Jim Dale: The Voice of Harry Potter We speak with Jim Dale, whose voice is well known to those who've picked up the audio version of any Harry Potter book.
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Jim Dale: The Voice of Harry Potter

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Jim Dale: The Voice of Harry Potter

Jim Dale: The Voice of Harry Potter

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Multiple insurgent attacks in Iraq today left more than 20 people dead, including several Iraqi policemen and one US soldier. Meanwhile, in Washington, top Pentagon officials asserted that Iraqi security forces are making progress. And the space shuttle Discovery landed flawlessly this morning at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which gives NASA time to turn to more problem-solving to resolve the difficulties that grounded the shuttle fleet until further notice. You can hear details on those stories and much more, of course, later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, blending the needs of special-education students with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Once a British teen pop singer, later a Tony Award-winning actor on Broadway, to many, Jim Dale will always be known as the narrator of J.K. Rowling's magical Harry Potter novels. He gives voice to every single character in the audio books, from the villainous Lord Voldemort to the know-it-all Hermione Granger to Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In the sixth and latest installment of the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," Jim Dale tackled 117 different characters, including Snape and Wormtail.

(Soundbite of audio version of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince")

Mr. JIM DALE (Narrator): (Reading) `Wormtail winced as though Snape had thrown something at him. "I am not your servant," he squeaked, avoiding Snape's eye. "Really? I was under the impression that the Dark Lord placed you here to assist me." "To assist, yes, but not to make you drinks and clean your house." "I had no idea, Wormtail, that you were craving more dangerous assignments," said Snape silkily. "This can be easily arranged. I shall speak to the Dark Lord." "I can speak to him myself if I want to." "Of course, you can," said Snape, sneering, "but in the meantime, bring us drinks. Some of the elf-made wine will do."'

CONAN: Jim Dale joins us here in Studio 3A.

And while we were listening to that, you were listening to that, you said you never listen to these things. You never heard this.

Mr. DALE: I've never heard that in my life. No, I wouldn't listen to these audio books of mine because I'd be far too critical. I'd pick holes in it, you know; `I'd like to polish that or polish that.' But you only get one chance when you're doing the reading. There's no take two or three or four, just one take. And...

CONAN: Really? There's no director there saying, `Would you try to sound more wounded there?'

Mr. DALE: Oh, no, no, no, that--no, the direct--there's a producer. There isn't a director telling you how to do it. You're your own boss there. You're your own judge. And sometimes, you know, when I've spoken a line, I'll deliberately swear at the end of it so that we have to stop the tape and do it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Wouldn't want that to end up on the final tape now, would we?

Mr. DALE: Oh, we wouldn't want that, no.

CONAN: If you have questions about the characters that Jim Dale inhabits and how he does it all, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And you can also send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

When you started this, did you ever think this was going to be a decade's work, this was going to be the grand opus for which you may be remembered by a lot of people?

Mr. DALE: That's true. No, I hadn't thought of that, but I did--when I first read the book, book number one, I realized that this was something exceptional. This was a fantastic story about a world alongside our own existing world, a world of magic. And I thought, `Every boy on Earth would like to either be Harry Potter or be Ron, and every young girl would like to be Hermione, able to do all this magic and to go to a magic school to become sorcerers and wizards in future life. So I knew it would be something really beyond anything that we had in today's modern children's reading, and I knew it would be something like "Alice in Wonderland" or "Peter Pan," and sure enough, that's what it's going to be.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We hear those, of course, in our parents' voices as they read them to us. Technology means that every kid is going to remember you.

Mr. DALE: Well, wouldn't that be nice? Yes, I think that would be absolutely fantastic, to leave your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great--keep on and on...

CONAN: Keep going.

Mr. DALE: ...grandchildren about the whole legacy of Harry Potter audio books. Yeah. Couldn't think of some--anything nicer to leave them. I just want to be there when they listen to them.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Penny Yoan(ph). `Please add my kudos to Jim Dale's audio interpretations of the Harry Potter novels. I have heard them all; just purchased the latest on CD rather than the book. They are lively and addictive because his variety of voices distinguishes each character so well. My son is mentally handicapped but can absorb the narrative much better listening to Mr. Dale rather than my less effective character interpretations, which tend to put him to sleep. Also, they are really long books to read out loud.'

