In Conversation: Robert Petkoff

Robert Petkoff is a multi-talented actor and narrator, who was worked with some of the best the industry has to offer. His credits include Broadway hits like Fun Home and Fiddler on the Roof, and films such as Woody Allen's Irrational Man. He has also recorded many audiobooks, including many of the works of David Foster Wallace, one of the most important writers of the last century.

We spoke about the unique challenges of narration, the work of David Foster Wallace, and the strange and intimate relationship dynamics between an author, a narrator, and a listener. 


What initially drew me to acting was a girl. 

There was a girl who had been doing theatre, and I had been focusing on soccer. I thought that if I tried out for these plays I could get closer to her.

That didn’t quite work out because she didn’t end up getting cast in any of them, and I did. When I started doing those plays I enjoyed them as frivolous things - I liked the attention and the chance to explore. When my parents moved and I transferred schools, the teachers had a much more serious attitude towards acting and theatre. He was the one who made me think that acting could be a viable career. 

I don’t know if I can recall what play it was when I felt an emotional connection with the audience, but I know that when that happened it was a very different feeling than the gratification of applause or laughter. There’s something to seeing someone actually be emotionally moved by the storytelling. It made it a much deeper experience for me, and it motivated me to take acting more seriously. 

How do you reconcile that feeling with your work in narration? When you record audiobooks, you don’t have the benefit of that connection with the audience.

When I narrate an audiobook, and I joke about this with non-fiction, I approach it as if I’m at a party and I’m trying to communicate to somebody. If I can make it interesting to that person at a party then it can be interesting to a listener. If I approach it as reading off a list of facts and figures it can get very dry, so I have to try to keep it personal. I keep my audience to one person instead of reading to a large group. It’s storytelling.  All of it is storytelling whether you’re on stage, or doing film, writing it, or narrating it. You’re telling a story, and the most effective way to do that is to make it personal. 

I think that comes across in your work - I ran into your narration as I read through some of David Foster Wallace’s work - Oblivion, and The Pale King

Hachette Audio was very good to me. Once I recorded The Broom of the System, I got to record more of his work. The Pale King, Oblivion, The Broom of the System, really most of his work except for Infinite Jest

I know firsthand that some of those books are so dense and complex that it helps to listen as you read. Because the experience is so intense, you start to form a bond with the voice that is narrating the text itself. It’s a strange twist in the classic reading relationship - All of a sudden there is a third actor in the mix, not just the author and the reader. 

It is odd, isn’t it? Especially because you can hear Wallace read some of his work. I know that when I did The Broom of the System, I approached it like I would any fiction. I knew I was going to have to interpret characters and create voices for them. What I hadn’t expected was how dense his writing is and how long his thoughts are. He can write an entire paragraph that is one sentence, with parenthetical within parenthetical. 

I was drawn to language very young, and a lot of my early acting experience was dominated by Shakespeare. Shakespeare will have this dense thought that will be developed through out a speech, and without the right punctuation and the right sense you can get lost so easily when you read it or listen to it. I relied on that experience when working with David Foster Wallace’s material. 

Being the voice of something so complex seems to be a heavy burden.

Absolutely, and you really have to confront that burden sentence by sentence. You think in terms of making things as clear and personal as possible so that it isn’t just a series of abstract words. You need the words to come together to represent David Foster Wallace’s intention because he has such a strong voice, and such a strong view about different things. In his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, while he’s writing with some distance about some of those things, he also isn’t harshly judging people. He doesn’t hate people. So it would be very easy to get into the booth and be more sarcastic and mean to the people and events he’s writing about, but there’s a sweetness, or maybe gentleness, that was incumbent on me to incorporate. Once I learned that about Wallace, I knew everything needed an element of it. I couldn’t afford to get too harsh or it wouldn’t work with his intention, so it helped to watch him online as he read his own material. 

