Thursday, July 18, 2024

Samantha Béart on acting, being non-binary, and becoming Karlach in Baldur’s Gate 3

Everyone knows Samantha Béart as the incredible talent behind everyone’s favourite 7-foot-something, hot-as-hell tiefling, Karlach.

But even before they stepped into that mocap suit and took on the role of Baldur’s Gate 3’s barbarian companion, Béart (who uses the pronouns she/they) had an interest in the performing arts since childhood. Though, at first, they weren’t quite in love with acting.

“I was shy, but I was sent to lots of fun extracurriculars, from Irish dance, to karate, to choir,” Béart tells me. They were young, her mother was a full-time carer for her sibling, and they didn’t have a car. On the weekend, together, they would get on a bus and head out to a place where Béart would take classes on singing, dancing, and drama. “Drama I didn’t get into, because, as a small child with no real-life experience, it just looked like some people shouting at each other. But with singing and dancing, you either hit the note or you don’t. Or, you hit the pose or don’t.”

Fast forward to the last two years at an academic school, and they were made to drop everything, leaving them miserable. They were advised to get a degree. As they tell me, back then, it was seen that simply having a degree would set the individual up for life, so Béart, who enjoyed reading and writing about fiction, chose English Literature. 

Through their chosen degree, Béart got to see a lot of Shakespeare live, and seeing it in action, rather than just as an A-Level text, allowed them to feel what makes these adaptations so unique, and see what acting was all about. “On paper, the idea of adaptation or context doesn’t come into it, and it just leaves people feeling a bit dry about it and put off, whereas you see a good one on stage, and it feels like someone’s speaking to you now in the modern time.”

Samantha Béart
Samantha Béart, Performer, BAFTA Breakthrough UK participant for 2023-2024 (Image ©BAFTA/Vivek Vadoliya, 2023)

Spurred on, Béart threw herself into auditioning, where they earned the role of Random Dent in BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘ adaptation. Béart tells us that they quickly felt out of place due to the big names in the room and that they never wanted to feel like that again.

“So, I trained. I found out about training because, again, I’m not really from that sort of theatrical background. I didn’t know how the actor was made, as it were. And then, when I did find out, I went all in.”

The training was intense, and thorough. After being offered places on acting courses for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Bristol Old Vic, Drama Centre, and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Béart chose to go with the latter. After multiple rounds of auditions for each school, they had a gut feeling Guildhall would be the right place for them.

“The purpose of a classical theatrical training is to prepare you for anything – to give you a toolbox in which to identify the right tool for any genre, and to introduce you to contacts in theatre, film and TV.” Béart says. “To free up the voice, the body and the actor’s curiosity. In that aspect my decision to train at Guildhall was a roaring success.”

After getting over the other side of their training, they went into theatre, film, and TV acting — but they hit a major roadblock almost immediately. “Pretty much every agent and casting director I met said they couldn’t tell where I was from,” Béart explained. “I didn’t look British; I didn’t look like I was from London, which knocks you for six. And then the ‘really helpful’ ones suggested I pass for ethnicities that aren’t my own because I didn’t look Jamaican-Irish, because there’s one look to that, and people who look like me don’t exist in Britain.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is karlachbg3.png
Image Source: Larian Studios

Through no fault of their own, Béart realized that they were only becoming less employable as time passed and so went straight back into audio. One of the benefits of working in audio is that it’s all about your voice and how you can convey emotions, feelings, narrative, and overall character. As many things rarely are, audio may not be picture perfect, but it can be considered as a haven for actors of marginalized genders to step into the skin of a character not like themselves without worrying about appearing the ‘correct’ way to an audience.

This anonymity of appearance quickly became comforting for Béart regarding gender presentation. After being told they were doing “girl wrong” and that they wouldn’t appeal to anyone, but especially men — which Béart tells us is far from the truth, by the way — their casting in Big Finish’s Torchwood as Orr proved significant in their realization that she was non-binary. Why? Because Orr uses they/them pronouns and is a shapeshifter whose body image and presentation play a huge part in their narrative journey. It was not only liberating in allowing them to express their own gender presentation but because Torchwood is a queer fantasy world, everyone’s identity is respected and beloved.

With this conversation topic, we ask about Baldur’s Gate 3 and the role of Karlach. Béart recounts how she got the role, which can be summed up through one word: persistence. 

In 2020, Director and Casting Director Kirsty Gilmore of Sounds Wilde asked Béart to do a general audition for different races in a fantasy game under a codename. Gilmore then asked her to audition for a fighter who escaped Hell – which certainly rings familiar – but ultimately the role was passed onto actor Shala Nyx. Those who played Baldur’s Gate 3 in early access will remember that Nyx embodied the role of Karlach back then.

But as we know, that wasn’t the end of Béart’s journey. Two years later, Michael Douse, the head of publishing at Larian, was vocal in his appreciation of her performance as Thomasina Bateman in The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow. Béart slid into his DMs asking for an audition “for a significant role” in Baldur’s Gate 3. Douse was happy to recommend them to the independent audio production team PitStop Productions, and soon after, Josh Weeden, lead voiceover and casting director at PitStop, wanted them to read specifically for a new version of Karlach, who was now a far cry from the character players had met in early access.

The Excavation of Hob's Barrow
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow
Image Source: Steam

Becoming Karlach, however, took more than just becoming her voice. But thanks to Béart’s theatre and physical training and with the mocap side of things, it wasn’t too difficult to get into physically becoming Karlach as well.

