Neil Ross Interview - Colonel Volgin

MGS:TUS: First of all Neil, for those of our readers who don't know who you are, take a minute or two to introduce yourself.

Neil Ross: I was born in London, England at the tail end of WWII. My mother was an actress who at one time had been with the legendary Old Vic Company. My father was a Canadian who spent most of his career in sales. We emigrated to Canada when I was two and I spent my formative years in Montreal. My parents didn’t want a TV in the house and kids weren’t permitted to go to most movies in Montreal in those days, so I was pretty much limited to radio listening. I spent many hours listening to comedy, variety, drama and talk shows from Canada, England and the US. I became fascinated with voices and accents and was greatly influenced by a young Peter Sellers, who I heard on an English comedy series called The Goon Show. Later I discovered another great actor and dialect specialist named Peter Ustivov. I began imitating what they did and trying to do voices and accents myself. When I was twelve years old we moved to California. By this time Rock and Roll had come along. It was the first music I ever really liked and I began listening to top forty radio to hear more of it. Gradually I found myself becoming more interested in what went on between the records; the way the DJs wove their personalities into the stream of commercials, time checks, weather forecasts, jingles etc. Midway through High School I decided on a career in radio. I set up a mock studio in our garage and began practicing.

MGS:TUS: You started out in radio on such stations as KGMB, Honolulu, KCBQ San Diego, among others. How is this experience compared to the voice work you currently do?

Neil Ross: It’s not a perfect analogy but I look at it this way. Radio is like driving a cab. Voiceover is like driving a stretch limo with a major VIP in the backseat.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun and many great experiences in my early radio days. Imagine being nineteen years old and boarding a jet liner to fly across the Pacific Ocean to a radio gig in Honolulu when Hawaii was still a relatively exotic destination. Imagine, few years later, being backstage with Jim Morrison and Doors as they made their only appearance in the Islands. I could go on and on about the good times. But eventually some of the shortcomings of a radio career, coupled with my growing interest in voiceover took me out of the business.

MGS:TUS: Is that radio work what eventually led you into your voice acting career?

Neil Ross: More or less. When I got into radio I discovered that a big part of the job involved production work; creating the commercials and promos and other pre-recorded stuff that you hear on the air. Most DJs I worked with over the years despised this side of the business. They lived for the live air work and hated to be sent into the production studio. I found I enjoyed production work though. On the air you get one shot at it, but in the production studio you can take the time to make something as good as your talent will allow. I enjoyed picking background music and tailoring my read to fit the mood of the material. I got a chance to do some voices and accents. I became something of a production whiz. But, sadly, in those days production people weren’t much appreciated by radio management. I was growing gradually disenchanted with radio when I heard about voiceovers. I had always assumed that the people I heard doing that work were moonlighting on-camera actors. It had never occurred to me that you could make a living just doing voice work. But when I found out you could I said, “That’s for me!”

MGS:TUS: Who are some of your favorite actors, or people in general that you've got a chance to work with?

Neil Ross: My favorite people are the ones who, through their personalities and contributions, make the work rewarding and fun. It was a real thrill to meet and work for Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack. Some other fun folks who come to mind are Frank Welker, Rob Paulson, Jim Cummings, Greg Burger, the late Jonathan Harris - Dr. Smith on TVs Lost In Space – (God, he could make me laugh!), Charlie Adler, Mark Hamill, Ginny McSwain, Tress MacNeille, Gordon Hunt….The list could go on and on. A thousand pardons to the ones I left out.

MGS:TUS: You had a voice over role in the popular "Back to the Future: Part 2"; what was it like doing work for a feature film such as this?

Neil Ross: Usually this type of work is done on a dubbing stage. It looks like a typical multiplex movie theatre except there are no seats. In the rear, behind glass windows are the techs and all kinds of equipment. They put up a boom mic and project the piece of film you’re working with on the screen. You have a headphone and it emits three beeps. The beeps are synched up to the film so that if you start speaking on the imaginary fourth beep, you’ll be right where you need to be. If you are trying to replace some dialogue and you have to match an on camera actor’s lip movements, it can be quite tricky. In Back To The Future, I was an off camera voice heard at the Biff Tannen Museum. All I had to do was get in and out in time and give them the read they wanted. Usually you will have already auditioned for the part so, with a few refinements, you just replicate what you did at the audition. As I recall, I did two or three takes and that was it.

