Fryda Wolff is an experienced, bilingual voice actor with countless appearances in trailers, commercials, TV shows, and video games. Before becoming a full-time voice actor, she worked as a sound designer and a voice integration specialist on several EverQuest games (The Buried Sea, Kingdom of Sky, Prophecy of Ro, The Serpent’s Spine, Desert of Flames). She’s represented by the Atlas Talent Agency and her extensive list of voice acting credits on IMDb includes Paradigm, Street Fighter V, Fallout 4, The Technomancer, Civilization: Beyond Earth, The Park, Gods of Rome, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Resident Evil: Vendetta, Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series, and Battle Chasers: NightWar, and many others. Most recently, she starred as Sara Ryder in BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Ms. Wolff graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve been the voice of several famous characters in video games such as Fallout, and most recently as Sarah Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda. How did you initially get into voice acting and into video games?
[Ms. Wolff] I got my foot in the door with video games when I was 18 years old. Up until that point, I was a typical PC gaming generation nerd. Mine was the first generation where it was expected that all kids would have word processor computers at home to type out reports. My parents wouldn’t permit me to have gaming consoles but I said, “Well, I‘ve got to have a PC for school.” Of course I became a geeky gamer, and this was right at the advent of America Online and the internet in general.
I played a lot of PC games, mainly Everquest, which was the first hit massively multiplayer online game prior to the World of Warcraft. I’d been studying political science at college because I wanted to be a political campaign manager. At the time I was entering school, I got to see a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff in politics. A PR rep talked about stunts like having the governor of Nevada spend the night at a women’s shelter, and the press just ate it up. I thought that maybe it’s easier to represent a product that I actually believe in, instead of so much smoke and mirrors and costuming.
I was also playing a lot of games. It just so happened that the makers of Everquest, Sony Online Entertainment, were going to have their first fan event in Las Vegas—the Fan Fair—and they miscalculated attendance. It was going to be a two-day event and the first day had a capacity of 200 people; over 1,000 registered. Me being a local kid, I got on the online forums and I was like, “Hey! Everybody who didn’t make it into this nighttime event, let’s meet at Gameworks down the street”—a megaplex franchise game arcade. I said I would make it my job to see that everyone who didn’t get in went across the street afterwards. And at that first night of the event, one of the Sony Online employees approached me and said, “Hey, are you the girl from the forum?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Do you want a job?” So that quickly capped my political campaign manager dreams, which was fine with me at the time.
And so I got an entry-level job. Now you have multiple higher learning opportunities through state colleges, vocational schools, and others which have specific credential courses in game design, art, and animation; these things were rarer 10 or 15 years ago. My generation was the last generation where you were expected to get in with an entry-level job and hope for opportunities and internships, climbing the ladder internally.
My first job was in customer service, which for the players, is called the “game master.” I monitored the games and servers. I did that for two-and-a-half years and beyond that, there just wasn’t anything specific for me to slide into because I wasn’t a programmer; I didn’t have an interest in game design; and I’m not an artist, so I didn’t really know where I’d fit in.
The first six months of that customer service job, I got to intern in the marketing department. It was really depressing because it was mostly men, and the men didn’t play any of our company’s games—they played other companies’ games—and the women didn’t play games at all and were giving misinformation during interviews and stuff. I remember running around with post-its giving basic game detail corrections and that was disheartening. I was like, “Okay, well maybe my future isn’t in the video game equivalent of political campaign managing, so I don’t know where I belong now.”
Three-and-a-half years in, there was an audio department, which was working on a project: EverQuest 2, the sequel to EverQuest. Back then, it was the most ambitious project of its kind for voiceovers; it had 100,000 lines of dialogue, which was insane. It’s been surpassed by certain games like one of the Grand Theft Auto sequels, but at the time, it was a really enormous amount of data to push into a game, and they couldn’t keep up with the implementation, so they opened up a position for someone to be an entry-level voice over (VO) implementer. I applied; I got it; and I got my foot in the door into audio that way. After that game shipped, I was mentored by a lead sound designer and became a sound designer. I did that for about nine years of my career in video games, and I’ve been a voice actor for the last four years of it.
