Industry Pro: Actress/Voiceover Artist Catherine Campion
Minneapolis native Catherine Campion’s path to a successful entertainment career included a degree from agriculture school, a false-start early move to Los Angeles, real estate investment, a lot of miles racked up on her car by driving to auditions, and a fairy tale experience at an agent showcase. Though she is a successful professional, she is also an artist and hippie at heart, and her story should inpsire aspiring performers and other industry pros to be true to themselves. Read on for the complete story…
Current part / project: I recently narrated a program about malaria in Africa. I’m voicing national network TV spots for Subaru, Target, and Citgo, and I also booked a voiceover for Chevy TV spots. They loved my (recorded) audition so much that they’re buying it. I don’t even have to go into the studio. That almost never happens.
Hometown: Minneapolis, Minnesota
College and degree: University of Minnesota, College of Agriculture. I have a degree in natural resources and environmental studies with a focus on international sustainable development.
That’s an interesting degree for an actress. I always knew I was going to be some kind of artist or performer at some point, but I thought it would be mundane to get a theater degree when I wasn’t really necessarily doing theater for the long haul.
I assume if you had an internship, it wasn’t entertainment-related. I didn’t have an internship in college. But a few years ago, I interned in the print department at a commercial agency, mostly because I wanted the agent I interned for to rep me. Print was the one area that I didn’t have representation for.
I feel compelled to point out that if you weren’t getting college credit and you weren’t getting paid, you weren’t an intern. You were a volunteer. Yes, that’s true. Most casting offices and bigger agencies do this. They could just hire an assistant. Instead, they have 10 actors who they call interns, each working half a day. Anyway, it was fun and I did learn about how that agency handles auditions, and alerting their talents about auditions. And I submitted to them, but they didn’t take me on.
Getting back to the beginning of your career… Did you pursue acting right out of school? I actually paid my way through college doing commercials in the ’80s and ’90s. I was doing theater then, too. I did a show at The Guthrie, and one at the Guthrie Lab. I worked at the Children’s Theater Company, which is the largest professional children’s theater company in the country. It’s Equity. They have a full adult staff and company and then they use children for the children’s roles.
So what happened when you left school? I thought I might go into development. But then I traveled a lot in my 20s and discovered “developing the world” mostly meant making it more American and I wasn’t interested in that. I know their intentions were good, but the road to hell is definitely paved with good intentions. (Laughing.) So I decided to go straight to hell and move to Los Angeles.
How did it go? I had no idea. I was not the bold, socially and professionally confident person in my 20s that I am in my 30s, now almost 40s. I didn’t make any headway and I didn’t put in any real effort. A lot of people move out here and, I think, just think being in L.A. will give them a greater chance of something happening. But the likelihood of something happening when you are not hustling is very low. Eventually, I moved back to Minneapolis and managed the local office of an L.A.-based film marketing company for two years long enough to establish a work history and good credit, and save up money. When I was 28 or 29, I bought a duplex that I still own and rent out.
So when did you decide to actually build an acting career? I never did. It just sort of happened. I always thought an acting career sounded boring because I grew up doing theater. I always got cast in shows that performed 50 to 150 times, Equity shows where it’s like one or two shows a day, six days a week. I’d be going crazy by the 25th performance and then look at my schedule and see I had 125 more to do. So I never wanted to be a theater actress. That’s for sure. But in Minneapolis, I was doing well with on-camera work, getting national commercials and the occasional indie film. Then I got cast in NORTH COUNTRY with Charlize Theron. I got the audition because I was in Minneapolis, where they were supposed to shoot. Then it got too cold to shoot in Minnesota – physically too cold — so they moved the shoot to New Mexico. I had a feeling I was out of the movie because
they’d hired me as a local. But I wasn’t out. They ended up just flying me down to New Mexico and putting me up.
