Hey there BTG readers, Maleok here. I recently had the immense pleasure to talk with the amazingly talented Liam O’Brien. You know him as the talent behind: Illidan Stormrage from Warcraft, Gaara from Naruto, Yasuo from League of Legends, Vax’ildan from Critical Role, and many many more. (Seriously, look at that man’s IMDB). However much of the coverage of Liam in the past has focused on a particular role, project, or specifically his journey to becoming a voice actor. I thought it would be nice to focus more on his life as a whole. So enjoy this peak into his childhood, family, experiences with fatherhood, and his goals for the future.
Liam DMing a one shot campaign on Geek & Sundry’s “Critical Role”
Actor, Father, and Human.
Maleok: Tell me a little about what growing up was like for you.
Liam O’Brien: I grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, and everyone I went to school with sounded like they were in The Sopranos. The reason I don’t talk like I’m from New Jersey though is because I spent my summers in upstate New York, where my parents are from. They’re from small towns — my mother grew up right on the Canadian border, and my father about an hour and a half from there.
Maleok: Did you stay with aunts and uncles or grandparents or…?
Liam: Yeah, all of those. I stayed with my grandparents occasionally. I had a one cousin, Greg that I always looked forward to seeing every year. I loved my summers at his house. I had the most fun there. I was very accident-prone as a child, much to my aunt and uncle’s dismay. I’d crack my head open, or split my thumb open, and it got to be a bit of a running gag. I spent time on the river and lake up there, and when I’m dust, I’ll probably have myself laid to rest up there. I really associate with upstate New York. My mom, who unfortunately is no longer with me, was a teacher for many years, and then she went into quality assurance. My dad, who went to school for chemical engineering, changed course and went into publishing. He published a magazine called Electronic Fun when I was a kid, and I happily got an Atari out of it. I grew up living with my mom and my sister, who is six years older than me. We drove each other crazy, but now we love each other fiercely. I used to go to Greenwich Village, and I’d buy Doc Martens and pretend to be cool. I guess I’ll wind that down there. I have great parents and a great sister. Who I don’t get to see as often as I’d like, since she’s overseas.
Maleok: Tell me how theatre affected you and what impact it made growing up? If I’m correct, it’s been about a decade since your last stage work.
Liam: That’s right. My last play… my son was about to be born while I was performing. And I’ve been missing it pretty fiercely. If one of the local theaters here wanted to have me, I’d jump at it. Like in any industry, it’s about contacts, and that part of my career over the years has atrophied while I slid over into voiceover and games. I got into it in high school. I wasn’t a child actor. I went to an all-boys Jesuit school in New Jersey. I was a skinny little doofus. I’ve never been good at sports, and didn’t know what the hell to do with myself. Until a friend from my homeroom said “Hey you wanna go try out for a play?” I didn’t know what that meant, but I went. I played Sir Edward Ramsay in The King And I. The second year we did Hamlet. Uncut. It was the best high school version of Hamlet, *laughs*. My sister still gives me shit for having to sit through that. But it was Shakespeare that really sunk its teeth into me. I realized that I really enjoyed acting, and then terrified my parents by telling them I wanted to go to acting school. But my parents were very supportive, and I went to NYU. I was going to be a very serious theatre actor.
It’s very hard to make a living in theatre comparatively. But I did eke out a living for awhile. I was doing stuff Off-Broadway, and going away to regional theaters three months at a time to do a show. I have a lot of great memories from the theatre. And my hobby, all the while I was playing Resident Evil 3 in my apartment. So I was a gamer the whole time, but it was a hobby. And I was doing a show with Crispin Freeman, who is another VO veteran, and he’d been dubbing anime in New York for a few years by then. So when we got back to New York, he contacted me and asked me if I wanted to go to an audition, so I leapt at it. It was a one-episode thing, but that led to another one six months later, which led to another a year later, and it was like a pebble rolling down a hill – it just picked up speed. I moved to LA after I got married in 2002, and I thought “Surely I’m too old to get into TV and film”. But I thought “maybe these couple of voiceover jobs I’ve done could lead to something.”
I got a couple gigs here and there, and then someone said “You’re pretty good at dubbing. Do you know how to write?” and I lied and said yes. And then someone said, “You’re scripts are really good. Do you know how to direct?” and I lied and said yes. I learned it on the job. And I’ve never looked back. It was a hobby, and it just kinda fused with my career. And I love the work that I do.
