time out of your day off to speak with me.
Mark Meer [MM]: No worries. Thanks for having me as a guest.
RL: I’m very excited and just a little nervous here so if I start rambling, please stop me. So I saw that you just finished performing at Improvaganza. How was that experience performing with The Society of Strange? It was Lovecraftian improv, correct?
MM: Yes! Their format is usually two to three “Weird Tales”. The first ones are in the style of renowned horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Poe, etc. And the last tale is always based on an authentic supernatural or weird story from the audience. At Improvaganza, we did a Lovecraft story and a story from the audience. I also got the chance to perform with Colin Mochrie and Greg Proops at the opening gala. And I was the Dungeon Master for the Improvised Dungeons & Dragons show that Colin Mochrie guested in. There are albums for both the Society of Strange show and Improv D&D on my FB profile if you want to take a look.
RL: I saw some of those pictures for the Improvised Dungeons & Dragons. It looked incredible.
MM: It was a great show! Society of Strange, too. They are friends of mine from the U.K. I’ve only played that format with them once before, but both times rank among my favorite improv experiences. And it’s always a pleasure to work with Colin.
RL: That’s awesome. I wish I had the chops for musical improv. I feel like that’s a whole other level.
MM: Hoping to bring Colin back for Improv D&D next year. And perhaps some of the nice folks I met in L.A. at the big Stream of Many Eyes D&D event earlier this month. Met the Critical Role folks, Matthew Lillard, etc.
RL: That was going to be my next segue! So just how big of a fan of D&D are you?
MM: I started playing in 1981.
RL: So a casual player then?
MM: I rarely have time for actual sit-down games, but I’ve always bought all of the books since first edition. I’m that kind of nerd. Got really obsessed with all the Ravenloft supplements for 3rd edition and 3.5. 4th edition is the only version I don’t own any of the books for. But 5th edition lured me back. In a BIG way.
RL: Believe me, if I could I would have all the books myself. Especially 5th edition.
MM: I think I have everything that’s been published for 5th, except for a few of the adventures.
RL: I did one campaign with 4th edition. Took us over a year. And it was incredible. So in your opinion, what is the best alignment and character class to play?
MM: As I say, I don’t have any ongoing campaigns. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in on the weekly sessions of my friends at Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta as a variety of NPC’s when I’ve been in town. That’s fun. Though they actually use Pathfinder. And I got to play “Celebrity Pathfinder” for a show at Dragon Con last year.
Hmm. Best alignment and character class? I like the opportunity to play all of them, of course. I can tell you some of my favourite past characters, though.
RL: Yes, please. I would love to know about them. Mainly I ask because people tend to lean towards Chaotic Neutral or Lawful Evil. Kind of those fun middle alignments. I’ve only played Lawful Good.
MM: A long-running one was a human illusionist (who had a few thief levels from a former career). He was True Neutral. Worked with a halfling thief and a gnome illusionist with a dwarf fighter for the muscle. When I was in high school, we ran a ludicrous ultra-high-level Chaotic Neutral campaign. That was FUN. It was only three or four games, total, but it was memorable. One of the party was a lich, another was a Death Slaad. That gives you an idea of the power level.
RL: Oh my goodness. That sounds incredible. The minute you bring a lich to the party, you know you’re going to have a good time.
MM: My character in that was a cambion demon who was all about Chaos rather than evil. Maxed out fighter/assassin abilities. (This was 1st edition, remember). And as I said, it was ludicrous.
RL: What was your demon’s name?
MM: The whole mission was this team of insanely chaotic beings attempting a heist of an artifact from the Nine Hells (they hated the devils because they were lawful, of course). And the first stage of the “plan” involved traveling to modern-day Earth to acquire modern weaponry to lay siege to Hell with.
RL: This is the best Oceans 11-type campaign I have ever heard. I feel like this needs to make a comeback.
MM: Once we had the automatic weapons, the lich set up a factory with skeletons making thousands of silver bullets. Good fun. You asked about the character name – my guy was Jak’kal, Spawn of Graz’zt.
RL: That’s brilliant. And you said this campaign was only three or four games?
