R.A.P. Interview: Terri Apple

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Terri Apple, Voice-over Actress, Los Angeles, CA

Terri-AppleBy Jerry Vigil

If you don’t know the name, you probably know the voice. Terri Apple is one of the top voice-over actresses in the country. She’s been at it for over 25 years. Her credits include the award winning “Got Milk”, California Cow/cheese, Taco Bell, Sears, Wal-Mart, Oscar Meyer, BMW and hundreds of others, as well as several TV shows including E!  Modern Girls Guide To Life, A and E, ABC Family, Fox Sports and many others. Terri’s voice can be heard on TV and radio every day. Terri’s acting credits include “The Fair” a recently released feature film, ABC’s MOW, The Mary Kay Letourneau Story”, “Never, Never” a Sundance winner, and the animated series, “Punktuition.” Terri is the author of “Making Money In Voiceovers”, the 2nd Edition of which is just about to become available. Terri is also working on a video “How To Make Money In Voiceovers” as well as the audio version of Making Money In Voiceovers. She also recently started her own talent management company, ASE Talent. This month’s RAP Interview barely scratches the surface of the wealth of knowledge Terri possesses about the VO business, but we get a healthy serving nonetheless. Check the RAP CD for a sampling of Terri’s demos.

JV: Tell us about your start in the biz.
Terri: I was fifteen years old. I came from Kansas City, and I always had an acting background — whatever was around to do there, little industrial commercials, a little modeling, acting — I always was involved with acting, and at some point I was watching television and said, “Who are those people that do that, that say ‘Taster’s Choice,’” and I said, “Well, that’s got to be a part of acting.” So I looked into it. We had one agent in town, and I took a meeting. I made a homemade little cassette tape before I even knew that that’s what you were supposed to do — it was actually fairly good — and I took it over there and he said, “I don’t even know what to do in that business. Why don’t you be a secretary?” I said, “I’ll see you on Johnny Carson.” That’s how I started in the business.

As a kid, I used to read a lot of magazines, and read aloud. I used to look at the print advertisements and read them. I always found it very fascinating, and I always found the person doing the voiceover of a commercial really fascinating. I don’t know why. My ear was always drawn to the voice selling the product in a very subtle manner, and then one thing led to another.

I did a lot of leg work, which you still have to do today, and I don’t know where I got the gumption to do it. I just had no fear. I would call a production company — I had done a couple of on camera things — and I would say, “Hey, who’s doing your voiceover and narration for that?” and I would send out that little cassette tape, even though it was homemade… and I don’t recommend that today. Anyway, I just started doing a lot of work on my own. I did do a little nonunion at the beginning, and then got in with a couple of local advertising agencies that had national clients and started working jobs.

Most of the work back then was going to a very small number of people in Los Angeles only, and it wasn’t younger voices like myself, especially back then. It certainly wasn’t that kind of market. I don’t think I ever once heard a voice my age, but that never deterred me. I had a raspy little voice. But certainly they were adult voices I was hearing on the air.

As I said, I did a lot of the work myself. I took that cassette tape around and started booking little local, nonunion jobs. I call that ‘doing the stepping stones’, and my stepping stones were getting work so that I could create some real commercials for my demo and take off the fake ones. That way I had real produced spots to show what I had done.

The funny thing is, when I moved out to LA, I almost did not take my cassette tapes. I threw them into my car at the last minute. I thought, “Voiceovers are going to be too tough to break into.” I really came out here to be the next Debra Winger of the time, or Jessica Lange. I had studied serious method acting. Voiceovers to me were more of a secondary thing. I mean, I loved doing them. It’s not that they weren’t a means to an end. I wasn’t making a living at them then, but when I moved out here at 23, I had certainly done a nice chunk of work, so I don’t know why I didn’t think that it could’ve been a viable option to make some money. I just didn’t think about it.

JV: You’ve had tremendous success over the years in the voiceover business. How busy are you these days?
Terri: It’s slowed down a little bit. This business is interesting. Maybe it’s because of VoiceBank, or because there’s an influx of talent, or because the market has changed quite a bit in the sense that they used to run commercials five, six, seven years, where now they’ll run it a couple of cycles and move on — although I have a milk commercial that’s been running maybe six or seven years. And my other baby, Taster’s Choice, I think is still running. But for the most part, it seems they’re running a thirteen week cycle, and then they’re done. So the market has changed. I have a couple of TV shows now. I still do some regular accounts. I’ve got a couple of nationals, but it’s slowed down. I remember the day when I was in three sessions a day. I have a couple of buddies of mine that are guys that are staying pretty busy. One is Jim Cummings who goes around in a car with a driver. But he’s got a network as well, and I think when you have a network, you’re doing more work. He goes in every day. But the market has slowed down. I got an agent in New York about five years ago, and they send me stuff as well.

