icon. As a card he had a huge impact on the game, introducing the concept of decks with no duplicate cards – which was a new thing for Hearthstone – and toting the biggest heal ability we’d seen. More than that, though, there was something appealing about that big cheesy grin, that boundless enthusiasm. And now that a new Reno card – Reno the Relicologist – has been revealed, it’s been cool to discover that a great deal of Reno’s charm comes straight from the voice actor who plays him, Travis Willingham.You may not know Travis by name (although if you watch Critical Role you certainly do) but you’d almost certainly have heard his voice given his hugely impressive catalogue of work across anime, western animation and video games. And if you’re a Hearthstone player, then you’ve probably heard Reno say “we’re gonna be rich!” many many times too. What follows is my chat with him ahead of the new card reveal, and it’s a pretty fun insight into life as a voice actor, as well as the importance of Reno’s moustache. Enjoy!
IGN: Before we talk Hearthstone, can you give me a brief overview of how you got into this field of work and what your background is?
Travis Willingham: I started out in voice acting in anime, back in Dallas, Texas. My wife and I, Laura Bailey, although we were not married at the time, we both got our start at Funimation, working on shows like Dragon Ball Z, Fullmetal Alchemist, some of those really great titles back in the early 2000s and then we both separately made our move out to California, where there are video games aplenty and more anime to be dubbed and also western animation shows, original animation. We were very, very interested in pursuing that and we were lucky enough to land a few early roles in video games and animation and it’s just sort of built up from there.
But working with Blizzard on all of their amazing properties, whether it’s StarCraft or World of Warcraft or Hearthstone, it’s been nothing short of a little dream come true. You know one of the great things about the properties that they have is the breadth of characters… So whether you’re a tinkering goblin or a very burly-chested moustachioed adventurer of the human variety, there’s never a shortage of anything to sink your teeth into as an actor and stretch your repertoire of character acting.
IGN: What’s your history with Blizzard specifically?
Travis Willingham: Oh man, I think my first time working with Blizzard might have been around 2010, 2011. I think it was a character named Rell Nightwind in World of Warcraft and I was just excited to even have a character at all. He was a very cold and calculating Elvin fellow, if I remember. I played a few other characters there and finally booked the part of Gazlowe in Heroes of the Storm and that was where it all started to kinda take a turn. He was this tinkering goblin who only looks out for himself and I remember working with the fantastic voice director, Andrea [Toyias]. And she just said “Hey, so if this guy has maybe like an East Coast accent and really looked out for himself, what would it sound like?” And I was like “Oh maybe he sounds like this. He’s just kinda looking out for himself and hey, who cares about you?” She went, “Oh my god, get in the booth.” And that was the beginning of a really fun relationship with Andrea.
And after that, the auditions for Reno Jackson came up and after I booked that part I came in and she said “Why am I not surprised that the gregarious audition that I heard had your name attached to it?” She said “Why did you decide on this particular voice for Reno? And I said “Look, the guy is obviously some sort of safari adventuring adept adventurer, but that moustache, that tells me all I need to know.” She was like “Really? The moustache in the character design?” That is a strong moustache game going on right there. I have to live up to that moustache. And she said “All right, whatever does it for you.” And we were off to the races with whoever Reno Jackson was.
IGN: Who were some of the moustachioed men in real life that you looked to for inspiration? We talking, like, Tom Selleck? What were you picturing?
Travis Willingham: Tom Selleck, yeah, you nailed it, right? You gotta mention Tom Selleck. Hawaii 5-0 sets the tone. What other accredited moustaches do you have to mention? I know I’m probably forgetting some. I think Sean Connery has rocked a solid moustache in his day. Of course, Parks and Rec… Ron Swanson may be the greatest A1 alpha moustache of all time. Those all have to be blood relatives of Reno Jackson.
IGN: Tell me a little bit about that first audition for Reno. It sounds like you very much were like “This is what I think he should sound like.” But what directions were you given or what information were you provided? How much did they tell you who the character was in advance or was it kind of just “Get in there and have a look at some art and just wing it”?
Travis Willingham: Well you know, for Reno, it was actually an in-studio audition. It wasn’t something that was sent through the normal audition channels and one thing that Blizzard never has a shortage of is amazing character art. They work with some of the most talented concept and character artists in the industry. There have been so many times where you’re at a session and they say “Here is the name of this character. Here is a brief description of him. We haven’t really landed on a personality, what do you think he sounds like?” And you’ll say “Do you have any character art or a picture to go off of?” And they’re like “No, let’s just take a shot and see what it sounds like” and you’ll try a couple things and maybe something sticks, maybe it doesn’t, but any time you’re able to look at an image, they really are worth a thousand words. If the concept artist has been either authorised or is brave enough to supply an expression or maybe some sort of attitude that’s inherent in that art, it really provides a shortcut to who that character could possibly be.
