GTA Online The Contract interview: Shawn Fonteno on returning as Franklin and reuniting with Dr. Dre

GTA Online
(Image credit: Rockstar)

GTA Online The Contract marks the return of GTA 5 protagonist Franklin, his beloved pooch Chop, his maverick sidekick Lamar, and a gamified version of hip hop legend Dr Dre – the latter of who brings brand new music to the shores of San Andreas. The crime sim’s bumper December updates have always impressed, but The Contract might be its most blockbuster yet. 

Speaking to GamesRadar+ via video call, the voice of Franklin Clinton himself, Shawn Fonteno, has his screen background set to an image of Times Square in New York City. Beaming from the LED advertising boards is Franklin as he appears in GTA Online The Contract, flanked either side by Lamar Davis, and Dr Dre. On the call, Shawn’s smile shines just as bright, though, as this is a man truly delighted to be reprising a beloved role – so much so, he says he cannot believe this is where his life has taken him. 

GTA Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

GamesRadar+: Shawn Fonteno, aka Franklin Clinton, you’re back in Grand Theft Auto. You are back in Los Santos. How does that feel? 

Shawn Fonteno: It feels good to be back! I didn't think that I was coming back, you know what I'm saying? I didn't think any of this was going to happen, but we're here now. 

When did Rockstar first reach out to you about working with them again, and did you take much convincing?

They reached out some months ago, man. At first I didn't know what it was going to be, you know – what they wanted me back for. I just thought maybe it's for a commercial or something that they were doing. But when I found out what it was really about? Shit, I was more than happy. I was like, 'wow', you know? And then when I got there, and they explained to me the direction that they were going in and who Franklin was going to be this time. Shit man, it was crazy. I couldn't believe that Franklin would finally get to be the big dog.

GTA 5 and GTA Online have changed quite a bit since its release in 2013, and since the last time you worked with Rockstar. Was the process of recording audio and motion capture different at all this time around, or was it business as usual for you? 

I mean, it's pretty much the same. It was pretty easy going, you know, seeing a lot of old friends and people I worked with at Rockstar. It was real easy to walk back into it. Now, the first time I did it, when I first did GTA 5, it was rough on me, man. Because, you know, trying to convert to putting on the [motion-capture] suit, to read lines, and to get into this imaginary world, it was real hard. But this time, I came in there like a champion because I was seasoned, you know?

And Franklin, your character, has changed quite a bit since you last saw him. Was that a hard process, getting back into the mindset of a character who has changed in his mindset too?

It was a little different. Franklin is a little older and he's bossing up. I don't take orders now, I get to give orders. So I had to change my mindframe on that and get ready to be a boss. In the GTA 5 series, I was following Michael, Lester, and dealing with crazy Trevor. I was walking into a world that I wasn't familiar with, you know, because Franklin is from the hood. And he was trying to get out the hood, so he had to listen to these guys. So now that I took all of this stuff that they gave me – I learned from Michael, I learned from Lester, I learned from Trevor, but now I get to be the boss. I get to tell people what to do. But they taught me a lot on that road to getting here.

GTA Online

(Image credit: Rockstar)

"Dre is a legend. He's a rock and roll and Hip Hop Hall of Famer. He's an icon man. I'm not even sleeping through the whole night because it's still sinking in."

Shawn Fonteno, Franklin Clinton

You did some voicework in GTA: San Andreas as well, which means you’ve been a part of the evolution of the series for quite some time now.

Yeah, when I did San Andreas, oh man, that was many years ago, I probably didn’t understand it all back then. My cousin, Young Maylay, plays CJ, and all I knew was they needed me to play a gang member, so I did that. But from way back then, from doing that, I never would have thought that I would have been called to come back to be in a game, you know? It's so surreal. It trips me out sometimes. Sometimes I just have to wake up and pinch myself to make sure, you know, like, is this shit really happening?

Being immortalised in a video game – what is that like for your family? To be such a huge part of a huge video game, now featured alongside Dr. Dre, that’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? 

It really is. I mean, working with Dre – come on, man! Who wouldn't want to work with the legend? Me and Dre go way back. I worked with him many years ago on a movie called The Wash. Thanks to DJ Pooh, I can't give DJ Pooh enough praise for where I am today, because I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him; he was the one that connected me with Rockstar. Working alongside Dr Dre, we did The Wash but I never thought I'd be back doing something with him like this. Dre is a legend. He's a rock and roll and Hip Hop Hall of Famer. He's an icon man. I'm not even sleeping through the whole night because it's still sinking in. 

The OST for The Wash is surely one of Dre’s most underrated albums, and was different from what he’d done before because it was an official movie soundtrack. I imagine most, if not all, GTA Online players will at least have heard of Dr Dre, but he’s potentially reaching a new audience with his work for The Contract – do you think there's similarities to be drawn between something like The Wash album and this in that regard? 

