In honor of Jane the Virgin’s first-season finale, Vulture reached out to Anthony Mendez, a.k.a. the show’s Latin lover narrator, to find out all his favorite moments to narrate, and get some tips and tricks to being the best narrator you can be. The conversation branched off into a discussion of how the show is redefining TV narration, breaking through the glass ceiling of midwestern accents, and diversifying the voices we hear on television.
The narrator has been so influential to the tone of Jane the Virgin, and so much of voice work depends on the tenor of your voice. How did you come to the point of finding just the right tone?
That’s a very good question. In terms of the tone, obviously it’s a combination of the character voice, which is something I’ve had in my repertoire anyway — the Latin lover, Antonio Banderas kind of thing. In terms of the actual emotional tone, that was something that started with [director] Brad Silberling in the pilot, but [producer] Gina Lamar and mostly [showrunner] Jennie Urman, who directs most of the voice-over questions, she brought out some of the sarcastic or sassy or playful side of me when it came to the character. I think she kind of shaped him and molded him as we went along with the episodes.
For, say, a burgeoning TV critic who wants to break into the television-narrator scene, what are your most helpful tips for being a good narrator?
I think No. 1, it’s always training. Taking scene-study classes — if you’re not going to take a full-on theater or acting course, then, at the very least, take a scene study class. Take voice-over classes and take improv classes, all of which I’ve trained and continue to train in to this day. But secondly, understand that it’s never, ever about you. One of the things that they say is that you kind of have to disappear. The less people notice you, the better job you’re doing. That’s part of the challenge, I think, with this character. He’s so sassy and he’s so unique that he stands out, which goes against what we’re trained to do, so there has to be a little balance in terms of what the intention is. It’s about the story and it’s about what’s going on onscreen with the other actors.
So when the narrator became a character to people watching the show, did you feel torn about that? Did you feel as though it was going against your narrator code of ethics?
[Laughs.] Yeah, a little bit. That’s an incredibly insightful question. Nobody has ever asked me that. That’s how I felt initially. Because as you get to know the people that are directing you, in this case, Jennie and sometimes Gina Lamar, you build the trust as you go along. By the time we were hitting [episodes] 103 and 104, I felt like I trusted fully where they were taking me because I had already seen what they did with it. It did go against what we’re trained to do initially, which is disappear into the story and not make it about us, but then I understood that this is not your typical narrator. He really is, like you said, a character in the story.
It’s such a beautiful use of the audience-insertion character, with the twist that it’s like you’re there watching it with us. To that same extent, I think you exist in that difficult position of being both omniscient and impotent, as far as how much you know yet are unable to change. What is it to be trapped in that space as a character?
It is really a challenge. I think you hit the nail on the head. He is a cross between an omniscient narrator and unreliable narrator because there are some times where he’s actually surprised about what’s going on.
Which are such brilliant moments.
It really is brilliant. My hat’s off to Jennie and the team of writers because that is almost like breaking a rule in narration. You don’t shift, at any time, the kind of narrator that you have, and they’ve done that so flawlessly. It might be too much to say, but it really feels like they are establishing a new genre or type of narrator with this particular character that’s never been seen before, and I can almost guarantee that you’re going to see a lot more people attempt this kind of writing.
I know that you’re on the East Coast and do your recording from home while on the phone with one of the producers. How does that work as far as how connected you feel with the rest of the crew? Is it disorienting to be a fundamental part of the show and yet not on set, not interacting with these people you’re so linked to?
Initially there was a feeling of being an outsider, only because I live in North Jersey. It’s definitely not Hollywood up here. What turned that around was finally meeting them. I made a visit to the set when they were shooting episode three and Gina Rodriguez and Justin Baldoni were shooting on set, which was perfect, right? And they embraced me as if they had seen a long lost cousin. I had the same exact welcome when I visited the writer’s room and then, finally, the editing bay, where Jennie and Gina [Lamar] were editing, even from the editor. So at that point, I thought that I was really welcomed. The only reason I want to allow people to know who I am is really to try to inspire those people that want to follow and become voice-over narrators, particularly the ones like myself who were told initially, “You have some sort of regionalism. You have some sort of accent. You won’t be able to do this work.” That’s kind of why I want to put it out there.
Growing up in South Dakota, I have that flat, bland, midwestern accent that networks love, so I never realized that having the slightest regional accent can be really limiting as far as opportunity goes.
Oh yeah, it’s a huge obstacle.
As amazing as diversification of actors is, it’s amazing to have diversification of voice actors to really round out the work.