MM: Yes – the first one was raiding Earth for weapons (inlcuding an Airwolf-style helicopter… it was the 1980’s). And then the rest were attacking the Nine Hells. I think it might have been only three games, now that I think of it. The DM added the wrinkle of the technology level of the Nine Hells improving as we went further down. So Avernus had standard D&D medieval tech, but by the time we got to Cania, the devils had WWI-era technology and weapons.
The entire party was insanely powerful and EVERYONE was Chaotic Neutral, so it was the ridiculous mess you might think.
RL: I can only imagine how ridiculous that was. And how incredibly fun.
MM: Let’s see… more recently, I rolled up a Neutral Good Sorcerer/Bard. I like how both of his classes are powered by his Charisma. Also, he doesn’t sing. All of his bard skills are tied to oratory, storytelling, jokes, and insults. He was my Ravenloft character.
And though I’ve still never played him yet, I created a True Neutral Warlock of the Great Old One that I’d really like to try out.
RL: That seems like the best kind of bard. I do want a good bard that can give you a good story while also hurtling insults in my general direction. In speaking with you about your D&D adventures, I feel that I need to up my game. This is inspiring. When do you think you’ll be able to try out this new Warlock?
MM: At the Stream of Many Eyes, I was playing Alveus Malcanter, a character created by Beamdog (they do all the Enhanced Editions for Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, etc.) He bills himself as “the World’s Mightiest 1st-level Mage.” The idea is that he’s got lots of experience points, but he’s never bothered leveling up.
RL: I know Beamdog very well. Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate are a couple of my favorite games. I was very excited when they released the Enhanced Edition of Neverwinter Nights.
MM: Not sure when I’ll get to play the warlock. Alveus Malcanter was created for the Icewind Dale release. He’s not actually in the game, but he hosts a series of Youtube tutorials. Hold on, I’ll find a link…
RL: That’s fantastic. Beamdog knows what the people want and we want the World’s Mightiest 1st-Level Mage.
[At this point we took an hour break. The interview resumes below.]
MM: What’s your class and species? I know you’re Lawful Good.
RL: My first and only character is a half-elf cleric named Andara Darksbane who has a love of nature, and is incapable of casting heals successfully.
MM: You’ll get there. Pray harder! Which deity?
RL: I tried really hard. In multiple languages including draconic. I called on Bahamut and Kord and they ignored me. Kord was a long shot because we were traveling with a dwarf fighter and she thought it would be useful.
MM: Well, I think Kord is Chaotic, so that’s not surprising.
RL: I resorted to asking pine cones for help because I was desperate.
MM: Don’t you have a patron deity, though? One of the nature gods would make sense, since you’re half-elven. Or just one of the elvish pantheon. Though they can be fickle… You need to sign up with a temple. It can be rough being a freelance cleric.
RL: Ha! Yes, I clearly need to rethink my path. It was a good first campaign for us, but yeah I was not a very good cleric.
MM: Do you need some pics to go along with the interview, btw? I can send ones from Improv D&D and Society of Strange. I can also send ones from my upcoming Fringe shows, if you like. I’m doing an improv show with Ron Pederson (of MADtv). And also One Man Walking Dead, which is kind of what it sounds like. All eight seasons in 60 minutes, with me playing everyone.
RL: Thank you for the deity tips. As you can see, I’m very green. And getting tips from a master D&D player is so helpful. And that is incredible. How did that performance come about?
MM: I was contacted by my friend TJ Dawe, who created The One Man Star Wars Trilogy with Charles Ross. TJ knew I was a Walking Dead fan, and asked if I’d be interested in building the show with him. We co-wrote it, he directed it, and I perform it. I just premiered it at the Orlando Fringe Festival last month, and I’ll be doing it here in Canada at the Edmonton Fringe in August.
RL: So in your One Man Walking Dead show, which character has been your favorite to perform?
MM: And I believe we’ve already received a booking for a comic con in British Columbia next year. Well, Rick gets the most stage time, but Darryl and Merle are fun. Negan and Carol seem to get the biggest audience reaction. And then there are all the various walkers, of course.
RL: Oh that’s amazing!
MM: It is a fun and exhausting show to do.
RL: I can only imagine. How does one prep for a show like that?
MM: Well, I’m about to do The Importance of Being Ernest at the Varscona Theatre in July, so once that closes, I expect I’ll spend a few days getting the script for 1MWD back in my head. Oscar Wilde dialogue will probably have crowded all my zombie parody show monologues out of my brain.
