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Steve Downes: “They’re going to have to take the mic out of my cold dead fingers!”

The Halo games are some of the most notable pieces of pop culture in the world and have since become synonymous with Microsoft’s Xbox consoles. Today, with Halo Infinite featured in every game show and convention, we take the franchise’s success for granted. In the middle of it all stands Steve Downes, the voice of Masterchief for the better part of 20 years. At FAN EXPO Canada, he shared his love for Halo, his love for his fans and his love for Masterchief.

“I had no idea how successful Halo:Combat Evolved would be.’’

Downes did radio for 44 years before becoming a voice actor by accident. ‘‘An actor friend of mine told me to ‘never get out of the line’ and my turn eventually came,’’ he recounted. In 2000, Bungie was looking for a voice actor. It just so happened that Martin O’Donnell listened to him on the radio. After playing an obscure role on his first job, ‘‘Marty called me about this new game, Halo,’’ said Downes. ‘‘He wanted me to voice the main character, Masterchief.’’

‘‘It’s the biggest role of my life and still the only role I never auditioned for,’’ Downes said, ‘‘which is strange because voice actors spend their life auditioning and being rejected most of the time.’’ Of course, at the time, Steve had no idea that it was the biggest role of his life. As far as he was concerned, he was just going to do the usual one-off job in the studio. “I had no idea how successful Halo: Combat Evolved would be,’’ Downes admitted, ‘‘I wasn’t aware of it. Bungie wasn’t aware of it. There weren’t even any plans for Halo 2. [When] Microsoft started asking about Halo 2, all Bungie could say was ‘yeah…we’ll get back to you on that.’’’

Image Credit – Xbox Game Studios

In fact, Downes himself only found out about the game’s success through a visit to his friend’s house. ‘‘I completely forgot about the game and then I saw my friend play it,’’ Downes recounted. ‘‘I asked him if he thought I might have voiced a character in the game.’’ Downes even forgot the main character’s name and had to be reminded by his friend. ‘‘When [my friend] found out that I voiced Masterchief, there were suddenly 30 kids outside of his house with their XBOX and a copy of Halo asking for an autograph,” Downes remembered, ‘‘and that’s when I knew we had something special.’’

The Time Masterchief Lost To A Little Girl

Other voice actors may have been put off by this sudden fanfare, but not Steve Downes. This voice actor loves to meet fans. But even for him, there are limits. He learned this painful lesson when he had to meet fans of the game in Fort Lauderdale. “I told the organisers I had two rules: I don’t cosplay because I don’t own the rights to the character and I don’t play the game because I’m horrible at it” he recounted. To his dismay, the organisers had already organised a Halo tournament with the winner being granted the privilege to play against Masterchief.

‘‘I told them I was horrible at the game,’’ Downes restated. ‘‘I was afraid I was going to disappoint the winner.’’ However, the contest wasn’t the only surprise the organisers had up their sleeve. ‘‘The organisers reassured me that I would be given a fake controller while a professional player would be playing in my stead from behind the curtain.’’ The surprises didn’t end there; the winner of the contest who earned the right to challenge Downes to a Halo: Combat Evolved match was an 11-year-old girl. ‘‘Even with the professional player playing for me, she cleaned our clocks.’’

Image Credit – Xbox Game Studios

Ironically, Downes’ fear of disappointing fans became reality. According to him, the child gave him this look after the match that read: ‘‘Really? You’re Masterchief?’’ In yet another twist, Downes took some solace in when he learnt that the same girl later became a professional Halo player herself.

Downes also used this opportunity to talk about his broader love for conventions like FAN EXPO: He recounts how interacting with fans during his first convention ever blew his mind and actually helped him do his job. ‘‘It’s a positive feedback loop; you give to me and I give back to you,’’ Downes explained. ‘‘After all, I’m living a childhood dream; what little boy or girl growing up didn’t dream of being a superhero?’’

Masterchief’s Favourite Line & Being In Destiny

Of course, a fan asked Steve Downes to share some advice for aspiring voice actors. ‘‘Take improvisation classes,’’ Steve recommended. ‘‘When you walk into the studio for an audition, [the directors] hand you a script and you have 5 minutes to prepare. That’s why having improvisation skills is important.’’

Another fan reminded the audience that Steve’s wife, Liz Zweifler, is also a voice actor and wondered whether the couple ever played a double act with telemarketers or scammers. Downes admitted that they did, also adding: “I [had] a conversation with a telemarketer as Masterchief and it was the first time a telemarketer hung up on me.”

