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Movie actors reading audiobooks bring more than just a name: NPR


Michelle Williams’ voice in Britney Spears’ new memoir has received widespread praise. We examine why high-profile actors want to participate in audiobook performances.



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Actress Michelle Williams is receiving widespread praise for her performance reading the audio version of Britney Spears’ new memoir, “The Woman In Me.” Variety called his storytelling a work of, quote, “deep sympathy and ecstatic transformation.” The New York Times says Williams telegraphs joy, regret, pride and fear. And while big-name actors reading audiobooks aren’t necessarily new, the key to a successful performance in an audiobook isn’t as simple as hiring a big-name name. NPR’s Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Britney Spears – and her voice makes an appearance in the audiobook at the very beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE WOMAN IN ME”)

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Reading) Prologue. As a little girl, I walked alone for hours in the silent woods behind my house in Louisiana, singing songs.

LIMBONG: The book traces her childhood, her rise to fame, her difficult relationships both romantic and family, the guardianship under which she found herself and her fight to escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE WOMAN IN ME”)

SPEARS: (Reading) Reliving everything you’re about to hear has been exciting, heartbreaking and emotional, to say the least. For these reasons, I will only read a small portion of my audiobook.

LIMBONG: Now, most of the Michelle Williams reading clips that have gone viral are the cringiest bits, like Spears recounting that her former partner Justin Timberlake met rapper Ginuwine.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE WOMAN IN ME”)

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (Reading) Jay was all excited and said so loudly, oh, yeah, fo’ shiz, fo’ shiz (ph). Ginuwine, what’s up, buddy?

LIMBONG: But there’s something tender about the way Williams conveys Britney Spears’ quiet anger, like in that first section where Spears talks about her abusive grandfather, June Spears.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE WOMAN IN ME”)

WILLIAMS: (reading) The way people talk about men like June in the South is that nothing was ever good enough for him and that he was a perfectionist, that he was a very implied. I would probably say it harsher than that.

LIMBONG: There’s a long list of movie actors who lend their voices to books, aside of course from their own memoirs. You can find Jake Gyllenhaal reading “The Great Gatsby”, Samira Wiley reading “The Color Purple”, Claire Danes reading “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Those responsible for the Britney Spears audiobook declined an interview, but I spoke to Guy Oldfield. He’s the head of production at Macmillan Audio, and he said that being famous doesn’t get you any bonus points when you’re in the recording booth.

GUY OLDFIELD: I have yet to meet an actor, regardless of stature, who hasn’t been touched by the experience of narrating an audiobook. Trust me. It’s such a difficult thing to do.

LIMBONG: Oldfield says audiobook narration is closer to theater than television or film. On the one hand, it is a more direct and restrained performance compared to on-screen acting.

OLDFIELD: And that’s very telling for an actor.

LIMBONG: Second, it’s definitely a test of endurance. For example, Oldfield works with actress Rosamund Pike to narrate Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel Of Time” series.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE EYE OF THE WORLD”)

ROSAMUND PIKE: (reading) The wheel of time turns and the ages pass, leaving memories that become legend.

LIMBONG: They’re big, beefy fantasy books, and you can’t really cut scenes from an audiobook to save time. This first, “The Eye Of The World”, lasts 32 hours and 55 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE EYE OF THE WORLD”)

PIKE: (reading) There is no beginning or end to the spinning of the Wheel of Time.

LIMBONG: The other thing Oldfield looks for in an audiobook actor is range, because there are other characters, other voices involved.

OLDFIELD: You’re looking for flow, and that requires a very talented actor who can seamlessly switch between character voices.

LIMBONG: Going back to Michelle Williams reading Britney Spears’ book, something about the performance creates a connection with the audience. It’s currently at the top of Audible’s bestseller list, and even if Britney Spears doesn’t read it, it’s still her voice that got her there. Or, as it says in the book…

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “THE WOMAN IN ME”)

WILLIAMS: (reading) Singing takes me to a mystical place where language no longer matters, where anything is possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “EVERYTIME”)

SPEARS: (singing) And every time I try to fly, I fall. Without my wings…

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “EVERYTIME”)

SPEARS: (singing) I guess I need you, baby. And every time I see you in my dreams, I see your face. You are haunting me. I guess I need you baby. Maybe I made it rain. Please forgive me. My weakness made you suffer, and this song is my forgiveness.

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NPR transcripts are created on urgent deadlines by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.


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