Two great constants of Star Wars are its rich storytelling and its ability to take us on amazing adventures in a galaxy far, far away. But that doesn’t just go for film. Star Wars is equally powerful in other forms, including one that might not immediately come to mind: audiobooks.
Audiobooks have the ability to transform mundane, everyday tasks into opportunities to have an unforgettable experience. While folding the laundry, you can be right alongside Finn and Rey as they escape from a barrage of TIE fighters while aboard the Millennium Falcon, with John Williams’ epic score blasting in the background. With classic sound effects and music integrated into them, Star Wars audiobooks are fully-immersive productions.
At the heart of an audiobook is the narrator, who acts as the medium between the fan and the far reaches of the Star Wars galaxy. StarWars.com was lucky enough to talk with two of the incredible voice actors behind Star Wars audiobooks: Marc Thompson and Jonathan Davis. Together, these two men have lent their voices to over 50 audiobooks in the Star Wars universe, and are considered titans of the medium.
Script and Studio
When it comes to making an audiobook, it all starts with the script. “Sometimes it’s two weeks ahead of time, sometimes it’s a week,” says Marc Thompson, the voice behind The Force Awakens, The Legacy Series, and others. “A lot of the times they don’t have the script ready until the final pass of the book is done to make sure it all matches up.” After getting a hold of the script, Thompson reads through it and writes down character traits based on the descriptions used by the author. “I want to know what type of personality they have, if they’re human, alien, or if there’s any kind of vocal characteristics I can latch onto. After I’ve read the whole book and I know everyone who has a piece of dialogue to say, I’ll go back and do what I call “casting,” where I’ll try to figure out what kind of voice I want for each of those characters.”
It’s important to remember that for Thompson and other narrators, this casting process can include a plethora of unique characters of various species and backgrounds. Many times, Thompson would record samples of dialogue on his phone so that he could go back and refer to the voice he had been working on in the studio. “It can take anywhere from three to five days, usually from 10 a.m. to 6 or 7 at night, and we’ll record straight through,” Thompson says. “There’s a lot of starting and stopping, but we get through it.”
Jonathan Davis (narrator of the Darth Bane trilogy, Attack of the Clones, and Battlefront: Twilight Company, among many others) likes to work through the script in the same way that a musician might. “I look at it as music,” Davis says, “as I try to score and figure out what the objective word is to deconstruct the text so that when we get into the studio, it flows. And we’re also fortunate because these days — and this is another differentiation of Star Wars audiobooks from many other audiobooks — we have the benefit of having a director.” Many voice actors record out of a home studio, and don’t have the benefit of having a director to guide them. Luckily for Davis and the other narrators of Star Wars audiobooks, they have a great team of people behind them. The current team includes director and producer Kevin Thomsen, executive producer Aaron Blank, sound engineer Paul Goodrich, and recording engineer Matie Argiropoulos. “It’s a great team of people,” Davis says. “We’re lucky to have them.”
First Steps Into a Larger World
In 2002, with the release of Attack of the Clones approaching, Random House audio was in search of a voice to take on the audiobook version of the film. Davis was pegged for the production and it was his first contribution to the Star Wars franchise. “I was a voice-over actor,” Davis says. “I started out with audiobooks beginning in 2000, and I worked with Kevin Thomsen, who subsequently became the director/producer for the Star Wars audiobooks. Our first project together was Snow Crash, by the author Neil Stephenson, which is a seminal cyberpunk sci-fi story, and it is still one of my favorite experiences. Lots of wild characters! After that production, I was called in to audition for Attack of the Clones, my first Star Wars audiobook. And shortly after, numerous New Jedi Order books, the Revenge of the Sith novelization, and eventually over 30 titles.”
For Thompson, his first work within the Star Wars audiobook realm was taking over for the Legacy of the Force series. “They were looking for a voice to take on the Legacy of the Force series,” Thompson says. “So they had some auditions and my agent called me and was like, ‘Would you like to narrate a Star Wars book?’ and I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ because I’m a lifelong fan. So they gave me some sides, and I prepared more for those auditions than almost anything I’d ever done,” he says with a laugh. “I really worked on it, really hard, and I really wanted this job, and I prayed about it and went in and they liked it enough that they decided to use me for that. And now I think I’ve done over 30 of them.”
Influences and Unique Approaches
If audiobooks are new to you, don’t worry. At one point, they were new to Thomspon, as well. “To be honest, I was not a huge audiobook fan before I started,” Thompson says. “Not because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t know much about that world. Part of me was like, ‘Well, why would somebody sit and listen to an eight-hour production. Wouldn’t that get boring?’” Despite not being a huge fan of audiobook productions prior to his involvement, Thompson was able to connect with another Star Wars audio production: NPR’s Star Wars radio dramas. “I did listen to those, they made sense to me. I mean the production value on that, it felt almost like a movie in your mind. And that’s how I approached doing these books, and I guess for Star Wars it worked.”