And technology has changed things, with MP3 and the ability to do everything on the internet. But, you have to be careful because new people getting into this business are really hot on this, and they say, “Oh, well I’ll just get an agent, and I’ll MP3 auditions,” but they have no idea how to self-direct. You really have to realize in this business that you’re competing against yourself — even if the script says, “Terri Apple type,” on it, and scripts sometimes do have my name on them and I still sometimes don’t book the job because I don’t have the producer or the writer there telling me exactly the mood they were looking for. “Oh no, Terri, we were thinking about you for the Oscar Meyer Lunchables. That’s the voice we want.” So as an actor, you have to recreate that mood to be able to get back into that part — “Oh, that’s my young mom. That’s my young gal-to-gal mom.” In certain spots, you have to recreate that mood. But the market has slowed down in the sense of number of auditions. I still go into my agency four days a week, I still do a number of jobs a week, but it has just changed. It’s cyclical.

JV: Tell us about your first book? What made you decide to do that?
Terri: This was back in 1996 or ’97. I think the book came out in ‘98 or ‘99. I was in Europe, and I said to my friend, “I think I’ll do a voiceover book because I get so many phone calls about how to break into this business.” The only book at the time had been Sue Blu’s Word of Mouth, which is an excellent book. I found it in Kansas City when I was maybe eighteen or nineteen, and found it extremely helpful. There hadn’t been anything like it — “Wow. Okay, I get it now. A lot of celebrities do these, and this is an actor’s medium, and here’s how they actually go in and do the job.” I really found it helpful.

But it was missing a lot of the nuances of how to market yourself in commercials and that kind of world, because Sue still does animation. She’s director on Stuart Little, and she’s done five million things. At any rate, her book had been quite old at that point and I said, “Somebody needs to write a book,” and I said to my friend, “I think I’ll go back to LA and write a book.” I have a writing background, so that’s what I did. I got so many phone calls a day, I said, “Oh my God, I can just refer people to my book and say, ‘That’s why I wrote the book!’” That’s the simple story. So I basically got back home, wrote the book and put everything in there that I would want to know if I was starting out in this business. I packed it with everything you’d want to know.

JV: And you’re about to release the second edition of this book. Tell us about this new one?
Terri: The second edition is going to be awesome. I am very proud of this one. Lone Eagle, which was the publishing house in LA, got purchased by VNU, which is a very large house in New York City — we already had national distribution; the book already apparently was number one in its field and was also the number one book for Lone Eagle. It is about to be released, and it comes with an audio tutorial. It’s not an audio book. I’m working on that separately, which I’ll finish and sell on my website. The audio tutorial includes these 101’s of voiceover, these little exercises that I do that I’ve created over my career. Basically, in this business, I think a lot of people just try to wing it. Most people that have been in the business for the number of years that I have, or even longer, basically look at this business the same way. Even if they’re doing their own thing, they’re still coming from a POV (point of view) or a mood, which is the most important aspect.

It not only has everything from the first edition, but it’s more current. I have a lot of interviews in there. I interview Stuart from Voicebank. I do an interview with Jeff Danis, who is really the biggest agent in Los Angeles, Erik Seastrand, who’s an agent at William Morris in LA.

I also wanted to make the book something not only enjoyable as you read — so it isn’t a heavy tech book — but also give you the guidelines. I’m very straightforward with things, and I really wanted to make it something comfortable to read.

And nowadays you certainly can be living in Michigan and have a career. You can be in Texas with Voicebank and all the new technology. People have agents all over the country. I have a friend that has twenty agents. I said to her, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She has twenty agents across the country. She has her own little recording studio in the back, where I teach out of sometimes. And it’s not just a little ISDN hookup; she’s got that in her house. She has a full recording studio in the back, which is called The Garage 247.