In The Broom of the System there’s a conversation between two people throughout one chapter, and none of the dialog is attributed at all. You don’t know if it’s two women or two men. As you read you start to realize it’s a woman and a man, but you don’t know who’s talking at each point. So you have to go to the top and re-parse and colour code it. In The Pale King, he throws you into an elevator with what appears to be four guys, but halfway through you realize that there might actually be six of them. You have to see that the idiom that one person uses seems completely different than everyone who’s spoken so far, so now there’s probably another person in the elevator and you have to trace back and see where they came in. For a reader, it’s really not all that important because you’re getting all of the information anyways, and you might put it together in your head. For me, it’s very important, because I have to give voice to each of these people. From my position you have to know who’s talking. He can be a real challenge at times. 

With David Foster Wallace especially, I have to think it terms of the tone he contained in life. Certainly there were things he was incredibly disdainful of and when you come across those, you need to put voice to it. In The Pale King he’s writing about boredom and the tedium of life and working at the IRS. There’s an entire chapter that just contains an accounting of every person in the office and what they’re doing. It goes on and on and on, and he’s recording the boredom. That traces a fine line as a narrator because you have to ask about how far you can go while still holding the listener. Yet how far can you go away from that while still maintaining the author’s intention? That was a tough chapter. 

I always have to ask myself about the author’s intent. There’s a lot of different schools of thought on narration. One is to narrate in a very straightforward and underplayed tone. That involves saying words with as neutral a tone as possible so that the listener can attach what they want to each character. It helps the listener to interpret the text and the characters. 

"One way gives us just the words and lets us decide. The other way let’s us approximate the emotional state of the people involved. The second way is at lot more interesting to me." 

For me, when I listen to books like that, I’m bored silly. I think when we narrate, we are performing something. We’re not just reading into a recorder so that you can have just the words when you’re driving or doing chores. When someone relates a story of something that happened to them, they can do it with or without much expression at all. One way gives us just the words and lets us decide. The other way let’s us approximate the emotional state of the people involved. The second way is at lot more interesting to me. 

That idea reminds me of Spike Jonze’s Her, where the character of Samantha, an AI, was effective because she had a very human and distinctive voice and means of expression. Without Scarlett Johansson’s voice, we wouldn’t make the same connection as Joaquin Phoenix’s character. It would be robotic. 

When we have a neutralized or computerized voice, we can’t get as attached to an object, thing, or person. When we have a very real and passionate voice - not necessarily yelling, but inflected with life, interest, and love - we become engaged. It helps us feel as if we’re talking to a real person, which is a key to that film. In the same way, from my own conversations people seem to have very personal experiences with audiobooks. It becomes personal because it starts to feel as if I’m sitting in the room telling them a story. That goes back to the way I sit in the booth, where I’m trying to tell the story as if to a single person. And I generally am, one person at a time. 

It happens a lot more for people on television. I think of newscasters and morning show hosts. Every morning people get up and turn the television on, and they see a beautiful woman or a handsome man talking to them. They tell people what the stories are, what the weather’s like. Before long, you have stations having to put locks on the doors because people start to form these personal bonds with them and feel like they’re friends. It’s a difficult thing.

Soap Opera stars deal with this a lot. My wife was on Loving years ago, and she would get accosted on the streets of New York because of the story line her character was going through, where she was selling her baby. People would say to her you can’t do that, you can’t sell your baby, and it really showed her how involved people were with her character. With audiobooks it’s not as personal, but there are certainly people who have communicated to me that I’m the voice they want to hear in the next book in the series. We all get that in some way - we all have a favourite actor or author where we want to read or see everything they’re involved with, because we like their style or voice. It becomes that way with narrators, where people like the style and it gets to the point where they want you to read it to them rather than read it themselves. I think that’s completely understandable. 

With someone like David Foster Wallace, the sentences are so complex and fraught that without listening alone, it’s difficult to parse his ideas. Someone who has worked that idea out and is able to say it clears up the process. That makes me very happy, to be able to do that. 

Is the reader’s intimacy with the narrator, as opposed to the author, an appropriate response? 

