This is a post about acting, Sara Kestelman, and Knights of the Old Republic II
This is an article about acting. If you’d like to start by watching a bit from the performance being discussed, before reading, skip to the bottom of the page, just after the header “TL;DR” for a video.
One of my favorite performances ever was given by Sara Kestelman, in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. She played Kreia, a sage steeped in the twilight who was neither Jedi nor Sith, but a teacher of both the Light and Dark sides of the Force.
Kestelman’s performance as Kreia is so memorable it wipes away arbitrary divisions that try to dissect a single art form. She acts so well her acting defies labels like “voice over acting” and “video game acting” and is only rightly described by more relevant terms – compelling acting, believable acting, thought provoking acting.
The character of Kreia is morally ambiguous, and her dialogue sharply written. That’s compelling on it’s own, but Kestelman’s performance is mesmerizing. Her delivery is unerringly subtle; even her directness has undertone. She’s unnerving at times, comforting at others. There’s a distance in her voice that makes her sound almost hollow, but a conviction that leaves a tremor in you when she finishes speaking. Every few lines, Kestelman leaves a small chill reverberating down your spine.
For every credit given to the writers at Obsidian who penned the KotOR II script, even more is due to Ms. Kestelman. That she could deliver with a whisper so much passionate exhortation, that she could communicate so much distain for characters she disliked merely by straining the last few words in a sentence – these are clues about a character and story that can’t exist on a page.
It’s the subtly of her performance that makes it so rich. It’s the richness of the performance that elevates the character beyond being only well written.
It’s Sara Kestelman that makes Kreia that most interesting Jedi or Sith I’ve ever witnessed.
On Ms. Kestelman
Sara Kestelman was born in London. Her father was an artist who became head of Fine Arts at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design. Her mother was a dress designer.
Kestelman originally wanted to be a dancer, but felt she didn’t have what it took to be a professional dancer, and moreover that the dancers around her were more concerned with how they used their bodies than how they expressed their emotions.
She is an actress, and as much as I don’t normally care to classify further than that, in Ms. Kestelman’s case that she is a stage actress matters. She’s appeared in only a few films, and a handful of television shows. Other than KotOR II, she has only acted in one other video game called Shattered Union.
Ms. Kestelman being, specifically and identifiably, a stage actress brings us to another note worthy point about her acting, compared to the kind we so often see in games and elsewhere.
I’ve lamented the absurd limitations and obstruction hurled at actors who do voice over work (I won’t go over them in detail here). Those who are familiar also know that the atmosphere and setup of film shoots is often entirely unhelpful to creatively portraying a character believably. The logistics of, or the businesses that surround, these two methods for capturing acting can often get in the way of the acting itself.
Stage actors, while certainly facing their own unique challenges, perform in a way that is most pure. They do one “take” live, in front of an audience, with all actors in the scene present. They don’t record random segments of a scene, out of context, alone in a room with a microphone. They don’t have to do multiple takes knowing that, in a single camera shoot (the predominate setup for feature films), several takes are for another actor’s close up or for “coverage”.
Stage actors have a certain air about them. When they act, regardless of the medium, they carry with them an instilled methodology that overpowers whatever the conventions are of any given medium. They are acting and whatever other things, technical or otherwise, that need to go on around them are secondary to the art of acting.
This cannot be overstated.
More on the methods of Ms. Kestelman
When I write about “methodology that overpowers” I’m specifically thinking of pacing in one’s delivery, or even more specifically, pacing in Kestelman’s delivery while portraying Kreia.
In all kinds of voice over work, but especially in games, the pace of the delivery in almost every line from a majority of the actors always feels exactly medium speed. Seldom do we hear them go fast or slow, almost never do we hear them deliberate over a word or a phrase, or tumble out several almost at once because it’s almost a trouble to have to say something so obvious.
I’m generalizing of course; there’ve been several performances and performers who’ve done all those things and more. But several amidst the sea of thousands that only know one speed – the average kind – it’s worth noting for being so definitively in the minority.
It’s rare enough that when you hear Kestelman as Kreia, it’s enough to stop every other process in your brain. You just want to listen to her act. Even now, replaying KotOR II for the sixth or seventh time (I can’t quite remember) I still pause the game after a conversation with Kreia and just marvel at how deliberate every word is in Kestelman’s deliveries.
What’s perhaps most impressive, however, is not when she goes slow, but when her deliveries are swift and sharp. The dialogue of Kreia is cryptic at times, sage-like and wise. And many times Kestelman slows to the appropriate pace, almost tip-toeing over a phrase, but with tremendous confidence in each pace. It’s all too easy to slip into doing the slower dance all the time, treating every line as if it needs to be delivered with a slow, erudite windup.
Some of the best lines are ones in which Kestelman quickly rattles off truths that are casual to her, as if having to dispense them to these simpletons around her were a bother. They may be profundities to us, but they are old lessons for her, easily recited – verbal muscle memory that never loses its snap.
But of course it’s her adeptness at dancing between different paces that astounds the most. There’s an ebb and flow to her delivery that is exciting, and mesmerizing all at once. It’s like a breeze, or a river.
Yet for as much as I can say about Ms. Kestelman’s methods, anyone familiar with acting can already tell I’m only grasping at surfaces descriptions. There are infinite numbers of details that are as difficult to quantify and describe as they unmistakably felt when one witnesses a great performance. I could spend all day mashing superlatives and adjectives together and still never approach really capturing the magic of a performance as captivating as Kestelman’s in KotOR II.
C.S Lewis, writing about great writing and Art, described it as such: “That word and no other in that place and no other.” Sara Kestelman’s performance, like so many great performances, is the kind of thing you have to witness. We’ll get to that soon, but first…
We don’t get it
I say ‘we’ because I admit for too long I’ve overlooked how vital acting is to story, and how beautiful it is. I’m a writer; sometimes we make the mistake of thinking the words are what matters, or that stagnant thing called plot. Really, story is performance, even sometimes the kind that appears only in a reader’s mind, spurred by words but made alive in the imagination.
No matter what the medium, as writers, at best, we facilitate performance. As observers, we sometimes overlook performance as just being part of a larger story. Perhaps, at times it’s been relegated to being just that. It’s capacity for so much more is great; when it’s realized it should never be taken for granted.
As players, we often become so obsessed with our own actions, reactions, and the cause and effect rules of our digital sandboxes we’ve little patience for performance at all. “How do I skip this cutscene?” we bellow as we mash the A button on our Xbox controller, wanting so badly to be in control again.
All the opportunities for interaction in games are, of course, what makes this medium so special. But story is something the creatives of the medium seem to so naturally strive for. It’s amazing then that we don’t prize acting more.
Checking back on a bunch of old reviews for KotOR II, no one ever mentions Sara Kestelman. Some might briefly mention the character of Kreia, which is better than nothing, but the idea of recognizing actors is only just now coming into common gaming discourse. Heralding a game based solely on a performance, no matter how great, would be scoffed at. Only a few of the review for KotOR II even mention acting at all. And it’s always as “voice acting” and part of a larger sound design discussion. It’s never discussed as Acting, as in storytelling, as in performance. Always only a little part of this thing called story in games that we claim to care about so much.
KotOR II was well reviewed, and widely played. Tragically, I think we’ve missed one of the most stellar performances ever. Certainly, I think this was the finest acting performance in any game, ever.
Take a moment, and watch a compilation of Ms. Kestelman’s performance as Kreia in KotOR II below. If you agree we need more acting like this (everywhere, but especially–) in gaming, share this article, and whenever anyone mentions that video games are full of bad acting, mention Sara Kestelman.