Once in a shooting star you meet tenacity, ambition, prowess, confidence, kindness and class all packaged into one. It happened to me at a Starbucks in Vancouver recently and the encounter reminded me of how unique and special each one of us are. We all contribute to society, in large quantity and in sometimes meager ways, but we all create our own ripple at some point. Nicole Oliver has created a wave! A veteran of film and television, with the skill of a wizard with great hair; I believe her blood type is Red Bull but I haven’t confirmed it… yet.
The coffee was good but speaking with Nicole was an early Christmas gift. She is inspirational, she is transparent and warm with a generous helping of bubbly. As we spoke and immersed ourselves into the language of film, it felt like it had all started with a big hug. In my mind, we hugged it out but Nicole may have envisioned a cold splash of water… it’s hard to tell how people perceive you.
Nicole Oliver has had a bountiful and ever evolving career to put it mildly. She is not one to be pigeonholed or to sit idle while the film industry sheds its skin. With the finesse and wonder of a Martha Stewart key-lime cheesecake recipe Nicole has reinvented herself by utilizing ingenuity, wisdom and by adding more tools to her arsenal. From acting in film and TV to voice acting and voice director, Nicole is a force… with a great smile and a huge heart. She is one of the most respected talents in the film industry and steadily climbing as a go to voice director in animation. She is appearing as the supporting lead alongside Patti LaBelle (Star, Christmas Everlasting) in Hallmark Movies & Mysteries “A Family Christmas Gift,” a new original premiering Sunday, December 22, (9 p.m. ET/PT), on Hallmark Channel as part of the network’s annual “Miracles of Christmas” programming event.
Nicole plays the role of Leah Andrews a cheerful stay-at-home mom who is Amber’s (Holly Robinson Peete) close friend and who is delighted when Amber comes to town for the first time in years. A parent volunteer for the big fundraiser, Leah is a natural organizer who is the wind beneath Amber’s wings when it comes to the heavy lifting for the “chemistry” developing between Amber and Alan.
Nicole has also played the role of Zina in two episodes of the hit series Man in the High Castle season 4. Nicole also steps behind the camera voice directing three projects for YouTube, Netflix, PBS/CBC, including Molly of Denali as well as continuing to voice numerous characters. She has worked alongside impressive A-list actors with a role in Wonder, starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay. Other career highlights include a lead role in the acclaimed film festival circuit indie-gem, Marrying the Family and she’s expanded her diverse entertainment career in the role of Britney Spears’ mother Lynne Spears in the Lifetime Movie Britney Ever After. Nicole Oliver is one of the most sought after voice over actors for her roles in cartoons, both on the small screen (My Little Pony, LEGO Nexo Knights, Kate & Mim Mim) and the big screen (Seth Rogen’s “Sausage Party”), Princess Celestia on “My Little Pony: The Movie”). She is the recipient of the UBCP/ACTRA award for Best Voice for her work in animation.
Nicole Oliver has worked for over twenty-five years in the entertainment industry as an actor, producer, and director. This incredibly busy mother and professional has mastered the balance between family and work, and has furthered her education with a Masters of Arts in Communication from Royal Roads University in 2011 and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of her ambitious career. I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak with her and very grateful for her time.
“You’ve had an amazing journey that has fostered many productions as an actress and now voice-over in animation. That sounds very fascinating and I’d love to hear about that work but I’d first like to go back to the beginning to hear how it all began.”
“I went to York University, I thought I was going to be a lawyer.”
“I can definitely see you as a lawyer.”
“I’ve played a lawyer a few times. I thought maybe entertainment law; I’d starting dancing when I was three and I was dancing about 40 hrs. per week. I performed in a high school play and that’s what changed everything for me. It was in Ottawa and we did The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Maggie Smith played Jean in the movie, she’s one of my favourite actors. I just remember saying the first line and then bowing at the end of the show. I was hooked. I told my parents I wanted to be an actor and they said it was fine but as long as I also get an education. I auditioned for York University’s Theatre Program and got accepted. I trained there for 4 years and graduated with a BFA, got an agent and was pretty lucky to start working right away.”