I always feel that someone can have one of two responses to a recording. One is to the words, and one is to the performance of the words. There’s that layer between the author and the listener when it’s an audiobook. 

I just recorded Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Talk about a great weight on your shoulders.

There’s a phenomenal author telling an epic story, and I couldn’t help but think oh my God, I can’t blow this. I wanted to get the right tone and feel. Probably much to Proulx’s chagrin, for the people who choose to listen to Barkskins instead of read it, on some level it’s going to be my interpretation of her book that they’re going to experience. And God forbid they don’t like the way I voiced the characters - they’re going to say well, I didn’t like Barkskins. That’s heartbreaking, because they might really liked the novel if they had liked the accent I chose. It’s a lot of pressure. 

They’ll throw two or three voices up to an author when they’re assigning books to narrators. They’ll play selections from other recordings, and they’ll ask who do you like? Who do you feel can tell this story? I feel like on some level they’re responding to what they’ve heard and picking out who has the right tone and right intelligence. Other than that, you don’t get a lot of interaction with an author. I don’t get to call up Annie Proulx and go how would you like this to sound?

I think it would be great if, when an author knows that they’re book is going to be recorded, they were able to talk about pacing and tone - I hear it in my head this way. If I could get that expressed to me by an author, that’s concrete stuff to play with. You don’t have the luxury you have in theatre, where the playwright can say those things, and where you get to rehearse it and get notes from the director. In that context you can make changes. With an audiobook you’re in the studio for four days working straight through. The author doesn’t come in and listen to the first chapter and change things in the same way. 

"What was the author trying to say? How were they trying to say it? They’re the ones who told the story first, but then it goes out into the world and it’s subject to millions of interpretations."

Punctuation is my friend - it helps me figure out what the author’s intentions are. I feel this way both as a theatre actor and as a narrator. I think there are actors who go through and cross out punctuation or stage directions that a playwright included because they want to be the ones to interpret it. They feel as if the author is providing the words and that they do the rest of the work. My feeling is always that the author is the primary source. The story is coming out of their head, whether it’s historical or something entirely fiction. I was doing All the Way on Broadway with Bryan Cranston this past year. It’s a true story but Robert Schenkkan created words or pulled quotes from people to create the play. In both cases, historical or fictional, I look at the punctuation. What was the author trying to say? How were they trying to say it? They’re the ones who told the story first, but then it goes out into the world and it’s subject to millions of interpretations. Every single person who reads it is going to have their own idea about what something meant. It’s the same with a narrator - they’re going to have their own ideas about meaning. For me, punctuation helps me identify the author’s ideas. It’s so easy for a listener to get lost, especially with Annie Proulx or David Foster Wallace who are really great writers who have great complex thoughts. 

At times Wallace seems to antagonize the reader, or at least intentionally interrupt them - I’ve never seen anyone use footnotes so proficiently in fiction. Does that use of form make it more difficult to determine the author’s intention?

In some ways it makes it easier, especially with Wallace. A lot of his footnotes seem very personal. They seem to contain the real signifiers as to what he meant above. They’re mischievous, they’re funny, and they’re complex. In The Pale King, my favourite footnotes are where he says Hey it’s the author, and I’m talking about the character David Foster Wallace in the book having worked for the IRS, and actually I’m not just making that up, I worked for the IRS and I had these experiences, so I’m letting you know as you’re reading this that this is not something that I just made up.

It is absolutely something he just made up.

He never worked for the IRS, and he never had those experiences. He’s taking storytelling to yet another level with an unreliable narrator by going into the really truthful part, the footnote, and yet it’s not a fact. It’s part of how mischievous he was and how much he played with those forms. More than any other author I’ve read, David Foster Wallace’s footnotes are the most essential. 

But boy are they hard to narrate. 


Robert is touring with Fun Home, which won five Tony Awards in 2015. 

You can find him on twitter @petkoff and instragram @robertpnyc


InterviewDuncan FieldComment