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Character Select: Anjali Bhimani, Julia Bianco discuss video games in newest podcast

Hosted by Anjali Bhimani & Julia Bianco, Character Select podcast explores iconic game performances
By Gresheen Libby
April 5, 2024

Enter the realm of gaming excellence with "Character Select," a new podcast hosted by industry stalwarts Anjali Bhimani and Julia Bianco. Join them as they dissect the art of video game performance, featuring insights from luminaries like Matt Mercer, Jennifer Hale, and Erika Ishii.

Renowned for her dynamic roles in titles like Overwatch and Apex Legends, Anjali Bhimani brings a wealth of experience as a South Asian-American actress and best-selling author. Her diverse portfolio spans across mediums, showcasing her talent in Ms. Marvel, Modern Family, and even Critical Role: Candela Obscura.

Joining her is Julia Bianco, a casting director whose keen eye has shaped memorable characters in blockbusters such as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Spider-Man 2. With her expertise extending to publications like WIRED and The Los Angeles Times, Bianco's insights promise to enrich discussions on the art and business of acting for video games.

Together, Bhimani and Bianco will lead conversations with esteemed guests from the gaming industry while diving into the minds behind iconic characters, exploring what makes gaming performances truly unforgettable.

Julia Bianco, Anjali Bhimani

Gresheen Libby: What inspired you to come up with the concept of “Character Select” as a podcast?

Anjali Bhimani: We had a wonderful experience where we were both asked to be on the jury for the BAFTA Games Awards to help narrow down the long list of nominees for the best supporting performance in a game. So at 6 a.m. but unexpectedly, [we] ended up very happily on the same Zoom and the conversation that ensued with all of the different people there from all different walks of [all the] different lanes in game creation. It was so deep and respectful and intuitive and interesting that it blew us both away. The things were being talked about in terms of how they affected someone's performance and made it easier or harder for them to give this extraordinary performance. There were definitely things that I would never have thought of from a technical standpoint that other people were talking about.

So we immediately got off the Zoom and we're like, “you need to have this conversation always in front of people because I think a lot of people think that in-game performances that it's just about the performance of the actor either auditing that role or voicing that role. But there is so much more that goes into that and it goes into that way before the actors even show up. I say this a lot in all media that we actors are just kind of a cog in the wheel but the amazing things that get done before and after we show up are huge."

Julia Bianco: And the reverence, I think, that everybody had for the performances, I think that it's so rare that the actors and the fans can see that the developers have the same kind of energy and love for what they're creating, for what their peers are creating, and it was just a big old love fest, which is what we turn the characters like the podcast into.

Anjali Bhimani: And the name “Character Select” was Julia's idea and I love it so much. It's not just about the character that you're playing. It's what builds a character, what aspects go into discovering who the essence of that character is, and it's just a really fun name.

Gresheen Libby: How do you believe your diverse backgrounds in acting and casting direction shape the conversations and insights in the podcast?

Anjali Bhimani: "I think both of us just have a love of other creators. I think that's one thing that is so clear about Julia, whether you are auditioning for her, talking to her about making a game, or reading her book about acting in the art and business of acting for video games, whatever you are doing with Julia, it is very clear that she is there to be of service and to be excited. She gets so excited about things and I think that's something we very much have in common. So we're both very curious and I think that goes into both acting and casting. If you can't really do it if you don't have a wonder and a curiosity about this thing that you're creating and about the people who are creating it. So I think that specifically because it really is about asking the right questions of our extraordinary guests, not necessarily giving our opinions all the time, but really just picking their brains to see what do they contribute to the performances that they contribute with to and also, tell us about the ones you love and why so we can all enjoy that."

Julia Bianco: "And even now some of these people exist because a lot of people who make the games that you love the most are not necessarily out there advertising themselves or being interviewed or talked to because they are usually only talking to the head of the game and stuff like that when they're interviewing. So just kind of trying to bring some light also into the different jobs that come in that are said with our backgrounds. I do think that it's hard to look at the top podcasts and video games and not notice that there aren't a ton of women there and especially, women who are working in the industry. And so it's really nice. I think to have a fresh perspective on that side as well because we deserve seeing the different ways that people see things so I'm happy to be there."

Gresheen Libby: "And I also think it's super cool that you guys are giving a platform for the people who are in behind the scenes to actually talk about what they do for work, and a lot of these people actually love and enjoy their work, and they would love to talk about it for hours. So that's really cool."

