Some may know Todd Levi as the voice of Super Cheap Auto. He has been at that gig for the past 15 years or so and posits some people want to punch him in the face for that, but others quite like it. He admits it has evolved into something of a caricature of itself; so far over the top it can actually be quite funny. At the moment, he is also the voice of Eagle Boys Pizza, Suzuki Marine and Ascent work shoes as well as a chain of tile stores in Queensland, a financial services company and a few others. So what makes a successful voice over artist traverse the line? We all know of actors who have transitioned into voice over territory but there are very few who have transitioned the other way.
At 36, Levi decided to crack that mould and pursue his acting passion. The genesis moment for Levi happened in a flash of clarity. “There was one very clear moment when I walked out of a successful advertising pitch (which a really a show performed in a boardroom with a clear objective as to what you want from a very small audience) and realised that I was much more focused on the ’show’ than the work I’d presented,” he says. “In that moment I thought ‘I’m in the wrong business’. That afternoon, I started work on changing it.”
Levi describes his inspiration as the ‘creative person’s disease.’ “You can’t NOT do it,” he says. “I got my jollies out of writing and producing ads for a while but there comes a point where you just start to shrivel unless you do what you’re supposed to do. For me that was performing. From there, if you have the drive, you just go with it and work out how you can make a dollar in order to keep going.”
Levi’s first classes were with The Australian Film and Television School (TAFTA) in Brisbane which, for him, was the only real option other than QUT ‘in that village’. Since then, he’s done various workshops ‘as and when’, a bit with 16th St. and ‘whatever else comes along.’ “I watched Larry Moss in action last year and got a lot out of that. Next time he’s out I’ll be on the floor if I can manage it.”
Levi describes his approach to acting as ‘eclectic’ – he’ll take what he can from wherever he can. “I’ve managed to take something away from just about every teacher I’ve had but it’s entirely about what works for the individual, he says. “There is never ‘the only way’ of doing anything in the arts. I also quite like trying to figure out what really good people are doing and stealing it.”
And he has been around some ‘good people’. He recalls doing a scene with Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill and Vince Colosimo a few years back. “Wandering around the set afterwards, all three of them at different times said something along the lines of ‘I really liked what you did there.’ They all went on to the next film and the next film and the film after that while I crawled back into obscurity, but that was a very good day.”
Levi’s acting heroes include Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxborough, Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Christian Bale and Ben Kingsley. Proven and true and forces to be reckoned with indeed. “They, and all of the best everywhere, have a fearlessness and an ability to utterly transform themselves to the extent that within seconds you forget them as faces you’ve known for years and totally believe they are that character,” enthuses Levi. “Their commitment is absolute; physical, mental, spiritual and for what you’re doing to truly have an impact on an audience, that’s what it takes.”
This is, after all, what acting is all about – finding the truth as an actor is paramount and playing that truth as though your life depends on it should be the actor’s mantra. But what do Australian actors do with the overwhelming statistics that show most are out of work for many months of the year. For every working actor there are probably 90 not working – so what does that mean for our industry?
Levi concurs that there will never be enough work for actors anywhere they find themselves but, he pragmatically advises, suck it up. “All of us would love to be going from a lead role in one brilliantly conceived blockbuster film to the next but unless you’re George Clooney… It’s sad, but even ‘big name’ actors in this country generally need an alternative income source. That’s just how it is. ”
“It’s a bit of a cliché but there is an absolute imperative to tell our own stories. They can also be universal stories with global appeal. ‘Shine’ for instance. Make stuff. Generate your own audiences. It’s tough and it always has been, accept that and get on with it. That said, if you have the drive to go to Hollywood and crack it, you have my absolute respect and admiration. Just remember that great little short we did together and insist your next big name director cast me in your next film.”
Levi has a passion for the Bard and says he could do Shakespeare just about indefinitely. But he is mesmerized by any role that allows an actor to present a whole, complex person; to find the humanity in a brute, the brutality in a saint, the courage in a coward. “People are complicated. That’s what makes us interesting. Having a chance to portray that is a wonderful thing, whether you’re playing to 10 people or 10 million.”
Levi is a realist but the reality is, if you want to make in this industry, you have to be. His advise for to anyone starting out – later in life or not – is to Do it NOW. Do it wholeheartedly. “If you don’t, you’ll always wonder ‘what if’. Just make sure you’ve also got some at least vaguely reliable way of paying the bills while you do it.” Resilience, drive and pragmatism – a good brew, no doubt!
Levi’s next project is playing the nefarious police officer Wyatt in Steve McCall’s satirical black comedy PLUCK! at The Butterfly Club. For Levi, this role is the latest of many ‘bad cops’ but the first with a funny side (sort of).
June 30 – July 5.