If you are one of the many people who has a passion for playing video games, you may be familiar with the vocal artistry of Jan Johns without even realizing it. She has worked on some prestigious games including Dungeons and Dragons and Fallout 3 and 4. What you may not know is the backstory of this versatile actress, and I was so excited to get the recent opportunity to chat with her about her work in the industry as well as some details that have shaped her as a person and as an entertainer.
What inspired you to get involved in the entertainment industry?
When I was growing up, I was fairly isolated. My dad was a repo man, and car lots aren’t the best places to meet and interact with kids your own age. I really had no friends, and I was surrounded by adults. So I discovered that I could make people laugh. I was really good at mimicking people, and that was something that always made everyone laugh. I was also an overweight kid. I actually joined TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) to help me lose weight, and I was literally the youngest member of the group. When I was around 10 or 11, I went to a national meeting of the organization, and they asked me to sing. Well, I sang “You Are So Beautiful,” but I didn’t just do it straight. If you’re familiar with MAD magazine, you might know the character Alfred E. Neuman, the face of the magazine. Well, I had a mask featuring him, and I began to sing the song. When I couldn’t remember the lines, I started picking my character’s nose, and you can imagine the response. The fact that I was overweight and kept mainly to myself did keep the boys away, as you can imagine.
As I looked at going off to college, I suffered from what I like to call the “bling bling syndrome.” I went off to the Boston Conservatory of Music, which was way too expensive for my parents but they didn’t complain. I mean, how could you say no to that kind of amazing opportunity to study musical theater at such a respected place of learning? Thankfully, I made the decision that I didn’t need to go to a fancy school like that, and I headed to the University of Maryland with a 4-year full ride scholarship for theater. I only had to take one other job to help with expenses, but my main focus was school.
Please tell us about your experience with voice work, including your involvement with video game voiceover work.
Most of my voice work is uncredited as it is government work. I get to do voice work for training videos for the Social Security Administration and other government agencies. I have done work for animated series as well, but these can be difficult to track down. I am involved with three animated series for Dreamworks television. I was several voices for the two series that are already complete, Public Pool and Here’s News that Doesn’t Stink. Additionally, I am in current production with the series JetBear, where I play (guess who) JetBear.
Voice work for video games is really quite an experience. The way it works is like this. They call each of the voice artists into a room, and we are not told what character we will be voicing in the game. In the room, there is a plasma TV and you. The lines come up on the TV, and the director will tell you how he or she wants you to the say the line. The director will give you some kind of scenario, and you sometimes have to say the line multiple times. They are only allowed to keep you for four hours, and by that time, your voice is absolutely gone. In fact, in the final hour, that is when they have you say the line like you’re dying or got shot since your voice is beginning to disappear. While it’s a nice change from government work, it is vocally and physically exhausting.
In addition to your voice work, do you still sing, do theater, etc?
Well, there’s quite a story attached to this answer. I used to do a lot of summer stock because I love musical theater, and I wanted to keep working even between voice and film/TV work. Interestingly enough, I went to Japan’s Tokyo Disney park back in 2004–it was an all-inclusive trip. When I came back, I was sick. We have no idea where or how I picked up the disease, but I developed Secondary Addison’s Disease. For six years, I suffered with this disease. In some ways, I practically lost those six years. I still did some voiceover work, but this disease affects your energy level. You body doesn’t make cortisol, which affects your blood sugar and blood pressure. When I did my work, I would take everything with me and sleep in the car as I knew after work, I wouldn’t have the energy to drive home. As of now, I am cured, which is a miracle, but it definitely was a time of struggle and uncertainty for me.
I read on your website that you are also a puppeteer. Can you tell us about that?
Well, that is another fascinating story. One of my friends asked me to make some kid’s videos that featured puppets, as that was one of his specialties. I auditioned, and I was subsequently hired. So then he realized he would have to teach me how to operate puppets. And what most people don’t realize is that although being a puppeteer pays well, it is very hard on the body. You often get dead arms because of the way you have to hold the puppets. My friend taught me in two weeks how to work a puppet. One of the things that is unusual is that you have to look at a reverse monitor so you can see what you’re doing. When your puppet is talking, your puppet’s eyes have to be looking directly into the lens of the camera. And holding the puppet so it looks like it’s doing that is really tough. I was a puppeteer for several years, and I both loved and loathed it. They actually have a masseuse on set for the puppeteers, as that is a necessity.
Do you have plans in the future to write or direct?
I actually do have a show idea, but it’s one of those things you keep on the back burner and wait until the right time with the hopes it will come to fruition. I wouldn’t say no to directing in the future. It really depends on what kind of people I would be working with. I have considered writing a graphic novel, but we’ll see if that happens.
What is the most frustrating thing about being in the industry?
With all artists, we are all gamblers. We have to audition all the time. And those auditions drain self-courage. And yet you have to keep putting yourself out there to be judged. And that is so difficult. Sometimes it’s easy to lose the concept of why you’re doing this. And you even forget to have fun. You can’t give up–you have to keep on auditioning. Eventually, something will come your way. You never know when that may happen, and all too often, people give up too soon.
While I have interviewed a number of people in the industry, very few have been as forthcoming about their personal struggles and how that has affected their work. I cannot tell you how much respect and admiration I have for this woman who didn’t capitulate when the odds were against her. Jan is a woman who refused to abandon her dreams, and she has fought tirelessly to be where she is. In spite of her struggles, she has not lost her positive outlook on life, her ability to relate to others, and of course, her radiant smile. While her name may never become a household name, for those who invest the time in acquainting themselves with her, her works, and her story, passionate inspiration will be their reward. And in this uncertain business, there is no telling where her name and voice may crop up next. So be sure to check her out online and throw your full support behind this colossally talented and categorically sweet and humble woman.
Links to her Dreamworks TV animated series:
Interested in subscribing to all my site's updates? Subscribe below!