On the Dale
Actor Jim Dale speaks to The Leaky Cauldron
Interview by Melissa Anelli/TLC
Even with 36 movies on his bio and a reputation for quickly-spun comedy that has fueled his lengthy career, Jim Dale admits that voicing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was no mean (or lean) feat. Over 130 characters in the book had speaking roles (and at a rough count, 80 of those were new); Dale often found himself speeding through large sections of until late in the night before a taping, creating vocal personalities as quickly as he turned the page. Yet Dale speaks of his Potter experience fondly, as The Leaky Cauldron was happy to discover. At a cocktail party to promote "Stiff Upper Lip," a new theater group that exists to import offbeat British fare to New York, TLC was able to grab a short sit-down with the genial actor to discuss his career, film, children's literature and, of course, what it means to be the voice of Harry Potter
The Leaky Cauldron: Can you tell me about "Stiff Upper Lip"?
Jim Dale: There's a theater here in New York called the Greenwich Street Theater, and they've decided to call themselves the Stiff Upper Lip. What it is, is a group of English actors who now live here in New York and what they're doing is bringing over or encouraging other people to bring over what they call fringe theater, which is theater that doesn't get into the mainstream. It's not on Broadway, but these are plays that should be seen; to put it in a nutshell, plays can be funny, they can be serious, they can be romantic, they can be surrealistic, they can be science fiction, they can be horror - and some of these plays have all those elements in them, so they're off the wall, some of these plays, but they deserve to be seen. So this group is going to encourage fringe theater to come to New York from England, and they'll supply half the actors. They also are just going to bring over a play that is fringe theater from England and it will bed done in this little theater with actors who are British, who live in New York.
TLC: What did you think of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?
JD: I have no opinion of the book because I'm too busy doing the voices. When you read 100 pages the first night and then record them the next day you're so focused on 'There's the description, there's the voice, let's focus on what that voice is, find something tonight, I've go to read 100 pages again and find the voices ready for tomorrow in the studio.' So I'm not there to analyze what the story's about. I'm really there to contribute the voices. So the next day, when we get in the studio, then I'm really reading it for literally the first time. Before we record it, I can have a quick glance down that page and then go back and start to record it, so when you have to put together as we did 134 voices, I can't really say that I sit down as you do and read it from cover to cover, analyzing what's being said and all that. I have too many other things on my mind. Even when I'm recording it I'm being told, "Can we stop there, there's a piece that you did half an hour ago that was a mistake, they're bringing it back in." So it kills the concentration, it kills the continuity.
We have 10,000 edits, for instance. Now, you never have to stop and start 10,000 times when you're reading a book. I do. So you can understand that I can't focus on reading it the way you can. I don't know until I read it again. But I got the general impression while I was doing it was that it was the best book that she's written so far, and that it's deeper than the other, and that I was speaking lines Harry had never spoken before. Angry lines, he was fed up with people, like a young teenager. He was angry and aggressive and sulky. I realized that he is growing up. Instead of a cardboard character [J.K. Rowling is] creating somebody who is growing up as the years go by.
TLC: What causes a typical edit?
JD: Thousands of things make you stop the tape. You sit down, they say, "Sorry Jim, can we start again? You moved your head to the left." (You have to stay exactly still.) So now they pick it up again, I reach the end of the page, and have to turn the page - so we have to stop because you hear the sound of the page being turned. Next time round I fluff a word, so we have to stop and take it from the beginning of the sentence again. I finish that, a new character comes in [and] I've forgotten what their voice is. I have no idea until I listen to my private tape of that voice; I record each voice as I think of it. "Page 27," you know, halfway down, "Mr. Nerdley," and then I speak Mr. Nerdley's first line of dialogue and then I record it on the tape so that when I play it back I get an idea of how Mr. Nerdley (that's just a fictitious name, by the way) sounds, so I stop the tape to get some idea of that. Next comes a word that we're not quite certain how to pronounce. We don't have J.K. Rowling to tell us how to pronounce it - it's one of her words. So I look at it and realize that it can be said over six different ways, so we record it six different ways, stopping every time. Now add all that up over 800 pages or more, however many page there are, and that's however number of edits, plus the fact we have to keep changing tapes, plus the fact you have to stop for tea and you have to stop for other things. People come in and interrupt, there's a fly suddenly in the studio, you can hear it buzzing. It doesn't mean you made 10,000 mistakes, that's not what an edit is, an edit has to be done to correct something that was probably nobody's fault but it had to be corrected.
