To describe the career of Melodee M. Spevack as anything less than diverse would be selling her short. Theatre performances, live TV roles and animation and movie voicework are but a few of her skills, as she has also worked in production, direction, writing and casting capacities on many projects. Furthermore, in addition to being Vice-President of the California-based Voxworks voice-acting corporation, Spevack is a talented stuntwoman who has trained with the best - so it's clear that this is one lady who ain't just a pretty face! To we Digimon fans, of course, she is best known as the voices of Birdramon, Garudamon and LadyDevimon. She took some time recently to talk with me about her work.
Chris McFeely: When did you decide you want to build a career in this industry?
Melodee Spevack: I've been involved in performing to some extent or other since I was a child. The basic problem was that I wanted (as a child) to be an archaeologist, a paleontologist, an astronaut, a world traveler, a jockey, an athlete, a dolphin trainer and quite a few other things it would twist my brain to try and list at this point. Realizing that I could never do it all, I figured getting a chance to play as many of them as possible would be my best shot at overall dream-realization. Besides, actors get paid to have serious fun...
CMcF: What was the very first area of the industry that you worked in? How did you get your big break into that area?
MS: Theatre, absolutely. That's where it all should start, in my semi-humble opinion. It's like tightrope walking without a net. No retakes, no editing, no "we'll fix it in post" to fall back on. Just you, some lights, and a mass of people expecting you to take their breath away. Everything else came later.
I'm not sure there was a "big break" where theatre is concerned. You are driven to get on that stage and make it happen or you aren't. Stages themselves are usually available, if in unexpected forms from time to time. I've done classics (studying in London was a big plus there), danced on a cruise ship, survived live stunt shows, been a professional cheerleader and bellowed to the masses at several Renaissance Faires. Stages are where you find them.
If you're really sneaky about asking maybe I'll tell you how a production of CORIOLANUS in Los Angeles led me into stuntwork, which led me into voice work...maybe.
CMcF: How did you branch out from the area you started in, to the other fields in which you now work within the industry?
MS: Rats - now it WAS sneaky to make me tell the tale with the very next question.
CORIOLANUS - the first show I did in Los Angeles. In the course of a perfectly respectable Shakespearean audition (I thought) I ended up with a role never before played (don't ask) that armed me with a sword and had me running around in a few scraps of chain mail. The people I came to know in the course of the swordfighting in CORIOLANUS ended up working on Universal's live CONAN show, which I became part of as their original "Red Sonja". That started the stuntwork aspect of my career. In a strange twist, another member of the CONAN cast was Michael McConnohie and through him I met several voice folks and so it began. Add to this ANOTHER classical-type theatre piece in which I met the legendary Tom Wyner, who later gave me my first voice job.
While all of this and much more was taking place I became involved with TV production and picked up my first associate producer credit on a series for THE SILENT NETWORK. That led to several other AP positions in feature films and industrials.
The beauty of this business is that you are not restricted to any one aspect of it.
CMcF: Falling into a career like that must be a rewarding feeling.
MS: Rewarding, yes. Occasionally painful, but like they say in skydiving "It's not the fall that hurts...it's the sudden stop". Same in any career, no?
CMcF: To focus on Digmon briefly - were any of the roles you performed inspired by anything or anyone in particular?
MS: Birdramon owed something to Rodan, I should think. Garudamon, who was a kachina and very distinctly male, was a major stretch and vocally quite demanding. Quite a challenge. He left me with a deeper voice for some time after each recording session.
CMcF: Everyone considers Garudamon female, despite the masculine appearance, what with starting out female in Biyomon and Birdramon, and having a female voice actress. But it's *very* interesting to know you actually played the character as male!
MS: Lady Devimon was tremendous dark fun. She derived completely from my own personal evil side and was delicious. Crusadermon gave me a chance to play with the classical aspect of my background. I love that words like "methinks" were allowed to creep in for her. The poetic, evil warrior carrying a rose while destroying entire worlds is an image I can't help but enjoy - like Cyrano gone bad.
CMcF: In a similar vein... despite only being featured in three episodes, the character you portrayed that is most popular among fans is easily that of LadyDevimon. Was your portrayal of her influenced at all by her rather... uhm... questionable appearance?
MS: Okay - I touched on this in the last question, but let's
have a look at Lady D.
She's quite the character, no question, with an image calculated to get the attention of the male observer. A powerful, sexy, evil (and loving it) kind of gal. I thoroughly enjoy this sort of role - they are unabashed fun.