Mr. DALE: Well, that's absolutely wonderful, and I'm so thrilled about that. I've always thought that an audio book, if spoken or narrated correctly, can give the audience an added dimension to that particular character. Because that character then comes to life from the description that the author gives of that character, and also by the way the narrator can bring to life the character. It also, as I said, adds not just another dimension, but it gives that child a wonderful added look at that magical world.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. We'll start with Max, Max in Columbia, South Carolina.

MAX (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

MAX: This--it's quite an honor to speak with both of you. I'm actually a second-time caller on the show. I was a little bit nervous the first time, but I'm glad I've got a little bit more control over myself now. I was calling because I've been a big Harry Potter fan, actually, for a couple of years now, and I've listened to the first five books on tape with--through Mr. Dale's just brilliant work. And, you know, I'm 20 years old and I'm a political science student in college and, you know, he speaks of children, but I'd say that, you know, his ability to differentiate so brilliantly between the characters is something that all of us can appreciate. And it's almost as if, you know, I've watched a hundred-hour movie between the books, and I guess my question is, you know: How--as the characters continue to multiply and become more complex, how do you still capture exactly who those characters are, the essence of the characters? Because I'll tell you--and my father's a 65-year-old PhD in political science and dean at the med school, and I've got him hooked on these books on tape, as well. So I'm just wondering, you know, what it is that allows you to bring those books alive for all of us.

Mr. DALE: Well, thank you, first of all, for the lovely compliments you just paid me. In answer to the question, as I said earlier on, I think you have to put yourself as the reader--you have to put yourself into the head and into the mind of every character that the author has written about; whether the character is a human being or whether it's a snake or whether it's a spider still doesn't matter. You have to see the story and the world through their eyes. And through the description that the author gives you, you then have to try and put something in the way of a voice through the mouth of that character.

And not only that; you have to love every character you're doing, because the character himself doesn't recognize that he's the villain. Why not--so you have to just give everything you can to that character's voice. And each one--I've just focused on each one as I get to it and hope to be original.

CONAN: I've heard that you--I've read that you, for example, envisioned Dumbledore with a bit of John Houseman.

Mr. DALE: Absolutely. There are lots of people that I've used their voice as a springboard toward the voice that I eventually end up with. John Houseman did actually speak like this. I remember having dinner with John, and (imitating John Houseman) every word in the sentence that was important was pointed out like that. And so I used that, basically that, as Dumbledore.

CONAN: He had quite a reputation but, of course, (imitating John Houseman) he earned it. Anyway, the--do you keep a tape log of these character voices...

Mr. DALE: Yeah.

CONAN: ...so you have to go back and say, `How did this guy sound in the first book who hasn't been back until the sixth?'

Mr. DALE: Well, two things about that. One is, as I go through the book when I'm reading it for the first time--and I don't have much time to read it, just 24 hours; I can only read a hundred pages. So I invent the voice, and I have a small tape recorder with me, and on the page of the script I write, `Voice 1, Dumbledore,' and then on the tape I say, `Voice one, Dumbledore,' and I read the first sentence that Dumbledore speaks. Now at the end of the book, I have goodness knows how many voices left for me to go back to, to listen to, to rewind, to forward wind, to remind me of the voice I invented the night before, because I can't keep them all in my head.

CONAN: (Laughs)

Mr. DALE: But they did finally give me a program that I have for my computer that has every voice that I've ever recorded: Dumbledore, book one, two, three, four, five, so I can press on that and double-click it, and out will come the voice that I created seven years ago.

CONAN: Max, thanks very much for the call.

Mr. DALE: Thank you, Max.

MAX: Yeah. Thank you very much. Wait--if you'd allow me just one brief, brief follow-up--I was just wondering how Mr. Dale handles access to the books, and I'll take my answer--and I'm wondering if there's a lot of questions from people who are just curious to just find out what happens next.