It’s funny, I’ll tell you a little full-circle story here. When I first started, that was what everybody was telling me. “You sound Latino. You sound black. You [sound] like you’re from the streets, yet you sound college-educated.” My coach, ten years ago, who I trained with and is my friend, told me, “Learn how to do a straight read, but hold onto those accents because at some point everybody’s going to begin to embrace them.” She was 100 percent right. So much so that when Ben Silverman [executive producer of Jane the Virgin] became the chief over at NBC ages ago, I literally tried to send him an email, “Hey, I’m a new guy. I know that I have an accent but I think it would be good for the network to hire somebody who has an accent to do promos.” It’s so funny, I never got a reply, of course, but this many years later and I’m working for him.
I’ve spoken to Jennie before and she has mentioned that one of the most difficult parts of her job is writing the recap that begins each episode, summarizing the events so far. Clearly, you also have to do that every episode. Does that ever get tiresome? How do you find a different angle each time?
I thought it was weird at first. The first recap I did after, when I was about to record episode three, they said, “Oh, we have a recap. You need to recap 102,” and I noticed how much was crammed, and if you notice his energy, he’s just excited to be there in the beginning, “Oh, it’s so cool we get to hang out again,” is kind of like the idea. So his voice is like two octaves higher, he’s speaking 20 times faster, but to me that’s easier because I normally speak fast anyway. I’m one of four brothers, and in my family, in order to get anything out, even finish a sentence, you had to speak really fast. That’s the only part, believe it or not, where I actually get to see any video. They do send me the recap because it’s only like a minute, minute and a half. I never see the show itself, I only see the recaps, so that, for me, is easier.
Looking back over this first season, what have been your favorite moments to narrate, and what about them made them so special?
There were two, actually. Aside from the pilot, obviously, because I kid you not, after we finished recording the pilot with Brad Silberling, I really expected to be replaced by a celebrity or something. [Laughs.] This never really happens. They never really hire someone who doesn’t do on-camera. In other words, a 100 percent voice actor for a network-TV show, that never happens. But after I settled in and realized, “Hey, this is my job,” I enjoyed the emoticon episode [episode seven], the one where Jane was waiting for Rafael to call her and it was a second where I say, [Narrator voice] “OMG, it’s him! It’s him!” I think that was one of my favorites because it kind of tied into everything.
And that was an ad-lib, right?
The “OMG” part was an ad-lib. It was written as, “It’s him! It’s him!” but I noticed in the script that it was all about emoticons and hashtags, so at that point I added the “OMG” and they kept it. So that was a lot of fun for me, that episode.
It’s interesting when you talk about assuming, even up through the pilot, that you were going to be replaced. We do see, particularly in Hollywood animated films, that it’s typically a cast of celebrities. How difficult is that? Are you seeing any movement in that arena back toward professionally trained voice actors?
In feature films, it’s still slow going. Some of us who have trained or make our living solely from voice acting, we kind of have a little bit of a resentment for celebrity voice-over casting. Not that we have anything against celebrities maximizing their income. Good for them. But it’s just that some of us feel like they’re taking work away, but they’re really not. A lot of those movies, without the celebrities being cast, would not get green-lit. Those weren’t jobs that I think normal full-time voice actors would get hired for, anyway. But there are opportunities within TV series because then there’s less pressure to cast a celebrity. Plus, it’s such a grueling schedule that celebrities don’t really have the time to commit to a long animation series. But for feature films, there are a lot of things that we could do when it comes to voice-overs — exertion sounds is one of them. Learning how to “oof,” “ah,” getting hit in the stomach, celebrities won’t do that, not only because they’re not trained in how to create those effects — like, let’s say Pat Fraley. He’s one of the guys that does a lot of animation, and nobody really knows who he is. When it comes to the day-to-day voice-over actors like myself, we really have to focus on what jobs are out there for us or what we’re perfect for versus hating on celebrities for doing voice-overs. That’s a waste of energy, I think.
I want to make sure that people understand there are tons of us out there doing what we do, that nobody has ever heard of or will ever hear of, and that’s okay. I just hope that this show, by casting me, who lived here in a studio, has done one of three things. No. 1, it’s inspired people that don’t necessarily speak with a Midwest accent to step up to the mic, and hopefully inspired casting directors to open up their choices in casting as well. No. 2, that it inspires showrunners and show creators to realize there are tons of us out there that can turn things around for them and give them the quality that a celebrity or an on-camera actor can give them, if not more. And No. 3, that people start to realize and respect this as an art and a craft of acting, because it really is.