Q and A with voice-over actress Mary McDonald-Lewis

by: L.e. BASKOW, Mary McDonald-Lewis may not look familiar, but when she opens her mouth, heads turn. And as the voice of General Motors’ OnStar system, millions of drivers turn exactly where she tells them to.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

Mary McDonald-Lewis just may be the most listened-to person in Portland. Not necessarily the most heard, mind you. As anyone with children knows, there is a difference.

McDonald-Lewis, who came back to Portland by way of Los Angeles in 1993, is a voice-over actress, for more than 25 years heard but never seen in thousands of commercials and television cartoons.

Lois Lane in 'Super Friends,' Maven (that's from 'Batman'), Wonder Woman, Prince Valiant - are all voiced by McDonald-Lewis. Any accent, any dialect, McDonald-Lewis can produce it in as sonorous a tone as you wish. Her North Carolina hills accent can make a strong man buckle at the knees.

McDonald-Lewis also acts on stage locally and co-directs the Readers Theatre Repertory. But about being listened to - her biggest gig is as Mary, the confidence-inspiring voice of OnStar, the General Motors navigation system. People might tug at Superman's cape, but nobody ignores their OnStar directions.

Portland Tribune: How did you become a voice-over actress?

Mary McDonald-Lewis: My mother was an actress and my father was a Unitarian minister. When you pour an actress and a preacher in a jar and shake it up and pour it out, what you get is me.

I began as a child actor on stage and one day, as a college kid in Sacramento, I went to see (science fiction writer) Harlan Ellison speak. I approached him afterward and complimented him on an essay. He turned to me and said, 'That voice, that voice, I want to put that voice in the Smithsonian Institution.'

After I graduated college and after bumming around Europe for a year I moved to Los Angeles and chose voice acting.

Tribune: A first big break?

McDonald-Lewis: After I moved to Los Angeles I trained for about a year, and it took me another year to get my first agent, and it took me another year to get my first gig. It was Arrowhead pure spring drinking water. I gave them what they wanted in about three takes and walked out the door thinking to myself, 'I knew I could do this.' And I've never looked back.

After that I won the lottery. I was cast in the starring role of the (animated) 'G.I. Joe.' I played the character named Lady Jaye. That show went on to become a megahit. I still receive fan mail to this day.

Tribune: But you're just the voice of the character. Why would people write you?

McDonald-Lewis: I think it's important to understand that the voice is the soul of the character. When they are writing to the voice of the cartoon character that they have for some reason identified with, they're writing to that character's heart and soul.

The letters I get thank me for setting an example of courage and loyalty. They write to thank me for providing a strong female role model for young girls, and a strong romantic fantasy for the young boys.

Tribune: They don't care what you look like, do they?

McDonald-Lewis: I look like Lady Jaye. In their minds there's no distinction between the voice and the character.

Tribune: Would you say something in the OnStar voice?

McDonald-Lewis: Welcome to OnStar. Does that sound familiar?

Tribune: It sure does.

McDonald-Lewis: I'm the voice that sits in millions of automobiles and I basically make my living telling people where to go.

Tribune: But don't guys hate having somebody tell them where to go?

McDonald-Lewis: They want a woman with a lovely voice to provide them with helpful directions. Men don't want to hear it from their wives, but they want to hear it from me.

Tribune: Is it easy for you to shift voices?

McDonald-Lewis: I remember in 'G.I. Joe' there were three characters (in a scene), an old woman, a young Hispanic boy of about 12, and Lady Jaye talking to each other, and they were all me. I recorded them just as you hear them, talking to myself in the roles of three different characters.

Tribune: Do you get recognized in public a lot?

McDonald-Lewis: Absolutely. I was working with an estate sales professional and he left me a message once, 'What is it about your voice? Why do you sound like you should be on a bank system or something?' He was so perplexed, like I was a voice from a dream he'd had. It turns out he uses OnStar.

People recognize me all the time. They'll hear me speaking from around a corner and as soon as I round the corner they'll say, 'I knew it was you.'

Tribune: Does the noble Lady Jaye ever use her powers for personal gain?

McDonald-Lewis: About six months ago I needed a favor from a tow yard, and tow yards are notoriously difficult to get favors from. Once I guessed the man on the phone was a west Texas man, I could get anything I wanted from him.

• • •

Ever wonder how voice actors and coaches learn the specific dialects and accents they need to play roles? They're all available - from Alabama to Wisconsin, Asia to South America - and downloadable from the International Dialects of English Language Web site, web.ku.edu/idea/

- Peter Korn