As the years have gone by, the art of acting has ventured far and wide in ways none could have imagined. Audio dramas, TV, film, and of course, video games. With an appreciation for a medium that brings so much joy to gamers, it’s no surprise that your favourite actor may no longer actually be someone you see at your local cinema for the season’s biggest blockbuster, but the person behind your most treasured video game character.
For the gays, the girlies, and the allies, that person is Jennifer English, most widely known for her portrayal of Baldur’s Gate 3’s Shadowheart, aka God’s favourite princess and the most interesting girl in the world.
Since the game’s release, English has been busy and not just with events. Alongside Aliona Baranova, her girlfriend and Mocap Performance Director for Baldur’s Gate 3, the pair have taken to streaming to interact with their community.
We got the chance to sit down and speak with Jennifer English at EGX 2023 about not just the impact Baldur’s Gate 3 has had on her life, but what it meant growing up as a queer woman, and what advice she has to give to queer fans struggling out there.
Be warned, this interview does contain spoilers for the entirety of Baldur’s Gate 3.
Aimee: Jen, let’s start simple. How are you?
Loving this! Loving EGX! It’s the first time I’ve met the community since after the game has been released. The difference between Comic-Con when we were in early access and now, it’s still a big deal, but now I can see how much people really care.
The last time we talked was just before the release of Baldur’s Gate 3. How has it affected you since? Have you been resting?
Not resting. I think it’s tricky, isn’t it? Because we’re doing things like streaming and interacting with the community online. And it’s hard to differentiate between work and life, especially because everything’s on our phones, and like there’s press and podcasts, and we’re just being ourselves. Well, I certainly am, so it’s really hard to go, ‘Oh no, this is work.’ Because it doesn’t feel like work at all.
So it’s just about finding that balance. I’m not there yet. But I am getting there! I recently bought a little iPad with my earnings so that I could have my workspace that wasn’t my phone.
We’ve talked before about how queerness is represented in Baldur’s Gate 3 and how it felt as a queer woman. What was it like growing up as one?
Well, I didn’t know what queer was until I was about 11 or 12. And even then, the only time I really heard the word ‘gay’ was as an insult. I think, like so many of us, there was a shame attached to it.
[Growing up] there was nobody but one guy in our year of 200 in Shropshire that was out. It was really a discovery much later on, so growing up queer there was a lot of internalized homophobia, which feels pretty universal – certainly for millennials, anyway. So there wasn’t an outlet for me. Like, I remember buying the L Word on DVD and hiding it in other DVD – I think it was Pride and Prejudice – boxes because I was so ashamed of it.
But now, being queer is one of my favourite parts of myself, and it feels completely different now. I came out when I was 21, and I’ve had nothing but love. I’m really fortunate in that I’ve had nothing but love and acceptance from my family, and I know I’m in a place of total privilege with that.
But yeah, it took a while to get used to it. Now I’m very, very proud to be in such a community.
Do you use queer as a label?
Yes: queer, gay and lesbian! Lesbian is a new one for me.
I really had to work on my own internalized lesbophobia, so that was a really recent one. But it’s absolutely accurate, so why not?
I think a lot of it came from the fact that it’s the one label that is a noun, whereas queer and gay and pansexual, they’re all adjectives, right? And then you have a lesbian. I’m like, ‘oh no, but I don’t want to be separated. I feel a part of the rainbow.’
Do you feel that being LGBTQ+ has affected your career in any way?
No, not at all. But like I said before, I am very privileged, and I’m aware that I’m able to pass as a straight woman. So yeah, it hasn’t.
However, would I love to play queer roles? Yes. Does that get offered to me? No. Not at all. I think Shadowheart is the first, well, I mean, she’s not canonically queer, but she is playersexual – as they all are. But she does fancy Karlach…
I was going to say. Shadowheart fancies quite a few women in-game!
[Laughs] She does! Absolutely! I do think she’s the first queer character I’ve ever played, then. I think it would be lovely to have more genuine representation. I do feel quite strongly about that. Because I do think you can tell – and this might be a bit controversial, I hope it’s not – but I do think you can tell when you’ve got two straight people playing queer characters. There is something inherently different about it. I don’t know whether that’s like the intimacy or the vibe, but yeah. I would love to see more [genuine representation]. And I would love to play more of that.
What’s your opinion on LGBTQ+ characters’ voice work, should they be voiced only by LGBTQ+ actors?
I would like to see more of it, more genuine representation. I think mainly because when you’re queer and you look up who voiced a queer character and find out that a queer actor plays them; it means so much more.
I don’t want to be stopped from playing a straight woman, but you know, heterosexuality is the norm and is not considered taboo.
As far as race is concerned, I feel really passionate about it. I don’t think in this day and age we should be having white people playing other races. You know, I think it’s all about fairness and giving communities that aren’t as represented more of a push, and I think there are so many talented actors out there. I hate the argument of ‘Oh, but we couldn’t find anyone else.’ Yeah? Look harder. Look hard at different agencies. There are so many brilliant actors from all walks of life. You can find them.
In such a short time, Shadowheart has arguably become one of the most iconic video game characters ever. Were you always into video games growing up?
I was madly into The Sims, obviously. I liked making them have sex and killing them by trapping them in the pool when I got bored with a character. Dark Urge Jen.
