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DF Interview: Dan Navarro – From Spanish jingles and ‘Family Guy’ to ‘Deadpool 2,’ his voice and music have been everywhere
By Byron Brewer
Dan Navarro is an American musician best known as half of the duo of Lowen & Navarro. He’s also a trivia game answer since his first cousin is Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But more than this, Navarro is a voiceover actor of animation, commercials and more.
DF caught up with the talented Navarro and discussed his continuing entertainment career … heavy on the toons!
Dynamic Forces: Dan, I know that you have been involved in a wealth of endeavors in entertainment during your career, but let’s first delve a little bit into your voice acting. I believe it all started in the late 1980s with some Spanish jingles?
Dan Navarro: I started out in 1988 doing Spanish jingle work, which I fell into. A college friend, with whom I had sung in school, asked me to sing a jingle session in his garage for $100. The female singer on the date happened to be a busy Spanish vocal contractor, and three weeks later hired me for a radio jingle for Miller Beer.
I was freaked, scared I would not be able to cut it, and ran the negative tape in my head… “I’m not lucky enough for it to be, like, La Bamba, it’s gonna be super hard.” My Spanish was not as good as I thought it should be. But I took the session anyway, and when I showed up, it was La Bamba. So I nailed it, and started working steadily, instantly, becoming “first-call” right away.
What I didn’t know was that there were many tenors in the Spanish vocal community, but no baritones. And none who could slide from Sinatra-smooth to Joe Cocker-raspy on demand. So I filled a need in the community I did not know existed. That’s the take-away from my experience starting out – you never know what is on the other side of the door, so assume nothing and keep trying.
My reputation spread, and I worked enough to qualify for my SAG and AFTRA health insurance in the first year. Unlike on-camera actors and voice-over talent, singers rarely audition. Our jobs come from referrals, so reputation is everything. Over the years my gigs morphed from jingles to backing vocals on Spanish records, and occasionally films and television. That’s all I did for the first six years, singing, 90 percent of the time in Spanish.
Voice-over work started in 1994 when an existing client hired me for a Toyota commercial, and revealed at the session that it was a voice-over, not singing. I became the Spanish VO for Southern California Toyota Dealers, with new spots every three months, which led to me easily getting an agent, no-risk, since I was already getting guaranteed work.
By 2000, Spanish singing and Spanish VO had evolved into English singing in films and TV, then English voice work (not singing) in commercials, films, TV and games. My character work started also by accident, as a casting director friend asked if I would be interested in doing “walla” (unidentifiable group background sounds for crowd scenes and the like, on Family Guy. One thing kinda led to another, based on a growing skill set and a willingness to dig deep and try anything.
DF: Can you discuss some of the character work you have done and in what media?
Dan Navarro: The character work has been a little of everything. I started with walla on Family Guy in 2000, then American Dad in 2005, Glenn Martin DDS a couple of years later and The Cleveland Show a couple of years after that. Over time, I did newer, different things, breaking into films in 2014 and video games in 2015. I’ve only done three games, but they were all major hits – Fallout 4, Uncharted 4 and Red Dead Redemption II.
The character work is usually either big gruff guys or Latinos, or big gruff Latinos. I played a crooked mayor and a droll doctor in Fallout 4. My biggest break came in The Book of Life, playing the main monster, Chakal, who had a huge, deep, gruff voice – Cookie Monster with an attitude.
DF: Is there a character you have done that is one that you particularly enjoyed, really got into? If so, which one and why?
Dan Navarro: My favorite was Chakal in The Book of Life, because he was so outsized, a gargantuan beast, and they kept directing me to go bigger and angrier. My voice hurt a bit when it was over, but I had to give them what they needed. It was the farthest I gotten to stretch for a part.
DF: Discuss the process a voice actor goes through vs. a performer in a live-action TV series or film. I am sure it is quite different.
Dan Navarro: Voice actors don’t have to memorize their parts. So you don’t get anything in advance. Everything is fresh and read cold, no time to work anything up or experiment. Sometimes the volume of material is large, so you might be there for hours anyway, so you are pretty much expected to nail the read in the first couple of takes.
You work in a studio instead of on a set, and have to imagine the action going on around you, except in ADR, where you see it on a screen. You might get the chance to try stuff, but they expect results very quickly, so you have minutes, not hours, to make your mark.
Sometimes you are asked to put body movements into the part, like fight scenes or exertion scenes, or even just move around a bit to add dimension into what the mic is picking up. And some video games make you wear a headset camera to pick up your facial expressions as you speak.
But mostly you have to create character with only your voice, not your body. So you have to be a keen listener and be conscious of what you can do with your voice muscles physically to create variety. The process is so enriching that I break new ground even in auditions.
