Mari Weiss

If all of life’s big decisions could be made over French silk pie, maybe they would turn out as delicious and successful as Mari Weiss’ career.

Athletics or theatre? Teaching physical education or acting? That was the dilemma for the Wauconda native as an Illinois State University student in the late 1970s. The dilemma was never more perfectly played out than when, in high school, she rehearsed her lead role in “Plaza Suite” while wearing her basketball uniform because she had a game that night.

Weiss has a richer theatre background than most teenagers because her parents had started a community theatre in Wauconda. “My mom was directing, and my dad was acting,” she said. “Both of them had such a love and passion for theatre, and I was barely in high school when I was working a lightboard with my dad.”

At Illinois State, Weiss was a physical education major, playing on the basketball team and trying out for softball, but an arm injury slowed her down. She was a theatre minor, but could not decide whether or not to change majors. So she took off one semester to work in Chicago.

“I remember it so clearly,” Weiss said. “I was talking with a friend about what to do. It was at Bakers Square over French silk pie, and he said ‘You’re being a coward,’ although he didn’t put it that nicely. He said ‘what you want to do is act.’ So I switched to a theatre major, acted in plays and took tech classes. I then got my master of fine arts degree at Nebraska.”

Weiss returned to the Chicago theatre scene and, in 1990, she originated the role of Alice, the housekeeper, in the debuting “The Real Live Brady Bunch.” The staged re-creation of actual episodes of the television series, “The Brady Bunch,” was a success that took Weiss to New York City and Los Angeles. Coincidentally, playing mom Carol Brady in that cast was Illinois State alumna Jane Lynch.

Weiss decided to transport her career to Los Angeles, appearing on such television shows as “Grace Under Fire,” “Seinfeld,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Boston Legal” and the pilot episode of last year’s “Big Shots.” She was in stage productions at several L.A. theatres and had roles in a few movies. But it is voiceover work and commercials (McDonalds, Public Storage and Blue Cross of California to name a few) that now keep Weiss on the run almost every day.

Animated television series and movies, video games, radio commercials and television voiceovers keep Weiss busy either auditioning or performing throughout Los Angeles. In fact, during this interview her phone rang – it was her voice agent from the William Morris Agency – to which she said, “Yes, I am available.” Four important little words.

“Almost more than anything,” she said after hanging up, “you need to be available. Things happen much faster in this business now, so you can get a call on the day of a voiceover audition. That’s primarily the work I’m getting, so you need an arsenal of voices you can draw on.” She received inspiration from actor Hank Azaria, who provides the voices for 15 or more characters on “The Simpsons.” “When I met him he said most of his characters are bad impersonations of stars or family members. I have a good ear for developing voices, so it’s just one of the skills I use as an actor.”

Other skills Weiss works to keep fresh are writing and computing. As a member of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective, her work appeared in the books, “MO+TH,” and “Big City Mantra.” Although she has agents representing her for acting, commercial and voiceover work, Weiss also spends time at her computer, maintaining and fine-tuning her Web site, “Web sites are now an indispensible tool for actors,” she said, where not just photos and resumes are found, but also audio and video clips to help actors market themselves. Weiss also uses the Web site to market a voiceover class she teaches.

In addition to ISU classmate Jane Lynch, Weiss also sees other classmates now in Los Angeles, including John Lemay and Demitri Corbin, both 1984 graduates.

“Demitri is doing a lot of teaching in California, and he asked me to teach a lighter version of Jean Scharfenberg’s Animals class to his students,” Weiss said. “Those of us who went through the ISU theatre program at that time have intense feelings and memories for it. John Kirk, Cal Pritner, Ralph Lane and Jean…it was crazy at times. When we talk about it today and look back, we understand the passion they had for theatre. To this day I credit the thorough training I received at Illinois State for giving me an amazing foundation that has played a huge part in what I have achieved.”