Movie star, West End star, and champion audiobook-reader Kobna Holdbrook-Smith joins us for the last in this series of the Squadcast. Listen now to hear him talk Nicolas Nickleby, power-naps, and audiobook-reading in the dark...
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Episode 7: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
So hi everyone. Welcome back - if you re-joining us - to the Squadcast. If you're new, welcome! There are some other earlier episodes that you'll be able to listen to. This is the podcast of London voice agent Voice Squad. So whatever your connection to the audio world, or if it's just an interest, we're trying to give you an insight of what it's like to work in the industry, what it's like at the agency, all the kind of inner workings of the office and what skills you need to be an actor, a Voice Squad artist. I'm David John. I'm a voice artist at the agency and also work as an ADR casting director and director and dubbing director. And I'm on the Equity council as the audio representative. This week we have a very special guest. I'm delighted to welcome Kobna Holbrook-Smith. Welcome.
Hello. Thank you - it's great to be here.
So Kobna is with Voice Squad - has been for some time. We'll be talking about that. He's an Olivier award-winning West End star. How does that sound?! Yeah. Great. And that's, that was recent. That was in Tina the Musical. That was playing Ike Turner. Also Kobna has worked in movies. He's been in Doctor Strange, Paddington 2 and Mary Poppins Returns, which was, that was just last year, wasn't it?
Christmas last year.
But in the audio world, he's a very experienced audiobook reader. So you read the Rivers of London series -
I have done yeah.
And this - I mean - Nicholas Nickleby - I mean, that must've been amazing. A Dickens! I mean, it must've been a hell of a task because those long sentences and the way you -
Yeah. Herculean. It was immense. I did some research when I did it. And Hamlet is about 30,000 words mostly. Obviously it's a play - but still - it's about 30,000 words. And um, Nicholas Nickleby is about 300,000.
Wow! And that's all yours. Every single word!
All yours. Every single syllable! And also because it was serialised when it was written, it doesn't flow in the same way a contemporary novel would. So [laughs] I found the sentences - they're delicious to read, but grueling to speak. If you're sitting in a chair -
Reading them to yourself -
Yeah. That's great. They're very absorbing. But I had to keep tracking back to go, okay, wait, there's a clause, sub-clause. Oh, that's what he meant! Okay. Yeah, yeah. Okay. Okay. Let's go again.
The amount of preparation, I mean you just got to know it inside out.
Yeah, that's it.
Well, we'll come to audiobooks later 'cause that's kind of the main subject in this episode really. But let's start with you and go back to the beginning. Where did it begin for you - acting - and how did you get involved and when did you feel you wanted to become an actor?
So the loose story is when I was about sixteen - fifteen - I would have been - I, I thought ooh, can I be an actor? It didn't, it just hadn't occurred to me as I'm a realistic job.
That's what everyone says.
Yeah. Like an Astronaut or something. It's just not a realistic job. It's something, something that's done but not, not, not a job, job. So, yeah, I didn't think it was something I could do or was allowed to do. And then I thought, oh, let me try it. Yeah. Um, but it wasn't, it wasn't until I was about eighteen or nineteen that I think the switch, a switch flipped in my head and I went from wanting to be famous to wanting to be an actual actor. Actually acting - that's the difference. That's been the difference that I've cherished the most. I think when I was about eighteen or nineteen, I was seeing things that I found captivating and absorbing and, and I realised like that's part of what I've enjoyed and what made me want to be an actor was initially something about, um, being applauded and popular. But also something about sharing the experiences I've enjoyed, sharing the made up magics that I had gone to see in cinemas or in plays.
I didn't go to the theatre that much as a kid.
It was cinema, I guess?
Cinema, yes. Films. It was films to me, like in a video shop at the end of the high street. Uh, then voice wise, I think becoming a voice actor... I've always liked accents and words and I suppose we could say communication, but verbal communication, and that's fed into me as an actor, what I do as an actor, what I put into my work as an actor. As a conventional actor. But as a voice actor, that's where I by far have the most detail and complexity and fun and range. In my whole career. I can play anybody and nobody can say otherwise.
That's exactly how I feel about it. 'Cause it doesn't matter if you're too small or too tall or whatever you are - you can sound different, more than you can look.
You can sound older, younger. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It's quite thrilling.
So we spoke to James Faulkner a couple of weeks ago who is also on the books. He was talking a little bit about the control - 'cause he went to RADA. Did you do any kind of specific vocal training or is it just something that came with the acting training?
