NOTE: The following interview contains some spoilers regarding the events of the “Portal 2” single-player campaign.
It’s safe to say that Stephen Merchant’s portrayal of Wheatley, the malfunctioning robotic sphere in “Portal 2,” is one of the best voice over performances in video game history. Equal parts hilarious, endearing and devious, the character was brought to life by Merchant’s performance and was one of the many reasons the game is so beloved.
During a phone interview, I spoke with Merchant about the Wheatley character, the experience of working with Valve, and whether he’d be willing to return for “Portal 3″…if it ever happens.
Merchant is known for playing parts like the “over-enthusiastic nerd” agent of Ricky Gervais in “Extras,” but he admitted ignorance when it came to the original “Portal.” “I used to be quite a big video game player at university and post-university in that weird moment in life before you have a proper job and you’ve got a lot of idle time,” he said. “And then, somewhere along the line, as my career started to take off, I just found I had less and less time to dedicate to them, so video games have sort of slipped off my radar a bit, really.”
So, when Valve offered him the job for “Portal 2,” he didn’t really know what he was getting into.
“When I started to mention to people who know about such things, ’I’m doing this game, Portal 2,’ they got very excited, suddenly. More excited than anything I’ve ever done before, weirdly. Gamers are incredibly enthusiastic about the stuff they love. Suddenly I realized, this is quite a big deal and what I thought was an easy gig, I suddenly felt this responsibility to try and do a good job.”
To help prepare for the role, the folks at Valve gave Merchant the run-down on the universe of Aperture Science, “I didn’t have to sit down and play it,” he explained. “They were very good about showing me lots of clips from the original game, and showing me preview stuff from the new game. I was quickly up to speed.”
Once the actual recording started, Merchant realized just how challenging this new gig would be:
“I have to say, I found the entire thing really exhausting. More than anything I’ve ever done before because I’m in this little recording booth, shouting down these imaginary corridors, imaginary gantries, pretending to fall off things and really trying to move around and live it as best I could. I know it sounds really pretentious, but really try to move around like this robot so my voice would feel like it was animated. I was really working hard to try and put myself in that environment, I guess, which is not something I normally do as a performer. Normally I just rock up and I do the lines and I go away again. I’m not an accomplished actor. But for some reason I was really working hard. I guess because I wasn’t really in a set, I wasn’t in a costume, so I was using my imagination as best I could to try to imagine this would. And again, the guys at Valve were very good at painting a portrait of what the world would look like before it was designed.”
Merchant said that the “Portal 2” writers first came to him because of his nerdy agent role in “Extras,” but it wasn’t until the middle of recording when he realized that Wheatley would have to be something a bit more malevolent.
“The thing which alarmed me was the fact that I have to shift from being lovably hopeless to being hopelessly evil. I was actually a little intimidated by that, it’s not something I feel naturally comfortable with, being villainous. I suppose I was initially trying to be genuinely villainous and scary, and I think the guys were keen to keep the humor, even in my villainy. That was a major shift for me, at least, I wasn’t really expecting that, because I hadn’t read the whole script up front. So that was a little worrying, would that work.”
For those who have finished “Portal 2,” it’s clear that he carried off that balance of moronic villainy to perfection. Merchant said he was thrilled with the critical and fan support the game received, and it’s because of that reaction that he’d consider returning, should Valve ever make a “Portal 3” and feature Wheatley in some way.
“When I finished it I was like, I can never do this again, I’m so tired. Honestly, I’m not just exaggerating for the interview. I was really tired. By the third or fourth session, I was not looking forward to it. I was just like, I’m gonna be exhausted after this. So, at the time, I was thinking, Oh, I don’t fancy doing this again.”
“But now I’ve been very pleased by the response people have had to it. What I was really pleased by how people seemed to respond to it in the way they do with a movie they’ve enjoyed, or a TV show they’ve enjoyed. They seemed to respond to it as entertainment. It never occurred to me that people would respond to it in the way they do with other stuff I’ve done. I felt like, Oh, actually this is a really legitimate, creative art form now. Video games have expanded and developed and are so sophisticated right now that, yes, of course, they rank alongside movies and whatever else people really take to their hearts.”
I did attempt to press Merchant on whether Valve had given him any hints as to the future of the franchise, but apparently Valve is too smart for that. Merchant does, however, see a definite opportunity for the return of Wheatley. “I’m a robot, I don’t need to die. They could bring me back anyway if they wanted. Make it a prequel!”
Following his work in “Portal 2,” Stephen Merchant has a stand-up tour scheduled for later this year with appearances across the U.K. (and one show in New York). He is also developing a new mockumentary series for HBO, which follows the life of Warwick Davis, called “Life’s Too Short.”