Aaron LaPlante has worked his way up through the voice-over world in the last decade, and some of his most notable projects include HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA and PRIMAL. After keeping in contact with his good friend Sara Coates (RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD), he got the chance to be involved with RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE as The Duke! With an ecstatic response from fans, this character has gone on to become much more than just a merchant in the game, he is Ethan's bridge between the majority of what you witness. STARBURST catches up with Aaron to find out all about this mysterious, yet fantastic character!
STARBURST: You've done a lot of voice acting over the last decade, however, How did you first get involved with it?
Aaron LaPlante: The very beginning I think for any voice actor is an instinct thing. When you’re a kid, and you’re in class, and your teacher has a strange voice, your instinct is to go into the lunchroom with your friends and pretend to do their accent, you’ll say “Hey are you going to finish that cinnamon roll!” for their benefit to make them laugh. Once you find out that that’s going to make them laugh, it sticks with you for the rest of your life. Then as I got older, and became an actor. Every actor usually has a favourite thing that they focus on. For me, it was the sound of a character's voice, it didn’t matter what character I was playing I always put a lot of emphasis on the sound of their voice, and try to make it different. So when I came out to Los Angeles, just like anything, you are trying to get involved in any way that you can. It just so happens that I got involved with a group of kids from Chicago that were starting a sketch comedy group, and when you do like a half-hour sketch comedy show you play about six different characters, but you play them one after the other. To differentiate between the characters, you’ve got to give them each a distinct sounding voice. So doing that for years made me known in a very small circle as a guy that could do different voices. One of my friends was working on a project, and the casting director asked if they knew anybody, he said “I know this guy Aaron who has kind of a distinct speaking voice, but he also does voices”. So I went and met her, it was one of those Hollywood meetings where you don’t know what the project is about, and you don’t know why you are there. You’re just like “Okay, we’re here!” So I talked to this voice-over casting director at Sony Pictures Animation, her name is Mary Hidalgo, she’s one of the most notable casting directors in the history of animation, and I was lucky enough to meet with her. It was supposed to be like a 15-minute thing, and it wound up being a two-hour odyssey, it may as well have been a therapy session! We just hung out and talked. She told me about the business, and I told her about my hopes to be involved with the business. Then, that was kind of it.
Then about a month later, she contacted me and said that Sony was working on a Popeye movie, and would I be able to do scratch for Bluto. I didn’t know what scratch meant, and I came to find out that for the pre-production process of an animated feature, they need voice actors to come in and do the voices of the characters to serve the storyboards. For all of the pre-production meetings with the executives. Story meetings etc. So, you’d record the part, and then eventually your voice would get scrapped. They would bring in a famous actor to do it. So I thought whatever, this is the chance to be able to do this. So I auditioned for that, and I put my own spin on it. The director that was doing it just so happened to be Genndy Tartakovsky, who is notable for Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, helped with The Powerpuff Girls, the original Clone Wars cartoon, and so many others. So that was just a really lucky break, because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just did what I thought I was supposed to do. It just so happened to be what he wanted me to do. I think that he kind of liked working with me, because I’ve worked on everything that he has done since that time. Popeye didn’t go anywhere, unfortunately. But he did Hotel Transylvania, so I was doing those. So you’ve got that avenue, and then over here, I’ve got a friend who got a job as a low-level engineer at a place called Studiopolis that does a lot of dubbing for Anime, and he suggested me there for years and years. Finally, there was a show that had a bunch of monster sounds. It could potentially ruin an actor's voice, but I went in there and went for it. For every session that I would do, there would be one or two characters that talked, and he let me do those characters. Then finally after a while, they said “Who did that voice?” and then people would say “Oh that’s Aaron” so I did that as well. It’s kind of like once I started doing the work, and talking about doing the work, people in my life that were involved one way or another sort of came into the mix. In a nutshell, that’s how I got in!
Jumping forward to more recently, how did you then get on board with Resident Evil Village?
