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How The Narrator Of 'Jane The Virgin' Found His Voice

May 16, 2016
Originally published on May 17, 2016 9:40 pm

On a recent March morning at his home in a New Jersey suburb, Anthony Mendez was on his living room couch with his 9-year-old daughter. He was watching the previous night's episode of Jane the Virgin, studying his own performance as the show's unseen narrator.

"I'm like, 'That's Daddy,' and she's on her computer, not even looking up. She says, 'I know.' And I'm like, 'That's Daddy — you're not even impressed?' And she's like, 'I'm on YouTube,' " Mendez says. His daughter — one of three kids — runs a YouTube channel where she vlogs about makeup with her sister.

This is the sort of thing Mendez says helps keep him grounded.

Still, Mendez's ability to turn an omniscient narrator into one of Jane's funniest characters has gotten him plenty of attention. He's been described by people as "the best thing about the show" and "one of the show's most entertaining characters," and is growing a small cult following on the Internet.

His voice-overs recap the show's dramatic, telenovela-style plots: Jane, a 23-year-old virgin, was accidentally artificially inseminated; the father just happens to be a playboy hotel owner she once kissed; the doctor who accidentally inseminated her is the father's sister; and so on and so on.

But Mendez's performance is unique from other narrator roles because of its comedic timing and punch. In an episode in which Jane goes to her high school reunion, Mendez's voice swoops in to introduce us to Stephanie Kovakovich, a mean girl who Jane used to beef with. A string of text — as if the narrator is typing it — appears on screen: Stephanie Kovakobitch. "Oops," the narrator apologizes, correcting his typing. "No, I meant it," he says, changing it back to Kovakobitch.

(Real-life Mendez is just as playful as his character. Before I arrive at his apartment, he posts a humble-braggy video to Snapchat and Instagram, in which he announces he has to clean his apartment before his NPR interview. The video pans to him nudging a plastic container under his bed.)

But his journey in finding this voice — one that encourages him to play with an accent instead of dampen it — came after years of career change and trying to fit himself to a mold.

Finding His Voice

A typical kid, Mendez loved comics. They fed his imagination and were a break from a more serious, less typical childhood: He sold headstones at the family business — and even designed a six-crypt mausoleum as he got older. Mendez's dad, who immigrated to the states from the Dominican Republic, worked in a tombstone factory before opening his own business, and hoped Mendez would take it over with his three other brothers.

But Mendez had other ideas. He studied architecture — the most creative major he thought he could get away with — for a short while at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. After that, he tried pursuing a career in producing reggae, struggling so much in the early 2000s he thought he'd be homeless.

"In your mind, you're like, 'No, I'm gonna show them, I'm gonna show them,' " Mendez recalls feeling about his parents, who hadn't wanted him to leave their business. "But, you know, it takes eight to 10 years to show them, so at the beginning when I was struggling, they said, 'Come back to the family business,' and I actually agreed to do it."

But Mendez said he had a nightmare that stopped him from returning. He dreamed he was trapped and anxious, working at a headstone factory forever.

So he fell back on something he had all along: his voice. People always said there was a Mendez voice — his grandfather, his father, his brothers all had it — that was deep and booming.

"In high school when I would read in Spanish, especially, some of the girls would ask me to do it again ... and that kind of took me back, like, 'Huh, there's something there,' " Mendez says.

He signed up for voice-over classes and learned his Dominican-New York-New Jersey upbringing made things complicated. During one class, he'd just finished recording a track in the studio and his classmates were on the other side of the glass, observing. They thought he couldn't hear their reaction to his voice-over.

"You heard everyone in the room talking about, 'What accent is that?' where they had never heard someone in voice-over who had an urban, Latino, New York, New Jersey mixture. So they were like, 'That's urban. That's urban,' " Mendez says. This insistence on labeling him one thing — which he's written about before — was an issue he ran into with talent managers, too. He was sent African-American voice-over roles and Spanish-speaking ones, but rarely received ones meant for the general market.

"[Managers] were like, 'Oh, you've got an accent. You're not gonna do it,' " Mendez says. His goal was to learn to talk without his accent but not lose it entirely.

So in his makeshift studio, in the bedroom he shares with his wife, recording out of a small closet that's lined with board games and books to absorb the sound, he created a workout he calls VO 90 X — like boot camp for your voice — with which he spent 30 minutes daily for 90 days, intensely working on sounds.

His L's, N's, M's and R's, he says, are weaker than standard American English. He studied how people's inflections and tongue placements change depending on what accents they're taking on. "Grandmother" in standard American English has different syllable emphasis — "GRAND-mother" — than the word spoken with, say, English with a Dominican accent — "Grand-MO-ther."

And it worked. Mendez began booking gigs with brands like CNN, Miller Lite and Target, lending his voice to ads in both Spanish and English.

A few years ago, he got an email invitation to audition for a TV show — Jane the Virgin.