JV: Twenty agents! Sounds like the business of getting an agent has changed considerably over the years as well.
Terri: I think it used to be that everybody’s goal was to get with the hottest agent in town, and you have to realize that’s really not the way to do it. People will say, “Oh, I just want to do a hot demo.” I’ll say, “So once you spend $1,500 or $2,000 on a hot demo before you can even act or before you know how to recreate that mood, what are you going to do when they say, ‘Hey, Steve, I love what you did on Toyota,’ and you can’t go back and recreate it because you don’t know the mood?” You’re stuck with a product. And the chances of them taking you on are highly unlikely unless they know you or have heard your spots on the air. We’re talking about the big agencies. Your chances are slim to none. And I’m not negative; I’m very realistic. I mean, more power to a new talent. Advertising agencies are always looking for new people. It’s the reason why I am very encouraging to people in the business, because it is that type of business. But the goal should not be to get with the hottest agencies in town, because they’re just sitting there, never getting called in to read. They have to understand that this agent isn’t going to send you in on every single voiceover audition. They’re mixing it up a little with two or three other voiceover actors. The goal shouldn’t be to just put that awesome demo together, and sit around and try to get in with an agent. The goal should be to learn how to read, understand, and create the jobs for yourself, and then get with a great little agent that has Voicebank in your particular town, or even if it’s New York or LA, there’s still twenty or so awesome agencies out here that aren’t just the top agencies in town.

And now what has happened with the agencies is there are agencies all over the country taking on talent regardless whether you live in that particular state. Another thing to realize is that nowadays, with Voicebank, agents have gotten lazy. They don’t pick up the phone and make a phone call anymore. Nobody talks directly with the agents. They basically just go to Voicebank, and all the castings come through Voicebank now. So if you’re with a little piddly agency in Omaha, as long as they’re on Voicebank, you’re getting most of the same auditions as the other guy, if you get invited onto this stuff, if you’re a signator and you’re union.

JV: What’s the story with union versus nonunion these days?
Terri: Well let me tell you something interesting. I started this management company about nine months ago because I thought that I would give actors an opportunity that they were not getting with the big agencies or the big houses. I really wasn’t starting it for people across the country. It was more for local, LA talent, but I have branched out to some other people. What I have found is that usually they’re filled with union jobs just like everybody else across the country. But I have found in the last couple of days that things are changing. Like Petco has now gone nonunion, which I had no idea of. I knew Six Flags was, but Petco…. Let me tell you what’s happened. I cannot believe this. I can’t even send this out to my talent to audition for. Petco is casting three national commercials. I thought I read it wrong. The pay is $400 buyout for three national commercials, length of run, undetermined. I am so insulted. I wrote back to the producer and said, “I just want to make sure I’m reading this right….” I didn’t want to be rude; I just said, “It’s gotta be a misprint!” I booked a gal on some Six Flags stuff, and every single time she works and goes in and does a session, it’s $400. I guess what’s happening is some of these larger companies don’t want to spend the money, and they’re realizing they can get some awesome talent that’s nonunion for much cheaper because that same union job would cost a lot more. If I had that Petco running, I could make $50,000 off that, or more. And it’s insulting to me, not only as a union talent but as a respected talent, to think that they think they’re going to get some actor to go in there and knock it out for them in an hour and pay $400, and play it ten times a day. I won’t even let my people audition for that. I think it’s crazy.

So most of the stuff that does come through via Voicebank or whatever, is a lot of what we call special projects — that could be an industrial, that could be for a lot of web work now. There’s even affiliate work across the country. For example, a guy or gal wants to get into the affiliate market, which is channel seven in your market — NBC, or whatever it is — they gotta know how to chase that work, and I know how to go do that. Long story short, they can sit in their own little home studio with a microphone and that little Zephyr they can put on their computer, or not even the whole ISDN hookup, and they can do daily affiliate work and get a couple of these radio station and TV stations and make $100, $200 a day, but you got to know how to chase it, and you got to know how to get it.

I’m not an advocate of going out and taking these cheap jobs – especially like this Petco job for a hundred dollars. I don’t care what it leads to, you still have to have some self respect, and you’ve gotta move up into the business. It doesn’t mean don’t take a nonunion job here or there if you’re not union.

JV: It sounds like the laws of supply and demand at work.
Terri: Well, I guess so. Maybe that’s part of what’s happening. Back when we had the strike, I got very lucky and was doing tons of promos, and I’ve done promos for years. I was doing Fox Family during that time, so I didn’t really feel the hit. Even buddies of mine that were making a lot of money were like, “Oh my god,” and I was like, “I don’t get what you’re talking about. I’m doing great.” But it did hit you at different times, and I do think that maybe that is what’s occurring, because there’s all these small agents across the country now, and there’s all these smaller houses.

I wonder if we’re not in a way knocking out the union. I haven’t spoken to my agent about it, but I know there are three or four big companies that are going nonunion. But for the most part, there are still those big, national jobs. The money has always been in the national network marketplace. The money’s always been in networks, period, just doing the promos for networks.

I do a couple of shows for E!. They’re all buyout. When I was doing Fox Family, or Fox Sports, or ABC, when you do a show for the networks, you’re making money every time it goes.

