The Jen Taylor interview
The voice of Cortana speaks
By Matt Soell
February 6, 2002
It's 10 AM on a Monday and I'm in a rural Seattle suburb I'd never even heard of before last week, sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Gallagher Center for Mental Illness. I'm gathering my courage to go inside and conduct an interview with Jen Taylor, the actor who provided the voice of Cortana in Halo. Significantly, this is her first interview - indeed, her first interaction with the outside world - since the day of her last pickup recording session, after which she left Bungie's office and took a cab to the Gallagher Center to have herself committed. It's an overcast day and the dirty industrial gray of the hospital blends eerily with the cloudy sky. The things I do for this job, I think, as I step out of the car and begin the walk to the front door.
As you might imagine, security is tight in a place like this; I'm frisked and run through a metal detector several times before I remember my boots have steel toes. One doctor and two orderlies take me down a series of long halls. None of them explicitly state that we're heading for the maximum security ward, or whatever they call it in mental hospitals, but it seems obvious to me.
Eventually we find ourselves in a mucus-green hallway with eight steel doors, four to a side. One of the orderlies moves to the farthest door on the left and peers through a small reinforced glass window while the doctor and the remaining orderly give me a crash course in what not to do. Much of it is familiar to me from the hospital sequence in The Silence of the Lambs. No sudden movements, no physical contact, no questions that might anger or upset the subject.
"Above all," says the doctor, his voice sinking to a whisper, "do not ask her about the thongs."
The orderly at the end of the hall comes back over for a worried conference with the doctor. Jen has not been tranquilized as per orders. She is fully awake and aware, and thus totally unpredictable. The doctors had hoped to avoid any unpleasantness by keeping her too doped up to move, but apparently the med cart is running very late today. There is talk of cancelling the interview for safety reasons. At this point I'm not sure what to do and I'm more than a little concerned for my safety, so I grab my cell phone and call Max back at the office.
"Hey Max, it's Matt. I'm at the hospital but the doctors don't want me to do the interview because someone forgot to slip Jen a Mickey."
"What?! That's bullshit. We don't want to interview her when her mind is doped up and foggy."
"Yeah, but they think she's dangerous otherwise."
"Dude, don't be such a wuss. The site is called Tru7h and Reconciliation. Get your ass in there and get the Tru7h. Don't forget to ask about the thongs."
"They already told me specifically not to ask about that."
"Who are you going to listen to: licensed medical professionals, or me?" Before I can answer, Max has hung up.
I turn back to the doctors and discuss the situation. After a few tense minutes we come to an agreement. I can interview Jen but only for ten minutes, and the doctor and both orderlies must be present to restrain or sedate her if the need arises. An orderly types a seven-digit code into a keypad near the door and three heavy bolts slam open. The doctor and orderlies precede me into the room to explain the situation to Jen. Much of it is too quiet for me to hear, but I do catch the words "if this goes well, you're that much closer to a full recovery." After a few moments the doctor says I can come in. I brace myself and step inside the cell.
Jen Taylor is sitting on a padded bench which must double as her bed. The two orderlies flank her while the doctor leans against the wall opposite them. Jen is wearing hospital scrubs, looking more like another orderly than a patient. The only dead giveaway is the strong plastic band that binds her wrists together. I introduce myself and explain briefly what I'm there for. Jen smiles and nods. The doctor glances at his watch and I remember I don't have much time. I pull out my tape recorder, start the tape rolling and begin the interview.
"How did you get into the voice acting business?"
"Nepotism. My best friend worked at a radio station and sucked me into it. I worked at a kids' radio station where I did voice overs and dj work."
So far, so good. Next question.
"Apart from Halo, have you taken any roles that Bungie fans might recognize? Were you playing any other interesting roles at the same time?"
"I've worked on Alien vs Predator, Tribes II, Mario Bros and lots of radio commercials. And...yes, I was working on an independent film called Mrs. Baker while I was voicing Cortana."
She seems wistful as she says this, and I wonder if she often has occasion to remember the outside world fondly. I decide to ask a few more easy questions before I dig into the dangerous stuff.
"You've been performing for fifteen years; are there any highlights in your career that you're especially proud of, other than Halo of course?"
"When I was 8 years old, my school performed 'How the Elephant Got its Trunk'. I won the coveted role of the narrator which was THE ONLY speaking role. I got to wear a pretty dress and stand at the front of the stage with a microphone. The power was exhilarating."
The doctor seems uncomfortable to hear Jen talk about the exhilaration of power. I decide he's just uptight and ease back into the game-related questions.