Yeah absolutely, Dre is Dre, man. He's different. I think he's an alien. I'm telling you, he's so different. When I was talking to Dre earlier this week, he's excited. So you got to remember, yeah, Dre is big, Dre is an icon, but he's in my world now – I'm big, I'm an icon; Franklin is the man, you know what I'm saying – because he's in the video game world. But Dre brings the big kaboom to it. Him, Anderson .Paak, DJ Pooh, and crazy ass Lamar. Dre is gonna do his thing – with the music, he's also a great actor, he's just... I can't put a title on him. He's the God of rap music. And I'm just happy to be working alongside him on this, and I think everybody is gonna lose their minds when they finally get to take this ride. This is the biggest roller coaster you’re ever gonna get on.

Dre doing music again is big enough, and he's putting it in The Contract, in GTA Online. I mean, I never thought Dre was putting more music out, so whatever Rockstar did, or how much respect Dre has for Rockstar, it's amazing that he's putting new music out in this game. I thought Dre was done, you know, like 'Hey, I made my money, I'm cool, I climbed every ladder I can think about climbing in the business and in music', and I thought he was done – just retired, running a business, and just being Andre Young. But he's back, man, come on!

GTA Online

(Image credit: Rockstar)

"You gotta remember, I'm standing up for my family. I have a family, and from where I come from, from the hood, with a ninth grade education, I stand up for more than just me."

Shawn Fonteno, Franklin Clinton

You mentioned Lamar, and while he's played a smaller part in GTA Online already, having the chance to revisit that relationship between Franklin and Lamar is exciting for players. Was that good for you too?

Hell yeah! But I needed him. Me and Lamar, we're like Siamese twins that have been separated and we gotta be put back together. I couldn't be Franklin without Lamar, and that's just facts. You know what I'm saying? I could if I have to, but it's much better being with Lamar, because you gotta remember Franklin is more level-headed. And Lamar is the balance of the craziness, so he keeps pulling me in this direction, but I'm trying to pull him in the opposite one. But sometimes you just gotta let him be him. So working with him is crazy. Slink Johnson, who plays Lamar, he's not only like that in the game, but he's like that in real life – he's a fucking nut! You know, we check into a hotel together, he's gonna do something or say something that's gonna make me just be like, 'aw man'. But that's Lamar, you know, Slink Johnson, I want to give a shout out to the man. 

Video game series like GTA are among those which transcend the medium of video games. Speaking generally, how is Grand Theft Auto viewed in your line of work and among your circles, your friends and family? 

You gotta remember, I'm standing up for my family. I have a family, and from where I come from, from the hood, with a ninth grade education, I stand up for more than just me. I stand up for a family that rides with me, and they drive me and they push me. They've been playing GTA way back. Probably before me, so it's crazy that they look at me the way they do. But I'm a humble person. I try to stay as humble as I can. I never get out of my humbleness, because I'm so thankful, so I just don't get too carried away with it. But it's hard not to, you know, being Franklin. Come on, Franklin! That's crazy, man. Other games, I've tried them all, but when you get to play GTA, you’re stepping into a movie and a video game at the same time. 

I think that me, Ned [Luke], Steven [Ogg], and the whole cast, we did such a great job with GTA 5. I just go on YouTube and just watch all of the cutscenes, because the acting and the performances are so good. We are actors, but the performance was spot on. And the director and the cast, they just knew how to pull things out of people. They pulled it out of me. Because you got to remember, playing Franklin, it was hard for me with the acting role and getting used to doing mo-cap stuff. But when I got to doing it, it was easy for me because, I want to say 60 to 80% of the shit that Franklin did in the game, I've tried it or did it in real life. That's just facts. That's just where I come from, being an ex-gang member, you know, getting in a lot of trouble when I was young. So it was like, I start thinking, was this destiny, you know? Like, damn man, now I get to live this out in the video game so where if I get shot I get to respawn, I'm cool. Man, and I know what it feels like to get shot, and it's not good! 

In The Contract, Franklin is older. Lamar is older. And your beloved dog Chop is older. Speaking as Franklin, it must have been nice to reunite with man's best friend.

Yeah, man, I love Chop. He's older now. You know, he might not be getting around like he used to, but he's still my dog, my buddy. And everybody loves chop man, because who can't love chop. When I think about Chop, I think about working on that with the actual dog. Chop was like Lassie, because when you see Franklin talking to Chop in-game, I was doing that in reality. That's like real stuff, you’re really talking to a real dog. You've got your mo-cap suit on and you're really doing your thing. I’m just so lucky to have been involved in all of this. If God called on me now, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I'm happy, bro. I'm immortalized. My name, my likenesses, that’s going to go on past me, all thanks to Franklin and GTA. 

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Joe Donnelly
Features Editor, GamesRadar+

Joe is a Features Editor at GamesRadar+. With over seven years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.