CONAN: Yeah. Do you get the books ahead of time?

Mr. DALE: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks, Max, for the call.

Mr. DALE: Absolutely. I have to. Obviously, the last three books I've had ahead of time, and I suppose there's quite a thrill to actually have the manuscript in your possession of a book that everybody in the world is waiting to read. And you...

CONAN: And are there several Secret Service agents along with you?

Mr. DALE: No, almost. But we have so much security; I can only, after I've read the first hundred pages, they're taken away from me and put in a safe. I mean, everything is--because if it was lost to the Internet, through somebody stealing it, I suppose millions of dollars, too, would be lost.

CONAN: Hm. Let's get another caller in. Eva--Eva's calling us from San Francisco.

EVA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

EVA: I was just wondering if J.K. Rowling and you talked about what the characters should sound like before you made the tapes--if she had any input on it. And is it like that in the end?

Mr. DALE: Well, what happened when I met J.K.--she knew of my work back in England, and being over there--I'd lived over there for many, many years and I'd done so much television and acting at the National Theatre, and she'd seen a lot of my work. And the one thing she said--she said, `I just trust you.' And that was it. She didn't give me any indication as to which characters had to sound--her description in the book, I think, lends a key to me as to what the character should sound like. And we're very lucky in the fact that in the United Kingdom we do have Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English to choose from, as well, for the various character voices that I could use from various regions of those four countries. So there's a whole stockpile there of voices to choose from...

CONAN: Have...

Mr. DALE: ...accents to choose from, sorry.

CONAN: Have your voice characterizations been affected at all by the actors who are cast as those characters in the movies?

Mr. DALE: No, because we recorded the books first, before the movies. Chris Columbus, I believe, received some tapes from my agent--this is funny, because we didn't hear anything. And my agent wanted me to be in one of the films, obviously, and she finally phoned up Chris Columbus' secretary and said, `Has Chris Columbus ever heard of Jim Dale?' And the answer was `Yes, yes, he often listens to the tapes to give him some idea as to what the characters should sound like.' So that's a bit of a sort of compliment.

CONAN: Of sorts, but you have yet to appear in the movies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Anyway, Eva, thank you very much for the call.

EVA: Thank you.

Mr. DALE: Thank you, Eva.

CONAN: We're talking with actor Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter novels, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an e-mail from Maria in Scottsdale, Arizona. `Hagrid is my favorite character to do when I read to my kids. Who's yours?'

Mr. DALE: Oh, you've put me on the spot, haven't you? I love all the characters. I think--as I said, I've inhabited each and every one of them. So I have favorites, yes. I suppose Dobby is one of my favorites. He seems to be one of the favorites of all the very young children. And I'll be doing a reading tonight, and I know they're going to scream out for that one. They always do. But I love all of them, even the villains--each and every one.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let me ask you--there are all these people obsessed with all this Harry Potter stuff, and it's all well and good. Go back to your great contribution in the "Carry On" films. I hadn't realized till the miracle of the Internet summoned the fact that Jim Dale as a young man was the romantic lead in several of the "Carry On" movies, and these are films that are difficult to explain to an American audience.

Mr. DALE: They are (laughs) difficult to explain, yes. They're rather crude humor, crude humor, but...

CONAN: The precursor to Benny Hill, if you will.

Mr. DALE: Yes, the sort of precursor to Benny Hill. Very--slightly crude humor, and one of the cleaner jokes was the man just about to have his head chopped off in "Don't Lose Your Head"--"Carry On: Don't Lose Your Head." Just about to have his head chopped off on the guillotine and his messenger ran up and said, `I have your reprieve for you, m'lord,' and the guy looked up and said, `Drop it in the basket. I'll read it later.' Wonderful, corny, stupid jokes like that, and I did about 11 or 12 of these films out of a total of 33.

CONAN: So...

Mr. DALE: And they're now in the British Museum in the archives there as a great example as to what 20th-century humor was like in the way of films.

CONAN: Sort of the Zeppo Marx of the "Carry On" troupe.

