Talking with Rupert Degas
In June 2022, Rupert Degas was inducted as a Golden Voice, AudioFile's lifetime achievement honor for audiobook narrators.
How did you get started with narrating?
If one can have an advocate or mentor in the world of audiobooks, mine would be the late, great, and much-missed Bill Dufris. After directing me in some children’s stories for the BBC, he cast me as Pantalaimon in the multi-cast production of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, which Bill co-directed with Garrick Hagon. Then, as part of The Story Circle, Bill and Garrick took a chance on me with single-voice titles, culminating in an Audie Award for IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW—my fourth title for The Story Circle. Garrick then very kindly introduced me to Nicolas Soames at Naxos Audiobooks, one thing led to another, and the rest, as they say, is history!
How has your approach to narrating changed over your career?
Well, any changes in approach probably come down to experience and confidence. I wouldn’t say my approach to narrating has changed much at all. I’ve always tried to offer a “full cast” experience, and the older I’ve become, the larger the vault of character voices I have to choose from. But my approach to preparation definitely has changed. When I started narrating audiobooks, I used to read the books first and make notes. Nowadays, thanks in large part to the internet, I can do as much or as little research as I feel is necessary without actually reading the book. I’ve also found that most authors (the ones who are alive anyway) are more than happy to supply me with a character crib sheet. Armed with that, I rely on my instincts and intuition to connect the dots, diving in on the first page and seeing where the story goes. If the listener doesn’t know the ending, then I don’t want to either!
What is the most interesting piece of research you’ve done for an audiobook?
My research usually consists of scouring the internet for any clues that will help me build a picture of what the book is about, who the author is, and what the characters could potentially sound like. I also read reviews if any are available. Then with this partly formed jigsaw, I start recording. By contrast, back in 2006, when Naxos asked me to narrate THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE by Haruki Murakami, I took myself off to Paris, installed myself in a cheap hotel for a week, and as the hustle of Parisian life bustled around me, I read the book from beginning to end, drinking carafes of cheap wine and puffing on endless roll-up cigarettes. The experience was so existential that back in London, when it came to recording the chapter in which Lieutenant Mamiya is stuck down the well, I fired up the studio after dark, grabbed a bottle of single malt and some durries, and hit the red button on ProTools! Was this “research” worth it? I’ll let you be the judge! What helps you achieve an emotional connection to a book and the characters? The writing! I’ve been fortunate enough to have narrated some wonderfully written books, and when the story is engaging and the characters are fleshed out, it makes my job a lot easier and far more rewarding. The other ingredient in eliciting an emotional response is of course one’s own personal connections to the setting, the era, the subject matter, or indeed a “familiar” character. And as an actor, one has to use those feelings in order to make it real. I have, on more than one occasion, found myself with a lump in my throat, or even tearing up— and that’s magic. I tend to get lost in stories, and for a short while the personalities and the world they inhabit exist for me. It’s like having my own movie or TV series in my mind. My hope is that those emotional connections come across in the telling.
"The witching hour" at Q Sound studio in London is the time when Rupert Degas conjures up some of the fascinating character portraits he brings to his audiobooks. It started with a septuagenarian on his deathbed, Lieutenant Mamiya from Haruki Murakami's THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE . Late-night recording was when Rupert thought he could best get into the character role. Photos of Rupert recording show how animated he still is at that hour. "I physicalize myself. I don't hold the book."
Listeners know Rupert for his recent SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT recordings. Skulduggery is the ultimate undead—he's a skeleton, and a detective. And there are the nasty creatures from authors Darren Shan and Jamie Rix—audiobooks that haven't made it across the pond yet. And Philip Pullman fans know Rupert's brilliant role as a more benign "daemon," the beloved Pantalaimon, soulspirit companion to Lyra in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.
"I do accents. It's my specialty," Rupert told us on a recent trip to Los Angeles from his native London. "When you have to rely on just your voice, instead of a wig or a false nose, to get your character across, I want to use my voice. I want the listener to believe they are hearing a cast of 20." Rupert's youthful voice and top-notch American, Irish, and Australian accents are a great draw for the British audiobook producers. Rupert and Derek Landy worked on the two Skulduggery books in close collaboration. Going over each character, placing them in context and social status, Rupert would try a voice until Landy said, "Yes, that's it!" Rupert said, "As soon as I find the voice with the author, or in my head when I'm reading, I write down my 'hook.'" Rupert's hook for the voice has to be based on a real person—James Mason, the Emperor from Star Wars, an Irish celebrity, or George Clooney plus a Formula One race-car driver. "It's not an imitation, but it gives me an image for my mind's eye that helps me to establish the voice, and to bring the character back exactly the same later in the story."
Nicolas Soames, the creative light behind Naxos AudioBooks and publisher of the Murakami audiobooks, notes that Rupert created "an extraordinarily virtuosic performance" of THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE. "It's the toughest challenge for any reader. Rupert had to be the narrator and a long cast of rather odd people that need to be sustained over considerable spans." Rupert meets the complexities of Murakami's work in six novels, including DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, celebrated with an AUDIOFILE Earphones Award. His ability to balance the energy of such a range of characters with the subtlety of understanding is a winning combination—Robin F. Whitten
Photo courtesy of narrator
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