No matter what sphere of gaming you frequent, it’s hard to escape Halo. This first-person shooter has successfully reinvented itself multiple times since its initial debut on the original Xbox in 2001. It’s a feat that wouldn’t be possible without it’s cast of characters like Master Chief and his sidekick, the artificial intelligence Cortana.
While Chief is the face of the series, some consider Cortana the true center of Halo’s universe. Like Chief, Cortana has gone through vast changes throughout Halo’s history. While these many arcs and versions all paint Cortana in different lights, they all share one variable: the voice actress behind the program, Jen Taylor.
Since the original Halo, Taylor has played multiple versions of everyone’s favorite AI. We’ve seen her as a brilliant, wisecracking Cortana in the original Halo trilogy, a fresh and goofier version of her in Halo Infinite, and this year she’s become her full self in the Halo television show. So how does she keep the character so familiar to us all while reinventing her along with the series? At MomoCon 2022, I spoke with Taylor about her years of playing Cortana and how she’s grown alongside the character over the years.
“So much of it has to do with timeline and knowing which arc I’m playing,” Taylor tells Digital Trends. “I feel like, especially with Cortana, I’ve become so familiar with her after playing her for 21 years that I feel very comfortable finding her. It feels more like different aspects of her personality that I’m focusing on. I’m just exploring and getting to know them. It also depends on my director and how they pushed me. I’m working with a lot of other people and I don’t want to take solo credit for this project because there’s so many people working on this character.”
While she’s quite literally grown with the character, there are pieces of Cortana that shocked Taylor during her long run with the character. For the Halo 4 saga, 343 Industries franchise creative director Josh Holmes revealed Cortana’s rampancy was based on dementia going on within Holmes’ family. When asked about this, Taylor was visibly shocked and said she felt an added layer to her relationship with Cortana, years after that performance.
“If that’s true, that’s remarkable. My own father is going through that, so that is a really remarkable thing that I’ve just learned from you and shocking to me that I didn’t know,” Taylor says.
It was an emotional experience for me at the time.
“I was directed to play as many different facets and extreme sides of one’s personality, and we blended them all together,” she says. “For example, my director for those scenes pushed me to explore all these different sides. Like ‘OK, we’re going to do standard Cortana voice reading this particular line. And now I want you to do baby Cortana. And now I want you to do Wizard Cortana.’ I mean, we did as many different variations, sort of personalities, as you say, that we could come up with. They blended them all together to become one, so those takes when she’s starting to fracture are actually like 20 different takes blended together.”
“Now that you tell me that, it’s even more intense. So I’m going to have to process that stuff ’cause I didn’t know that that was actually happening.”
Like Cortana, Taylor hasn’t gone through this journey alone. Or so I thought. While Cortana and Master Chief have been side by side since 2001, I was blown away that Taylor and Chief’s voice actor, Steve Downes, didn’t physically meet until 2011.
“We had never met until 10 years into the process,” Taylor says. “After Halo 3 came out, there was a celebration, and at the 10-year anniversary I just walked right up and gave him the biggest bear hug in the world.”
I felt like, you are the only other person on the planet who understands the journey that I’ve been on.
“Halo 4 is the only project that we worked actually in the booth together. We came in to voice over these motion capture actors’ performances. So we got to be together in the room, and that was a remarkable experience. I think that personally when I watch Halo 4 cutscenes, I can feel that connected energy.”
Downes isn’t the only Chief Taylor’s Cortana has partnered up with either. The Halo television series recently finished its first season and introduced us all to a new take on the dynamic duo. Unsurprisingly, the showrunners knew exactly who they wanted as Cortana.
“They came to me partway through filming when, COVID shut everything down,” she detailed. “I got a call in August of 2020 asking me If I would audition. So I read six or seven of the scenes via Zoom, filmed it with me walking around being Cortana. Then they had a callback where it was just a Zoom meeting and I read the scenes with them. Right after that, I was in.”
“As far as how different it was versus the games, we used the same technology that I’m very familiar with, which is performance capture,” Taylor says. “But I’m doing performance capture on a TV show, so there’s a ton of technical stuff that I’m having to deal with that I wouldn’t normally. Also nobody else I’m working with is doing motion capture. Everybody else is live performance. So that was strange.”
It was an interesting challenge to try to maintain the character within that.
While she’s new to motion capturing alongside real-life actors, Taylor is no stranger to live productions that don’t require her in an ADR studio. In fact, she’s also done live television and her mainstay, theater.
“They’re all so different. But in the end, we’re all pretending. I don’t know that I have a favorite because I love the aspects of each of them,” she said. “I just finished doing a pla,y and it is such a different experience in that you’re telling a whole story each night. You have a full arc that you get to play in, explore, and control to a certain point. When you’re doing TV or performance capture, you’re doing just a fraction of a scene. Oftentimes, you’re doing a moment over and over and over again. You dive into a moment and examine it almost minutely in TV or film. I think that becomes a skill and an art to figure out how to blend that and how to make that an arc.”
No matter the medium, Taylor shows no signs of slowing down with her acting career. Whether it’s through the voice of our favorite AI, in the Halo television show, or in Broadway plays, she’s constantly honing her craft. Like Cortana, she’s constantly evolving with each new experience.