Interview with Kate Drummond: Voice of Anna Grimsdottir in Splinter Cell: Blacklist

What’s better than coffee in the morning? Coffee in the morning with Kate Drummond, the school teacher turned actress who voices Anna Grimsdottir, the technical operations manager for the newly formed 4th Echelon in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Kate’s character Grim provides leader Sam Fisher with technical support in the field, and analyses and interprets much of the electronic data transmitted and intercepted by the team.

Eric Beasley: What was is like for you to just jump out of teaching and pursue acting?

Kate Drummond: It was the hardest and scariest decision I’d ever made in my life because I loved being a teacher. So it wasn’t a matter of being unhappy in one profession and changing, is was…  I was so fulfilled as a teacher but I was in a rut in my life.  I was feeling unfulfilled in some way and I couldn’t put my finger on it. And I had a heart to heart with myself about “What are you going to regret when you’re eighty?” I’d always wanted to be an actress, and so I decided at thirty to take my first acting class and it snowballed from there.  When I officially left teaching it was bittersweet and I don’t have any regrets, although I miss my students terribly.

EB: I can imagine.  I did a little bit of searching around the Internet and found another interview you had done with a Splinter Cell co-star of yours, and in the comments some of your old students had written things like “oh my gosh, she’s my old teacher!

KD: Really?! I hadn’t seen that.

EB: I imagine if you YouTube your own name you might find it easier than you think.

KD: You know what, I started to do that and then I quickly stopped looking up my own stuff online.  It’s a harsh world out there and some people love you and some people don’t. They say any press is good press, but I’m sensitive and I don’t want to read that stuff, good or bad.

EB: The Internet can be quite harsh. So you’ve been online, seeing the comments. And you’ve been working on this well-established character from a long running series. Was there any pressure trying to live up to expectations set by Claudia Besso, the original voice actress from Grim? Did you make the character more your own?

KD: I think there’s a challenge as an actress to step into the shoes as an established character.  Claudia and the creative team have worked hard, putting in a lot of time and heart making the character known as Anna Grimsdottir. I wouldn’t want to come in and change her completely.  She’s established and she has these characteristics, and there’s things about her that the fans love. I think when they recast Anna, and the reason being because its in a performance capture situation where we are acting and not just putting a voice on an animation, they were looking for an actress who naturally had the energy of Anna Grimsdottir.  What I tried to do and while researching and preparing for the role was to let it sink in.  The script was very telling about how the character evolves and how her relationships evolve. You just go from there.  You are your own person, and there will be a few things that might resonate differently for the fans, but the integrity of Anna is still very much intact.

EB: So you’re acting, and you have to operate in this space with just you and a mocap suit, how difficult is it to act without that context around you?

KD: It was a challenge at first because, well first I had to get used to the fact that I was surrounded by about 80 motion capture cameras and you’ve got four or five hand held cameras close to your face, and then the facial camera on your head.  There a lot to be potentially distracted by. Once you get used to that it sort of becomes your second skin and your environment. You really have to rely on your imagination and that was so fun and freeing as an artist. It really felt like being on stage again, where there’s limited props and you have to create your environment so that it’s believable for the people watching you. It’s the exact same thing.  There’s these things happening around us, it’s super intense, and it’s just this chicken-wire cable. You don’t really see what’s happening, right?  What am I moving? What am I seeing here? Can I stand here? Oh no, I’m standing in a cupboard. It’s really about playing around, and the artistic team says “this is here, this is here,” and they give us really detailed sketches of what you’re looking at. And slowly but surely as the game progresses, the blanks start getting filled in, and you enter the space and automatically see your surroundings. I was an over-imaginative child, so it wasn’t much of a stretch having the monkey bars being being my spaceship, and I could see all the levers and knobs. It was like the same thing, I got to go and be a kid again, but obviously in different situations. The scenarios are so extreme.

EB: Was there a technique that helps you create that environment? Some motion capture studios use props, it didn’t look like yours did.  Do you have a place, or a technique that helps you create that environment?

