When told how long she’s been recording the audiobooks for the “The Wheel of Time,” the fantasy series by Robert Jordan, Rosamund Pike sounded disconcerted.
Pike’s account of how she got involved in this epic project has a “hero’s journey” ring to it: the call to adventure, the reluctant protagonist, then some intervention that encourages them to leave the world they knew. When Macmillan Audio initially approached her, she turned the job down. Though she’d recorded audiobooks before — including Jane Austen, a historical spy novel and a murder mystery — for most of her life she hadn’t been much of a fantasy fan: “I think I’d always been quite grounded in reality,” Pike told Stephen Colbert in 2021. “I didn’t feel I needed to branch out into creatures and mythological beasts.”
And this wasn’t just any fantasy series: Spanning 14 books over 24 years, “The Wheel of Time” commands a cult following whose avidity and patience are rivaled only by the fan base for “Game of Thrones.” (After Jordan’s death in 2007, Brandon Sanderson completed the final installments.) The individual novels were, as Pike later described them in a speech — perhaps euphemistically — “mighty.” Each contained nearly 100 speaking characters: “And so many men!”
For Pike, encouragement arrived in the form of the release date for the first season, streaming on Amazon Prime. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.) One by one, her castmates, too, refused the audiobook call, and she realized that Macmillan might next turn to someone on the outside.
“I thought, ‘It probably does have to — I probably am the person to do this,’” she said. By that time, she’d come to feel protective over the show. “It was exciting to me, then, how important it had become to me. And an audio version would be somehow linked intrinsically to our show.”
Raised by opera singer parents — her mother, Caroline Friend, directs the audiobooks — Pike grew up in a family that spoke often about how to create mental pictures with sound and sustain an idea “over a huge area of music.” She approaches texts as if they are scores: After a first read of a given book, she takes another pass over the text, double-spaced, highlighting each character with their own color — “so I can see who’s coming, out of the corner of my eye” — and making other marks to indicate tempo, a point of emphasis, or a moment of foreshadowing.
Audiobooks require an individual actor to do a lot more (evoke an entire universe of characters) with a lot less: deprived of sets and scene partners, but also the full range of their instrument — namely their visual presence. Pike found that liberating.
“The wonderful thing about voice acting is, you’re very free to do all kinds of strange things that no one ever sees,” she said, while demonstrating how she performs a handful of the hundreds of characters in the series. “I don’t usually have people looking at me when I’m doing this.”
For a character known as the Amyrlin Seat, played by Sophie Okonedo on the show, “she’s got this lovely, very direct quality, and I can’t do my version of it unless I’m standing.” For an Ogier character — a friendly, nature-loving giant — Pike curved her arms outward, as if cradling a basket, her voice booming: “I have to really find that I am a huuuge presence when I am playing him.”
Perhaps it’s natural, then, that Pike would use athletic metaphors to describe the rigors of recording sessions: “You can look at a run that’s planned for the day and feel that you can’t do it. But if you have absolute faith in your trainer, you find you can achieve what you didn’t think was possible.” She added, sounding wistful, “Then there’s the sort of constant mystery of food and water intake. Caffeine. That’s the bit where I wish I had somebody to say, ‘This will be optimal.’”
Outside of the studio, there’s the sheer research involved in nailing down the details: “The reverence with which these books are treated means that we’ve got to get it right,” Pike said. She began maintaining a recorded library of every character that had ever spoken in the books so she could preserve continuity across hundreds of pages, and consulted the show’s dialect coach for help with pronunciations, particularly for words derived from the fictional Old Tongue.
Throughout our conversation, which ended with Pike musing about why teenagers are particularly attracted to the series, and how this connected to Jordan’s struggles with his experiences in the Vietnam War — “I wish I could have met him” — she spoke with the zeal of the converted. “I sometimes laugh at myself for the amount I’m immersed in this world that I hitherto, before 2019, had never heard of,” she said.
Plans to record any additional books — Pike has recorded 2,214 paperback pages so far, and would have 9,684 left in the series — have not been announced. But she is currently reading “The Shadow Rising,” to get full context for the season that she’s shooting. “I feel I never leave it, really.”
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