Of all the roles you’ve seen Michael Boatman play, Italian female anarchist and Irish cop from Boston aren’t among them. And unless you’ve been living a television-free life for the past twenty some-odd years, you’ve definitely seen Michael Boatman. With feature roles in series like China Beach, Spin City, Law and Order and The Good Wife, he’s enjoying a very enviable career by anyone’s standards.
He has even played that Italian woman and that Irish cop. You just didn’t see him because he was narrating Dennis Lehane’s bestselling historical novel, THE GIVEN DAY. Within a couple of chapters of hearing him play characters young and old, male and female, with a seemingly endless array of Irish, Italian, Russian, British, African American and even (gasp) Boston accents, I was saying out loud to the CD player in my car, “This guy is unbelievable!”
I was soon composing a slightly gushy—okay embarrassingly gushy—note in my head to Michael. I found him on Twitter and reached out with a tweet. Let me tell you, it’s no easy task to convey tasteful-yet-blubbering fan-hood in 140 characters. Here’s what I went with: The Given Day – So impressed with your performance. Holy smokes! Who knew you could do 6 different brogues!
He tweeted back within a couple of hours: Thank you! The Given Day was one of the greatest acting challenges of my career. SO glad you enjoyed it!
That’s a nice tweet. It gave me the courage to ask if he might be up for an interview. When he agreed, my teenage daughter, recognizing him immediately from his role in Gossip Girl, said, “Wait, you get to talk to that guy? That is so cool!”
So, not only did Michael provide me with hours of listening pleasure, and yes, I’ll admit, a fun audio-crush, he also gave me a brief moment of coolness in my teenager’s eyes. And with that, my debt of gratitude is officially endless.
Here’s what we talked about:
How does audio work differ for you as an actor from the visual medium? When you were recording, did you find yourself doing gestures or other visual character traits?
Narrating an audio book is a performance, and I take it just as seriously as if I were onstage or on camera. This performance is limited only by the fact that you can’t move. If you do you’ll bang your head against the microphone and, no one wants to hear that.
You not only do a very believable Irish brogue, you do about ten of them, each a distinct character voice. How did you prepare for the accents—and the variety of characters within each accent?
The credit goes to my director, the brilliant (and terrifying) David Rapkin, who came to each session armed with dozens of recordings of the various accents the book required. I have always had an ear for accents and David took full advantage of that. It was incredibly challenging and difficult. My throat felt like hamburger at the end of the day, and that was just after the first chapter. But it was an awful lot of fun.
At times you spoke different languages—Italian for instance. Do you actually speak Italian?
I don’t speak Italian. I barely speak English. But honestly, that was one of the most challenging parts to perform. We had to listen to Italian speakers to get the proper inflections, Northern, Southern—the correct regional differences. Really difficult. It took weeks to get that stuff just right.
The Boston accent is one of the hardest—we Bostonians routinely make fun of actors who try and fail. You grew up in Chicago. What’s your secret? How much Boston Harbor water did you have to drink?
Well, I spent a few summers up around Baaaa Haaabaaah. Actually, it’s the “Ear for Accents” again. I’ve always enjoyed language, and listening to how people speak. Being from an African-American-Southern-Midwestern family, I heard it all while I was growing up. My grandmother made me particularly attentive to language by insisting that we speak clearly, and only use proper grammar. I believe this made me hyper-aware of the ways other people spoke. It’s a gift that serves me to this day.
Which was the most difficult character voice for you? The easiest?
Danny Caughlin, the Irish cop protagonist. Lead roles in audio books are always hardest to perform, because they have to be consistent and fairly bland. The great character parts are always more fun—they don’t have time to become boring. They’re only there to make things more difficult for the protagonist, so they’re usually more funny, tragic or wicked in some crucial way that’s fun to interpret.
The audio of The Given Day is 24 hours long. How long would you guess it took you to record? Did it involve a lot of retakes?
It required numerous retakes. It took us approximately twenty-three years to record the entire book. Dennis Lehane had the germ of the plot while still a developing fetus, and I was hired shortly after I was able to wear “big boy pants.” (Actually it took about three weeks to record the book.)
What, if anything, did you take away from the experience?
I took away the fact that narrating books is a commitment, one that is as challenging and potentially-rewarding as any acting or writing gig.
You’ve done some award-winning audio work, ranging from Walter Mosely’s EASY RAWLINS series to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, THE LONG WALK OF FREEDOM. You’re also an author yourself, most recently with the 2009 publication of THE REVENANT ROAD, a “… rollicking roller-coaster of monsters, murder, mayhem and modernity!” What was it like to read your own book?
Narrating THE REVENANT ROAD was fun, and nerve racking. Half the time I was enraptured by the experience, listening to the prose and various turns of phrase…while the other half I spent wondering “Who the Hell wrote this crap?” It’s part of the curse beneath which I labor: I’m hypercritical. It takes me eight to nine drafts of something before I feel it’s ready to see the light of day, and even then I still find problems, minor glitches in paragraph structure or something else. I’m very critical of my writing and my narrating. Even when I love what I’ve written, after it’s been published…I still find problems. That was the same for the audio book. But it was a blast to do and I hope I get to do it with the next one.