At that point, I decided if I was ever going to do Hollywood again, that was the time. I came out here to do the red carpet for NORTH COUNTRY and decided to stay. I went back home, packed up my stuff, and moved out here. I’ve been here for six years. I have had a lot of auditions and a lot of callbacks. And every year I book one or two SAG, ultra low budget Indie features that pay like $100 a day. They’re fun to work on, but don’t pay the bills. I’ll occasionally book some local commercial or something else that is not a national network TV commercial. The biggest things I’ve booked as an on?camera actress were still when I was in Minneapolis.
What got you into being a voice artist? Three years ago, I met some people who were teaching voiceover. I studied and then I made a demo. I sent it to my agents back in Minneapolis and they started putting me up for voice work. I got regional agents in Denver, San Francisco, a pretty big agent in New York, Chicago, Atlanta. It added up to a little voiceover career for the past few years. I focused on commercial voiceover because I like making a lot of money in a very little period of time. That’s where the money is both for on-camera actors and voiceover artists who are not celebrities. So I studied with a few of the best commercial teachers and created a demo with them, then shopped my demo around for two years here and didn’t get a single bite.
So how did you get repped in Los Angeles? One of the few voiceover casting directors in town, Mary Lynn Wissner, hosts these agent nights where you pay $85 to be seen by an agent. I’d never done one. I didn’t even know they existed. One night, this woman I know from the voiceover community, a fellow voice actress, emailed me from the event: “I really feel like you should meet this Abrams Artists agent. Abrams is one of the biggest voiceover agencies. I’ve heard great things. Just come meet him. You should be repped.”
So I went and there are only four other people there. Normally, there would be ten or twelve people, but it was Memorial Day or something. I got there so late that everyone had already read for the agent. I was up. There was a stack of commercial copy, which is like the sides. I grabbed the top page and looked at it for three minutes, then went into the booth. It was an ad for Match.com, really sweet and heartfelt and romantic. I read it very sincerely. The agent, Dean Panaro, stopped me to ask who I was repped by. I told him nobody, locally. He told me to get out of the booth and come to his office the next day. “We’re signing you tomorrow before someone else snatches you up.”
Wow, couldn’t go much better than that. It was like a fairy tale. I went in the next day and he already had three auditions lined up for me. I booked one of them my first day with them. The past few months, my career has taken off. Since I signed with Abrams, I’ve booked so many interesting things. They’ve given me access to the big fish that I didn’t have access to with my little regional agents.
You’re also a musician, right? Yes. I play cello and chord organ and sing. Most recently, I recorded with a french/multilingual band called Nadine et Terence; and another called Badlands, which is Maize Olinger and Zach Shields (from Dead Man’s Bones, with Ryan Gosling). I really believe they’re destined to go somewhere. I love both their music and their communication style in the session – very intuitive.
So what do you consider your big break? For a voiceover actress, my big break happened when Abrams took me on and I started booking so much through them.
Do you continue to train? You mentioned maybe training in animation voiceover? For voice artists, I actually recommend these things a lot of working professionals do called VOWG, Voiceover Workout Groups. But as far as classes go, my agent at Abrams has instructed me to not let anyone mess with my very successful read right now. Whatever my sound is, combined with my style, is very “now.” I do want to get into animation, though, so I’m absolutely going to figure out who I will train with for that area.
Has ageism ever been a factor in your experience as an actor? Voiceover is beautifully one of the areas of acting that your age truly does not matter. There are women my age that can only sound like children and teenagers. And I have been voicing everyone from teenagers to senior citizens. Chronological age has nothing to do with that.
Okay, I’m looking for a eureka moment, when you realized that you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently. Mine is about what a perfect fit voiceover is for me. I had a head injury when I was 20; a pretty severe head injury. And memorizing dialogue for me is the most terrifying aspect of on?camera acting. Having the lines memorized at auditions is important, especially for TV. You don’t want to be nervous that you will ruin expensive takes by not having your lines memorized. So voiceover is such a Godsend for me that I don’t ever have to memorize anything.