Did her appearance affect the performance? Bet on it. Sometimes we come in to create a new character with minimal background information. We usually have some idea if they are good or evil and the general type, but until we see them our concept remains malleable. You must get a visual on the character before it all starts to gel. As soon as I saw Lady D, I started to purr. Ohhhhhhh yes - this was going to be intense fun. And it was. The only trick was keeping her within the parameters for a show the kids were going to watch. We lost her all too soon for me as well, by the way. I was just getting started. Grrrrrrr....
CMcF: As I said, LadyD carries quite the fan following for a character limited to three episodes. She grabbed both the male and female viewers.
MS: Gratifying to know, of course...and perhaps I helped a bit. Overall I think it was the wardrobe, however. Can't lose with that garb.
CMcF: Now, a few more specific questions about some of the areas of the industry. As a stuntwoman, what's the most dangerous stunt you ve ever had to perform?
MS: Telling my mother what I was doing...WAY the most dangerous thing I've ever done.
Hanging from a helicopter over a canyon was interesting, as was wire-flying over a two-story high newspaper printing press. Nothing like looking down from either of those two positions to make you reconsider your career choice. Personally, I loved every minute of both, but it does make you think.
CMcF: Any interesting stories of stunts that didn't go as planned?
MS: I've been pretty fortunate in that regard - stories of that kind tend to give "interesting" a whole new meaning. On one film I do recall that I was a passenger in a car (stuntman driving) that had to pull out of traffic into the oncoming lanes and do a few tricky maneuvers. Night shoot. Imagine our surprise when we pulled out as planned and had a car coming directly for us at respectable speed in tight traffic- a car that wasn't supposed to be there at all. The driver, who was not a stuntperson, had a truly memorable, (bordering on "interesting") expression on her face. We were boxed in with nowhere to go but directly into the front of her car - and minimal time to react in any case. Fortunately the stunt drivers beside us saw what was happening and had the presence of mind to open up a spot for us to veer into at the last moment, pretty much scraping paint. That was an attention-getter.
CMcF: To look at your acting: in addition to the roles you've already described, what kinds are your favourite to play?
MS: I love roles with depth and complexity, whether dramatic or comedic. Recently I've been cast as intensely dramatic types and they are always intriguing. I just played a lady in 18th Century Mexico dying of cancer who is forcing her daughter into a convent in a last, desperate attempt to save her. That sort of thing is always an emotional journey of discovery.
CMcF: Any roles that you dread?
MS: Badly written roles. It's not unknown to be given a character that even the writer didn't understand or care about, believe it or not. But faced with such a case, you crank up the actor in you and make it work for a living. If the writer didn't deliver the goods, it really becomes up to us to find the life in there somewhere. That's where we get to earn our keep and, believe me, it is not anywhere near as easy as it looks.
CMcF: Across the face of your career, is there any one, specific role that you could pick out as your favourite of all time? Could you even *pick* a favourite?
MS: Not a chance. I've enjoyed so many of them for different reasons. Some for the challenge, some for the fun, some for the sheer rapport you develop with the character over time and others for the impact they have had on your life.
CMcF: Ever found your voice or face recognised when out and about?
MS: Occasionally. The thing about being primarily a voice actor is that you can still have your anonymity - same with stuntwork... nobody sees your face.
When recognition occurs, however, I believe it is part of an
actor's job to accept the response with grace and gratitude. We
generally work in dark studios, sound stages and on remote
locations without much response on site. Sometimes we forget the
impact our work can have on the people who see and appreciate it,
something of an occupational hazard, perhaps.
If I could send a message to those fans who do the recognizing, it would be to remember that sometimes we are taken by surprise by the realization that our efforts have meant so much to you. You are why it all happens, we are merely some of the tools by which it happens. We are in this together, fans, actors and the whole industry - none of us can exist without the others. We're all on the same team.
CMcF: As far as voice-acting goes, I understand that many voice actors don't get the chance to see a lot of the work they do. What about you? How do you react to seeing a finished product not just in voice acting, but in anything you do?
MS: Sometimes we see the finished product, often we don't (at least in voice work). Some work just vanishes into the ether and you're never certain if it was ever seen by anybody, which is a genuine shame when you enjoyed the role and wanted it to be a success. How we react obviously would vary with the quality of the project. Some things you are proud of and others you'd just as soon not remember too clearly for too long.
I am always interested in seeing the final result of anything I have worked on, regardless of the outcome. Even the ones that are - at best - embarrassing can be educational. What did you do wrong? What can you do better next time? Were you really giving it all you could or just, as we say, "phoning it in" that day? We are in a constant learning curve and can always be hit with the realization that some things work, others don't, and still others used to work but have lost their effectiveness. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves about these things if we want to continue to grow as performers.