And I always make sure to have lots of water bottles in easy reach during the show. Being everybody is thirsty work.
RL: That I can believe! So I did see you were going to be in The Importance of Being Ernest – do you do a lot of stage work or do you tend to do more improv?
MM: Mostly improv, but I enjoy scripted theatre too. And I really enjoy working with Teatro la Quindicina, who are producing Ernest. Ron Pederson is actually in this one too. He’s playing Algernon. I’m Jack Worthing.
So… I will get you pics from Improv D&D, Soc of Strange, 1MWD, and Gordon’s Big Bald Head: New World Hors D’ouvres (the Fringe improv show). Anything else?
RL: I believe that might be all the pics I need. You are quite a busy person.
MM: Busy is good.
RL: Absolutely. Especially when you’re doing things that you love.
MM: True story!
RL: So kind of quickly segueing into my next few questions. How has improv and theater work contributed to your voice acting career? I might just rapid fire these at you.
MM: Improv has come in quite handy in regards to voice acting. You rarely get much prep time with the material, especially when working on video games. Often you’re doing what amounts to a cold read on your first take. So being able to immediately drop into character and roll with it is a real help.
RL: What has been some of your biggest challenges as a voice actor?
MM: Vocal stress, most likely. Some characters can be a lot rougher on the pipes than others. And when you’re recording for a game, you’re often doing multiple death screams, battlecries, etc.
RL: I can’t even raise my voice for a few second before I lose it. I can’t imagine doing that for multiple takes.
MM: Also, it can be really funny doing a half hour or so of just exertion grunts and pain noises.
RL: And do you normally act those out. If you are being punched in the gut, do you almost spacework that out?
MM: To an extent… You have to be careful not to move your face too far away from the mic and try to avoid knocking things over in the booth while wildly flailing about. Full disclosure: I have done both of those things on multiple occasions.
RL: I would find that incredibly hard not to do. Especially if you are really into that character. You almost can’t help it. And for anyone who is an aspiring voice actor…what advice would you give to them?
MM: Well, as I mentioned, the tools that improv teaches you to use are quite valuable to voice actors. I always recommend improvisation workshops. On the business end of things, I’m less useful to seek advice from. I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor with BioWare back in the 90’s when they were still holding general auditions. And it’s a different landscape now, putting it mildly.
RL: It most certainly is. A very different and difficult landscape. Is there anything else you would like to plug or talk about?
MM: Let’s see… the 5th season of my sketch comedy TV show CAUTION: May Contain Nuts will be airing in Canada next year. I can send you links to a few sketches from that.
RL: That would be great! I would imagine that when fans see you, some of them still refer to you as Commander Shepard, how surreal is it that there are still so many dedicated fans to the original trilogy and to your character in particular?
And bonus question…What has been your favorite Commander Shepard fan encounter?
MM: It’s completely surreal and highly flattering. I’m honoured to have been a small part of a story and universe that was embraced like that by so many people. Mass Effect fans are great, and I have had many great encounters with amazingly creative cosplayers, crafty folks who’ve presented me with incredible and unique gifts… but this is probably my favourite fan encounter, recorded for posterity by the fan himself.
RL: I’ve seen this before and that is absolutely incredible. I believe I would have had the exact same response. I have to say, Mass Effect is my all-time favorite series and it is because of your work and the work of the other talented voice actors.
MM: You are too kind! So… Here is a sketch I wrote and performed in for CAUTION: May Contain Nuts (I play the wizard).
RL: Thank you very much! So that is all the questions I had. This has been truly amazing and again, I am so appreciative of the time. Do you have any motivational advice for me and anyone else? Or a favorite saying?
MM: “Have fun” covers both!
RL: Love it!
MM: And now… “I should go.”
RL: Haha! That’s what I needed. Thank you again Mark, and good luck with all of your shows. I hope we can speak again at some point. You can let us know how the shows went.
So concludes my interview with Mark Meer. Needless to say, it was an absolutely pleasure to speak with him. I could have gone on, but he is a busy man with a lot going on. And he said the line from the game and my year has been made.
I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favorite interview on the Citadel.
[Photos provided by Mark Meer – Improvised Dungeons & Dragons and Society of Strange photos by Billy Wong]
This article was originally posted in July 2018.
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