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Voice actor Sam Riegel talks about the new PS5 game Bugsnax and his work on Critical Role

Sam Riegel (front-left) is a prominent voice actor and director on the show “Critical Role” an improvisational show where eight voice actors role-play eccentric characters in Dungeons and Dragons.
Sam Riegel (front-left) is a prominent voice actor and director on the show “Critical Role” an improvisational show where eight voice actors role-play eccentric characters in Dungeons and Dragons. (Courtesy of Kat Jones)

Sam Riegel is a prominent voice actor and director based in Los Angeles and the son of Annapolis environmental activist Kurt Riegel.

The young Riegel is known for performing kooky characters in outlandish video games, cartoons and other entertainment. He played Donatello in the early 2000s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series. One of his most famous performances is with “Critical Role,” an improvisational show where eight voice actors role-play eccentric characters in Dungeons and Dragons.

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Riegel’s latest project is the voice of Gramble Gigglefunny, a character in the not-yet-released PlayStation 5 video game “Bugsnax,” pronounced Bug Snacks. In the game developed by Young Horses, players roam around an island teeming with adventure on a quest to eat creatures made of food like the Fryder, a spider made of fries. It’s available in stores on Nov. 12.

Riegel talked to The Capital by email about his career as a voice actor and director. Topics included the strain certain-pitched characters can cause, his ties to Annapolis and his position on Critical Role, the weekly live-streamed role-playing game aired on the streaming network Twitch.

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Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia, went to college at the University of Virginia. And while I’m not a Marylander, I’ve gotten a chance to spend time in Annapolis, and on the water, with my dad. It’s a beautiful spot, and my kids especially love Storm Bros. Ice Cream shop.

How did you first get into voice acting? How do you advance in the profession of voice acting?

I’ve been an actor my whole life — my first show was playing an Oompa Loompa in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when I was six years old. Voice Acting came in adulthood when I realized that rather than auditioning for the same “young nerd” parts over and over, voice acting allowed me to play a variety of roles. Heroes, villains, robots, animals, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The voice acting world is an open playground for an actor and gave me a chance to be silly and funny a lot more often than in plays and television. I’ve been voice acting for a few decades now, performing in animation, video games, commercials, etc. It’s still a thrill to inhabit a new character.

What is voice directing like? What makes a great voice director compared to an average one?

Voice directing for television animation is tricky work. We move fast, often recording an entire episode in under three hours. So the voice director needs to be able to guide the actor to the performance you want very quickly, while at the same time allowing them the freedom and comfortability to create wacky, comedic voices and line deliveries. When it works best, I liken the job to that of a horse jockey. In this case, the thoroughbred is the voice actor – they’re doing 99% of the work. All I’m there to do is guide them around the cartoon track as quickly and effectively as possible. A great voice actor understands how to control their voice, as well as joke structure, writing, and storytelling. It’s not just making silly voices — it’s making emotional content with your imagination.

How do you get into character or prepare to perform in unique roles, like Gramble Gigglefunny in Bugsnax?

As a voice actor, I’m used to playing all kinds of different roles and voices. Gramble was a fun one to perform since he can be sweet and naïve and biting and irritable. When I auditioned, I imagined a Barney Fife type character and modeled the voice after him.

What is the most challenging character you’ve ever voiced?

I played Starscream in several Transformers video games. And as the name of the character indicates, it is a very vocally taxing role. You just scream, top of your lungs, for hours. Doing that role probably left me voiceless for days, but it was worth it!

How would you describe Critical Role?

Critical Role is a weekly live-streamed tabletop role-playing game featuring a cast of best friends who all happen to be nerdy voice actors. We roll dice and play through an ongoing quest as the adventurers known as the Mighty Nein, battling monsters, overcoming steep odds and generally having a lot of fun with each other. You can see the show every Thursday night live at 10 p.m. EST on Twitch.com/CriticalRole.

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How did the show begin?

The game started like most tabletop role-playing games start – with a group of friends playing in each other’s living rooms. I, and the rest of the cast, fell in love with the game and the stories we told together, and eventually, we decided to broadcast our shenanigans to an audience on Twitch. Our show can be seen live on Twitch, via subscription, or on YouTube or even in audio podcast form. It’s been a wild ride, and all of the show’s success and popularity was completely surprising for us. We’re just happy and lucky to play together and make our show.

How has it changed throughout the years?

As the show has grown in popularity, we’ve made lots of improvements and subtle changes. Our studio set has grown from a few rented tables pushed together into a full-fledged production soundstage with multiple cameras, microphones, and immersive lighting and music cues. But most of that is flash and glitz. At its heart, the game we play weekly is 99% the same as we played in each other’s apartments as a group of friends just hanging out.

When you prepare for a show, do you know what will happen to your character that day? And do you ever find yourself making a decision purely for the sake of entertainment rather than the good of the party?

We have a game master named Matt Mercer, who guides us through the story of Critical Role, and he is a genius. The cast never knows where the action might lead us. That being said, our decisions and actions influence where the story goes. It’s improv, but whatever we come up with still has to make sense in the world Matt creates for us. He makes a sandbox and the rules – we get to play in it. Like the rest of the players, I try to think about what my character would want to do in a given situation and make my decisions accordingly. That’s the fun of it. You get to do whatever you want, but it’s even more exciting if you’re choosing things based on character, emotion and story.

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