It’s important to take new jobs slowly – ease yourself in, get all the basics right, before shooting for the moon. Nobody simply jumps into the biggest roles in the world or star positions.
Unless, of course, you’re Leah de Niese, 25-year actor and now voice actor. Her de ella first job de ella in the new branch of her vocation de ella? Just for Overwatch, a game with well over 50 million players, voicing one of the most anticipated characters in years, the Junker Queen.
“The whole thing is brand new to me, I am an absolute newbie,” de Niese says in our interview. “What a ride. It is so thrilling to have this voice gig and then this world of Overwatch all at the same time. It’s been overwhelming but in such a wonderful way.”
Overwatch’s community is known for its love of the voice actors that embody the characters, and many have commented about how different their careers were after becoming part of the Overwatch cast.
“I was told there’s going to be life pre-Overwatch and post-Overwatch,” de Niese explains. She did n’t necessarily believe it, describing her initial reaction to her as “we’ll see”.
“[But] they’re absolutely right. It is such a massive, massive community and that’s thrilling. My gosh, to reach an audience that huge is unbelievable, as an artist.”
It started very differently – Leah didn’t even know what she was auditioning for when she showed up for the first time. Being potentially her her first voice acting job, she says she “just did n’t flinch”.
“I just went for it in the audition, I just went hell for leather because I didn’t have any preconceived notions. All I knew was ‘get as much character through your voice as you can.’”
Developer Blizzard’s team were excited as soon as they heard her audition. Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, narrative lead on Overwatch, says Leah was ahead from the start.
“One of the things we like to do, when we’re making sure that an actor is going to work for a role, is we take the audition lines and we playtest them in-game,” he explains. “Here’s the character, we’re gonna see if it works with Leah’s voice playing over. Very early on we were saying ‘Oh wow. Oh, wow, this, she’s amazing for this.’ We were really excited to work with her some more.”
It’s a long process – one that took many months to go from initial audition to actually getting into the booth to record final lines for the Junker Queen. “I auditioned mid-year, took a month to hear back about one callback,” from Niese recalls. “Then it wasn’t ’till the head of the next year that I was going in for a bigger callback session. It was quite spread out.
“It was only maybe by the third audition that I started to get a bit like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could actually happen.’ This could be real. Look, I’ve been in the game since I was a kid.”
De Niese’s first acting credit was at 11, as Miranda Starvaggi in neighborswith stage work as young as seven.
“So I’m very measured with auditions,” she says. “I like to just nail it and forget about it. So yeah, I try to keep my expectations measured. I’m a dreamer and I chase my passion for sure, but when you’ve had 20-plus years of rejection, you sort of learn to keep things in check [laugh].”
Once the job was locked in, de Niese had some big questions to answer – what is Overwatch and who is the Junker Queen? Originally teased as part of the game’s wider world, she’s native to The Wasteland, what remains of the Australian outback after the Omnic (robot) uprising that led to a world war. She rules Junkertown, a tropey collection of corrugated metal, deadbeats, villains, and thieves which is the central power of the area, hence her title.
Long before being a playable character, she was often hinted at in the background of maps set in the Wasteland, or the lore of characters native to the area. This built excitement around the character, as anyone mentioned this often with this level of power was usually later added as playable. It’s taken a number of years, but here she is.
“Well, I started with the rest of the new narrative team around 2020 and we saw the work that the team had been doing on Junker Queen – I think we all immediately fell in love with the character,” Jurgens-Fyhrie recalls.
“She didn’t look like she was going to put up with anyone’s s***. Ella she looked like she was going to have a ton of fun doing whatever she was going to do and she was just going to be a berserker.
“For me, the idea of writing a woman who was just going to be destroying the battlefield and having the time of her life doing it was such a fun thing. It’s not an opportunity I’ve got to have often.”
There was a reasonable amount of pre-established lore for Junker Queen, putting limits on how much Jurgens-Fyhrie and his team could flex their muscles. He thinks that helped, rather than hindered, saying “one of the things that’s great about working on a large team is that those limits force you as a creator and an artist to push yourself in directions you wouldn’t otherwise go.
“It’s easy to get into a rut when you’re a writer or any kind of artist. But when you have to work with what’s already out there, that can serve as inspiration instead of a stumbling block.”
