Theater | Dance | Cinemathèque | Dubbing stars in VF

Maik Darah
courtesy of Maik Darah
Maik Darah
by Gabriel Parnes

dubbing the stars in VF

What do Whoopi Goldberg, Courtney Cox, and Madonna have in common...? When they speak in French versions of their films it’s really Maik Darah’s voice we’re hearing.
Recenly, a Frenchman was sitting in a Paris restaurant, when he was sure he heard Whoopi Goldberg’s voice. He didn't think twice about the fact that she was chatting in French — after all, three quarters of French viewers watch movies and television series in their dubbed version.
The star-struck diner followed the voice, which most French fans would recognize as that of the Oscar-winning American actress. “Whoopi Goldberg?” he asked, directing his inquiry to actress Maïk Darah, who, with her wire-rimmed glasses and hair curled into twists framing her face, even bears a certain resemblance to a younger Goldberg.
Darah laughs when she tells this story, noting that there are always people who think she is Whoopi. In a way, they are right. Darah lends her voice as the version française of Whoopi Goldberg, Courtney Cox and Madonna, in addition to other American and international actors.
Her dubbing career took off in her early twenties, with one of her first big roles as the French voice of Robin Givens in “A Rage in Harlem.” Today Darah is perhaps best known for her vocal incarnations of Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost” and “Sister Act,” or as the nitpicky Monica on the hit TV series “Friends.”
In playing such a vast spectrum of characters, Darah employs a full range of timbres, with her voice changing automatically depending on the actress she’s dubbing. The original actors serve as an inspiration for Darah, but she emphasizes that her work isn’t imitation. “The emotions go with the voice,” she says. In fact, while she sometimes watches the original films before going to the recording studio, studying the American versions is not de rigueur for Darah, who, like France’s other dubbers, is a professional actress in her own right. With Whoopi, she explains, her voice becomes lower, and she erases “everything that’s feminine, but not the tenderness.” Madonna is “all sensuality and femininity.”
Darah’s mixed background — her father was Togolese and her mother French — has brought her this versatility. It also was one of the factors that led her to pursue the performing arts. “I had many things I needed to evacuate,” she explains. “Being a métisse isn’t always easy.” Still, her background has proved to be a “total richness” for Darah professionally. “I’m not in foreign territory when I dub Madonna, Whoopi, or Angela Bassett,” she says.
Thanks to this flexibility and her passion for acting, Darah has dubbed over 100 movies. From time to time, she is cast in original films and on stage, but those roles are harder to come by. “In France, things are still based on stereotypes,” Darah explains.
In August, Darah was working on John Singleton’s “Baby Boy,” which will appear in French cinemas in September. Darah was cast as the role of Juanita, played by AJ Johnson in the original version. “As a black woman, I identify with this film,” she said. “I understand exactly what they’re saying, how they might feel, their fight to get out of it.” But Darah is quick to add that most important is the film’s universal side. “In other countries, it’s not black people who live like that, but it’s another ethnic group. It's about human suffering, which, unfortunately, is universal."
Looking at the marquees of the cinemas on the Champs-Elysées, one might see the dubbing industry as another product of cultural imperialism, but Darah disagrees. “We don’t just dub American films,” she says. “There are Australian films, Italian, German films. It allows people who don’t want to read subtitles — or, who don’t understand the original language at all — to enter into the story, for an hour and a half of magic.”
And what about the earnings differential between American stars and the French actors who dub them? Goldberg’s asking price is upwards of $10 million, whereas the base pay for dubbers is 34 francs per line Still, there’s only affection when Darah speaks of her American counterpart, with whom she feels an inexplicable kinship. “I love the essence of what she does. It’s really similar to many things that are close to me.” And, while impressed by her brief meeting with Madonna — “She was hyper-cool, we shook hands. She’s extraordinarily intelligent” — Darah’s ultimate dream is to meet the actress who’s closest to her heart. “More than anything, I want to meet her,” she says of Whoopi. “I’m ready to go to New York, Los Angeles, wherever.”

Maik Darah singing from her répertoire which includes Billie Holliday
courtesy of Maik Darah

Whoopi Goldberg
courtesy of Columbia / Tristar / Photo - S. Tenner

courtesy of Warner Bros

Courtney Cox
courtesy of Warner Bros Internationnal