[OnlineEducation.com] What percentage of your time is spent on video games as opposed to other types of media?
[Ms. Wolff] Prior to the SAG-AFTRA game strike, 60-70 percent of my gigs were in games. Since the strike, most casting has gone just north or over the pond, either to Canada or London; anyone who can do an American accent is making a killing. Production has not stopped on games, and just from a production standpoint, in the same way that the United States exported technology to India or exported fabrication to China, once you prove a business can function in a different state, there’s no reason to fix what isn’t broken. So now that the strike is continuing, production is continuing in other countries and that video game business—I can guarantee—is not coming back.
[OnlineEducation.com] Can you tell me a little bit about the strike? I’m not familiar with it.
[Ms. Wolff] I can’t speak too much to it. I’m actually not a union member; I’m what’s known as “financial core.” It’s based on a Supreme Court decision and it affects all unions in the United States. When you become financial core, you’re what’s defined as a dues-paying non-member, which is exactly what it sounds like. I’m not a member of SAG-AFTRA, but I still pay dues; they still take a cut of all my union jobs, and in exchange, I’m at liberty to do all the non-union work I want with impunity. If you’re a full-fledged union member and you do non-union work and you’re caught, you can be fined thousands of dollars; you can be expulsed from the union. But I do it out in the open as a non-member. I still pay my dues, and in return, I have the benefit of working union jobs, getting union health benefits, pensions, and residuals. All that stuff.
[OnlineEducation.com] How long has this been going on?
[Ms. Wolff] Negotiations started around two years ago and the strike started in October 2016. It’s changed the industry irreparably and preventably.
[OnlineEducation.com] I’m going to look more into that. That seems like an interesting issue. Moving back to your characters: have you ever been the voice for characters that you identified with, or you felt were like yourself? Or do you feel like you have to bring something completely different to everyone that you do?
[Ms. Wolff] Most of the time, a really good casting director has a sixth sense when they listen to auditions, and they can tell when someone isn’t working too hard. Acting shouldn’t be difficult, from my perspective; it should be just funneling some aspects of who you already are. I’d say I probably have shared attitudes, perspectives, whatever, with all the characters I’ve booked, and that’s why I book them.
The first thing any voice actor will tell you is that you should lead with yourself; lead with your natural voice; lead with your personality; and then push in directions from there. If you think of voice acting as just “doing voices” and you’ve trashed the acting part, you won’t work because it’s not your voice. You have to actually have feelings, reactions, and just genuine emotion, and you happen to put a filter on it. So looking at work in IMDb for example, it’s a lot of loud kids; a few villains; and some really hyper, sugar-high teenagers; I think that those all represent my roots.
Everyone’s got great days when you feel like you’re awesome and you’re on top of everything, you’ve answered all your emails, your fridge is full, and you’re just super-happy-positive; other days, everything is death! Your cat died; this bill is going to kill you this month; and you’re just angry and lashing out at everybody. Everybody has those capacities, and pretending any fictional character is just two-dimensional is bad acting. It’s not treating that character like it’s a real person, and you should treat every character like a real person. Even if it’s an anthropomorphic space alien, it’s still a person, because it was written—probably—by a human being, injecting it with personality.
[OnlineEducation.com] You mentioned earlier that it’s pretty male-dominated in most video game departments. Has that been your experience working in video games as a voice actor?
[Ms. Wolff] The very first audio department I was part of actually had four women and three men when the department was at its fullest, which is really, really rare. As with most male-dominated industries, everything gets better slowly over time, as far as gender parity and diversity, and all that stuff. Progress is slow, but it’s there; it’s just tiny and incremental. Now that I’m on the receiving end, I see a lot of writers’ room crap; I can tell when a white, hetero male has written something, because of how two-dimensional the female characters are.
