Georgia Van Cuylenburg is most well-known as the voice behind Final Fantasy XIII’s Oerba Dia Vanille. Much like Final Fantasy XIII’s divided appeal, Vanille’s characterisation was liked by some but strongly disliked by others, which has caused Van Cuylenburg a lot of unneeded abuse.
“What was really interesting with her was that whole polar opposite thing going on where some people just adore her and some just can’t stand her,” she said. “The thing I think that was sort of tough for me, initially, was that I was told to do that. That was the direction I was given as – spoiler alert – further along in the game you find out she’s covering up a whole lot of stuff. There’s this whole backstory and she’s completely in denial, so her character needs to show that disconnected perky-happy, not wanting to admit what’s going on character. I knew that, but not everyone did.”
“I’m fortunate for my personality in that I have for whatever reason built up a pretty thick skin over life,” she continued. “So when people write things like, ‘I hope you die in a fire,’ I don’t necessarily take it personally.”
Final Fantasy XIII was Van Cuylenburg’s first major role in the games industry, so she naturally read reviews of the game, some of which were “pretty miserable”. GameSpot reviewer Kevin VanOrd was one of the writers who wrote such harsh critiques, later inviting her to a video interview at E3.
“He was the most vicious,” she said. “He was above all the credited reviewers as opposed to just fans on blogs, who dissed me, so poorly, and were really mean about it. When he said his name I thought, ‘oh, God.'”
“Obviously at this point, he had played through the whole game, but I could tell that he was thinking, ‘crap, I’ve said this stuff about her does she know who I am,'” she continued. “I just kept it straight till right near the end and just looked at him, like, ‘I know that you did.’ I made a comment about how, ‘some people didn’t say the nicest things about Vanille when she first came out.'”
That said, she doesn’t hold any resentment against VanOrd.
“He has a job and an opinion, and he had only played [the first] fifteen hours through when writing the review,” she said. “It was tough for me because it was the first time I had experienced such negative feedback, but part of me thought, ‘well at least I did my job.’ She was meant to be annoying and perky because she’s hiding.”
The Final Fantasy XIII: Fandom and Self-Reflection
Despite fans seeing romantic chemistry between her character and another Final Fantasy XIII party member, Fang, Van Cuylenburg played it off as familial.
“I played it like she was my big sister,” she said. “When we [were] record[ing], [the idea of them as a couple] had never occurred to us.”
“When we saw [Fang checking Vanille’s L’Cie tattoo], because the scenes had already been created, we found it hilarious,” she continued. “‘She just checked out her butt!’ We never considered it a lesbian storyline or suggestion that would take on a whole world on the internet.”
The final scene of Final Fantasy XIII, where Vanille and Fang come together as one, was the first time she’d noticed a sexually suggestive undertone.
“The sound effects we had to make when combined together; I was going like, [moans], and she was going like, [grunts], and it was very guttural because we were becoming one,” she said. “The way our characters’ heads were flying over, it just looked like some erotic scene. It was the only time in all of Vanille’s weird sound effects that I actually turned to Joe and Jack and was like, ‘are you kidding me right now?’ I’d never once pretended it wasn’t there or even saw it until then.”
“Now, I love that people are reading into their own opinion.”
Vanille’s character arc and personality is in many ways a reflection of Van Cuylenburg, as well.
“Vanille and I have a very similar life story in that, I didn’t cause planets to be destroyed but I’ve kept a lot of secrets in my life from alopecia and anorexia,” she said. “I’ve carried them underneath this perky happy person, which now I don’t.”
There is a lot more to Van Cuylenburg outside her performance as Vanille, however. She has become a powerful voice for children, seeing her biggest achievement as the work she’s done as the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based non-profit organisation, Arts Bridging the Gap. The organisation aims to improve the quality of life and academic results of children through creative arts.
“I grew up surrounded by art, music, theatre, expression and play,” she said on the about page of Arts Bridging the Gap’s website. “I firmly believe it is those moments that gave me the true life knowledge I needed to succeed and live a happy meaningful life. When I moved to the USA and learned that so many of the precious children I met didn’t have access to all of this I had to do something. Now rooted in thorough research with the support of incredible partners and volunteers, we are able to make a strategic, science based difference to our kids.”
Earlier this month, she swam 24,000 metres in over eight hours for charity, raising over $35,000 with a majority coming from the gaming community.
“As far as the experience and community goes, I love the video game community,” she said. “I have never felt so connected to a group of people that are so kind and so empathetic. They’ve come up against challenges just by being that kid who [felt] a bit misunderstood at school, so they chose the video game world to connect to a world that gets them.”
