The Voices of Grand Theft Auto

The name Rockstar Games comes with certain connotations within the gaming industry; their name carries a cache of quality, an attention to detail almost unrivalled in the field of interactive entertainment, and more recently a cinematic approach to the art of video games that has (in my view) raised the standard of how to convey story, characters, and emotion.

A particular bright feather in the cap of one of the biggest video game developers in the world is the stellar vocal performances and digital acting that their characters never fail to possess. This has come from numerous talented individuals, some of which from several big names that have set foot in the GTA universe, either as themselves or a unique character.

Like a lot of things in Hollywood (and show business overall), there’s many a story or in some cases even an element of drama that surrounded their tenure with the mighty Rockstar.

Here are some of the most notable.

Michael Hollick – Niko Bellic

Hollick provided the vocal work as well as the motion capture for the main of three protagonists that made up the trifecta of Grand Theft Auto IV, that being the Serbian ex-soldier Niko Bellic.

Hollick is probably known for the bitter relationship he had with Rockstar Games regarding his pay, being refused any residual payments related to the success of GTA IV. He was reportedly paid around $100,000 for his work on the game which supposedly was around 15 months of work, but argued his pay would have been greater had he been involved in a film or TV project.

This was also down to a major flaw in actor’s/actress’ contracts templated by the Screen Actors Guild union that failed to account for digital distribution (video games and streaming services making up the lion’s share of this) and royalty payments in relation to this, which actually lead to a strike from actors, writers and other production crew in 2008.

As a result of this dispute, Hollick did not return to voice Bellic in the expansions that followed the main game, with Rockstar using previously recorded dialogue for any of the character’s scenes.

Hollick also provided the voice of Ronald “Razor” Tomasino in the “Cuisine and Cargo” DLC for Dying Light, and his live action credits include the TV shows Sex and the City, Hawaii Five-o and Law & Order.

Young Maylay – Carl Johnson

Rapper Young Maylay (real name Christopher Bellard) provides the voice work for everyone’s favourite Grove Street Family member and sibling dispute mediator, Carl Johnson. Not only that, he recorded the main theme song for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and released an album San Andreas: The Original Mixtape in 2005.

Maylay actually came to this iconic role by complete happenstance. Having received a call from friend DJ Pooh (who co-produced and wrote GTA: San Andreas), he was just casually having a conversation with his fellow artist but unbeknownst to him was on loud speaker and within earshot of Rockstar staff. After hearing this phone call, the developers encouraged Pooh to get Maylay to audition for the lead role.

With speculation about future GTA games, in this case GTA 6, being a constant topic on the internet, Maylay often gets questions about whether he will reprise his role as CJ. This seems highly unlikely, as he made his feelings known in some very “honest” instagram posts regarding Rockstar, and often describes them in not so pleasant terms when addressing comments or questions on social media.

Fun fact, Young Maylay is the cousin of Shawn Fonteno who plays Franklin Clinton in GTA V.

Joe Pantoliano – Luigi Goterelli

GTA III was arguably the title that pushed the Grand Theft Auto series out of slight obscurity and put it on the map as a must-have purchase for the Playstation 2. Even before it reached the esteemed level it’s ascended to, Rockstar had recruited some heavyweight Hollywood names that were known for their gangster movies and tough-guy characters.

Michael Madsen, Frank Vincent, and Michael Rapaport all did their characters justice in the first 3D Grand Theft Auto title. Joe Pantoliano (who many may know from The Sopranos or as the police captain in the Bad Boys movies) also did a fantastic job as Luigi Goterelli, arguably being more memorable as the first character to give you missions (albeit fairly simple ones), but he apparently has a degree of regret with respect to his involvement in the project.

According to an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Pantoliano regrets his role as the game was “too violent” and he’s a father. This does seem strange however as his on-screen roles aren’t exactly known for their good nature, patience or forgiveness, but each to their own.

Ray Liotta – Tommy Vercetti

With the success of Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar had a much bigger budget (although still small when compared to blockbuster films) to play with the next instalment in the series, namely GTA Vice City. Creative siblings Sam and Dan Houser decided to pitch the lead role of intimidating mobster Tommy Vercetti to Ray Liotta, a logical choice considering his past movie roles, and the brothers were personal fans of him and his work.

However, like another actor who’ll get to in a moment, Liotta’s had an almost bipolar attitude to the work, some days he was raring to go and others had to have his lines pulled out of him by the producers. Still praising his ability as an actor, Dan Houser said when speaking to GamesRadar that Liotta complained about his financial compensation, similar to the situation with Michael Hollick but Liotta seemed to have a more diva-ish attitude, perhaps owing to the fact he came from Hollywood and treated the work in video games as a lesser medium.

Thankfully some of the other big names like Danny Trejo, Gary Busey and Dennis Hopper were much more enthusiastic about the project, and as such reprised their roles in later games where their characters made a subsequent appearance.

This probably means that we won’t see Tommy Vercetti make a return any time soon, or even if he does, Liotta probably won’t be the man behind the microphone.

Burt Reynolds – Avery Carrington

So, Ray Liotta may have been a bit difficult to work with every now and then, but Burt Reynolds tested the developer’s staff on another level.

Reynolds was another big Hollywood name that was part of Vice City’s ensemble cast that was brought in to voice Avery Carrington, a real estate mogul that had no problem using underhanded tactics to get one up on his competition. Well seasoned in roles that spanned over three decades at the time of recording in both film and television, Reynolds clashed with Dan Houser during the recording sessions.

In the book, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner, there are recounts of Houser asking Reynolds to do retakes of lines which Reynolds took offence to, claiming that actors need to be given an “atta’ boy”. Reynolds also drew ire from Navid Khonsari, director of the vocal sessions, with Khonsari stating to Reynolds in the book “these games gross over half a billion dollars, more than all of your movies put together!”

The book also states Reynolds flipped out at Houser when he told Reynolds a new shirt had arrived from his manager to replace the one he sweated through due to the hot studio environment. Reynolds told Houser “There’s going to be two hits here: me hitting you and you hitting the floor!”

With the work relationship ending so sourly, it’s not surprising that the character of Avery Carrington was killed off in a rather undignified and humiliating manner in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.

Jenna Jameson – Candy Suxxx

A much more minor role in the games but still with an interesting anecdote around it, established adult actress Jenna Jameson played something of a virtual incarnation of herself, starring as adult performer Candy Suxxx in Grand Theft Auto Vice City.

A common gripe among that any actors who have worked on past Rockstar games is pay, tending to come more so from film actors and actresses as I’d imagine they’re accustomed to making a minimum fee per project. Jenna Jameson however holds no ill will and has no bad words to say about the developers, despite only being paid $5000 for her participation, while players in the game itself can earn a lot more of GTA cash from just a single mission.

On balance, Jameson’s character has very few lines and only a handful of on-screen minutes, and her studio time was an addendum to her flying in New York where she was set to appear on the Howard Stern Show, so it wasn’t really taking up a great deal of her time, if at all.

Sold to her as an “easy gig”, her then boyfriend was apparently a huge GTA III, so this helped sway her in the right direction.

With many ups and downs over the years, it’s more obvious now why in more recent Rockstar titles that the characters are played by people within the industry of video games and not big blockbuster stars of the silver screen, with Dan Houser himself stating “it’s easier to work with someone who’s keen and enthusiastic, and not been in hundreds of films. Sometimes you get a famous person in and they literally just read off the script, they want the cheque, and they want to go. I find that insulting and depressing”.

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