Well, I had a really good, uh, voice teacher. Um, there's guy called Joe Windley who I really dug. I think I've had a few teachers on along the way that I've really - I've never had like a mentor or anything, you know, never had any one person that I could say ah, this person guided me through, as it were, but some really critical people. There's Steve Buckwald who taught me acting, Joe Blowers who taught me to move and to dance.
I mentioned them because they all come into voice. When I got to drama school and met Joe and we started, we were working with him and his team and the various teachers we had, there were so many lessons to learn about - well, no, not even learn, unlearn - about how you use a voice, how you relax and what people call project and modulating. Chances to play with things and how you apply them to text. That was really, really exciting. Understanding how storytelling works and why you might do something one way and not another that isn't, it's not, it's not immediately available to people who aren't in the industry. Ideally that's the best way around, isn't it? You want all the technique to be invisible.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Just want to listen and have it sound great and you're totally enraptured by listening to the story.
That's, I mean, that's the interesting thing about audio books, isn't it? It's not about the actor giving a performance on the book. It's just, you know, reading it so that people are going to listen and listen to the actual story.
Yeah. That's certainly my take on it. But that also it lends itself to quite detailed performance quite - you can take some risks, especially if the book is fantastical or if it's got some kind of punch to it. You can really lean in. Yeah.
So audiobooks as a, as a thing. Did that come later? Did you ever think? Because I mean it's, it's exploded, hasn't it? The last ten years? Years ago no one listened to audiobooks, and now everyone does.
It's true. I listened to them at drama school. I remember Bill Bryson had - he was especially amusing. No - not him - it was Kerry Shale, I think it was. I remember they were especially amusing. My friend didn't like reading books and she used to listen to audiobooks. So I kind of got into them and I used to drive a lot and I used to have them in my car and so I listened to a few. But as you say, it was a bit of a farce. Finding them and ordering them and their on cassettes and then they were on CDs but now everything's digitalized. It's so much better. And most of the books I consume, I have to read a lot for work. So between like reading scripts and you know, books for, I don't know, research or theory or whatever. Anything else. And then for my recreational reading, the vast majority of it is on Audible.
So you're a listener as well?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Avid.
When you prepare people generally have their own way of prepping. I mean probably as a listener, people don't understand the hours that go in before you even set foot in the studio. Are you an iPad man and you mark everything up and you read the book a couple of times?
I used to be a paper man, but I don't mark up as much anymore - I only tend to mark up if I haven't much time at all. Or, if it's a particularly knotty book, but generally speaking I do a read and then I jump in. Which is pretty basic, but yeah. But I feel confident - like the punctuation - it's usually been edited. I can track it. The Dickens was an interesting, the only thing that was difficult about the Dickens, it took so long that there were characters that re-emerge. He likes to whip the covers off someone and bring someone back from, you know, from perdition.
So you have to remember the voice!
Yeah 'oh maaan, what did so-and-so sound like?' Rivers of London has a similar thing where I'll sit there with the - it was Peter Rooney before, but now it's Leo Wesser and Ben Carpenter. They're the other engineers I've worked with. 'How did so-and-so sound again? What did we -? Oh, what did I do...?' and then we have to think back or see if we have samples. They're the main problems, but the actual expression of it is usually I usually do it quite feelingly, which is precarious, but it really works for me.
It seems like a peculiar habit, but it seems fine to me - but to others - I read in the dark, so when I go into a studio, I ask to turn all the lights off. I don't like the air-con on either - dries me out - and I have my iPad in dark mode, so I can only see the words, just the words. I am not distracted by the sort of visual noise around anything else.
Yeah, yeah. It gives you that level of focus. Yeah. Important, isn't it? If you're in it a hundred percent.
That's it. Yeah. And I breathe as well. I'm really careful about breathing. I take huge, huge draughts of breath before I begin. And then, just top them up, top them up, top them up, which is quite wearing. So then - and it's all coming out now - I then also have these power naps as well. So I go when it's lunch-time, I like to take the full hour, go and have a bite and then I lay down - crash.
So often you find, you get, you know, many different characters, accents.
Love them, love it.
Yeah. I mean that's another thing, isn't it? If you're scared of that, audiobooks aren't for you to do, but if you love doing that - and you do. So it must be a challenge sometimes, isn't it?
Say someone says, oh, you've got to do a, I don't know, whatever accent now. I look them up on whatever source, YouTube, Forvo. Anything I can find a decent sample of, if it's somewhere international, try and find an English speaking version of that person. And then I transcribe one or two things they say or maybe a line of the text into phonetics and that's my trigger sentence. Then I have a sentence that gets me in and then I'm in. Yeah. And then I have what's called a vowel rack where I know how I, I transpose the way that they say certain vowels or sounds.
