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Screen actors reading audiobooks bring more than just a big name

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The actor Michelle Williams is getting heaps of praise for her performance reading the audiobook version of the new Britney Spears memoir, "The Woman In Me." Variety called her narration a work of, quote, "profound sympathy and ecstatic transformation." The New York Times says Williams telegraphs mirth, regret, pride and fear. And while big-name actors reading audiobooks isn't necessarily new, the key to a successful audiobook performance isn't as simple as hiring a marquee name. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Britney Spears - and her voice does make an appearance in the audiobook at the very beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE WOMAN IN ME")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Reading) Prologue. As a little girl, I walked for hours alone in the silent woods behind my house in Louisiana, singing songs.

LIMBONG: The book goes through her childhood, her rise to fame, her rocky relationships both romantic and familial, the conservatorship she found herself under and her fight to get out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE WOMAN IN ME")

SPEARS: (Reading) Reliving everything that you're about to hear has been exciting, heart-wrenching and emotional, to say the least. For those reasons, I will only be reading a small part of my audiobook.

LIMBONG: Now, a lot of the excerpts of Michelle Williams reading that have gone viral are the more cringy bits, like Spears recounting her former partner Justin Timberlake running into the rapper Ginuwine.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE WOMAN IN ME")

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (Reading) Jay got all excited and said so loud, oh, yeah, fo' shiz, fo' shiz (ph). Ginuwine, what's up, homie?

LIMBONG: But there is something tender in how Williams translates Britney Spears' understated anger, like in this early section where Spears talks about her abusive grandfather, June Spears.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE WOMAN IN ME")

WILLIAMS: (Reading) The way people talk about men like June in the South is to say nothing was ever good enough for him and that he was a perfectionist, that he was a very involved father. I would probably put it more harshly than that.

LIMBONG: There's a long list of screen actors lending their voices to books, apart from their own memoirs, of course. You can find Jake Gyllenhaal reading "The Great Gatsby," Samira Wiley reading "The Color Purple," Claire Danes reading "The Handmaid's Tale." The folks in charge of the Britney Spears audiobook declined an interview, but I talked to Guy Oldfield. He's the head of production at Macmillan Audio, and he said that being famous doesn't get you any bonus points when you're in the recording booth.

GUY OLDFIELD: I've yet to meet an actor, regardless of their stature, who hasn't been humbled by the experience of narrating an audiobook. Trust me. It's such a hard thing to do.

LIMBONG: Oldfield says narrating audiobooks is closer to theater than it is TV or film. For one, it's a more direct, more spare performance compared to screen acting.

OLDFIELD: And it's very exposing for an actor.

LIMBONG: Secondly, it's straight-up an endurance test. For instance, Oldfield is working with actor Rosamund Pike narrating Robert Jordan's "The Wheel Of Time" series.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE EYE OF THE WORLD")

ROSAMUND PIKE: (Reading) The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.

LIMBONG: These are big, beefy fantasy books, and you can't really cut scenes from an audiobook for time. This first one, "The Eye Of The world," is 32 hours and 55 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE EYE OF THE WORLD")

PIKE: (Reading) There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.

LIMBONG: The other thing Oldfield looks for in an audiobook actor is range because there are other characters, other people's voices involved.

OLDFIELD: You're looking for flow, and it takes a very skilled actor who can switch seamlessly between character voices.

LIMBONG: Going back to Michelle Williams reading Britney Spears' book, something about the performance is connecting with audiences. It's currently sitting at the top of Audible's bestseller list, and even if Britney Spears isn't reading it, it's still her voice that got her there. Or, as it's put in the book...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE WOMAN IN ME")

WILLIAMS: (Reading) Singing takes me to a mystical place where language doesn't matter anymore, where anything is possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTIME")

SPEARS: (Singing) And every time I try to fly, I fall. Without my wings...

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTIME")

SPEARS: (Singing) I guess I need you, baby. And every time I see you in my dreams, I see your face. You're haunting me. I guess I need you, baby. I may have made it rain. Please forgive me. My weakness caused you pain, and this song's my sorry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.