What have your most significant projects been so far? I voiced Black Widow for the “Iron Man 2” game. I will probably be voicing her in “Iron Man 3” which is coming out, I think, next year. The Subaru spot was kind of a big deal. It was supposed to be a one-off, but they liked me so much that they hired me for another one. And I’m assuming they will use me again for that campaign. I did an H&R Block spot. It was an on?camera audition, but I had kind of improvised a little line and they liked it. I was playing a coffee shop girl, like I’ve done a lot of times in on?camera commercials. They recorded me saying the word, “thanks” as my coin hit the tip jar. That became my first national network TV voiceover because they had to pay me separately as a voice artist when they recorded the word “thanks” off camera.
What has been your favorite part or project? I’m really enjoying Subaru. They keep telling me how they love the way I say the word “Subaru.” They tell me, “Your voice just makes me want to buy a Subaru.”
What about your most difficult part or project? When I work outside of L.A. with regional people, I sometimes work directly with the client. So the person directing me might be the PR person or the copywriter at some little nonprofit or local oil company or something like that. Generally, these people simply are not trained to direct actors – they don’t have the language down – so they often resort to line readings (when you ask the actor to parrot you), which rarely works.
Describe a typical workday. I sit at my computer and get auditions in from all my agents. I record the ones from my regional agents in my home recording studio, but most days, I drive to Abrams to do their auditions so I can work in their booth. I work like two to four hours a day with my auditioning, but the jobs themselves are not time consuming and I get joy from them.
What’s the best thing about being a working actor? For me, acting has never been a real big passion. I’m more passionate about music, and acting is this incredible, fun, well paying day job. But, that said, I still can’t believe how well I get paid to have so much fun in the voiceover world. It’s just a bunch of really groovy, laid back, easy, fun, nice approachable, friendly, generous people, you know?
What’s the worst thing about being a working actor? For an on-camera actress, driving to auditions. I’m so sick of driving to Santa Monica, Burbank and North Hollywood in one day competing for jobs with 30 other girls who look like me.
Brush with greatness (can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do): I’m going to go with someone I’ve never met, the late Don LaFontaine. He’s the famous voiceover artist, the guy who did all of those trailers that started, “In a world…” He had worked more union contracts than any person in the history of both SAG and AFTRA, like a hundred thousand or something. He would do several jobs a day, every day. He was making millions. He had a driver and limousine because he was always bouncing around to studios and stuff. Anyone who was interested in voiceover and approached him for advice could spend a day shadowing him. And every week, he selected one freebie voice job for, like, a USC student film or a nonprofit organization. He died a few years ago but his legacy is huge and he is really an inspiration to me and a lot of other voiceover artists.
Secret of your success/advice to the newbie: Really understand the current trends. For instance, in voiceover, right now the current trend is called conversational, which means: Sound like a person talking to a person. Also, I think people need to follow the proper order of things. A lot of people who are interested in getting into voiceover have contacted me to ask how I got my agent. I say, “Let me hear your demo.” But they don’t have a demo. And I ask, “Well, who have you trained with?” But they haven’t trained with anybody. They figured they’d get an agent and then do that stuff. And I have to explain that you need to train, just like any other career. Then you get materials to promote yourself. Then you find someone to represent the “package,” which is trained person with an arsenal of tools.
Next move (or next five moves): My goal is ultimately to not live in L.A. I came out here with the intention of making a bunch of money and not living here anymore. I have a group of friends; we’re talking about pooling our resources, buying some property north of San Francisco, and then each building our own little tree house or a cottage or a cave or whatever, on it. So, to get there, I’m focusing on major national network commercial campaigns. And getting some big TV and movie animation jobs. So I guess the first step for me right now is training in animation and making an animation demo.
To hear Catherine in action or find out more about her career, visit her website. www.catherinecampion.com.
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