TLC: When you don't know how to pronounce something, how do you decide which pronunciation goes in?
JD: I think phonetically, they get the sound of the word from J.K. Rowling eventually. An email comes from London with the word phonetically spelled out, so they say, "Oh, that was Jim's third attempt."
TLC: You obviously create the characters very quickly.
JD: Yeah, I have to.
JD: What can you say, that's why they hired me. I've been in the business a long, long time and you have to come up with instant things sometimes. In the early days of the first book I was able to invent a voice and maybe a second voice and a third voice and could say, "Oh, I'll go along with the third voice I thought of for this character." Now, I have no time to do that. I really have to read the description of what the character is, read a description of how he speaks - "he came into the room with a high pitched sound" - I have to take that into consideration, and then, it's the first voice I come up with. I have to say, "Okay, I have no time to, who can I ask? It's just me and it's now one o clock in the morning, I've got nobody to say that's wrong." And nobody say, "That's wrong," because no voice is wrong. It can always be slightly changed to make it better, but no voice is ever wrong. So usually the first voice I came up with is the one we stuck with.
TLC: Can you break down the actual creation of a voice?
JD: After 134 voices, it's just off the wall as far as I'm concerned. I've never recorded that many before, and so eventually, "Where do you get a voice from?" I ask myself. Many different places, I think, back in the old days of English radio where they used to have people with very distinctive voices because that was the attraction that you had for them, that you turn on the radio and there's a funny guy there. It was sound and they had to have something very distinctive that you could identify with. So I brought to life again a few of the old time comics from England - not necessarily did an impression of them but used their voice to play the words of the character. And it was easy to understand, so when it came to that voice, I would just say Terry Scott. And the name Terry Scott reminded me that I'd chosen that comedian and his voice to give me the voice of that character. Terry Scott, by the way, is the voice of Peeves. Terry Scott was a wonderful comedian and I worked with him in a couple of films but he used to do an act where he was a little 12-year-old boy and that's how he spoke, that's how he talked, like that. So that's how certain voices come to you. The memory of what other people used to sound like.
TLC: Do you automatically retain the voices of people you meet?
JD: No, not really. I'm not very good at American accents, I can't retain obscure American accents. English, you know, I've lived in England all my life, or in the British Isles, so in the book I decided to not just use English voices but Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Through being a touring actor I've been to all these cities and lived in all of these small towns for a period of time while I was working the theater. I heard all these people speaking that accent, or that accent, or that accent, and they're all so different. And the joy of these for the children as far as I'm concerned is to hear the character speaking in an English accent and an English dialect. The way that J.K. Rowling would want them to hear it. When they listen to it they put an American voice to the character because they don't know the English accent, so when you listen to the books that's an added plus. You're listening not only to a description of the person but you're listening to the voice that that person uses. It helps you put together a wonderful image of that character, what he looks like and especially what he sounds like.
TLC: Has there ever been a part of the recording you wish you could go back and change?