"It said telenovela announcer with a Hispanic accent. The role literally said 'Latin Lover Narrator.' And I was like, I don't wanna do this. This sounds like a joke. Stereotypical stuff. So I put it away," he says. At first glance, Mendez thought it was yet another role poking fun at Latinos.

Then, later that day — before he had to pick his kids up from school — he pulled up the email again, and decided to give the audition a shot. Not knowing much about the narrator — who he was, even — Mendez debated how the voice would sound.

"Initially I was going to do a standard telenovela announcer, which is what I call the Spanish Dracula, the 'Telemundo guy,' " Mendez says. "I said an hour show with that guy is going to get really super annoying."

He didn't want the narrator to sound stereotypical, but he wanted people to hear a real connection to the Spanish language.

When asked about how his own father feels about his career, Mendez is equivocal. He says his parents, who returned to the Dominican Republic, don't really watch Jane the Virgin, but they understand he's made a mark in a difficult industry. He might have left the family headstone business, but at least he's successful on his own terms.

These days, as Jane begins its between-season hiatus, Mendez is busy with his other voice-over gigs. And in a throwback to when he was a kid, he's working on a motion comic series — a mix between audio book and animation — called Mike Tomb. It's about a Dominican-American guy named Mike Gonzalez.

Gonzalez's goal? To break from the family tombstone industry and become a poet.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

"Jane The Virgin" is a breakout hit on The CW Network. And it's ending its second season tonight. Now, the show has an unusual co-star. You never see his face. You never know his name. But you always hear his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

ANTHONY MENDEZ: (As Narrator) Our story begins 13 and a half years ago when Jane Gloriana Villanueva was a mere 10 years old.

KELLY: Anthony Mendez plays the Narrator in "Jane The Virgin." Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team visited Mendez at his home studio in New Jersey to find out where his story began.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: All right, try to keep up with this. We've got Jane, who you just heard about. She's a 23-year-old virgin, kind of a goody-goody. And she finds herself pregnant through an accidental artificial insemination. I know. The father is a married Playboy Hotel owner. And the doctor who messed up in the first place, the one who did the inseminating, she's his sister. Yeah, hard to follow, right? Well, it's a good thing we have Anthony Mendez as Narrator to explain all this, along with the other drama that happens in the show. And there's a lot of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

MENDEZ: (As Narrator) So Jane broke up with Michael, and Rafael broke up with Petra - until Rafael started spiraling and broke up with Jane, which for the record, he really regrets. Also full of regrets - Petra. See, she owns part of Rafael's hotel. But she doesn't have the one thing she really wants, Rafael.

CHOW: Before all this, Mendez's search for his own voice began in his hometown of New York City. His parents were immigrants from the Dominican Republic. His father had a tombstone business, which Mendez left against his family's wishes. And eventually, he began doing professional voice over work. That's when he learned that his Dominican, New York, New Jersey upbringing, the same things that made his voice so special, also worked against him with voice over managers.

MENDEZ: They were like, are you black? I was like, I'm Dominican, you know, so I have black roots. But - he said, 'cause I think you can go up for this role. So he started sending me on African-American voice over roles. But I want general market stuff. And they're like, oh, you've got an accent. You're not going to do it.

CHOW: A couple years later, things started to change. Mendez says he taught himself to dial back his accent. He started booking regular gigs for places like CNN, Miller Lite and the NBA, recording out of the bedroom he shares with his wife. And then, one morning, he got an email to audition for a TV show. Yep, for "Jane The Virgin."

MENDEZ: It said telenovela announcer with a Hispanic accent. And the role literally said Latin lover narrator. And I was like, I don't want to do this. This sounds like a joke, stereotypical stuff. I'd put it away.

CHOW: Later, Mendez thought, well, why not give it a try? Not knowing much about the narrator, he debated how the voice would sound.

MENDEZ: Initially, I was going to do a standard telenovela announcer, which is what I call the Spanish Dracula, the Telemundo guy. You know, (speaking Spanish) Netflix, or something like that, you know? And I said, you know, an hour show with that guy is going to get really, super annoying.

CHOW: So he came up with a voice he thought people would want to spend time with, even if that time included kidnappings, mistaken identity and criminal masterminds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

MENDEZ: (As Narrator) And Raf (ph) was working with Detective Michael to see if Derek was connected to their mother.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where were you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Right here in this boat.

MENDEZ: (As Narrator) The notorious crime lord known as Mutter (ph).

CHOW: While "Jane The Virgin" has given Mendez some fame, it's not making him rich. He's still working on freelance voice over gigs. But the show has given him the freedom to pursue his own projects. He's creating an animated comic series about a Dominican-American superhero who wants to break from the family tombstone business to become a poet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

MENDEZ: (As Narrator) I know, straight out of a telenovela, right? Well, imagine this.

CHOW: Kat Chow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.