Baldur’s Gate 3’s Astarion Talks D&D, Acting, and Yes, Bear Sex

Baldur’s Gate 3’s Astarion Talks D&D, Acting, and Yes, Bear Sex

After six years of development, Baldur’s Gate 3—Larian Studio’s highly anticipated successor to the legendary Dungeons & Dragons CRPG series—finally hit PC last week. Players have been gathering a party and venturing forth to chaos, heroics, and a motley crew of characters. But for one of those “heroes” in particular, that release is the culmination of an acting journey almost as epic as any quest in the Forgotten Realms.

“I am so humbled and proud of the reaction to the game and the response from players and fans of D&D and the BG world… I hope our love for the game and for one another comes through for the players and that maybe, just maybe we get to do it all over again,” Neil Newbon, the voice actor and performance capture artist for Astarion—an Elf Vampire Rogue and one of Baldur’s Gate 3‘s primary adventuring companions—told io9 over email ahead of last week’s launch of the game on PC, after an extensive three-year period of “Early Access” beta testing. “This has been a dream role, work I am truly proud of, a character whom I love deeply and frankly don’t know if I’ll ever truly let go of him.”

Image: Larian Studios

Astarion—alongside Shadowheart the Half-Elf Cleric, Lae’zel the Githyanki Fighter, Wyll the Human Warlock, Gale the Human Wizard, and later Karlach the Tiefling Barbarian—has become one of the main faces of the game, a character players haven’t just anticipated but come to know, as he, as well as the rest of the main cast found in the opening act of the game, has developed and transformed over the course of that long development.

In the years it’s taken Larian to polish and release Baldur’s Gate 3, Astarion has become a part of Dungeons & Dragons itself, a face in crossovers with Magic: The Gathering, and the inadvertent co-star of a viral romance sequence with a Druid wildshaped into a bear that brought the already-demanded game to a new level of attention. Just under a week after launch, Baldur’s Gate 3 is one of the biggest games of 2023, cracking Steam’s lifetime top 10 for concurrent players within days of release, and Newbon and his fellow performers are now gaming superstars. Newbon, in particular, helped Larian Studios direct performance capture for the game through his company, Performance Captured Academy, guiding a new generation of actors through digital performance—and found himself not just playing in Baldur’s Gate 3‘s world, but helping shape it.

To find out more about the process of playing Astarion—from auditions to how the character developed over years of iteration and feedback during Early Access—check out our interview with Newbon below, condensed and edited for clarity.

Image: Larian Studios

James Whitbrook, io9: Tell me a little about how you first got involved with the game. What was Astarion first like when you were first going through the audition process?

Neil Newbon: When I was asked to audition it was actually for a whole bunch of different possible roles, not a specific character. I submitted for about a dozen characters and I worked out pretty quickly what the game could most likely be—and I honestly didn’t care which role they gave me, as long as I was cast! I had worked previously with Josh Weedon from Pitstop productions before for the Resident Evil 3: Resistance VO sessions I did in the UK, so I was very fortunate that Josh is an excellent judge of which actor fits which role. He showed my stuff to Jasón Latino, who called me in to do a demo session. I was given Astarion off of the back of that, which was amazing. I immediately recognized him as a character with a lot of room to grow, delightfully fun, an antihero from the get go. Absolutely my cup of tea!

io9: Baldur’s Gate 3 is a unique performance experience in so much as it’s spent the past three years being in the hands of players as it’s developed in Early Access, and was in development even before that. What’s it been like for you as an actor, as you’ve been able to sit with this character and your performance as the game has developed?

Newbon: The initial take on Astarion was a bit more formal and “tight,” less flow. He doesn’t know the players, so there is a lot of mistrust and skepticism about them—he is really in survival mode and is trying to position himself in the most secure way. However, he quickly begins to see the party as friends—or maybe frenemies, haha—either way, he becomes more comfortable with the idea and starts having fun, a rhythm that is very much a part of his makeup but not exercised in a long time, and so we started loosening him up. I was given a lot of freedom to play and deepen the possibilities of him by both Stephen Rooney, Astarion’s amazing writer, and the hugely supportive directors Kirsty Gilmore and Beth Park—alongside Josh and Adrian Townsend who directed my sessions early on, when I started.