JD: Every sentence. Of course, because when you rehearse a play the first time you read the play and open your mouth and speak those lines, it's not the way you're going to be doing it on the opening night, and the way you're doing it on opening night is not the way you're going to be doing it three months into the production. So an actor is always correcting and polishing and adding to - these are called moments, you create a part from moments, and every part gets bigger and bigger. The director suggests this and you suggest something, and it all adds up to more and more moments. So to get back to your question, when you read the book for the first time and speak it, then obviously if you had been given a chance to read it five or six times aloud, then you'd put more emphasis there, or pull back here, or have been angrier - and I'm like that. I'm so bad at this that I've never listened to a Harry Potter book, I've never heard it, because I would be too critical. I can't bear to listen to myself making the endless mistakes that I think I'm making. Other people don't seem to notice at all. They're too miniscule for other people to even realize they're mistakes, but to me and to fellow actors, we all go through that phase. Thank God, because the person who says, "Aren't I great?" and they show their films at home every night to all of their friends like in the old days in California - you never get anywhere like that.
TLC: Has there been any talk of putting you in one of the films?
TLC: Would you like to be in it?
JD: Of course.
TLC: Is there a particular character you would enjoy playing?
JD: Anything that came along. You can't pick and choose when you're in the film industry. They've already made up their minds.
TLC: Who is your favorite character?
JD: I haven't one, I love them all.
TLC: You've done work with Disney - how do you feel J.K. Rowling's and Disney's treatment of children differ?
JD: Look at life, life's a lot harder these days. Just look around, children are being indoctrinated with things that we never even heard of when we were kids. And they're watching things on television and films that we would have shocked our parents. They're open to the whole the reality of the world which we weren't. We were cocooned from it, we were shown these Disney films, you know, Never Never Lands and all that sort of thing. Now the children are sitting up at night and watching reality shows, so you've go to, if you're writing for children, take that into account, and you've got to allow that child to read what is part of his life now, and not part of that make believe world when his father was a teenager.
TLC: Do you think you would have been frightened reading these books as a child?
JD: Frightened, no, I don't think so. Not me, but I think some children may have been. There were books in the old days that were a bit frightening for children as well but I don't think I would have been frightened by these stories and I don't think children today are frightened. They know - they are scared, that's different. You know, "Ooh, I like being scared." Children love being scared, that's why they go to the cinema and sit there screaming. They like being frightened because they know it's not real.
TLC: What about the books speaks to your sense of comedy?
JD: Oh, she's got a wonderful sense of humor. You can't help but laughing when you read some of the things that they get up to, and some of the descriptions are absolutely wonderful. She is, without a doubt in my mind, the cleverest writer I've ever read for children's books - that appeal to adults just as much as children, as you know. She's the very best there is, and she deserves every acclaim and every bit of success that comes her way. She deserves it, she's earned it. And she's proving that the more you get into this series, the more she's with it. These books are changing. They're changing, they're getting more serious and deeper, they'll get more romantic later on, probably - why not, that's what life's about. She's going with it, she just doesn't create these characters and lead them in a time warp. These are growing up kids, growing up year to year and the kids who are reading about them are experiencing the same growing up pains that kids are going to experience.
TLC: And it's so different than other children's fiction, where they're in high school for ten years or something.
JD: Billy Bunter in my day. There's a character called Billy Bunter, he'd been going to the same class in the seventh grade for 30 years. Thirty years, or something like that! Who needs to know that?
TLC: Yeah, you can't expect kids to believe that.
JD: Not anymore.
TLC: We have a reader who would like you to tell us about your memories doing Pete's Dragon.
JD: I just don't have many of them, it was a long time ago, it was 1975, I think, something like that, it was just wonderful working with so many beautiful old stars like Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters. It was just wonderful, doing all the choreography that was called upon. What was it like - so long ago, I can't remember, I can only remember if I really sit down for ht next two hours and try and bring back the memories, but they don't instantly flood back to me. It's a lot of work when you're making a film, every film is different. I've made 28 films, it's a lot of work.
TLC: Our readers also want to know if you remember all the voices you've done for these books.
JD: No, none at all. Of course not, because I invent them that quickly and tape them, and then that's forgotten. I'll press on, because I've got so much more work to do, so if you were to open book five or book four anywhere and say, "Can you read this page with the voices?" I would have a great deal of difficulty, because as I've said, I haven't listened to them at all, so I have forgotten what those voices are like. I have a computer with a program on it that has all the voices, the way Dumbledore sounded in book one two three and four, so I can click on and remind myself what the voices are. If you were to give me that page, I would click onto the computer, come up with that voice and be able to say yeah, this is what it sounds like. But offhand it's impossible. She's created over two hundred characters -
TLC: Who speak.
