Interview: Jen Cohn Talks Voice Acting, OverwatchMarch 14, 2019
Recently we had the opportunity to talk with Jen Cohn, ahead of her appearance at Toronto Comicon March 15th-17th at the Metro Toronto Convention Center, about her voice acting career, including voicing Pharah from the video game Overwatch.
So how did you get into the entertainment business? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you kind of fall into it, like a happy accident?
Jen: No, I always, always wanted to be in the entertainment business. From the time I was a tiny kid I was writing plays, doing shows in the living room and then when I was five or six I did my first play where I was able to improvise Peter Pan, I was Wendy in Peter Pan, and I improvised a line when I was walking the plank. I started saying a Jewish prayer, and that apparently was a big hit with the audience in suburban New Jersey, and that was when I decided I had a taste for an audience and I never veered from that, this was what I always wanted to do.
How did you end up in the voice acting world?
Jen: I ended up in voice acting because starting in college, I kept on being singled out for having a great character voice. I always loved doing accents, crazy voices, I’d age up and down and I kept on being stopped after I’d do a play and people would tell me I really need to be doing voice-overs. I had a producer stop me, got me into a studio and I did a commercial and really, that was sort of the beginning of it.
What makes voice acting so much fun for you?
Jen: What makes it so much fun for me is you have to be really quick on your feet. You have to be a very good reader, you have to be very good at quick decisions, choices, and interpretation. Then, you can be anything, it doesn’t matter what you look like, what you’re wearing, you can be a six hundred pound toad, you can be flying, you can be any gender, there’s this huge room for being all these different characters. It’s really fun to take direction when you’re working on these voice overs because generally everyone you’re dealing with is very smart and there’s all this room for creativity and collaboration, it makes it a really fun pursuit.
How do you prepare for voice work? Do you have any type of ritual or exercises to keep your voice in shape?
Jen: I really should do more! (Laughs) I’m pretty irresponsible, I don’t do any of that. I don’t smoke cigarettes, I used to in my mid-20’s but I stopped doing that! If I know I’m going to be doing character roles, like anything I might have to pitch up high, or screaming a lot, I’ll do some vocal warmups and I’ll drink warm tea during it just to keep everything warm but other than that no, I’m pretty lax about it. I probably shouldn’t be but I am.
How have things changed in voice acting from when you started to now in 2019?
Jen: Oh my god, tremendously, and the biggest change is technology. When I started you couldn’t do an audition at home, you had to go to a studio. Nowadays, you don’t even need a good home setup, if you have a reasonably good USB mic and any kind of computer and you can have some kind of software, go into a closet and you can record an audition. Sometimes if you have one that’s good enough you can plug it into your phone and be under a jacket with your phone and record an audition or a session. It really equalizes the playing field in a lot of ways and it changed the whole casting process. When I was first coming up, whenever you went on auditions you’d go all day in these rooms with all the other voice over people and now we all talk about how we rarely see each other. We are never in a room together because now you can do all your auditions at home, you don’t have to go to a casting person.
Do you enjoy that ‘do your auditions at home’ process or who you rather be playing off other voice actors in a group setting?
Jen: I way prefer playing off of people in a room and also, it gives you a real sense of community. Like I said, to be successful in voice over you have to be smart, you have to be intuitive, so everybody was very cool. In each city it’s a relatively small group of people so once you get into that group of people who do voice-overs, you’re really happy to see everyone else, you’re cheering for everyone else, it isn’t competitive, like a lot of other kinds of performance. I mean, the competition is getting into that room but once you’re in that room it’s anybody’s game. You really have this sense of community and support and being together is so nice, and that’s what’s so nice about the Overwatch crew, we get to do conventions together, we get to see each other and have community but other than that it’s very rare these days that I get to see my voice over friends.
Speaking of Overwatch, how did the role of Pharah come about?
Jen: That came about because I had already done work for Andrea Toyias, who is the voice director for Blizzard, on World of Warcraft. When they were casting for Pharah they got in touch with me and they sent me an audition and I did not understand that she was a hero. She had a code name and the game had a code name, and it was brand new because she was one of the first characters, and the way that she was described, as being an aggressive player, on offense and a first-person shooter, I thought she was a villain. So I did this Egyptian villain audition and I sent it in and I forgot about it because when you do auditions you can have between two and five in a day, so you send in auditions all the time and forget them. Six months later I got a call that I had been cast as Pharah in a game called Overwatch and then I had a session on my birthday and I said ok great, except I never auditioned for this, I think they made a mistake. My agent assured me I should go so I went and when I got to the session, it was in New York, and I said again look, I think you’ve got the wrong Jen Cohn, I didn’t audition for this. They assured me that I had and then they played me the tape and it was like oh, I remember this, the evil Egyptian. Then they said to me, don’t think of her as the bad guy, think of her as the Captain America of the game, and that was the session where we found the voice.
Did you ever have any sense that Overwatch was going to be something special or was the popularity of the game a complete surprise?
Jen: It was a complete surprise to me. My agent had told me that she thought it was going to be a big deal but I’ve done other games and projects that I assumed were going to be a big deal, worked on projects for a long time, so I thought this was just going to be another cool project. I had no idea where this would lead, that it would lead me here now, I had no idea.
I believe there are thirty characters now in Overwatch. Are you friends with a lot of voice talent in this game? Do you keep in touch, get together or is it more business than pleasure?
Jen: I don’t know some of the new people, I haven’t met them yet, but so far everyone that I know from the game, we’ve really hit it off. I mean, considering how random it is, you don’t exactly know when you cast a bunch of voice actors whether you’re going to get a bunch of nice people or not, you’re just casting people with good voices. As it turned out, just through sheer luck or coincidence, that everyone is really cool and we’ve all become friends. We hang out in real life, we text each other and have dinners, when we are at conventions together we all hang out, it’s like a special and cool all-for-one, one-for-all vibe.
You are attending Toronto Comicon this weekend, March 15th-17th at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. What are some of the things you enjoy about attending these conventions?
Jen: I love meeting the fans, that’s the most exciting part of it. Getting to connect with these fans, I mean, I’m alone in a studio when I record this. The idea that I get to do something then over the course of the years, get to connect with all of these people of different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, all over the world, just from doing this fun, cool gig I have, it’s just amazing. I love that I get to see Anjali, I love that I get to go back to Toronto where I haven’t been in almost twenty years, this is a great excuse to come back.
What other projects do you have coming up?
Jen: Oh god, I’ve got two things coming up that I’ve signed NDA’s on so I can’t talk about them. I can say that I have a role on a series on Hulu coming out in the Fall that hasn’t been announced yet, so I’m excited about that. Right this minute, I’m most excited about the fact that I’m going to be in a band for a benefit in two weeks and I had a killer rehearsal yesterday, so I’m really looking forward to my benefit band. I mean, I get to sing Super Freak, how fun is that? I’m so excited, it should be a blast.
I want to thank Jen for taking the time to talk with us