Courtnee Draper has been acting professionally since childhood, so it is no wonder she was chosen by Ken Levine and Irrational Games to play one of the most intriguing and iconic video game characters of this generation, the “Lamb of Columbia,” Elizabeth Comstock. Courtnee’s lilting, mellifluous voice lent a quality to the dimension-hopping Elizabeth that is hard to quantify: at times, childlike and full of wonder and at other times, somber and distraught. It is a masterful performance, second only to Jennifer Hale’s turn as the female Commander Shepard (“FemShep”) in the Mass Effect series of games.
Put simply, Elizabeth/Courtnee is the heart and soul of the complex masterpiece that is Bioshock Infinite.
The lovely Ms. Draper was kind enough to take a break from her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about Bioshock Infinite, her performance and her life in general.
Jerry Bonner: What, to you, was the coolest and/or most interesting thing about playing Elizabeth?
Courtnee Draper: The coolest thing for me was—I don’t know—it’s hard to narrow it down to just one thing. I really liked being exposed to a completely different medium and the learning curve in doing a game was very sharp. I wasn’t very familiar with the current video games, so learning all of that in the last two and half years has been really amazing.
The creativity and the intellect that goes into making games is mind boggling. It’s really nice to be in that world now and have such and understanding and appreciation that I didn’t have before, so that was really cool. And, of course, working with Ken (Levine, Irrational Games Creative Director) is dream come true. I mean, he’s amazing. He really, really is a genius and the things he was trying to do and accomplish. I was just very impressed with his dedication to that. Even in the face of people questioning him or saying, “You’re crazy; that’s not going to work!” he still persevered, and I think anytime you get a chance to work with someone like that, whether you are in an artistic field or not, I think it’s amazing to work with someone like that. Especially in such a collaborative way like we did with Bioshock Infinite.
So, I think those are the most interesting things I took away from being Elizabeth. And now that that the game is out, seeing the fan reaction and hearing that all the things we were trying to do with this game really resonating with them (the fans) and the critics, and the industry as a whole, is really just phenomenal . You really can’t ask for anything more than that!
JB: How hands on was Ken (Levine) during the recording of the dialogue?
CD: He was always there, which I think is pretty typical for a director, producer or writer to be guiding the performance and the recordings. He was more hands on in the fact that he was always there in the room with us, which is very unique because a lot of times you’re in a recording studio and you’re talking to someone across the world on Skype giving direction. I just did something where they (the producers) were Skyping in from Poland! Ken was right there in the room with us giving direction. So, he was hands on in that aspect but not in a dictatorial way. I mean, Ken really wanted it to be a collaborative process and really, really encouraged us to work together that way.
75% to 80% of the recordings were Troy (Baker, who played Booker DeWitt) and me flying to Boston and working with Ken in the same room. The remainder of the recordings were pick-ups of things that were done from L.A. and then Ken was Skyping in with us. So, one way or another, he was a presence at all times.
JB: How much interaction did you have with Troy Baker during the recording of the dialogue?
CD: We were together all of the time. Troy and I would usually fly on the same flight to Boston. We’d stay, not the same hotel room (laughs)…but at the same hotel. We’d have breakfast together and we’d ride in a cab to the recording studio, and then we’d record all day, and then us and some people would go out to dinner afterwards. Troy and I were kind of attached at the hip throughout our trips to Boston and our recordings in L.A. as well. So, I had a lot of interaction with him and I completely owe a huge part of my landing the role of Elizabeth to Troy because he really spent hours with me, educating me on the gaming industry, the technical aspects of voice over in a game and what he thought about Bioshock and why it was different and what it was trying to accomplish. He really was a mentor to me throughout the last couple of years. I’m very grateful to him for all he has done for me.
JB: Most times, you see a voice over artist isolated, working alone in a booth and that’s why I was curious if you and Troy had a good deal of interaction because, I thought, it certainly showed through in your performances.
CD: Yeah, I think you’re right on point about that. Usually, you don’t have anyone to interact with. Occasionally, you do group recordings where you are in a room recording with other people but, you’re right, most sessions you are alone. But being with Troy so much, I think that’s why so many of those narrative scenes you feel that connection between Booker and Elizabeth because Troy and I were in the same room, feeding off of each other. I think it’s very important to get that connection verses me recording it separately and him recording it separately.
JB: Many female gamers thought, or desperately wanted, Elizabeth to be a playable character. Do you think that’s something that could have worked or should have been attempted? Why or why not?
CD: I think that it is so not my place to second guess the team at Irrational and Ken. I think that what they did (with Elizabeth as an AI companion/helper) had never been done before. I mean, if you had Elizabeth as a playable character, it wouldn’t have been as groundbreaking. A companion character like Elizabeth is rare, someone that helps you but doesn’t get in your way and she’s not nagging you, and you have the narrative and this connection, I really think that was done on a level that had never been done in the gaming industry before.
