Four our third Audiobook Q&A, we’re delighted to sit down with actor, narrator, and Audie Award-Winner Bronson Pinchot to chat about all things audio, typecasting, Mark Twain, the need for calzones, apple fritters and South Park, and the differences between narrating a book and acting for film or television.
1. I think most people know you from your work on television and in films. How did you make the transition to audio narration?
I did a play, Distracted, with narrator Ray Porter. We became friends in an eerily short amount of time and he told me I’d like [audio narration]. So he hooked me up with Grover Gardner at Blackstone, and Grover and Andrew Barnes took me under their respective wings and invested in me, which was kind and generous of them, because I was clunky and needy at the beginning. Now I’m just needy.
2. How do the two compare — acting for television or film and narrating an audiobook? Do you find one more challenging?
At times, I feel they are very close, and, at other times, worlds apart. Depends on the material. I find audiobook narration very challenging. Because of the ubiquity of Perfect Strangers — on which I played a character defined by his exuberance and demonstrativeness– I am (unfairly, I think) often thought of as generically over the top. Read any review of anything in which I have done well, and you will always find the qualifying phrase “You won’t believe Balki pulled it off, but…” I like to do as little as possible to accomplish the author’s intention. And this is not always easy or clear cut with audiobooks. As all narrators know, if you go 1% over what the average listener requires, you really hear the backlash.
3. Is audio narration more work than acting in film or on television? And do you prefer one to the other?
It is more intense and far less forgiving. I do feel much more in control with audiobooks, as it is unheard of for an editor or publishing house to delete a section of a book. And there are no alternate takes to choose from, so I have a welcome sense of knowing how the finished product will come across, which is never the case with film.
4. You’ve narrated a lot of audiobooks. You’ve won audio awards. (Blushes, stubs toe in ground.) What’s your proudest profession achievement as an audiobook narrator?
Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn. Because of the deadline (my pal Ray was halfway through, but had to drop out because of a TV commitment) I read the book entirely cold in a week’s worth of long sessions, some of them 14 hours long. Up to that point, I had done almost entirely fantasy and light stuff. Here was this immensely serious book. I just leapt in and it swept me away. Since then, I have shed my typecasting — and the audiobook has been extremely well received. I am proud to have satisfied Karl, who is a brilliant writer and a personal hero. I am doing his new book now.
5. Do you have a dream project? A book or author’s work that you would love to record?
I would like to do all of L. Frank Baum’s books, because they meant and still mean so much to me. And I have written a book of my own that I would love to read, although Ray Porter does it stunningly well. (He reads me selections in a diner late at night). Anything at all of Mark Twain’s is amazing. Shakespeare would be bliss to do, if only because it has been pretty well established that he himself sounded nothing at all like Derek Jacobi or Lawrence Olivier and it would be nice to give him a less highfalutin’ presentation. I have done very well with Shakespeare at the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival.
6. Whose work or narration do you particularly admire?
I have never listened to an entire audiobook in my life. Once I developed my own style, I ventured to listen to some of Grover Gardner’s work, which is an eccentric way to do things, considering he mentored me. I found it effortlessly graceful, just like Gro himself. He’s one of the Voices of the Century, you know. I often mention it to him in passing and over gin.
7. What do you do to prepare before going into the recording booth? How is that different from your preparations for film or television or the stage?
I procrastinate, make coffee, tell stories, eat, watch South Park, and have to be heaved into the booth by the engineer. This process has been honed by Bryan Barney, with whom I have recorded dozens of books. He makes his “severe” face and that means I have to record. I do intense and prolonged warm-ups and mental exercises for film and stage. But on film and stage, one cannot say to one’s engineer, “God, I reek. Let’s start over. And could we order calzones?”
8. What’s the biggest challenge to narrating an audiobook?
Balance. And breathing. Once I get the author’s rhythms, I am out of the woods. Until I get his rhythms, I under-breathe or over-breathe, and then the sentences don’t come out right and I get gas and choke on the ends of sentences. Also balance between narration and characters. And tone. And style. And apparently there are days when I am the Reigning Monarch of Dry Lip Smacks.
9. What advice do you have for aspiring audiobook narrators?
Pretend it’s raining and someone you like very much is sick in bed and you are going to pull up an armchair and absolutely transport them with the book. Or drink a bottle of mead. I did it once when recording a book full of extended quotations from Beowulf, and it was sensationally helpful.
10. I’ve talked to a lot of narrators who describe the long hours in the recording booth as “grueling.” Is that sometimes the case? Is the process of recording audio books something that takes time to get used to?
My rear end gets numb and I get hot. If I could get perfect inaudible a/c and a genius chair, I think there would be no shoehorn big enough to get me out of the booth. Although I do have to have my South Park and apple fritters.
11. Do different genres demand different skills from you? Are there particular genres you enjoy recording or find more difficult?
Absolutely. I seem to do best with serious and rather tragic and disturbing material. Whenever I do something that is ostensibly funny or wacky, it seems to go south, which is wonderfully ironic, when you consider my perceived strengths. When I hold back, it generally works, but what are you supposed to do when you have a character named “Cuddle Bunny” or you are playing three witches singing a boisterous song in the woods? I did a character that was supposed to be an unbelievably annoying voice inside the hero’s head and I was taken to task for being annoying. Talk about a left-handed compliment.
12. You narrated Mark Twain’s Chapters from My Autobiography. Obviously, Twain is a legendary author and a very recognizable character. How was that experience for you?
Well, I adored it. And next to Matterhorn it’s by far the best thing I’ve done. Of course, since it’s written in the first person — and not even written, but dictated — it lent itself to recording in Twain’s voice. Now, the idea made me terribly nervous. But it just had to be done. And I came up with something I loved. And once I hit my stride with it, Bob and Deb Deyan were unbelievably indulgent and allowed me to re-record about 35 percent of the book, because I didn’t want the listener to hear my learning curve.
13. What are you working on next — both in terms of audiobook and in other areas?
I am doing Karl Marlantes’s new book, and two other books I can’t remember the titles of, and I have just shot a TV pilot and am waiting to hear if it is picked up. It’s extraordinarily exciting, entirely improvised. Which, next to things that are entirely scripted, is what I love best.