Star Wars has thrived in various forms of media outside film, including audiobooks — fully produced adaptations of Star Wars novels on CD and digital download.And as we celebrate Star Wars Reads this month, StarWars.com wanted to honor a particular audiobook and its reader from earlier this year: the landmark Thrawn. StarWars.com caught up with narrator Marc Thompson about the complexities behind returning to a familiar character — the Grand Admiral himself — with a new lease on life.
StarWars.com: You voiced the Grand Admiral Thrawn character before, most notably in the Heir to the Empire anniversary audiobook. How does it feel returning to a character like Thrawn after such a substantial absence?
Marc Thompson: Well, it was a huge honor. Mainly because of how cherished Thrawn is to the fans and how important that character is to Star Wars. Plus, seeing how excited people were that he was coming to [Star Wars] Rebels, so there was this huge swell of enthusiasm and excitement amongst the fans that I really latched onto. And to be asked to return to that character was a huge honor to me.
StarWars.com: One thing that’s changed since you last voiced Thrawn is that Thrawn now has an official voice, courtesy of Lars Mikkelsen. Did you attempt to mimic Lars’ voice or were you aiming for something different?
Marc Thompson: No, no, I definitely wanted to try and come as close to Lars as possible. When they announced he was coming to Rebels at Celebration [Europe 2016] and that there would also be a book, I sort of secretly hoped that I would be able to do the book, as well! [Laughs] So I continued watching Star Wars Rebels as a fan, but now I was also watching it for research hoping that maybe I would get to do this. You know, I’d be sitting on my couch with my kids watching it and Thrawn would say a line, which would make me mimic it under my breath. And then sometimes my kids would be like, “What are you doing?” [Laughs] So I had been working on it for quite a while actually to come as close as possible.
StarWars.com: So beyond Rebels, did you watch any of Mikkelsen’s other work to get a gauge for his performance as an actor?
Marc Thompson: I did! Most of it was done through YouTube clips actually, and things like that. He has such a unique English, it’s very hard to try and mimic, so hopefully I came close enough to what he was trying to do in Rebels.
StarWars.com: You didn’t have an established Thrawn voice to work from when recording the original audiobooks. Did you find it difficult to forget your old Thrawn voice and slip into something more in line with Lars’?
Marc Thompson: It was a little difficult because it’s like muscle memory. When you’re doing that character, who I had done for several books before, there’s a part of you that kind of wants to revert back to what you had been used to doing. It’s so ingrained in your head, it’s like putting off your own natural tendencies. Luckily, I think enough time had passed between when we recorded the anniversary of Heir to the Empire and Rebels, so I was able to key into the newer version and make it as fluid as possible.
StarWars.com: Speaking of keying into characters, you’ve said before that Thrawn, as a character, is very reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. What about Thrawn leads to this?
Marc Thompson: Well, for me it’s something I’ve talked about with my director, Kevin Thomsen, when were originally trying to come up with Thrawn’s voice for the Heir to the Empire books. Kevin and I had this idea that he’d find the slightest clue in something that someone said, a piece of artwork, something very, very subtle and he’ll be able to deduce just from that small clue exactly what his adversary is thinking. That reminded us a lot of Sherlock Holmes. And in the earlier books he had Admiral Gilad Pellaeon as a foil, which reminded us a lot of Dr. Watson. This idea that Pellaeon would be working with and trying to figure out how Thrawn deduces things and stay ahead of his adversaries so quickly, it’s like Sherlock and Watson combing through the clues. Thrawn and Pellaeon would be able to talk through this stuff, and that dynamic reminded us of Sherlock and Watson, so we tried to keep that in mind when blocking out the voices.
StarWars.com: A new major character in Thrawn was Eli Vanto, a character with a number of differences from Pellaeon. What was it like working with this new aide to Thrawn?
Marc Thompson: It was very interesting because I think Timothy Zahn describes him as having a twang, and in the writing was emphasizing this idea that Vanto was from this Outer Rim backworld planet. This was kind playing in my mind with the prejudices that people sometimes have of people from a lower class, if you will. It was cool playing with the prejudice people might’ve held toward Vanto and prejudice people might’ve felt towards Thrawn, with him being Chiss and alien to the Empire, playing up that xenophobia. They were kind of able to bond on that level.