All of that groundbreaking stuff wouldn’t have happened if she was a playable character, so I think that the way that she worked and everything that went into her from a technological standpoint, it’s waaay more bad ass that she was this AI that was a companion character. From a narrative standpoint, it was cooler the way that she worked and was built.
I don’t know—could she have worked as a playable character? I’m sure she could have, but I think she’s awesome the way that she is.
JB: What do you think about playing an important role, not just in the Bioshock universe, but as a representative for women in games?
CD: It’s amazing. I am all about, and this a 1990’s throwback, I’m all about Girl Power! I love that women look to me as a positive role model in the gaming industry. I think it sucks that in this industry if you’re a girl gamer people immediately think that if you are wearing a Bioshock Infinite t-shirt it must be your boyfriend’s. Whatever. Girls in gaming are just as passionate, just as enthusiastic and just as skilled as the men are.
So, I think getting that attention and being a positive role model is phenomenal and it touches me that women in this industry look at me that way because, well, that’s a pretty damn cool thing to be!
JB: What are your thoughts on some of Columbia’s seedier elements or tougher issues (i.e. racism, religious autocracy, etc.)? Do you think those issues are something a video game can effectively address?
CD: Definitely. The fact that you’re even asking me this question gives credence to the fact that those elements in the game are effectively hitting home with the audience and the players. The fact that you are even able to recognize that and talk about that, it creates a dialogue I think that shows it is serving its purpose.
I don’t know what Ken’s particular vision was there, so I don’t want to speak for him but, for me, I think the effectiveness is to create a dialogue about those issues which it is certainly doing. Racism is still a part of our society, unfortunately, and while we may no longer have slavery in this country, other types of racism do exist. And globally, that problem exists in the real world, in everyday life, and it’s up to us, in the real world, to try and alleviate that problem as best we can.
Jerry Bonner: The section where Elizabeth sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was, for me, the emotional highlight of the game. The song obviously has a deeper meaning to the overall narrative, as well. How much of that were you aware of when you were singing the song? Or were you just told, “Hey, sing this old hymn” and that was it?
Courtnee Draper: First of all, I want to say thank you because that means a lot what you just said!
Ken told me that he wanted to give me the opportunity to sing because he knew I sang. At that point we were pretty deep in the recording, so I knew the narrative and the overall gist of what he was going for. Maybe not all the details or exactly where the storyline was, but I knew the world of Columbia and I definitely understood the emotional sentiment that Ken wanted to covey and why he wanted me to sing that song in particular.
For me personally, my grandfather had dementia and was in a nursing home, dying. So, I was flying back and forth between Boston, Colorado and Los Angeles; Colorado being where my grandfather was. And so, when we recorded that song…Ken always had this knack of knowing when I was emotionally fucked up and that would be the day he would give me all the emotional scenes, just by happenstance. So, I literally flew from saying goodbye to my grandfather a couple days before he passed away back to Boston and I walk in and Ken hands me that song. I was an emotional wreck…so when you hear that recording, I was literally bawling and crying through that song. Ken said he wanted me to give him all the emotion I could, so I did. And these weren’t attractive tears…I mean, there was snot coming out of my nose, the whole deal. It was pretty sexy, let me tell you! So, it means a lot to me when people say things about that song like you said because, as an actor, I really put it all out there.
JB: What did you have to do mentally to prepare yourself to voice the alternate/older, 1983 Elizabeth; where she has fully accepted her role as the “Lamb of Columbia” and is laying waste to New York City?
CD: Oh, yeah! That was really fun because I had never done a voice that old before. Originally, she was called “Nanny.” Ken would give us these little dollops of information; I called them “secrets” and every time we would go to recording, I would say, “Give me a secret! Give me a secret!” So, he would give me one secret per recording. I remember before we recorded that sequence one of the secrets Ken gave me was, “OK, check this out: there’s going to be this character called Nanny…” And he proceeded to tell me about this alternate dimension where Elizabeth subsumes Comstock’s role and my mind was blown! I just thought that was the coolest thing.
Honestly, I was more excited by the opportunity do this voice more than anything. We did that at the end of a day and we recorded two versions of Nanny. I literally had been screaming and crying all day, so my voice was very tired and basically shot. So, by the time we went to do Nanny I was already kind of in the register that I needed to be in vocally to get across that kind of hopeless, cracked and aged quality to the voice…and that’s the one they went with. So, I guess my preparation was just a lot of screaming beforehand! (Laughs)
JB: What are your overall thoughts on Bioshock Infinite as a whole? In particular, focus on how the story ends and Elizabeth’s role in that ending.
CD: I love stuff like that. I mean, it’s very cerebral and philosophical and you really have to pay attention; like the ending of the movie “Inception.” For days after seeing that, I would go back through the entire movie and try to figure out which way it went. Does the little top at the end keep spinning or does it fall over? I feel like the Bioshock Infinite ending is one of those things where I don’t think it’s just a cool twist; I think it’s like you can’t see it coming from a mile away. Even working on it, I had NO idea…and I still try to explain it to people and still can’t adequately do it justice. It’s crazy to try and wrap your mind around it!