Maleok: Backtracking a bit, you said you’ve been married for 15 years. How did you meet your wife?
Liam: We went to acting school together. I was a year above her — we’re the same age but she transferred from Boston. And a typical thing in acting school is your first year there, you do stage crew and stuff for the year above you. And I believe she was working the lighting booth for a play in which I was shaved bald, painted white, and had zero lines. I played a dying man, and vomited chewed up banana on my co-star in the show. That’s how she met me, and we’ve been together ever since.
Maleok: What’s it like for you being a father? What are your kids like?
Liam: It is the biggest challenge of my life, and it comes with the greatest rewards. Every parent says this, but my children are very bright. My son is unhappy if he’s not reading. He re-read half the Harry Potter series, so he could read the last couple of books, and he did that in about a week and a half. He reads faster than me. He puts me to shame. He’s shy and introspective, and amazing with math. My daughter is equally smart, but she’s maybe more of a warrior-poet. She plays a lot of sports and is really athletic; my son is allergic to sports. She’s also very into performance. She’s at theatre camp right now. They could not be more different and it’s fascinating to watch their evolving paths.
Maleok: Obviously you’ve met some amazing people through voiceover. What do they mean to you?
Liam: Well, first there’s the tapestry of actors that I work with in town. And for whatever the reason the voiceover community is less competitive than other acting corners and feels more like a family of professionals. I love the field I’m in. It’s been immensely rewarding. If you’re talking about the cast of Critical Role that I play D&D with on a weekly basis, those guys are my second family. I dunno…I hesitate to even put it into words. I’m closer to them than anyone outside of my family, and I think that comes from creating synthetic memories together for the past four years, I guess. I love them, no question. And through any trials and tribulations I may have in life, that family is always there for me.
Maleok: Do you feel like the addition of a loyal fanbase across the work you do, whether it be from Critical Role, or fans of WoW, LoL, etc, gives you a functionally larger support system than when you were younger?
Liam: In the sense that we hear stories from our Critical Role audience, yeah. Hearing hundreds of stories to this point has made me appreciate the human experience even more. Some of the things that I’ve dealt with in my life are universal to all of us, and the stories I’ve heard over from CR fans over the past few years have helped remind me that we really are all in this together.
Maleok: Are you happy with where you are career-wise (the amount of work, the work you’re doing, etc)?
Liam: Oh yeah. The show is beyond anything I could’ve predicted or anticipated. I feel like I’ve begun the third leg of my career. The first was being a young man stomping around the theatre learning how to act, which segued into a voiceover career. And now I’m with a handful of my closest friends, building something together. I’ve certainly enjoyed all the roles I’ve done. My job is incredible and I’m thankful every day. The one thing that Critical Role has over those jobs, though, is that those were somebody else’s vision and story, and I was filling their needs. I’m not poo-pooing it — I have a dream job. But now we’re writing our characters in real-time, and creating something together. And that’s priceless. I’m very happy with it.
Maleok: What are you looking to better about yourself moving forward? How do you feel you can grow from here?
Liam: I’m looking forward to creating something myself that means something to an audience and will be remembered, that will make a difference in an industry sense, but also in a social sense. When you’re making art, you’re often aspiring to something greater, and either holding up a mirror to the world as you see it, or trying to create the world you wanna see. And I think that’s a component of what we do with Critical Role as well.
Maleok: So you’re looking to create a sort of Magnum Opus that you have created that will make a similar impact?
Liam: Well I don’t mean me alone. Continuing to do what we have been. I think we’ve come to realize that it initially started as an experiment, but now it’s out of the nest and flying. And you know we just announced we have a comic book coming out. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with fantasy stories- Dragonlance, the Forgotten Realms, and Lord of the Rings. They largely informed who I am as an artist, and they bleed into my work. And it’s 2017. The world is different, technology is different, but I find it hard to ignore the parallels. When they made those adventures, they touched the minds of thousands of people. And the idea that we’ve created this story that seems to have a similar place in people’s minds — I can feel the threads leading back to those stories that shaped my mind as a kid waking up to the world around me. It feels like we have been passed a baton. And now we’re running with it.
Once again I would like to extend a huge thanks to Liam for taking the time to chat with me for this interview! As always it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to do what I do, so I hope you BTG fans got as much of a kick out of this as I did!
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