We caught up with Troy Baker, one half of Retro Replay's blend of improvised insanity, at the Golden Hinde in London for an in-depth discussion about his approach to cultivating a positive online community, and the many aspects of his fascinating career.
He is a name synonymous with the gaming industry's narrative ambition; an actor of impressive calibre whose work you've likely encountered many times without realising it. If there's a beloved animation you've watched or franchise you've played, chances are his name will appear in the credits. His performance as Joel in The Last of Us is justifiably a standout for many, but as one of the only voice artists to ever put their stamp on both the Joker AND Batman, there can be no denying that his versatility is a defining trait.
Despite his success, he remains refreshingly humble and self-deprecating. Together with Nolan North, crammed into the hold of this mighty galleon with 80 odd fans, he recounted moments where things didn't always go his way (a mostly improvised audition for Uncharted: Golden Abyss that cost him the gig), and dream characters that he'd love to tackle (Marvel's Daredevil being at the top of that list). After the event, we sat down in a nearby Costa, overlooking the starboard side of the Hinde, and discussed everything from his process as an actor, to his genuine surprise at Retro Replay's ongoing success as, in the wise words of Nolan North, "a Let's Play series [on YouTube] gone horribly wrong".
Yes! Well said. I think that there were some people that left today feeling better than when they walked in. I feel like what we've done is provided a space for people to feel safe. That is incredibly important, because I don't believe it's possible to make the entire world a safe space. That is a futile enterprise. Everything is against that notion. Evolution is against that notion. I was talking to an amazing anthropologist about this. A Brit, as a matter of fact. Alice Roberts. She said "Evolution doesn't promote. It negates". There's nothing about supporting you, or making you feel better. It's all about survival of the fittest. It is brutal. So I believe in providing people for two hours, in the hold of a ship, a place to go "You know what? It's OK".
You said it best [at the event]. Take this time, where we're all together, to exchange Twitter handles. Find someone's YouTube Channel. Shake a hand. Make a friend. And I think you're right. Because those things might not happen if you were just shiving each other in the [Last of Us] Factions multiplayer...
[laughs] Hey! That's who that was that killed me!
[laughs] Still, it is amazing that you've been able to make that [close knit community] your brand. It's the best kind of happy accident. And you've seen it happen at an event that had, what, two days notice?
If that, and that's honestly on us. You're looking at [pointing to the promotional artwork outside the Golden Hinde] two of those pictures right there were thrown together so quickly. My assistant had a graphic artist do the bottom one when we realised "Fu*k! We forgot to put anything out!"
Hey, start recording because this is a great conversation...
Yes! So I definitely already started, because you said something very eloquent earlier and I went, in my head, "Quick! Hit record!" I suppose I should do my best old timey radio host voice as an intro...
[laughs] It always sounds better with someone with a British accent...
[laughs] So, across all of your work in animation, video games, and everything in between, have you ever been given the freedom as an actor to improvise and put your own stamp on your work?
No-one has ever given me more freedom than within the video game space. When you show up on set for TV or film, you might hear "Oh! You have an idea? Great. I have a day to make". The Director might have to do six set ups for one scene, and that will take the entire morning, with six pages to shoot in one day. The beauty of working on a performance capture stage is you're already lit. You don't have to move the camera. You can spend the entirety of that time workshopping a scene from a performance standpoint.
The big difference is it's a blank soundstage. It takes so much of the theatre of the mind, and the willingness and partnership between the Director and Actor, to embrace that imagination and let that inform your performance. When there isn't that communication, especially between the Studio and the Director, it can be really difficult to overcome. I've experienced that before, where I've worked on a project that I'm directing, and them [the Studio] not being able to fully inform me about what the level looks like yet, because they haven't built it. But I need to know what the player is doing, what they're looking at, and where they're going.
To me, that's what really sets people like [Uncharted and Last of Us developer] Naughty Dog apart. They think about those problems ahead of time, and solve it. So when I walk onto set with Neil [Druckmann, Director on The Last of Us], if all of those questions haven't already been answered, we work on them together before we leave the stage.
I love the idea that, because of the way they handle those logistics, creativity then leads the charge. The space you're in gives you an immediacy and freshness that must be, as an actor, a gift?
Every TV and film actor, that predominantly works in that space, that has stepped foot on a mocap stage has said "I don't ever want to go back". It's theatre that pays. The opportunity for someone to do a cinematic performance within the space and freedom of a theatre? That's truly rare.
Your relationship with Nolan North is absolutely genuine, both on and off camera. I've seen that here today, and you've shown that to your fans. Have there ever been any moments when you're on the couch [filming Retro Replay] where you feel like your back and forth isn't working or something goes wrong? If so, how do you move through that?