Karlach has quickly become a fan-favourite among players, the antithesis of the more cynical and edgy characters such as Astarion and Shadowheart. Whether because of her chaotic good vibes or how her story unfolds over three acts, the fiery tiefling has quickly become a meaningful part of fans’ and players’ lives. Karlach has also, without a doubt, become a significant part of Béart’s.

“I’d use the phrase ‘blown up,'” they say when we ask how it feels to suddenly be in the limelight with Baldur’s Gate 3’s release on PC, then PS5. “What luck that it was such an amazing character to blow up with. It’s getting to the point where people are contacting me to say that she healed them, which I never expected to hear as a performer. At worst, you want to be entertaining. At best, perhaps inspiring?  You don’t dream of anything beyond that as an actor.”

One story that Béart tells me is about is a player who felt very seen by Karlach’s story with Gortash, a villain you meet face-to-face with in Act 3. Throughout most of the game (and for those who haven’t completed Karlach’s arc, be aware this is going into spoiler territory), Karlach has put on a brave face and repressed any negative emotion about her potential demise. She’s often the first character to offer help to others, and while she does have a selfish streak at times, she’s trying to be a good person and stand up for the oppressed.

Samantha Béart
Samantha Béart, Performer, BAFTA Breakthrough UK (Image ©BAFTA/Vivek Vadoliya, 2023)

However, this repression explodes in a major way for Karlach after her confrontation with Gortash. She gets her revenge but quickly realizes that it solved absolutely nothing. “A military veteran said that scene [where Karlach breaks down] ‘made me realize that there was a much-needed catharsis. Me and my wife would like to thank you’. Then you’ve got people with chronic illness or terminal illness going ‘thank you.'” Béart says. “That character is learning to accept and making the most of what’s left. And what a gift of a role [to do that.] And I didn’t f*ck it up! “

Karlach’s romance has also appealed to many of the Baldur’s Gate 3 audience, regardless of identity. While all of the companions and origin characters are pansexual, it’s hard to deny that the presentation of Karlach is specifically appealing to sapphic women, who are most certainly picking up everything that the hot-hearted tiefling is putting down. When we bring this up to Béart, they directly quote a character description of Karlach given to them by Sarah Baylus, Karlach’s writer at Larian Studios.

“‘In a 2023 setting, Karlach would roll in on a Harley with shades and a cigar between her teeth, blaring Sabbath. A diesel-soaked dynamo with a heart of gold. She seeks justice for the oppressed, camaraderie, and revenge on the bastard who sold her to hell.’ Now, what’s that saying to you?” After admitting that the majority of my mostly sapphic friend group would likely be fighting to get Karlach’s number, Béart says, “you get something [referring to Baylus’ description] that strong, and I’m going ‘let’s go sapphic.’ That’s clearly what it is. The men have had enough over the years. And it’s not even going ‘oh, let’s exclude,’ it’s just ‘let’s center the sapphic experience. Let’s make that the default.’ And hey, if that turns you on too, brilliant.”

We go on to discuss how the gay audience often feels secondary in video games, particularly when it comes to romantic scenes between a player character and a female character. One example mentioned is Jack from Mass Effect 2, who explicitly states that she’s had a girlfriend in the past but cannot be romanced by a female Shepard. Despite how Jack and her background are extremely recognisable and resonate with a queer audience, sapphic players were not at all considered. In Béart’s opinion, Karlach is the complete opposite of that.

Gay moments 2023
Image Source: Larian Studios

“To me, that [the description of Karlach] is clearly a lesbian biker chick. We’re centering sapphic people first. And I won’t die if [Karlach] doesn’t appeal to you.”

Béart recognizes and points out just how open and inclusive the world of Faerûn is in general, and how it makes sense that Baldur’s Gate 3 has a strong queer community that resonates with Karlach, as well as other characters and stories in-game. With this in mind, I ask if they have any advice for any LGBTQIA+ person struggling right now.

Not surprisingly, given the UK’s history of regulating sex and sexuality, Béart brings up Section 28 and how the legislative of ‘banning the promotion of homosexuality’ became so prominent within everyday life. “All that rhetoric that there was there at the time of Section 28 is now the same language that’s being used against trans people now, and it’s disappointing to see history repeating itself so soon. It’s just poisonous.”

“I’ve been asked by a trans woman before, living the middle of nowhere here on TERF Island, on how she should, you know, ‘toughen up.’ I told her, ‘it’s not on you to toughen up. You’ve done the work, having to go through that process of being recognized and supported as trans. You’ve done it. You’re in a hostile environment, and you need to remove yourself from that.'” Béart continues. “Now, I know that’s a very privileged thing to say, but I’m talking about removing oneself psychologically too. There are online communities. Can you get a city? Can you get to a gay bar? You’ll be among your people. You don’t even have to say a thing! But you need good people and a good environment around you so you can just be yourself.”

“And it isn’t on you to change. You don’t even have to come out if you don’t want to. You, a marginalized person, are not obligated to stand up and take the brunt. All big societal changes have happened because the majority have gotten involved, and that’s why we need more allyship, more visibility, so those talking sh*t realize they aren’t the majority at all.”

Béart comments that this willingness to embrace yourself and not change a thing, to be your true self, is even reflected in Baldur’s Gate 3’s community.

“Everyone is just being themselves. We see the best of people, and the joy to be found in that community. In a game where you can cut people’s heads off, and have revenge and all that other stuff, there’s just a lot of joy in existing alongside other people and finding your place.”

You can find out more about Samantha Béart and their work via IMDB and Twitter (also known as X), and catch her streams on Twitch, archived on YouTube. They have also recently been revealed as one of BAFTA’s 2023 UK Breakthroughs, which you can learn more about here.

Latest Articles

About The Author