In some other audiobooks Thompson had worked on, the directors requested a flat reading from the narrator. “Not too many character voices, not too much inflection. They just want the words to speak for themselves and have nothing the narrator does get in the way of the listener’s experience. I just personally enjoy the radio drama style of things, and Kevin [Thomsen] and Random House, that’s their approach to the Star Wars books and I think it makes a big difference. I prefer the radio dramas, when it’s kind of an audio movie.”
With the influence of the radio dramas echoing in the background of the audiobook production, it’s intriguing to consider what makes the process of recording a Star Wars audiobook different. Does the Star Wars universe make the narrator approach the project in a unique way?
“Well, that’s fascinating, in some ways I do because if there are some iconic figures in it, of course, we want to be as close as we can to voice matching those characters,” Davis says. “But not necessarily, because I think the most important fact is the storytelling itself and the act of the narration itself. Everything is a character to me; a planet could be a character, and the landscape could also be a character. The mood itself dictates character and the arc of the story. What’s special about the Star Wars audiobooks is that they’re full productions, which is very rare in today’s landscape.”
The current Guinness World Record for the greatest number of characters voiced in an audiobook is 224, achieved by the great Roy Dotrice for his work giving a unique voice to every character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. While not holding the record, Star Wars audiobooks bring the challenge of giving a unique voice to dozens of multi-species characters. From Admiral Ackbar to Rodain #3, each character must have a clear, unique voice for the listener to identify, follow, and remember — and it’s the job of the narrator to develop them.
“For me it’s interesting,” Davis says. “What we do is we look at the physical construct of what they describe of the character. So if a character is all teeth, that’s what you want to focus on. [Laughs] “And thinking about it, well, I know Marc Thompson has talked about this when he does Admiral Ackbar and characters like that, we think about the vocal tone, and where the voice emits, you know how the mouth works while trying to mimic something ‘fish-like’ or ‘squid-like’ and how it might sound. When we did the Yuuzhan Vong, they were very organic creatures, so I thought it would be something,” Davis says, lowering his voice to a low, menacing octave, “from somewhere down, deep inside my being every time they would speak.” Davis returns to his regular voice. “And there would be a prolonged sound. I would pick a letter and extend it, so perhaps it was an ‘Rrrrrrrr,’ an extended growl, or an ‘Ssss,’ if it were a more sibilant or serpentine character. Perhaps that’s where the focus would be. Mainly it’s dealing with the physical traits and finding out how a character would move their face and how they would speak and function.”
With hundreds of characters voiced under his belt, it felt appropriate to ask which character Davis most enjoyed bringing to life. “Kenobi. I’ve always loved having the opportunity to do Obi-Wan,” Davis says. “And I was fortunate enough to do this one project by John Jackson Miller which was titled Kenobi. It took place right after Revenge of the Sith, and it’s that period between then and A New Hope right when Obi-Wan went into exile, and it’s essentially about the choice that Obi-Wan makes in becoming Ben, the recluse in exile. It’s an excellent story, and he’s a charming character.”
While Davis is partial to Obi-Wan, the dark side seems to pull at him, too. Many of his Star Wars-related works, notably the Darth Bane trilogy and the recent Battlefront: Twilight Company, have centered around darker, more serious aspects of the universe. So the question is, does Davis prefer to explore that aspect of the Star Wars universe? “Absolutely! Yes, absolutely,” Davis says, laughing. “I’m very grateful for that. At this point, there is a cadre of actors you know that are involved with the Star Wars audiobooks at this time, so it’s usually not just one person. they’re using different actors for diverse projects. But yes, I am grateful that I’m thought of to do the darker ones — it’s what I prefer and enjoy.”
Being a part of Star Wars is a dream realized for Thompson, a life-long fan of the franchise. And the reception Thompson has received due to his work is staggering to him. “It’s been pretty amazing and overwhelming in some ways,” Thompson says. “My ‘in’ was Star Wars, and since doing it, people have reached out to me on Twitter, on Facebook, and they really, really enjoy it. I mean Kevin Thomsen, who’s my director and the guy who kind of puts it together, he does a great job with Paul [Goodrich] putting together all the music and sound effects; they really do a stellar job at making it a unique listening experience.”
Thompson continues. “I’ve got all sorts of stories from fans coming up to me telling me these awesome stories. Like one guy’s a truck driver and he tells me that I’m keeping him alive because [the audiobooks] keep him alert while he’s on the road. I had an Afghanistan war veteran tell me that while in battle, not while he’s like in the middle of a firefight [Laughs], but he said that these audiobooks helped keep him grounded and were sort of an escape during really awful times in the war. I’ve had people who are partially blind reach out to me and tell me that this is the only way they get to experience these books because they normally wouldn’t get to read them, and they tell me how much it meant to them that I did them. So you hear stories like that and it’s like, ‘Oh man, I had no idea.’ You know? The Star Wars fans are so passionate and so encouraging that I’ve just had many, many people reach out to me and express admiration, and it means a lot to me as a Star Wars fan to think that in some minuscule way, I’m a part of this universe and part of something that people love.”
Tyler Westhause is the social media manager for Rebel Force Radio, a popular podcast that covers the latest and greatest in Star Wars news. He became engrossed with Star Wars at the age of three, when he went to see The Phantom Menace in theaters. 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.