Just about every American to even passingly engage with the culture over the past 30 years has heard the voice of Portland native Mary McDonald-Lewis—owners of a late-model GM vehicle, anyone who's ever passed by a Lunestra commercial, or fans of cartoons from G.I. Joe (she's Lady Jaye) to Archer (Veronica Deane).
Growing up with a mother active in community theater and a Unitarian minister father famed his for oratorical prowess, she came by her sonorous tonal command naturally. Upon hearing her voice back in the '70s during a college appearance, sci-fi author Harlan Ellison exclaimed, "That voice! That voice! I want to put that voice in the Smithsonian Institution!"
McDonald-Lewis is also a revered dialect coach. She is currently teaching the cast of Portland Center Stage's Astoria to speak in languages as far ranging as Shoshoni, Hawaiian and Scots-Canadian-accented English—and is the "series coach" for Grimm. She's Americanized the accents of Robert Pattinson in Twilight, Rupert Graves (ABC's The Family), and Patrick Stewart in 2016's locally filmed Green Room.
"I was trying to have Patrick Stewart not sound like Patrick Stewart," she says. "When people hear that voice, they're going to imbue it with an English accent, so I wanted him to consider a ruined voice—rough, gruff and damaged from outdoor life in Oregon."
But her most enduring job actually did enshrine her voice in the Smithsonian's permanent collection. Hired under a veil of secrecy by Apple spinoff General Magic, McDonald-Lewis once recorded a succession of prompts—such as "How can I help you?" or "Let me check your e-mail"—for a doomed device that essentially invented the smartphone a decade too soon. General Motors bought the failed product on the condition it could also buy McDonald-Lewis' voice.
"I was the voice of OnStar for 10 to 12 years," she says. "The first professional voice to work in speech recognition and the longest-working professional voice [in speech recognition] in the history of the world."
She long ago grew accustomed to her words sparking a stunned recognition in strangers. "It's the sweetest, kindest thing," she says. "It's anonymous fame, and that's the best kind there is."