July-August 2013

At the Top of Her Voice

Bethesda's Melissa Leebaert makes a career out of being vocal

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Bethesda voice actor Melissa Leebaert’s career began with a roll of Life Savers. It was 1977. She was 24 and riding the Boston subway, her life at a low ebb. Her fiancé had died in a car accident several months earlier. After a few footloose years as a ski instructor in Europe, she was taking premed classes at Harvard Extension and Boston College but wasn’t sure it was the right career path for her.  

She offered a Life Saver to the man sitting next to her. “Oh, yeh,” he drawled.

He was extremely handsome, and she remarked on the second-most-obvious thing about him: “You’re Australian.”

They were both en route to the airport, and ended up having a drink before their respective flights—hers to visit her parents in Connecticut; his to Australia via New York. Later that night, he called to ask if he could delay his return home and come see her. They had a great time, and he invited her to visit him in Australia.

So Leebaert went. “It was how I’d lived in Europe—going here and there without really thinking about it,” she says.

Her new friend, Vic Wilson, was famous in his home country for having broken the land-speed record in a rocket-powered car, and he was in demand for TV commercials. He also worked as a film stunt coordinator. Leebaert, who had long blond hair at the time, was asked to be in a plane crash scene when the director realized that the other victims all had dark hair.

“I got to scream and act terrified, and I loved it,” she says.

She started getting other TV and movie roles, including a small part in the 1981 film Gallipoli, but decided that radio might offer a less precarious career than on-screen. She attended broadcasting school in Adelaide and began auditioning for voice-over roles. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was young and game for anything—a French accent, a wombat’s voice,” she says.

After returning to the U.S. from Australia in 1984 when her father became ill, Leebaert studied acting at The Ensemble Studio Theatre and HB Studio in New York. At that time, voice-over was what actors did when their careers weren’t going well. “I was in a workshop with a fancy-pants director, and he practically spit when I said it was what I wanted to do; it was so beneath him,” she says.

Voice-over, Leebaert says, isn’t simply a matter of having an attractive voice. (Though she has that, too. Her Emmy-winning tones have been described by The New York Times as “deep, emphatic…with just a hint of smokiness.”)

“It’s about telling a story, even if it’s a commercial for a furniture store,” she tells students at an all-day workshop at a Bethesda sound studio. The class may be about voice, but it’s Leebaert’s charismatic physical presence and comedic timing that keep them riveted. “Your voice needs to convey that this sofa will”—her tone low and urgent—“save your marriage.”

Leebaert, who has lived in the Washington, D.C., area since 1989, has been the voice of such Washington institutions as PBS, NASA, the CIA, AARP, Verizon Wireless, Marriott, and of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. She has narrated documentaries for National Geographic and Discovery Channel, as well as for the Canadian true-crime series Motives & Murders. And computer gamers may recognize her voice from Bethesda Softworks’ Morrowind. (When her 21-year-old son, Schuyler, was a young teen, she had to rethink her household prohibition of Grand Theft Auto after being offered a role in a version of that game.)

Every couple of months, Leebaert offers her workshop to newscasters and others hoping to break into the business. She also coaches privately. Animation and even audiobooks are now sought-after roles, and she has recorded with Linda Hunt, Paul Newman, Helen Hunt and Hank Azaria. James Earl Jones, the actor who once played the voice of God, recently said of Leebaert, “I like the way that girl’s voice works with mine.”

It’s a judgment that highlights another upside of her career. “I can do a 35-year-old’s voice, even if I can’t quite play one on camera anymore,” says Leebaert, who is 58 now. “Voice-over doesn’t limit you. If you can’t see me, you can imagine.”

Want to hear Melissa's work? Click here to listen to a few demos.

Kathleen Wheaton lives in Bethesda and frequently writes for Bethesda Magazine.