So with the voice, we kind of made the choice to give him a southern-like twang, in terms of what Americans consider twang. And I was hoping that the voice would read and would kind of come through while not being too distracting, because that’s not traditionally an accent we hear in the Star Wars universe. But I think it works well and helps convey that idea of the similar bond these two characters had, in terms of how they were looked at and treated by others.
StarWars.com: Despite his differences, in the book Thrawn is able to meet a couple times with the Emperor. Tell us about the experience of lending a voice to these two Imperial powerhouses in the same scene.
Marc Thompson: Well, no surprise, it was really cool! Obviously, Zahn’s writing is amazing and in these scenes it’s like two master chess players at the peak of their skills. It was fascinating trying to see them outmaneuver each other, sometimes with each one taking a step ahead of the other one. Those were some of the most fun scenes to do, probably some of my favorite scenes to do.
StarWars.com: In Thrawn we also see bits of internal monologues and the thought process of Thrawn’s mind, sometimes in dialogue or combat. Given that Thrawn is generally monotone, is there a purposeful difference in delivery doing those internal thought lines over audible dialogue?
Marc Thompson: Yeah. I mean, when we recorded the audio for that we made the choice to try and make that sound like an inner voice, but like you said, Thrawn is very monotone. So his speaking voice can sound like his inner voice at times. It was actually a challenge throughout the book because in Rebels you’re just seeing dialogue, which in small doses can come off as very intimidating. The storm beneath the calm in a way, it’s incredibly intense. But when you’re going for a 10-plus hour production like the audiobook was, we had to find subtle ways to find peaks and valleys in the dialogue in terms of delivery. Especially in the monologues, we stay true to that calm, cool, and collected character while not making it sound monotone the whole time, so it doesn’t come across as boring or a background droning noise. If that were the case the listener would just tune out. You need to make an effort to have enough variance so you can decipher the meaning and intention behind what’s being said. So there were a couple different times where my director would maybe nudge me a little bit to give that increased variance while making sure it’s staying engaging for the listener.
StarWars.com: Speaking of engaging, this is Timothy Zahn’s return to Star Wars, and we all know how much he connects with Star Wars fans. What do you think it is about his writing that resonates so much?
Marc Thompson: That’s a great question. I think he is really tremendous at the details and thinking through the minutia of things, especially in the books and novels. He really gets you inside the mindset of the characters, making aliens feel human. Like, the Star Wars movies are awesome and we wouldn’t have the books without the movies. But what the books are really great at is helping you understand the motivations. Why certain characters do what they do and how they did what they did. Timothy Zahn really excels at that. He’s really excellent at making it totally logical and totally understandable. Even when you’re reading from an Imperial character’s point of view, which normally, as a viewer, you might just paint with a negative broad brush. Zahn comes up with a very logical reasoning of why you may not agree, but you understand what their emotions are. As a reader you get a much deeper and richer experience. I think Timothy Zahn is just excellent.
StarWars.com: Zahn holds a special place in the hearts of Star Wars fans, as does Thrawn. What is it about the Grand Admiral that has led to the following he holds today?
Marc Thompson: Well, I think for a lot of people, after Return of the Jedi there was this, [deepens voice] dark time where there wasn’t a lot of Star Wars. [Laughs] And Thrawn represents that rekindling of the love of Star Wars for a lot of people. He represents the rebirth of Star Wars fandom in a way for some fans because he kept it alive after Return of the Jedi came out. Those books revitalized the fanbase and kind of launched the whole Expanded Universe, and Thrawn was essential to that. He was such an amazing adversary for Han, Luke, and Leia, and it was different because he wasn’t just a rehash of something we had seen in Star Wars, he was new, and different. Despite that, he still maintained the spirit of the galaxy far, far away. So to see him brought back in such an amazing way that fits perfectly into Rebels, it’s truly a great way to bring everything full circle.
Tyler Westhause is a contributor to StarWars.com and the founder of the Star Wars Podcast Alliance. He is also an avid gamer and podcaster. Tyler is also always happy to run your ear off about why Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is the greatest video game of all time. Follow him on Twitter @twesthause.