Jane Perry is acting fast

Hitman and Returnal star Jane Perry on what games can learn from TV and film

“It was such a wonderful moment of elation. I sort of couldn’t believe it, and yet I had this sort of sense that I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. I know my stuff, and it feels wonderful to have this recognition.”

You may or may not be familiar with the name Jane Perry – but there’s a good chance you’ve heard her. Perry, star of games, TV, film and theatre has taken on many roles over her decades-long career.

If you’re not familiar with her work in Housemarque’s roguelike, you’ve likely encountered her as Diana Burnwood in IO Interactive’s Hitman Trilogy, or as Rogue Amendiares in Cyberpunk 2077, to name just a handful of her gaming roles. It’s not just gaming either, mind you. Perry has extensive experience in theatre, TV and film – having played roles in everything from the X Files to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 historical drama Phantom Thread.

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

But it’s her work in games that have brought her into the spotlight in recent years, having recently taken home a BAFTA for Performer in a Leading Role for her work as Selene in Returnal. It’s always a great honour for any actor to take home a BAFTA, but for Perry, it carried a special significance.

“I looked out on the audience, full of people from the industry, and I had this sense of connection to the community. As an actor, it’s very rare that you have the opportunity to meet with other voice actors, unless you’re doing motion capture [recording physical performances to be used in digital animations]. And you certainly don’t have the opportunity to meet your peers on the other side of the microphone.”

“When you’re in collaboration with other people, magical, wonderful, interesting things happen.”

Her win has brought her only closer to that community, breaking down not just the barriers between voice talent and the games industry at large, but building links between the games and other creative industries.

“BAFTA is great at facilitating community. They’re really taking on games and understanding that it’s so important for us all to be connecting with each other – and not just within the games community. People from the TV and film communities are showing up, because they want to learn more about games.” It was an exciting moment for Perry, witnessing the coming together of different artistic mediums that have been, thus far, kept separate from one another. “But that’s all about to shift now,” she adds. “It’s an exciting time.”

One particular shift that Perry touches on is the growing diversity in games, something she credited in her acceptance speech on the night – celebrating having had the opportunity to play Selene: a middle aged woman, a single mother, while still being allowed to be a “courageous and strong” hero as she finds herself fighting the hostile forces of the off-limits planet of Atropos.

“It strikes me that games, obviously, are from a tech background. And when you think about the tech in games, it’s moving fast and changing very, very quickly. Which is exciting for the tech itself, but it’s also exciting in the sense that – because it’s used to travelling at the speed of light – it picks up on these important social movements, important things that are changing in our world all around us all the time.”

Of course, Perry admits that these shifts happen in film and TV too, but adds that “I think the more established something is, the more it has a kind of lineage behind it, there’s maybe more of a tendency to do things ‘the way they’ve always been done.’ Games don’t have that option, so it’s well positioned to turn a middle aged woman into a hero, or to embrace diversity. And what’s really exciting is that the players are very happy to embrace that, so long as the game is good.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

That point about games being able to embrace diversity is an interesting, if a somewhat optimistic one. While it’s certainly true that the realities of game development present new opportunities for storytelling, it’s also true that aspects of the gaming community are notorious for reacting with hostility when it comes to diverse representation.

While not necessarily reflective of the gaming community as a whole, the toxic backlash to diversity in games such as seen in The Last of Us Part II, or the introduction of women’s teams to the FIFA franchise do tend to stick out in the memory. Still, it’s refreshing to hear a woman with extensive experience in the industry express such optimism – and hopefully a sign of changing attitudes, in both the audience and the industry itself.

“It’s really exciting for actors to contribute to games in that way,” Perry continues. “Whenever I do a TV series, I always have actors coming to me asking how to get into games – they’re interested, they’re recognising the potential.”

“Whenever I do a TV series, I always have actors coming to me asking how to get into games – they’re interested, they’re recognising the potential.”

A large part of this surge of interest is the increasing importance of narrative in games, providing actors the opportunities to explore more characters more than ever before. It’s something Perry herself relates to, having begun her career in games in 2010’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit doing narrator work – a beginning that Perry describes as a “gentle entree into the medium” before moving onto more character-based work.

