For Seattle-born actor Jen Taylor, the “Halo” series provided one unprecedented experience after another.
Actors don’t take a video game voice-over gig expecting there to be one sequel, let alone many sequels, nor do they dare dream that someday their job will cross over into a streaming series spun off from the video game.
But that’s where Taylor, who grew up in Sammamish, finds herself, as her video game character, the artificial intelligence Cortana, has boarded the Paramount+ series “Halo,” which releases episodes weekly on Thursdays.
Taylor began voicing Cortana in the original “Halo: Combat Evolved,” released in 2001, and voices Microsoft’s personal productivity assistant, also named Cortana. The video games are owned and published by Xbox Game Studios, a division of Microsoft.
When the “Halo” TV series was announced (initially for Showtime before moving to Paramount+), Taylor didn’t know how Cortana or her other character from the series, Dr. Halsey, would be used, if at all. She didn’t expect to be asked to be a part of the TV series. Executives from 343 Industries, the video game developer currently producing “Halo” games, took Taylor and Steve Downes, who voices main character Master Chief in the video game, to dinner, where they said Natascha McElhone and Pablo Schreiber, respectively, would play Dr. Halsey and Master Chief.
“I was really excited for the series just to see this all be visualized in this way,” Taylor said.
Production on the streaming series began in late 2019 and then shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Taylor was invited to screen test for the role of Cortana in summer 2020 and then she was off to Budapest, Hungary, where the Paramount+ series filmed.
Taylor herself does not appear in the show; instead, she performs Cortana’s movements, which provide the basis for rendering the character in CGI. It’s similar to what she has done for recent entries in the “Halo” video game series.
“I’m like what Andy Serkis did in ‘Lord of the Rings’ playing Gollum,” Taylor said. “I’m doing the same thing, performance capture. So you won’t physically see me, but you’ll hear me and you may recognize my movement [from the video game] because they’re following me.”
Because Cortana has a link to Halsey, Taylor and McElhone talked about the characters and their relationship.
“She’s very similar to Halsey in many ways, but she is definitely her own critter,” Taylor says of Cortana. “Natascha is such a marvelous, generous human being, and we had a lot of conversations about their relationship and who they are together and how they are going to interact with each other. But written into the script there was a different relationship than Cortana had with Halsey previously and that gave us a lot of our answers immediately.
“The story lines are slightly different. The reason for her existence is a little different than in the game series. But she’s the Cortana we know and love, just maybe at a different place in her development.”
Growing up, Taylor says she was “that kid” who always performed for her family, whether it was a puppet show, a story with Barbie dolls or making movies with a video camera. At age 12, she discovered stage acting after seeing other kids onstage in “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Village Theatre in Issaquah. She landed in local shows and performed in high school theater productions, graduating from Issaquah High School in 1991 before studying theater at Northwestern University.
After college and a backpacking trip through Europe, Taylor returned to Seattle. Her best friend at the time suggested Taylor try voice-over work, which eventually led her to work at KidStar Radio and later 107.7 The End, where she used the moniker Riley as her DJ name. She was at The End when the 1998 season of “The Real World” filmed in Seattle and its cast members worked at the radio station. (No, Taylor was not on the show.)
“Most of the DJs did our best to avoid that,” she said. “I had opportunities but I was definitely, ‘Step away, no, no, no, I don’t want to be on camera in that way.’”
In the meantime, Taylor built her voice-over résumé in commercials and video games, including voicing Princess Peach and Toad for some of the Super Mario Brothers video games.
When she landed the “Halo” video game gig, Taylor says she was “enchanted by the story,” but she didn’t comprehend initially how popular the video game became until Microsoft sent her to meet fans in the mid-2000s with “The Cortana Chronicles” tour.
“It was just me traveling around meeting big fans and I didn’t realize what a big deal it was for people until then,” Taylor said.
She’s also acted in some TV series, including episodes of “Leverage” (2010) and “Everything Sucks” (2018), which both filmed in Portland. And she continues to act in Seattle, with theaters like Book-It Repertory Theatre and ACT Theatre, where she most recently starred in “Hotter Than Egypt.”
Paramount+ already renewed “Halo” for a second season and Taylor assumes Cortana will return, but she’s yet to hear anything definitive. But the Washington actor says she continues to appreciate the continuing Cortana gig in whatever medium it comes.
“As an actor, every job that I get to do is a gift because I get to play for a living. How many people can say that?” Taylor said. “This, in particular, is such an extraordinary gift that I have been given by the universe that I cherish it. I never feel complacent about it. I am very grateful for it.”
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