Phil Thron is a classically trained actor who has been working on stage and doing voiceovers for many years. An avid reader, making the move to narrating books was a natural and rewarding transition. He’s been fortunate to have been working continuously since recording his first audiobook.
Phil has traveled a circuitous route through show business. He worked in theater for many years; he’s written, directed, and produced a couple of short films; in the 90s, he was half of a comedy duo for a while (if you ever talk to him, ask him how comedy can end in tragedy; it’s a funny story — except when it’s not); he’s done commercial and industrial voice overs for TV, radio, and the web. And he won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Last King of Scotland. And only one of these things is a fabrication.
When he’s not busy happily recording in his home studio in New Jersey, he’s usually watching movies, reading books, trying desperately to play tennis, or spending time with his wife and two children. And supernaturally hungry dog.
How did you get interested in performing audiobooks?
Pretty much every narrator I know is an avid reader, and I certainly fit that description, so books have always been a significant part of my life. And every actor is a storyteller, so the idea of combining those passions professionally was a natural fit.
The first one I did was actually back in 1983, though not professionally. A good friend of mine is blind, and for the holidays I recorded a selection of short stories for her as a gift. I also used to read books to my wife all the time, even before we had kids. She either genuinely liked it as much as she said, or she was just humoring me to keep me happy.
You acted in theater many years before switching to audiobooks. How did that experience assist in your success as a narrator?
One of the great joys of working on stage is that performing live every night helps you develop a sense of immediacy and response, learning to listen and react. It gives you a sense of how characters work together to form the overall narrative. Audiobooks require you to be every character, so I’d say theater helped prepare me to be a sort of autonomous repertory company, playing all parts while keeping the story front and center.
I think that, on some level, every narrator is Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We all want to play all the parts, and narration affords us that opportunity.
You specialize in performing sci-fi and mystery thrillers. What about you makes you especially suited to these genres?
First and foremost, my love of and familiarity with those genres, I think. I’ve been consuming these types of books since I started to read. So I respect and enjoy the trappings of these kinds of stories.
And long before I did any audiobooks, I was one of those annoying actors who “do voices” all the time, whether asked for or not. This has lent itself quite nicely to audiobooks in general and these genres in particular, which are often populated by a variety of alien species and delightfully unsavory characters.
On a side note: I’ve also been fortunate in that several of the series I’m currently doing have very strong comedic aspects, which I absolutely love. I’ve always loved performing comedies and was even part of a comedy duo back in the 90s for a short time.
How do you prepare to record a book?
During the first read I try to balance between seeing how the book “hits” me overall and making notes as I go. I note every character and anything I need to understand about them, insights about who they are, any accents, their current emotional state, etc. Also, any questions I have for clarification, such as pronunciations, who is speaking this line if it’s unclear, what does this phrase actually mean, etc.
When I record I like to take a look again at the chapters I’ll be reading, so I have a fresh idea of the road I’ll be traveling that day. I always want to know as much about the characters and story arcs as possible, but I also find that the controlling part of me can overwork something if I’m not careful. I keep looking for that perfect space between preparation and spontaneity.
You have performed the Space Team Saga series by Barry J. Hutchinson. Is it a challenge or a fun freeing adventure for you to voice aliens?
I’m going to cheat a little: It’s a fun, freeing, challenge. 😀 I’m truly fortunate in that it’s incredibly cool to travel the universe having adventures with a group of characters I’ve come to know and love so much. That said, because the characters interact with so many different types of other species, etc., it can be challenging to do them all justice.
But good writers provide what you need in the text, and fortunately, Barry is a very good writer. He also often anchors them with earth-based accents and traits, which gives me a leg up on keeping them relatable. I try to keep that in mind, even if it’s an insanely bizarre or even abstract kind of character: Can the listener relate to him or her or it. And I feel strongly that that’s one of the keys to his success; his characters and their interplay are vivid and often simultaneously dramatic and hilariously funny.
Do you think an audiobook narrator needs to enjoy the book she or he is performing? Could you make a book you truly hated seem likeable to an audience?
Great question. I don’t think narrators need to enjoy the book, but it definitely helps. I would certainly try to treat, say, a subject that bores me with the same energy and focus as something that excites me. That said, if you really love something, that extra passion for the project is likely to come through.
As for the second part of the question: It depends on if you mean whether it interests me or if I hate the content itself. You should be able to separate your own judgment of a book and your interpretation of it. For one thing, it’s your job. For another, it’s like acting in a play; you don’t judge its quality, you just do it. But if I truly objected to the subject matter, for example a book that glorified non-consensual relations in any way, I simply wouldn’t do the book. Life is too short to contribute to something you truly object to, no matter what your job might be.
What kinds of questions did you have when you first started as a narrator?
All of them! I understood when I started that I knew very little about so many aspects of the business and the different skill sets required to create a quality audiobook. And I know that I’ll still learn something new on the last day I record. But it was a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other period for me. I didn’t know anyone in the business so I scoured the internet . . . which is the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria, as long as you’re careful about where you look for knowledge. . . and created a curriculum for myself based on everything I felt I needed to know to get up and running. For several months I treated each day like I was going to college. I’d been doing voice overs for quite some time, so I was comfortable in front of a microphone. But there’s a big difference between what I’d done and learning to maintain consistency of performance in long form. And that’s where coaches come in as well; input from professionals is absolutely invaluable. So, essentially, I started asking questions and haven’t stopped.
You are an avid reader. What do you like to read?
As I mentioned, I was weaned on genre books, but that also led me to the broader world of many other types of literature. They’re certainly not mutually exclusive and I get a little annoyed in book stores when I see all those lovely sections of “Science Fiction,” “Mystery,” “Horror,” “Fantasy,” etc., and then come across the section titled “Literature,” as though the former categories somehow don’t qualify.
So I will always love sci-fi and mystery, dark fantasy and horror, with authors like Vonnegut, Dick, Herbert, Barker, King, Ligotti, and Rice. I’ve always loved Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite books (and Simon Vance’s narration on audio is brilliant). Also modern classics by great writers like Morrison, Marquez, and Nabokov, who is a personal favorite.
Oh, and I can’t get enough of Walter Moseley’s mystery series’, particularly the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill books.
What narrators do you listen to for inspiration?
Oh, man, so many inspire and entertain me, and I find I always learn something from listening to any book. Robin Miles, Ray Porter, R.C. Bray, Barbara Rosenblat, Carol Monda, Johnny Heller, Simon Vance, Scott Brick, Greg Tremblay, and Nancy Petersen are names that immediately come to mind. Anything read by these folks is worth every second of listening. There are a multitude of others as well, of course. I feel like I should add an attachment for downloading to include the tons of folks I admire.
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