Even if you’re sick of Call of Duty, it’s hard to deny its impact in the gaming world. Since it’s one of the most popular video game franchises, Call of Duty has naturally featured some high-profile voice actors, including Ice Cube, Kiefer Sutherland, and Gary Oldman. In the Black Ops games, one of the most prolific characters is surely Master Sergeant Frank Woods, a key protagonist whose fate is determined by the player’s choice in Black Ops II.
MakeUseOf had the unique opportunity to sit down with James C. Burns, who plays Woods in both Call of Duty: Black Ops titles; his performance even earned him Spike TV’s 2010 award for video game character of the year. Burns’ latest movie undertaking, titled Coldwater, debuts on August 15. In the film, a teenager is sent to a correctional facility, but what he encounters there is more than he ever could have imagined. The trailer is available to view if you’re interested.
Burns’ character in Coldwater, Colonel Frank Reichert, is nearly identical to Woods. As such, the film provides a great opportunity for an interview. Enjoy!
Acting and Black Ops
MakeUseOf: Before you got into acting, what types of jobs did you have? Did you enjoy any of them as much as acting?
James C. Burns: I haven’t had a lot of gigs. I worked in a weapons plant right out of college, I sang and played guitar in dive bars, I played hockey for money for three years, and I made my living as a hockey/sports-coach up until 2005, which is when I decided to dive into the “acting” biz full-time.
Nothing compares to being a filmmaker – I love what I do! The best part of my day is when I get to go to work. I think I would have also enjoyed being in a band, but I just didn’t have the skills for that.
MUO: Voice acting for a video game is distinct from being in a movie. Tell us about the differences; did anything surprise you about the job?
James: Actually, I’m not a voice actor. The Woods role was shot entirely in live-action. Everything you see Woods do and say happened on a sound stage – exactly like it would happen if it were a film or a television show. It’s called full performance capture – we hit our marks and say our lines like we would on stage or on screen.
There is very little difference between the three (film, TV, performance capture) – I mean, each media has its requirements, but as a professional, you make that adjustment rather quickly (or you don’t work!). I love playing army roles, so Black Ops was like being ten years old again! The only difference is that now, instead of a teacher yelling at me to stop, people pay me to do it!
MUO: Do you see yourself doing more video game voicing in the future? What types of games would you be in?
James: Again, since I am not a VO (voice-over) guy I kind of doubt it. The Woods role was a once in a lifetime gig, so I’m a bit spoiled. If that role was cast today, it would go to an A-lister. For me to land that gig was the result of an amazing series of fortunate events.
The timing was perfect and I am very grateful. Besides, my film career has begun to take off and I really want to write and direct something in the near future.
MUO: How often do people in everyday life recognize your voice as Sergeant Woods? Do you ever get asked to say any specific phrases?
James: A lot actually, since there has been so much PR associating me and the game. The majority of fans recognize me long before they even hear me speak. Then it’s on! I think I have around a thousand or more one-liners, and fans will pull out the most obscure ones and ask for a reading. I love that! But the most common requests are “You can’t kill me,” “This is ‘Nam, baby!,” and “You see that hind? We’re gonna take it!” Oh, and of course, “Nurse batsh*t? Where are my smokes?!”
MUO: What’s it like hearing yourself in Black Ops? Do you ever wish you could re-do a line?
James: Oh God yes! I always want more takes! I strive for the “perfect” take every time and if my eye blinks in the wrong place, it will ruin my day. I’m psychotic about making the character seem fully realistic and authentic.
I judge everything I do harshly, but thankfully the director knows when to move on! But what’s interesting is once I see the scene a few times, it looks like it was the only possible way the scene could have gone. Thank God I don’t drink!
MUO: Coldwater premiers on August 15. Tell us about your character and how he is like Woods.
James: Sure. My character is Colonel Frank Reichert, USMC retired. Except for the rank and the last name, he and Woods are nearly identical characters. The Colonel’s role would be the job Woods has once he leaves the service. The difference is in the circumstances. The Colonel is a bit more vulnerable because he doesn’t have the massive support of the US military around him. He does not have the well-trained and disciplined men of the Corps to execute his commands.
So when he delegates authority to his staff, they are prone to mishandle the situations they are confronted with. Because we shot Coldwater and Black Ops II at the same time, a lot of Woods-isms crept into my performance as the Colonel.
There are behaviors in the movie that will jump out for gamers. They’ll probably laugh at moments that no one else finds funny because it “feels” like Woods is saying the lines. It’s kind of like the movie has Easter Eggs… ask a gamer to define that if you don’t know what that is.
MUO: What do you think will draw people to want to see the film? Will gamers be a target audience?
James: First off, it’s just a really good film; a powerful, important movie. Coldwater helps to show what self-empowerment is and the importance of finding your path in life. I wouldn’t say gamers are the target audience, but they are an important and viable part of the viewership base.
At some point you have to step away from the controller and figure out how you’re going to make a living; figure out who you are beyond your gamertag. This is a cautionary tale of how certain choices just don’t work. I think the film would make a great report for a school assignment! Wow, did I just scare half of the audience away?
MUO: I’m curious about your preparation to become Colonel Reichert in Coldwater. What was the hardest part?
James: This profession is a lifestyle – I do it everyday. A lot of the prep is already in place when I take on a role – it’s like buying new shoes; you put them on and lace them up, or zip them up, or not – that is kind of how you build a character. Basically, what I do for a living is make my fantasy world seem so real, that even I believe it. It’s like being crazy on purpose; like when you have an argument with someone who isn’t even there.
We all do it. I need to give my imagination as much fuel as I can to create this “world” in my head. Which means I create characters, and then develop a context to put them in. The role of the Colonel was a blessing because I used all the research and prep I had done for the Woods role as backstory for the Colonel. And since I was shooting both at the same time, each character fed the other.
As a rule, my approach is to research extensively for a role: read, study films, talk to people, watch people, learn the relevant skills (weapons, knives, horseback riding, etc.). For me it’s about finding authenticity. It’s all about making every word and movement have meaning. It’s like a controlled decent into insanity, or not… I sound nuts, don’t I?!
Odds and Ends
MUO: You’re in the process of putting together a film called Nam Zombies. Tell us about your goals in doing so and your plans for funding it.
James: Hah! What an education searching for film financing has been! We have a killer script, the cast from Black Ops II, the crew and locations lined up… so what’s the problem? There is no problem! It’s a business, simple as that. We have to convince people that they will make their money back and then some when investing in the film. It just takes practice and persistence. The product is great and it’s out to a few producers – I am optimistic!
MUO: What’s one cool thing people don’t know about James Burns?
James: Not sure what you mean by cool. I’m not really a cool guy. I’m a bit of a goof! So here, have three: I wear bamboo socks, I played professional hockey in Belgium where we won the Belgian National Championship in 1984-’85, and I went to Afghanistan with the USO and flew around in a Blackhawk gunship to visit the troops.
Thanks to Mr. Burns for an interesting look into the acting for Call of Duty and his film! If you’d like to purchase Coldwater, you can do so on iTunes. You can also view screenshots, learn about the cast, and listen to the soundtrack on the movie’s official website. If you’re interested in following James’ work, be sure to follow him on Twitter.
Did you enjoy this interview? What are your thoughts on Coldwater? Respond in the comments below!