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The heart of Halo: Actress talks a decade spent playing Cortana

Jen Taylor
Actress Jen Taylor has spent the last 10-plus years giving a voice to Cortana — the famed AI assistant to Master Chief.

You probably wouldn't recognize her if you saw her on the street. But if you play video games then you know Jen Taylor.

The Seattle-based actress has spent the last decade giving a voice to (arguably) the most powerful, not to mention most loved, character in the famed Halo video game series. We're not talking about the super soldier known the world over as Master Chief. We're talking about Cortana — the artificial intelligence that is his guide, his partner and his companion throughout the series.

Ever since "Halo: Combat Evolved" launched back in 2001, Taylor has lent her voice to the super-smart, smart-alecky computer-generated woman. And with the highly anticipated "Halo 4" game about to launch on Nov. 6, Taylor is making a return to the series in a dramatic way.

As the developers at 343 Industries have explained, big and terrifying things are in store for Cortana in this game, which finds the human-like hologram approaching a kind of expiration date ... something that first manifests as an AI insanity known as Rampancy. (For more on that see InGame editor Todd Kenreck's video below.)

I had a chance to talk to Taylor about the art of voice acting, the realities of Halo stardom and about how her relationship with Cortana has changed over the years. Here's what she had to say...

You've played Cortana for more than a decade now. As an actress, has your relationship with that character changed during that time?

Taylor: At first she was just a job. So yeah it's definitely changed. At first I was just excited to have a job and then I became more and more familiar, comfortable with and interested in her as she was developed. And I've sort of fallen for Cortana as far as characters go. She's remarkable. 

And hopefully that first (game) was alright, but I think that the performance has improved over the years as I've come to know her better and she has become more familiar to me.

When you say you've fallen for her, what is it that appeals to you about Cortana?

Taylor: You know, when I was initially cast, something the guys at Bungie said to me was, 'This character is in your head all the time. She is your best guide and the best aid that you have — the only guide and the only aid really. So we don’t want her to sound naggy, we don’t want her to be a pain.' They wanted her to be like the girl next door, your best friend that you want to hang out with.

And she's that and so much more, because she is so smart. Obviously she knows more than we could possibly know. It's always fun to play a character that is powerful in that way.

She’s powerful in a very different way than Master Chief.

Taylor: Right. They are kind of two halves of a whole.

From what we've seen of "Halo 4" so far, there's a lot happening with Cortana in this game. So as an actress, did you approach things differently?

Taylor: I was given very different work to do this time. The character is going through some big changes. She has quite a different journey in this game from what she's ever had. So I got to do some different things. Did I approach it differently? Not really. I tried to stay as authentic to her as I could. She's just on a different path, if that makes sense.

But it was fun. Really fun.

Why do you say that?

Taylor: Well, there's big drama in this game and, for any actor I think, that's just fun to do. It was fun to, you know, go a little crazy.

Was there anything you did to help take this character down this different path? 

Taylor: What was really helpful to me this time around was that Steve (Downes), the man who plays Master Chief, was in the room with me when we were voicing the characters. That's the first time it's ever happened. We've never been in the room together. So our connection is pretty intense.

How does that change things for a voice actor  having other actors actually in the room with you. I understand that's very rare when it comes to making video games.

Taylor: To have somebody go through any kind of an emotional scene there with you — it makes it more real somehow. It feels more authentic to work off of somebody. Even the happy-go-lucky scenes and the wry scenes are more fun. Steve and I get along incredibly well. So it made it more emotional, more intense. Everything is more heightened because you are experiencing the journey with someone else. 

You experience it with your directors — your director is taking you through that and the writer is taking you through that. But when you have somebody in the room with you, you can connect with the material even more because you are sharing it with somebody. For example, if you go on a trip to a country where you don't speak the language and you are by yourself, you're only processing that individually. But when you have somebody with you to look at things and go, 'Oh my God, isn't that amazing!' It somehow heightens it, you know?

Outside of your work with Halo, are you a gamer? Do you play the Halo games?

Taylor: I am not. I'm just not good at using the controller! So I have my friends play the games and I watch them. And I narrate along, which is always fun and freaky for people.

You’ll have them play Halo while you'll narrate the game for them? 

Taylor: Yeah. Or I just making wry, silly comments. But what's great for me is that I get to see the games too. In all honesty, I had seen very little of the Halo games until the "Halo 3" launch party. At the launch party there was a collage that they did, like a tribute to Cortana. And they had all these different cut-scenes and I had never seen them before.

So it wasn’t until then that I realized that she is as awesome as I thought she was. She is as cool as I thought. 

Cortana is not Master Chief but she’s quite iconic and very well loved in the gaming community. At what point did you realize her status among the legions of gamers out there? 

Taylor: Oh, I don’t know, I guess I'm still probably processing that. It's not something I have to deal with ever. Being a voice-over actor, people don't know who you are. And it's not something that I process other than I just started tweeting recently. I’m a Luddite so it's taken me this long. But it's been interesting to see the support that I’m receiving from people on Twitter and seeing just how excited people are. So, in all honesty, I have an intellectual concept of that, but it's not something I'm usually aware of.

People don’t run up to you in the street and go, 'Oh my gosh, you’re Cortana!'

Taylor: No, no it doesn't happen. I think in my everyday speaking voice I speak slightly higher than Cortana does, so even if you were a big fan I don’t know that you would really hear me — you know, really recognize her in my voice.

One day you should walk around all day speaking in Cortana’s voice just to see if anyone recognizes you.

Taylor: Order my coffee like I’m going into battle!

Halo 4

Is there anything you do to prepare as an actor when you get ready to step into the role of Cortana?

Taylor: I think that every voice-over actor has to stay in shape. Mentally I don’t get to be privy to anything until I am actually standing in the booth. So as long as I am physically at my top, then I can voice this character to the best of my ability.

But now that the cut-scenes are online, sometimes I will go back and listen to some of them to see, OK, where were we last time? What were we doing? To refresh myself. Because for me, I don't get to voice this character except for every couple of years. So to check back in with the sound of her — who she is and where she’s coming from — is always a good idea.

So you don’t get to read the entire script before you voice her? 

Taylor: Oh no. I walk into the studio and once I’m in the studio is when I get to see it. And generally you don’t get to see the entire script. For this game, I did and that is a rarity. But normally you don’t get to. For this game, I didn't get to see the script before hand, not until well into the process. We were probably a week into the process before I got to read the whole script.

That must be interesting as an actor.

Taylor: You have to fill the scene as fully as you can and really rely on your directors to know that you’re in the right place for each scene. 

Even though you don’t play the games, you probably know this character better than just about anybody. What do you think people maybe miss about Cortana or what would you like people to know about this character that maybe isn't entirely obvious?

Taylor: I think that what appeals to people about Cortana is that she is an incredibly human character even though she's not. Which is sort of your Pinocchio issue — wanting to be human and feeling like you're more human than the people around you, especially Master Chief.

But what's interesting to me is that, as strong as Master Chief is physically, Cortana is strong in her, if you will, character and her mind. And I don't know that that's really explored — her strengths. Her resolve and her strength.

She's wry and she's sarcastic and she's kind of funny and silly, but she's incredibly strong and people don’t think about that that much. She is one of the reasons Master Chief is so strong. He has this back-up that’s going to carry him through.

Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.