Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Nicki Rapp: The Road to Psychonauts 2

Nicki Rapp: The Road to Psychonauts 2
A Look Inside the Mind, of the Voice, of Lili Zanotto

Written by: Mitchell Walter Maknis

Image courtesy of Nikki Rapp

At the tail-end of gaming’s sixth console generation, Tim Schafer pushed the envelope of conventional game design by injecting players into a bizarre world filled with psychedelic puzzles, zany acrobatics, and bacon. The resulting cult phenomenon Psychonauts (2005) has since become a timeless classic. After almost two decades and a VR spinoff (Rhombus of Ruin (2017)) later, the long-awaited sequel Psychonauts 2 (2021) has remained a fixture within the minds of gamers. So, the question remains; what has kept this IP relevant within the psyche of the gaming community sixteen years later?

Perhaps, it’s iconic verbatims such as “Oh my god! Let’s make out!” that quickly harken fans back to that hypnotic moment shared between gifted psychics Lili Zanotto (Nicki Rapp) and Razputin (Richard Horvitz). These performances are nostalgic, for both the fans and the actors who created them. “I love [Lili’s] intelligence and sassiness; she doesn’t take any shit, she’s just awesome” affectionately confessed Nicki Rapp. “I have met so many fans who connected with [the game]. I love the message that Double Fine so tenderly, yet brilliantly produced about mental health, helping people feel less alone.” Rapp, who portrayed Lili in the original game, lights up any room or convention hall she enters. In truth, she just needs to take her vocal pitch a little bit higher, and gamers would be awestruck to realize they are talking to the real-life Lili Zanotto. Nicki Rapp takes fans for a walk through her cognitive landscape to hear her thoughts about her career in a changing industry, and her journey to Psychonauts 2.

Rapp's foray into the arts began in in the sixth grade when she was signed up for choir class by her mother. Her interests began to peak in Junior High when she became involved with the school’s theater program. “I was shy about my experience at first, but I really enjoyed singing” cited the actor on the wire from her L.A. home. “[Later,] I realized I loved acting; it helped bring me out of myself and it was something I was good at.” Rapp was indeed a bona fide theater nerd, performing in show after show, in musicals and stage plays alike. “Acting wasn’t anything I thought I was going to choose as a career. But it felt cool to escape from myself and be someone else for a while, so I just kept going.”

Subsequently, by a friend’s suggestion she did keep going, and after a lengthy road trip, Rapp successfully matriculated into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “When I got in, I was shocked” she exclaimed “It was the first time I was able focus on something I loved completely.” Nearing the end of her second year, Rapp was pulled aside by the director of the school and was told that because of the way her voice sounded, she was not going to get any work as an actor after she graduated. “I didn’t understand.” She confessed “They cast me in all these crazy roles. I even got to play my dream part of Anne Frank (“The Diary of Anne Frank”) and I pulled that one off even when the professors teased me saying I was too old to play her.”

Rapp had devoted her life to acting since she was twelve, and at that point a career in voice-work never crossed her mind. “Many voice actors start out knowing that that’s what they want to do. I didn’t” She stated, “I just never thought I was as good as anyone else.” She was directionless. “People always made fun of the sound of my voice.” She admits “I honestly thought [my voice] was going to be the thing that would hold me back from everything.” However, everything changed when she was introduced to a voice-over school near San Francisco by her father. “My dad told me the woman who ran the place had a voice just like mine, he wanted to help me get in.”

After graduating from drama school at age 23, she shifted gears to voice-acting and that’s when things started to click. “It was beautiful.” She reminisced “I was just in there by myself, and the solitude gave me the ability to create without restrictions. When I’m inside the recording booth I don’t have to think about stage blocking or editing my body language. That’s why I love voice acting, it’s like acting for introverts.” Although Rapp admits there were some dream roles she would have loved to have had the chance to play on stage, she is happiest now when she is creating characters.

“I booked the part [of Lili Zanotto] in early 2000 and after I was done recording, it took five years for the game to come out.” Incidentally, “that’s how [the development] of Psychonauts 2 has gone.” The role of Lili Zanotto garnered a loyal fanbase that opened the door to other creative opportunities. “I have a lot of gratitude for [casting director] Khris Brown. She’s the one who auditioned me for Psychonauts and Broken Age (2014). It’s because of her I’ve had some of the greatest parts of my life.” Beckoning the question, what was it like for Rapp developing the character of Lili Zonatto in such a unique world? “When I was cast, I was so fresh and new to voice-acting” declared Rapp “I remember being in awe of [Lili’s] dialogue and, there is a depth to be discovered beyond the vivid colors and snappy dialogue in the story of Psychonauts.”

