The Hitman And The Handler: An Interview With Agent 47 And Diana Burnwood
For two decades, Danish developer IO Interactive has been creating gaming's greatest stealth sandboxes. The Hitman series has changed a lot over the years, but a few things always remain the same: the deep, systems-driven stealth, the beautiful, intricate levels, the pitch-black humour—and, of course, its two lead characters, Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood. Played by David Bateson and Jane Perry respectively, I spoke to the actors behind these beloved characters about their work on the series.
How did you land your roles in Hitman?
Jane Perry: In 2011, I was asked to voice the in-game tutorial for Hitman: Absolution. This, however, was not your average tutorial. I was allowed, and in fact encouraged by head writer Michael Vogt, to indulge in a bit of wryness to reflect the series' dark sense of humour. Michael and I have worked together for many years and I adore him! This ended up being a great success, and IO asked if I would step up and play Diana.
David Bateson: In 1992, I left the UK broke and disillusioned and returned to Denmark, a place I had visited while working as an actor. I had no plan, no ambitions. I just wanted to be in a better environment than I had unfortunately experienced in my 7 years in London as an actor. Then, in 1999, I'm in a studio in Copenhagen, recording some corporate copy, when a guy interrupts the session to ask me if I wouldn't mind having a look at some level design stills and footage of a new computer game about a Hitman.
The Hitman series is over 20 years old. How has the process of acting for video games changed in that time?
JP: From a purely technical perspective, I really notice the change every time I do motion capture. When I step into the 'volume', or mocap stage, things just seem to keep levelling up from the previous job. It's become so sophisticated, streamlined, and efficient. The other thing that has mercifully changed is the design of the headcam we need to wear for this work. It used to be super heavy and us poor actors would have massive headaches at the end of the day, our poor little necks quivering under the strain of it.
And from the acting side of things, actors are increasingly enjoying roles that are really fleshed out, beautifully written, and a joy to play. While 'game is king' (Housemarque's motto), players are getting more and more into stories, and have come to expect nuanced and well-conceived characters. As such, you now see characters in games that rival anything in film or TV. People who feel real and stay with you long after the gameplay is over.
DB: Speaking from my own experience on Hitman, it's more complex on every level. Before it would take a single 3-4 hour session to record all the dialogue for the game—bearing in mind Agent 47 was known as the silent assassin! Today it's still 3-4 hours per session, but spread over 4-6 months. That says it all. The level of writing and character development, and what can be achieved technically, is immeasurable compared to how it was then.
How does it feel being part of a series as popular as Hitman?
JP: It feels bloody awesome! You just never know when you get involved in something if it's going to be a hit or not. There are so many variables at play, and for all of them to come together in such a way to produce an unmitigated success is nothing short of a miracle. Or close to it. Having said that, the Hitman series was successful before I became a part of it, and had it failed from that point onwards I would have felt entirely responsible!
DB: It's all been quite surreal. No one could have foreseen where this Hitman adventure was going to take us, or just how big it was going to grow over the years. Actually, I'm personally pleased to have been involved from the very beginning. No one thought it would become a global triple-A success story. I will never forget seeing former IO Interactive CEO (and Hitman co-creator) Jannos Flösser at a celebratory gathering at the company's swish headquarters down by the foreshore in Copenhagen. From the look on his face as he addressed 200 employees, I knew he was overwhelmed by it all. I said he looked like a stunned mullet. He laughed, but it was true!
Do you see much of the game when you record your lines, or do you work mainly from a script?
JP: Generally, we're briefed on the context of the scene and then we just take the ball and run with it. In the Hitman games I've worked closely with performance director Kate Saxon, who is a tower of talent in the games industry—in both the UK and the US. She is brilliant at offering context and performance notes, both of which are essential, because all you're working with as a voice actor is a spreadsheet with your lines.
Later on in the process the studio can bring you in for pick-ups (rewritten/updated bits of script), and then you might be lucky enough to see your work in a finished cutscene. This also gives you the opportunity to hear how other actors have delivered their lines. This is a wonderful moment, as it's your first chance to see how it's all coming together. I'm always blown away by how brilliant it always is. You can also bounce your own performance off what your fellow performers have offered, which is quite fun.
DB: I rarely saw much of the game. I did get to see more of the cinematic sequences that top and tail the levels in later years, but on the whole we're briefed with context and then it's a case of hitting record!
Some actors become protective of characters they've played for a long time. Is that the case for you?
JP: Wow, what a great question! No one has asked me that before. You know, I think if Hitman had a new iteration and they recast Diana, I would be devastated! Truly, I'd be gutted. If they did the same with Selene in Returnal, I would have to hang up my astronaut boots, find a way to head off into outer space, and declare myself a hermit for a good chunk of time in order to recover and reflect on life. That would be really tough, as these characters do live in our hearts and minds. I am definitely protective of both Diana and Selene. They're always within me, lurking somewhere.
DB: Guilty as charged! Just so we're clear on this: Agent 47 is my good friend. Him and the games, they're nothing more than squadzillions of algorithms, but they've become much more than the sum of their parts. I love that. My 'friendship' with Agent 47 feels strangely tangible and real. So too does my relationship with Jane Perry — which is, in fact, absolutely real. She's amazing. I felt doubly proud of her being awarded the BAFTA for Best Lead Performer, for her role in Returnal, as I watched from the audience.
What's your working relationship with IO Interactive been like?
JP: So brilliant! I can honestly say that every single recording session has been a joy. They are wonderful developers and are so deserving of their success. I had the pleasure of meeting IO's Maurizio De Pascale, chief technology officer, and Marina Surdu, talent acquisition, at the recent BAFTA Games Awards. It was lovely to finally put some faces to names. As for the rest, I regret that I have not yet met them in person, and I hope to pop over to Copenhagen at some point for a smart cocktail and a visit.
DB: It's always been great. We've basically grown up together, so there's a genuine connection and synergy in the way we work. I think I've been there the longest, actually. I should check that!
David, as an actor, is it a challenge trying to breathe life into an emotionless, genetically engineered killing machine?
DB: This is the killer question. From an actor's point of view, I considered this the biggest challenge: making Agent 47 interesting and engaging. If you don't care about him, game over. A monosyllabic silent assassin who shows no emotion? Now that's what I call a challenge. I had to find a way for the player to make a connection to him. Enough to care about him. Of course, that's also the responsibility of the writers to somehow communicate Agent 47's personality to the player. But the brief was pretty sparse.
I had to find a way to personalise him. As a kid, I moved around a lot. Too much. In 12 years of schooling I went to 9 schools. I had no childhood friends or memories of home to help define my upbringing—beyond it being very transient and not much fun. I used that to 'colour' the way I said Agent 47's lines, to give it a slightly haunting, almost melancholic quality that could help clue players into the fact that this killing machine was, in fact, feeling. It had to be subtle, so as not to be too sentimental, but my past proved to be a key to understanding him. Thanks, 47. That's why we're friends.
Jane, Diana has always reminded me of M from the later James Bond movies. Was she an inspiration?
JP: Absolutely! Thank you, Dame Judi Dench, my Northern star! She was my imaginary friend while recording—especially in the early days. Whenever I got stuck I thought: "What would Dame Judi do?" I also have to thank Fiona Bruce, a BBC news announcer, for some inspiration. She has such class, is so fiercely intelligent, and is kinda sexy in a bookish, fabulous way.
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