MGS:TUS: Many people may not be aware that you've also been the voice of the Emmy and Academy Awards shows, how did these particular jobs come about?

Neil Ross: They were looking for a voice for the Oscars in 2003 and someone was kind enough to recommend me. I auditioned and got it. Interestingly, when he became aware of my radio background, the director felt that gave me a great advantage. A lot of people in the voiceover business have never done anything live and can tend to freeze up under the pressure. The director felt that my many years of live radio experience would be very helpful – and he was absolutely right. There’s a very different feeling between strolling in and getting it on take six and having to get it right the first time, live, with no retakes. My work on the Oscars in 2003 led to my being offered a chance to do the Emmys in 2004.

MGS:TUS: Narration seems to be another big part in your voice work, among other's you've done narrations for "A&E Biographies", and "E!". How does doing work on a narrative project differ from say, animation, or commercial work?

Neil Ross: The big differences are that it’s a lot longer than a commercial and unlike an animation project, it’s all you. Narration is close to being my favorite kind of voiceover work. It’s storytelling, just like the elder speaking to the tribe around the campfire, telling tales of the ancestors. It requires a lot of concentration and when it’s going right, time stands still – or doesn’t exist. The last two Novas I did lasted one hour on the air. With the many retakes and alternate takes the sessions lasted four hours. When I stepped out of the booth and looked at my watch I couldn’t believe it. It felt as if I had only been in there thirty or forty minutes. The read differs from a commercial read in subtle and not so subtle ways. On a very basic level, you’re not selling, you’re telling. I grew up worshiping the work of legendary documentary narrator Alexander Scourby. It’s a thrill to get a crack at some of the kind of stuff he used to do.

MGS:TUS: Do you have any favorite or memorable animation roles?

Neil Ross: Yes, Shipwreck in G.I. Joe, Norman Osborne/Green Goblin in Spiderman, Honest John in An American Tail.

MGS:TUS: Are there any other projects you've done which stand out to you for some reason?

Neil Ross: I narrated a documentary called Sugihara – Conspiracy of Kindness. It’s about a Japanese diplomat who, at great personal risk, saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Poland at the beginning of World War Two. I feel it’s the best narration work I’ve ever done. The story is so compelling. Sadly, it has only had limited exposure. But it did lead to my work on Nova for PBS. Also very proud of the voiceover work I did on Robert Redford’s film Quiz Show. I was the voice of the Twenty One game show announcer and I also voiced a number of other announcers in the film. Unfortunately I got no mention in the credits because I came in so late in the process.

MGS:TUS: You have a nice home studio setup for recording right at home, tell us a little about this; how did something like this come about? Do you prefer that over recording in a normal studio atmosphere, or with other actors?

Neil Ross: I initially put the studio together to send auditions to my agent over the internet via mp3. Booth time at my agent had become extremely limited and the waits were getting worse and worse. When I was made aware of this option – I jumped at it. It helps cut down a bit on the driving, which in LA is terrible. It also allows to me to take the time to do a number of takes and really polish a read, something I used to do in radio. Something that I discovered you can’t do if someone else is running the audition. Since starting to do the bulk of my auditions out of my home studio my ‘batting average’ has gone way up. I recently added an ISDN box to my bag of tricks. This enables me to send studio quality audio over regular phone lines to any studio in the world in real time, providing they also have an ISDN box. So now I can do actual paying gigs from the house. Very cool. Although I still prefer working with other actors and seeing the engineers face to face.

MGS:TUS: What is your best advice for someone who wants to break into voice acting?

Neil Ross: Get as much experience as you can in any phase of performing you can. You’ll draw on it all sooner or later, believe me. The best voiceover people I know are the ones who bring a rich performing past into the business with them. Actors, of course, standup comedians, announcers, magicians, musicians and singers, even old radio bulls like me. The richer your background, the more colors and textures you’ll bring to your work. When you feel the time is right, come to New York or LA and start taking voiceover workshops. Learn the trade, get an agent and have fun!

MGS:TUS: On behalf of all the readers, that you Neil for taking the time for this interview, and good luck in your future projects; are there any closing comments you would like to add for your fans?

Neil Ross: Thanks for watching. Thanks for listening. Thanks for caring. All the best!

-- Interview by Brian Barnes-Spencer, 1.22.05

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