KD: It sounds strange, but it’s a lot of sensory work as an actor. So when I’m standing in my space, my home base where Grim spends a lot of her time, it’s sort of going through a rundown of “What am I hearing?” “Is it cold?” Feeling the floor underneath my feet. Very simple things that drop me into my environment. Our director was incredible, because if he felt that our energy wasn’t quite matching what was going on, he’d literally throw himself into the ring and be screaming “Someone’s gonna die! Shooting! Bombs!” And I’m like, “Holy crap! Alright let’s go!” And you rely on each other as actors as well. The team of four actors from Fourth Echelon are just so strong and committed, and we would rely on each other’s energy to bring us into the reality of the situation. It was about riding the ride with your fellow actors.

EB: This is Ubisoft Toronto’s first game, its a new studio. They took on Splinter Cell, which is a huge franchise, and I know you’ve play some. This is the first game without Micheal Ironside playing Sam. And the creative team probably had some new blood as well. Did it feel difficult having so many new faces around? Did you form a camaraderie in that new experience?

KD: It was a new experience for all of us. The four of us, David Reale, Dwayne Murphy, Eric Johnson, and myself, it was all of our first time doing performance capture in a video game situation. We were born into this industry and we have grown together as a cohesive unit with our director, our creative director, and the entire team. It’s so different that I have nothing to compare it to. And the team has been very cohesive and collaborative. I remember a lot of day on set the writers were there, and we’d say our lines and they’d say “You know, I’m going to change that line because I now know you as a person, I’m going to word it differently to word it truer to you as an actor.” Which is an amazing gift because it means they’re listening. They’re in tune with who you are as an actor. I didn’t feel any difficulties or challenges in that regards at all. It’s really exciting Ubisoft’s going gold on this game. It’s been a lot of hard work from that team, and it’s very exciting to meet the people who are involved with creating the major portion of the game. We’re actors, we do our part and go home. They’re the one’s who sit here and work hundreds of hours behind the scenes creating this masterpiece.

EB: Let me switch focus. Let’s talk about Grim. There are a lot of military or action oriented experience where they choose a female character as this support for the main character. In Halo, it’s Cortana who supports the Master Chief. You have this female presence guiding you on the mic. What separates Grim from what seems to be a pretty industry standard character?

KD: That’s a hard question for me to answer, because I haven’t necessarily played those games.

EB: Let me rephrase the question. A lot of times this intel character is very detached, almost an accessory to what’s really going on on the ground with the main character. How much does Sam rely on Grim?

KD: I understand now. Sam relies on Grim and the rest of Fourth Echelon tremendously. He used to be sort of a lone wolf, with the commands in his ear of “do this, do that.” Now there’s more interactions, more collaboration with the team. Grim and Sam, the tension between them is palpable right from the start because they both feel that they should be the leader at Fourth Echelon. Sam is the leader, Grim is big on the team, and they both have very strong opinions about how things should unfold. There’s a lot of head butting, there’s a lot of back and forth. I think that Grim plays a more substantial role in this game because the relationship is so tangible.  It’s not “thanks for the information, see you later.” It is actual dialogue, it is discussion, it’s arguments.

EB: In Splinter Cell: Conviction, which I think you played, correct?

KD: I’m stuck in Conviction. I’m in the museum.

EB: You’re stuck?

KD: I’ve been stuck in the museum for I don’t know how long.

EB: When you begin Conviction, and from Double Agent and everything that happened in the previous games, there’s a whole lot of tension when you start that game. You’ve got Grim asking Sam to punch her in the face, and this sense of betrayal…  Where is Grim and Sam’s relationship at when we start Blacklist?

