Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale reflect on playing Mass Effect’s Shepard

With Mass Effect: Legendary Edition released in May, the classic sci-fi trilogy is back in the spotlight. While we’re still quite a ways out from any new title in the Mass Effect universe, the old RPGs remain hugely influential on the genre. There’s still plenty to discuss from the original trilogy, including the stellar voice acting. A huge part of the game’s impact comes from Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer, who each portrayed protagonist Commander Shepard.

Depending on the dialogue options players choose, Shepard can be a Paragon, a selfless protector who takes the high ground, or a loose-cannon Renegade who’s OK with cracking some heads together if it means they get results. But Shepard is also a bit of a cipher; everyone has their own personal take on the character. Hale and Meer had the challenge of bringing the character to life through recording hours of dialogue, throughout the sprawling franchise and its many branches.

Polygon spoke with Hale and Meer over Zoom about recording the Mass Effect trilogy and working with the rest of the Normandy’s crew. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mass Effect - Commander Shepard, a young woman with red hair and freckles, stands on Eden Prime.

Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

With so many branches and possibilities, were you surprised as you went through the Definitive Collection? How did you keep the core character consistent across all the variables?

Mark Meer: We relied heavily on our directors. Caroline Livingstone did a lot of work on Mass Effect 2 and 3 with us, especially as we got further into the series and the branches got more branchy. Caroline, Susanne Hunka, and Shauna Perry gave us context constantly. As Shepards, we saw the big picture more than most people, but that also made it more confusing for us because we weren’t doing this in chronological order. So Caroline was able to say, “Do you remember that scene on Virmire? This happens right after that.“ So they were able to give us context, not only chronologically within the game, but emotionally where Shepard was.

Jennifer Hale: In my case, it was Caroline, Susanne, Chris Borders and Ginny McSwain. Also fundamentally, I think when we crawl into a character, we crawl into a sentient being — that being is who they are. We were ourselves on every given day, but we have a wide range of moods — with coffee, without, sleep, no sleep, pissed off, doing fine. But we’re still the same person inside and that anchors us to what we, as actors, and our directors kept us coming back to.

Some of the routes — especially Renegade — can get pretty spicy. Mark, I know in Mass Effect 1 you can romance Ashley and then abandon her to the nuke on Virmire, for instance. What is it like to record scenes where Shepard is punching out a reporter or leaving his girlfriend to die?

Meer: Shepard is a very unique character that was fully voiced as a RPG protagonist. And since there was so much player agency, Shepard could be a by the book, lawful good type to a really loose cannon who, sure, is saving the universe … but not really being very polite about or caring about collateral damage on the way. So that was interesting to have a character that could go anywhere between those two poles. We ultimately recorded one path first, then went back and did the other. The real challenge I found, and our directors worked with us on this, was making sure we weren’t swinging back and forth between those two poles, because some people do play like that. They might pick an extreme Renegade choice and then an extreme Paragon choice. We had to balance it so that Shepard didn’t sound like they were having immense mood swings.

And speaking directly to the Renegade choices — let’s face it, some of them are pretty fun. Even a Paragon player might not be able to resist throwing a merc out a window.

Mass Effect - Commander Shepard, a young, stern looking man, stands on Eden Prime

Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

Oh, I do that every single time. And I usually bring Jacob with me, because he’s like, ‘Do you have to do that?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do.’

Hale: I always joke that Paragon is what I do say, Renegade is what I wish I could say.

Meer: Addressing punching the reporter directly, I should mention that the reporter in question is played by my very good friend April Banigan. We’ve known each other for years; her brother was my best man at my wedding. We were quite familiar with each other so choices like that were fun. Conrad Verner is another friend of mine, played by Jeff Page. So with punching April and shooting Jeff in the foot, I did feel myself conflicted at some points.

I had a friend enter the Mass Effect 3 endgame with just Conrad Verner as a war asset.

Meer: That’s beautiful. How’d that go?

Not good! Do you have a particular romance you preferred on the Normandy?

Hale: I always say, don’t make me pick.

Meer: My Renegade romanced Ashley, and then Miranda in 2, and Liara. I didn’t show much fidelity, but that’s because I knew my first picks wouldn’t be NPC companion characters in the second one, so I had some inside knowledge of the narrative and that influenced my choices.

Hale: There’s so much great dialogue. I love the Liara relationship, because it broke so much ground. It pissed off Fox news so bad, which was phenomenal publicity. And it’s so silly, looking at it through the lens we see through now. I love that it’s such a non-issue these days, and it was such an issue when we started. I always love putting my boot through a door. So, that’s a blast. And some of the Garrus stuff. The Thane writing in Mass Effect 3 got me in the end, it was beautiful. So I’m a little bit partial there. But I’m not picking!

Meer: If I do another playthrough — I probably will at some point because I’m a nerd myself — I have promised Courtney Taylor that I’ll do the Jack romance because having recorded that dialogue, I know it’s a fulfilling romance. It’s not easy, because Jack as a character has gone through severe trauma, but it’s one that’s always appealed to me as well.

Mass Effect 2 - Thane, a green, lizard-like humanoid alien, stands in front of a window

Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

When it comes to lines like, “I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite shop on the Citadel” — what’s it like to see those lines manifest into memes and still live on through different contexts online?

Meer: I mean, the Commander Shepard one is sort of teed up to become a catchphrase. It’s an in-joke within the game itself. It was more surprising to see something like, “I should go.“ That’s now on official merch! That sort of thing. I don’t think either of us expected that “I should go“ became this de facto catchphrase but … we do say it quite a bit.