When people move out here to Los Angeles, you focus on one thing, and your friends focus on other things. Then you are all doing your own things! Then, if enough time passes, before you know it you almost circle back together, and you get to work together. In this instance, this goes all the way back to high school when I was a senior, I was in a French class with a girl named Sara Coates. If you’re familiar with the Resident Evil universe then you’ll know that she played Marguerite Baker in Resident Evil 7. She was a friend of mine back then, and she’s a little bit younger than me. I got out of school, and we both went in our own directions. We kept up and checked in on each other. I lived in Seattle and so did she, then I moved down here to Los Angeles, then I feel like five or six years later she moved down here. We would keep in contact here and there, and hang out, but then I didn’t really hear from her for a while, and then Resident Evil 7 came out, and I found out she was in it. I was like “Oh my God, that’s absolutely incredible.” She was excited, and then a few years went by after that, and then I get a call from her, and she says “Hey, I’m helping out with casting on a project, would you want to come and audition?” Towards the beginning of the game, where there’s that old guy with the gun, and then the Lycans pull him out through the ceiling, who only has one part. The part I auditioned for was not that scene, but something like that, some old woodcutter in a shed. I did this crazy voice, and then afterwards Sara said “Well, you didn’t get that part” and I was like “That’s OK! Thanks anyway, I’m used to that, I audition all of the time and don’t get the part” but she said “They’re saving you for a bigger part” and I was like “Oh, well that’s never happened to me before, but, OK!” A month or so went by and I got another audition, and I went in there and did that one. That went really well, so I went in and did another one, except this time, they focused a lot on telling me about the physicality. Not a lot of people realise with these games, that when you audition for them they don’t give you the script that’s going to end up in it, because they are so secretive. So they write a dummy script that doesn’t really have much to do with the game, but it has sort of a sense of what the character might be. At the time they told me that he had a thick Eastern European accent, and a really gravelly voice. I also saw a picture of the character I was playing, and he was really big. So I did my accent for that, and then in the second audition they said “Move around a lot, get some cigar ash on you, and go woah, or whatever.” So I auditioned that way, then a couple of months later they told me that I got the part. The funny thing is, not even for a second did I know that it was to do with anything Resident Evil, I just thought that it was for some random game that she was working on. Later I asked, like “What is this for?” and they were like “It’s for Resident Evil Village dude!” Right when they said that, I was immediately transported back 25 years to when I was in 7th grade, playing the game with my friends at a sleepover, and it scared the hell out of us. So it was full circle in a lot of ways.
How excited were you when you found out you were playing The Duke, and how did the voice come together?
There was excitement for sure, but there was also a lot of anxiety. That’s another thing that I want people to know about these games, because they are so secretive, they tell you what you are doing, but it’s like you are going into it a little bit blind. Maybe for a bigger character, they’d give them a bit more information about the script, but for me, when we went to the table reading they had still not decided what they wanted The Duke to be. So I didn’t have any lines to read at the table read. In fact, Neil Newbon who plays Heisenberg was in England, so I did his lines, to kind of fill in. So after the table read I was going home like “Well, I don’t really know what this character is going to be!” I’ve played games before that have merchants, and I imagined that he would be in some centralised location, and that he would sell you some stuff, and I’ll probably just say the same things over and over again, like, “Well, that’s a good choice!”. The reason why they took so long is because they took The Duke a step further, they said “Yeah, he is going to be situated in this one area, outside of the village, but when you got all the stressful, and scary parts of the game when you are fighting the four lords, he will show up there to.” So I think they were still trying to work that out. So before going in there, I had no idea. I sort of knew what my voice was going to sound like, but when I got in there to record the very first line “I’ve been waiting for you Mr. Winters, anyone who is anyone has heard of the likes of you” they progressed my voice from an Eastern European accent, into something more light, and lilting, almost as if he has a British accent, without having a British accent. We worked on it. What’s funny is, the very first day, the first things that we recorded for the most part, were for when you are playing the game and you buy something, he comments on what you bought. You are fixing up your weapons, and he says “Weapons Modifications? I can do them for a small fee” The voice is very much different, and less lower down than it is in the cut scenes. The reason why is because that was the first stuff that I recorded. So as we went on in the game, and as I settled into the voice a little bit more “That’s when this thing came out” - the voice of The Duke.
