Interview with a Narrator and Narrator Coach: Johnny Heller

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Johnny Heller

Johnny Heller is an award-winning actor and VO coach with over 35 years of experience in the industry. He has found success in voice-over, stage, television and stand-up comedy. Johnny has narrated nearly 700 audiobook titles in every genre. He has garnered almost every award the industry can bestow, including two Audies, over 30 Earphone Awards, and Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Awards for 2008-2014. Heller was named one of the Top Voices of the 20th Century by AudioFile Magazine. He has received multiple starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly and has been featured in countless industry podcast interviews.

Johnny has been nominated for six Audie Awards including Best Male Narrator in 2014. He was named a Best Voice of 2008-2011, 2014-2016 and is one of the most sought-after audiobook and commercial VO coaches in America.

Johnny’s talents as a VO coach have garnered him opportunities to teach all over the US as well as Canada and London. His game-changing Commercial VO and Audiobook workshops are hugely popular, and students keep coming back – saying, for example, “Each workshop I’ve attended has helped me become a better actor … and I can hardly wait for the next one.”

The Library Journal says Heller has “the voice of a master storyteller.” AudioFile Magazine calls him “the best narrator for children’s books around.” His narration skills led the School Library Journal to say, “Listening to Heller is so much fun it’s difficult to imagine simply reading the book.” And AudioFile says, “Heller makes nonfiction as thrilling as any action-adventure.”

How did you become interested in doing audiobook narration, and what did you do to realize that goal?

I was always an actor. After college, I worked as a reporter/cartoonist for a big Chicago Daily Suburban Edition, but theater called to me. It said: “Hey! come with me and I will show you amazing things. Of course you will be absurdly poor and frequently hungry but you’ll learn how to tend bar and do Shakespeare!” And so I gave every thing up to be a starving actor. I studied, worked, got my union cards and did stand up comedy and improv for many years until I eventually moved to New York to continue my quest to be a full time working actor.

I was already doing pretty well in commercial Voice Over and I had a NY agent so I worked but I was still only a part timer. Richard Ferrone brought me to Recorded Books where they were looking for an adult with the behavior and attention span of a 3-year old so I they hired me right away.

It has been the greatest honor of my life to bring literature to life. It’s wonderful to be a story teller!

You have performed almost 700 audiobooks. Which ones of these stand out to you in particular?

I have done some amazingly wonderful books and if I try to name my favorites, I will accidentally leave some out and irritate some fine author/friends so I will just name a few that stand out for me. Most recently Christopher Moore picked me to read his new novel Noir for Harper Audio. It is a gas. I do a real lot of noir stuff so this was right up my alley. It’s very funny and madcap and has a whole bunch of 30s’ and 40s’ gangster actor voices in it.

Along the same lines is the wonderful The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir by Ken Harmon about a plot to off Santa. It’s wonderful.

I did the Mickey Rawlings Baseball murder mystery series by Troy Soos; the Vampire Files Series by P.N.Elrod; MASH, Marley and Me, the Richard Castle Heat series, Huckleberry Finn, The Education of Little Tree, Gangsterland and Gangster Nation by Tod Goldberg and one of my favorites – the sadly relatively unknown The Eighth Dwarf – loved that book – by Ross Thomas.
OK. That’s enough of that! Nope- one more! You guys have to listen to Khristine Hvam’s Spin – the first Audio book musical- it’s the Rumplestiltskin story set to music. Absolutely loved doing that one.

You perform a lot of children’s books. What difference do you find in the style of performance between children’s and adult books?

Children’s books allow the actor to be bigger – to go further (assuming the author wrote the characters in that style.) There is always my credo- “Audiobook actors have one task – to connect the listener to the author’s truth.” So if our characters are talking dogs or fish or goofy big-personality types, we get to play more. We can only go as large as the text allows. It’s also important that the actor make character choices that are playable over a long series. Don’t do any voices that hurt your instrument – no matter how spot on they may be.

You are well- known in the audiobook community for your workshops training both new and experienced narrators. How did you get started offering these workshops?

