ROH Exclusive: An interview with Ellen McLain
It was a nice summer evening in Illinois; a summer breeze blowing through my windows cooled me down for my interview with Ms. Ellen Mclain, for which I was extremely nervous. I had spoken to her back and forth via email for the past month and as she was busy with a show at the time of my original request to speak with her, she had to wait until she had some free time to take my call. She was more than giving, however, and made sure she set time aside for me, being the accommodating and professional lady she is. I dialed her number, sweat rolling off my brow. Ringing…ringing…”We’re sorry, the person you are trying to call has a mailbox that has not been set up.” I sighed, calming down a little more. For some reason knowing that I had not yet reached her calmed me down. This was my first real interview and did not want to mess anything up or make her feel uncomfortable. I waited a few minutes, gathering my thoughts before I tried one last time, not to seem too eager or impatient. As I double-checked my questions, my ears were greeted with a ring. It was Ms. Mclain -calling ME. Taking a deep, shaky breath, I answered the phone.
Mclain: Hello, Mike? This is Ellen Mclain!
Mike: Hi! How are you doing?
Mclain: I’m fine!
So far so good, my heartbeat was returning to a somewhat normal pace. Immediately she calmed me down with her ecstatic attitude and sweet, charming voice. We spoke for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries and getting to know each other until we began the interview.
Mclain: You know you’ve been so patient and I really appreciate it. When you first contacted me I was in a show and I’ve been overwhelmed with a show, you know, performing every day, and just had to wait until my schedule cleared out.
Mike: Not a problem, I understand you’re very busy. I personally wanted to thank you for taking the time to do this for me, for us at Rely on Horror. It really means a lot to me that you’re willing to do this.
Mclain: Oh! Well I’m pleased to do it! It’s no trouble at all.
As the interview progressed, I became more and more aware of how genuine Ellen Mclain was and just how informal the interview had become; not in a bad way because I was realizing that it was more of a friendly conversation between two people who had never met, yet had so much respect for each other. Finally my demeanor was relaxed and excited rather than nervous, which I owe to Ms. Mclain entirely.
Mclain: So you write for a website?
Mike: Yes, relyonhorror.com, (referred to as ROH from this point on) and we focus on films and video games, more of the scary type (laughter), which obviously ‘Portal’ doesn’t fall into, but…
Mclain: (laughing) No! I don’t think GLaDOS is very scary!
Mike: No, but she holds a special place in our hearts
Mclain: Well I’m glad to hear that! So Mike, what is it you would like to know about? What can I help you with?
Mike: Well first off, as a stage actress and singer, how did you ever become interested in doing voice-work for video games?
Mclain: Well my husband, John Patrick Lowrie (well-known voice actor with many video game credits including The Sniper in Team Fortress 2), is completely to blame, (laughter). He first started doing voice-overs for games in like ’98-’99, he has a huge list of games he’s done voice for.
Mike: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard his name before.
Mclain: You know, for years he kept telling me, “You need a voice demo, you need a voice demo, you need a voice demo,” and finally in 2002, I went to a studio out here…I went to John’s agency and they needed some female voice talent at that point, so they picked me up as a voice actor and then got auditions through email. We record MP3 files and send them in and you know, I had worked with Valve before on ‘Half-Life 2,’ so the folks at Valve knew me so when they asked me to record an audition for the ‘Portal’ game, they at least knew about me. And the directions were to sound like –well, they had been using this computer-generated voice, which is copyrighted, and they couldn’t continue to use the voice in the game, it would’ve cost them too much money.
Mclain: So they wanted somebody to sound as much like this computer-generated voice as possible. So I was able to get as close to that sound as possible and I guess I beat out some other people. (laughter)
Mike: (laughing) Well you did a fantastic job!
Mclain: Well thank you!
Mike: Seeing the previews for ‘Portal,’ I was very much intrigued by just the idea of it and to have a character like that guiding you through the game and it being done so well, it’s stuck with me, my sister and my friends (and obviously millions of other people), you were definitely the best part of that experience.
Mclain: Well thank you. I think the clever thing about the game is that you don’t think it’s a computer assisting you, and then you start to realize… ‘oh wait a minute.’ (laughter)
Mike: And that’s the cool thing, that’s one thing about GLaDOS that ROH is focusing on. ‘Portal’ in and of itself isn’t horror, but when you turn GLaDOS into what she is, it definitely would create a terrifying experience were it to happen to someone in real life.