DF: While we’re at this point, can you explain to readers what Automated Dialog Replacement is in filmmaking and how that has touched your career?
Dan Navarro: ADR, also known as “looping”, is the replacement of existing audio with new audio, or of silence with audio. That can be dialog, with or without sync-to-picture, body sounds, ambient voices, off camera voices or group voices, to make a scene sound and feel complete.
For instance, when you see actors in a restaurant talking to each other, the other actors in the restaurant are not actually speaking, though they are mouthing their conversations, and their audio is added later. In the case of groups or ambient sounds – known as “walla” or “loop group” – it requires being able to imagine what a scene needs, and make it sound natural without drawing too much attention to itself. Sometimes they are gibberish sounds without discernible English. The term “walla” itself came from an industry legend of a director asking background actors to simply say, “Walla walla walla.” Sometimes, speech in a discernible language is called for, and when those lines stand out from the “walla” they are called “call-outs.”
In replacing the dialog of an on-camera actor (who might or might not be the actual on-camera actor), it require the ability to match the existing lip movement, or even match their voice.
In the PBS series American Family, in 2000, I had to replace an on-camera actor’s singing voice in two songs, so the songs would be better sung. I had to match his lip movements, some of which were erroneous (he mispronounced a word in one song).
In Pirates of the Caribbean 5 I had to impersonate Javier Bardem, itself a challenge, to match his diction and tone color, and occasionally match his lips, and/or replace existing dialog with newly written lines when his mouth was not shown. In one case, I had to start a scene with Bardem off camera uttering with new lines, join the on-camera action in perfect sync with his lips, and then, when they cut away from Bardem, go back to new dialog, all seamlessly, without letting the transitions show. It is difficult and exacting work. And a total blast.
Why is this done? Oftentimes the existing production sound has a glitch of some sort – an unintelligible mumble in an otherwise great performance, or a stray sound, like a plane passing overhead in a 17th Century costume drama, or an accent issue (Barden had trouble with “Jack Sparrow,” saying the S-P without a vowel in front, and kept swallowing the “S”), or a change in script, or in the case of crowds, no sound at all that has to be rebuilt. For Bardem to do his own voice repairs, he was likely $10,000 a day or more, first class airfares and a five-star hotel. They got me for SAG-AFTRA Day Rate, $900 and change, and no travel or lodging. Good for the film, good for me.
DF: Of course, Dan, music has been a huge part of your life as well. What can you tell us about your involvement with it, and your incredible teaming for 20 years or more with the late Eric Lowen?
Dan Navarro: Eric Lowen was my brother, and together we realized our lifelong dreams of making music for a living, permanently. We recorded a dozen albums, wrote hundreds of songs, toured for 19 years, logged a million-plus miles and nearly 1500 performances. We were partners in the expression of a particular point of view about life and times, set to music. I’ve been a songwriter, singer, guitar player and recording artist for 40 years, and every experience has been worth the struggles of the journey.
DF: Dude! You just had a solo album released in 2018 called Shed My Skin, and – AND – your songs were in Deadpool 2?! Congrats! Talk about both.
Dan Navarro: First off, after going solo in 2007, starting an album of my own was daunting. I had done nine studio albums with Lowen & Navarro and I had things to figure out. Could I write alone? Did I have anything of importance to say solo? Would I enjoy the process? It took years to start and years to finish, but I am proud of the result and feel it’s the best work of my career.
Deadpool 2 was a complete surprise. The publishers never tell me when this stuff is coming, so I get blindsided by calls from friends. That the song has legs 35 years down the road is mind-boggling. That Deadpool 2 was one of the biggest movies of the year was just freakish. But it feels good that the song still resonates with people after all these years.
I’m grateful to be able to do this job at all. To do it for a living is has been a blessing. To still be able to do it after so many years is a miracle.
DF: So what is next for Dan Navarro?
Dan Navarro: I’m writing for another record now. Another five songs and I’ll be ready. I’m a pretty old guy, have run a long road, and it’s time to tell the next part of the story.
I also want to do a Spanish language record, with some standards, some translations of my older stuff and a new song or two. I did a Spanish version of “All Along the Watchtower” ten years ago for the TV series Prison Break and people have asked me repeatedly to release it. The producers wouldn’t do it, so I’m gonna have to.
I want to do a record of old saloon songs, jazz and torch songs from the great American songbook. That’s the first music that moved me to sing, and I gotta do it.
And I hope to start a podcast called Cantina Navarro focused on conversations with interesting people on creativity and inspiration, where it comes from and what it’s for. It’s not about commerciality or success, it’s about artistry and expression, and process free from outcome.
It’s kinda like everything I’ve done… “That was fun, what’s next?”
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Dan Navarro for taking time out of his very busy schedule to answer our questions.
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