In true Capcom style, there's not a lot of backstory to this character. However, for you, how would you describe him to a gamer?
I think I would say if they’re a gamer, you’ve got the relationship with him that you do with most merchants in most games. However, I do think that they took The Duke a little bit of a step further. They made him extra helpful to you. At the same time, they also made his personality kind of mysterious. So you rely on The Duke a lot, but you don’t know if you can trust him. Those are some of the greatest characters in history. These anti-heroes. Ones that you always expect, right until the last moment, to turn on you. Especially in the Resident Evil universe. It’s supposed to be scary, you’re supposed to feel alone, kind of bleak. In Resident Evil 7, there’s like no help to be had, when you’re wandering around the house, maybe the phone will ring and you’ll pick it up and there will be some mysterious woman saying “Go to the trailer outside!” or whatever, but that’s about it. In a sentence I would say that The Duke provides the player with a level of relief that they’ve never had in a Resident Evil game. That’s why people love The Duke so much! It’s something that I didn’t account for. A lot of the other characters are different, cooler, scarier, dangerous. Those characters are right for the cos-players, people doing fan art. Whereas people’s enthusiasm for The Duke is something a bit more personal, it’s not so much visual. I’m not seeing a lot of fan art of The Duke, and certainly no one dressing up like The Duke. So yeah, I would say that he is a familiar fixture, but he is a very unique take on a familiar fixture.
Comic cons are extremely creative, so I have no doubt that someone will be dressing up as The Duke in the not too distant future!
Yeah! I challenge readers of this article to do a Duke cosplay! I’ve been doing this for a while, and most of the parts that I do, the project itself goes out there, and it’s a big part, but I’m normally just a small part of it. So none of the attention ever gets turned towards me, which is fine for me. Like Hotel Transylvania, those movies go all over the world. I’m doing Primal right now, which is a masterpiece in the animation world. There’s no dialogue so they don’t have to dub it in any language, it’s all over the world too. It’s about the animation, and it’s not about me. So the fact that fans are paying attention to me, or that there’s any attention on me at all, is something that I’m not used to. However, I’m starting to embrace the fact that I’m doing for people what so many people have done for me, and that is to contribute to something that I can nerd out about. It’s really meaningful. So the anxiety I feel about the sudden attention is suddenly cast aside as I know people are getting such a kick out of this game. It makes me feel good.
Do you know anything about how Capcom put the look for The Duke together, and maybe, what their influences were with that?
I wish so much that I could tell you, but I really don’t know. I will say one thing, and it’s what they pride themselves on, which is an intense attention to detail, and also as much realism as they can get. Even just walking around the Village, and how it all looks medieval. As far as The Duke goes, I will say that when I first saw a picture of him he still had the suit, and the enormous belly that hung over. Swelled feet. His face was a little bit more grotesque, he was bald, I only saw a brief picture, but it looked like he had some growths on his face. However, I think that they very intelligently decided to make him more cherub-like, because that ended up being the function, that he is just this kind, nice, helpful, friend along the way, that you don’t know if he is going to turn on you. This is just me speculating, but at one point they might have had a plan for him to turn on Ethan, and then maybe they were like “No, it’s more important for him to be a friend to Ethan.”
There was no Motion Capture for The Duke, and a lot of people do ask me about that. Though I wish I could have taken part in that, The Duke is so big that they didn’t have any need for it. I was only sometimes there to deliver lines to some of the actors and help out in that way. When you’re standing next to The Duke, and neither of you say anything, he makes little sounds, he coughs and yawns. While I was recording those sounds I was able to look at footage of The Duke and follow his movements, similar to how I do the character on Primal. So I got a chance to see it. His design didn’t really change that much from that point, after what I saw. I thought I’d see that, and then maybe he’d look a little different when I played the game, but it stayed pretty much the same. Obviously, there is a lot more detail that went into it. Everybody gets excited about the voice actors, and that’s great, I get excited about voice actors as well, but I encourage anyone to find some behind-the-scenes footage of what they do at Capcom. How they design stuff is just absolutely beyond me. I sincerely hope that they come out with a book or something like that. There’s some footage on YouTube where you can see the Motion Capture process. It’s amazing what they do.
