Tony-nominated actor David Pittu describes the making of the Performance Anomalies audiobook
Pittu, who won the 2014 Best Male Solo Performance Audie award for his reading of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, spoke with Perimeter Six about immortalizing Performance Anomalies for the listening stage.
"I kept James Bond and Javier Bardem floating around in my head."
P6: We know the protagonist of Performance Anomalies, Cono, comes from a diverse background - born in Brazil with mixed heritage: Chinese, Russian, Italian- orphaned at an early age and surviving on the streets; how did you go about creating his voice? Did you think it through, or act, as Cono would, instinctively?
DP: I always try to give myself a prototype. I think of a real-life person or another actor who may remind me of the character.
For Cono, I kept James Bond and Javier Bardem floating around in my head. I don't expect the listener to hear them, they're just there in my head as anchors whenever I have to go back to Cono from the narrator or another character. You always want to be faithful to the character, sound true to how he's described. You have to be realistic since he's the main character, the one we'll hear from the most in terms of dialogue and inner thoughts. So you can't get too "interesting" with it. You want to work for clarity and economy.
Shoot for an ease of production in terms of accent, tone--never so unusual that it makes it too strained an experience to sustain over several days of recording or more importantly, for the listener to want to stay with. The listener is taking in a lot--what the character says but also the prose descriptions of his actions and thoughts. You can't think in terms of trying to vocally represent all the aspects of Cono's background and experience. Cono is a child of the world, who probably learned English over time from different people with different accents. He shouldn't sound specifically from any one place. Plus he's a spy and has to be cool and all that. Someone you want to spend time with and listen to, trust.
"He's a fantastic spy stud with a super-cool and touching way of registering movement and he has a good heart."
P6: There are many different players in the novel with a multitude of accents ranging from Chinese to Kazakh and Russian, as well as mathematical nerd and Stanford professor, and they are all so convincing in the audiobook. Without divulging too much of your tradecraft, how do you do it? Has it taken years, or did this ability simply land within you?
DP: Well, you have to have an ear, that's for sure. I'm not sure where that comes from. Since childhood I've always had an instinct for imitation, doing voices. When a book requires a lot of different character voices, you have to put together a little orchestra in your head.
You make a map within your own vocal range, which often decides the feel of each character.
Sometimes the best way to approach a multiplicity of characters is to stereotype them in a broad-stroke way vis a vis the registers of your voice.
So you think, “Okay, I'll put this character in this register and this character down here in this part of my voice, and this character will be very nasal sounding, etc.” You have to be able to mentally mark vocal aspects so you can go back and forth between them, like a system for yourself. For example, if I'm voicing a mathematical nerd I would most likely put his voice in a headier, higher register, especially since he has dialog with Cono, who, as the sort of rugged hero of the book should sound masculine, mysterious, world-weary. And you have to consider how character voices relate to the narrator voice you use. Always best to think in terms of contrast--deep voice/high voice, loud/quiet--if there are two characters who speak together a lot, choosing one voice can depend on how it contrasts with the voice for the other character. You never want the listener to be confused about who's speaking.
P6: Cono is a unique spy hero in so far as he is often conflicted between using his strange talents for nefarious ends and protecting those he loves. Are there any aspects of Cono's character you can relate to? Or that repulsed you?
DP: Repulsed? Not at all. He's a fantastic spy stud with a super-cool and touching way of registering movement and he has a good heart. He has a haunted, tortured, sensitive side and also gets the job done. What's not to love?
I could relate to his sensitive side, the side that is haunted by memories, the way he is transfixed by images from his past. In this regard he seemed like an actor to me, who calls up emotional memories. He has to sift through a lot of stuff.
P6: There are many strong female characters throughout the novel (whose accents, again, you amazingly nailed) and in fact Cono often thinks of his mother and grandmother, and their memories guide him. Did this introduce a softness to the espionage hero that you had to counteract somehow?
DP: No, I think that softness is one of the interesting things about him that keeps him from being a cliche. His inner life makes him more than just an alpha male spy machine and a more complex, satisfying literary character. Cono is deep for sure.
"I felt like I was in on something very real and dangerous."
P6: Your Russian accents, in particular-- wow. Are you really Russian after all, like those deep-cover agents sent by Moscow?
DP: Thank you! No, I am not Russian, but my ancestry is Eastern European--Romanian, Albanian, Greek--so my ear was pretty attuned since childhood to the slanted vowel sounds and deliberate, sometimes foreboding delivery of grandparents and other relatives for whom English was not a first language. It's a fun accent to play with the heaviness of, depending on the character. And I've always enjoyed Russian spy novels and movies with international casts and cold war intrigue.
P6: Leaving Cono aside, which character from Performance Anomalies did you most enjoy bringing to life and why?
DP: Hard to say. Lots of great characters in tense, loaded situations. I loved Katerina the Russian female agent. She's a tough, conflicted, broken-hearted survivor in a man's world, damaged like the women of film noir.
P6: Is there anything else you would like to say about birthing Performance Anomalies for the listening world?
DP: I must say aside from the book’s value in terms of sheer entertainment—great characters, drama, sex, mystery, conflict, etc—it felt eerily timely to be reading it at this moment in time, with all the intelligence news about Russian involvement in our American election, and the prospect even as we speak of finding out more and more about secret connections between Russia and whomever else.
The machinations of covert dealings and foul play in the book’s story play out in a way that feels accurate and true to how one could imagine things playing out in international shadows these days. Like there are all these secret souls around the globe who keep everything running behind a façade of something more legitimate. I felt like I was in on something very real and dangerous.
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