“Things have changed a lot since I recorded Need for Speed,” says Perry. “We have these really character-driven stories in games now, and great narrative design behind that. That has definitely attracted the attention of actors. It wasn’t so long ago that there was this attitude of ‘oh no, I’m not a games actor. Why would I want to do that?’ And that has palpably shifted now.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

You don’t need to look far to see evidence of this – in recent years alone we’ve seen high-profile actors like Keanu Reeves appear in Cyberpunk 2077, or Elliot Page’s performance in Beyond: Two Souls, to go back just a few years.

Still, that’s not to say that just any actor can just decide to shift into working in games. As Perry relates, games acting often requires a remarkably different skillset, far different to the set-up that actors with TV and theatre experience might be expecting.

“Some actors will say that there’s no difference at all between acting in games versus acting on stage or in front of a camera. That’s true to a point: acting is acting, however you find your character and bring them to life is always going to stay the same. What changes are the skills around that, according to the challenges of the medium that you’re acting in.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

And working in games certainly has its own challenges. The industry is famously secretive, with NDAs forcing creatives to stay silent about their work pre-release. Actors relish the chance to talk about their current and upcoming projects. As game development times continually inflate and drag longer and longer, actors are forced to stay silent about their work. Sometimes, it turns out, they can be left entirely unaware that their voice is even featured in a game at all.

“When you act in a game, you know it under its project name. So sometimes I’ll work on say, Project XYZ, and it’ll be released and I won’t know that I’m in it. It’s frustrating to have things sent out into the universe, and you don’t necessarily know that you’ve participated in them.”

While other industries certainly want to keep their projects under wraps, Perry notes a particular frustration dealing with the games industry’s particular brand of secrecy, so much so that she argues it can undermine an actor’s performance in a game.

“You’re reading something on a spreadsheet in front of you, but you have to bring that off the page with meaning and authenticity, and a kind of personal investment.”

“You often don’t get to see the scripts in advance. That can be really challenging. If you don’t have the opportunity to read the whole script, you don’t have the opportunity to make choices about who your character is.” This process leaves actors “extremely reliant” on their narrative director and performance director to provide much-needed context to aid their performances, rather than being able to adapt to the scene in the moment.

“In games, you have to make strong choices based on small amounts of information, and you have to trust those choices,” Perry adds. “It’s cold reading skills. You’re reading something on a spreadsheet in front of you, but you have to bring that off the page with meaning and authenticity, and a kind of personal investment. You also don’t have anybody else to work with. You don’t have a costume, you don’t have a set, you’re not wearing the character’s shoes, you are alone.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

That isolation is a particular sticking point for Perry – Traditionally speaking, voice actors record their lines without the presence of their fellow actors. It’s certainly a practical solution, avoiding the need to line up multiple actors’ busy schedules, but it places an additional burden on a game’s voice talent – and can ultimately undermine their final performance.

“You have to imagine how the other actor might say the line. Good acting is really not about manifesting stuff. Good acting is: you say a line to me, I let it hit me and affect me, I say something back and then you do the same. It creates a wonderful kind of synergy, and that synergy develops a spirit of its own, it becomes its own sort of creature in a way. It becomes bigger than the two actors who are playing it.

“In games, you don’t really have that opportunity. With Hitman, I became very familiar with David [Bateson, who plays Agent 47 in Hitman] and his approach to the character. I imagined how he would deliver a line to me, and then just do my best to respond.” It’s a lack of context that, Perry argues, can undermine an actor’s performance – often resulting in jarringly out of context deliveries that takes the player out of the experience. “I have a lot of compassion when I hear a not great performance in a game,” Perry adds. “Is that person a bad actor? No, not necessarily. It’s just that in that moment, they didn’t have the support that they needed to bring out a performance completely off the page.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

It’s an experience that any longtime games fan can relate to – encountering a character who’s dialogue just sounds a bit… off.

“It’s hard!” Perry agrees, relating her experience working on James Bond game 007 Legends, a game that starred former Bond Daniel Craig himself. Naturally, Perry and Craig recorded their lines in isolation with each other – and once Perry heard how Craig had approached the role, she realised she would have approached her character differently, if only she’d known the context her character would be working in. “You do hear things that are a little bit out of context in games,” she adds, “and I think sometimes as a listener, we don’t quite know what’s going on there.”

“You’re reading something on a spreadsheet in front of you, but you have to bring that off the page with meaning and authenticity, and a kind of personal investment.”

Another element that can elevate an actor’s performance, one more commonly seen in TV and theatre, is the opportunity to collaborate with other actors – bouncing off each other in the moment in order to enhance the storytelling. It’s an approach that hasn’t been seen very often in games.

