Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Take In the Lives of Your Heroes

I’m often asked about what an aspiring voice actor can do these days. We all face a profound isolation with most live performing and in-person learning being offline. Many just haven’t the means or opportunity to leave their apartment or home to explore or pursue their dreams or curiosity. And what would that even look like? How would it play out?

I remember the frustrations of the earlier chapter in my life— feeling stuck at home in a small town with not many creative options that lead anywhere or that appealed to me. But I’ve come to see that there are ways to counter this misperception of a brick wall standing between you and the life you are eager to live.

First, I’ve recently created a new page suggesting things to do to from home to explore and fortify the capacities, skills and knowledge you’ll need as a voice actor and a professional creative. Yes, I always harp on “live performing experience” as the best teacher and source of progress. But you thankfully have other options available, even if you are isolated, deficient of resources or otherwise stuck.

I wanted to suggest another at-home thing you can do- something that I believe can help you frame your path forward and hopefully illuminate your road ahead. It’s something I do regularly and wish I had started doing sooner. And that is to take in the lives of your creative heroes.

Acting: The Worst?

Wading into acting can be overwhelming and intimidating to put it mildly. It’s an activity that is stereotypically disparaged for many reasons, fraught with a host of imagined perils and dead ends. (I originally avoided focusing on acting because of my strong association of acting with poverty. Best case, I saw it as a hobby!)

An actor’s life seems perpetually off balance. Employment- even at a professsional level- is irregular, and it rarely seems to lead anywhere appealing or stable. Sure, it may be a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of time and effort earning you little or no money- usually. Not very alluring if you’re looking for “results” or some kind of payoff other than having some fun with friends.

Even as you get traction as a performer, it can feel you are walking in the dark on a path that leads nowhere definite. Or maybe a plank?…

Acting: The Best?

Most aspiring actors don’t find the kind of traction that leads to a steady career as a professional creative. But there are those who certainly do. They are the shining examples, the exceptions to seemingly dismal odds. Some may be your heroes.

Those lives- those that for good reasons “make it,” and that keep going- can offer you much insight and ideas of what to lean into, what to avoid and what to expect as you find your own path. You’ll find that they all started humbly and stumbled but found their footing. Then it all seemed to come together.

Let them be your teachers.

You’ll find that successful professional creatives have an arc to the story of their lives, that are often quite similar. You’ll notice lots of parallels, recurring themes and events. This can be instructive and reassuring to those still finding their way.

Many successful people have written memoirs or have biographies published. Read, listen to and view the life stories of your creative heroes, the ones you resonate with, those that are scary good- or even just scary. This can be actors (even voice actors- Rob Paulsen and Laraine Newman, for example, penned and recorded memoirs recently), but also musicians, writers, film makers, dancers, etc.

Seek out those who have made a lasting impact on YOU.

Each pursued their talent, confronted challenge and took advantage of improbable or unexpected opportunity and luck. They gained ground, lost ground and kept going, just as you hope to do.

List Your Heroes

Make a list of who you admire, who’s work you love, and aspire to, and explore the trajectory of their lives. Some have written memoirs or autobiographies, others have bios or are the subject of documentaries you could stream right now.

Each life of any superstar or hero has a unique path that will certainly be different from yours. But you will see that each started with advantages and disadvantages, as do you. In the beginning, success seemed improbable, impossible, unthinkable. Most will have started where you are- at zero- with little prospect or hope and no hint of what was to come. All will face significant obstacles, challenge and even heart break. That’s life. Some burn bright briefly, some go for decades.

But each kept going in their own way. You begin to see that you are not alone in your frustrations, your challenges, and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that life has dealt you. Take heart that you are not alone in facing what seems a dim prospect ahead. You’ll find you share this with all of your heroes.

The first realization

…from reading bios is that we all start at near zero with little hint of potential or of success to come. This can turn out to be an inaccurate and unhelpful misperception. You’d never guess that walnut would yield such a tree.

The second realization

…from reading bios (or audiobooks, or even the many bio docs streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and HBO Max, for instance) is that each creative superstar who has enjoyed incredible success had to slog through quite a climb to get there.

