Behind the Accent 

Mary Mac Helps Actors Find the Voices They Need

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"THIS IS ONSTAR. How may I help you?"

That voice actually belongs to Mary McDonald-Lewis—"Mary Mac," for short—a Portland-based professional voice actor and dialect expert whose career spans as far back as character work on GI Joe cartoons, and who can still be heard on any number of national TV and radio ads today.

A resident artist and voice and text director at Artists Repertory Theatre and a theater consultant about town, Mary Mac coached 13 Equity productions last year, along with 23 episodes of Grimm. So if you've noticed local actors' British accents improving, you've probably got Ms. Mac to thank.

When we (barely) caught up with her in July, she was visiting LA, working 10-hour days helping actors refine their "Polish, German, Italian, general American, Latin, and other accents and languages" for Max and Me, an animated piece about Saint Maximilian, the Polish priest who was martyred during WWII in Auschwitz.

Back in Portland, her work is on display in Intimate Apparel, the season opener at Artists Rep.


MERCURY: What are the most common accents that actors ask you to help them master?
MARY McDONALD-LEWIS: They are many and various—no one accent. British English comes up a lot, but even then, accents from all over the British Isles are needed.

What drew you to voice work rather than stage acting or conventional broadcasting?
Love of voice, disinterest in on-camera work, and a desire for financial security and a home sweet home.

How do you research accents? Travel? Documentaries? Friends with natural accents?
Via rigorous scholarly research of language and accent based on my academic and real-world training, supported by audio examples and a natural inclination.

How often do you accidentally hear yourself in a commercial, and what's that like?
Funny! It's happened at drive-through joints, at retail counters, on a billion TV screens in electronic stores. Once I commented to someone, "Oh, she's pretty good," listening to a radio ad in Central Oregon... and it was me!

Have you ever used the OnStar service?
Yes, and I think I give good direction!

When Mike Myers affected an English accent as Austin Powers, he had an unnatural way of scrunching up his nose. What are some other facial distortions that actors tend to use (and have to train themselves to avoid) with particular accents?
It really varies, but what they're all trying to do is find the accent's "oral posture." I redirect this behavior toward a different way of discovering the accent's placement, explaining that people from the target country don't scrunch up their face, as an example, so we shouldn't either!

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