It’s important to approach new jobs slowly – get comfortable, master all the basics before you aim for the moon. Nobody just jumps into the biggest roles in the world or into star positions.
Unless, of course, you’re Leah de Niese, 25-year-old actress and now voice actor. His first job in the new branch of his vocation? Just for Overwatch, a game with over 50 million players, voicing one of the most anticipated characters in years, the Junker Queen.
“This is all new to me, I’m an absolute rookie,” de Niese said in our interview. “What a ride. It’s been so exciting to have this concert of voices and then this world of Overwatch at the same time. It’s been overwhelming, but in such a wonderful way.
The Overwatch community is known for their love of the voice actors who portray the characters, and many have commented on how different their careers were after becoming part of the Overwatch cast.
“I was told that there would be life before Overwatch and after Overwatch,” says de Niese. She didn’t necessarily believe it, calling her first reaction “we’ll see”.
“[But] they are absolutely right. It’s such a huge, massive community and it’s exciting. My God, reaching such a huge audience is incredible, as an artist.
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It started out very differently – Leah didn’t even know why she was auditioning when she first showed up. Potentially her first acting job, she says she “just didn’t flinch”.
“I just gave it a go at the audition, I just fell for leather because I had no preconceptions. All I knew was ‘get as much character as possible by your voice”.
Developer Blizzard’s team was excited as soon as they heard his audition. Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, head of narrative on Overwatch, says Leah was ahead from the start.
“One of the things we like to do, when making sure an actor is going to work for a role, is take the audition lines and test them in-game,” he explains. “Here’s the character, we’re going to see if it works with Leah’s voice playing on it. Very early on, we were like, ‘Oh, wow. Oh, wow, that, she’s amazing at that. We were really excited to work with her. a bit more.
It’s a long process – taking several months from the initial audition to stepping into the booth to record the Junker Queen’s final lines. “I auditioned mid-year, took me a month to hear about an encore,” Niese recalled. “Then it wasn’t until the next year’s manager that I got into a bigger recall session. It was pretty spread out.
“Maybe it wasn’t until the third audition that I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could actually happen.’ It could be real. Look, I’ve been in the game since I was a kid.
De Niese’s first acting credit was at age 11, as Miranda Starvaggi in Neighborswith stage work from the age of seven.
“So I’m very measured with auditions,” she says. “I just like to nail it and forget it. So yeah, I try to keep my expectations measured. I’m a dreamer and I pursue my passion of course, but when you’ve had 20+ years of rejection you kind of learn to keep things under control [laugh].”
Once the job was locked in, de Niese had some big questions to answer – what is Overwatch and who is the Junker Queen? Originally teased as part of the game’s larger world, she hails from The Wasteland, what’s left of outback Australia after the Omnic (robot) uprising that led to a world war. She leads Junkertown, a trophied collection of corrugated iron, deadbeats, villains, and thieves that is the central power of the region, hence her title.
Long before she was a playable character, she was often hinted at in the background of maps set in the Wasteland or in the lore of characters native to the region. This created excitement around the character, as anyone who often mentioned him with this power level was usually added later as playable. It took a number of years, but it’s here.
“Well, I started with the rest of the new narrative team around 2020 and we saw the work the team had done on Junker Queen – I think we all immediately fell in love with the character,” Jurgens recalls -Fihria.
“She didn’t look like she was going to put up with crap from anyone. She looked like she was having a lot of fun doing whatever she was going to do and she was just going to be a berserker.
“For me, the idea of writing a woman who was just going to destroy the battlefield and have the time of her life doing it was such a fun thing. It’s not an opportunity I get to have often.
There was a reasonable amount of pre-made lore for Junker Queen, limiting how much Jurgens-Fyhrie and his team could flex their muscles. He thinks it helped, rather than hindered, saying “one of the great things about working on a big team is that those boundaries force you as a creator and an artist to push yourself in directions that you wouldn’t go otherwise.
“It’s easy to get carried away when you’re a writer or any artist. But when you have to work with what already exists, it can serve as an inspiration instead of a stumbling block.