Jurgens-Fyhrie’s worked on other Blizzard games before, including Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft, which he describes as having “lore going back, in some cases, decades”.
“There’s always that fun challenge of ‘what do I have to work in? Where can I find a place to do something that players aren’t expecting, even though they know as much of the lore as I do, if not more?’”
He also says de Niese “played a very large part in determining who the Queen was from the very early days.”
Part of that was working with the team to make a realistic character that still matches the style and attitude of the country. Overwatch is famed for over-the-top characters that ride a fine line towards stereotype, and Aussies know well just how bad a poorly lampooned accent or bad lingo can ruin things.
“That’s been the most rewarding part of this role,” de Niese explains, “how much it has been coming together and developing the Queen and her personality together. Aussie lingo, when it comes up, there’s always this, ‘We looked it up, but is this right? Would you say this?’ [It’s right] nine times out of 10. You know what you’re doing, Gavin [laugh], but there’ll be maybe an alteration where I’m just throwing in a different offering. It’s good fun.”
Both also explain that it’s not necessarily about always being completely believable in terms of modern speech – it’s about making a character, who can have her own quirks and specificities.
“Drongo’s a funny one because it is old fashioned,” Niese says. “It’s not necessarily used today, but it is so iconic that to hear it just makes Aussies laugh, you know, so I kind of didn’t mind it. [Plus]she’s in the Outback and I really liked it [the idea that] the Queen doesn’t know the lingo. She doesn’t know what the kids are saying. She’s like you bloody drongo, get out of the way.”
Other moments of characterization are less subtle. Queen names her weapons de ella, introducing them in combat like one might friends at a family gathering. It’s one of Jurgens-Fyhrie’s favorite lines, not only in how it’s written but how Leah performed it.
“One of the lines I think became iconic for Leah’s Queen was ‘The knife’s called Gracie, the ax is Carnage… and me? Haha, I’m your Queen.’. Leah really leaned into it. I remember the moment when she was recording this because she was being conversational, right? Then it was the minute switch to threatening that became such a core part of Leah’s character here. That edge that she just embodied amazingly. [It’s fine] and then there’s the fear, like you realize you’re in the presence of a woman who’s going to murder you.”
Internally, they called this the royal squeak – the moment when Niese’s performance would switch from friendly to threatening, from playing around to ready to kill. de Niese, who hadn’t heard the name before, is in hysterics.
“Basically, the royal squeak is whenever Queen is feeling either fancy or murderously annoyed,” Jurgens-Fyhrie explains.
De Niese considers it her bringing her “voice cracking” to the performance, but notes that when she wasn’t sure how her line reads were going, she’d look over and see Jurgens-Fyhrie “giggling away, laughing his head off” .
Of course, there were unique challenges as well. De Niese describes times when she would get back into the recording booth and be completely unable to recall how to sound like her character de ella. It’s a new experience for her, and she knew she was doing something but exactly what it often took her a few moments to get back. There were also the major differences between recording for the game and recording for the animated short, set more than a decade prior and featuring a younger, cockier Queen.
“She’s younger. By the time we meet the Queen in-game, she she’s absolutely brutal,” de Niese says. “Back then, there’s this youthful confidence to her. [In-game] you also have [single lines] that can be very aggressive and have to be quick demands on your teammates. Whereas in the cinematic, you’ve got that room to sort of to flesh her out.
“I came in with the aggression and the growl but I did have to readjust. Ben [Dai, cinematic director] and Andrea [Toyias, senior casting and VO director] guide me to [have] more swagger, confidence, and youthfulness. ‘I don’t even have to provide anything, I’m taking this crown.’
One notable cinematic moment of that is Odessa ‘Dez’ Stone – Junker Queen’s real name before she took her crown – speaking directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall. This isn’t normal for Overwatch, and de Niese says it really helped her develop her character.
“I think that’s where we really developed that there’s always a smile behind everything. Ella she’s about to go and cut your head off, but ella it’s always with a good smile, you know?
Junker Queen will now be from Niese’s character for life. Blizzard’s franchises have a longevity to them that most can’t match, and Overwatch constantly needs new voice lines added when new characters, modes, maps, and more come out. It is, as they say, a good gig – and the start of a new career path for Leah de Niese.