Voicing Death Stranding’s Heartman

Voicing Death Stranding’s Heartman 8

With 2020 just starting, it is hard to not look back onto 2019 and see Death Stranding as one of the biggest games of the year.

It brought Hideo Kojima back into the spotlight with a game shrouded in mystery and speculation. Hitting at the end of the decade — and filled with hype — Death Stranding was a game that took the industry by storm.

With a star-studded cast and a story that felt more like a movie than a game, Death Stranding is a landmark title and a major step for Hideo Kojima. Whether you liked it or hated it, it was a game that helped define the end of the decade, and it will be talked about for a long time moving forward.

Part of what made Death Standing so iconic and hypnotic to play was the cast. Filled with actors like Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tommie Earl Jenkins, it is hard to deny the star power behind the game. One such actor, Darren Jacobs, took on the voice work for the character of Heartman in Death Stranding. A voice actor veteran, he has done work on many games — such as Smite and Dragon Age: Inquisition — and recently had a role in 2019’s Ford v Ferrari. 

Jacobs spoke with CGMagazine about his voice work in Death Standing, how he got into acting, and what is next for him. 

Voicing Death Stranding’s Heartman 12
Heartman | Death Stranding – Kojima Productions

CGMagazine: You were recently in Death Stranding as the voice of Heartman. How did you get involved in the project, and what was it like working with Kojima for one of the most important games of this generation?

Darren Jacobs: Well, I auditioned for it. Basically, in LA, most voiceover work you have to audition for. I went through the process. It’s actually funny, I thought it was just a regular voiceover audition, and I did my audition and then was just about to send it off, when I realized that it was a self-tape that they wanted. Which means I had to go on camera and learn the lines. I did such a good voiceover audition, I was so pleased with it. Then I was in such a rush, I was running around trying to memorize the words and it was so much technobabble. It was a really difficult audition, but then I sent it off and a week later they got back in touch with me with a different character name, and some notes from the unknown director, because it was all coded. 

But by this point, I’d really been looking into it because I was really intrigued by this project. And then I got an inkling that it was Hideo Kojima’s new game. So I really went into fine detail with my second audition. And they actually told me that [the character] had narcolepsy. So I was doing all this stuff and improvising and I sent it off. And then about two days after that, I got the job. And it was amazing. Working with Hideo Kojima was phenomenal. To know that this guy has this brain that is on the next level, and even when he tells you what the plot is, or what your character is, you go out, you nod your head, “yes, yes, yes”, but you have no idea. For me, I love working with directors and on projects that affect people, which is next level cerebral. Every time I went in there it blew my mind, the things that he would tell me; the concept for Heartman itself was so unique. This guy who dies every 21 minutes and then comes back to life on the 24th minute because he’s searching for his family. It’s so tragic, and what a great character to do! I loved it.

Voicing Death Stranding’s Heartman 9
Death Stranding – Heartman

CGMagazine: How was it seeing Nicolas Winding Refn with your voice for the character of Heartman in Death Stranding?

Darren Jacobs: Now, to be honest, that was a little bit weird at first because I actually know Nicholas. Not in person, but I know of his work. And I like his work, I like his kind of stuff. So it was weird at first and it was difficult in the way that they’d already done most of the mo-cap for it. So basically all the bodywork they’ve done, and that was set — that was anchored — and then I came in to do the P-cap, which is the performance capture, which is the face and the voice acting and the actual movement of the face. So I have the big helmet with the camera on and all the dots over my face and they capture my facial acting. But the mocap was set in place. So I would have to do specific lines and say a certain word at a certain time.

So I couldn’t say, like, if I had to say, go on the word — on the six-second — I still had to do that. So I had to fill the time, which was great because when we were acting I was talking to Hideo and his team, and they said that because Heartman is away on his beach for such a long time, he’s not used to being around people. He’s lonely, he’s awkward, his social skills are terrible. One of the first times you meet him, he says so many different things that people won’t speak about. He forgets how to be around people. So I made the choice of a stutter for the character [Jacobs says with a stutter], and can be a bit like that, and say awkward things which would help me fill that void and make it more natural. And it allowed me to make him my own character. But it was weird at first, seeing Nicholas, but then you get used to it because I’m in other video games; you see another face that’s not yours necessarily, it is only recently that you actually get the facial capture, so it’s only recently that it looks more like the actual voice actor. But seeing somebody that you already knew was kind of weird.

