“I was talking to my husband about dream jobs and said ‘I’ve always wanted to be a voice on The Simpsons, wouldn’t that be so much fun?’ but I had no idea there was a thing called voiceover. I just thought you had to be in Hollywood,” voice actor Cissy Jones tells me about the origins of her career, something that spawned from recognising her own unhappiness and striving for something that would give her life meaning.
“I have a degree in Business and Spanish, and I spent the first ten years after graduating working in Silicon Valley,” she explains. “I worked for a venture capital firm, I worked for several startups, and I always just felt like a square peg in a round hole. About two weeks after talking with my husband about The Simpsons, I was listening to the radio in the morning and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, was talking about how amazing voice acting is. She mentioned a voice acting school in the San Francisco Bay Area so I called that day, started taking classes, and two years later I was signed with an agent and moved to Los Angeles to make a go of it.”
Such a mammoth career move came with a lot of risks, with Jones turning 30 before she’d even landed her first acting gig. But happiness should come before financial security, and she took this passionate mindset and ran with it. “It was really scary. I had a real good salary, sweet, sweet golden handcuffs, a 401(k), stock options, and all of that. But I was so desperately unhappy that I didn't think I could live a life doing what I was doing and be fulfilled. I was 31 when I made the jump, which is a scary time to make a huge change in your life because you’ve followed the path of what you’re supposed to be doing. Yet it turned out okay, and I've been able to look back without any regrets.”
Obviously, breaking into the field as video games and animation were proving more diverse and popular than ever was tough, but Jones’ distinct delivery brought her a lot of fortune. “I was really lucky out of the gate. My first audition was for Katya in The Walking Dead and I didn’t realise how big that would become,” Jones explains. “The next role that really solidified that I was where I wanted to be was Firewatch. That received so much praise, it was all over the news and people knew who I was all of a sudden.” Jones’ performance as Delilah in Firewatch saw her win a BAFTA, something that proved hugely overwhelming at such an early point in her career. “I think if you watch the replay of that show it doesn’t show my reaction because I screamed ‘Holy Shit!’ at the top of my lungs, because I was not expecting it.”
Firewatch is a first-person narrative adventure that follows the wayward souls of Henry and Delilah. Henry is a man whose life has fallen apart as his wife develops the early symptoms of dementia. He can’t be there for her, meaning one of the only relationships he holds dear is beginning to fall apart. So in an act of reasonable cowardice, he escapes to Shoshone National Forest to become a park ranger. Now living in a creaky tower, his only source of company turns out to be Delilah, a dry, sarcastic woman who communicates with him using nothing but a walkie-talkie. Their relationship is romantic, tragic, and filled with a chemistry that games just hadn’t explored at the time of its release. Delilah is never shown on screen, so Jones’ performance is a core reason why it all works so well. “I knew Firewatch was going to be special just because of the team involved,” Jones says. “I worked with Sean [Vanaman] and Jake [Rodkin] on The Walking Dead, and working with Rich [Sommer] was so easy, it was like a dream to have the reaction that people did when it came out. I’m still pinching myself. I mean, it was such a dream job I wish they were open to sequels, but they’re not.”
The game was a long project, but a worthwhile one. “Sean reached out to me and said, ‘I’ve left Telltale and started my own company, we’re writing a game with a female protagonist, do you want it?’ I was like, ‘Yes! Is that even a question?’ and then it was a good two years before we started recording,” Jones says. “So of course, I went through the actor thing of thinking I’d been replaced, or that they’d found someone more famous, because that happens all the time. But then we finally got the scripts, and they finally found their Henry, and it was just so much fun. We recorded it as a conversation, so Rich was on Skype in his home studio, I was here in my home studio, Shawn Skyped in and directed us. It was like having a conversation with an old buddy everytime we jumped in the booth, like putting on a pair of old slippers. It was just comfortable, and we just sat right into it. It’s the most naturally written character that I’ve ever had the pleasure to do, and awesomely enough, it’s really cool to see the industry start going in that direction, looking for more realistic performances and realistic dialogue.”
Jones sees a lot of herself in Delilah, two individuals who came to terms with their own unhappiness and decided to do something about it, even if it meant being judged or taking risks that had an unknowable conclusion. “She’s like the upside down version of me, she zigged when everyone else zagged,” Jones says. “Everyone says you go to college, you get married, you have 2.5 kids and the white picket fence, and she was like that’s not me, I don’t want that. So instead she decided to run off into the wilderness and be this weird enigma, which I loved about her, and still love about her so much. I know a lot of people are mad that you don’t get to meet her in the end, but that’s what makes the game really special, because there is no way we could have crafted her, even if they’d had the manpower to build a face and have it talk, which is very expensive to do. There is no way they could have presented her and pleased everyone, because everyone has a different idea in their head of who she is, and what she looks like. To get people talking about a character in that way, about a female character that you have to decide how you feel about her based on your conversation, you don’t see that very often.”
