David Hayter is one of the most respected names in the videogame community for his long, successful run as the voice actor behind Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Hayter, who is a dual citizen of Canada and the US, is also revered as a writer, who carries his geek-cred like a badge of honour. He’s helped to make us believe in the cinematic interpretations of comic book characters like Wolverine, Nightcrawler and the Comedian. His work has helped to make household names of Bryan Singer, Hugh Jackman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Victor Lucas caught up with him for a chat last month…
Click: You've obviously been a believer in interactive entertainment for a long time, when did you first learn that the videogame industry was creating incredible stories?
DH: Well, during my early years in Hollywood, in the early 90's, I didn’t have much money, nor access to console games. Then, a friend bought a PS1, and I was blown away. I remember the first games that really impressed me were the first Resident Evil as well as Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. It became clear to me that games were changing rapidly and radically. As soon as I had the money to buy a console -- which was, unfortunately, a number of years later -- I immediately bought a PS2. Then, Grand Theft Auto came along, and storytelling took another quantum leap.
Click: Did you look at the role of Solid Snake as a risk for you and your career as an actor or was it something that you recognised as something valuable and important for the future of the profession?
DH: As an actor at the time, I was actually much more concerned about starving to death. The opportunity to play Snake was like a dream for me. A huge, sweeping adventure with amazing storytelling. On top of that, MG:S was technologically groundbreaking. People have probably forgotten that MG:S was the very first game to move seamlessly from the playable, polygonal character, to the cut-scenes, which gave the game a seamless "living the movie" feel, which players had never experienced before.
But it's funny, from 2000, I spent about ten years primarily screenwriting, and the only character I played as an actor for that time period was Snake. So, now that I am getting back into some other projects as an actor - because I really love the job, and I had missed it -- I am now asked to keep my voice from being too gravelly, or too "Snakey". So, in a way, I have been kind of typecast as Snake. But in the end, I wouldn't trade my Metal Gear experiences for anything.
Click: Everyone must have been learning on the job with the first Metal Gear Solid - it was so ambitious - how did the process of making MGS games evolve over the years?
DH: Well, the process was pretty organized from the start, which I think is a reflection of how clear Hideo Kojima was in his vision. The games have certainly gotten a lot more complex, both to play and produce. The first game took us just ten days to record, while Metal Gear 4 took about nine months of sessions. Also, the Japanese version of the first game was already finished by the time we recorded the English dialogue, so I could play the voice directly to the cut-scenes. For MG 4, we were recording the dialogue while they were still making the game, so I had to play most of the dialogue to video of the Japanese Motion-Capture actors in black suits, covered in ping pong balls… which was pretty funny.
Click: You must have a funny ordering pizza story?
DH: Must I? You mean have I ever used the Snake voice to order pizza? I don't believe I have. The thing is, the "Snake-voice" really means nothing to people who've never heard it, and so until I know someone is a fan I usually just keep it to myself. I do have a good many "pizza-delivery" stories, as that was my job for a number of years when I was a teenager. I recall one night when I delivered a pizza to a party, and two of the girls asked me to come back after my shift ended at one am. I promised I would, but they took my official "Pizza Pizza" clip-on tie as ransom. Which was unnecessary, as I had planned to return regardless. I can't really elaborate on the remaining details...
Click: Not every actor has the discipline or foresight to create work for themselves by writing; when did you make this part of your career path and what would you say to other actors out there?
DH: Well, I had always studied writing as an actor, in order to clarify the storytelling process from other perspectives. But as for actually working as a writer, and getting paid for it, this was more of an incredible opportunity which was offered to me, rather than a specifically staked-out foresight. As far as other actors go, I would recommend writing classes and experience in the same way that I would recommend acting classes to aspiring writers and directors. But as for actors wanting to pursue writing as a career? I would probably tell them to stay the hell out of my backyard. (This applies both literally, and as a career-metaphor.)
Click: What is your favourite scene that you've written and why?
DH: I guess my favorite may be the scene in X2: X-Men United, when Wolverine talks to Professor Xavier in Cerebro. After we made X-Men, Bryan Singer complained to me about a hole in the first story. He said, "Okay, if Wolverine has amnesia, and Professor Xavier is the most powerful telepath on Earth, why can't he just pull Logan's memories out of his head for him?" It was a good point, and we had to address it. I needed to put the idea of telepathy vs. amnesia into a clear, understandable context. So, I had Xavier say, "Logan, the mind is not a box that can be opened and reached into. It's a honeycomb, with thousands of individual compartments. If I were to just reach in to retrieve your memories, it could cause immense damage" or something along those lines. I was very proud of that metaphor. I also liked Xavier threatening to make Wolverine "spend the rest of the day under the impression that he was an eight year old girl" if he didn't put out his cigar -- which he puts out on his hand. I liked all of that a lot. I am also very proud of the opening "Nightcrawler attacks the White House" sequence from the same film.
Click: Do you think that your work in and around games has helped to prepare you for taking roles as a writer, producer, director and actor in all kinds of different projects?
DH: I don't know if my videogame experience has prepared me as much as my actual, on-set film and TV experience. The process of recording voices is pretty much removed from the actual "production" process of videogames. That said, everything you do, every different job you take on, helps prepare you for the complexities of production.
Click: You wear a lot of creative hats. Do you have favourite? Why?
DH: Well, my "writing hat" has a nifty little propeller on it, so I'm pretty fond of that one. Look, I enjoy every aspect of the entertainment industry, and I have been so incredibly fortunate to get to do so many different things. That said, some jobs feel more like "work" than others. I love directing, writing and even the grind of producing (which is probably the most like actual, real-world "work") and the work aspect of those jobs can make them the most fulfilling. But I have always said that acting is probably the most, "pure fun" job in the world.
Click: What's coming up next for you? Where can your fans catch your work next?
DH: I have a number of things in the works. It looks as if my feature film directorial debut, Wolves, will shoot in Toronto this summer. I am also starring in my first on-camera feature role since the first X-Men film – The Devil’s Mile is a horror film in which I play psychopathic gangster Toby MacTeague, which will be coming out later in the year. And I am continuing the record additional voice material for my Jedi character in the BioWare game Star Wars: The Old Republic. In addition, I have a number of film and TV projects which I am working on as a writer and producer.