Lili Wexu is a self-made voice actor who has built a successful career for herself in the entertainment industry over the past twenty years.
She has lent her voice to the Assassin's Creed franchise, appeared on Grey's Anatomy, and held the honor of being the announcer for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Wexu recently published an e-book series aimed at helping aspiring voice performers use their skills to tap into an in-demand industry. The Get Clever About series is jam-packed with helpful tips, must-have resources, and practical information to help actors navigate the ever-changing industry.
Lili Wexu Talks About Her
New Series Get Clever About
Maggie Lovitt (ML): How has quarantine been? Have you been keeping busy?
Lili Wexu (LW): The quarantine has been really busy. The spring is usually a busy time for me, but this year one of my biggest advertisers had to close their stores for a while. I was like, “Oh, this is going to be brutal.” Then all of this PSA messaging came through.
I also record voicemails for larger institutions in Canada and all of those were needing messaging to let [people] know that they were going to be on hold longer, that the employees are working from home, and that the hours [had] changed. So I felt like an essential worker the whole way through! Finally, in August, it kind of slowed down [and] I started to get hired for more regular work.
At the beginning, I was like, “Oh, this is not a big change, I'm already alone in the studio a lot of the time”. But then I realized that the pandemic cut out the few things that get me to see people, like our friends, and I take classes, so all of that got cut off. It took a while for me to start feeling Cabin Fever but I'm feeling it now for sure.
ML: I can imagine. So do you have a home studio that you record from as well? Or do you go somewhere to record?
LW: I record from my home studio primarily. If you're doing animation and video games, you’ll go to other studios a lot, although even some of that work has gone to home studios now, so these days, you really have to have your own studio. The pandemic has really propelled that trend.
ML: So how did you get into voice acting?
LW: It was kind of an accident. I was studying acting and wanted to be an actress, but I was working at a restaurant-bar and there was a local radio station that was airing their lunch hour show from there. The DJs would hang out there all the time, and they would always say, “Oh, you have a great voice, you should do radio.”
One day, this gig came up and they needed someone [who was] bilingual and I just happened to be bilingual. They knew that I could do the job and they said, “We've been telling you [that] you have a great voice, and now we need your help! This is your opportunity to get your foot in the door.”
And I definitely put my foot in that door and kept it there. And I basically ran with it for the last 20 years! But yeah it was kind of an accident.
ML: The best things always happened by accident.
LW: Yeah, yeah, it's funny. Like you end up wanting to do one thing and then you end up being really successful in another. For years I was like, ”You know, I do act!” But my main thing is voiceovers, definitely. For years, I would complain that I didn't get to do enough acting, but now I feel so lucky. Especially during this pandemic. Going on set right now, it's just a real pain, and a lot of roles are being cut. Recording voiceovers is a fortunate place to be and I'm very, very grateful for it. But when I was younger, I didn't take it very seriously, you know?
ML: Are you inspired by any other voice actors?
LW: Of course, I admire all of those actors who can do many voices and imitate people, like Robin Williams. When I was younger, those were the people we thought of when we thought of voice work. Of course, I still admire people like that; I have friends that I admire that do that kind of work.
You know, in commercials, that’s the part of the industry I'm in, there’s been a huge shift. The shift was propelled by well-known actors like Julia Roberts, Julianna Margulies, and John Krasinski lending their voice to commercial campaigns. That's changed everything for people like me, who record voiceovers. So now, I listen to those guys and I'm like “Oh, what do they do?” They raised the bar for everyone.
So, the actors that I love [to see] on the screen are now the actors I can look up to in my voice work. Like Meryl Streep. She's an actress we all love. And she's a reference on a lot of breakdowns for commercials or narration. So, yeah, my screen actor heroes are my heroes behind the microphone now.
ML: So out of all the voiceover projects that you've worked on, have there been any that you've been very partial to?
ML: It’s funny because, in my work, in the commercial sector, it's not that it's hard to take pride, because I do take pride, but you're kind of selling something. So, whenever I get to do something a little bit more artistic, or just cool, or cutting edge, it's really rewarding for me.
Years ago, I got to work with these amazing artists. The woman was the illustrator and her husband was the director. We did this little short film called The Cloven Sky. I just saw the animation for it recently and it's just gorgeous art. It was a treat. It wasn't like any typical kind of thing, we just took our time to do it.