I played PlayStation. I was banned. I got really into Soul Blade, and it’s a really violent fighting game. Why I loved it, I really do not know. Because I also loved Spyro and Wacky Races. It was my sibling’s PlayStation, though. It wasn’t mine. And we got banned from playing Soul Blade because I’d get so aggressive and want to beat up my sibling.
Would you say Baldur’s Gate 3 reignited your love for video games?
Absolutely. We are loving [our streams] by the way, but we’ve made the stupid decision not to play in between our streams. And now we’re like, ‘when can we play? Oh, when’s our next stream?’ and loving it.
We’ve also started playing It Takes Two. It’s supposed to be like 14 hours long or something, and we were like, ‘oh great, we must be halfway through.’ It turns out we’re like 15% after about 10 hours. So we’re getting there slowly, but I am loving it. So I’m really glad that it’s kind of reignited a love of gaming, and it’s lovely to be kind of welcomed in and shown the way.
To speak more about Shadowheart: her storyline felt very trans to me. In her finding out her dead name, and then reclaiming her ‘real’ one being Shadowheart. I wondered what your thoughts were about that.
I think it’s brilliant that we represent parts of those stories for trans people. And, like, I’m really honoured that people see that narrative because that was what I was thinking of at the time, especially with the name stuff – that really resonated with me. And that’s certainly why I wanted to honour it and to make it as truthful as possible.
I think it was really important to have that trans representation in the game. Yes, you can be born with a particular name, but that doesn’t mean you have to choose that name, and all the history that goes with it. So I’m really glad that John [Cocoran, Shadowheart’s writer] wrote that in, especially because we’ve also got Nocturne, who is Shadowheart’s best friend, who happens to be trans. But I thought that was absolutely vital to have in there. I do think there should be more trans representation in video games now, though. I’m very proud we have Nocturne in the game.
There’s also a lot of love from queer fans for the relationships Shadowheart can have with their Tavs, as well as Origin characters like Karlach and even Lae’zel. What are your thoughts on the relationships Shadowheart can form with these characters?
I think the way it’s written is so beautiful. I’m totally repeating what Dev [Devora Wilde, who plays Lae’zel] has said because she made this really beautiful point that, especially with Lae’zel and Shadowheart’s romances, which are slow burn, you do build up those very deep relationships, and they’re not a win state. They’re something you earn in a really authentic and organic way. And I love that because it means that these relationships with the Tavs feel so real. And it’s not like we are romancing in a traditional, and boring way. It feels like something that you could have in real life.
Whether it’s like enemies to lovers, which is a bit of a trope, but it doesn’t feel like that either. It just feels so unique to them. And I’m really proud of that, and whether you’re queer or not, whoever your Tav is, it feels like a real relationship with Shadowheart or Lae’zel, or Gale, or whoever.
And for Lae’zel and Karlach’s relationships with Shadowheart?
Oh my god, I f*cking love it. I’ve seen the fan art, and well, Shadowheart has two hands.
You also did High Rollers, which was really fun to watch, and of course you have your own stream with yourself and Aliona. That’s a lot! Are you looking forward to the next big thing?
Yeah! What will it be?
Can you tease that?
For now, I’m just riding the wave, which is a lot. We’ve got Comic-Con coming up, and, it’s so nice that like today [at EGX 2023], meeting the community, is my absolute favourite thing. And it was why we started streaming. We came for the community, and now we’re staying for the actual game.
It’s such an honour to meet people too, because they’ve spent hundreds of hours with us and so it’s like, ‘you know me!’ And everyone is so f*cking lovely. I’ve not met a bad person yet. Everyone’s so clever and thoughtful and sweet and creative. I’m happy in this community.
Even when we’re streaming the game, nobody’s losing their rag at us.
No backseat gaming?
They are, but that’s because we’ve asked them to. I just feel like we’ve got a couple of thousand people helping us out every single day.
With streaming and your growing community, are you ever concerned about not being able to switch off or forming parasocial relationships that you can’t step away from?
Do I worry about that? Not really! I think if we weren’t being ourselves and were doing an act of what Aliona and Jen should do, then maybe it would be tricky. Because there isn’t a person talking to us and our ADHD brains just go, ‘alright, we’re just us in our lounge,’ we just interact, how we literally interact. You’ve met us in-person, and we’re probably exactly the same as we are on the streams. So it’s not too weird for us because we’re just being ourselves. So yeah, not too much.
I do think switching off from it all and not living in Baldur’s Gate 3 is a little bit tricky. I’ve had to go like, ‘oh yeah, I do have friends and family!’ So I’ve started to venture out again. But it’s all very exciting. There are worse problems to have.
What would you say to anyone who’s struggling right now? Living in the UK as a queer person right now is not…
It’s not ideal.
Fuck the Tories.
Absolutely. Fuck the Tories.
What would I say? Trans rights are human rights. And I’d say you’re not alone. However lonely you feel, know that there are so many people who will love you and for who you are, and I hope that you will find your people, and if you want to seek those people, you will find them. There are so many kind, beautiful, queer hearts ready and open to embrace you into that community.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to add?
Without being too Award Speechy about it, I’m just so grateful for, well, speaking to you, but also the queer community and allies that have rallied around us. I feel so accepted, and I feel as though it’s healed a lot of the kind of loneliness and internalized homophobia that you get growing up queer in a rural county in the 90s, early 2000s. It has made me feel so secure in my queerness and so loved and loving in my queerness that it’s now just joyous. I’m just really grateful for that.