[Below is an interview Jay conducted with Joel Johnstone, the voice of Clay Jensen on the Listening Library audiobook of Thirteen Reasons Why. And remember to leave a comment for your chance to win a free copy!]
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about a mile and a half from Jeffery Dahmer. It was a very happy place! Seriously though, I am proud to be a midwesterner; I believe it has helped give me a sort of general objectivity as I split time now living between the coasts. After high school, I moved from Milwaukee to New York to attend Fordham University. I went to the Lincoln Center campus, which was a bit of a culture shock, initially. I studied acting there, and also went abroad for six months to study at a classical conservatory in London and Oxford. After graduating I began doing a lot of off-Broadway theatre, as well as TV and film work. Outside of my career, I am an enormous fan of baseball, playing and watching. I'm on a softball team with some acting buddies right now, and let's just say our team is not doing well. Please pray for us.
What attracted you to acting?
I grew up with a problematic obsession for baseball. I went to sleep wearing my Brewers hat and Dale Murphy baseball glove until I was eleven or so. In middle school I tried out for a community theatre production of The Music Man, and was cast as Winthrop, the Ron Howard part. I had one of the best times of my life, and so I began splitting my time between baseball, in the summer, and theatre, during the ten months of winter in Wisconsin. In high school my dreams of playing second base for the Brewers quickly vanished as I was benched for the majority of my sophomore year. However, it wasn't as big a blow to me as I expected. I had been performing in my high school plays as well, and I realized I was getting a lot more attention from girls by doing theatre than playing baseball. I would love to tell a story that some transcendent, out-of-body experience is what initially attracted me to acting, but truthfully it began as just a great way to meet girls. I got a lot more serious about it throughout high school. My acting teacher was incredibly encouraging and told me this was something he thought I could turn into a career. He helped me get into a summer program at the Steppenwolf Theare in Chicago the summer before my senior year. From then on, I knew this was what I was going to do.
What have been some of your favorite acting jobs?
My very first job on film, I got to play an American serial killer for a television show in London. It was sort of the British version of Tales From The Crypt. That was a wonderful introduction to film work. In one episode I killed five people using a nail gun, a samurai sword, an axe and a shiv. Ironically, I was in London studying Shakespeare at the time. Another favorite part of mine is Wesley from Sam Shepard's Curse of The Starving Class. That play is very haunting to me. If I could play that part every night for a year I would be ecstatic. Shepard is absolutely one of my favorite playwrights, and actors.
How did you get started voicing audiobooks?
I got started voicing audiobooks after I had been doing radio and television voiceovers for a year or so. The first audition I had was a twelve page, single spaced read, and I remember thinking, "There's no way I'll ever get this." There were so many different voices I had to create; I couldn't have been more intimidated. I got a call a month later saying the book company wanted to hire me. I was stunned and terrified at the same time. The 12-page audition was a challenge for me, and the manuscript they gave me two days ahead of time was 300+ pages. Somehow, I got through it. Since then, they've gotten much easier and a lot more fun.
Is there anything special you do between when you get the script and when you sit in front of the microphone?
The biggest thing I stress when I prepare is getting all the characters down. I read the whole book, and every time a new character is introduced I write it down on a piece of paper. Sometimes when I'm finished I'll have a list of up to 50 names. I then go through and try out different voices for each character. I can't have any repeats or anything too similar, so I make notes next to each name. A lot of roles demand a dialect, so I use a website that archives audio samples of people from just about every country speaking English in their native dialect. That has been a life saver. I also highlight every piece of dialogue in the book ahead of time. This gives me warning, as I'm reading the narrative in my own voice, that a character is coming up and I have to make an adjustment in pitch, accent, etc.
What did you enjoy most about recording Thirteen Reasons Why?
From an actor's point of view, it is a thousand times more enjoyable to narrate a book in the first person, like this one. It is much more conducive to giving a performance, rather than trying to force one. The book is rich with information about Clay, which allows me to delve deeper into the read and have more fun with it.
Aside from the performance aspect, I'm fascinated by books and films revolving around high school years. In my own life, whether I like it or not, high school was a very important part of my life. Not even including the academics portion, it was an extremely informative and character building time of my life. Your book reminded me about that, which I tend to forget time to time. I've also noticed most people I meet in my adult life seem to remind me of different versions of people I went to high school with. Many of the voices I used for different characters in the book were impressions of my old classmates.
Was there anything that made recording Thirteen Reasons Why more difficult than other audiobooks?
In many ways, this was the most demanding book I've narrated. In every other job I've had, I was the only reader and had the responsibility of creating each character in the book. In Thirteen Reasons Why I hadn't yet heard Debra read Hannah. I knew what Hannah said on the page, but I didn't know the inflections or emotion behind what Debra said, which is partially what I'm responding to. The best analogy is that it was similar to acting in front of a green screen. My main job as the reader is to tell the story through characters, breath, emotion, etc. And sharing that responsibility with Debra without her in the studio was an even bigger obstacle. I had to tell the story through Clay's narration, while reading Hannah's part quietly in my head, in order to keep it consistent. I truly have to thank Scott (the producer) for guiding me through the process. There is no way I could have done this without his direction.