“Did you end up doing any law while at York?”
“No I didn’t but I did decide to go back to university to get my Masters in Communication. The kids were little and I don’t think I’d recommend going back when you’re kids are young (laughing). I needed to feel that hard work paid off in a way that was tangible, which was something I really needed. The fact that I’m an actor obviously means I’m a sadomasochist (laughter) because you never get that as a performer. You can do so much great work and so many great auditions but if you don’t get the job you never know if you did well.”
“What was the first show you were on?”
“It was Kung Fu the Legend Continues with David Carradine. I played a cop and was the lead actors girlfriend. My first day on set was a shower scene. I remember thinking, ‘what did I get myself into?’ I was wearing shoes on my feet so I wouldn’t step on dry ice being used to create steam. I’m sure they have other methods to make steam now.”
“Are you quite comfortable on set?”
“I am, I really like it a lot and love being there. If you’re number 1 or 2 on the Call Sheet you can be there for a very long time. If you’re a guest star or have a recurring role you pop in and pop out. What I like most about directing is, I’ve had a chance to be with a group of people for a long period of time. Being on a set/sound studio and being able to make those relationships is everything, it’s the fun part. Because of those relationships, often it can translate to magic on the screen. It can be very nerve wracking being on a film set but to have those personal connections, makes it super comfortable.”
“When you’re directing you’re holding all the eggs in one basket. Are you comfortable being the one to keep oiling the machine?”
“I’ve done some on camera directing back in the day on a reality show, Crash Test Mommy for 52 episodes/5 years. I was producer, director and host of the show and I’d like to transition to that again. My kids are getting older now, so the idea of being gone for 16/17 hours a day would be easier than when they were younger.”
“They must miss mom.”
“Yes, and I miss them. They keep me grounded. With the animation, I work with the director. They direct the animators, how to pose the characters and what colours to use, the lighting and other effects. My job is to bring the performance to life, so I direct the sound side of it. The animation director will be there and the producer to ensure we’re getting the tone that we need. The animators will then have those tracks to listen to for inspiration that will dictate the pacing of the scene. It’s a real collaborative job and I love it.”
“As a visual director, it would seem easy to maintain the vision but as a sound director, how do you maintain the tone?”
“I think by being really familiar with the material. With Molly of Denali for example, we have recorded 76 11 minute episodes and it’s been over 2 years of my life. We’re at the point where we’re doing pickups/fixes and we’re really hoping to see if we’ll get another season ordered. Being in that environment you get to know your characters intimately and I know how my character relates to other people. As a director, I need to know every character intimately and how they interact; that’s how you maintain the consistency. I really need to know each characters wants, intentions, desires and motivations to make sure we stay on the story. Like any director, you have to break down the script and know the flow of the story, know how the boxcars line up. You have to know why this happens and that happens while giving the actors room to play but making sure that we’re getting the performance we need and it fits the tone of the story so that our Molly is going to be Molly from beginning to end. People fall in love with the character and if there’s a huge character change, unless it’s part of the character arc, it can throw people off especially kids. It’s the consistency that keeps bringing them back.”
“In order to stay on track of the characters, would you have illustrations of characters for reference?”
“When I direct I have a big binder that has sketches of what they look like and a log book that provides the characters description and what their journey is, as well as adding adjectives to describe them. I also make notes when I’m breaking down the script. Molly likes to sing, so there might be a line where she has to sing it instead; things like that.”
Nicole just sang a line of dialogue for me in Molly’s young girl voice. Goosebumps!
“That sounds like a lot of fun to be able to bring that out of a character.”
“It is great, I love working with all actors, I really love working with kids and it’s one of my strengths. I also like working with actors that are new to the genre and helping them shift into a different method of performing.”
“Would you have to emphasize your voice/words more?”
“I like to say to people/actors to imagine the person you’re talking to has their back turned to you, so you have to work a little harder to get their attention. There’s also sounds we makes in our lives when we sit down, ‘huuhhh’ or how we sigh or laugh, so to bring those extra/life sounds into your performance it sounds and feels right. It helps to paint a picture of how you’re feeling and how you want your audience to perceive you.”