CGMagazine: Have you guys met since Death Stranding came out?

Darren Jacobs: I have not, no. I think I would fanboy out if I actually did meet him because I love his style. I love the old David Lynch kind of thing, that slow burn sort of movie. It’s interesting because I get why Hideo likes him so much. His work is very Japanese. His work has a quality very akin to Japanese movies, where you’ll have a long wide frame where the actor walks out of the frame for ages, and the silence and nothing happens, and then he comes back in it. So I get why that they do get along so well. But I haven’t met him. I would love to!

Voicing Death Stranding’s Heartman 10
Death Stranding – Heartman

CGMagazine: How is how did you get into the role of doing voice work for video games? And do you enjoy it as a career?

Darren Jacobs: I got into voiceover by accident actually, because in the UK you’re not really taught about voiceover. We get three years of training in theatre and that’s what you do. Most schools — acting schools — don’t give you TV experience. So for me, I never even thought of voiceover. I could always do accents because of my first TV job in the UK; I was about 13 or 14 and I booked a role doing a Scottish accent. I beat the Scotts to get it, actually. So I always had an ear for accents and doing voices uses that skill. But it wasn’t until I was later in my career and I’d done some more things. But I had to learn a German accent — West German accent — and all these Russian accents and things like that. And I thought I wanted to expand on it, so I got a scholarship to study in New York, doing the voiceover and commercial work, on-screen acting, all the things that I wanted to research and improve on.

So I went there, and they were the ones that actually said to me, “You should seriously look into getting a voiceover agent.” And I kind of laughed it off and was like, “yeah, yeah.” But then they introduced me to a big American agent who wanted to take me, but I lived in the UK. But then when I came over to America, I got a voiceover agent, and then just started booking, but it takes a while. Voiceover does take a while to get into because you have to do sustained auditions; you have to do good quality auditions that casting directors are going to see again and again and again before they book you. Because basically what they’re doing is they’re putting you in a room with up to 15 people in the room next to you, directing you, redirecting you, and they need to know that you can do it, or else they’re going to look bad and you’re going to waste a session. So they are very reticent to actually book you at first, commercially. They will do video games and animation. You literally won’t book for a couple of years; you’ll audition and audition and audition, but you won’t work for them. Maybe there are a couple of people who are lucky enough to do that. But most people, no! But I love it. I absolutely love it. For me, It’s an extension of my theatre training since it’s using your imagination and your physicalizing something in a different way. You can do all the stuff that you would never do on camera. You can be as big and as crazy and zany and caricature as you want to be. And people love it. And it’s fun. I love it.

Voicing Death Stranding’s Heartman 11
John de Lancie, Darren Jacobs – When The Train Stops

CGMagazine: Beyond video games, you’ve done a lot of genre film and tv, is there a reason? Do you like being a part of genre cinema?

Darren Jacobs: Well basically, when I came to the USA, I started again. I literally came with two suitcases and a pipe dream; I didn’t know anybody. So I started booking some jobs. And it’s through people who recommended me to other people, I would get phone calls from producers and an email saying, “Hey, can you come and read the script because somebody said that you have classical training, and we can’t find anybody?” That’s how I ended up doing a lot of genre work. I did a lot of science fiction, which I love because I really love computer games, I love reading, and I grew up doing D&D. I love it. So for me, it’s been amazing like this. I did a pilot with actors that I’ve watched growing up. Every day I come on set and I’d have this new person from this huge hit TV show that I watched, never thinking that I’d work with them, and I’m on the other side — on the camera with them — I’m like, this is insane.

I really had to hold my geeking out. Imagine working with the people who made you want to be an actor. It was fantastic! So yeah, I have no regrets about doing all the genre work. I love it!

CGMagazine: I just want to quickly touch on what is next. What type of movie would you like to do next? What type of game would you like to next? What is next for your career in general?

Darren Jacobs: Game-wise, you know what? It’s really difficult topping Death Stranding because, yeah, it’s the first big game that I did. We were up for game of the year, we were up for eight awards. We’ve gone global, and getting people from around the world reaching out to me… It’s insane.

To read the full interview with Darren Jacobs please pick up the next issue of CGMagazine, avalable in print and online

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