Anjali Bhimani: "Yes, and not only that they love games, period. They are the people you want to be talking about because they play them, they make them, they live them, they breathe them. Even the actors that we have brought on this season, most are gamers and were gamers before they were performers. I myself was a gamer as a little girl until I tried to be more serious since what I call the “dark days of gaming” and then when I came back to video games and they were so full of it, just like these extraordinary performances in these extraordinary stories and graphics and everything. You can't help but just love the artistry and the virtuosity that goes into them. So getting developers and casting directors and performance directors and getting those people to talk about these performances, it's delicious."

Gresheen Libby: With both of your backgrounds encompassing work in action and superhero theme projects, how do you see the gaming industry and film influencing each other?

Anjali Bhimani: I think they are indelibly linked now. The toothpaste is out of the tube. I mean, people have been trying for many, many years to adapt video games and the mythology of video games into movies, but I feel like we have begun to crack the code a little bit more now because people have realized if there is performance capture in a video game, that's a movie. Like the actors and the creators who are making this thing are treating it like a movie. It just happens to have 600 different ways it can go.

So yeah, the technology is indelibly linked, I think, with shows and movies like The Last of Us or followed by all these things that are having tremendous success. Now, we are seeing that you can take something in this medium and make something completely unique in the other and go back and forth between the two, and still have reverence and still have an extraordinary story that people want to engage with. I know as an actor, I don't treat them very differently. In fact, when performance capture, Julia and I did a piece for the LA Times and one of the things that we were marked on is that performance captures are almost more like theater because you have to give that performance in 360."

Gresheen Libby: Julia, as a casting director, what do you look for when you're casting such roles? Is there a combination of things or is there a one specific trait that you're looking for that should stand out?

Julia Bianco: holds up a mug that says “Don’t Be A Dick”

Anjali Bhimani: "Don't be a dick. Okay, we talk about this all the time. I say this to new actors or in classes that I teach, she does the same thing. I'm like, there are three rules: be on time, be prepared, don't be a dick. Everything else, objective."

Julia Bianco Schoeffling: Yeah, I mean specifically for me. The first question is going to be is it VO (voice over) only or is there gonna be a motion capture aspect? That changes the types of people we're looking for. It doesn't necessarily rule people out, it just opens up the pool if they want people who kind of have backgrounds outside of video. And then from there, we're looking for talent who can bring their unique perspective to the role.

I think one of the misconceptions is that we actually know what we're looking for when we're casting and especially in games because so much has yet to be decided, created... even a script isn't typically written at that stage. The casting sides are written specifically for casting and so an actor has so much opportunity to bring their unique perspective to a role and we're looking for your version of that in order to sell us on whatever that role is, and then you get to infuse your personality and your unique kind of background and perspective on life, into a role that we didn't quite know exactly what we were looking for until we saw it."

Gresheen Libby: Anjali, you had roles on screen and in providing voice overs and performances for these games. How do you prepare for these parts? And what's the process for this?

Anjali Bhimani: It's a little bit more involved if it is for performance capture, because then you are just like in a film or just like a play. You are memorizing your lines or you're making sure you have the physicality of the character really down. With voiceover, there is a lot less preparation than, I think, anyone would think. If you're lucky, you have a chance to have a conversation with the director and the team about the career, the character, and stuff.

But usually because these are so under wraps and we're trying to keep things very secret so that the community doesn't know about them ahead of time, sometimes you'll walk into a voiceover session not even knowing what game you're doing or what character you're playing until you get there. So a lot of it is improvisation, at least just thinking on your feet when you get there, maybe not improv, but just being able to jump right into that very quickly and grab on to the touchstones that make this character who they are. Performance capture, it is full. It's like doing a film, only, you're wearing a bodysuit that is universally unflattering on all people.

There is an element of just having to think on your feet because so many of the things in the room are not there that are going to be there in the game, like maybe drinking out of a cup that's [actually] a piece of wood or something, and then they're gonna fill in what the cup is or, different items like over here. You guys have to be prepared. This is a wall, and this is a door, and so there's a lot of theater of the mind going on when that's happening, but it's so much fun because when you are there with your other actors, there's so much trust that goes into it.

And so much trust that goes into knowing that the creative team is going to create the world around you to make this look as amazing as they are. So, knowing that you can come in and do your job to the best of your ability, and then everybody else is going to come together and make it the thing that it's very exciting and it requires a lot of faith in yourself and in the other people on the team."