Mr. DALE: That's right, yeah. No, I was the crazy one. I did all my own stunts, because they knew very well if I broke my neck they'd shoot the scene in wide angle with the stuntman, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: These were wonderful introductions to English culture, in particular, for me, especially the man--(in character voice) `I'm England's secret boring weapon.'

Mr. DALE: I didn't realize you'd seen some of those.

CONAN: Oh, late-night television has many sins to answer for.

Mr. DALE: But, you know, these films are now going out in England two or three times a week, and I've just heard that they're also being shown extensively on the--in eastern European countries. We have them in--wouldn't I like to go over to Prague now, because they're such big hits on Prague television. And...

CONAN: Well, if you get the chance to see one, take the opportunity.

Mr. DALE: Try and sit through it. Oh, yeah. Yes.

CONAN: Let's get some more callers on the line. This is Madonna, Madonna calling from St. Louis.

Mr. DALE: Not `the' Madonna.

MADONNA (Caller): No.

CONAN: Not `the' Mado--she lives in England now...

Mr. DALE: Yes, she does. Yeah.

CONAN: ...not in St. Louis.


Mr. DALE: Hello, Madonna.

MADONNA: How are you?

Mr. DALE: I'm fine, darling.

MADONNA: I have a brief story and then a question. It's a habit of mine to listen to books on CD before I go to sleep every evening, and I've listened to all the Harry Potter books on CD. But the other day, I was in a store and all of a sudden I was yawning and just yearning for a nap, and I realized that they were playing one of the Harry Potter books with your voice, and your voice is so soothing that I immediately wanted to just settle down and relax. So I appreciate all your efforts.

CONAN: Just what every entertainer wants to hear, Madonna.

Mr. DALE: Yes, exactly what...

MADONNA: Oh, no, no, no. That's not at all what I...

Mr. DALE: I've had a whole audience of 2,000 people feel the same.

MADONNA: (Laughs) My question is: How does one become a professional book reader?

Mr. DALE: I've no idea. Let me try and answer that. I was asked to do this job because someone had heard that I was off-Broadway in a play called "Travels With My Aunt," and three men on that stage were playing 33 characters between them. So immediately the people concerned with Harry Potter said, `Right. Let's sign Jim Dale up,' which they did, and then found out that Jim Dale only played the aunt and the nephew. The other two guys played 31 characters between them. So I just got into it by accident. I don't know if there are any special schools to go to, to be a narrator, but I do think that if you've been an actor and if you've been onstage and if you've been in front of audiences, especially doing humor, then you've acquired that timing and the knowledge that this is a funny line; therefore, don't rush it too quickly and don't give a pause at the end of it because that audience listening are going to react. There might be just the slightest giggle, but don't kill that giggle, because it's most important.

And I think if you've been an actor previous to narrating books, then you have the experience that is necessary for that particular kind of job.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Madonna.

MADONNA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze in one more, very quickly. Emma, we just have a few seconds left--Emma calling from Cleveland Heights in Ohio.

EMMA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering what Mr. Dale thinks Lily and James Potter would sound like.

CONAN: Harry's deceased parents.

Mr. DALE: (Laughs) You rotten lot. How would they sound like? They'd sound very Mumsy and Dadsy. I'm sure they would. As far as the voices are concerned, I really--just give me a little--like another three or four weeks to think about that. Mainly--I tell you why. What--the problem being, until you know who the character is and the way the author describes them, as being, you know, an elderly lady with a wheezy voice--until she helps you along with the description, it's very difficult to give a voice to a character.

EMMA: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. DALE: For just a mum and a dad, how would they sound like? I don't know. They'd sound very ordinary, I suppose, whereas Hagrid, whereas people like Dobby, whereas people like, you know, the eccentric types of people can have more eccentric types of voices. So that's the problem, I think--creating those two voices.

CONAN: Emma, thank you so much for the call.

Jim Dale, thank you so much for your time.

Mr. DALE: Not at all. It's been my pleasure.

CONAN: Jim Dale, of course, many will remember him also as Barnum, but best known, perhaps, now as the voice of the Harry Potter novels.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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