"Do you play videogames, or just act in them?"
"When I was little we had Atari and I was crazy about Pong. That's my videogame experience. I sound old don't I? I'm not really that ancient!"
Four questions in and she's bordering on hysterical. The doctor shoots me a meaningful look, which I do my best to ignore. Time to get down to business.
"What was it like to work with Bungie's Cinematics team? Did you enjoy working on Halo?"
Jen seems suddenly animated. "Oh sure. They've created a really comfortable working environment for themselves. They really relax and let it all hang out." She pauses, and I am about to go on to the next question when her face darkens and she mutters "Coming to work in thongs...if they wore anything at all. It was, obviously, what they needed. And it DID help me relate to my character's emotional journey...fearing for my life."
The doctor's hands have moved to the pockets of his white coat. If I'm not careful Jen will get tranked and the interview will be over. I notice that she brought up the thongs herself; perhaps she's not as afraid of the subject as the doctor thinks. Still, better to ask another innocuous question to keep everyone chilled out.
"Were you conscious during the recording sessions that your voice would be part of a game played by millions of people around the world?"
"No, I was unconscious at the time."
I try to figure out if this is a joke, but Jen's deadpan earnest expression gives nothing away. I wonder if this is an example of sociopathic behavior or just good acting. I wonder if there's a difference.
"Did you do anything special to prepare for the role of Cortana?"
Jen leaps to her feet and shouts "TWO BOTTLES OF JACK AND A BASKET OF TWINKIES BEFORE EACH SESSION!" She stands there laughing madly for a few moments. The orderlies step forward, each one grabbing an arm and pulling her back towards the bench. Jen suddenly stops laughing, sits down, continuing as if her previous outburst had never happened. "Actually, I watched a bit of the game before we recorded and discussed the desired direction and tone for Cortana. Plus, I avoided dairy products."
I sense an opportunity to lighten the mood.
"You say you avoided dairy products; was Cortana lactose intolerant or something?"
Jen smiles enigmatically. "Cortana fears very few things. But you may not know that bovines really do freak her out."
"How did you feel about the final look of Cortana?" I ask. "Do you feel there are any similarities between you and her besides the voice?"
"I haven't seen it," she sighs. "I haven't been allowed." She glares meaningfully at the doctor.
"But you just said you got to see a bit of Halo before you recorded."
Jen looks confused for a moment, then seems to remember something. "We both have small ears," she volunteers.
I decide to go for broke.
"You talked about thongs earlier," I begin. The doctor starts to say something but I talk louder to drown him out. "Isn't it true that one day the entire Sin-O-MatiXXX team - Marty, Jay AND Joseph - showed up wearing the same blue-sequined thong?"
Jen is staring at the floor. "The blue sequined thong incident is too horrific to recount. Let's just try to forget that."
But it's too late to stop now.
"Isn't it true that they formed a chorus line and started kicking up their heels while belting out 'Show Me The Way To Go Home'?"
Jen says nothing. I ask again, louder this time. I won't leave without the Tru7h. "ISN'T it TRUE, Jen?! Isn't THAT what actually happened?!" With a scream, she springs at me. Before I know what's happening I am sprawled face-down on the floor while a mad actor kneels on my shoulders, screaming incoherently and using the plastic band that cuffs her wrists together as an impromptu garrotte to strangle me. Of course, it doesn't last - the orderlies manage to wrest her away after a few seconds, and the doctor steps forward to administer the sedative. "I TOLD you not to ask about it," he says.
I retrieve my glasses and tape recorder and survey the scene. The two orderlies are restraining a wriggling, screaming Jen while the doctor prepares the shot. I glance at my tape recorder; it's still rolling. I ask my last question.
"Jen! If anyone wanted to learn more about you, is there a site online with more information or a bio?"
She stops wriggling long enough to say "You betcha! My film info is at www.scotopiapictures.com. You can see a trailer for the movie and I think there is another interview. Hope you like it." The doctor and orderlies stand up. Jen tries to follow suit, but the tranquilizers are working fast.
"Thanks for doing this interview," I say.
"You are so very welcome," Jen replies. Then she falls over backwards and begins to snore softly. The interview is over.
The angry doctor has the two orderlies escort me off the premises, as if I needed any encouragement to leave. I've learned a lot this dark day, but one thing sticks out in my mind: no matter how much I complain about "the things I do for this job," no matter how deep I must go to seek the dark Tru7h in Bungie's games, the Sin-O-MatiXXX Team will always go farther...and sometimes the actors who make that journey with them don't come back in one piece.