Interview: Jon St. John Talks Being The Voice Of Duke Nukem

The actor speaks on voicing Duke and the legacy of the iconic character.

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Complex Original

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How did you get involved with voicing Duke? How did that come about?
Well, I'm fortunate enough to live in San Diego, where one of the top video game casting directors
lives, a lady named Lani Minella, and Lani happened to be at the radio station where I was production director back in 1994 or 1995. She came in to record a commercial project that I was producing, and when the two of us met, like a lot of us voice actors or radio people do, showing off for each other and doing different character voices and such. Lani said “Wow, you've got really great range. Have you considered doing voice acting?” I said, “What do you mean voice acting?” She said “You know, like for video games.” At the time I didn't know that there were voices on video games. There were very few, in fact, but I said “sure.” I was into doing anything where I could make money with my voice! So, I think the first game I auditioned for and landing was Big Red Racing. Then I did a game called Candyland Adventure – remember Hasbro's board game Candyland? That was adapted to CD-ROM. Then I did Duke 3D.

Do you go in with a specific kind of voice in mind or do you try a few until you found “the
Well, they usually show me pictures of the characters and say it's this age range, it's this ethnicity. We want a smooth texture or a gravelly texture to the voice. We want an affectation, like if you're doing a Klingon character – (talks with gritted teeth) – Klingons always talk like their teeth are stuck together. So we dial a character voice in on the spot, pretty much, or if I'm close enough in the audition when I send an audition file to the director via MP3 in email they'll say “Okay, that's the voice we want” and sometimes just dial it in before you get there.

Did you have an idea with Duke with how you wanted to play the character?
I had no clue. When Lani approached me about doing Duke Nukem, because she was the one who cast me in that game, when she first mentioned it to me she said “I have a game I want you to audition for called Duke Nukem.” and I laughed: “Duke Nukem, really?” I thought it was hilarious, or some kind of funny game. She said “No, it's a FPS and you've played Doom, haven't you?” I was like “Oh, yeah, I love Doom.” She said “It's Doom on steroids.” I thought okay, well, whatever. So she hooked me up for the audition on the phone with George Broussard out in Garland, TX, and George is of course one of the guys who created Duke and created the game with 3D Realms.

He had his own idea of what character actor he thought should be Duke, but it didn't necessarily go
that way because Lani, as the director in the studio with me said “I want you to think of Dirty Harry
when he goes 'Do you feel lucky, do you punk?” And I went with the line. George heard it over the
phone and said “It's the right attitude, and I like the way it sounds like your teeth are clenched together, but Duke is a much bigger guy, much bigger than, say, Clint Eastwood.” So I lowered my pitch, and said “Go ahead, make my day.” He asked me to do “Come get some!” and right there I was hired to be the voice of Duke.

How do you feel about the negative reaction to Duke Nukem Forever?
I think it was not incorrectly judged by reviewers and game writers. I don't think there was any malice in it. But I think it was unfair for two reasons: one, the hype created by 2K Games. They put so much money into promoting it. They wanted it to be huge. But because it was so over the top, people thought it was going to be the greatest thing EVER! And when you hype it that much, when it comes out and it's really a throwback to Duke 3D – think about it, Duke 3D on steroids is Duke Nukem Forever. I think when it came out people were just really disappointed by the graphics as they weren't up to current standards. Well, they couldn't be. It was based on a game that came out ten years ago. They just got to acquire it back in 2008 or 2009 and then complete it and do their own thing. So when you compare it to Call of Duty and those other FPSs of the modern era, it's an unfair comparison.

I think that's why reviews were somewhat negative, because they were expecting something the game wasn't intended to be. I think they expected or they anticipated something else. A lot of the reviewers, quite frankly, were too young to really review it and understand what Duke Nukem Forever was all about. I don't know that they ever played Duke 3D! And so they play the game not understanding what the game's all about, being irreverent, sexy, etc. He's just a badass with a bad attitude, and they didn't get that. They wanted it to be something different. I just wish they hadn't hyped it so much. They should've said “Yeah, we finally did it. Here it is.”

Are you a gamer? Do you ever play the games and sit back to revel in your roles as Duke?
Well, one of the first games I actually played was Duke Nukem Forever, and you know, that was
months ago. I wish I had more time or more of an interest in playing the games, but I really don't. My skills aren't great, and when your skills aren't great because you don't spend much time playing, then you're discouraged by it anyway. And I've never had enough time for that. I've got kids! We used to play Duke matches together when they were younger. But life comes at you fast, and as a voice actor I'm struggling to get work all the time. So as a voice actor, I don't really have time to play games.

We are strictly just voice actors. That doesn't make us gamers. People will ask me “what was the
influence behind this thing?” and I really can't tell you! It's sort of like William Shatner being quizzed about an episode of Star Trek! He can't remember all of the episodes and storylines! It was just another gig. I don't mean to sound too flippant about that. Duke has been a fantastic job for me. I gained a lot of notoriety from it. But I do have to say it is just a job because video game acting is a very small portion of what I do. Most of the stuff I do is commercial work.


