North Bay voice teacher trains students to be video game characters

As a Los Angeles teenager dreaming of screen stardom, Samantha Paris was told at auditions she was too fat to succeed in television.

That was the era of “Charlie’s Angels,” Paris explains, and all actresses were expected to look like starving super models.

“The directors said I wasn’t pretty enough to play the lead, and not plain enough to play the best friend,” she recalls.

Then Paris auditioned for a voiceover role on a Friskies cat food commercial, and all the director cared about was her voice. She was asked to speak off-screen for a little kitty to be shown on-screen.

“I thought, ‘What does a kitten sound like?’ All of a sudden, I just raised my voice to a higher register and did the commercial. I became this little kitten.”

At that point, she finally heard the words she had been waiting for, and every actor craves: “You’re going to be a star.”

And with her voice as her talent, she felt free to explore a variety of roles without limit. “It didn’t matter what I looked like,” she said.

While she also appeared on TV shows in episodic supporting roles, it was the voice work that kept her busiest, with vocal roles on the animated television series “Jem and the Holograms,” “Bionic Six,” “James Bond Jr.” and the American version of the Japanese favorite “Speed Racer.”

By her late 20s, she had tired of the hard-edged and cynical Southern California entertainment scene.

“I felt L.A. was a lonely place to be,” she said. “It didn’t feed my soul.”

So she came north, where she started her voice own actor training center, Voicetrax San Francisco, based in Sausalito. That was 30 years ago.

And now, Paris, 57, has told her own success story in her new book, “Finding the Bunny.” The title stems for an ?anecdote about her older brother, who taught her when she was a little girl to look for the Playboy bunny icon cleverly hidden on the covers of the magazines.

The reference also fits the Voicetrax philosophy of voice acting: Don’t worry too much about your voice, just search your mind for the character you need to portray - whether bunny or kitty - and focus on the acting.

Find your inner 6-year-old, she counsels her clients, and then just play. Soon you can sound like a kid, or a kitten, or whatever’s needed, if you use your imagination.

“I was searching for my true bunny,” Paris said, “and I found it in teaching. I get students who come to me and say, ‘People tell me I have an interesting voice.’ They think voiceover is about your voice, but it’s not. I have a very average-sounding voice. I used to sound like a teen-age girl and now I sound like a mom.”

Paris now lives in Petaluma with her third husband, retired restaurateur Graziano Perozzi. And while voice actors don’t necessarily tend to become superstars or household names, the roster of Voicetrax alumni does include some important players in the specialized world of purely vocal thespians.

“Chopper Bernet is someone who is revered,” Paris said, citing one example. “He was the voice of NBC and ‘The Ellen Show.’” (Bernet also has worked as a director and film actor, whose credits include “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”)

The voices behind video and computer games, she says, now rival or surpass traditional animation, commercials, industrial films and audio tour recordings which were once the mainstay jobs of voice actors.

“Five of the top video games are produced here in the Bay Area: ‘Vainglory,’ ‘League of Legends,’ ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘Wolf Among Us’ and ‘Sam & Max,’ with the majority of the casts being students of mine,” Paris said.

Nicki Rapp, formerly of Sebastopol, played the role of Lilly in the “Walking Dead” game and now lives and works in the Los Angeles area.

Devin Gilschinski of Petaluma emerged from his Voicetrax training to get a job on the video game 2K Sports, and at only 28, recently landed a voiceover role on the national TV ad campaign for Jack Link’s Beef Jerky.

“I couldn’t be more grateful to Voicetrax and Samantha,” he said. “Everything I needed to know was provided by the school, not only training in the actual craft, but learning about the business side of the job.”

Voicetrax has some notable names among its teachers, including film and voice actor Peter Coyote of Sebastopol, who wrote the foreword to the Samantha Paris memoir, “Finding the Bunny.”

“Samantha has trained more than 10,000 aspiring and working actors since she founded Voicetrax San Francisco in 1988,” Coyote wrote. “Finding your voice is such a simple idea but, like the Japanese tea ceremony, it is far easier said than done.”

Students at Voicetrax aren’t limited to actors. Lawyers, business executives, policeman and therapists - anyone who needs to be heard and believed - can benefit from learning to speak more powerfully and with greater confidence, Paris said.

And as TV commercials demonstrate, no one should underestimate the power of the spoken word to persuade listeners.

“When you can learn to sound authentic saying, ‘Stock up on Pepsi, panty liners and pork loins, you can sound authentic saying anything,” she joked.

For more information on Voicetrax and its some?80 training courses, go to?

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