“Has your experience been a big help in acquiring that skill?”
“Absolutely, I was pretty lucky right out of the gate. I started with The Characters Talent Agency right out of Theatre School in Toronto. Murray Gibson was my agent at Characters but then moved to Red (Talent Management) so I moved with him. I’ve been with him for 25 years, so I can honestly say I’ve had the same agent my entire career, which is uncommon. My agent told me I had a great voice so I booked my first voice-over gig, which was a Vaseline Intensive Care commercial. Shortly after that I started doing voices for The X-Men that was recording in Toronto. I remember thinking, ‘this is fun’ because you can go in as you and what you look like doesn’t have to dictate how you sound. You can be a toothbrush; you can be a teddy bear, an older woman, a little girl or little boy. That freedom and playing with people like that in the room, had me hooked.”
“In life, there is always ups and downs. Is it difficult to be in character with your voice when life is being difficult?”
“It’s really difficult. In a perfect world we like to say, ‘leave your baggage at the door’… I lost my dad when I was 25 and was working on a show called Side Effects for CBC and still working on Kung Fu; I had to go in the day after he died. It was very hard. My husband’s father passed away 7 years ago and we were at the hospital saying our goodbyes; I had to go in and record a song for My Little Pony. I played Princess Celestia for 9 seasons and I had a song/ballad I was singing to the other ponies about how much they’ve grown up and how proud I am of them. I had just left my husband and children and I had to do it. I cried a lot and the crew were very patient with me. The performance people have said it sounds so emotional… which it was. It’s not that people are insensitive, it’s just that there’s so much involved in the project and when you’re hired for a job, you really have to show up unless you’re on your back yourself. It’s so important to have good self care and good people around you.”
“It seems like more big actors are lending their voices to animation. Would you say that voice acting is on the rise?”
“I remember when Chris Rock was hosting the Oscars and Madagascar had recently come out. He had made a comment on how much he loved doing voice over work because he got paid a million dollars and went to work in his pajamas. A lot of people were like ‘quiet, don’t let the secret out’. I would say that animation as an art form is having its hey day. I think a lot of actors with names and brand recognition is a way for these films to get more eyes on them. Your name is your power. It’s also fun to do and its not as pressure full as working on a TV or film set. There is real joy in it and that’s what’s attractive to me. A lot of actors love that you get to just show up and you don’t have to memorize your lines. I think it’s on the rise in the public’s mind but I think there’s more and more performers looking at it as a viable option and like it for the freedom it offers. Being a voice actor, your work hours are like bankers hours. You might start at 9 and be finished by 5 pm but on a film set you might be there for 15-16 hours, you have to drive to the location and be away from family and your life.”
“With voice acting, are you working live or with a recording?’
“It depends. With animation its always best if you can do a group record. Everybody’s in the room, you start on page one and you go till the end of the script. You capture all that energy bouncing off everyone. It’s fun when that happens but sometimes your schedule might conflict with the recording schedule. It can work both ways but most actors will agree that there’s nothing like having all the actors in the room at the same time. It’s very addictive and satisfying at the same time.”
“I suppose another difference compared to a film set would be the size of the crew?”
“When we’re recording, you’ll have an engineer, maybe 2; you’ll have a voice director and an assistant director that keeps track of the takes, because you’re doing it multiple times. You’ll sometimes have your clients and producers in the room. Sometimes it can be a full room and other times it can be quite intimate, consisting of you, the engineer and the actor.”
“What would happen in the case where you have a nasty cold?”
“It depends on how stuffed up you are. You can move your voice to try and get above the stuffed upness and try decongestants. If you’re really sick, they don’t want you getting everyone else sick and would rather you stay home and pick your lines up at the next record or when you’re feeling better. When they’re on a deadline it becomes really important and I’ll wash my hands so many times and try not to touch my face. As a voice actor I’m very mindful of giving people hugs this time of the year. It’s usually a fist pump because I can’t afford to get sick.”
“Are you currently directing an animation?”
