Ten years ago, the Hitman franchise was in a transitory state. Blood Money had become something of a classic and with Hitman Absolution there was a clear decision to push IO Interactive’s assassination sim series to a whole new level. That experimental, often divisive, entry turned out to be pivotal in what would follow.
Elements of Absolution, such as its accessibility and player-created content, would be mixed with the more traditional Hitman games’ sense of murderous creativity to birth the Hitman Trilogy 0f 2016-2021. A series that would take its creators on a turbulent journey of publisher changes, independence, and the eventual triumph of being handed the tantalizing 007 license.
Hitman Absolution also marked the first time we got David Bateson (Agent 47) and Jane Perry (Diana Burnwood) in a game together. Perry was the tutorial narrator in that game, but she would take over as Agent 47’s handler Diana Burnwood for 2016’s Hitman, and while there was a World of Assassination going on, a greater bond was growing from game to game between 47 and Diana. That was mostly created by Bateson and Perry’s own growing friendship. A bond that sits at the heart of three marvellous games.
I got the chance to ask David and Jane about their time together with Hitman, what influences their characters, how they approach the dark comedy of the games, where they’d like to holiday in the world of Hitman, and of course, if they’d want to be involved in IO Interactive’s Project 007.
The connection between Diana and 47 grows throughout the Hitman trilogy. Jane, as this was a fresh experience for you, did this mirror your journey with the character?
Jane: The connection with 47, and the blossoming of their relationship was one of the things that I absolutely adored about the Hitman trilogy. Interestingly, a sort of parallel to this existed in real life. I hadn’t actually met David until John Hopkins, Philip Rosch, David, and I did a podcast during lockdown for All Things Hitman (a popular YouTube broadcast).
David and I live in different cities, so there was never any chance of our paths crossing at the water cooler in the studio. Subsequently, he was a sort of mysterious figure to me. This man who lives in the shadows – famous, yet elusive. I was a bit star-struck. And then, finally, we met online, and of course, David’s generous and warm personality shone through. Shortly thereafter, David came to London on business and we had lunch, and that was the beginning of what has become a wonderful friendship.
When I first started as Diana, I experienced her interest in Agent 47 as somewhat clinical. Agent 47 was her project and as such, I feel she had no issue at all in objectifying him. Perhaps this is a common thing for special agents and their handlers. If you constantly send another human being out into exceptionally dangerous scenarios, then it would by no means behoove you to care deeply for that person.
But, as things progress in the trilogy, it becomes clear she does care for him, in her own way. It makes for an interesting journey. It’s complex. The history, and the things they’ve seen and done together, would inextricably draw them into each other’s sphere in a significant way. I love the idea of the two of them as two 80-year-olds, staring at the sunset on the Amalfi Coast or somewhere, reminiscing about the time Agent 47 went undercover as a pink flamingo, and got the job done.
Diana has such a fascinating history. Did you find it helpful to have so much backstory in place for the character when you came to play her?
Jane: Diana does have a fascinating history; however, I didn’t necessarily draw from her past to inform my choices as to how to play her in the present. Partially it’s because I feel don’t feel Diana allows her history to inform her day to day life. We see her reference it at the end of Hitman 3 “My family. I know what you did”. But otherwise, she compartmentalizes. Perhaps at the end of a long day, she goes home and cries in her Single Malt – but really, you’d never know it.
Also, games happen very much in the moment. It’s what’s happening right now that matters. If there is subtext or an allusion to something in the past, it is a by-product of the writing itself as opposed to something I am bringing to the performance. The cutscenes in Hitman are in service to gameplay. Which means they are pithy and to-the-point. So I offer up choices as an actress that make sense of what is going on right then and there, and allow Diana’s backstory to resonate more in the gamers’ minds.
And for you, David, did the relationship between Diana and 47 feel different from the previous games?
David: Definitely. It felt intimate. There has always been this mutual admiration for each other’s skillsets and abilities but this time, there was a lot more. I not only enjoyed the experience of going on a mission with Mr Gray, my childhood friend. But to actually have my long-time handler in the field with me – was definitely a special thrill. We are so close and protective of each other – it just seemed to complement each other and increase the stakes. In Blade Runner and even more so in Blade Runner 2049, I always found it utterly fascinating that the relationship we, as an audience, care about so much, is between a man and an android – or even more intriguing in the second film, between an android and a hologram love interest. Yet we did care. Here we are in Hitman, and IO Interactive, whether knowingly or unknowingly, have created a genuine relationship between a very discreet, reserved but damaged woman, and a man-made ruthless killing machine who is devoid of emotion. And yet, we do care.