JD: Who speak. Or more. I'm just guessing 200. Perhaps the kids there can add up all the characters who speak in all five books, that's never been done.
TLC: Someone actually sent us a list of the fourth book and there were something like 124 -
JD: I think there were about 125. Something like that.
TLC: A reader wants to know how you were first approached to do the Harry Potter books?
JD: Well, somebody saw me in a play Off Broadway where the actors portrayed 33 characters and they said, "Well, Jim Dale's quite good with characters," and they hired me for the job, and it's only later they found out that the other two actors played 31 characters, and I only played two. It was called Travels with My Aunt. I played the nephew and the aunt. And that's how I got the job.
TLC: Do you ever find it hard to switch characters on a dime? How do you learn something like that?
JD: Don't ask me. I don't know, it's something that comes along with your training, I've been, as I said, playing male characters on stage and female characters. There's something the kids probably didn't know - Jim Dale has played Marlene Dietrich in tights and fishnet stockings. I've played Vera Lynn, the Forces sweetheart, with blonde wig, etc. I've played a prostitute in a doorway in one of the Carry On films, I played eight parts in one of the films and one of them was a prostitute in a doorway. You didn't see her doing anything, she just smiled at everybody and said a couple of words. I've played a number of female parts in my day. Also in Travels with My Aunt, I played the aunt, she was 84 years old. And so in a play like that where there's no costume and there's no makeup, four men dressed in a pin striped suit, the same hairstyle, the same mustache, and they all played the nephew at some time or another, just with a flick of your head you turn into the aunt. Just with a gesture. Now you look like the aunt, even though you're wearing a pin striped suit. The audience believes you're an 84 year old woman.
TLC: Does it ever surprise you how willing they are to go with you?
JD: No, because they're in the theater. These are people who regularly go the theater and they can look at that stage and they will see who you say you are, does that make sense? They will see who you say they are. If you say there's a 58 year old woman, they'll see one, even if it's a young boy who's walked on, they'll see it.
TLC: Can you talk a little bit about what it is to be the voice of these books to so many people?
JD: Fantastic. I cannot tell you how. When you realize that I was told my tapes might be around in 300 years time - it's fantastic to think that your actual voice is going to be listened to 300 years time. That's unbelievable, it never happened in the history of anything before. What will happen is, you see, if that occurs, then people will listen to the way English was spoke in the 20th century and the accents that will have disappeared by then.
TLC: Speaking of dialogue, there are some lines in the books where there's no character attribution; a number of our readers have asked how you decide who gets that line.
JD: Not many...[it's mostly] "Voices in the background said, 'da da da da da.' " I don't think there are many times when that happens. You know, somebody's talking to somebody, there are three of them together, one of them says something, so you take it that the next person who says it is responding to the first one, and now the third line has no name to it, so it's obviously the first person answering them again, and if it's not an answer, it implies it's the third person coming in. But if there were no names - I understand what you're saying, it's difficult to put a character voice to that name, so you have to make a quick decision. And that's the logical answer.
TLC: You just make your own decision and stick with it?
JD: That's right. You may be right, you may be wrong, but really, seriously, seriously, seriously, does it matter so much? The answer is no, of course it doesn't. This is when children get to be so picky picky about mistakes that are being made, and this gets - you can scrutinize something so much. You can put a magnifying glass on it so much. If I put a magnifying glass on your lovely face, and I start to track in so much I eventually lose your face completely. I keep tracking in, I don't know what I'm looking at anymore, so why am I doing it, you understand?
TLC: And in the case of the Harry Potter books there are many people who do that.
JD: That's right. Don't delve into it for every little word and nuance. Just enjoy it.