The actor shares his experience performing sci-fi master John Scalzi's gripping new audio novella "The Dispatcher" for Audible.By Reid ArmbrusterOct 28, 2016 10:07 AM
Imagine a tale about a not-too-distant future in which murder is nearly impossible. And then imagine that one of today’s most gifted and versatile actors delivers it straight to your eardrums. Enter The Dispatcher, written exclusively for audio by Hugo Award-winning author John Scalzi (Old Man’s War, Redshirts) and performed by Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, American Horror Story). We sat down with the stage and screen star to talk about performing for audio, living in a world without death, and how The Dispatcher leaves traditional sci-fi and fantasy behind.
Note: Text has been edited for clarity and will not match audio exactly.
Audible: In your own words, what is The Dispatcher about?
Zachary Quinto: The Dispatcher takes place in a future world in which anyone who’s murdered comes back to life. Basically, murder’s not really possible because if you’re killed by somebody else, you immediately return to your previous state just before you were murdered. It’s created this space for these people called “dispatchers” who perform a service for somebody who is injured or ill to the point where they’re not going to survive. A dispatcher can come in and end their life and then that person is ostensibly resurrected. The story kicks off with the disappearance of one of these dispatchers and the pursuit of what happened to him.
A: What struck you the most about this novella?
ZQ: I would say that there was a really evocative sense of this kind of other world, and yet it was so firmly rooted in a world that was really relatable, easy to access, and easy to understand. That creates a really unique dynamic, I would say — something that, for me, goes beyond just traditional fantasy or sci-fi and gets into this realm of real character and real drama. There were moments, of having to explain what the idea is — what this construct is in the world where if you get killed by somebody else, you will 999 times out of 1000 come back, but there’s always the one chance that you might not. That was particularly fun to understand how people have come to integrate this reality into modern life.
A: What would things be like if death wasn’t actually final?
ZQ: Probably pretty chaotic, I would say. The book, I think, does a good job of containing the chaos by giving its reality boundaries and parameters. But I imagine it would be pretty bleak. I think part of the preciousness of life is that it’s fleeting. If that suddenly ceases being true, then I think life loses its preciousness in a lot of ways. I think the book tips into that a little bit and explores it.
A: How was the recording process?
ZQ: It was cool. It was challenging and I had great support. It requires a different kind of stamina to do it all in one go and to cultivate these different characters and tell a story. But it’s something that I’m really interested in, so I feel like there’s no better way to learn than to just dive right into it. I think coming from a theater background probably benefits me. There was a lot of voice and speech training and a lot of vocal integration in my theater training. I would definitely say knowing how to project and knowing how to use my voice to fill a theater is something that comes in handy when I’m relying solely on my voice to create a performance.
A: What is it like to perform with your voice alone?
ZQ: I would say that in audio performing, you can rely on gestures and facial expressions — but the audience doesn’t know that you’re relying on them. There are times when one can look pretty foolish, because we know we’re not going to be seen and we can use certain aspects of physicality to inform a character, to help us inhabit a character. But it really does come down to what those steps do to a vocal interpretation or a vocal embodiment of a character.
A: What was the most challenging part of the production?
ZQ: I think pacing and character differentiation are probably the two biggest challenges of audiobook recording. I feel like when you know how much more there is to read, the inclination is to get through it faster, but that’s not good for a listener. So when that happens, I have to remind myself to come back and repace it. Imagining the scene as it would play out and trying to inhabit the characters as much as possible helps ground the performance a little bit and anchors the story in the moment that I’m in rather than letting it roll ahead.
It is a unique challenge when you’re reading a piece from beginning to end pretty much straight through to make sure you’re keeping track of who the characters are and what they are to one another and how they move though the story. What I found really helpful was to just make a list of all the characters and then some notes beside them — attributable qualities or other archetypes that are evoked by who those characters are.
I know people who perform audiobooks on a regular basis, and I think it’s a skill set that sharpens and gets cultivated with more experience, so if I do more I’ll look to my experience to evolve beyond this point. But it was great fun to be able to dive into the characters and immerse myself as fully as I could.
A: What was the most rewarding part of the process?
ZQ: I think the most rewarding aspect of performing The Dispatcher was probably the scenes that I could sit in for a while — and especially two-character scenes or scenes that were really taking the listener on a journey. Less expositional, more emotional. Especially toward the end of the book, I felt really connected to the characters that I was portraying — the older couple especially. There was a real, genuine love between these two people, so I felt grateful to be able to inhabit them and explore that.
A: What do you love about performing in audio?
ZQ: I love audio performing because I can show up in my sweat pants or pajamas — and the earlier my sessions are booked, the deeper my voice is. I really just roll right out of bed and go right into the studio. (Laughs) No, I don’t know. I like audio performing. I want to do more of it actually. I love the challenge and I love the experience of using my voice in a certain way and cultivating my vocal ability and stretching myself and challenging myself in different ways.
I think it can be really inspiring. It can add a lot of dimension to stories in one way or another. Voiceover work is something that I’m really interested in. Audiobook recording is a huge part of that, obviously.
A: Why should everyone listen to The Dispatcher?
The novel itself and the fact that it was written specifically for audio format, rather than having been an adaption, makes it more immediate and makes it more accessible for the listener. The Dispatcher is a deceptively complex world. It presents itself in one way, and then as you get into it, it reveals much more depth and much more complexity among these characters and what motivates them. I feel like it’s one of those worlds that you can get lost in and, while you think you know what’s happening, it takes you to exciting and unexpected territory. It does it with characters who are colorful and dynamic and certainly a lot of fun to play. I would say it’s a good adventure, for sure.
A: What kind of books are you drawn to most?
ZQ: I just like good, colorful, imaginative, well-written, well-structured novels, whether I’m reading them or listening to them. I feel like sometimes it’s more fun to listen to biographies or listen to autobiographies, especially if the person who is the subject is reading them. My friend Lena Dunham —I’ve both read and listened to her book, Not That Kind of Girl. It’s great to hear her. It’s great to hear people that you know reading stuff — that’s really fun. I just like good stuff, you know? I like good theater, I like good movies, I like good TV, I like good books.