In The Mix

Reading with the Stars

A profusion of prominent actors are voicing audiobooks.

Michele Shapiro
  • Claire Danes

    Audible

When TV actors are on hiatus these days, many find themselves doing something novel.

Instead of filming a miniseries or starring on Broadway, more and more lend their voices to audiobooks, narrating classics or modern-day bestsellers.

"An audio project serves as a key career differentiator," says Lisa Hintelmann, head of talent and entertainment at Audible, whose 425,000 titles make it the largest audiobook retailer. "It's something distinctive to add to an artist's portfolio."

But that's not the only draw. "The production timelines are much shorter than those of a series or film shoot," she says. On average, a narrator spends two to six days recording, for no more than six hours per day. Another plus: no hair, makeup or costume concerns.

While the money isn't quite on par with TV and film work, Audible has lured the likes of Bryan Cranston, Michael C. Hall and Laverne Cox to narrate Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's and Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, respectively. Sometimes, the talent comes to Audible.

Case in point: Claire Danes. "Narrating The Odyssey was Claire's idea," Hintelmann says. "When she became aware that Emily Wilson had completed the first female translation of the book, her manager called us to say Claire wanted to do it."

Danes, who also performed Audible's special edition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in 2017, wasn't tripped up by the complexity of the classic Greek text. "We had allotted 10 days to record The Odyssey, but Claire nailed it in six!"

Like Danes, Cox was excited by the idea of introducing an older work to a new generation. First published in 1966, the novel Valley of the Dolls — about three women who climb to the top of the entertainment industry while battling their own personal demons (in the form of pills and alcohol) — sounds a lot like modern tabloid fodder.

Other recently released works from Audible include James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man performed by Colin Farrell and Curtis Sittenfield's Atomic Marriage, narrated by Diane Lane.

"For better or worse, its themes remain relevant today," Cox says. "The novel has so much: compelling characters, glamour, tragedy and camp." Cox, who's known for Orange Is the New Black, adds that while voicing the characters was a lot of fun, it proved challenging at times.

Hintelmann notes, "Following their first audio experience, some actors tell us that they didn't expect the process to be so challenging. But they also didn't realize how rewarding it would be." She attributes the success of audiobooks, at least in part, to the intimate experience they provide. "Our service allows actors to speak directly to their audience, one on one," she explains.

As demand rises — sales were up 22.7 percent year over year to $2.5 billion in 2017, according to the Audio Publishers Association — Audible has ramped up production on its so-called Star-Powered Listens, which are exclusive recordings from well-known narrators. In addition, Audible has teamed with Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine to produce Audible Originals that highlight strong female voices.

Traditional publishers have also ventured into the audio realm. Penguin Random House, for example, recently enlisted Nick Offerman, Liev Schreiber and others to narrate the late Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. As more actors choose to voice audiobooks, Hintelmann believes her job will become easier. "When actors hear others' performances, they want to try it out themselves," she says.

Still, a lot of thought goes into matching talent with content to elevate the listening experience. "Customers definitely try out books based on their interest in a particular narrator. And having the right actor can result in making an esoteric or dense book engaging and accessible — or making an amusing book downright hilarious."

No laugh track required.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2019