Despite being a more realistic part of her life than the fantastical world of voice acting, her desire to improve the lives of disadvantaged children is similar to the role her character plays in the final game in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
“When I came to record, it had been five years in real time and I had grown up so much,” she said. “I had gotten to a point where I was okay and had dedicated my life to having children be okay with how they are. I have my own non-profit and spend my life helping kids in poverty. I’m using my story to make a difference, and there is Vanille, who’s totally owned her role as this priestess and deity, helping those souls find home.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” she continued. “I started reading the script and they asked, ‘can you drop the voice down to your register, we want her to sound like you,’ because of course, in Final Fantasy XIII she’s younger and they wanted it to be me. It was such a profoundly weird and wonderful moment where Vanille became me.”
When asked about future roles, she stressed the value of her voice having a positive impact on children above anything else.
“A voice that resonates with kids the same way that Vanille’s resonated with teens,” she said. “A voice that’s going to give kids the messages that I want to have them hear. The same way that Vanille says, ‘you’ve gotta keep your dreams alive and have something to believe in,’ a character that, like in Inside Out, helped young girls dealing with emotional issues. A character – whether it’s an animal, a fairy or octopus, whatever it is, – that is up against challenges and has a positive resilient outlook. For me, everything I do is about positive messages for kids.”
Her roles in PayDay 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic were unlike the positive resilience she embodies in life and as Vanille, but she found them fascinatingly relatable nonetheless.
“In Star Wars: The Old Republic, my character was up against so many challenges,” she said. “She’s strong in a world where she’s the only non-Sith in a Sith army, and that made me happy. [My character in PayDay 2] left Australia because she felt that no-one got her there, so there’s always a tie-in. I wouldn’t want to be ‘cussing’ the world out like I am in Payday.”
Despite how welcoming the gaming community have at times been to her, Van Cuylenburg wants more roles in television and film to help spread her message to children.
“I’d really like to be doing both,” she said. “I hope this isn’t an ego answer, but the more people who know who I am, the more my non-profit and the things I care about – having alopecia kids feel loved, having kids in poverty be heard and understood – the more that’s possible. In a funny flip side, I’d like to get more on TV or film because they have a bigger audience. If you asked which community I’d like to work with [though], it’d be the video game community.”
Voice Acting via Twitch and Aussie Representation
According to Van Cuylenburg, getting into the voice acting industry is strikingly different now than when she first started, too, particularly due to the rise of Twitch.
“I didn’t realise how different it was until I went to TwitchCon and sat on the voice actors’ panel,” she said. “There am I thinking that we were all going to talk about auditions, doing [script] reads and having an agent, [but] the three people I was on the panel with didn’t have an agent, never auditioned and they work full-time as voice actors because of Twitch. They just went on Twitch and [streamed themselves] playing video games and made voices, and people started hiring them. That made me go, ‘oh my God, I had no idea how different the world is. I’m the anomaly here, not them.’ It’s changed so much.”
Fan-made dubs were previously an expression of love for a fandom rather than a way to start a professional career. Sites like voices.com encourage this model by creating a more open audition platform where amateur voice actors can send in their recordings from home without the need of an agent.
“That never used to be able to happen but it’s completely democratised,” she said. “If you’re on Twitch and you do playthroughs where you’re revoicing, you never know who’s listening. Fans will often be like, ‘have you heard about this person? You should put them in that game,’ to the developers and they listen.”
“I still work the old way, and don’t necessarily do it the way they do,” she continued. “Still, if my agent was to say to me, ‘I need you to do a read for me,’ like when I was at the GameStop Expo hosting at an event, I’d be doing a read of Heidi Klum backstage for a little thing.”
Van Cuylenburg has also noticed a lack of Australian voices in the games industry, too.
“A hundred percent it needs more Aussies in it,” she said. “More than anything, they’re writing more characters – and I see it more in the breakdowns, but I don’t know if it’s just the ones I get sent and if I don’t get sent the Americans. I get more reads that, don’t say Australian but say, ‘Commonwealth hybrid English with/or open to native Australians/New Zealanders.’ There’s more emphasis on native speakers, which makes me happy.”
“It makes me laugh so much that in Melbourne, it’s a much smaller industry with few Americans so they might get an Australian to revoice an American,” she continued. “In America, there’s hundreds of us that are Australian. In my agency alone, I know there’s four girls who are Australian – so we all know when it comes up, we’re against each other. I think it’s ridiculous that they get an American to play an Australian, but if they hear the sound they want and they don’t realise it, and it fits with the character?”
Casting directors often misinterpret her as a native British speaker. Others, such as the voice of Fang, Rachel Robinson, are often falsely presumed by the public to be native Australian speakers.
“The amount of times I go in for a native English speaker role and they think I am one is astounding,” she said. “They thought I was British when I did Star Wars. I’m sure Rachel put it on and I actually remember after the call she said, ‘oh shit, now I need to work on it.’ There’s no reason in my opinion. There’s enough jobs out there for Americans so leave the Aussie jobs to us Aussies because it opens up the industry.”