When nominations for this year’s Emmy Awards were announced in late July, CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” one of the most warmly received shows of the 2014-15 TV season, was nearly absent. Despite raves for its star Gina Rodriguez and expectations that it would vie for best comedy, the freshman series was the recipient of only a single nomination.
That the nomination was for one of the show’s most entertaining characters – a never-seen narrator – was even more of a surprise. A decade or so ago, Anthony Mendez, the 42-year-old voice actor who plays the Narrator, was running a recording studio in Jersey City, New Jersey, producing commercials while composing songs perhaps best described as funereal. “My music was super dark – some might call it depressing – but I grew up in the headstone business, and I’d write while I was waiting for customers to come in,” he said, referring to his father’s gravestone manufacturing business.
Then he lent his whiskey baritone to a nightclub promo for a radio station. The client loved it, and a voice-over career was born.
It took Mendez five years of assorted agents and acting classes to find his niche, which spans campaigns for CNN and HBO Sports, movie trailers and video games. Then a script crossed his desk that, at first glance, he wanted nothing to do with.
“It said ‘Jane the Virgin’ and ‘accidentally artificially inseminated,’ and they wanted a telenovela ‘Latin lover narrator,’” he recalled. “It sounded ridiculous. Then I sat down with the script and thought it was brilliant.”
Despite the show’s single nomination, which he called “heartbreaking” given Rodriguez’s Golden Globes win earlier this year, it aligns him with the high priest of narrators, Peter Coyote.
“My family said, ‘Who’s Peter Coyote?,’” Mendez said in a phone conversation from his home in North Jersey, where he records the show’s voice-overs in a bedroom turned studio. “So I played them a demo, and they looked at me like, ‘Oh, you’re screwed.’”
These are edited excerpts from a conversation on his career, the show’s process and how his Latin lover persona plays in real life.
Q: How did you conjure up the voice of the Latin lover narrator?
A: There are a couple of different ways it could have gone – what I call the typical telenovela or Hispanic announcer: the Spanish vampire. I knew that could be pretty fatiguing for the viewer, so I took the approach of making him almost Antonio Banderas-ish, a smooth talker. Sassy pillow talk.
Q: How does the narration process work?
A: I’m usually at the table read in Los Angeles via Skype. Then, when they’re ready to record, Jennie Snyder Urman, our creator, and Gina Lamar, our producer, call me up. I use a phone patch, so they can hear what I’m saying into the mike, and I can hear them in my headphones. We go by scenes. So maybe the first take we hit on point, but we also want to allow them the flexibility of making editing or story choices. So we might change pacing, attitude, tone or mood. They paint the picture for what’s going on in the scene, and I have to connect to that feeling.
Q: “Jane the Virgin” was praised in part for its focus on Latino characters. What do you think of representation on television?
A: It’s a tough question because there are as many answers as there are different cultures and races within the Latino community, if you want to call it one homogenized community. In terms of diversity on TV, I think it’s getting better for Latinos, but if there’s one thing I want, it’s to get more Latinos involved in voice-over. We’re as American as anybody else, and we can cross over just by speaking the way that we speak normally.
Q: Is that something that’s made more difficult by being bilingual?
A: The challenge has been, in English anyway, the regionalism. What I call my paella of an accent – that combination of Hispanic, urban or street, New York and New Jersey. I’ve worked with speech pathologists on reducing my accent and also being able to dial it in. That goes for Spanish as well. Being first-generation American but born of Dominican parents, our Spanish doesn’t tend to translate across the general market in Spanish.
Q: How do you care for your voice?
A: I try not to be out at parties too much. You know how if you go to a club and it’s loud, and at the end of the night there’s a tickle in your throat because you were yelling? Those are micro tears in your vocal cords. I also drink a lot of water, and I don’t smoke. I wear scarves where there’s a lot of AC or if I’m going out in the winter. A neti pot works great for keeping everything clear. Some people say don’t drink dairy, but, eh, I’m not that particular about it.