I remember being in the studio and I think she had flashed several different characters across the screen and she was like “Would you want to read any of these?” And I asked her to stop on Reno Jackson and I said “That is a tremendous specimen of a man right there.” …I think at the time he had rolled up sleeves, really nice muscular, super hairy forearms, probably shorts that were a little bit of the crotch-hugging variety, a little bit of the 80s basketball league where we didn’t really need to see all of that white supernova thigh but we were getting it anyway. And he was ready to move quickly and probably swing from a whip and I said “Okay look, I gotta take a shot at this guy.” And she said “Great”. And everything he said was just SUPER FANTASTIC, very, very confident and I could see from her expression that she was enjoying herself and I was too and that’s how we started with Reno.
IGN: What other Hearthstone voice work have you done?
Travis Willingham: So for Hearthstone, we’ve also had Gazlowe show up for a few lines… And then I think I’ve been able to play a few other ancillary characters, whether they’re elves or they are giant Minotaur creatures or rock golems or any of the things that pop up in those NPC cards. It’s another one of those scenarios where they’ll show some art and they’re like “Do you have a voice for this guy?” And you’ll be like “I don’t know if that’s me.” And then they’ll pull up a giant super muscular Minotaur and I’m like “Yes please, can I try that?” So we’ll do that for a little bit. So Gazlowe and Reno, as far as I remember, are the two biggest cards in Hearthstone that I play.
IGN: Okay, cool. Tell me about getting the call to come back in and revisit Reno. What was the conversation like and what was that recording session like?
Travis Willingham: Sure, sure. Well I remember in his first version, Reno was very centred on himself. He was almost like a solo operator and that worked A-OK for him. In this version of League of Explorers, the Saviors of Uldum, he’s sort of working with a team. He’s looking out for other people… a group that he is bringing his talents to. So some of the lines are really directed towards other individual characters, other individual players, commenting on something that they have done well or conversely commenting on something that they have done poorly or that he thought he could have done in a much more successful way, if he had just been given the chance, and that was always fun.
I like when writers further shape and colour a character by letting you interact with other specific personalities, whether that person is cold and Reno is trying to pull information or excitement or enthusiasm out of them or if they are equally as alpha and looking to assume a leadership position and then it’s a case of one-upmanship between the characters and sticking their chests out and fighting for the biggest moment of bravado. And then other times you got to see him be really sheepish in moments of failure or moments of embarrassment, which I don’t know if we’d really seen before.
So any time you get to visit a character for a second time like this, you’re also going to get to know them better and again Blizzard is so amazing about rounding out their characters with fantastic writing and really finding a cool and unique way to piece together these unique personalities in a way that forms a team that you’re looking forward to play with for hours and hours on end.
IGN: Do you have any favourite interactions or lines that really jumped out at you, that stuck in your head that you could share with me?
Travis Willingham: Oh man. I’d have to go through the script one at a time, I mean, he’s such a peaks and valleys character so it could be the most simple, forward-facing line. Four simple words like “We’re gonna be rich!” And he gets so excited at that concept that he’s like “We’re gonna be rich!” At any given time he could be very baseline or he could be ready to explode with exuberance…
IGN: How long are you in the booth to do the complete set of Reno’s voice work? What kind of timeframe are we talking about?
Travis Willingham: It’s several hours normally. We get in there, we review all the material, we’ll play some reference just so everybody gets in the same place of what the voice print of Reno was established before, how he sounded, what his vocal mannerisms are, how he’ll react to things. If he laughed, what did the laugh sound like, what were the highs and lows and then after about that first half hour period, we’ll start diving into the lines and we take it nice and easy in the beginning.
Andrea’s really great about giving us an A, B and a C take that we can do back-to-back because you’ll read a line once and then you’ll immediately have an idea while you’re saying the first take and so you come in with the second take and do it a different way and then off of hearing those two, your brain’s like “Oh there’s a third way I can do it.” And you’ll give them a C take. Just 1, 2, 3, back-to-back and then they’ll say “Yep, let’s take a second” and they’ll pick one and say “Great, we like this one. That seems to be consistent with what we had before. Let’s move on.”
And where you play Reno Jackson once before, you might have only gotten a certain amount of time with him but where you start getting all this new material, you also gain additional real estate – where the character goes, how he relates to other people, what’s really important to him. Does he value friendship over functionality? Does he value treasure over, I don’t know, staying alive? Those sorts of things that become very apparent very quickly in some of those situations.
A lot of it is also questions for the writers. It’s not just what I bring to the character, it’s really great having some of those talented writers at Blizzard be there to say “We’ve sort of set up these situations, these different relationships with Reno, this is where we feel like he’s going if that’s something you want to exploit or you want to change, give it a shot and if it works, then great, we’ll roll with it and we’ll keep going. Or if it’s something we want to tweak or change or maybe take a different approach with then [we’ll do that]” – they’re really great about being malleable in that way.
