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Actor Michael Boatman discusses audiobook work, authorship
When you’re a publisher looking for an experienced actor to narrate the audiobook version of your latest title, your short list of names will likely include that of Michael Boatman. Raised in Chicago, Boatman is best known for his recurring roles on ABC’s “Spin City” and “China Beach” as well as guest-star gigs on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Scrubs,” “CSI: Miami,” “Hannah Montana,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds.” But he’s also one of the busiest performers of audiobooks, with recent titles including James McBride’s National Book Award-winning “The Good Lord Bird,” Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day” and “Long Walk to Freedom,” the autobiography of South African icon Nelson Mandela, who died Dec. 5. (A film version, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” is scheduled to open in Chicago on Christmas Day.)
Printers Row Journal caught up with Boatman, 49, for a phone interview from his home in New York. (Boatman is an author himself, with a new novel set in Chicago coming out in the spring.) Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How did you get into doing audiobooks?
A: In a strange way, it’s an extension of both of my first loves. But it never occurred to me as something to do until, one day, someone called and asked me to record a book by E. Lynn Harris. I was still on “Spin City” at the time, and my agent called and asked if I wanted to do what was then called a “book on tape.” And I said, “Oh.” For me at that time, books on tape were what my great-grandmother listened to — you know, a 75-year-old woman sitting in her lonely apartment listening to a book. But I said yes, because I love books, and I love reading. And it was right around that time that I had started writing myself, and I figured doing the books on tape would be a nice intersection of all my interests.
Q: What year was that?
A: Wow. It was around 1999, I think.
Q: And you’ve done quite a few audiobooks since then.
A: Three dozen or so. I just love it. The very first book I narrated — that E. Lynn Harris book — I remember thinking, “I couldn’t be happier.” The only way I could have been happier was if I’d be recording it in a library! (Laughs.) I’m a rabid reader, and I’m an actor, so it seemed like a match made in heaven.
Q: So how does it work? You go to a recording studio like musicians would use?
A: Very similar, but typically it’s a very small, airless, soundproof room. I stand or sit, depending on the role and the demands of the book. And there’s an engineer sitting on the side, watching and recording, and usually there’s a director or producer there to guide you. Sometimes it’s almost a hallucinatory experience, because you’re doing something that’s emotionally demanding, and you’re doing it in this very small, airless chamber for eight hours a day. But that sort of environment focuses me, in a way; it’s easy to imagine the audience listening on the other end.
Q: How long does it typically take for you to do a book?
A: Depending on the book and depending on your schedule, it can take anywhere from three days to two months.
Q: Do you do voices that are distinct to each character, or do you do it all in your own voice?
A: I really try to bring a different voice to each character. Some books, that’s not what’s really called for, or appropriate. But most do require a certain amount of characterization. Of course, some directors don’t want full-on screen performances; they want just a suggestion of the characters. The most challenging ones for me are the ones, obviously, where I’m doing a lot of acting — lots of voices, lots of characters to keep track of.
Q: In the Mandela book, I gather, you weren’t trying to do an impersonation of him, but you did want to suggest how he sounds because his voice is so well known.
A: Yes. His voice is so distinct, and everyone knows how Mandela sounds. I’ve never been a mimic, in the sense that I don’t do impersonations or impressions, but I have sort of a facility for accents — an ear for them, I guess, and I try to render them as honestly and authentically as I can. In the Mandela book, there were dozens of African and British dialects; there was even an Irishman or two in there.
Q: You also did a book by a favorite author of mine, Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day.” You had to do Boston accents for that one.