Whenever I get to not worry about timing or [when I have] free rein is when it's really satisfying. Anything really artsy is really great.
Thankfully, now the industry is shifting towards being a lot more artsy, even in commercials. For example, I record a lot of manifestos. Manifestos are basically commercials for brands, instead of commercials for products. Manifestos are usually most artistic, and they don't have that commercial feel that we're used to. Those get to be very, very satisfying. They usually have really great scripts.
Unfortunately for me, a lot of that stuff doesn't really end up seeing the light of day. A lot of those productions are for ad agencies and they’re often internal. It’s kind of a weird part of the industry where I rarely get to even see what I've done.
There’s a lot of NDAs. It's getting harder and harder now, almost every audition will have an NDA attached to it. Sometimes they won't have an NDA attached to the audition, but when you do the gig, you're not allowed to talk about it.
But, yeah, back to your question. I mean, anything that's really, really artistic is fun for me.
ML: So what was the best piece of advice that you received when you were getting into the industry?
LW: Train. You know, don't think you're going to be able to wing this. I actually learned that when I was well into my career, and I was already making a living. But training just put me on the map. I went from being a local girl to a more national girl. Or a “bigger market” talent. Training just changed everything. And it's also helped me stay employed through time. Because what happens is that, through time, trends change.
So, what worked ten years ago, won't work now. You have to always be updating your skills. You can't think like, “Oh, I've trained and it's over.” In any field actually, you usually have to continue training, but for some reason in acting some people think like, “Oh, I did a couple classes and now I'm done.” No, you're not, you're always going to need to adjust, because there's going to be more and more competition.
There's also going to be new generations who respond to different things. Even in video games and animation. What worked twenty years ago doesn't work now. Now acting is a lot smaller. It's a lot more conversational. It's a lot more real. You have to be able to adapt to that. Training helps you do that. So definitely training in huge capital letters.
I was trained by my mentor and I really thought that I knew what I needed to know. Then I met this coach and she was like, “No, you have to continue training otherwise you're going to be limited.” And up until then, I really hadn't thought of that. I'm glad because it changed my whole outlook. It changed everything for me [and] it gave me a lot more opportunities.
ML: That’s a perfect segue into talking about your book series. Was Get Clever About a quarantine inspired endeavor or has it been something that you've been working on throughout your career?
LW: Well, it's not a quarantine endeavor. I've always been someone that took notes. I’ve been journaling since I was a kid. I think for the voice acting books, it's always been a matter of when and not if.
A lot of times when you're working, you just don't think you have anything to say. Like “Oh, I'm gonna write a book about this? Who am I?” But when you do voice acting everybody wants to know how you got into it and how you do it. So you're always answering that question. And since I'm a note-taker, I've always kept notes about it.
Then I finally wrote the books, and then the quarantine hit, and the books were almost done. I was like, “Oh my God, so many actors need this book right now.” All the emails that were coming out of the agencies were like, “Sorry, you need your own studio. You need to be set up at home”, and I've been set up at home for twenty years. So for me, it was like, “Oh, yeah, duh.” But a lot of people didn't realize that. So I was like, “These books really need to get out now.” So, the pandemic definitely propelled the book launch.
ML: And then you've also been doing Instagram Live streams. I think it was weekly, correct? Are those an extension of your books?
LW: No, they're not weekly. It’s tough because I'm still working a lot and I have to coordinate all this stuff. But my next guest is probably going to be Friday (Sept 11th, 2020). So, I’ll say they’re like once a month for now.
It is an extension of the book because the books basically look under the rug. Like what's under there? Because [with] the voice acting industry and voiceover industry, people will think that they're inaccessible fields. But that's all changed. I think people don't realize how much actors actually have to do themselves. So, we look at all that. That’s what we talk about in these Instagram Live shows.
So yeah, it is an extension of the books. Definitely. Also, every actor has some things that they do that helps them, so it's really great for everybody to know those things. We're all in the same boat, and we share each other's tricks and tips. You know, it's nice.
ML: Aside from training, are there any other valuable voice acting tips that you might offer to entice people to pick up the book?
