Call of Duty: Black Ops sold a few copies last year. OK, more than just a few—try more than 20 million copies since its release in mid-November. While the game’ online multiplayer is undoubtedly the main draw, Treyarch somehow stuffed an epic campaign onto the disc, entertaining us with a tale about secret military weapons, political conspiracies and funny Russian accents. At the center of the experience is Sergeant Frank Woods, a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense soldier who became an instant hit with gamers. (In fact, he won Character of the Year at this year's Video Game Awards.) With "First Strike," the game’s first map pack, hitting virtual stores everywhere yesterday, we sought out the man behind The Man to get the lowdown on what went into bringing the character to life. Enter James C. Burns, a professional actor who has been in and around top TV and films for the better part of the last decade or so. We caught up with him for a quick chat on how he made the transition from TV dramas and Viagra commercials (it’s true!) to voicing one of the most memorable video game characters in recent memory. In short: lots of pretending he was Jean Claude Van Damme around the house.
Complex: Who the hell are you?
James C. Burns: Good question! I’m a straight-up actor.
So how’d you find you way onto the set of the biggest game of 2010?
Activision wasn’t looking for a voice actor, they were looking for an actual actor who had done action films. I’ve had this role in the past and have done a lot of military-type guys, so they brought me in to do a full performance capture. Everything was done in one take: voice, face, and body at the same time. I essentially was able to create the character as my own.
Any suprises on set?
I actually had to audition twice, once for the test performance and then a second one for the part I originally created.
Wait, what? You made Sergeant Woods and then had to audition for the part? Silly Activision.
The first was more of an action audition. They didn’t have any dialogue, but they wanted to see how I moved, that I knew how to hold a gun and how to perform the military dramatization of the character. Once we got that done, we did three months of work with that, and then over the holidays I didn’t hear from these guys for another couple months. I found out they were trying to recast the role because Activision wanted to put out a video for it right away. From the voice I gave them, they thought I was the right fit, so I had to come back in and re-audition.
Did you have any idea that your character would be a huge hit? Woods won “Character of the Year” at the VGAs in December.
Considering the talent I was up against for this award, it’s actually a very big deal. It’s odd because the movie industry, although they don’t embrace video game industry entirely, they can’t disrespect it because of the amount of money they make, especially in the 18-to-49 demographic. Film people don’t know what to make of all of this yet. They don’t know if the characters can cross, yet actors can cross from video games into movies. It’s a strange new world out there.
On the subject of landing gigs in video games, how did you stumble on that opportunity?
Most of the work I get comes from something I’ve already done. Random people see some of my previous work and offer me a job. The guy that was casting for Call of Duty back in September of 2009 had seen a small film of mine called September 12th. I played the same type of guy in it as Frank Woods, but he was in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam. He brought me in and said, “Let’s see if you can do this for us.” I had no idea what the video game was. I don’t play video games—I still don’t.
What does being in a high-profile video game do for your resume and career in general?
Like I said, the industry doesn't quite know what to do with guys like me who aren’t celebrities, yet I’m a rock star in my own little way. Every time I walk into a friend's house and people tell the kids that Sgt. Frank Woods is in the house, they go nuts.
You’re like Krusty the Crown of video games now.
Yeah, they go berzerk. Some of my friends who I’ve known for years call me up and ask for signed posters and copies of the game. At the VGAs, I was talking to this kid with his father. He was 12 to 15 years old, nice kid. Once I told him who I was, he was star-struck. I have a huge network of producers and directors, yet it’s their kids that know me best. They’ve been on my website, they found things on YouTube, they’ve Googled me a hundred times. It’s created an awful lot of visibility. What that gives me in terms of career prospects, I don’t know yet. If it doesn’t, it’s still nice to have kids freak out when I walk in the room.
You can always do the media circuit and charge by appearance, Sarah Palin-style.
[Laughs.] If that opportunity comes up, I won’t say no!
In your own words, describe Sergeant Woods. What were you going for when creating the dramatization of that character?
That’s a great question; he’s basically the best soldier in the world. He’s like a gritty, American James Bond. You can’t kill the guy, he’s the best soldier in the world and a badass.
Like Van Damme in Universal Soldier?
Yeah, a little bit like that, but he’s vulnerable. What makes the character so interesting is he’s not just a hard ass. Everything is built on being connected to a vulnerability of the situation or condition. He’s not just yelling and being mean and nasty—rather, he's responding the the environment he is in, which in the game is a fairly shitty place to be.
You mentioned that you’re not too big into video games—did you actually get to play the game?
My skills are so piss-poor—I played once in a trailer with the Treyarch guys there. They were really good since they, you know, created the game. I don’t have the tactical reference on my hand, I don’t know where the buttons are, I can’t find a knife when I need to, so I do poorly. They made me a video playthrough of the game from start to finish, though, so I could see what the story was like. It was like a four-and-a-half hour movie.
The guy behind the most badass character is the wussiest gamer ever?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t even want to go online. I’m just not good at it. I’m just an actor. I created a character in this game, I’m not a game guy. I don’t try to present myself as such.
Now that you’ve banked this character on your resume, what’s next for you?
Well, there’s four movies in the pipeline. I’m very excited about a film called Silver Falls. It’s a paranormal thriller that we just wrapped in December. I play a guy who’s been incarcerated for 25 years because of the death of his two daughters. My character didn’t do it and the daughters come back as ghosts to try to save me. Then, I’ll be in a zombie film called Dead Season. There’s a comedy called All Together Now, and lastly, there’s a TV series called Welcome to Kandahar on ABC that I hope to get a shot at soon. I’m also the guy in the Viagra commercials.
OK, that's a calling card.