MWM: Could you elaborate your exact mind-frame when started recording for the character?

NR: When recording my role, I had to keep a fine line between her sarcasm and sweetness. Lili is a very intelligent girl, [with] a lotta powers. She isn't mean, but she definitely keeps it real, especially when it involves Raz. She may be wise beyond her years, but she is still a little girl in a crazy reality. It was a roller coaster of "what's next?" in the best way. I love the imagination involved in this game and how much it opens my mind as well.

MWM: After your time on Psychonauts, what do you consider to be your next breakthrough role?

NR: It would have to be Morgan LeFlay from [Telltale/LucasArts] Tales of Monkey Island (2009). She was a new addition to the series and when I auditioned for her, I didn’t have a picture of the character to work with, I only had a description of what they wanted.

MWM: What was the description?

NR: A cross between Rosario Dawson and Cameron Diaz. Honestly though, I did not know how to approach that in a voice-over context. So, what I took from the script was that Morgan LeFlay was definitely a badass, but she also had a crush on [series lead] Guybrush Threepwood and fangirled over him. I leaned towards that aspect more than anything else. After I was cast [the game’s writer and director] Mark Darin told me, ‘We had a totally different idea for this character, but you brought something different that we all loved.’

MWM: Considering you worked with the company again in Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse (2010) after Tales of Monkey Island. It’s safe to say you left an impression on the staff at Telltale Games.

NR: I suppose you can say that. In those days when I was recording for Telltale Games, I used to go record at a dear friend’s studio in the San Francisco Bay area. Unfortunately, he has since passed away. He was my cheerleader and would recommend me for roles. I loved recording at his studio especially since it was an environment working with people I trust. [That studio] was where I first worked with Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin (Now of Campo Santo Productions). Those two are Psychonauts fans and after our time working together on Tales of Monkey Island, they wanted me for a game they’d written called The Walking Dead (2012).

MWM: Enter Lilly Caul, she may share a name with your Psychonauts roots. That’s as far as the similarities go. She’s a polar opposite in terms of personality; a drastic change from what your fans would expect.

NR: I’m really proud of that role. Nobody thinks it’s me. It’s crazy to think that I almost didn’t do the audition.

MWM: Is there a reason why?

NR: Yes. That day I was just pissed off and mad at the world. But after I read the script, Lilly matched how I was feeling, and her voice just came out. I am so grateful that I was cast as Lilly. [I thought], I’ll always be cast as kids. Even while I was auditioning for TWD, I was also reading for Clementine, and I came close to being cast in [Melissa Hutcherson’s] role. Finding that voice and that character helped me realize what else I could do. That’s why I like doing video games, you really get to play that character.

MWM: Throughout your twenty-plus years in the voice-acting profession you’ve worked on gaming titles such as Brooktown High (2007), Obscure: The Aftermath (2007), XCOM Enemy Unknown (2012) as well as a few animated programs like Cartoon Network’s Long Live The Royals (2015). Now, looking back at your career what do you consider your longest character journey?

NR: The Sims. [In 2002] I auditioned for The Sims 2 inside this little studio. I had to improvise (Simlish) sounds and match it to this kid’s animation on this tiny TV. One of my favorite exercises from drama school was when I had to perform scenes in complete gibberish. I guess I’m good at making words up on the spot because I was cast two months later. It was good for my brain to speak Simlish and think on the spot. When they were auditioning for The Sims 3, I ended up being the only actor they kept on staff. I was even asked to direct the last three expansion packs [of that particular installment].

MWM: What was it like being on the other side of the booth, in the director’s chair for The Sims 3?

NR: It was a good creative lesson but directing wasn’t anything I had aspired to do. When they asked me to do it, I was like ‘wait really?’ It did make sense having me direct, since I worked on the series for so long and I knew how exhausting it could get improvising Simlish for six-hours. I just love the days when I get to be in the booth so when I was directing, I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to be in the booth with them.

MWM: Out of all the characters you have created. Which ones are you most proud of?

NR: “Definitely my Lilly’s. Lili from Psychonauts is my favorite as far as just being uplifting and happy. But then on the other hand when you go to my other Lilly on the TWD, she’s special because playing her I had to do some of the most challenging acting I’ve ever done.”