LW: It's all about doing it yourself now. I don't know if this is a tip, it's kind of hard because the books are full of tips, right? I guess what I can say is that [voice acting] is more accessible than you think. But you do need to have a roadmap because the voice industry is more populated than ever and larger than ever.
It’s all about cutting to the chase and not wasting your energy, or your time, or your resources on things that are going to be a waste of time. You can waste a lot of time putting your energy in the wrong areas and then realize three years later, “Oh, God, I wish I would have done that two years ago.”
So the books are really just all about cutting to the chase and getting you from point A to point B in the most effective way possible. If you're interested in voice acting, if you have a connection to your voice — it can be for actors, singers, teachers, people who love public speaking, or moms who love creating voices when they read to their kids at night.
The books are basically a roadmap through the voiceover jungle. You really need that because you can easily get lost and get deflated. My whole point for writing the books is to help you not get deflated and to actually have some positive experiences that you can build on and get you somewhere because this is an accessible profession.
Of course, you've got to love it. Like anything, if you don't love something, it's going to be really hard, but if you love it, the sky's the limit and you can do it. But you need a good compass.
ML: We talked about this a little bit, but as the industry evolves to accommodate this new post-COVID world, do you think that there will be a pivot towards more voice acting opportunities?
LW: I think so. I mean, I think there's a lot of productions that are going to move to animation. It's just easier. You can hire actors at home, you don't have all of this red tape for production, you don't need locations, and things like that. Animation has other issues, it's not easy in any way, but I think under the circumstances, a lot of budgets are going to move from live-action to animation.
Also, the voice industry is booming. It’s been booming for years and it's going to continue booming because we’re addicted to content. We communicate via content. That’s not going anywhere. The more isolated we are, the more we want that human voice, that human element that connects us, right? So, voice acting is not going anywhere.
Look at all the additional messaging I had to do during the pandemic. I was twice as busy this year because of the pandemic. So, yes, if you want to get into this, this is a good time. Absolutely. And I don't think it's going back, even when the world goes back to normal. We're still so addicted to content.
And the thing is, any other thing that happens, voice will be needed to address it. It’s kind of like emergency work. Obviously not in animation or video games, but even in those sectors, there's going to be more informational [and] educational content that’s coming. Animation and video games are often used for educational purposes, you know? All of that is going to grow.
ML: Total sidebar, but I was watching a TikTok video last night of somebody talking about how their medical program had pivoted online and they had to essentially play a video game to learn how to interact with patients. And it was fully animated and voiced.
LW: That’s exactly what I'm talking about. Everything is moving to media and the more media you have, the more performers you need. So, I think it's going to grow exponentially.
The world is going to belong to those who know how to get through that maze. Capitalize on that. You can make a good living with your voice, a really good living. It requires an investment, like anything, you have to work really hard. You have to invest time, energy, and a little bit of money as well, because you need to invest in new training, gear, etc. But it's a good place to be if you love performing, it's a great place to be.
ML: Do you happen to have any advice for upcoming performers who are looking into either the Canadian or the American film industries? Are there differences between the two?
LW: I think they're very similar. When we’re talking about the American film industry, we're really talking about Los Angeles and there's really nothing like it in the world. It’s just a lot more competitive in LA. In Canada it's very competitive too. Neither of these industries are easy to get into.
What I do think, right now, is it's going to be a little bit harder, at least until we have a vaccine. A lot of roles are being cut because a bigger set with more people is more dangerous. So it’s a little bit harder to get into the film industry right now.
My advice would be to keep on top of your training, and focus on creating your own content. A lot of people in the industry are watching what's going on online. If you can create some high-quality content; comedy, drama, whatever it is, it’s a way for people to get to know you. Use your training and your creativity, and create your own content because that's more likely to get your attention now, rather than pushing on doors that aren’t open right now.
And if you're already acting, consider using your voice to make a living because the same skills are required. If you've already invested in the film industry, it's not a far stretch to invest in the voice industry, you know?
So, that's what I would say now, just hang in there — it will turn around. And if in the meantime, you've managed to cross-promote [your content] and get a lot of views and attention, you're going to be that much more appealing when the world does open up and it's going to be a little bit easier for you to make your way through the door.