JV: Your website also mentions a video you’re doing.
Terri: I do have a video. It’s in post right now: “How to Make Money in Voiceovers.” It’ll show you how to actually stand in front of the mike, and work with other actors, and be able to visually see all the concepts of the voiceover business, and how somebody breaks down a script, what they go through. So the video is probably an hour and a half, two hours of everything you want to know about breaking into the business as well. I play some demos and just give you a different option if you really just want to sit and watch it. And it’s not the same thing as the audio. They’re all different. I have so much information. I just thought I’d offer something entertaining, and very informative, and a different option for you to be able to use — “Oh, okay. I get it. Now I can actually see how somebody stands in front of the mike.” Not that somebody’s that naïve, but it shows different mike techniques, and tools, and the recording situation. I have quite a few interviews on there as well. I interview a very big sound guy at a studio in LA, and we talk a lot about sessions. I bring in some actors and show the auditioning process, the actual voiceover session, things like that. It’s going to be very cool. I guess no one’s ever done it before. I thought about that a year ago, and I just couldn’t get around to doing it, but it’s going to be available soon. We’re in the final cut with it, and I’ll probably have it up in about a month and a half.

JV: You have a chapter in the book titled, “Finding Your Technique.” Elaborate on this.
Terri: It’s about finding your signature sound, finding really what it is you do best. At the end of the day, you really are just selling you, and I hate to say that because that really is leaving out so many elements that I talk about in understanding the nuances of reads, and understanding how to audition. But really, we all have our signature sound. I do my thing. What’s my thing? Well, I don’t know. Even when it says, “Do your thing,” I go, “Which thing are you looking for? You want the no BS, matter of fact? You want the young mom? You want the energetic and fun?” So you have to understand what your signature sound is, what it is you do.

Now, I find it very interesting to get to that. Somebody says, “Well, I don’t know what the heck I sound like.” It’s not a matter of listening to yourself on an answering machine. Voiceovers are about mood, point of view mood. So as a person, if you want to know what you sound like, you have to understand which particular mood you are referring to. When you’re sitting in a bath enjoying a glass of wine, or lighting candles, or talking to somebody on the phone, aggravated, your vocal quality comes across differently. Some voiceover actors think that it’s about the voice only, when the voice is the last thing I’m thinking about when I’m doing a voiceover. The voice is the icing on the cake. It’s the mood that goes inside of it. So you have to understand which mood you’re referring to, and if you want to get to know your signature sound, well, lay down three adjectives that people use to describe you. Warm, authoritative, trusting – that’s what you represent to the world. Playful, fun, sardonic — that’s what you represent to the world.

Now within that, you have five million moods, depending on if you got a ticket on your car or you are feeling madly in love that particular day. You have to understand, when you’re in doing an audition, you have to make active choices. You have to really be in that character, especially in radio spots. TV’s a little bit different. TV is one mood. You carry it through. You’re hip, cool. You’re warm, authoritative. Now the reason why in the book I talk about creating your technique and your signature sound is that you want to get to know what you do really well, and you want to be able to recreate that for a lot of different spots, because maybe you’re going to sell Dove one day, and maybe you’re going to sell a Toyota truck the next.

Even if a guy’s got a really tough, hard sounding voice with a bit of an edge, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to want him to sell cancer treatment, or to talk about a hospital. And what you have to understand is that’s where the specs come in. It’s the nuance of, “Well, I just have this cool, hip voice,” but they’re asking for hip, cool, and understanding. So you’ve gotta understand the element as an actor — even if you have this really hip, cool, tough voice — where understanding comes into that. So you recreate it in your head, “Well, when I’m talking to my grandmother, I’m understanding,” and then you recreate that for the read. Otherwise, you’re missing that element of understanding, and I’ll tell you, with all the actors out there today, with all the auditioning going on, they’re in and out listening in the first three seconds if your energy is not at the top of the read. That doesn’t mean push the read. That means matching the specs and hitting what they’re looking for. The reason why you go beyond your signature sound and what your particular technique is, is so you can get handed all the other scripts by the agent. Otherwise you’re going to walk into your agency or whatever you get to audition with, and it’s always going to be the same script: hip, cool guy. You want to be able to open your range so you can hopefully book a lot more jobs than just that.

JV: You’re also doing some coaching, is that right?
Terri: The coaching has come out of the same thing, people asking, “Where do I find a good teacher?” There are great teachers out there, but I’m like, “I know what I’m doing. I’ve directed for years.” I’ve directed a lot of spots, and I have a ball doing it. I take a very small amount of people. I do three, four people a week, a little group. Once in a while I’ll do a class. I think what I’m going to do is a monthly VIP on my website. I haven’t figured out the price yet. I’m going to offer a monthly tutorial, a one to two hour thing. Every single month, they get a different tutorial based on some great aspect of the business. They can also download three or four scripts. Some months I’ll have interviews. They can email me questions. I’ll try to figure out a way to maybe allow people within that one month to call me for a fifteen minute private type of thing.