Like we discussed, Capcom is obviously known for keeping plot backgrounds a mystery, which works well, because some of the greatest characters ever made in game, TV, film, are the ones that we know very little about. As a viewer, you gravitate towards that mystery, you want to know more, but you also don’t. When Ethan attempts to ask who The Duke is, he simply replies "I'm not sure even I can tell you that!”. So, how important is it to have this perfect level of mystery for a character, and do you have any theories about his background of your own?
That’s another thing that’s been really neat. These games come out, and people are excited about playing them, and then they complete them. They make mods and stuff, but what’s amazing is the amount of creativity that comes out of it. Whether it be people making mods, or writing their own fan fiction, or putting out videos that discuss theories about The Duke, and where he came from, what he is all about. Any time anyone asks me where I think The Duke came from, I just reference all of those videos, because there’s no way that I could be as creative as them. It’s incredible. There are little clues, like that moment when Ethan is in the back of his carriage, and he looks down and you see that sigil you think “Was The Duke a lord, and then he turned good?” And I sometimes wonder if he is psychic somehow, does he have psychic ability because he knows where to be, wherever Ethan needs him. Any time he talks to Ethan, he gives him advice. As much as he seems mysterious, I also try to add in that he knows Ethan is going to succeed, and that he is being kind of playful. That’s what I thought about when I was doing it. As if he was kind of psychic.
We must ask, who came up with the throwback line for Resident Evil 4, "What're ya buying? Ha! Just something an old friend of mine used to say," and what do you think that it brought to the game?
I wasn’t familiar with Resident Evil 4, I’d never played it, but I was aware that there was a merchant in the game. I had talked to one of the producers and asked if there’s ever been a merchant in the Resident Evil universe, and she said yes. So I went back and looked at some videos of it. When I recorded this game, instead of looking at a script that has dialogue, and also paragraphs describing the scenes, it was an excel spreadsheet with sentences on it. You go in there, and you read the sentences, and they have to give you context for pretty much everything you’re saying. We’re going through, and then at the end it said “What are you buying? Just something an old friend of mine used to say” Right before I said that line, one of the producers Rosanna said “Okay Aaron, that is a throwback to Resident Evil 4” and she kind of explained it to me. So I did it. What was neat was, when I said “What are you buying?” I didn’t do this intentionally, but it sounds like The Duke is doing an impression of that merchant. He’s trying to do an impression of his friend the merchant. So then I recorded it, and then forgot about it. As the game has come out, it’s another thing that people just get super stoked over, which I love.
In the game, how essential/important do you think he is for Ethan, and the game player? When it sort of comes to bridging the gap between the player, and well really, the rest of the game? The bosses?
I think he is super important. Playing other games with other merchants, you imagine the function to only be practical, you need to buy weapons, you need to buy ammunition, supplies. You don’t really tend to get too much advice from a merchant. It’s usually just like “Here’s a thing, buy this, buy that, sell this, or whatever” but with Resident Evil – and I am sure there are other games that do this – it sort of takes it a step further. Instead of it just being practical, it almost becomes like emotional support, because people have told me as much. Personally, when I was in Heisenberg's factory, that was the most stressful part of the game for me. Some of that stuff really upset me, I was like “Oh my god!” There was one point in that where you come around the corner and you see The Duke, and I felt that wave of relief. I thought it was just a feeling that I was having, and as the days have gone on, and I’ve become aware of what people think of The Duke, I’ve realised that I’m not the only one that felt that way about him.