Jurgens-Fyhrie has worked on other Blizzard games before, including Warcraft, Diablo and StarCraft, which he describes as having “traditions going back, in some cases, decades.”
“There’s always this fun challenge of ‘what should I be working in? Where can I find a place to do something that the players don’t expect, even if they know the lore as much as I do, if not more. ?
He also says that de Niese “played a very big role in determining who was queen from the earliest days”.
Part of that was working with the team to create a realistic character that still matched the style and attitude of the country. Overwatch is famous for its over-the-top characters that walk a fine line towards stereotyping, and Aussies know how much a badly-ridiculed accent or bad lingo can ruin things.
“That was the most rewarding part of this role,” de Niese explains, “how much it brought together and developed the Queen and her personality together. Australian jargon, when it happens, there’s always this, ‘We watched it, but is it true? Would you say that? [It’s right] nine times out of 10. You know what you’re doing, Gavin [laugh], but there might be an edit where I just throw in a different offer. This is very fun.
The two also explain that it’s not necessarily about always being completely believable in terms of modern discourse – it’s about creating a character, which can have its own quirks and quirks.
“Drongo is funny because it’s old-fashioned,” says de Niese. “It’s not necessarily used today, but it’s so iconic that hearing it just makes Aussies laugh, you know, so I didn’t mind. [Plus]she is in the Outback and I liked it a lot [the idea that] the queen does not know the jargon. She doesn’t know what the children are saying. She’s like you fucking drongo, step aside.
Other moments of characterization are less subtle. Queen names her weapons, introducing them to battle as friends at a family reunion. It’s one of Jurgens-Fyhrie’s favorite lines, not only in the way it’s written, but also in the way Leah performed it.
“One of the lines that I think became iconic for Leah’s Queen was ‘The knife is called Gracie, the ax is called Carnage… and me? Ha ha, I am your queen.’. Leah really leaned into it. I remember when she was recording that because she was talking, right? Then it’s the minute switch to menace that has become an essential part of Leah’s character here. This advantage she embodied in an incredible way. [It’s fine] and then there is fear, as if you realize that you are in the presence of a woman who is going to murder you.
Internally, they called it the royal squeal – the moment when de Niese’s performance went from friendly to menacing, from playing to ready to kill. de Niese, who had never heard that name before, is in a hysterical fit.
“Basically, the royal squeal happens whenever Queen is feeling whimsical or murderously annoyed,” Jurgens-Fyhrie explains.
De Niese considers her bringing her “creaking voice” to the performance, but notes that when she wasn’t sure how her line read, she would look over and see Jurgens-Fyhrie “giggling, laughing his head”. .
Of course, there were also unique challenges. De Niese describes times when she would return to the recording booth and be completely unable to remember how to sound like her character. It’s a new experience for her, and she knew she was doing something but exactly what it often took her a few moments to recover from. There were also the major differences between the taping for the game and the taping for the animated short, set over a decade before and featuring a younger, more arrogant queen.
“She is younger. By the time we meet the queen in the game, she is absolutely brutal,” says de Niese. “At the time, there was this youthful confidence in her. [In-game] You also have [single lines] this can be very aggressive and should be a quick request for your teammates. Whereas in the cutscene you have this piece to kind of flesh it out.
“I arrived with the aggression and the growl, but I had to readjust. Well [Dai, cinematic director] and Andrea [Toyias, senior casting and VO director] guided me to [have] more swagger, confidence and youthfulness. “I don’t even have to prove anything, I take this crown.”
A notable moment in this cutscene is Odessa ‘Dez’ Stone – Junker Queen’s real name before she took her crown – speaking directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall. This isn’t normal for Overwatch, and de Niese says it really helped develop his character.
“I think that’s where we really developed that there’s always a smile behind everything. She’s about to go and chop your head off, but it’s always with a good smile, you know?
Junker Queen will now be Niese’s character for life. Blizzard’s franchises have a longevity that most can’t match, and Overwatch constantly needs new voice lines added when new characters, modes, maps, etc. come out. It’s, as they say, a good gig – and the start of a new career for Leah de Niese.