Mclain: Mmhm, and I thought it was also funny that the way she starts to go crazy is that she starts spouting recipes.
Mike: She’s perfect.
Mclain: And that’s all Erik Wolpaw, he’s the principal writer. He’s a very funny fellow.
Mike: As fans we have to miss out on the production and only get to see the finished product. What’s it like to do voice-work and not necessarily know how it’s implemented until you see the final product?
Mclain: Well on ‘Portal’ it was interesting, I had worked with Valve before. When I started recording the copies for it, I was still sort of in the dark, I was still like, ‘tell me what to say, tell me how you want me to say it.’ And it wasn’t really until almost the end of creating the first ‘Portal’ that I really kind of understood what was happening in the game and what this was being used for. The writers and the producers started telling me more about the game because they realized as well that the more I knew about how this voice-work was going to fit into the game, the better it would be. On ‘Portal 2,’ in contrast, I knew from the beginning exactly how it was going to be used, they’d show me artwork, they’d tell me the arc of the game and they’d tell me when the game was changing as well. For ‘Portal 2’ they’d make changes and do rewrites and they’d bring me in and say, ‘Okay, Ellen, we’ve changed this part of the game, this is what’s going to happen, now we want you to say this. This line’s too long, it doesn’t quite fit into this part.’ As they created ‘Portal 2,’ they really changed the game quite a bit as they went along; you know, they did a little with the first one, but that one was pretty mapped out from the beginning and had a MUCH lower budget
Mike: Definitely, well it was more of an experiment at first…
Mclain: Well there’s a school out here called DigiPen and these students talked to Gabe Newell to get feedback on their game called “Narbacular Drop,” I believe, and he hired them all on the spot! It’s really a Cinderella story!
Mike: That is pretty amazing.
Mclain: So he brought them all on and it became ‘Portal,’ but there wasn’t a whole lot of variation on that and there were fewer recording sessions because it was a much shorter game…
…Erik Wolpaw and Kim Swift were telling me about this Jonathan Coulton, this songwriter, and they wanted him to write something for this game and they didn’t even know what. The creative process of how it all came together…no one, nobody expected ‘Portal’ to be a hit. They thought it was going to be a little extra for “The Orange Box.”
Mike: And that’s really what’s interesting about it is that it was this little game in a collection of five great games and, like you said, it was the game with the smallest budget and it just took off. It really has to be an amazing feeling to see something like that happen.
Mclain: It sure is and I’ve told many people this before, and certainly the people at Valve, the ‘Portal’ games are the coolest things I’ve ever done and probably the coolest things I ever WILL do. You know, to be at this stage in my life and suddenly be famous, is pretty surprising!
Mike: Well you’re kind of a heroine! You’re a highly respected actress not only in theater, but now in video games. It definitely launched you into the stratosphere!
Mclain: Well my nephews were impressed, and anything they like I think is pretty cool.
Mike: So what were your thoughts when you first laid eyes on the first game? What were you thinking when you first saw it?
Mclain: Well it was one of John’s nephews came up to visit us and we took him to the Valve studios. The people at Valve gave him this wonderful tour …they sat him at a computer and he was playing the game! And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s my voice!’ …He was quickly taken to the end of the game and I got to see GLaDOS be destroyed and hear Jonathan Coulton’s song, “Still Alive” and I thought the whole thing was so incredibly clever and certainly nothing I would’ve dreamed of in a million years. (laughter) So, it’s like everybody’s grandmother is sitting there going, ‘wow, did I do that?’ (laughter)
Mike: That had to be awesome.
Mclain: Well it was fun! And of course, my favorite part of both games was the singing I got to do.
Mclain: It’s what I’ve always done since a very little girl and I wanted to sing and getting to be able to sing for a bunch of people has been the best part for me.
Mike: And I must say that at home, I do a little video and audio editing and I have recently compiled a “top 20” songs in video game history and I will say “Still Alive” is on that list.
Mclain: Oh great! I’m glad to hear that! I think it’s an absolutely charming song.
Mike: It’s icing on the cake (both laughing)
Mclain: Indeed! Yes, appropriately put!