It wasn’t easy or glamorous (or even paid), but each persisted and kept going, through ups as well as inevitable downs, building on progress that persistence and good fortune brought them.

A third nugget of insight

…is that one gathers momentum by being open to and taking advantage of what you are up against, what you encounter in the road, and who you connect with. Both happy accident and misfortune can be used as a springboard.

You will find that all demonstrate a resilience to come back from setbacks and roadblocks, no matter how daunting. (Check out any of Michael J Fox’s memoirs, for instance). Disappointment and even disaster can be a learning event, a renewal or an be opportunity for fruitful recalibration of work and life.

In fact, you will find more is revealed in your response to stress or setback than in your response to success.

A fourth insight

…from following the lives of remarkable artists (or kindred spirits) is that the success comes and goes. For some it mostly goes. Some find it briefly then lose it and never quite get it back. A life of unbroken success you may discover to be a myth.

This is why it is folly to hang your hat on achievement or results, for once you hit that jackpot- it is gone. Your self worth cannot be invested in such a fickle indicator. Success is ephemeral and ever changing. Personal and creative growth is always an option, always available.

The best of the best keep going with the process they’ve found, with the relationships and community they’ve connected with (if they haven’t burned too many of those bridges). If they trust their art, their family and friends and they seek to recover and restore the source of their art after a set back, they keep going, perhaps finding a fresh start. Some never stop evolving and thriving. Some are a flame that extinguish after a brief but brilliant flare.

All offer insight and instruction.

A fifth insight

…may be for a bit later in your brilliant career, but it’s something to keep in mind: “Success” can be the worst thing that happens to some.

Many seem to function best with more external limitation or restraint containing their behavior and holding their creative energies in focus. For some, too much freedom or money or fame lead nowhere appealing rather quickly. This is why it’s best to avoid investing your self worth in such unsustainable indicators. You’ll find lots of cautionary examples along these lines.

Limitation is the friend of art, and it may also be a necessary companion of happiness.

Your Assignment:

Write out a list of your heroes: The actors, musicians, comedians, writers, directors, inventors, historical figures- whoever serves as a kind of personal or creative beacon for you, whose work you enjoy or aspire to- even relate to. They can be contemporary or historical. You will find patterns that repeat through the ages. And these may resonate with your life and aspirations.

Choose someone whose work or life you feel a personal connection to. “I love what he does,” or “I want to do something significant like she did,” or “I feel I resonate with what he created, with how she played it,” or even, “This seemed a great life but a total wipe out- what happened?”

Find their bios (or autobiographies)- written, recorded or video- and add the intake of those stories as a regular part of your content consumption, a part of your climb, your discovery and education. It can bring you both ideas and reassurance when you look ahead and detect little possibility or hope.

My Own List

Here are some bios I’ve recently enjoyed (this is just me- yours are yours!). Most I chose were audio books and if the author was still living, read by the author. All were excellent. Many are performers I’ve admired or feel some kinship to, but there are other remarkable lives as well (I like American history and science too).

Michael J Fox, Steve Martin, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Michael Cane, Leonardo DiVinci, {Washington, Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln}, Martin Short, Frank Langella, Gene Wilder, President Grant, J Robert Oppenheimer, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglas, Rob Lowe (both of his memoirs are excellent), Robin Williams, Miles Davis, Linda Rondstadt (video), The Bee Gees (video), Oscar Peterson (video), Frank Zappa (video), James Baldwin, Stephen King, Iggy Pop (video), Ray Bradbury (a book of interviews) and two recent excellent bios of Buster Keaton: “Camera Man” (by Stevens), and “Buster Keaton” (by Curtis).

Read to Fill Your Life and Inform Your Work

Learn and draw reassurance from how others have navigated their own unexpected ascent, their ups and downs. They started slow but they gathered steam, as do all.

A hero’s life, no matter how imperfect, has much to teach you and once you’ve taken in their story, you’ve added a new friend to accompany you on your own unique creative life journey.

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2023

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