Sometimes when there’s an animated show that’s going out, you receive the entire character packet instead of just the “sides”—the scripts that you’re actually auditioning. So you’ll see every character that’s going out for a show. Numerous times, I’ve seen major franchise character packets go out, where there’s one or two females to 10 or 14 or 20 males. I was warned when I became a voice actor that by the way, it’s just hard for women; it’s just the way it is; there are fewer available roles for women. And boy, do I see it. I mean, the proof is there when you get the entire cast and it’s like, cool, so I’m competing against every other woman auditioning for just those few roles. Meanwhile, every man’s potential for winning the lottery is much higher than mine. And it’s the fault of the the writers, the creators, and the people signing off on these things.
And on the flip side of that, there are certain shows, creators, and studios where you can tell they’re working really hard for gender parity. I’ll see them put out like five female roles for a show, which is crazy, but promising. Once in awhile they’ll ask specifically for someone of a specific ethnic heritage because the character is of that ethnic heritage, and they want to do right; they don’t want anyone to have to pretend or play a racial stereotype, which is very distasteful these days.
Personally, I’m half-Mexican. I speak fluent Mexican Spanish, and maybe this is a general American ignorance thing, but I think it’s worse with the lazy, white guys. They send scripts and are like, “We want a British accent.” Well, which one of the 50 accents? And they probably mean just generic, posh, intelligible British, but over there, there are so many accents it’s not even worth going down the list! It would be equivalent to asking, “We want an American accent.” Well, you would presume that perhaps they want what I have, which is called flat regional, non-accented. But, that also means, did you mean Boston? Did you mean Texas? Did you mean Michigan? Pick one.
So it’s a kind of lazy ignorance, especially when it comes to roles that are supposed to be some sort of descript or non-descript Latino-Hispanic. I’ve been in sessions with only white people and we’re trying to rev up the aspect because they don’t think I’m being Latino enough. My mother learned English in her late 30s; she was Mexico City-born, and she immigrated to the United States because she met my father, so I have very distinct memories and opinions of someone learning English as a second language in their adulthood or late-adulthood. They’re not trying to have an accent; they’re not trying to play racial stereotypes; they’re trying desperately to speak intelligible—and as perfect—English as they can manage. I tend to book those roles because I’m not trying to play a stereotype who doesn’t exist, someone who’s trying to indicate really hard to you their country of origin. I’ve been in sessions where I’m meant to have an Argentinean accent and the white booth director says, “Yes, just do it like Sofia Vergara,” and I’m like, “She’s Colombian.” There have been ad nauseum op-eds at this point asking Sofia Vergara to stop essentially playing brown face for the public; maybe that’s her character from Modern Family, but that’s not actually who she is as an English-speaking Colombian woman.
Just off the top of my head, I was in a session not long ago, I was partnering for a commercial with a black woman. We did a first read through and the client—presumably white guys—told her, “Just feel free to have fun with it. Just say stuff like, ‘Hey girl!’” which was in no uncertain terms was code for can you black it up? She didn’t complain; she didn’t make a face; and she just did it—what is known as going “full urban.” I’ve had this conversation with plenty of friends who are mixed-race or of color or black, and they dread seeing that “urban” because they know exactly what it means. It’s ridiculous because you can still be a person of color and not sound “urban.” You just are who you are. Again, like people of a certain origin, their whole impetus and their diction is not trying to play to racial stereotypes. They’re just trying to be who they are from wherever they are. You don’t want to cause a problem for someone who’s counting on you to deliver something, but I just make these little notes as we go.
There are a lot of people who won’t voice this, but Aziz Ansari’s Master of None did this amazing episode in the first season where he and a bunch of other Indian actors were all up for the same roles. There’s this whole episode of them having discussions like, “Dude, don’t go for that! That’s so racist!” And they’d say, “Ah, but I need the money.” Those of us in those auditions…we absolutely have to pick our battles. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you get to a point where you think you have to start saying, “No.”