Is there any specific kind of media or character type that influences your performances? I know David has cited Phillip Marlowe as an initial influence on his performance, but what about you Jane? Personally, I always think of Vanessa Redgrave’s role in Mission: Impossible when Diana offers a tantalizing suggestion for 47 to murder someone. There’s an impish delight to it at times.
Jane: Yes, there is an impish delight, and you’ve articulated something that I absolutely love about Diana and Hitman in general! There is a sort of joy, a sense of “isn’t this delicious”, to much of what goes on in the game. She has a rye sense of humor which comes out so beautifully in Michael Vogt’s (head writer at IO Interactive) writing. Vanessa Redgrave is a fantastic reference for that.
However, as odd as it might seem, the source of inspiration that I have always used for Diana is Fiona Bruce. As you’ll know Neil, Fiona is a news announcer for the BBC. She has a cut-glass accent, exudes class, and there is a subtle twinkle in her eye that just felt right for Diana. I invocate her presence almost every time I go in for a recording session.
David: Yup, she’s a sick puppy!
There’s a black comedy to the Hitman series that not only comes from the fiendish death plots, but also from the absurdity of 47’s otherwise serious world. Do you find you lean into that when performing these characters?
Jane: The black comedy is something I revel in. As mentioned above, it is part of the pleasure of playing this role. It provides a foil to the violence, and to the more serious nature of the content. In some of the recent games I’ve done, like Returnal or Cyberpunk 2077 or Ghost Recon: Wildlands, the stories are full-on serious, and there is no comic relief. I mean, can you imagine a little song and dance number in Returnal just to lighten the mood? No. But in Hitman, it works. And it’s super fun. I’ve had some great laughs with my brilliant Performance Director Kate Saxon about how far over-the-top we can take something. And that has been a total delight.
David: It’s difficult to find anything amusing about violent death – particularly in light of such tragic events occurring even as I write. But in the playroom of my imagination, I definitely find dark humor and brutal irony, an endless source of entertainment. Not cruel humor, mind. I find nothing amusing about ridicule or laughing at someone who falls on the ice. It’s more the Charles Chaplin ironic humor of “stepping over the open manhole – only to then slip on the banana skill” – that appeals to me.
Is there a particular Agent 47/Diana interaction you consider your favorite?
Jane: Well, it would have to be the tango in Hitman 3. I bet you £100 David Bateson is going to cite the same scene….
David: Without doubt – dancing “One Last Tango” with Diane in Hitman 3. It’s just poetic and right on every count and the only time they interact so intimately. Love it.
How much do you know about the in-game incidents when doing voice work around them?
Jane: Kate Saxon and Michael Vogt or another contact from IO Interactive would always be there to set the scene as it were. They would both provide valuable context, which would then be further finessed by Kate and her astute directing. I would offer up my version of something, and Kate would swoop in and say “well, think about the fact that this has just happened, or such and such has just occurred” and I would amend my delivery accordingly. Those Performance Directors…really don’t know what we’d do without them! They are invaluable.
Do you have a favorite Hitman ‘accident’ death?
Jane: This is slightly before my time as Diana, but being Canadian, I find the moose dropping on Claus Strandberg’s head to be quite amusing.
David: We are actors – theatre film, TV, voice. I personally like the accidental deaths most “entertaining”, particularly the statue or even better, a chandelier drop onto the target. It appeals to my sick sense of humor. Ha ha! It’s theatrical and it’s “gotta hurt!”
Hitman Absolution is a decade old now, and to this day it feels like the most divisive, and experimental game in the series, a blend of what was and what would be that saw 47 in a more action-focused story. Did working on that game feel any different to you at the time, David?
David: Very different. Firstly, due to the nature of recording in secret for a month. That made it a more intense and intimate experience. The more linear storyline script made it feel like I was recording a feature film. It was particularly intense at the beginning of the game as I set out on a contract to “kill” Diane and all the emotions associated with that betrayal. Secondly, I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of Agent 47 suddenly finding himself out of his depth in having to “babysit” the young Victoria. His disillusioned demeanor and almost begrudging compassion toward her was a delicate balancing act and a challenge to interpret as a voice actor. IO Interactive had also aged up Agent 47 to look more beaten up and older, so all in all, whatever some of the fans may say regarding the reduced sandbox of the game, it was a great acting exercise for me.
You debuted in Absolution Jane, albeit as a different character. How was it delving into that world for the first time? Did you have any inkling you’d still be involved in the series a decade later?