Everything that we do on the show is a one-er [referring to shooting footage in a single take]. There's nothing scripted. We have three cameras. My single, Nolan's single, and the master. Once we start rolling, we're rolling. If there's anything that goes wrong or doesn't work, we own it. We were in the middle of one of our Virtual Replay's. I think we were playing "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes". All of a sudden, I was like "I am smelling smoke!" And we cut because a light had caught fire and was literally burning down our studio.
Apart from that, everything that people see when they watch the show is intentionally and purposefully authentic. Nolan and I have argued, and we've had these moments of true reality. We go through that because we've spent a lot time, which we're very grateful for, being other people. This is the one chance for us to truly be ourselves.
Was that a big draw for you? In starting Retro Replay?
I wanted to be "us". I don't think I could have done it before. Now I'm finally in a place in my life where I like who I am. And I think I'm a good hang. Nolan's a really good dude. That's why it can't be about the game that we play. It can't be about the jokes. It's not about the game. It's all about the hang. As long as we remember that, someone is going to be able to relate. Jacksepticeye [a successful YouTuber] is a dear friend, and I've learned more from him about this, and community, than anybody else. He has 26 million subscribers. And the beauty is, he says "I can't talk to 26 million people. But I can talk to one". That's it, right there.
Even though YouTube is a fairly new medium, it has been very easily and quickly saturated. Despite that, I truly believe that nobody has had such phenomenal success, in the truest sense of that word, than [YouTube channel] Critical Role. They have cultivated a community that has transcended fad, and all preconceptions of what a Dungeons and Dragons group could be. They ran the most successful Kickstarter campaign of all time. But their greatest achievement is that they've found people and said "It's OK that you feel this way, and that you want to do this".
Going forward, is this the kind of scale you want to maintain? Where you're engaging with fans on a more personal level?
Oh yeah. It's one of the reasons why we have the Founding 500. They are the people that latched onto this thing first, and supported it the hardest. We'll always have that. I don't know how big this thing is going to get. I thought five people were going to show up today! But we got to 175,000 subscribers in just over a year. That's crazy.
You've mentioned publicly in the past that you can't watch the prologue from the Last of Us [where your character's daughter dies in your arms]. When you think back to the filming of that moment, what is your go to thing, as an actor, at the end of such a gruelling, emotionally demanding experience, to decompress and switch off from that intensity?
Honestly, I don't have one, man. The first time that we shot the "Sarah" scene on The Last of Us... it was the last shot of the day. I thought that we had it. We didn't. We shot it over and over again, and finally Neil [Druckmann] capitulated, and we wrapped. I got out of my [mocap] suit, changed, got into my car, and drove from Culver City back home. I literally walked into my apartment, went straight to bed, and didn't surface until the next day. I just crashed. There have been scenes, while filming [The Last of Us] Part 2, where Ashley [Johnson, the actor who plays Ellie] and I have just held each other and cried. There is no formulaic way to get out of it. I don't have a process [for that]. All I know is how to leave everything on the stage.
Right. So it's less about drawing the line between "job" and "home", and more about giving it all when you're there because then you know you're done.
Yeah! There's a great movie. Gattaca. The making of that movie is almost more interesting than the finished product. Danny De Vito was the executive producer. Ethan Hawke was in it. It was Jude Law's first feature, after they discovered him in a theatre. He showed up every day, whether he was working or not, to learn and be present. They shot everything in one location. But halfway through filming they ran out of money.
De Vito assembles all cast and crew, and says "We're out of money. I'm going to go try to fund-raise and finish the rest of the movie. We totally understand if everybody wants to go home". And nobody did. They kept filming. Because everyone believed in it. There's a line in the movie, between the two characters, where he [Ethan Hawke] says "This is how I did it Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back." When I was shooting the Last of Us, I never did. I don't know how to save for the swim back.
I have felt the emptiness of not receiving accolades and awards, and receiving them. I've learned that it can't be about that. It can't be about "Did I get the BAFTA?" I have a dear friend, Austin Wintory. His philosophy in life is "I want to leave this world exhausted". I have adopted that. At the end of the day, did I leave it all on the stage? That's what I can control.
We'd like to send a massive thank you out to Troy Baker for giving up so much of his time to chat with us, and also a shout out to Nolan North and the rest of the Retro Replay team for a fantastic event. Troy has most recently appeared in John Wick Hex, and is featured in the upcoming Death Stranding, The Last of Us: Part 2, and Marvel's Avengers.