“It would be really lovely to collaborate on a character, much in the same way that you do when you’re in theatre, or film and TV,” she says. “It would be wonderful to talk to the creative team about where they’re going with a character, and to have a little input in that process. Because those conversations tend to inform how you then play that character. When you’re in collaboration with other people, magical, wonderful, interesting things happen.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

However, there seems to be something of a shift in attitudes among developers, as of late. After all, Perry herself reveals that her next project (that she can’t go into details about, of course) is inviting its voice talent to come into the studio together.

“It takes off so much pressure, and frees up a lot of energy to perform and just have fun. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the process, I really do enjoy being in the studio by myself. But there’s a different kind of enjoyment when there’s connection with others. That’s undeniable, and I think that shows up in the end product.”

And while Perry would certainly welcome the opportunity to collaborate with more actors, she takes great joy in her work. In fact, having been recently diagnosed as having ADHD, she credits her work for being able to bring out moments of hyperfocus.

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

“There are numerous challenges of ADHD, but there’s also a lot of gifts that are inherent in this neurodiversity. One of which is the ability to hyperfocus. ADHD is a syndrome of contrasts in a way, in that you can really tune in to what’s going on, or you can be completely distracted and not notice at all.

“I came to realise that my time in the studio were moments of hyperfocus. I can get into this kind of bubble, and when I’m in that space I am incredibly efficient, I work very quickly, I get ideas and creativity super fast. It’s a wonderful place to be, and ADHD has helped me to do that. When I’m on set for a film, I can’t necessarily hyperfocus because there’s so much stimuli. In a voiceover studio, there’s just a few things going on. There’s a simplicity to it, and I can take a deep dive into it.

“I have a lot of compassion when I hear a not great performance in a game. Is that person a bad actor? No, not necessarily.”

“It’s easy, living in a neurotypical world, to beat ourselves up and think that we don’t measure up. But we just do things in a different way, and I feel that I’ve benefited from having ADHD.”

And of course, just as important is the fact that games can offer a level of artistic freedom unlike any other medium.

“I love the endless possibilities of games. You have the opportunity to play characters that don’t always occur in other mediums. Think about Selene,” she says, referencing the troubled protagonist of last year’s Returnal, “if I was in another medium I don’t know if I’d have the opportunity to play characters like her. When I’m doing voice work, I can be anything. I love the idea of stepping into these different worlds that I might not otherwise have access to.”

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

This ability to step into different worlds has left Perry with a deep affection for her characters. Of course, Selene ranks pretty highly in her estimations, though Perry pauses to express a particular fondness for her most iconic role, Diana Burnwood – Agent 47’s handler, and arguably as recognisable a voice as the snappily-dressed murderer himself.

“I’ve been playing Diana for such a long time that I feel a real loss to not be playing her anymore. And I don’t know if I will, that’s obviously all up in the air as IO Interactive is moving on to really exciting things with their own iteration of 007.

“Who knows where these characters will end up, and if we’ll see them again?” she asks. “If they resurface, I would be ever so pleased to spend time with them again, because they’ve given me a lot as an actor. An actor needs good roles in which to shine. I think Diana and Selene were real gifts to me in that way because I could just really revel in who they were and what they were dealing with.”

Perry is keen to see a mutual understanding on both sides of the fence, developers and actors both. Fortunately, it seems that as the industry grows and matures it is slowly beginning to break down these barriers.

“BAFTA gave me this great opportunity to hang out with game developers and have these conversations,” she says. Perry argues that, just as she feels it’s important for developers to understand the needs of actors, it is also true that actors need to be more in touch with the needs of developers, adding “there’s no reason why these two creative forces can’t meet in the middle, with a finely tuned understanding of both our various challenges and the joys in what we do in our work.

Jane Perry
Credit: Parri Thomas for NME

“It creates connection, and connection is where it’s at. If we’re connecting together, then it makes it easier for the players to connect as well – because there’s this sense of cohesion that they pick up on. It’s all in service to the player, and creating the best experience possible.”

It’s a characteristically optimistic view from Perry, and one that speaks to her underlying belief that human connection is necessary in all artistic processes. While the realities of game development may mean that some level of secrecy and isolation is necessary, it seems that, as games seek a more cinematic experience, developers are beginning to take the hard-earned lessons from other mediums. It’s a good job they’ll have actors like Perry on hand to help guide them through that process.

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