Setting the Stage for Balthier: A Conversation with Gideon Emery
|Gideon Emery hails from Windsor, Berkshire and studied theatre at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has acted extensively in South Africa, on stage, screen and radio, and received the National Vita Award for Comedy for his performance in the play Heel Against the Head. Today he is here to talk about his role in Final Fantasy XII as the sky pirate Balthier Bunansa.|
Born in Windsor, Berkshire, Gideon Emery brings to his craft a balance of hard-earned professionalism and casual British wit. An only child, he was raised in South Africa, and passed the time in childhood by imitating voices on the radio and TV. The hobby became the basis for a professional career, beginning when Gideon was accepted to Saint John's College, a private school for boys located in Johannesburg. After entering Witwatersrand, he was persuaded by a graduate student to audition for a professional theatre production, where he was discovered by the lauded stage actor Bill Flynn.
Signing with a top agent soon followed, setting in motion between his school studies a career performing radio and television voice-overs. Gideon acted extensively in South Africa, on stage, screen and radio. On television, he performed standup comedy and became a series regular on the sketch comedy show Not Quite Friday Night. For his role in the play Heel Against the Head, penned by the preeminent South African playwright Paul Slabolepszy, he received the National Vita Award, the regional equivalent of the Tonys.
Most recently, Gideon Emery rocked the gaming world by lending his voice to the role of Balthier Bunansa in Final Fantasy XII. Generally considered a stand-out performance, Gideon commented on the role in an interview with Square Insider, providing Balthier's hundreds of pages of dialog was "really rewarding... And I have to confess that I did develop a small crush on Fran." He is here with us today to discuss his experience lending his voice to Square Enix's newest installment in their flagship series of role-playing games.
Square Haven: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. We’re excited to learn more about you after your stellar performance in Final Fantasy XII.
Gideon Emery: Only a pleasure!
Haven: In interviews you've mentioned that growing up you took an interest in imitating voices on television and radio. Can you tell us a little about the hobby?
Gideon: Well, I was an only child, so often had to amuse myself. I remember I used to imitate Max from the 80s TV show “Hart to Hart” – a disturbingly deep voice from a pre-pubescent kid. I also did Chip n Dale, Robocop, Airwolf (the chopper – not Jan Michael Vincent), KITT from Knight Rider and all the voices from that charity fundraiser song “USA for Africa”. I was a weird kid, but it made me happy.
Haven: As a comedian, you've tackled stage, stand-up, and live sketch shows. Is there a particular comedic performance that you witnessed growing up that stands out in your memory?
Gideon: I grew up on the British comics, The Two Ronnies. They were hysterical. Great characters but also great wordplay. I also remember seeing Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” and thinking what a genius this was and appreciating just how far you could push things.
Haven: During your time studying at university you started working professionally. Was it difficult balancing a career with your academic responsibilities?
Gideon: I only did what I could squeeze in. My first pro audition was for a play, which ran over the December/January break, so I was lucky. And then I was fortunate to get into voice-overs during my final year, which I managed to schedule around my acting classes. As a result, I was able to graduate straight into a career, which was incredibly fortunate.
Haven: What was it like performing in Heel Against the Head?
Gideon: It was a great opportunity to work with two of South Africa’s theater greats. Paul Slabolepszy is one of the country’s biggest playwrights and was in the play with his longtime collaborator, Bill Flynn. Bill’s a comic genius. To work with these guys every night for a couple months was an acting masterclass. I was fortunate years later to act with Bill again in Death of a Salesman and got to watch his Willy Loman six days a week from onstage. A real treat.
Haven: You've spent much of your life on the African continent. Now you are living in Los Angeles. What are your feelings about making your home in LA?
Gideon: Well the weather’s very similar and the people are equally friendly to those in South Africa, which makes things easier. It’s tough starting over, especially when you don’t share a cultural identity. But I’m starting to feel at home here and can honestly say I enjoy life here now. In LA you really have to work exceptionally hard to get anywhere, but when you do, you really feel you’ve earned it. Which is rewarding.
Haven: When you were given the role of Balthier in Final Fantasy XII did you come equipped with much first-hand experience with videogames?
Gideon: I used to cycle every afternoon after school to go play Asteroids when I was small. I feel really old saying that. But as a big kid I’ve mainly been drawn to first person shooters, like the Delta Force series. I’ve also spent waaaay too many hours playing multiplayer online, so I’ve had my share.
Haven: Did you receive the impression right away that Final Fantasy XII was an exceptional project, in terms of the work involved in development and the rich history behind the series?
Gideon: Absolutely. The attention to detail is incredible. From the animation to the voice direction, it really suggested a different level of game to what I’d encountered before.
Haven: Can you tell us a little about the challenges involved in recording Balthier's 200-plus pages of dialog?
Gideon: Staying consistent throughout. We recorded in four hour sessions which isn’t long for a theater rehearsal or on-camera session, but in a little booth it can take its toll. It’s easy to drift away from the character if you go on too long. That’s why you need good direction and in Final Fantasy XII we absolutely had that.
Haven: You brought humor and charm to Balthier Bunansa. He's also hard as nails. How much would you say Gideon Emery resembles the character of Balthier?
Gideon: If you’d seen me at university, I was wearing Balthier’s wardrobe. I don’t have the earring or the billowy white shirt anymore, but I do think I have a good sense of humor. I do have to say that it would be difficult to maintain a professional relationship with Fran. I’d have a secret crush on her, be too shy to act on it and be nervous around her. She’d think I’m creepy and find some other sky pirate to bond with, and I’d be devastated. Otherwise, we’re pretty similar.
Haven: Was there anything in particular about the story or characters of Final Fantasy XII that you found remarkable?
Gideon: The fact that they’re layered. There’s a sense of history. Balthier’s got father issues, but beyond that, there is a real sense of weight. These are characters you can empathise with. And if you care about them, you’re gonna invest more in their stories. That makes them way more interesting to voice and, hopefully, to watch as well.
Haven: The medium of interactive entertainment is changing dramatically as it matures. It really seems that the sky is the limit as far as the potential range of experiences open to game players. Where would you like to see videogames go in the coming years?
Gideon: I think it would be interesting to inject one’s own character into the game. You could upload facial images and the software maps that onto the character. Naturally, you’d want to acquire cool weapons and skills along the way. Or if the game had room for the player to inject some of their own creativity, not just in role playing but actual design. It’s certainly begun. I’m keen to see where that aspect grows.
Haven: Finally, what would you like most to accomplish in your work as an actor?
Gideon: I want to be challenged by the role. I want to do good work and learn something along the way. I’ve got plenty still to learn and that excites me.
Haven: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, Gideon Emery. We look forward to enjoying more of your work in movies and games to come.
Gideon: Hey – thank you! Any time. People like you are the reason people like me can pay the rent. Here’s to a great 2007!
Interview conducted by jeriaska. To learn more about Gideon Emery, visit gideonemery.com