So that’s something I’m trying to generate on the website. I have not gotten that going yet. I was trying to get the video and the audio done and wait until this book came out, but I’m going to start my emailing process and see whoever wants to join. They’re going to get a pass code. They can just go online, and all through the month, that same tutorial will be up. They can stop it and start it. They can get the scripts, and it will be on different subjects every single month. I go through all the avenues of what you get when you are in a classroom for four or five hundred dollars a month.

JV: Most of our readers are in radio, and we’ve always heard about how coming from radio is a curse in the VO business. How do you address people from radio that want to excel in the voiceover business?
Terri: Hopefully what a lot of people in radio have done is they’ve done a lot of commercials that have come through the station that are nonunion, where a script came in and the DJ reads it. Now here’s the difference. I’ve taught Broadway actors as well just as much as DJ’s, and when you’re playing a DJ, for lack of a better way to say it, you’re still playing a mood. It depends what your sell is as a DJ, as a radio personality. Are you fun, energetic, and enthusiastic? Then that is exactly the mood which will only fit for that particular spec for going into radio or television as a VO person. And by the way, you have to understand, when you’re being that DJ guy, you’re representing who you are for that two hours or however long you’re on the air — low key, calm, cool. There are DJs that are low key, calm, and cool. They’re not all high energy. Low key, calm, cool — that’s a jazz station or whatever it is. If that fits into those specs, then you’re right on the money.

Beyond that, you’ve got to still understand it’s still acting. You still have to understand, “Okay, I’m Tom, I’m a DJ. When I’m doing my DJ thing, I’m in this particular mood, because I’ve got to be hyped up. I’ve got to get everybody excited.” Tom, you’ve got to realize, in that vocal quality that you’re representing to the public is a fun, high, energetic read. That’s that kind of sell that it is. That’s only going to work when Toyota calls for fun, high energy. Now the thing within the voiceover business is understanding all the nuances. It’s very small scales of change. Warm it up. That doesn’t mean do anything else except for knowing exactly how much to warm it up, and that takes practice. It takes auditioning and it takes time and looking at scripts to understand. A lot of people will take a script and just be all over the place with it. I don’t think DJs have any harder of a time. I know a lot of guys that were DJs that are now making a great living in it. The difference is, they just have to look at it as a different aspect of the business. As a DJ, they were just being a DJ at that particular time.

I don’t want to get too specific, but you break it down in a sense into a beginning, middle, and end. It tells a story. I’m playing a pregnant woman. I’m about to give birth. I’m in the car with my husband who’s some fat actor that I’ve never met before. I’ve got a parking ticket on my car. I’m a little tired and I have to go in and be very, very nervous and happy at the same time, and nine months pregnant, and my husband’s just gotten pulled over by a cop. That’s the scene of a stupid radio spot. I have to actively create it. You have to actively be in that mood and do it. So it’s no different for a DJ. It’s no different for a Broadway actor. They just have to know the nuances of how big to get, how small to get, but we make active choices. So if it says, “Warm, trusting, keep it real,” those are specs that are going to naturally pull in the people that fit that vocal quality. But what’s in that? You had a lousy day, you had a great day. I have to all of a sudden get into the quality of warm, trusting, and whatever. I think it’s just a general note that I think they say that the DJs probably overact a little bit and push the words just like people on Broadway do.

But the problem is, people just need to realize it has nothing to do with the voice. The cool quality of the voices come out when you just throw your voice away, when you just pick the mood and throw the words away. It doesn’t matter who it is, even if it’s a guy that’s an attorney and never been in the business. The DJs know the mike technique, and they understand the nuance of the sell, but they’ve got to realize what they’re selling. They’ve got to know what they’re selling.

I listen to AM a lot, and when you hear them do a commercial, they’re not picking a mood. They’re just being Dr. Laura Schlessinger on the air, selling whatever it is, or Howard Stern does the same thing. He’s a DJ guy, and then a spot will come in, and he’s got to talk about it. What he has not done is pick a POV, a point of view, a mood, and every actor, regardless what background you come from, you have to pick a mood and understand, even within your vocal quality, what mood you’re coming from. But there’s a great market out there for DJs or radio people, because they already have so much access to make money in that avenue because they know a lot of people in the business. I’ve worked with a lot of guys that were all radio guys, and really all it is, is getting more specific in their reads, and defining exactly what the product is at that particular moment. It’s a very easy choice.

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