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So Now The Voice Over Audition Seeks An
'Ambiguously Ethnic Voice.' Say What?
April 1, 2015

By Dave Courvoisier

Voice Actor & TV News Anchor

There’s a new, cryptic request showing up in auditions now. Have you see it, too?
"We’re looking for some African American voices, or ‘ambiguously ethnic voices.'"
Really?  "Ambiguously ethnic”?

You know what this reminds me of? An interview I saw with Tom Hanks when his movie The Terminal came out. You’ll remember Hanks played the role of a traveler caught in customs limbo when his fictional Eastern European country collapsed in political chaos, and his character’s nationality came into question. 

Hanks explained in an interview that he arrived at the character’s accent by throwing together a polyglot of ethnicities based on a distant foreign relative, combined with a generic "Slovakian”-derived speech pattern.


Don’t even get me started about the call for "African-American” voices. That’s so blatantly racial, or reverse-racial that it blows my mind.

So if "announcery” is of the devil, and "conversational” is no longer de rigeur - then is "ambiguously ethnic” our new target as commercial voice actors?

That direction is so…er….uh…ambiguous…that it leaves no room for definition. 

In theory, ANYTHING would meet that standard. I think I’ll mix a little Costa Rican Spanish with some Irish, and add a Pakistani flourish. Yeah! THAT should do it.

Will somebody please comment on what "ambiguously ethnic” accent worked for them on these audition calls, and at least we’ll have an idea of what to shoot for?
Dave Courvoisier is an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, writer, producer, voice actor, and the main weeknight news anchor on KLAS-TV, Channel 8, the Las Vegas CBS affiliate. He also writes Voice-Acting in Vegas, a daily blog of voice over adventures, observations and technology.


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Comments (7)
4/30/2015 at 3:44 PM
I'm a writer/producer. Casting is a business of categorization (by gender, age, race, culture, and character type). For better or worse, when your audience can't see the actor, they have to rely on stereotypes that they can easily categorize. James Earl Jones has a classically trained accent, but just because he's black doesn't mean I'd hire him to do an urban street rap. I'd hire Eminem, who is white. So it's not about skin color, but by people's notions of what certain types of people sound like.

The euphemism for AA and Latino voices nowadays is "urban." You can ask an African American talent to do a "non-urban" read--where he sounds white. Is that racist? Maybe. But it's a reality of casting. And 9 times out of ten, I can tell the difference between an AA voice and a white one, NOT because of accent or because they are being stereotypically "black" but because there is a difference in timbre, cadence, and intonation.

James Earl Jones is a perfect example--I can tell he's not white, just by listening to him, even though he doesn't have a "black" accent. And just because you can do a Costa Rican accent doesn't make you sound authentically Costa Rican.

Right now, I'm looking for a talent who do an urban street voiceover. They have to sound authentic, so I'm not looking for a midwestern white males, or a supermarket mom. It may stereotyping, but I think it's going a bit far to call it racism. It's the reality of casting.
Courtney Danagasta Gordon
4/3/2015 at 7:06 AM
When I worked in radio, I was told often by listeners that they expected a "tall, older blonde" when they actually met me. I'm maybe 5 feet at the most, turning 33 this month, with short espresso hair-- and I'm plus size. I sing tenor when they need one for the synagogue chorale (my husband is Jewish and I converted.) This is just to give you an idea of how far stereotyping can go. I speak "properly," so I must be a blonde White woman, right? Anyone can learn General American speech. People can be silly with their assumptions and expectations. As Al said in the post below, an "ambiguously ethnic" voice is one where the ethnicity of the VO is undetectable.
Al Richardson
4/2/2015 at 9:09 AM
In a recent article in A trend in the entertainment & fashion industries is a preference for ethnically ambiguous celebrities, whose ethnic or racial heritage is difficult to determine based on their looks alone...Now, people of diverse heritage are considered chic, mysterious, and beautiful. This trend is directed at young people, and is being hailed as "Ethnically Ambiguous.” The following famous individuals head up this movement: Halle Berry, Jessica Alba, Benjamin Bratt, Mariah Carey, Dean Cain, Christina Aguilera, Derek Jeter, Vin Diesel and Victoria Beckham... I would think an ambiguously ethnic voice is one where voice actors ethnicity is undetectable.
Ed (Ed-VO) Waldorph
4/1/2015 at 8:05 PM
I don't answer these auditions. The code word "Urban" has grown tiresome, also.

Most of the folks I know in the business, whether black or white, lost their localized accents and cultural colloquialisms in order to get into the VO business in the first place. If they want to put it back to take on these roles, more power to them. I wouldn't embarrass myself by trying.
Michael Orenstein
4/1/2015 at 6:43 PM
Yep John, just got what I guess was the same one you did - and since I was trained to have a neutral US accent, I believe that does make me ambiguously ethnic. Or, as once pointing out the last time, do you think I should do a different accent/dialect with each word just to keep them guessing?

My two cents on this are from also seeing a lot of on-camera stuff where the new buzzword is 'multiethnic' - they want to kill as many birds as possible with one stone - one black, hispanic, asiatic native American mix can fill up an entire diversity portfolio.

I think that's what VO people are looking for - no idea how there are going to find it - most multiethnic people I know talk like me.
Courtney Danagasta Gordon
4/1/2015 at 4:02 PM
He's spot on about the term being a form of very thinly veiled racism and/or stereotyping. I've dealt with a similar incident, although not the "ambiguously ethnic" issue here. I'm half Eastern Band Cherokee and an enrolled citizen of the tribe, and I've been asked to "do a Native American accent" before, despite the fact I speak mostly in a General American accent and lost my original accent 15 years ago. Most Eastern Cherokee who are not in broadcasting or VO have Southern Appalachian accents just like their white neighbors, and there isn't one kind of "Native American" language or accent. The assumptions and insinuations of terminology such as "ethnic" or "African-American voice" can be pretty dicey and even outright offensive---not to mention hard as hell to figure out, as Dave stated in the article. Also, remember that many groups of White Americans can easily fall under the "ethnic" category and stereotyped in much the same way.
Reuven Miller
4/1/2015 at 1:33 PM
Hi Dave!
"Ambiguous" is EXACTLY how I would describe this "direction" request!It Sounds like one of those, "I don't really know what I want, but I'll know it when I hear it" calls. Sometimes the product can clue you in, other times you're just flyin' on instruments (if you're lucky - flyin' blind if you aren't). Speaking of African-American voices, I recall an interview with Dave Fennoy, where he averred that he can spot an African-American voice every time, regardless of regional accent or level of elocution.
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