Which are key! If you get your vowels right, you're there!
So a couple of other areas we've been talking about that you also work in quite a lot - ADR and games as well. Which again is almost like audiobooks - in just the last 10 years it's suddenly started to explode. You know, they both require the speed of thought. And often improvisation, I suppose ADR maybe more than games, but sometimes games. You're an improviser?
Yeah. Yeah. So the ADR is especially subtle because the games they'll have a script obviously, but you can improvise some things and some sounds. And some of the experience.
Mainly scripted though.
The main thing with games is a, it's almost invariably like high-intensity screaming or shouting or something. You know, almost - sometimes not. But with ADR you can't suddenly say 'What? There's been a fire?!' It becomes too attractive -
And you have to avoid the plot a lot of the time - can't give anything away!
And you have to avoid things like brand names. Then if you're doing something period, you have to avoid saying things like 'okay' or idioms -
Don't mention mobile phones, we're in the sixties!
It's really, really, yeah, it's engaging. It's a great little side hustle.
Fascinating. So before we go, we've got five little quick questions that we ask everyone just to get background. So I see what you come up with. Instinct. Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Own a dog?
No, I don't.
Yeah. Fair enough. Um, favourite ice cream flavor?
I don't eat ice cream but pistachio is by far the best!
If you had to be forced to eat ice-cream..
Oh I adore pistachio!
Okay. Movies. Have you got a favourite or a couple of favourite movies?
I don't think anybody is allowed to ever have a favourite movie ever. It's been decreed here. Stop it. But I think, let's see... movies I've enjoyed recently. Movies I'm looking forward to seeing. How's that? The favourite movies I want to see... I want to see something called Queenie & Slim. That looks amazing. It's got Daniel Kaluuya in it. I want to see Booksmart. Uh, I wanna see Brightburn. They are things I haven't seen that are out now. Miracle At St Anna, which is an old film by Spike Lee. That came into my head when you asked, because I found it just very, I found it had a balance of sort of spirituality and magic that surprised me 'cause it's a war film. Uh, and it's set in, there's all the like bombs going off and it's detailed, but there's like these soldiers, the fraternity between them and they're rescuing art and it's great.
But obviously the obvious, the obvious ones like your Godfathers and your Star Wars...
You get those for free!
Okay. Theatre. Have you been recently, what's the last thing you saw?
I saw Rosmersholm last night. I go quite a lot. Yeah, I go quite bit. Yeah. Saw Rosmersholm last night and I was really impressed. The adaptation is by a guy called Duncan Macmillan. It is so good. So, it's Ibsen, it's an Ibsen play - perfectly plotted obviously. And the relationships are really complex and it's like, it must have been wildly outrageous in its time, but what Duncan's translations and he's got this amazing, very, very believable, very fresh language that is bursting with detail. It's such, it's such a feat. People say things to each other and all the subtext is there, but he, he hasn't, we can't catch him crow-barring detail in anywhere. Seamless.
Funny. You're not the first person to mention that! So last one is, have you got a favourite place in London?
Oh, that's a good question. Yeah. Um, favourite place in London at the moment - it changes, don't @ me! - Brockwell Park. Yeah, I like it. It does feel like they just, they just stopped developing around the rim of it and it's still got a kind of like windswept, you know, tree crops up here and bushes. It's great. It feels natural. It doesn't feel like a park that was landscaped. It probably is, I don't know anything about its history, but Brockwell Park. And I quite like, I like parks generally. I quite like Hyde, but Brockwell's amazing.
Yeah. Cool. Okay. Kobs. Thank you!
Thank you very much, Dave.
Great to have a chat with you.
So we have finished with this little series. This is our last episode. We just wanted to say thanks to all our guests for giving us a bit of time, having a chat about the industry, letting us learn a little bit about them and their work. Keep your ears open if you're interested. There'll be more soon, hopefully coming up and keep an eye on our social media accounts. You can listen to the reels of all the actors that we've interviewed. So you can hear James Faulkner, Alison Dowling, David Rintoul, and of course Kobna Holdbrook Smith.
The Squadcast is a voice squad limited production. It's hosted by me, David John, devised by Neil Conrich and produced and edited by Emma Samuel. We'd just like say a special thanks to The Sound Company, which is where we are today for kindly letting us use a lovely quiet room here for a couple of our recordings. Very kind of them. Thanks for listening and hopefully you'll hear more from us very soon.
The transcript from our previous episode, an interview with David Rintoul is available here.