Astarion is a deep and complicated character—truly one of the richest I’ve ever played and I feel incredibly lucky and humbled that not only Larian have supported my development of him with Stephen’s words, but that the community really liked the work we offered up and that the audience really embraced him. The interesting thing as an actor in this game is that you get to play every outcome of a potential relationship. It’s what I love about branching narrative stories in games, you get to explore every possible reality of the characters path, knowing all of it will be in the game as they’re all potential choices that can be made by the player. A real testament to Larian and the writers!

Image: Larian Studios

io9: A lot of the main companions in the game have morally complex personas, but Astarion’s vampiric nature makes him stand out. Tell me a little bit about how you developed your performance and his physicality.

Newbon: Like most actors, I started with the script, specifically the factual givens the writer created in the character biography, as well as any info I could glean from what he says about himself, and what others say about him. I then started to workshop and rehearse ideas for the character, for movement and his voice.

I come from a Method background, and I have been blessed with great teachers,such as Giles Foreman and Roberta Wallach, who I have studied with for over 15 years. To explore Astarion’s nature, I also used other techniques such as Comedia Del’arte, using Arlecchino as a character archetype. In fact, in the Origin menu with Astarion’s introduction—I took his bow directly from that. I also like to use music and real-world references when exploring a character. Aspects of his voice and personality, looks and habits and such, are based on three of my friends. His laugh was inspired by an actor I saw in Amadeus, Tom Hulce, I believe, that I remembered being fascinated by as a kid. I also referenced a lot of Yat Malmgren’s work on physical movement and Jung’s theories for his personality, always using the story and script as a guide. There are elements of animal work as well, specifically a black-white stray street cat that comes into my garden a lot. The cat’s quite suspicious of new people but lets me hold him now after years of slow and careful conversation. The cat is feral and beautiful and was a very helpful assistant for exploring movement.

For specific moments and scenes, I made a 100-song Spotify playlist which helps guide me into the character movements, as well as to set the tone and vibe before sessions in the volume. In terms of Astarion’s vampiric side, I looked at addiction and cravings and the pangs of withdrawal to help understand that better. He has trauma as well, all of which I can use to help me live his truth better. I also was given some freedom with his base pose which is unique in the game, head up, looking down on everyone, arms wide inviting people into his clutches. There is a separate base pose I drop into when his fangs and claws are out, so to speak, and his bestial nature takes over in defence or aggression.

io9: Aside from the adventuring, one of the main things that has gotten fans attention in BG3 has been its approach to romance—and much has been made of Larian’s use of intimacy coordinators with actors. What was portraying that side of Astarion like for you as an actor, how did you go about portraying that push and pull?

Newbon: Again, I focused on his lack of trust and his traumatic past, as well as his complicated relationship with sex and courting, when exploring how he might view real relationships and romance. “Is he manipulating them?” or “Does he genuinely have feelings for them?” were often in conversation when we were filming.

The directors I worked with were very helpful; they provided context for which direction we were heading in, and Pitstop Productions (the creative services company where some of Baldur’s Gate 3‘s performance capture was recorded) created a safe and positive space in which to go through these scenes. They prepped us on the material and checked in with us throughout. Having participated in sex scenes on stage and in film and TV, I was actually very comfortable. I had no issues at all when it came to shooting things like that.

Image: Larian Studios

io9: Speaking of romance, one moment that’s given Baldur’s Gate 3 some major attention was the druid/bear sex scene Larian showed off recently. Given they played the scene with Astarion—what did you make of the reaction from audiences to see your character as part of it? When you were recording that scene, what was the process and the logistics like? How do you feel about becoming the non-bear face of such a viral moment?

Newbon: I thought it was brilliant. I actually directed Dave Jones’, who plays the druid Halsin, session of this, funnily enough. As the character that has the scene with Halsin could be anyone, I thought it was hysterical when they decided to use Astarion for the reveal. A happy accident perhaps, ha! The squirrel reaction is perfect, I think this situation is definitely something lifted straight from a D&D session! In terms of going viral, I greatly enjoyed it: no issues or embarrassment about it at all. In fact, Dave and I were at [Game Dev conference] Brighton Develop together, along with Samantha Béart—who plays Karlach—when it came out, and had a drink and a hug and a huge laugh about it.

Baldur’s Gate 3 is available now on PC through Steam and the GOG store, and will come to PlayStation 5 on September 6.

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