Jane: I had absolutely no idea that I would graduate from an in-game tutorial to playing an actual character. Nor did I know that Diana would be part of my life for such a period of time. It all felt a bit precarious after Square-Enix decided to go in a different direction, but I’m ever so please that IOI persisted as an independent – and I bet they are too!
Agent 47 has had a long and storied life in the last 22 years of Hitman games, and you’re effectively intertwined with that. Does it feel like a personal revelation to you when you learn more about the story behind his life with each passing game?
David: It is a rare experience for an actor to have such a long association with a single character. This may sound weird but after all these years, I not only feel like I really know Agent 47 as a person, but I feel like he’s a good friend of mine. Weird I know, but true. I would genuinely like to hang out and have a beer with him! Mind you, I wouldn’t want to ask him: How was your day and then have to hear what he’s been up to!
Going back to Diana’s history. We’ve seen plenty of 47’s past onscreen over the years, but Diana’s has largely remained in documents and files. Do you think it would be interesting to have a game that sees Diana recall her past in much the same way 47 did in Hitman Contracts?
Jane: I think Diana has rather come into her own in the Hitman trilogy. There’s a lot of meat on the bones in terms of her story. What motivates her, what keeps her in the game. She has a strong sense of justice. She is essentially a vigilante, whose work is made legit by working with the ICA. So I think there’s some intrigue into what drives her and just how far is she willing to go? (As we see in Hitman 3 – she is not a risk-averse person).
As for a game that centers on Diana, you got me there! I think if Diana was foregrounded, it’d be a bit like trying to drink a cup of tea whilst hanging upside down. Not impossible, but not quite right. At the end of the day, it would be up to the fans.
David: Wow – that sounds fascinating! I would like that. I think there is so much material about Diana that is ripe for expansion and exploration, especially bearing in mind what Agent 47 did to her parents. You know, in the last 3 game’s story arc and particularly, in Hitman 3 when Diane joins Agent 47 in the field, I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of Diane and Agent 47 being involved together as a team on a freelance basis.
The modern Hitman trilogy takes in some exotic locations. If they were real places, which level would be the most interesting vacation spot for you?
Jane: Please can someone take me to Sapienza? IOI makes it look so attractive and I’ve wanted to go there ever since I uttered the words “Welcome to Sapienza 47”. Of course, it doesn’t really exist, but there must be a few such places along the Amalfi Coast (thus my earlier reference to it). One of these days, I hope to find myself there, Aperol Spritz (gosh I love that drink. Is that passe´? I care not!) and a couple of olives in hand.
David: The locations are off the scale exotic. (James Bond, anyone?). I love a lot of them personally, but I would probably head to Sapienza. I’m not an avid player (seriously don’t have that kind of time to do it justice) but I like Sapienza so much that sometimes, I would just wander about the streets and along the beach and take in the scenery! Haha.
With IO Interactive working on a James Bond game, it’s natural for fans to assume you’d both have some involvement with that. The dynamic you have in Hitman is as much a part of that thinking as any perceived loyalties. So hypothetically, what kind of James Bond character would you want to play David? Would being a rival agent perhaps be more interesting than being a Bond Villain?
David: Here’s the thing. Firstly, I have full respect for IO Interactive to make any and all creative decisions regarding the Project 007 game. The interesting thing is that the extraordinary success the writers, creatives and level designers (and others) have achieved over the years, has ironically created a slight dilemma. How do you let all that go? It is not a quantum leap of the imagination to go from Agent 47 and his handler Diane Burnwood to – Agent 007 and Ms Moneypenny, for example. IO Interactive has all the skill sets as game designers already in place, to make a stunning success of Project 007. Not to mention the exotic locations, weaponry and villains. They know how to craft a genuinely intriguing, complex storyline and dare I say it, with a little help from Jane and I, have developed the elegant, dry and dark humor writing style that pervades the dialogue and asides throughout the script. I think that Jane and I would absolutely nail it.
Daydreaming now, but I would want to create a cross between the raw elegance of a Sean Connery Bond with the ruthless tenacity of a Daniel Craig Bond. Besides this, I would do pretty much anything to play alongside Jane Perry again! Even as a pair of villains. Now, there’s a thought – ha ha!
And what about for you, Jane? You already have some experience in Bond games when you voiced Holly in 007 Legends, but would you like a return to that world?
Jane: Wherever IOI goes, I shall follow. If they want me. Along with Housemarque, they will always hold a special place in my heart. Those Scandi/Nordic types! So alluring and talented.
A big thank you to David and Jane for agreeing to take part in this interview.
Hitman 3 is out now on PS4 ad PS5.