CMcF: Well, now, something you said there - "others you'd just as soon not remember" - is interesting lead-in to a question I hadn't thought of before now. Are there any experiences you've had on the stage, behind the mic/camera, etc, that you'd rather forget?
MS: Most of them are best left forgotten, believe me. In general, though...
In the case of voice work, we can be asked to give a character several different interpretations at the audition. We comply, smile and leave. With true actor survival strategy, we often put the audition out of our minds and move on to the next item on the agenda. Sometimes days, weeks or even months can pass before we hear the results, if we ever do. If you are not cast you generally hear nothing, so after a while you assume they "went another way" (superb euphemism, isn't it?) and put it out of your mind completely.
Now, picture the phone suddenly ringing - you've been cast in a project so ancient you barely remember it at all. You arrive at the studio and are told that they do not have the original tapes from the casting session as a reference, you are to "just do what you did at the audition". Oh dear. They can't mean the audition six months ago where you gave them five different interpretations of the character, none of which you recall any more, can they?
You bet they can, and they do. At this point we will fade out on the scene of the hapless voice actor having a bad day at the office. Suffice it to say that these are among the moments we often hold less than dear.
CMcF: You'll have heard this question a million times, I'm sure, but it's the old chestnut that doesn't go away what advice do you have for those who aspire to a career in the voice industry?
MS: Stay in law school.
Oh, all right... I'll be good and talk about it. Here's the deal, folks. This is a tough, demanding, fickle and tricky profession. If you enjoy a steady income and like to plan your life ahead - don't do it. If rejection is something you take personally and get hurt by - don't do it. If you can possibly do anything else with your life and be happy - don't do it.
That having been said, if you think you can handle living life on the edge (emotionally and financially) and really feel you have ability... welcome to our world.
First - do your homework. Train with a good coach, or several. This is not about doing amusing voices for your friends at parties, this is a profession like any other. WORK! Get a solid, professional director to help you create your voice demos. Don't do it yourself - you're not that objective. Record the demos and get them professionally edited, design the artwork for the boxes, get the artwork printed, get the demos reproduced in sufficient numbers, package them, then start getting the demos out there while continuing your training.
Tired yet? All this costs serious money, by the way... make sure you have the wherewithal to finance getting your career off the ground. Remember, you are starting a business and that is a full-time, expensive gig with no guarantee of ever seeing any return.
Do research. Where are the voice agents near you? Studios? Ad agencies, even... where are they? Who is the correct contact person at each for talent? All this is your responsibility to discover - no one will do it for you. Now get your slick, pro-quality demos to those targeted people... then get experience. Take any job that gets you into a studio, even if it is not acting. Interning (i.e. working for free) is one way to do this. Watch, observe and learn, learn, learn...
You will probably be "paying dues" for a long time as you come to terms with how it all works and get to know the people involved. Be patient, be persistent (without being a pest - neat trick, too) and stay with it.
Hitting a local lottery is also a good idea...
CMcF: I'd just like to say here that it's always a pleasure when someone is so honest about this kind of work. It's enlightening for people who want to enter the profession to see you be so straightforward, so honest about how hard what you do really is, and I think it's great for them to learn what kind of a struggle it is. A bit of cold, hard realism never did anyone any harm.
MS: Truth. And the job itself is NOT glamorous for the most
part. You're alone in a studio doing scenes with other people you
never see. I'm not always even sure who is playing the role I'm
doing the scene with.
On-camera work consists of waiting...and waiting...and waiting. Then you do scenes over and over in a (usually) highly artificial setting loaded with lights, cables, and people loudly reworking the technical aspects while you try to maintain focus and concentration. This is work - difficult, emotionally draining and often quite intense. Rewarding, of course, or we wouldn't do it. But easy? Not usually. And glamor during the process of creation itself can be hard to spot. With luck that comes later. Anyone who wants to do this had better be in love with the challenge and fascination of the work itself, not the glitter.
CMcF: Well, now, there's no need to totally crush the spirits of all those aspiring actors out there... ;)
MS: You can't crush the spirit of born actors. They will follow the path regardless of what anyone says or does. As a breed we tend to have trouble with reality.
CMcF: Who would you cite as your inspirations, in life, in the industry, in anything?
MS: Inspirations...well, in a general sense I would say anyone
or anything that struggles against the odds and won't take no for
an answer. For example, I've always been amazed and awestruck by
people who have lost limbs and subsequently decided to take up
marathon running or similar endeavors. You know these folks have
gone through incredible emotional and physical pain, been told by
everyone "it can't be done" and still they go on to
accomplishments most average people will never attempt. Perhaps a
little overcompensation can be found in the mix, but they still
had the fire and the will to overcome everything - even their
internal demons - and achieve something outstanding.