[OnlineEducation.com] With all of these challenges in the way that the characters are being written and the way that people expect them to be voiced, what is causing all this? Is it just because of the majority of the writers and the game creators are still white men? Or do you think there’s something else at play?
[Ms. Wolff] Yeah, everybody only writes from what they know. So when you have a writer’s room that’s just full of white guys, they’re going to write mostly parts for their own power fantasies or their own perspective. When they write women, you can tell it’s the way they view women, or what they think women are really like. That’s when you end up with tropes like damsels in distress, or what Gail Simone would refer to as “women in refrigerators.” She called out the trope where someone’s love interest just has to die to serve as a motivator for the male protagonist over and over. Just go through as many body bags as we have to get through, so he has a reason to get out of bed. Whatever it takes.
I have the benefit of being Sara Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s a well-known, recognized company working very hard to have a diverse—or as diverse as we can manage—staff, a diverse writers’ room. I happened to be in studio recording for something else and the writer told me, “Fryda! I wrote for you for Mass Effect: Andromeda!” She was the first developer from that team that I actually met and just happened to be in the same studio recording two completely unrelated things. Their games are very “choose your own adventure” where you play a protagonist that can typically be of any color, of any sexuality. You choose your adventure by going any number of different paths where you can romance everybody! Or romance nobody! And the game will react to your decisions. It’s not like you’re choosing from four different hetero white guys to engage with relationship-wise. So someone who believes in the importance of presenting options for people outside of your own scope…it’s a huge honor and responsibility to ask you to do a BioWare game for sure. I think any actor who works for BioWare today would say that.
[OnlineEducation.com] From your experience, would you say that the situation is getting better across the games industry?
[Ms. Wolff] Social media has done a lot of wonderful and terrible things, and I think one of the positives out of social media is people are being faster than ever to call out wrongs or things that they disagree with. Game creators work in content that isn’t at least trying will get called out really, really fast. Some companies don’t care early on, but I think companies are caring more and more because not all press is good press, really. I think people are faster to praise and faster to criticize.
I think there has been slow and steady improvement. This year we have a few games with female protagonists. I know Horizon Zero Dawn was a huge success and that’s a single-player game where you have no choice but to play a female protagonist, which some people hated, but they missed out because the game is highly regarded and did very well. In The Last of Us Part II, you’re going to play as Ellie, who is the female co-star. In the original Last of Us, you played as Joel. The developers quantify those characters as equally weighted costars and protagonists, however, The Last of Us Part 2 will more prominently feature Ellie and force you to play as her.
The game won BAFTAs. Actors usually don’t get recognition—nevermind accolades—for acting in video games. So there is progress and it’s that whole thing of like, every woman has to do bear the responsibility of being all women and every person of color has to bear the responsibility of being all people of color. Once something that they’re attached to succeeds, it opens the doorway for people to come in behind them in the same way that Wonder Woman made money. So maybe it makes sense to be like, “Huh. Maybe women directors and women protagonists can make money.” But of course they don’t do that when a male protagonist game or a male protagonist movie fails. We’re never like, “Oh well, we’re just going to stop making those male movies because obviously they don’t make money.”
[OnlineEducation.com] I know. They say, “The dude movie failed? Let’s make four more sequels!”
[Ms. Wolff] And we don’t do that. But with white, male, hetero media, we’re incredibly fast to do that historically with anyone else’s presentation of other kinds of people. I think the floodgates are kind of stuck open now and people are unstoppable! You’ve got creators like Jenji Kohan with multi-show contracts for Netflix, for example, where Orange is the New Black was a Trojan horse and she’s like, “Sure, I’ll make two women the white protagonists of the story you’re going to follow, but guess what I’m going to do: I’m going to have a huge cast full of all ages and a range of colors—especially all of the women—and we’re going to tell their stories too, and you can’t stop me.” So I think we’re in a better place. Progress is slow, and I think impatience is good because it keeps it pushing forward. If we ever get complacent with, “This is good enough,” it will immediately backslide. As current politics show, the second you get complacent and lazy, everything backslides.
