Jonny Cruz, an El Paso native who moved to Dallas and studied acting at the University of Texas at Arlington, never really considered voice acting as a viable career until he saw what video games could do with a good actor behind the microphone.
Years ago, Cruz was spending time with a friend in Los Angeles whom he first met on a shoot in Dallas for a Whataburger commercial. His friend was playing The Last of Us, an emotional survival horror game for Sony's PlayStation consoles that's received critical acclaim for its unique gameplay, dramatic storytelling and performances using motion-capture actors.
Cruz says he was captivated by the game's tragic story about a man trying to protect a girl who possesses immunities against an airborne zombie virus and its characters, like the gruff survivalist Joel. The game drew him in so deeply that he didn't realize his friend Troy Baker, a voice actor who has performed in hundreds of TV shows and video games, provided the voice and motion capture for game's protagonist.
"It was a new niche," Cruz says. "I thought maybe I should pay more attention to what I'm doing in voice-over and put a little bit more thought into it and not treat it like it's not for me or whatever I was thinking at the time."
Not long after, Cruz landed the role of the DJ warrior Lúcio in Blizzard's top-selling first-person shooter and esports darling Overwatch, a role Cruz says "changed my life."
Overwatch helped establish Cruz's voice acting career and earned him a chance to return to the town that served as his acting stomping grounds. He's one of the featured guests at this weekend's Fan Expo Dallas convention at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
"There's this energy behind this game that people really gravitate toward and are excited about," Cruz says. "It's something I've never experienced."
Cruz always wanted to pursue acting as a career and first went about it along more traditional routes, by joining a theater program at UTA and taking on whatever parts and roles he could score through auditions and agents.
"The ultimate dream was becoming an actor in Hollywood," Cruz says. "That was the goal, but I just wasn't ready for that. Maybe I can go to a bigger town and get my feet wet, and Dallas was this shimmering town where I thought maybe I could do it here first and get my feet wet and learn the ropes before I move out to Los Angeles."
Cruz's theater studies included a divergence into communication technology that ultimately became his major and helped him move into a new level of media performances. He shot short films and developed a web series in the early days of YouTube's launch. Dallas casting agents discovered him online and offered him roles in commercials, bit parts on TV shows like Prison Break, and a few direct-to-DVD movies, like the horror film Devon's Ghost: Legend of the Bloody Boy and the action sequel Walking Tall: Lone Justice alongside Kevin Sorbo. He even got a chance to shoot his own feature-length film, a crime comedy called Small Timers.
"I was wearing all these hats in Dallas," Cruz says. "It was the training ground for me in the industry. All the agents and casting directors were helping me shape my career, and all the friends and people I met led to different steps along the way to coming out to LA and bridged the gap for me coming out here."
Cruz also studied acting and improvisation at the Four Day Weekend Comedy Theatre in Fort Worth, working his way through the ranks to the main troupe that regularly performs sold-out Saturday night shows.
"They were a big imprint on my life," he says. "They taught me how to express myself and be confident as a performer, and as I went on, they were saying you should take Level 2, Level 3 and hey, there's a master's program, and eventually they said, 'What are you doing Saturday, Jonny? Do you want to perform with us?' I remember looking out and seeing where I sat two years ago and thought, 'Man, that's where I want to be.' I remember when I had these moments like this is what I want to do and where I want to be going."
When Cruz made the leap to Hollywood, he landed roles on a few shows, like the soap opera General Hospital and the El Rey Network series Matador, where he got to work with his idol, director Robert Rodriguez. He also landed a couple of supporting voice actor in roles in video games like the post-apocalyptic adventure Prototype 2.
"It was this wonderful experience of finding out what this was," Cruz says. "It was like the director would go, 'And your arms are being ripped off ... and go.'"
When Matador was canceled after just two seasons, Cruz decided to focus more on voice-over roles, and he eventually landed an audition at Blizzard. The game producers introduced him to Overwatch's Lúcio, a boisterous Brazilian freedom fighter who uses his DJ equipment as musical weapons of tactical war.
"They say he's like fun, lovable, an older brother type that people want to be around," Cruz says. "There's something to just being gregarious and having fun that people find attractive and gravitate toward, so I thought I'd just put that part of me into Lúcio."
Cruz didn't realize the game's reach until his friends geeked out after learning he had a part in the game and started introducing him to everyone as the voice of Lúcio.
"People spend hundreds of hours playing your character, so they're really embodied in this avatar and playing
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Cruz says he's grown to love pursuing voice acting because of the opportunities it provides him as an actor and an artist.
"You're using all of your training, and memorizing lines for me is kind of a nightmare, and with voice-over, the lines are right in front of me, so this is the life," Cruz says with a laugh. "I can do anything behind the mic. I can be a Brazilian DJ. I can be a rock band musician who hates his dad and accidentally kills his girlfriend like the part I played in Hitman. I can be a helicopter that saves that day. I can be anything behind the mic, and that to me is so exciting as an actor."
He says he's grateful for the opportunities, experiences
"Dallas was a big training ground for me to come to LA," Cruz says. "I found a lot of love in Dallas from the friendships I still have to this day that have carried me on and helped me make films and help me make it to this place. All of it combined has brought me here."