MWM: Could you elaborate?

NR: First off, I was shocked when I booked the part. Second, playing Lilly really stressed me out, it was the most challenging acting I’ve ever done. It was difficult to put myself in those grim situations I had no life experience for. I didn’t know how else to approach the emotional depth of the subject matter, so I had to throw myself into it completely. After I finished recording Episode 2 everybody in the studio thought I was losing my mind.

MWM: You’ve mentioned Lili Zanotto and Lilly Caul but there was also a third completely different Lily you played in Firewatch (2016).

NR: Yes! She was completely different. That Lily was a drunk, skinny dipping brat! That was really fun because Sean and Jake sent me an email that basically said, ‘we are doing this game [and] we want you to be in it.’ So, I was like alright. I recorded my role in my souped-up closet studio and the rest is history. That game is just a beautiful thing.

MWM: Was the Lili namesake throughout these multiple properties a coincidence?

NR: Partially, I mean Psychonauts was first, then in TWD Sean and Jake joked saying ‘we have to cast you as Lilly Caul because you played Lili in Psychonauts.’ But when the two of them asked me to be in Firewatch they named her Lily on purpose. They said’ it was so that the people in the know would know.’ The greatest compliments I get is when people say to me ‘wait you played these characters? You don’t even sound like them!’ Ya that’s because I’m a voice actor. (stated with humor) I’ve learned that every character I play, I bring a part of myself into them and that’s what makes a personality really special.

MWM: That’s quite the accomplishment.

NR: Right? The thing that I find interesting about a lot of the characters that I’ve played is that in their own way they are all badasses, and I like that. I love that I get to play these characters who don’t take shit, who are tough and tell you like it is. I’m not sure how much of a badass I am.

MWM: After everything we’ve discussed. The risks you’ve taken and the roles you’ve personified in your life. It’s safe to say there is a badass in you.

NR: You’re right! There is a badass in me. Especially when I think of the things I have done in my life. The truth is this business is hard. In this industry you have to find your place, but you also have to keep going further than what you think you can do. I’ll tell you what, when I auditioned for XCOM Enemy Unknown (2012) I was living in San Francisco. For that game it was a situation where if I booked the part, I would have to pay my own fare to LA to record. After that session, I literally ruined my voice for three days because it was a lot of screaming. There are some days I really do miss San Francisco. I was working a lot more there in the Bay Area than I have been since I moved to L.A. I just wish that all these characters I played like Morgan LeFlay had a longer life than they did. Even with The Sims. I was a part of that franchise for twelve years, so it was a bummer when they didn’t bring any actors back for The Sims 4. For the longest time I didn’t think any of these characters would come back.

MWM: Well as a fan of these characters I personally was thrilled to see them make their triumphant comebacks. Lilly Caul blew the gaming community away when she returned for TWD’s final season and now Lili Zanotto is back for Psychonauts 2. What was it like playing these characters again after all this time?

NR: When I read the script for [TWD], I was scared to see how fans were going to react to Lilly. I mean, she changed. She became a villain. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to play someone so unapologetically bad. But I started to panic a little about how it’d be received. Then, when I heard that Psychonauts was back I was so happy. [Lili Zanotto’s] story revolves around her mission to try and rescue her father. She has a different tone now and it felt good to revisit and explore her in that mind-frame. It was also great because for the first time in over a year I got to record in a real studio with a real engineer!

MWM: I believe I speak for our readers when I say how thrilled we are to hear your voice return through Lili Zanotto once again. But before we wrap up this interview, do you have any final thoughts you want to share to the PSI-Cadets who’ve been anticipating Psychonauts 2 for as long as you?

NR: I just have a lot of gratitude for all of this. The fans I meet at conventions have kept these characters and these games alive all these years. I attended the E3 2019 Psychonauts 2 demo showcase. No one knew I was in there sitting with the audience while they watched the demo. I was in the thick of it. I got to hear people enjoying the demo and laugh at my dialogue. It was so special; the joy people bring me makes me feel that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

Photo courtesy of Nikki Rapp

Rapp has proven herself to be artist who defies stereotypes. No matter what life may throw at her, she continues to follow her life’s path, creating inimitable characters and performances along the way. Follow Nicki Rapp on Twitter @itsuhrapp and IG @nickirapp and don’t forget to pick up a copy of Psychonauts 2 in its physical or digital editions.


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