Mike: So when ‘Portal 2; was announced, were you excited to try GLaDOS on again? You knew what they were looking for –vocal wise- so where you excited to relive her character?
Mclain: Oh yes. I was so pleased. When I heard the first ‘Portal’ was a hit I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I hope they do it again!’ (laughter) …And we did another tour at the Valve offices and it was at that point that -I had not been told yet- Erik Wolpaw told me we were doing another one. I said ‘well that’s great news!’ They had talked initially about doing a prequel.
Mike: Oh really?
Mclain: Yeah, and I think that was the first idea the company was working on. But I don’t think that lasted particularly long.
Mike: I think the way ‘Portal 2’ turned out was the best way it could’ve.
Mclain: And you see some back-story on Caroline, Cave Johnson, and Wheatley –the new wonderful character- …you find out a little about Aperture Science’s early years.
Mike: So they wanted to do a prequel…it’s cool because they worked that into the sequel and you get to see some of that. You get some back-story and I think that’s really cool.
Mclain: Yeah! And I love the arc of the second game, to see GLaDOS humbled. (laughter)
Mike: It was fun to have her on your side for a little bit!
Mclain: Absolutely, she had to be! Well she didn’t have a choice. I don’t think she did it out of the goodness of her heart! (both laughing)
Mike: Nope. That’s why she’s so lovable.
Mclain: Actually, I don’t know when it’s coming out, but I just finished doing some work for an add-on to the two-player game.
Mike: Really? I’ll have to keep a look out on that.
Mclain: I think it’s very funny! I haven’t gotten to see much of the two-player game, but you know, the Laurel and Hardy little robots, those two just crack me up. Blue….Orange….Blue….Orange….(both laughing)
Mike: Well it was awesome being able to hear GLaDOS speak again in a much more fleshed-out experience. As much as us fans loved the first game, it was obviously short –but it left such an impact that we wanted more.
Mclain: Well my husband and I are still playing the game…Have you played the two-player game at all?
Mike: Oh yes, I love it!
Mclain: Which color are you?
Mike: I like orange, P-Body, he’s my favorite.
Mclain: I think GLaDOS was a little harder on orange, (both laughing)
Mike: Yeah, I don’t think she appreciated him as much, but that’s okay. It’s the somewhat cruel things GLaDOS says that makes her so lovable.
Mclain: Well you know, there were some things in the recording sessions that I refused to say.
Mike: Oh yeah?
Mclain: Yeah, there were one or two sessions where I was like, ‘okay I’ll record this, but I REALLY think this is over the top,’ and I think they listened to me.
Mike: That’s good! I can definitely understand that; I think as GLaDOS becomes more and more of an icon, maybe them over-doing it would have been a bad thing.
Mclain: Well I feel GlaDOS has to be funny…
Mclain: …and if it really gets into the cruel zone without the funny, then I don’t think that’s GLaDOS.
Mike: No. She definitely has a humoristic take on herself that it allows her to be sadistic at the same time.
Mclain: Well I think that she’s sadistic in a harmless way (both laughing)
Mike: She cares so much for testing!
Mclain: That’s right! And testing is her first love! That is true.
Mike: So now we’re on the tail end of the second game, obviously it’s a hit. How does it feel to be the voice of one of the most beloved characters in video game history?
Mclain: I feel incredibly lucky, Mike. I thank all kinds of powers outside myself because I had very little to do with it, you know, I’ve always tried to do my best work and the more I worked with the Valve people, the more nervous I’d get. When I did the first game, I did what they told me to do and I’d go home and forget about it, but after the first game was a hit and actually into the second game I thought, ‘oh! This is popular, I need to be good!’ And it made me a little more intimidated. I’m very pleased people like it, I feel incredibly lucky.
Mike: We are thankful for your contributions and you did a fantastic job. It is always a pleasure to hear your voice while we’re playing.
Mclain: Thank you!
We spoke some more about future projects and had a nice conversation about how she acts and the kind of work she likes to do. Expect to hear Ms. Ellen Mclain in some future games, (of which we cannot mention). I really enjoyed talking to Ms. Mclain and she is one of the most real, intelligent and fun people I have ever spoken to. For her to take the time to do this interview for me speaks volumes about her character and generosity. So, Ms. Mclain, if you’re reading this, I thank you again for a great conversation and I hope to speak to you again!