[OnlineEducation.com] Related to that, you obviously have some awesome ideas about the industry. What is your advice for women who want to work in video games in any capacity?
[Ms. Wolff] I really enjoyed both Tina Fey’s and Amy Poehler’s respective autobiographies. They were great. Tina Fey’s is Bossy Pants, Amy Poehler’s is Yes, Please. They both mention advice because they get asked that a lot. Tina Fey talked about “over, under, or through.” If you can’t work with a guy, go under him—not literally—over him, or through him. Do whatever it takes to pass them and leave them behind because if you really believe in the thing that you want to accomplish, they can’t stop you.
There’s a famous story that both of them told. In the first season of that generation of Saturday Night Live, everyone was in the writers’ room. They were all still kind of fresh and Amy Poehler was doing a bit, being kind of loud and obnoxious. Tina was laughing and Jimmy Fallon kept saying, “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Amy Exorcist-turned her head, changed her demeanor and darkened, and replied, “I don’t fucking care if you like it!” Tina Fey was like, “Wow. Things are going to be okay.”
Women, minorities, and other people you think you can push aside are suddenly very authoritative when they realize their value and stand up for themselves. Women have a lot of power. We’re just told constantly that we don’t, so we believe it, but the trick is: don’t believe it. I think of Joan Jett as an example constantly. When Joan Jett started playing gigs as a fifteen-year-old in the early 70s, she was always told, “Uh, sweetheart, women don’t belong in rock. Rock’n roll isn’t a thing that women do.” She was like, “Cool. Watch me.” And then, the rest is history.
I just recently finished the autobiography of Carol Burnett. At the time, she came straight off of Broadway and she married her husband, who’s a producer. The decided to do something together, so they came up with the idea of doing the sketch show and started shopping for networks. At the time, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, and many other comics had their own shows. Every network she went to—except for the one that they ultimately landed with—said, “That’s just not a thing for women. Women don’t run comedy shows. Think of something else to do, sweetie.” Of course, this just gave her even more motivation to do it.
The audacity of going to any one person and saying, “You know what: someone like you doesn’t do something like that” is infuriating, but it still happens everyday. Just last week we had this white guy from Google who posted an internal memo about how he’s a victim of diversity because quote: “Tech is something women just don’t do as well.” Those kinds of oppositional forces and voices are never going to go away; that’s just humanity at it’s worst. Humanity at it’s best is just saying, “That’s nice. Watch me” and pushing through and persevering in any way.
I’m a student of feminists and successful women. The thing that they all seem to have in common is that they just didn’t quit. So when people ask, “How do you succeed in voice acting?” I say, “You just don’t go away. You keep showing up.” Eventually, they have to listen to you and figure out what to do with you, but you’re never going to get that opportunity if you’re like, “Oh, well, you know, you’re right. I’m not cut out for this line of work.” That’s the number one thing. I don’t think anyone gets out entirely alive. Whatever you want to do for a living, you’re going to get some cuts and bruises, and that’s fine because it’s not the first time, and you’re not the only one. You just have to stick it out and find your people. Surround yourself with people who support you. Surround yourself with people who are in your specific arena, in your specific industry.
Another great thing Amy Poehler said in her book was that she doesn’t make time for people who don’t 100 percent support her in her endeavors. Anyone who’s sort of negative, she just cuts them off no matter what the reason is because it’s like, “It doesn’t serve me; it doesn’t help me get to where I want to go. I want to surround myself with people who also want to see me succeed, and if there’s someone who obviously doesn’t want to see me succeed, then I don’t need them.” Tina’s phrase for building a team was always—and I love this—she would say, “I surround myself with people whose face I want to see at four in the morning.” If you think like that, you can’t go wrong.