Julia Bianco: "Yeah, there's so much camaraderie. It's almost like a play in that after you're done that you feel you made something together, which isn't really the case necessarily with voiceover because you're usually a bit disjointed you're recording those sessions separate from other people. There's less of the family feel."

Gresheen Libby: Speaking of video games, if you could step into the shoes of a video game character for a day, who would you choose and why?

Julia Bianco: "My brain is going straight to the first thing I was like, I could definitely be Mario. I could do that. But there's some really cool superpowers and what I want and definitely I'm like part of me is going like Bayonetta maybe or a Mirror's Edge or something like that, something where there's a badass chick doing some sweet moves."

Anjali Bhimani: "I hope this doesn't sound as self-serving as I'm worried, but I'm so in love with Symmetra (from Overwatch). Here's the thing. She has the superpower that I have always wanted because I have always wanted to be able to teleport. The amount of things that I could get done in a day if I could teleport, I think, [because] I'm busy now. I would be able to do so much stuff. It would be so fantastic. And I love the fact that she and I both run around in high heels very functionally.

So I feel very good it is a superpower you can have in real life. But I also really love her sort of view of the world, her vision of her mission in life because she has taken all of the things that have been obstacles in her way or challenges in her way and added them as fuel to the fire of making the world a better place, whether or not aligned with the right company for that because hopefully someday she's gonna figure out that those are not the greatest people, but she wants to make a better world. Primarily because of what she experienced when she was younger, and I think that's a wonderful way to go through life is to not see that as something that determines your future but something that can fuel you to make a better future."

Gresheen Libby: There are such intricate storylines and there's actually a plot that you follow and it's relatable and it's something that I really appreciate, and with Character Select I guess you can thank the people who are working behind this for creating such an amazing storyline for this kind of character.

Anjali Bhimani: And I do think games are actually influencing film and television in a tremendous way in that lane, because I think no games were ahead of film and television in terms of taking people from historically underrepresented communities, culturally, or whether it was their gender whether it was their sexual orientation, or whatever it was historically… Those roles have not necessarily been as complex.

We haven't seen them as fully formed unique human beings that are not just defined by that one part of their personality, that one part of who they are in games that started happening a lot faster and a lot more prevalent than it has in film, and TV is definitely catching up. People are starting to realize that you are more than the color of your skin or more than your gender or all more than one thing but these unique incredible stories. We've had the freedom to put them in games for years.

And I say this one of the things I love about games in particular and about the characters and games, is that when someone plays a game and they can identify with the hero that they're playing for any reason whatever they grab onto then, they can take that power that hero that they feel like they are in the game and walk out into the world with that sense of empowerment that's a sense of agency and being able to affect your future, and affect the fate, and sometimes affects the fate of the universe and that empowerment and not be underestimated. It is something very very special. I experienced it as an eight-year-old little brown girl in Orange County, California, and it really did define what I believe was possible."

Gresheen Libby: What should people look forward to the most about the podcast?

Anjali Bhimani: Wait, I have one thing. I love listening to people gush about other people's work. There is this weird misconception about the entertainment industry that people are backstabbing, or that people don't support each other, and I've never once experienced that in my entire almost three decades-long career. People are so supportive. People love watching other people's work. People love just talking about the intricacies of what other people are doing.

And a very unexpected joy that I had when we launched the podcast was thinking about, wow, all of the people who created these roles are going to hear someone else talking about how much they loved it and specifically why. They'll be talking for 30 minutes about why this was such an incredibly iconic performance, and there is something so fulfilling about knowing that someone who has to do the same thing that you are doing or works in the same field really gets the work that you put into it, and that is very, very special. When we got a message from David Hayter to thank Matthew Mercer for breaking down his performance in such a thoughtful and caring and respectful way, that's the part that's everything.

Julia Bianco: "That's everything. Yeah."

Anjali Bhimani: "I love that enthusiasm. It is priceless."

Julia Bianco: “And for me, I'm just so excited. I've been working in games for 20 years, and there's so many talented people. I'm just so excited to introduce the talent and what goes into making games to kind of the general public because I think it's been their area to access that information, but not necessarily in a digestible and fun way. So I'm really excited to kind of bring the idea of what goes into games and making amazing performances out to people and the people who make them."

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