How do I perform celebrity voice impersonations?
The last major league baseball player to hit four-hundred, was Ted Williams. People would often come up to Mr. Williams, and ask him, “Ted, what is the secret to your great hitting?” Though nowadays, Ted actually has his own website dedicated to the subject, back in the day, the answer was usually something a little closer to “I just can.”
The truth is, Ted had little secrets he would do such as counting the stitches on the ball as it rotated towards him, and making sure the ball was in his “happy zone.” But the fact of the matter is, there are two types of people, those that can just “do” and those that can “teach how they do.”
As a professional voice talent who specializes in celebrity voice impersonations, often times people will ask me the same type of question. The answer, is pretty much the same. “I just can.” But I will at least attempt to break down the thought process that I utilize when I attempt to impersonate voices that do not come immediately natural to me.
But before we run, we must at least learn to walk. I believe there are four impersonations that nearly everyone on the planet can do. The first three are Macho Man Randy Savage, Sylvester Stallone and Jimmy Stewart. Though they all stem from different areas of it, each of these voices begins and ends in the throat (as opposed to other more difficult areas which I will delve into momentarily), and they all fall into a range of pitch that is very user friendly to nearly everyone who has completed puberty. All without having to stretch the vocal muscles very far.
Which leads me to the fourth person, William Shatner. Even a three year old can impersonate the unique, “Stop and Start” and “quick” manner in which Mr. Shatner speaks. Almost everyone can grasp that timbre and manner of speaking enough to at least do a passable impersonation, good enough for being a hit at parties. However, truth be told, a very good William Shatner impression is almost impossible to come by.
For a great William Shatner impersonation, check out the Frank Caliendo video linked at the bottom of this page. Notice that he’s just not speaking in quirky sentences about Spock and Spaceships. He lowers his voice at the right times and applies the right emotions to it, and if we can think of the “impression” as an imaginary, physical, “ball-of-voice” for a second, then you can understand that the key to what makes this a great impression as opposed to a party trick, is that Frank moves that ball around through all the physical areas of his body that all humans use when speaking. More specifically, he gets Shatner’s pitch, and moves it through the same areas that Shatner does. Any of us can get the timbre and the vocal mannerisms down to pull off a Shatner, but what separates the men from the boys is actually getting the right pitch and movement first, and then applying the unique vocal mannerisms.
So, now you see why I separated the four into two specific groups. By understanding Shatner, now we can go back and understand a little more clearly why the first three are so easy to duplicate. Though Savage might be a gravel type voice, Stallone might be a deeper one, and Stewart might be a little higher pitched, again, none of them provide much of a stretch for us. On a scale of octaves, they’re pretty much right up everyone’s alley and their timbre and mannerisms are so unique, that anyone can throw them into a conversation and the listener will know exactly who you are impersonating. Not a big deal. Uniqueness is what makes them easy.
This is why I’m rarely impressed with Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations as well. Aside of perhaps, Darrell Hammond who does a spot on version for all of the same reasons mentioned above on Caliendo’s version of Shatner.
Again, unique voices are a piece of cake. It’s the normal voices that are difficult. It’s why we’ve yet to see anyone truly do a great President Obama impersonation yet. Clinton, Reagan and The Bush’s made it easy. If you want to be really impressed, watch the following video. This is not really Harrison Ford.
So what other areas, besides the throat, are important?
Every voice obviously comes from the throat. Obvious, because that’s where the vocal chords are. But to some extent, every person also combines the nasal area, in addition to the chest and diaphragm areas of their bodies in their everyday vocal communications as well. The first key to doing a good impersonation is to identify which of those areas the voice you are attempting comes from. This is what makes doing a Morgan Freeman impersonation for example, exceedingly difficult if the voice doesn’t already come natural to you. I’d venture to guess that a good lot of the male population can find the right deep tone of voice, necessary for the impersonation. But can they apply the correct “rasp” to the voice, and then skillfully bring the voice from the diaphragm and sell it to the world through the nasal passages, all the while finding the right mixture of Freeman’s unique inflections? Not as easy for sure. But that’s the key. If you want to hear a good example, there’s one on my website.
In addition, and equally as obvious, is the mouth. One of my greatest challenges as a voice talent is concentration on proper enunciation. I have a tendency to speak very colloquially and fall prey to my Ohio accent at times. But, where I find difficulty in doing my commercial and promotional voice overs, I find treasure for doing impersonations, as these deficiencies in “proper” speaking means I can more easily pick up on the “flaws” that otherwise make a person or celebrity unique, and therefore make the impersonation more achievable. Gerad Butler and Sean Connery roll their S’s for example. Richard Burton requires a tightening of the mouth and a rolling of the R’s in a very Shakespearian manner. These are just examples, to show how important enunciation and mouth movement is to the process. For more, check out how strongly I enunciate my P’s and B’s on my Jesse Ventura impersonation linked below.
At any rate, no, this isn’t the end all de facto lesson on doing Celebrity Voice Impersonations, but it will get you started.