Jen Taylor has been the voice of Cortana since Halo: Combat Evolved. She voiced Princess Peach and Toad, featured in Left 4 Dead, Dota 2, and many other games.
I’m going to start with Nintendo stuff. You played Peach from 1999 until 2009: is there a reason why that’s no longer the case?
Who knows why! I don’t know. At the time though I’d moved to LA, and I’m back in Seattle now, so that might have something to do with it.
Alright: in your mind, are Peach and Mario an item? Are they together? Are they dating?
They’re totally dating. Oh yeah.
You don’t buy into the theory that Peach is actually more into Bowser?
It’s just that Peach and Mario have so little time together! But no, they’re dating.
When you voice characters like Peach, who have very little actual dialogue, what is the recording process like?
For me, they were short. Four hours at the most, generally about two-to-four hours long. I would get a game done in that amount of time. It was almost like a gift to get to go in and make crazy noises, be silly, have fun. But it’s fascinating when you go back in and you have to find those characters, and you don’t have very much time. I’d have to go and do some research beforehand each time. ‘Remind yourself who these people are’.
You had to do that with Toad too?
Yeah! Toad was my jam.
So do you have much of a sense of who Toad is? What motivates Toad? What his inner life is like?
No, not really! I do more of a physical thing. I try to find these characters physically, and I do a lot of stuff in the studio to do that. I didn’t have to think too much about what Toad had eaten for breakfast, or who he wanted to marry someday or anything like that.
So you got your start in games back in 1997, as far as I could trace it back, in Backyard Baseball. Is that right?
The very first games I did were for a company called Edmark, which did a whole bunch of computer games for kids. I think…I was trying to remember, I played a sock or a glove or something the first time? That was a little bit before Backyard Baseball, in 96 or 97.
Was that an in-house thing?
No, they just hired me to do one game, and then they kept bringing me back.
Has that been typical of how your work has gone since then, you do a job and then get called back in?
Well, you hope so! If you’re lucky that happens! It doesn’t always happen.
Looking over your other roles, I see you played Cate Archer in No One Lives Forever 2. Do people ask you about that a lot?
No! No one ever asks me about Cate Archer!
I haven’t played these games myself, but I know that it’s a big thing – people are huge fans of these games and are very upset that you can’t get your hands on them anymore.
Yeah! There’s a whole scene around this. It’s never been re-released on Steam or anything, so people are very keen for it.
If you had any information on it, people would be very excited!
Well, (in Cate Archer voice) No, I don’t have any information on Cate Archer, no. I’ve got none.
That was a really fun role to play, to get to be a James Bond type spy. That was good fun.
Having worked in games for a while, have you found that the sessions you get called in for have gotten more intense and longer over time? Are you getting larger scripts?
Yeah! Oh yeah. And also, depending on the game…when I did Left 4 Dead, for instance, we did several sessions for that. You come into the studio, you do two to four hours, and after that you leave and generally you’re done. With the most recent Halo, we would shoot – because we’re doing performance capture – we’d shoot for about a week once a month for nearly a year. So you’re continually checking in with the characters, and it becomes much more time intensive, and much more intense.
At what point in your career did performance capture come in?
For me, it was when I did Halo: Spartan Ops, which was after Halo 4. And then I did it for Halo 5. Someone else did the motion capture for Cortana in Halo 4, but I did Halsey in Spartan Ops. And then for Halo 5 I did Halsey and Cortana.
Cortana has taken on a bit of a life of her own now that she’s popping up in operating systems and elsewhere. How does that feel? Do you feel like you’re at the forefront of AI technology?
I will be escorting us all off the planet, won’t I? ‘Come right this way’.
I don’t get to see that stuff. I’m merely recording in a studio. But it feels exciting to me, to be a part of it, to be connected to it. And it’s interesting to me, the things they keep coming up with, the things they keep bringing me back in to record for. I just did some of the Hololens stuff, recorded some stuff for that, and that’s exciting for me, to see all the things they’re planning.
Is that a life you envisioned for Cortana when you first played her?
No, you know, when I first did Halo, I had played a role that was kind of like it in a different game, where I was guiding you…I think it was Godzilla? I think there was some Godzilla game or something. But I played a similar character in that, so this fell into the same line for me, at first. Then they brought us back and I thought ‘oh, we’re doing Halo 2, I guess people bought Halo 1? That’s good!’ I was clueless.
So you were pretty out of the loop on the games themselves?
I was out of the loop – well, at the beginning, I was very much out of the loop. It has shifted. That took me until…I think it was probably Halo 3 where I started to go ‘oh, this actually has a pretty vibrant life that I need to become aware of.’
So when you’re brought in to record these roles, are you given much context for what the game is? What it looks like, how it plays, that sort of thing?
It depends. The first time, on Halo, I didn’t know what the character looked like. There’s some times where you go in – I remember for DOTA 2, they were able to give me some very basic images of what they thought the characters would look like. But for Halo, no, I had no idea. And for the longest time I wouldn’t even know what happened in the script, I only had my lines.
Typically you don’t get to read alongside another actor, right?
Right. For Halo 4, Steve (Downes, Master Chief) and I got to record in the same studio, in the same booth, for a lot of stuff – a lot of it, not all of it – but no, you don’t typically get to do that.
You know Steve well?
I didn’t know Steve until 2011.
You’d never met?
No, we’d never met! We’d ‘worked’ together for ten years. Steve and I were instant buddies when we met each other. We met in the lobby of the hotel during PAX, I think, and we were instant bosom buddies.
Did the games have anything to do with that, or did you just get on as people?
We get on as people for sure, but I think that we had unknowingly travelled down this road together, and suddenly got to say ‘thank god I finally met you’, is what it felt like. He recorded everything in Chicago and I recorded everything in Seattle, typically, because that’s where we live.