And I think Elizabeth’s role in that ending, you know, you see her go from this very naïve, innocent creature who’s been locked in this tower who can see the best in everyone. And then, after she gets tortured, you see her really change. After she sees bloodshed, she becomes a little hardened. My favorite part of the ending is that Elizabeth isn’t just making sure that Comstock never comes into being; she’s choosing to sacrifice herself because if Comstock never comes into being…she also never comes into being. That character arc for her…to go from naïve and innocent to really hardened to this place where she can still see the good in the world and still see what’s necessary and choose to sacrifice herself to save Columbia. I think that from a character standpoint, that goodness in her, that humanity in her that still exists at the end of the game is really beautiful.
JB: Was there anything you thought was cool and/or interesting that you recorded during earlier incarnations of the story that didn't make it into the final cut of the game?
CD: I know that when I played the game myself there were some things that were different or changed from when I originally saw them…but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I don’t think there were any major story points or powers that didn’t make it in. A lot of things were tested and re-worked and there were different versions of many, many concepts. Any things that did get cut out probably were little nuance-y things and anything major wouldn’t have made the cut early on.
JB: Ken and Irrational Games have mentioned there’s more to come for Bioshock Infinite in terms of Downloadable Content. Can you give us any hints as to what may be covered, or what may happen, in this DLC?
CD: Honestly, I know as much as you do. I know that there is going to be some DLC’s that come out, but I honestly don’t know when we’re going to record it, let alone the actual content! I’m sure they are starting to get back into it now…but I haven’t heard anything yet. So, you’re guess is as good as mine!
JB: You’ve also done voice over work for the Kingdom Hearts series of games. Are you looking to do more video game work or would you prefer more on-camera roles?
CD: I said before that I thought acting wasn’t for me, which somehow got on my Wikipedia page and I regret saying that. After doing Bioshock Infinite, I am definitely interested in pursuing acting once again, and I already recorded voice over work for two more games in the last couple of months. It’s great…work is coming in and I’m excited to be doing it! I love, love, love doing voice over work, and I really love working in games. So, I’m open to anything that comes my way.
JB: Are you much of a gamer yourself? If so, what is your favorite game of all time?
CD: I wouldn’t say that I am a huge video gamer. When I was little, I loved Nintendo. That’s all that I played. The problem is that I didn’t keep up with the latest and greatest consoles that came out. A couple years ago, I got a Wii and after that I got an Xbox, so I played Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Arkham City. On the Wii, I played Super Mario Galaxy…but my favorite game of all time is Super Mario Brothers 3. Maybe it’s nostalgia but that’s just a really rad game to play. It’s really fun and you get the little raccoon tail and you bop around the different worlds. That’s still my go to game when I want to play!
JB: You are an actress but also a law student at UCLA, which is an interesting hybrid for many reasons. What drew you to the law…or, more pointedly, why do you want to become a lawyer?
CD: When I was little I always was interested in the law. When I was 10-years-old the OJ Simpson thing went down and I was glued to the television watching it all. I’ve just always been fascinated with criminal law in particular. In college, I did speech and debate, which was all arguing and crafting arguments and logic and philosophy, which ties directly into the law. I don’t know…it’s just always been something I’ve been into. I don’t have any regrets about it at all. I love law school; it’s really intellectually challenging and I missed that when I wasn’t in school. I really just needed to immerse myself back in that world for a while.
JB: From your Twitter feed, I saw that you changed your hair rather drastically a couple weeks ago. Was there any reason for that or was it just a “Fuck it, I’m doing it!” kind of thing?
CD: Yeah, I always kind of thought about going blonde and doing my hair really short. I had been really sick for a couple of weeks…and when I came out of that, I guess I was a bit manic and I went a little crazy! But, sometimes I look at my hair and now, in retrospect, I realize, “Wow, my hair was really long…why did I do that?!” My guy friends think I’m crazy that I chopped off all my hair but women that I’m friends with, and complete strangers as well, complement me all the time on it, so I kind of feel like you either love it or you hate it. But I love it…so that’s the most important thing! Some people are really attached to their hair and to me, it’s just hair. Fuck it…go balls to the wall and just do something different! I like to have fun with my style and, I don’t know, it was just something fun for me.
JB: So, what’s up next for you?
CD: I need to finish my finals (laughs), and I’m excited for that. I’ll be working at firm this summer, which is cool. I’m also still doing acting; I’m doing voice overs and still doing video game work. I’ve been talking to various representatives about getting back into on-camera work. I’m just putting my feelers out there and just doing what I can. It’s hard to be trying to get though school and doing the acting thing, but I’m doing as much as I can and trying to make as much time as I can to fit everything in!
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I just finished Bioshock Infinite yesterday, such an amazing game, Elizabeth and the Lutece were truly the highlights for me!