So it’s a really fantastic collaborative process and we’ll sit in there for two, three hours and just bang through it… And before you know it, we’re at the end and you almost wish you could take the scripts with you so you could remember each one of those little moments that happened but you usually don’t hear it again until the game comes out and then it’s almost a surprise for you as well. I’m hearing it again for the first time since we recorded it.
IGN: It seems to me that it’s interesting for you that if you’re working on, say, a long-running anime series, you do the voice work for a character and even people who love that series might only hear each of those lines once or twice, but in Hearthstone, there will be certain lines that people will hear over and over and over again. Does that change how you approach those roles?
Travis Willingham: Oh of course… there are certainly situations in which we will be working off of a script and unless there is someone that tells us, “This is a line that’s going to be played a lot because it’s a situation that will come up a lot” …or “It’s right at the start of a match” or any of those things where they say “We may need some variation on this just so it’s not too repetitive, this is something that’s going to be said a lot”, we might just blow by it.
And thankfully the folks at Blizzard are so great about saying “Hey, we want to get a few versions of this so it stays fresh, it stays new, it’s going to be one of the lines that’s said more.” And then as actors, when you hear that that’s going to be a line that’s said more and maybe something that people remember is a pretty popular line of Reno’s or something, that they parrot to each other and they relay the lines that they know from that particular character. All of the sudden you’re like “Oh shit, maybe I need to go back and put a little more thought into that one. Was it good enough? Is it up to snuff?” And they’re like “Yes, yes, it’s fine. Don’t overthink it, we’re just letting you know it’s something that might play a bit more.” But as actors, the saying is you’re never quite done working on something, you just decide to leave it. So we’re like “Okay, I guess that was good enough. We’ll leave it for now” and you keep going. But it definitely plays in our heads, like oh boy, that’s going to be the one that they hear a lot.
IGN: “We’re gonna be rich” is certainly a line that everybody associates with Reno now. It’s become very iconic. One other question about the sessions, is there room for you to improvise in terms of the lines or is it purely just the performance?
Travis Willingham: You know, sometimes we are able to improvise a little bit. They do such a great job of really providing this fantastic well-rounded script but sometimes a line on a page is also not the easiest thing to say. Sometimes it presents what we call verbal gymnastics. Either it’s really hard consonants that are back-to-back or if you’re trying to say something quickly you’ll just get caught up on it because the line’s been written but it hasn’t been said out loud before and in those cases they’re really great about changing it. But also, once you get in a character’s head and you’re really vibing with how that person reacts or something that he might say, they’re very good about saying “Yeah, whatever, throw it out there”. And some of the times they’ll just leave it open for a wild take and you can just go on a spiel. Some of it might not get used but others of it, they’re like “Oh my god, that was great. We’re totally keeping that.” So they really make it a playground where you can feel free to explore things that might work and might not but either way, it makes a really fun session.
IGN: Awesome. Are there any other iconic World of Warcraft characters that you’d love to do the voice for in Hearthstone?
Travis Willingham: Oh well, I know that I personally have always had my eyes on Jaina Proudmoore – I’m not sure who the current voice actress is. She’s really talented and okay, I guess – whatever, but I’m just saying if Blizzard wants to do a fresh take on Jaina, I’m right here for the light, ready to rock it. So when you’re ready, you can come upgrade. No offense, again, to whoever it is that’s playing that character but…
IGN: Last question. You just eluded to the fact that you’re part of a family of friends and partners who do this professionally, so you must know plenty of other people who also do voice work in Hearthstone. What’s some of the stuff you’ve heard that you’re really impressed by? Are there any characters that you really love how they’ve been brought into the game or they surprised you?
Travis Willingham: Oh man, like you said, some of my closest friends are in the game, whether Matthew Mercer, Liam O’Brien, my wife – Laura Bailey, Steve Blum, Troy Baker, you have some of the most talented voice actors in the industry in the game. And not just those people but beyond. For me, Illidan Stormrage, when I found out that Liam played that character, it blew my mind. It didn’t sound like him at all. I thought it was somebody else and I went up to him and I was like “Do they pitch your voice? How did you make it sound like that?” And he said very calmly “Screaming, lots and lots of screaming.” I really had to shake his hand on that one because he sounds like an enemy that I would not want to find myself on the battlefield with one-to-one. I know he’s been playing that character for years and it’s definitely a fan favourite and the character design is not too shabby either. I remember being at BlizzCon and having that statue be out in the middle of the floor and whew, you don’t want to find yourself in a dark room with that guy. Just saying. Intimidating.
IGN: Thanks so much for your time, Travis!
Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN’s Australian content team. He’s on Twitter.