(jokingly) He didn’t even have to audition! That jerk!
Yeah, he just ‘knew a guy’ basically, right?
He knew a guy! I had to audition. He just knew a guy.
Do you still have to audition today?
Oh, sure. I audition all the time. I wish they just threw roles at you, but that doesn’t happen!
Do different developers take different approaches to recordings?
It depends on who’s working on the team within each company. That changes the framework. I don’t feel a difference really between different companies, just between the people I’m working with. Some people want you to improv, to feel a part of creating it – that doesn’t happen so much anymore, now that we’re using performance capture, but it has in the past. And then some people want to go strictly by the book and don’t have time to give you that leeway. It depends on how much time they have, how much flexibility they have in the game, where they are in the process.
Do you have your own preferred approach or thing that you like to be able to do?
I like to be given a very clear story and very sharp characters… and then at the end if they want me to play around I love to do that.
When you did the first few Halo games did you have an idea of how big a character Cortana was? Did they inform you of how major a figure she is in the games?
They always made me feel that Cortana was important. From the very beginning, Cortana was important to them. So I felt validated from the very beginning!
So who is Cortana, to you? If you were to sum up this character, give her biography.
Little Blue. That’s my nickname for her.
Aw, that’s lovely!
That’s a hard question! She’s…what’s so fascinating to me is that she seems, to me, to always be the key to saving you. She’s always got your back. I mean…currently, things have shifted in the latest games, but this was my notion of her, she was the person who had your back in desperate times, and was there, step by step, trying to take care of you. So she’s a caregiver! But then she becomes awakened to her own power. That’s an exciting journey, and I can’t wait to see what happens there.
So she’s in a very different place in Halo 5. How does that change what you do?
It doesn’t, it’s still the same character, who’s taken a step forward, or a step to the side, a different kind of journey from what you expect…but it’s still based on what I know about her. So it doesn’t feel too different to me, it feels like the character is comfortable. What she’s doing might be new, but that’s fun! I have these long speeches in Halo 5, and I didn’t get much time to record them. I think we only did a few…maybe two takes of each? Which is terrifying! I had to have these speeches all ready to go immediately, which is intimidating and scary and fun.
The move from Bungie to 343 Industries, did that affect you in any way? Different processes, different people?
There were a few people who came back, but yeah, a lot of different people. But it didn’t feel different to me, other than ‘here’s a new group of folks we’re gonna create this with’. They’ve treated me, like every team I’ve worked with before, like they’re saying ‘you’re a big part of this; we need you to flesh this whole thing out’. So I feel like I’m a part of the creation with each group I’ve worked with. And even within 343 there are different people who worked on Halo 4, different people who worked on Halo 5…it feels like a different process.
I’m going to assume the NDAs they have you signing for Halo 6 are fairly intense?
We haven’t started working on Halo 6. I mean, we can never say anything.
Yeah, I know. I just like to throw that out there, see what I can get back.
Cortana gives it all up, she decides to become a barista in Adelaide.
She wants to go back to serving. She wants to make it simple. She just wants to make a simple flat white.
She prefers the weather down here in Adelaide?
So Cortana’s a bit of a coffee snob, then?
She loves coffee. Yeah.
Well, that sounds really good! I’m looking forward to that.
(laughing) Yeah, a really fun game, huh?
I’m trying to think of Halo-related puns now, but nothing’s coming to mind.
No, no. Something with the Grunt is all I can think of. The Daily Grunt?
Grunt ‘n Grind?
Yes, nice. We can come up with names for her coffee shop.
…sorry, I’m taking you down a weird little road here. (laughs) That’s only because I like coffee.
It would be nice to see Cortana go off, and…
…have her own life! Yeah!
In the last fifteen or so years, many games have moved away from using professional voice actors towards using Hollywood actors. How does that affect you, now that you’re competing against people who are incredibly high profile?
I don’t think I’m competing, I just don’t get those parts! If a movie star wants to do a role, they’re gonna cast a movie star over me. Of course you are. People will buy the game because of that. So yeah, it makes it harder for voiceover actors. But I do theatre, as well, so I’ve got a lot of different things I do. Recently I did Pride and Prejudice, in Colorado Springs… and I did an adaptation of Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast. I did Dangerous Liasons… mostly in Seattle.
You’ve been in a few other roles here and there on-screen too, right?
Yep. I was in RWBY, for Rooster Teeth. I play Salem in that, who’s a badass. I also filmed a Netflix show recently, called Everything Sucks, which will come out in 2018. I have a very small role in it, but I have a couple of episodes, playing a teacher. There’s a funny story there – I actually assumed they cast me to play the teacher because, how funny, to have Cortana to play the teacher. And I remember at the very end, on my wrap day, I went up to the director and I said ‘okay, you got Cortana as your teacher, I bet you’re pleased!’, and he looked at me and said ‘what? Who? I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.’ That was delightful.
When people come up to you at conventions like this, is it mostly Cortana people want to talk about?
Mostly. But there are people who surprise me, who love Zoe from Left 4 Dead, for instance. She was a good character. ‘Fire in the hole!’ And then sometimes the younger folk are excited about Peach and Toad. But the most vocal people are there for Cortana.
I’m still thinking about Cortana serving coffee, by the way.
We’re going to make this game, Cortana’s gonna give up – it’s too much, it’s too big of a job. So she’s going to move to Adelaide, open a coffee shop – The Grunt ‘n Grind, I like that – and she’s gonna take long walks by the river.
You know that in a few weeks from now you’ll go online and see the headline ‘Halo 6 Major Departure From Franchise’, right? ‘Mostly about coffee’?
The folks at 343 will love that, I’m sure. ‘Halo 6: She Drinks Coffee’.
…sadly, no. (laughs)