Image Credit – Xbox Game Studios

Staying on the topic of voice acting, someone asked the voice actor what his favourite line in Halo was. “My favourite lines are your favourite lines,” Downes replied. At the fans’ insistence for more a specific line, Steve acquiesced and said it was probably ‘‘Sir, mind telling me what you’re doing on this ship? Finishing this fight.’’ Much to the fans’ appreciation, Steve said in Masterchief’s voice

Bungie’s recent success with Destiny prompted some to ponder on whether Downes would ever voice a character in the game. ‘‘No,’’ Downes replied without hesitation. ‘‘The beauty of voicing a character like Masterchief is that you become typecast and it becomes impossible for anyone to see you as anyone other than that character.”

“They’re going to have to take the mic out of my cold dead fingers before I relinquish my role as Masterchief!”

We asked how Downes felt about other people who aren’t him playing the role of Masterchief. The voice actor started by promoting the upcoming Halo TV series where Pablo Schreiber portrays the role of Masterchief and Jen Taylor reprises Cortana’s role. Downes added that he is ‘‘all over’’ the TV Show and plans on watching all of it.

According to Downes, the TV series is ‘‘taking the story in another direction. The problem with video game adaptations is that [writers] try to force a square peg into a round role when it’s a completely different medium. The story is going to be different from the game. If you approach it from the perspective of playing a Halo game, you’ll be disappointed. You should approach it with an open mind.’’ 

Image Credit – Xbox Game Studios

After the small aside, the voice actor gave his input on having someone else play Masterchief’s role. “Would I have like to have played the role? Sure,’’ Downes admitted, ‘‘but that wasn’t realistic and I’m sure Pablo will do a great job as Masterchief.’’ However, the games were a completely different issue. According to Downes, Halo Infinite ran into production problems when the production team tried new voice actors for John and Cortana. ‘‘They just weren’t Masterchief and Cortana,’’ Downes explained.

When replacing the duo failed, 343 Industries had no choice but to ask Downes and Jen to reprise their roles again. ”Had I known about [the issues], I would’ve negotiated a hell of a better deal because we really had their backs against the wall,’’ Downes joked. The voice actor used this moment to emphasise his love for conventions and fans once again. ‘‘Fans have influence over the games they play,’’ Downes explained. According to him, the clamour for the duo to reprise their roles came from fans. To bring this topic to a close, Downes unequivocally stated that when it comes to the Halo games, ‘‘they’re going to have to take the mic out of my cold dead fingers before I relinquish my role as Masterchief!’’

‘‘Halo 4 is my favourite game.’’

Of course, a fan had to ask Downes about his favourite Halo game. ‘‘Halo 4 is my favourite game,’’ Downes shared. The voice actor not only liked playing the game but also working on it. He is especially fond of his work with Jen Taylor, the voice actress for Cortana. The first time they met was around the 10th anniversary of Halo: Combat Evolved, and according to Downes, Jen exclaimed: ‘‘Finally! Someone who gets it,’’ when she saw him for the first time.

Downes explained that it was unusual for two voice actors to work in the same room together. ‘‘But [343 Industries] thought we’d have a better performance if we were in the room together,’’ Downes revealed. A wise choice considering that Halo 4 really explored the relationship between Masterchief and Cortana in-depth. 

Image Credit – Xbox Game Studios

“When I saw the script of Halo 4, I was thrilled,’’ Downes added. ‘‘After the first 3 games, I felt there was a bigger story to tell [beyond] Masterchief shouting out orders. And in many ways, Cortana is more human than Masterchief. Were they friends? Comrades? Lovers? [Not to mention] she was made in the image of Dr Halsey herself, so how does John feel about that?. There are a lot of spider webs but they make for a fascinating story. [Their relationship] was explored to a lesser degree in Halo 5, and we’ll see what takes place in Halo Infinite.”

At the mention of Dr Halsey’s meeting with Masterchief, the last question concerned what Dr Halsey did to Masterchief and how he felt about it. “That never really comes out in any of the games, but if you read the books, he was kidnapped as a child, we don’t know what happened to his parents and he’s made into a supersoldier. He’s probably not too happy about it,’’ Downes surmises. ‘‘[But] in Halo 4 and Halo 5, Cortana goes off the rails. Dr Halsey doesn’t know what to do about [Cortana] anymore. Infinite will probably explore this more in-depth.’’ According to Downes, ‘‘that’s what distinguishes Halo from other games; there’s such a deep story.’’