MONTREAL — Few people will recognize his face, but Tristan Harvey has starred in some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters in recent years, including the “Wolf of Wall Street,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
As a voice actor, the 42-year-old Montreal-area resident makes a living dubbing famous film performances into French, often taking the part of actors such Leonardo DiCaprio, Seth Rogen or Benedict Cumberbatch.
When the wilderness survival epic “The Revenant” came out in 2015, Harvey was given the daunting challenge of matching a performance that would win DiCaprio an Oscar — all without seeing a script before he arrived in studio (for confidentiality reasons, voice actors are not given their lines in advance and can only watch the movie once).
“At least I didn’t have to go film in minus 30 degrees,” he said with a laugh. “I had the easy part.”
Quebec’s dubbing industry brings in about $30 million per year and provides some 600 to 700 full and part-time jobs, most based in Montreal. But a changing landscape, including a declining number of feature releases, the rise of streaming platforms and competition from cheaper studios overseas, has the province struggling to maintain its market share.
“The borders have exploded, the price is going down, there’s the whole DVD market that’s disappearing, and there are streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon,” said Natalie Hamel-Roy, a member of the artists’ union and a voice actress who has previously dubbed actors including Gwyneth Paltrow and Melissa McCarthy.
Hamel-Roy said streaming giant Netflix originally dubbed a few shows in Quebec but has since chosen to use studios in Europe, where the potential audience is much bigger. She said that while the industry hasn’t seriously lobbied Netflix yet, it and other emerging streaming companies will be important to the survival of French-language dubbing in Quebec.
Netflix’s position irks Harvey, who sees it as another example of large international production service companies’ failure to respect and contribute to local markets.
“It’s as if these streamers, in addition to not respecting Canadian content rules … they don’t seem to respect the dubbing industry, and that scares me because everything is going on streaming,” he said.
Netflix declined comment for this story.
But while Netflix isn’t availing itself of Montreal’s French voice actors, it is starting to hire English ones.
Mark Camacho, a film and voice actor, says he’s just wrapped up translating 13 episodes of a Spanish-language TV show into English for Netflix, and he says there are plans for a feature film and a second TV show.
The irony of Netflix bypassing French dubbers, but hiring English ones based on local expertise gained working in French, isn’t lost on him.
“The reason why Montreal was chosen as one of the cities for Netflix to work with is because the facilities we have in French, because there’s such a big demand for French (versions of) feature films that Hollywood puts out,” he said.
Joey Galimi, the president of the province’s professional dubbing association, says having to adapt to change is nothing new for Quebec’s French-language producers.
Over the years, Quebec studios have repeatedly lobbied film and TV executives on the importance of dubbing their productions for a Canadian audience rather than simply using a version from France, pointing out that the European humour, slang and accents don’t always work well for a North American audience.
He said the artists’ union’s difficult decision to take a 20 per cent pay cut a few years ago has brought back some of the work lost overseas. The industry has also been sending representatives to Los Angeles to connect with the brokers who represent the studios in the hopes of drumming up more work.
He said the hard work has paid off, and that the industry has succeeded in remaining competitive, even if it doesn’t win every battle. Reality TV, cartoons and major blockbusters keep the voice actors busy even without streaming platforms.
“It’s a wheel, and it turns, and we make the wheel turn,” he said. ”Any time we lose a project to Europe, we try to get another one. It’s very active.”
Camacho, Harvey and Hamel-Roy all say Quebec’s dubbing industry has come a long way from the days of badly-synched Bruce Lee movies. With the help of technology, scripts in a different language are adapted to match the original actor’s mouth openings, and post-production mixing ensures a higher-quality product than ever before.
They also have skilled actors like Harvey and Hamel-Roy, who pride themselves in delivering performances that honour the original while necessarily injecting a bit of their own interpretation to account for differences in language and script.
Harvey said most dubbers are hired to interpret the same actors time and time again, and become good at capturing their style.
He feels especially at ease dubbing Rogen, and describes the Canadian-born comedian and actor as his “perfect match.”
Hamel-Roy says she feels that way about McCarthy, whose funny and outgoing personality matches her own.
Casting, she said, “is about the energy more than the voice.”
Despite the stakes, Harvey says he’s not intimidated by the prospect of dubbing top actors such as DiCaprio.
“The better the actor is, the easier it is,” he said. “With a good actor, and if the script of the adaptation is good, you can do miracles.”