When I started in this business, there were no workshops. No seminars. No coaches on call. After I had done 200 or so books, I started getting calls from actors interested in learning about this new medium. I’ve always enjoyed teaching but I can only teach what I really know — I have a strong aversion to “teachers” who are not masters of their craft. And just being good at a thing doesn’t mean you can teach it. Teaching is an art unto itself. You have to be able to communicate with a student or group of students at the level they are at – not the level you are at and you have to make your points clearly.
The thing that really took off for me was the Johnny Heller Splendiferous Workshop. I did the 1st one 4 years ago the day before APAC [Audio Publishers Association Conference]. It is not connected to the APA in any way but since so many actors were gathered in one place, I got many calls and notes to see if I could put together a workshop for the actors on their “off” day. We started with about 60 actors in the first group, and at my 4th Workshop, a few weeks ago, we had around 160!
I travel to towns if there are enough actors who want me to come there (I need enough to cover expenses and to make a few dollars!). I frequently include some wonderful coaches to join me – like Scott Brick, Sean Pratt, Steven Cohen and, of course, the lovely Jo Anna Perrin. Sean and I have worked in London for the Voice Over Network and Jo Anna, Steven, and I head the New England Narrators Workshop every October at Whispering Pines in Rhode Island. We bring in coaches and producers and it’s a wonderful weekend for all.

Scott and I are doing our second Business of Audiobook Workshop in New York Sept. 15. Sean and I are planning on going to Denver this summer; Steven, Jo, and I will be in New England with Sean and maybe Toronto later too. Joel Leslie Froomkin – a wonderful actor and coach – may do a workshop with me in Orlando soon. Lots on my plate! And, of course, I have been teaching in person and via Skype at Edge Studio in New York City for almost 4 years now.

I think that my teaching has grown into a really important part of my life and I truly love working with my fellow actors.

Some of our readers know next to nothing about making audiobooks. What is the first step for someone who wants to become a narrator?

If you want to be an audiobook narrator, remember it’s NOT just reading books out loud. It’s an acting job. A performance. Try to read out loud for an hour or two. Listen to audibooks. Work with a coach. Get some training.

My friend Erin DeWard has a wonderful blog that addresses all of the steps one needs to consider that I advise your readers to look at. Go to Erin’s site and read it! stepuptothemic.weebly.com

What kinds of material do you cover in your more advanced workshops?

In a level two/masters level workshop, I think it important to gauge the group and find out what they need to know. We work on script preparation, acting choices, character choices, self direction, marketing and business plans — all kinds of things!

One of your workshops teaches people how to do international accents. How do you teach someone to learn to use an effective accent?

I don’t really teach International accents so I don’t know exactly how to answer your question. I do teach how to determine what the character requires based on the script… what choices make sense and what choices don’t. I suggest where actors can go to hear the accents they need to do and what options exist when they simply can’t do a required accent. I think PJ Ochlan or Joel Froomkin can “teach” accents — I can only show you how I do them – which is simple mimicry for the most part.

What is the most important piece of advice that you received when you started your own career that you like to share with new narrators?

Here is what I was told and what I say: “SLOW THE HELL DOWN.” Also – “see the scene the author created and share that vision with us.”

Tell us something fun about yourself.

Something fun about me? I dunno. I am mostly concerned in my day to day life with funny. Funny is important to me. Making people laugh and seeing the humor wherever I can find it, is the only way I can be. I am madly in love with my wife – Jo Anna Perrin. We’ve only been married a short time but we’ve been together forever and I cannot imagine being without her.

What else…I value friendship above all else. I love dogs – we have two. I am very hyper and high energy and I am fully aware that I must be hell to live with. I wouldn’t do it but I don’t know how to live without me.

What narrators do you like to listen to for your own inspiration?

I like to listen to Hillary Huber, Mark Bramhall, Scott Brick, Peter Berkrot, Steven Jay Cohen, Robert Fass, Khristine Hvam, Simon Prebble and Simon Vance. Sean Pratt and Joel Froomkin are also excellent narrators. There are plenty more of course. And I am certain I am leaving out tons of talented folk but I can’t imagine your readers want a top 50 list!

Visit Johnny at the following sites:

http://www.johnnyheller.com
Facebook page
Twitter: @JohnnyHeller

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Interview with a Narrator and Narrator Coach: Johnny Heller
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Interview with a Narrator and Narrator Coach: Johnny Heller
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Johnny Heller has narrated 700 audiobooks and teaches workshops to train other audiobook performers. Today he shares with us about his career and life.
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Fangirl Nation
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