Would you say Duke is your favorite gaming role? We'd assume so.
Absolutely, oh my God! Duke is the coolest role any voice actor in video games could ever hope to
have. Other voice actors at panels often say to me “God, I wish I'd had that part. You're so lucky!” I tell them I know, I'm really lucky. Not only is the character so cool and what every guy wants to be, but because of the fans that come along with it. Duke Nukem fans are awesome and act like I'm some kind of a god! I'm just a douchebag who records a voiceover. God bless 'em! I just love having fans! I'm so lucky! It's so cool.

Were you allowed to write any of Duke's lines or ad lib them? How involved were you with the writing process?
I actually did ad lib and made a couple of suggestions that may have possibly been used in the game. I'm not sure if they were or not. But no, for the most part it's all pre-written. All of the script for Duke Nukem Forever was written by a couple of women, by the way, including lines like “I'll rip out your eyeballs and piss on your brain.” Kristen Haglund wrote that line! Two women wrote the script! I think it's so outrageous. Including women who are offended by the game, and there are a number of them out there. I've had mothers come up to me saying “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Jon St. John, for voicing that kind of character. You're destroying the fiber of our youngsters, blah blah blah...” And I'm like “You know what? I'm only recording a voice for it. I didn't write it. In fact, a couple of women wrote it!” And that shuts them down and the conversation's over. “Hey, a couple of chicks wrote Duke Nukem Forever and don't you forget it!”

Recently you were Sweet Tooth in the latest Twisted Metal. Was it a departure for you to play
someone so twisted and evil instead of your typical “badass?”
Sweet Tooth was one of my favorite roles because I like being a bad guy! Duke is one of my favorite
roles but he's generally a good guy, at least in the Duke Nukem games. When I get to be a maniacal, evil character? I love that. Like when I got to be Hans Gruber – or I think they changed his name to Simon Gruber in the Die Hard trilogy, and I really enjoyed doing that. I liked being the bad guy. There's a simple, easy motivation. I guess I dredge up an evil demon I'm channeling from hell. But it's really easy for me to play the bad guy, so I really like doing it. And the voice quality for the bad guy, I love doing snooty English bad guys. Love doing characters like that. They're so maniacal! Everyone says I'm a nice guy, but I'm able to channel up some evil at times. But it's fun.

Have you thought about translating that into a film or camera role?
You know, I have a dream that someday, some producer or director in Hollywood goes “You know
what? We need the next action hero for the next action movie. How about Duke Nukem?” And with
today's technology it can be a totally CG movie. They don't have to find an actor that looks like Duke.

They can make him look however they want. They can have any type of storyline. Personally, I would love to see an R-rated CG movie, the first of the genre, with Duke as the main character. I think that would be awesome and I would love to do the voice for it obviously. Would you pay $12 to see Duke Nukem 3D in 3D? If we can get everyone in the world to do that, then we'd be in business.

If you could play any of the male video game protagonists out there, who would you choose?
Wow. Now, I can tell you that I love the way Mark Hamill played the Joker in the Batman games, and
I understand he is not going to be doing that any longer. I would absolutely love a shot at that. That would be a great role for me. As I said, I love the evil characters and I know I could do a great Joker voice that's very close to what Mark Hamill did. That's a role I could get into. Any evil character out there – that's what I want to play!

What do you think comprises Duke Nukem's appeal? Is it in his personality? His guns? What do you think?
I think it's because when you're playing a Duke Nukem game, you are Duke. So – you're a guy. You're a 20-year-old guy hopped up on Red Bull, ready to play a video game. You want to kill something, but not necessarily humans, because that's not cool, but ALIENS, that's something else! And you wanna save babes and have them do favors for you! Duke looks like a badass, he sounds like a badass, you know? He may not have the arsenal of weapons he had at one time, but you know he's the baddest ass in the game, so you know when you're playing Duke you're one bad mo-fo! I think that's the appeal.

Do you ever act like him in every day life?
No, but every once in a while my girlfriend will say, “do the voice.” And I oblige, of course.

Do you think we'll see any more Duke Nukem games in the future?
You know, I hope so. I'm fairly certain there's going to be more downloadable content available for
Duke Nukem Forever, but as far as future games, everything I know I can tell you right now: nothing. I haven't heard from anyone at Gearbox or 2K Games since the game was released. In the meantime, there are other games out there. I don't know that I'll ever land another part that is as famous or as much of a pop icon as Duke because the timing was so good with the release of Duke Nukem 3D. I hope they do something in the future. I keep my fingers crossed. It's possible!

The Ventrilo Harassment videos are hilarious. Branching from that, what's the coolest fan made art, video or creation that you've been given or have seen on the internet?
I LOVE the Ventrilo videos. Love 'em. And I was a big fan of the Doug Huggem video the Mega64
guys did. They're in the area in Southern California about 30 miles from where I live and they asked
me if I would be involved. They said “We want to do a parody of Duke, but a kindler, gentler Duke!
He's called Doug Huggem and he wants to give Christian side-hugs and tell people to recycle!” They said it'd be really funny, so I thought “Well, you say that, but how funny are you?” They sent me to their website and I thought they were hilarious. So I went down to their studio and recorded some stuff for them. They recorded a really great parody of them.

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