The representation of women in the world of games has come a long way in the past decade, and Jones’ sees Delilah as a watershed moment for that movement, partly because she challenges the conventions that come with so many characters who are positioned to be appealing to a straight male audience. “You can’t discount her as ugly, and therefore she isn’t worth your time, or is too hot to even exist and then you don’t care about what they have to say,” Jones explains. “There’s so many pitfalls that come with female characters, and Delilah doesn’t get stuck with any of that, which is what I think made people let their inhibitions down when having a conversation with her. Because you don’t have to think about what you’re wearing, how ugly you look, do you need to impress them. It was just matching wits, which is really what relationships are right? I will love it until the day I die, and probably afterwards.”
Despite the initial reluctance, so many people adore the ending of Firewatch. It’s representative of reality, and how not everything is saccharinely perfect. “I remember recording it and being like. ‘Oh people are gonna hate this, they’re gonna be so mad’ but the more we sat on it, and Sean talked us through his thinking and it’s exactly like you said, not everything gets the big red bow, not everything gets the perfect conclusion. Sometimes you have these perfect little snapshots of life, and that’s what this is. It’s so poetic and beautiful that I’ve really come to appreciate the ending for what it is.”
Outside of games and animation, Jones does a bunch of commercial work and voiceover for movie trailers, being called in to replace the likes of Charlize Theron or Emily Blunt. “The thing that really changed during the pandemic was budgets for commercials, movie trailers, and things like that just went away,” she tells me. “So you’re seeing a lot of commercial products go to either massive celebrities or non-union, so a lot of that work has dried up. I do a lot of work for movie trailers, I do a lot of celebrity soundalikes. So if [stars] aren’t able to come in I can help make the trailer cohesive. So they brought me in instead of Charlize Theron or whatever because I’m a lot cheaper - but all of that work went away. It’s starting to come back slowly, but we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s been interesting to watch how my personal business has shifted, it used to be majority commercials, with some animation, some games, and a ton of trailer stuff. Now it’s a lot of games, and a lot of animation.”
Jones’ role in trailers explains why so many of them include lines that aren’t seen in the finished films, since actors like her are asked to help piece together a cohesive arc for promotional materials. It’s interesting to learn, yet also lands sadly alongside a habit of being replaced in the world of acting when a bigger name comes along. “Selfishly, I do worry about [being replaced] since I have a dog in the race,” Jones states. “There’s enough work to go around but it’s a tricky subject. There’s a lot of on-camera actors and celebrities who are amazing at what they do, like Rich Sommer was fucking incredible as Henry in Firewatch, but there are some where you can tell they aren’t interested at all. Which is not to say that doesn’t happen with traditional voice actors either. More often than not, we come in, we’re experienced, we’re ready to rock, and we get through stuff real quick. It’s our livelihood, and I wish there was a way to make it an even playing field. I’ve been recast by celebrities a lot and it sucks, it’s a really heartbreaking thing if it’s a character you've worked on and you’ve spent time on it only to have it ripped away from you because someone has more fame. There’s no quantifiable poundage to that, it just is. Does it bring more to the game? Does it bring more to the animated show? I don’t know, it’s just a crappy feeling to be replaced.
“I narrated a documentary a couple of years ago called Winter on Fire and it was nominated for an Academy Award, and then the director did a follow-up which was a film about Syria. He called me, we did the narration, it was a whole thing. I was on Christmas vacation and he was in Prague, so we had to find an open studio in my hometown, but we did it and it was great. He submitted it to Sundance, it was immediately accepted and then HBO snapped it up before immediately replacing me with Helen Mirren. If I’m going to lose to anybody, let it be her. I was close to playing Cersei in a thing and then Lena Headey came along and wanted to do it, and that’s fine, I get it. There have been others than I’m not gonna mention where I’ve recorded several hours before being recast just because I didn’t have enough Twitter followers and that blows.”
One character that wasn’t subject to a recast was The Owl House's Lilith Clawthorne, a role that sits alongside Delilah as one of Jones’ most impactful. You can check out my in-depth conversation with her about the character, performance, and themes of the show here. It was something that allowed her to delve deep, doing her own research outside of recording sessions to ensure she was giving this troubled witch everything she had. “I love a juicy role that let’s me sink my teeth into things and have some fun,” Jones jokes. “There’s a lot of two-dimensional stuff I do which is necessary, but being able to do characters who have a meaningful arc is really cool. We often don’t get the luxury of [reading scripts ahead of time]. I like to understand the headspace a character is coming from because I think it makes for a more interesting performance. If I just show up and regurgitate words then that’s no fun for anybody. If I know what this character’s biggest fear is, what their hopes are, what the first thing they thought of when they woke up in the morning, what shoes they’re wearing, it helps define not only the edge they need to have, but the softness. Even from scene to scene, understanding motivation makes a huge difference.”
Cissy Jones has come a long way in building a career in the world of voice acting. With any luck, the coming years will see her land that long-awaited role in The Simpsons. Maybe she can play Helen Mirren.
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