Meet the actress behind everyone’s favorite AI, Halo’s Cortana

Cortana played by Mackenzie MasonTo bring the epic campaign story to life in Halo 4, 343 Industries employed Hollywood actors and performance capture to bring depth to the characters that we’ve known for years now. One of the biggest roles in the new game is played by actress Mackenzie Mason, who brings the AI Cortana to life. Since the series debuted in 2001 with Halo: Combat Evolved, the character of Cortana has been a constant companion and guide to Master Chief. To fans of the series, she is second only to Master Chief in popularity.

Mackenzie Mason

At the end of Halo 3, Cortana was nearing the end of her natural lifespan of roughly seven years, but her experiences have made her exceptionally strong among her counterparts. Unfortunately, Halo 4 takes place more than four years after its predecessor, and Cortana is entering “rampancy,” a state akin to insanity. The information she has gained over the course of the war against the Covenant and the Flood have made her stronger than any other AI and kept her active longer than any other, but that same quantity of information fuels her downward spiral as the game begins.   

Mason, who studied improve at The Groundlings and The Second City, grew up playing video games and immersing herself in sci-fi. Bringing the full performance of Cortana to life through voice and motion capture work was a dream come true for the actress. She talks about playing a bipolar program and explains why performance capture is itchy business in this exclusive interview.

What video games did you play growing up?

I played a lot of Super Mario. Super Nintendo really was my system…Donkey Kong, Lion King, which I beat. That’s the only game that I can say I beat by myself without cheating. Super Mario is probably my favorite; I love Yoshi.

What was one of your favorite memories from gaming back then?

It was definitely the moment I beat Lion King. There’s no prouder moment for someone who played a game for weeks and had to redo every level when you lose your lives. Throwing Scar off the cliff really resonated with me.

What are your thoughts of how much video games have evolved since then?

Taking a look at the graphics alone back then and then looking at now, where I’m a real person playing in the video game is insane. It’s leaps and bounds crazy.

What’s your favorite Halo game that has already been released and why?

Cortana during her rampancy

I liked the first, but I think Halo 3 was my favorite. I think there was a lot more exploration. I guess because I’m approaching the games from the actor perspective, not the gaming. I don’t know gaming-wise, but I liked the character development and story line in Halo 3 a lot.

How familiar were you with the Halo franchise before this opportunity for Cortana came up?

It’s really hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Halo. For years, if I were to name two games, it would be Halo and then… see, I don’t even know another one.

Have you ever gone online and played against those Halo gamers, and how did you do?

No. I have Xbox Live and I’m on it, but I won’t give anyone my GamerTag because I’m so nervous because they’re gonna be, “You’re horrible.” I thought if I practice on my own a lot, then maybe I’d be good, but they’re so good. The Halo fans are amazing.

What was it like bringing Cortana to life in Halo 4?

It was one of the best experiences to be able to play. She’s such an amazing character. She has so much strength, and the story line for Halo 4 is so strong for Cortana and her struggles, dealing with her own mortality, and all the emotions that go with it. I got a great chunk of acting, so I’m super excited about that.

What were some of the challenges of performance capture?

Getting in the dots for my face was always a really long process, but I got a mask made for me, so it shortened up the time a bit. The struggles were really just specific to my character, so all of the emotional changes I would have to go through back to back. The crying and screaming were the hardest, but I think that in a way, it’s easier to shoot a performance capture project than a movie. Just in terms of not having to worry about camera, lighting, your hair, and stupid stuff like that. You can just concentrate on the acting, so that was really nice.

Did you ever get used to the skin-tight suit and all the sensors?

No. That’s so itchy. Where the shirt meets the pants there’s a band of Velcro, and that’s just so itchy. There’s no hiding; it’s so tight. There are 500 cameras everywhere, so you’re there. Everyone gets to see when you get to wear the bright blue suit. It’s just right on your butt, just aqua blue. So, no, I do not get used to that.

Were you able to interact with other actors during the performance capture?

Mackenzie Mason

Yeah. There [were] very rare takes of me alone. It’s all with Bruce Thomas, who did Chief. A lot of it was me and him, and then all the characters. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say their names of who’s been announced. There were a lot of group scenes, and the cinematics are really involved, so there was a lot of interaction.

How much of the game were you able to play or see during this process?

None. They don’t show me anything. I saw some “War Games” at PAX, and that was it. They were doing Capture the Flag. I’m just like everyone; I have not seen anything.

What are your thoughts on how far games have come today as entertainment?

Now, more than ever, just shooting this, it was like a movie. I don’t think a video game has ever provided entertainment value like a movie. I think it’s more about gameplay than entertainment. I think now with these cinematics, at least what we’re doing for Halo, if you take all the cinematics back-to-back, you could make a movie. I think that’s huge. I don’t remember a story line in Super Mario Bros. Zelda was the closest, but that wasn’t even more than you just saving your princess.

How do you think this role in Halo 4 will change your life?

It already has given me so much acting experience and a great avenue to show people what I can do. I’m in love with sci-fi. It’s such a great game, that I feel like it’s given me such a great start for a future career and things along these lines, so I’m very grateful.

What’s the reaction been like from people who know you got this gig?

From Halo fans? It’s insane. I booked it and shot for about nine months before I was even allowed to tell anyone. So just my family knew and then you tell your friends. They’re like, “You’ve been doing it for nine months and you haven’t said a word?” You’re like, “I can’t.” People have been very excited and really supportive, so I’m very lucky.

There’s a lot of depth in Halo 4 with “Campaign,” “War Game,” and “Spartan Ops.” What’s your favorite part of the game and why?

Mackenzie Mason as cortana

I really like “Spartan Ops.” I think that’s an insane co-op experience that they’ve added to make people just really get involved. I love the team and the four players; that’s really cool. I really do just like playing, but I think that that adds another level and dimension of interaction for the fans.

Cortana is only designed to stay alive for seven years and then the program starts decomposing. How did you get into that mindset of treating Cortana like she’s basically crazy?

They’re calling it rampancy. She’s overloaded with so much information that she can’t download any more data to her system, which means that she can’t respond properly. She’s always really fast with information and things that need to be done. She’s like now, now, now. Now it’s slower, or she responds with something different. That was the emotional craziness that I had to go through with her, because she’s dealing with all of this and doesn’t know what’s happening or how to deal with it and can’t control the things that she’s saying. She wants to say something, and something else comes out. That was the hardest part of playing her, because I had to play a bipolar person that had five different emotions going at once; the same line, but crying, screaming, and laughing. So I went a little crazy. It was very draining.

Will she be okay?

I don’t know. Will she? I’m not okay, so we’ll see.

Microsoft has announced that they’re going to make two sequels to Halo 4. Will you come back as Cortana?

Yeah, I hope so. I think that it’s gonna depend on the fan reaction to see if they like it. There are a lot of things being tested in this game. If it’s all responded to really well, then I’ll be back to give you some more action.

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