Tim Russell

September 22, 2010

Tim Russell

Tim Russell started with "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1994. One minute he's mild-mannered Tim Russell; the next he's George Bush or Julia Child or Barack Obama. We've yet to stump this man of many voices. In other roles, Tim played the part of Al, the stage manager, in the Robert Altman film A Prairie Home Companion and a detective in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. In addition, he spent 33 years working for WCCO Radio, a CBS news-talk station, the last 10 years as a movie reviewer and Entertainment Editor for the morning show. His movie reviews continue on his blog at russellreviews.com.

Tell us about the Cinecast – Elvis Costello played in a few scripts with you . . . what was he like to work with.

The Cinecast was exciting but it presented some challenges. It's difficult to deliver the PHC experience visually with the same chemistry as the live Radio Broadcast, for one thing, the lighting is different and the audience knows they might be on camera and because of it, when Garrison opened the Cinecast by coming down the aisle through the audience, our typically modest St. Paul audience seemed a little nervous about how to react on camera. I hope before the next Cinecast they will be told it's all right to react as if this was a normal live radio broadcast.

Elvis Costello is a true showman and dove into every sketch character he was assigned with great skill and commitment. It's a joy to have someone famous as a singer/songwriter, join The Royal Academy of Radio Actors with such enthusiasm; he was delightful and down to earth.

(NOTE: The first cinecast was so much fun, A Prairie Home Companion will be beamed into 500 theaters again on October 21, 2010. Visit the cinecast webpage for theaters and guest information.)

Guy Noir: Radio Private Eye

How did the cinecast compare to the making of the A Prairie Home Companion movie?

The movie was a joyous event, Robert Altman in top directorial form, in what turned out to be his final film: a top notch All-Star cast assembled because they all wanted to work with Altman at least once in their careers: a shoot filled with camaraderie and no drama. The Cinecast was thrilling too, mostly because of its Live, Radio, by the seat of its pants, on the Big Screen, uniqueness.

We all know that you were working during the original broadcast of the cinecast, but did you get a chance to see the broadcast either on the cruise or in a theater? If so, what was your favorite part as a viewer and not a participant?

Most of us saw the Cinecast Encore the week after at the Rosedale AMC. We all loved Garrison's prelude, a walking tour, filled with his extemporaneous humor and style, of our Capitol City, and my hometown, St. Paul. The show was much better than I thought because the movie theater audience seemed to fill in the enthusiasm I thought was lacking in the seemingly camera shy Fitzgerald audience.

What is your favorite sketch on A Prairie Home Companion and why?

I loved a "Linda Wertheimer" sketch we did in 2001 just after taking the war to Afghanistan. It was a delicate time for American humor but Garrison had some fun with the travails of satellite broadcasting and the technical delay that comes with it.

Linda Wertheimer script (Rillirillibad)

I also enjoy the opportunity to pay homage to the great Bob and Ray comedy team. We did a sketch with Garrison talking to my TSA character about new security procedures on one of our San Francisco shows this winter, shortly after the Christmas "Underwear Bomber" threat.

"The Lives of the Cowboys" remains my favorite recurring script because of the pleasures of these two crusty characters being thrust, at times, into contemporary society. Playing crude and crusty as Dusty has a certain appeal.

Whatever happened to famous celebrities?

A lot of the voices we used to do have passed from the scene. They were familiar to audiences because they were from a more condensed era of media, big movie and TV stars that everybody knew like family. Garrison did a great job of capturing their foibles in addressing everyday topics like Mother's Day and every other holiday or current event. We used to do a lot of political voices but Garrison began doing his newspaper column, which gave him another outlet for his political thoughts. We did have a lot of fun during the run-up to the 2008 election with my John McCain and Barack Obama impressions, plus Sue Scott's dead-on Hillary Clinton voice.

Famous Celebrities

What is your process in creating a voice? If Garrison came to you and said he was working on a script and needed a Justin Beiber voice, how would you go about accomplishing this? Is the voice the most important part or is it the speech pattern or dialect?

The key to doing a voice is to hear it in your mind. Garrison might have a script that requires Mayor Bloomberg's voice. The first thing I do is listen to him on Youtube, catch the speech patterns and accent (accents make it much easier). I listen for phrases that are repeated often. The idea is to recreate the same sound that the general public will recognize. It's like drawing a caricature, only with voice. This ability is really a gift but you can break it down to a pseudo science. Once the voice is rattling around in your brain you can transpose it to any script, adding a few recognizable catch phrases to the script.

What does a typical work week look like?

We get our first look at Garrison's script on the day before broadcast. Garrison gets to hear what they may sound like so he can make the rewrites overnight. Then Saturday afternoon we see the finished scripts ... but wait, we're not done yet, because Garrison will rewrite many of them again, and sometimes again, right up to show time and sometimes during the show.(See the picture on Prairiehomevoices.com of Garrison correcting a script, being done live, by reaching around my shoulders).

What made you choose this profession? What training, background or experience is required for a voice actor?

I've always been a mimic. I've always enjoyed show business and absorbed all the sounds and vernacular of it. I watched all the TV shows from the "Golden Age" of TV, to the not so golden age of today's Reality TV. I paid attention to the talents of Laurel and Hardy, The 3 Stooges, Warner Brothers classic cartoons. I watched "The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, then Johnny Carson, I adored Steve Allen and his crew and, of course, Bob and Ray. I thought having a talk show would be great, if only I had the nerve to pursue such a career. Well, as an English Major I eventually figured out that the only way to make a living for me would be to make use of my vocal skills and all that cultural flotsam I'd acquired. So I left law school and went to radio school to attempt a life behind the mic.

Any advise for a young person who would like to be a voice talent?

Absorb as much about the world around you that you can. You need to draw on those cultural, intellectual and political touchstones to make a script come to life.

I understand that you have a new facebook page. Tell us a bit about it.

So many things happen when one travels around the country with "A Prairie Home Companion." It's fun to share what I discover in a city during my downtime on the road. I love to travel and discover and, with over 20 shows on the road, there are countless museums and attractions to discover. The facebook page allows me to share.

Now I've started to also Blog my movie reviews at my new site, russellreviews.com

How can fans keep up with you and where you will be appearing, either on-screen, on-air or on stage.

Russellreviews.com, Tim Russell, actor faceboook page, and Sue Scott and I share a site to promote our voiceover work, Prairiehomevoices.com


Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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