“We’re just finishing season 1 of Molly of Denali, which has started airing. With Netflix and other networks, the way you deliver programs has changed. It used to be that you could be filming episodes as other ones are airing but with streaming services they have 1 delivery where they want it all at once. I have a show coming out on Netflix in Feb. of 2020 called StarBeam and I voice directed that show. It’s about a girl who’s a superhero and her family. It’s a lot of fun. Netflix is moving into the animated market. The female lead is Nahanni Mitchell and another boy Dean Petriw is the other lead. They’re 10 and 11 and I think they’re going to do great.”
“What’s the biggest difference in working with children?’
“Children are natural reactors until their self consciousness hits at 12 or 13. If you give something to them they’re going to react back. If they’re interested in doing that type of work then their sense of play is so high an awe-inspiring. Their innocence of play, their sense of play is incomparable. Certainly they get tired easier and will be honest if they’re not digging it. That honesty is great to work with and you can get some really great performances.”
“If somebody was interested in becoming a voice actor what sort of advice would you give them?”
“I always say, ‘your voice is just the adjective, you’re an actor’. A lot of people think, ‘I can do a funny voice, I can do this job’ and it’s great to have a pocket full of funny voices but if you can’t connect emotionally and make me feel something, you won’t work. You have to take acting classes and do all the things your favourite actors do, its not just about doing those funny voices. Also, listen to the voices around you. I’ve heard so many interesting voices around me and short of getting arrested, I’ve tried to listen in or record it for inspiration (laughter).”
“Do you have any cool experiences in watching voice actors getting into character?”
“As a voice actor, when an actor engages with their body and really goes for it, it’s mesmerizing. All the actors in the room will start feeding off that energy and you’ll feel it grow and bubble into something special. As a voice director, when I see my cast participating in that way, it’s amazing! When you hear it and it’s partnered with all the beautiful drawings it’s unbelievable. Robin Williams as Aladdin has always been the hold up performance. The comfort behind the microphone; he was a tortured soul but his willingness and ability to share and seeing him behind the microphone; he was like a jellyfish. When you’re doing that type of animation prelay, as a performer you can help shape it. You have a chance to be part of the creative process and it makes for a more collaborative performance.”
“Would you say you had a preference between one or the other?”
“It really depends. From the perspective of trying to have it all; a family and career, voice over work certainly helps with having the time to be around and participate but there’s also so much that I find fulfilling about working on camera. Honestly I’m really thrilled to be a working actor. I’ve diversified into many different areas cause I’m curious but also because I also want to live in Canada. As a woman of a certain age I’ve played a lot of different parts. I want to play characters that are interesting to me and I haven’t done before. The voice work allows me to say no and wait for something more interesting but I still get my creative fix while supporting my family and support myself.”
“Since you mention waiting for interesting characters, what would be a role you would love to play?”
“I’m obsessed with UK drama. I’d love to play a character where you’re one way on the surface but another underneath. I’d like to go into some darker territory, I think I’d be interested in doing that. On a TV show call sheet, I don’t need to be number 1 or 2 but I’d like to be number 3 or 4. It’s interesting but you still have time to have a life. I’d still like to direct a short film but I still need to figure out what story I want to tell. Those are some of my goals for 2020. Something dark, a Neo Noir, a complex character and a real woman in a real life situation. That’s what’s interesting to me. That’s why I love the UK shows because those women have such stories on their faces and they’re real and full of emotion. They’re brilliant actors and I’d love to see more of that in North American programming. As an actor that would be jazzy.”
“Do you have a favourite genre?”
“I’m super obsessed with zombies and vampires, I really am. I love all that gothic, other worldly stuff. I love Walking Dead, ‘I’ll be a zombie’ I have a great B movie blood curdling scream. I like a good crime procedural show.”
You can see Nicole Oliver in Picture a Perfect Christmas on The Hallmark Channel on Dec. 25, 28 and the 31st. You can see her in A Family Christmas Gift on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries on Dec. 24, 26, 30 and in Jan. 1, 2 and 5th.
An amazing interview that left me wanting more…