KD: Well they’ve both gone their separate ways. They’ve hung up their…  they’ve hung up their saddle. Never to ride again. And they get called in by the President. And they both realize that they are being asked to work together, but neither one wants the other there. That’s how it starts out. Grim has been obligated, because they both have a very strong desire to make things better and fix the state of the world, to save the United States and to oblige the President. Right from the start they are very head-to-head, and they carry with them the weight of their history. It’s really nice because…   Because of the performance capture, we were really able to dive into those relationships in an authentic way. It was Eric and I, working off each other as actors and bringing the history of those characters, and the tension, and all of the characteristics. Bringing all of that into it and building an authentic relationship. I can’t give too much away at this point.

EB: The trailers are very mysterious. We are all wondering what exactly what are the blacklist attacks?  Who is behind this? We are really eager to start killing in motion. But more personally, rumor has it that you know your way around a gun.

KD: (Laughs) Yes I do! When I moved into Toronto, I found I was getting pulled into a lot of army roles and things like that. And my father is an ex-cop, so he taught me how to throw a punch and to defend myself that way, but in terms of actual handling weapons, we didn’t do a lot of that. So I trained with an instructor here in Toronto, because I wanted to be able to handle a lot of weapons and look authentic. There’s nothing worse than seeing a television show and seeing a woman in a kick-ass role and then she picks up the gun and it’s completely wrong. All believability goes down the drain. I don’t want to be that actor.

EB: Did you need to use any of that for the game? Did you have a prop gun?

KD: Well Grim is always packing. (Laughs) That’s all I can say about that.

EB: One more quick question then. In regards to the audition process, they wanted you to come in and read. What was that like? Was it like auditioning for another role? Were they looking for something specific? Were they wanting something different that isn’t typical of television or movies?

KD: I prepared for this role like I would for film and television, but keeping in mind the genre of video games. The situations are always that much more… it’s like the hyper-real. So where film and television is very grounded, it’s different for video games because the scenarios are heightened. When they called me in to audition for Anna Grimsdottir for an “undisclosed project,” I knew exactly who she was, I knew the project, I knew the game. I was completely stoked. I prepared and prepared and prepared for the audition, and I went in the room and it was a series of callbacks and chemistry reads. They wanted to make sure it was a good fit, especially the Anna and Sam combination. You gotta make sure that you have two actors that are level with each other in terms of their strength and their opinions. And the creative director wanted someone who could stand up to Sam and look him in the eye and give her opinion. And that sort of comes naturally to me. I being surrounded by my older brother, and being an athlete since I was little, having that challenge and that competition in my job there was just awesome. It was essentially just the same as auditioning for TV and movies, it just took a little longer because I think they wanted to be sure that they had the perfect puzzle pieces.

EB: Well considering the internet’s horrible response to Michael Ironside being put to the side, I can imagine where their pressure was in finding a suitable replacement for Claudia.

KD: Well those previous games were video motion capture and then voice over. This time its different because performance capture is a different beast. I feel like they took the feeling and…  gamers want to feel connected, they want to feel drama and excitement and be connected. And performance capture technology really allows for that. It creates the environment for those things to happen that the fans are really gonna like.

EB: What about you? What are your favorite games that you feel connected to?

KD: Well, hmm.  The games that I invested the most of my life in are games that didn’t really delve into the character. I played Alias forever. And I wasn’t really connected to the character, I just manipulated her and moved her around and solved things.  I have yet to find a game that I feel like I have a lot of stake in it. And I’m looking forward to playing Blacklist. It’s not going to be easy for me. I tend to walk around in circles and bump into things a lot, but I’m getting better. I just feel that video games are at a whole new level now. I saw a trailer for Dreamfall Chapters, there’s this character named Zoe Castillo. I saw the trailer and oh my gosh. This is a game that I really want to play. So I think that now that I’ve opened this boundary to a new thing, to gaming, I think I’m going to spend a little more time with that, with my Xbox

We’d like to thank Kate once again for such a great interview. You can see Kate’s character Anna Grimsdottir in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, availabale now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC.

Eric Beasley

Eric is a high school science teacher and gamer who hopes his life doesn't one day become an episode of Breaking Bad.

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