People of this stripe are often among the most "alive" spirits on the planet and thoroughly inspirational.
For similar reasons I have the greatest respect for salmon.
CMcF: Is there anyone in the industry that you'd hope to work with in the future?
MS: Alas, some are beyond reach. I would have reveled in the inspired madness of working with John Barrymore or Groucho Marx , for example. A little "take no prisoners" wit and insanity goes a long way. Katharine Hepburn - class act from top to bottom, wish I could have done something with her at any time in her career.
Now you've got me thinking - I try to learn from every experience and there are very few people I'd not want to work with, but some of the real draws might be:
Peter O'Toole - one of the last of the pure breed of brilliant madmen (and I mean that with complete affection - what a character).
Mel Gibson - always admired his intelligence, depth and humor.
Rowan Atkinson - PROVIDED he plays a serious role. Wouldn't that be incredible to watch in action?
CMcF: I don't think I've ever SEEN him in a serious role. It'd be incredible just for the rarity of it...
MS: Closest I think he came was playing the straight man (more or less) in a few Blackadders. Betcha anything he could do it, though...there's a good deal of intelligence behind those eyes.
Billy Connelly - and why not? I suspect he'd keep things endlessly interesting...
Sigourney Weaver - I did some of her vocal reactions on ALIEN: RESURRECTION, but we never met. I've always found her interesting to watch and would love to actually be on screen with her.
and far too many others to go into (in terms of actors).
As far as directors are concerned, I would love to work with any and all of them who can "speak actor" fluently. It's tricky when a director has trouble conveying their concepts to the cast, even more so when they don't seem to try. Some have an amazing ability to communicate with the actor within, and it's a pleasure. Suddenly everything flows easily, even when the demands of the role are intense.
CMcF: Did you feel that communication was at work on Digimon?
MS: I had on-camera and theatre more in mind with my response, but it does apply to voice as well. The most effective voice directors can also convey what they want with a word or two.
A brilliant director can provide more effective guidance to an actor with a word than a clumsy one can do with a tirade, club, whip and chair.
CMcF: Now there's a mental image!
CMcF: What do you do in your spare time? What hobbies or interests do you have?
MS: I love travel and will go almost anywhere anytime if I can. I made my first trip out of the USA at the age of 15 and went around the world, which was one incredible experience. We saw places you just can't get to these days very easily, like Tehran.
Back home I am devoted to my spoiled-rotten Arabian horse, with whom I do endurance riding. He has done 25-and-35 mile races and I have gone as far as 50-milers. These rides are done at speed over some wild terrain and not for the faint of heart, but intense fun. For the animal activists among the readers, the horses are constantly watched and evaluated by vets as the ride progresses and are pulled from competition at the slightest sign of trouble. The riders are on their own...if they are semi-vertical and/or conscious they keep going.
CMcF: What are you working on at the moment? What can we expect to see from you next?
MS: Watch for the release of ARGENT SOMA - I am "Commander Ines" (right). As mentioned earlier, keep watching DIGIMON for the appearance of "Crusadermon". If you go to film festivals, watch for me in CLOISTERS, SPEECH 101 and the sc-fi film 30:13.
CMcF: What does the future hold for you? What does Melodee Spevack want to do that she hasn't yet done?
MS: Professionally I hope the future holds constant and interesting work for the rest of my life - I'm the type that wants to die in harness, completely healthy, at a disgustingly advanced age. I'd like to do more on-camera work without giving up the voice aspect of my career.
What do I want to do that I haven't done yet? Hmmmm...
1. I want to go into space. Not kidding there. I want to ride the Shuttle or whatever replaces it.
2. I want the time to learn another language really well. I'm still working on English.
3. I want more adventures. There are horseback groups that ride among the animals in East Africa; there's whitewater rafting in New Zealand; there's ALL of Australia (never been there) to explore. There's a camel trek I heard about in Mongolia or Tibet that sounds amazing. I want to see the Galapagos and Komodo Island. We live on an incredible planet and I'd love to go everywhere and do everything.
4. I want to ride on a manta ray and touch a whale shark. I do scuba dive, but those images just haunt my imagination. Wow with bells on...
5 and onward - to be determined as life progresses. I'm sure there will be more.
CMcF: And finally, any words for the fans out there?
Stay with us - keep enjoying what we do, which gives us the reason and the means to continue. Talk to us - let us know when we're on target and when we've taken a hard left into The Twilight Zone (it happens). Most of us love to hear from you and those that don't need to "get a life", right? Seriously, your input and support helps us to keep going in this marvellous madness we call The Biz. My thanks, love and gratitude to you all.
Check out Melodee on the Voxworks website.
With thanks to Justin Lam for the Commander Ines screencap!