Hale: I remember I did one [read of that line] and I was like oh, OK. Oh, it’s here again. We need it … again. Yeah. Yeah. OK. Oh? Again? We — OK. Yeah, I know, we need it again. It’s here again. It wouldn’t go away.

Meer: I really appreciated that because you know, we get paid an hourly rate. So BioWare could have saved some money by having us say it once and just reusing it all the time. But they very graciously had us say it every single time. So each one has a slightly different tone, so the players don’t get tired of it.

You guys are very clearly close friends. Back as the games came out, there was a lot of banter and arguments about which Shepard was better, or who had a better performance. But you guys support each other while still having different takes on the role.

Hale: I adore and respect the heck out of Mark. Comic genius and fantastic actor right there. His wife is amazing too, so he’s a smart man who picks well. So whenever I see that online, I’m like “la la la la laaaa.“ Why make me pick, you know? Just move on.

Meer: I was a fan of Jennifer’s work before I got this gig. When I was told I’d be the other half of Commander Shepard it was sort of like being told “Oh, yes, you’ll be in this movie — and playing the same role as Meryl Streep.“

Hale: Oh my God. Thank you, but not at all —

Meer: No! It’s very true! I was a fan since the animation days and the Justice League stuff and whatnot. So it was a real thrill for me to get to participate in this project.

a Reaper ship attacks in Mass Effect Legendary Edition

Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

Shepard has cool moments like punching people or romancing aliens from around the galaxy … but they also have some really terrible dancing. What was it like to humanize Shepard through silly or awkward scenes, like trying to romance Ashley and Liara at the same time in Mass Effect 1 or trying to romance Jacob in Mass Effect 3?

Meer: I always found those moments delightful. It’s so nice to balance the seriousness of a character with some more human moments. The dance in particular — I just found this out during our most recent round of Mass Effect stuff — I’d always been told that the person who did the mocap for the Shepard Shuffle was a special forces person they brought into do the military stuff and they were just asked to do some dancing, and it was used as a placeholder.

That was apocryphal! It is, in fact, Mr. Josh Dean who did the mocap for the Shepard shuffle, and Mass Effect fans know him as the voice of Jenkins.

Hale: I love the goofy stuff like the Citadel DLC, where we get to party down. Like Mark said, there’s so much that’s hard and heavy with the fate of the galaxy on your shoulders, it’s like hey crew — let’s cut it up a little bit.

For those scenes, what was it like hanging out as Shepard or building bonds with the crew when voice acting is an asynchronous process?

Hale: It’s funny. Sometimes people will be like, oh, do you act too? I’m like, oh no, this is acting on steroids, because we’re actually in there playing with our imaginary friends. We’re alone, and we have a checklist of acting moments — who am I talking to? What do I want? What just happened? Did someone just explode? Are we having a cocktail? And then frequently for me, I’ll flash-memorize the line. I’ll look at it, I’ll have it, and then I’ll just talk to my imaginary friend.

It’s really fun when I know who’s playing the role because I can picture them in my head. There’s a software BioWare developed, a system called VEDA, and if you weren’t the first one in you could hear the people who had recorded lines already and responded to them. But 95% of the time I was the first one in. How about you, Mark?

Meer: There were a few situations where I had someone’s performance in my headset when I was doing it. Keith David, for example, we had his performance for Anderson’s death scene, and that was amazing. It was very gratifying. A couple of times I had Martin Sheen when I was doing scenes with the Illusive Man. As Shepards, we tended to go first, but that gave us the advantage to set the tone and then other people would react to us.

Mass Effect 2 - The Illusive Man, as portrayed by Martin Sheen

Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

In the years since Mass Effect, I think we’ve seen a lot of main characters inspired by Shepard — the Assassin’s Creeds, Greedfall, etc. What is it like to see those ripples in other games?

Meer: It’s awesome, it’s a fantastic feeling. It’s what needed to happen and I can’t wait to see where it goes. I mean, again, as far as I know Shepard was the very first fully voiced protagonist [in a choice-based RPG.] When you’re the first anything, you’re blazing a few trails, and it’s nice to see other folks walk down those trails.

Hale: Bro Shep — I call him that, because he’s my bro — was on the box for the first two games. And then Mass Effect 3 came out, and you had the reversible cover with Femshep. We were at Gamestop at midnight, and someone dropped the cover for me to sign. I was like, oh my god. We were with the actors, and then there were other tables with Casey Hudson and Caroline Livingstone and Mac Waters. Casey, the head of the team, is not a person who seeks the limelight. He’s very much like, “I’m good. I don’t need a lot of attention.“

But someone dropped this on the table, and I grabbed it. I stood up on the table and held it over my head, John Cusack style, and say “Casey, thank you.“ It was so moving. I still cannot look at that box without it feeling amazing.

When the trailer for the Legendary Edition came out — I’ve shared this, but it’s worth repeating — I thought I understood as an open-minded, forward-thinking human being what representation meant to people. And then I had the experience of actually feeling represented, and I was like, “Oh, I take back all those times. I thought I knew something I didn’t know.“ Because I was just sitting at my computer, and I saw the thing and I was bawling. I cannot believe the privilege I have to sit in this seat and break that ceiling.

Meer: It’s a really lovely video. I mean, I like it.

Hale: [laughs] Thank you.