Secrets from Voiceover School

You may never know their names or see their faces, but becoming a go-to voice in Hollywood requires just as much hard work and hustle as making it on the big screen.

Secrets from Voiceover School

It is a Tuesday night in Burbank, and nine students sit across from a microphone-equipped sound booth. There are no desks in this classroom, so students hold white binders on their laps. They open to a page featuring the word “wry.” The teacher asks them to think about what wry sounds like. Most of the students are tanned and beautiful. Maybe you’ve seen them in commercials, or minor television roles. But their good looks matter little when it comes to landing gigs in the field they are training for tonight.

Here, it is all about voice.

Not just the sound, but the tone, inflection, volume, accent and personality that each voice offers. The sign in front of the gray building reads: “Kalmenson & Kalmenson: The Business of Voice Casting.” To get here, you might pass Walt Disney Company Studios, and a business named Bill and Ted’s Excellent Ad Ventures. The students here enroll to become the voices behind radio commercials, the announcers on television, the characters that appear in cartoons and the many other sound-based entertainment personalities whose faces you never see.

A petite blond woman stands at the front of the room. Cathy Kalmenson is the voice instructor and co-owner, along with her husband, Harvey. Dressed in all black, Kalmenson looks out at her students through black rimmed-glasses. Her voice is strong and confident, a bit intimidating. “Wry” is an attitude, Kalmenson explains. It can be subtle. It is the opposite of straightforward; a tone in the voice indicates something is slightly askew, she says.

Cathy Kalmenson.
Cathy Kalmenson.

“What do casting agents and directors look for?” Kalmenson asks. First, technique. “Strong acting skills for voiceover,” says Kalmenson. Second, “a clear sense of your signature, your personal identity, your essence.”

Johnny Cardinale, forty, sits in the second row, gesturing as he rehearses his lines for the class exercise. He has blue eyes, a boyish haircut, and wears a sweatshirt and jeans. A script for a mock voiceover audition asks for an announcer for a television ad. But when auditioning, “You are NOT an announcer,” the script reads. “You are a real, down-to-earth, approachable, regular guy. A guy you’d want to be friends with.”

Cardinale has done stand-up comedy, appearing on “Chelsea Lately,” and shows in clubs and at colleges. Originally from Cleveland, he grew up doing impressions of his family and friends. He was a math major in college, until he saw a comedian on television—he doesn’t even remember who it was. “I just thought ‘Man, if that guy can do it, I can do it.’ I didn’t think he was very funny.” Two weeks later, Cardinale dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles. He started going to open mic nights, and getting gigs. He incorporated his talent for mimicry into his standup routines.

Cardinale has made his living as a stand-up comedian for the past seven years. One day, someone mentioned that he should try voiceovers, and he has been pursuing it for a year now. Friends suggested the Kalmensons, so he signed up for classes.

“I’m used to standing with a microphone in my face and being kind of animated so it wasn’t a huge leap,” he says. “Although it’s a completely different skill set, I felt very at ease doing it.”

Cardinale has a knack for punchlines, but takes his voice prep time in class seriously. He relies on his acting skills to perfect his voice training. Classes with the Kalmensons have helped add to his voiceover portfolio, which demonstrates his range.

Johnny Cardinale’s voiceover portfolio.

There is his friendly neighbor voice: “Albertson’s fresh juicy meats you can’t wait to sink your teeth into!” There is his soothing voice, showcased in a hospital ad: “Medicine that heals the whole person,” and his breezy tone, hyping “frost-brewed Coors Light.” There’s Cardinale belting out “I Feel Good!” in an ad for a showerhead with wireless speakers, and there’s even Cardinale as a dog: “I’m tired of being fed on by fleas and ticks.”

For some auditions, Cardinale records MP3s of his voice at home. “You just do your auditions and hope you get the call that you got the job,” he says. He has even completed auditions while out of the country by recording himself on his cell phone, although he tries to stay in L.A. now that he is focusing on voiceover.

A student practicing inside the sound booth.
A student practicing inside the sound booth.

At the Kalmensons’ school, students play a game: reading lines while attempting to achieve specific emotions with their voices, such as sad, concerned or enthused. The rest of the class guesses which emotion they are trying for. Later, each student receives a ten-minute turn in the sound booth. A man who sounds a lot like voiceover actor Harry Shearer of The Simpsons—the voice of authoritative, older, and calm characters like Principal Skinner and pompous newscaster Kent Brockman—flips through a script. Kalmenson offers advice about making lines feel like natural conversation. Projection can change the tone, she emphasizes, and personality plays a big part.

One actress sounds melodic, sweet and affable. Another actor adopts the attitude of Ron Burgundy of “Anchorman”—loud, booming, manly and confident—for his diet food ad, making the healthy meals sound downright delicious.

Cathy and Harvey Kalmenson, who students call “da’ harv,” have been running their voiceover training and casting company for twenty years. Each day, the place is abuzz with actors, sound engineers, audition directors and casting directors. They work with journeyman actors and celebrities alike.

Cathy Kalmenson instructing a class.
Cathy Kalmenson instructing a class.

Voiceover is “purity of form,” says Harvey Kalmenson, who wears glasses and has a brown buzz cut. “You can be whatever you want to be in voiceover, because when you’re behind that microphone and you’re conveying what you think is the truth, people are hearing you, they’re not seeing you.”

The truth they speak of in these voiceover classes has to do with an inner you—knowing who you are and why you are presenting yourself to the world in this way. That is what is difficult and beautiful about voiceover, the Kalmensons believe, and it is the reason it takes so many years to perfect this type of acting.

Cathy Kalmenson stresses that truth and attitude are key. “If no direction is given for the role, then be yourself, the true you,” she says, “because that is likely who the casting directors and sponsors want to hear.”

Bob Bergen, a longtime voiceover actor, has worked with the Kalmensons and focuses on coaching for animation. Bergen moved to Los Angeles from Cincinnati with his parents at fourteen and started his career at eighteen. He wanted to voice Porky Pig ever since he was a kid. When a friend of the family, legendary radio personality Casey Kasem, sent him a signed photo for his graduation, Bergen responded with a thank-you note expressing his interest in voiceover. Kasem put Bergen in touch with voiceover agent Don Pitts, who signed him at eighteen years old. While voiceover is a rewarding career, it can be difficult, Bergen says. Perfecting a voiceover cannot be chalked up to weird gurgles or drinking tea the night before an audition, but to years of preparation as an actor and years of getting the attitude right and honing the craft.

A stopwatch is used to ensure students stay on time during practice sessions.
A stopwatch is used to ensure students stay on time during practice sessions.

“Nobody needs another voice,” he tells his students. “They have millions of voices. What they don’t have, what they do need, is you.”

Cardinale is the last to go into the booth. He makes eye contact with the rest of the class as he reads lines. At the end, each student takes home a flash drive with recordings that they practiced. Cardinale, like the other students, walks away with more to work on, more to practice and more to absorb. He appreciates the honest feedback he has received from his classes with the Kalmensons.

“Voiceover is a small little world of actors … but it takes a lot to get in there … and stay with it, if you enjoy it,” he says. “I really enjoy it. It’s a long process. It’s not something that happens over night.”

Stuart Palley is a Southern California based photographer covering editorial, documentary, travel, news, and environmental subjects. Stuart has photographed for National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and various other publications.