You can play it once, and go back through again and make your relationship with The Duke different. For instance, when I played it through for the first time, I didn’t ever have The Duke cook me any meals. I didn’t know how that worked, so I just didn’t do it. And then the first time I played it through, people don’t believe me, and this is 100% true, I went through the entire Castle Dimitrescu part without seeing The Duke. The room is right off the four statues, I just never went into that room. Which I just didn’t realise. Some games lead you in a specific direction, if you try to go off the path, or if you get confused like I do constantly, they’ll sort of help you along. With Resident Evil, there’s some really cool stuff, and if you didn’t see it, well that’s your bad. You go back and play it again, and you get to have a whole new experience. I’m in the process of playing it through again, and you can bet that every chicken and pig I see I kill. I’m getting the benefit of The Duke’s recipes, and he is saying stuff that I never heard on the first run-through because I just didn’t engage with him too much. Frankly, after a while, the game is so stressful that I forgot that The Duke was me, I took to him like anyone else.
Talking about Ethan, and if possible, can you tell us a bit about what it was like to work with Todd Soley?
It was great! I only got to work with him for one day, and it was the scene when he wakes up in the carriage. So while we were doing it on the Motion Capture stage, a lot of people have probably seen this behind-the-scenes video, he is in a suit, and he is on an apparatus. I couldn’t for the life of me explain how this technology works, and I’m not even going to try, but I’ll set the scene for you. We are on a sound stage, actually right down the street from my place here in Venice Beach. He is up there doing the thing, and he’s got the cameras all working, and then I was off to the side, sitting in a chair, and at a certain point I would say “At last, he awakes” giving him the pep talk, then we have this conversation until he finally jumps out of the carriage. That was the only time that I was helping him out, and he is great. He has been doing this stuff for a while, so he doesn’t really approach it from a very actor standpoint, where he is like “Okay guys, give me a second” which is great, because it’s not how I work either. I don’t subscribe to that style of acting. He just gets in there and does it, and it was great. Unfortunately, our work together was brief so I didn’t get a chance to work with him too much, but yeah, it was a lot of fun to do that. As fun as this game was to work on, my next goal is to maybe get a chance to put on one of those suits, and actually interact with some of the other actors. I did a signing recently with other cast members, and it was the first time that I met them.
So, looking back on working on the game overall, is there a maybe particular scene that stands out to you as being highly rewarding to work on?
I’ll admit this to everyone, I watch this scene over again because I’m proud of my performance in it. So it’s when The Duke lays it out, and he talks about the four lords. He goes through them one by one. When we recorded that, obviously not all of the animation was done, but some of it was. When he is talking about the four lords, these pictures flash, and you can see Heisenberg's Factory, Donna Beneviento's house, and you can kind of see a bit of the lagoon for Moreau, but they sort of keep that a secret, and then, of course, the castle. I watched that montage, and then I would talk about Donna Beneviento and pause for a second, and wait for the next thing to flash on the screen. So it was all basically done in one take. I’m sure that they cut it up, and used took parts from different takes, and put it together. However, kind of telling the story, and setting the stage, that was my favourite part to do. After a while when you are sitting in the booth going “Oh, that’s nice! You have enough money for that one? Oh, you can’t afford that one?” Those are fun and everything, to do the variety. But to take that voice, and that character, and setting the stage for the game, that was my favourite for sure.
What else can we expect to see from you in 2021 as an actor?
The show I do for Cartoon Network is called Primal, that one, there are ten episodes of it, and we are now doing a whole another ten, another series. A lot of it I can’t really talk about. So yeah, you can look out for Primal, and there’s going to be some movies coming up. Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is coming up pretty soon, and I play the gremlins in that. Then there’s a lot Anime, Naruto, things like that. I would say that Primal is the most anticipated by me, and other people. Hopefully there will be a lot more coming up, because this game was a home run for my career, but the bases were loaded. It’s Resident Evil. Now, all I’m thinking about is trying to get back on base. So that I can round them again. That’s the life of a voice actor, you do one thing, and you’re like “That’s great” but then you think, “What are we doing next” Primal is an ongoing thing. It’s an amazing show, if anybody hasn’t seen it, check it out, it’s really cool.
Read our other RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE interviews here:
- Andi Norris / Donna Beneviento
- Maggie Robertson / Lady Dimitrescu
- Jesse Pimentel / Salvatore Moreau
- Katie O'Hagan / Mia Winters
- Neil Newbon / Karl Heisenberg