Christine Cavanaugh is a working actress, which actually means she is an auditioning actress.

Yes, the cliche is true, she says - every cabbie and waitress in Los Angeles wants to be an actor. "I consider this a competitive sport. Everybody wants to do it - absolutely everybody."Speaking from her L.A. home, Cavanaugh said that when she left Utah in 1983 and headed for California to pursue acting, she did have a couple of friends in the city, "but mostly I was by myself. It was scary - it's a big transition going from Utah to here."

In those early days, voice-over work never occurred to her. So no one could be more surprised than Cavanaugh herself that her greatest success has come from providing voices for cartoons.

And, of course, that sweet, croaky-voiced live-action pig called "Babe."

Cavanaugh is top-billed among the voice talent for "Babe," the hilarious Australian family film about a piglet who is trained as a sheep dog. And children may also recognize her voice from a pair of popular television cartoon shows - she was Chuckie on "Rugrats" and Gosalyn Mallard in Disney's "Darkwing Duck."

"Babe" is Cavanaugh's first theatrical film, and though she was well-established in the voice business by the time it came along, she still had to audition - several times. "The auditions for `Babe' at Universal Studios were quite extensive. I went in six times and did different accents.

"Originally I auditioned for Fly (the sheep dog who takes Babe under her wing, so to speak). And then I called my agent to ask for me to read for Babe. I like the character of the little innocent boy. My forte is realistic little boys' voices."

George Miller, the director of the "Mad Max" movies, "The Witches of Eastwick" and "Lorenzo's Oil," produced and co-wrote "Babe" after nurturing the project along for 10 years, and he said the process of matching voices to the animal characters was quite meticulous.

"Chris (Noonan, the film's director) and I would listen to the voices and he wouldn't tell me whether they were female or male," Miller said by phone from his Australia home. "And I would close my eyes and listen and try to imagine the animal speaking, rather than seeing a face behind it.

"(Christine's) voice just had something about it. Much more significantly, she's an extremely fine actor, very gifted - she brings a lot to the role."

Cavanaugh said when she arrived in Australia, no footage of the film had been shot, but the sets were up and the animals were being trained. "It was fabulous. We got to see them taking care of the animals, raising and training them like pets in a very nurturing way.

"I knew what they were going to be doing was something special. I had that feeling. The story is very well-written and meaningful, and I could tell that it was above par. It had a good story and good characters, with some meaning to it. It was about something. The humor was there."

Still, the completed feature surpassed her expectations. "Seeing the final film was a great surprise. I knew it was going to be good from working with the director and seeing the kind of things he was looking for - the sincerity and emotion. I had an idea, but it was a great surprise to see it. It's really a beautiful film, made with a lot of love, a lot of dedication and commitment to excellence."

So how does one go from acting in plays at Layton High School and Utah State University to professional Hollywood productions? Cavanaugh says she went to Los Angeles 12 years ago with nothing but a dream - but she pursued that dream relentlessly. "I've always been a hard worker. I did a lot of jobs, I stuffed envelopes, was a waitress, a secretary, I did computer input. And I went to open casting calls.

"You have to kind of find your way, nobody can tell you how to pursue it. There are so many avenues and classes. I took acting classes and voice-over radio classes. I went all over the city - and I went to a lot of bad classes. But then I found some good ones, after I figured out where the better ones were. It's word of mouth, you know."

It's also a matter of time and patience, she says, as well as learning the trade. "You do it for quite a while and figure it out more or less. It's persistence and working hard. Persistence and training. You have to know what you're doing."

Cavanaugh didn't have a particular "big break" but cites a one-time guest-shot on the popular TV sitcom "Cheers" as a big step in that direction. "It was my first decent job. I was Woody's (Woody Harrelson's) roommate for a day. I was very excited, and when I look at it now, I was talking too fast and was very nervous. Then I did lot of guest-starring things, episodic television. I've done a lot of pilots that haven't sold - but that's kind of the actor's story. But you get paid for those, so that's OK."

She landed parts on "Wings," "Empty Nest," "Herman's Head" and others before getting into voice work, which began inadvertently. "I have a girlfriend who is an animator, and she was at UCLA doing a thesis film. And I did a voice-over for that. But I thought it was an on-camera audition.

"It turned out she was looking for voices, so I did a voice there and that made me look into doing voice work. I had never done anything like that. Then I hunted for a class to learn how to use a microphone and what-not, the same thing you do with acting. You go around and try to get an agent.

"I had 50 auditions before I finally got a voice-over job." Her first was a Pizza Hut radio commercial. "And that led to other things."

Cavanaugh is no longer working on "Darkwing Duck" and "Rugrats." But she is doing voices for a trio of cartoon series, including two scheduled to premiere in the fall - "Real Monsters," by the "Rugrats" animators, is a Nickelodeon show; and "Cave Kids," for Hanna-Barbera, a "Flintstones" sequel about Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm (Cavanaugh is Bamm-Bamm), and "Dexter's Lab," also for Hanna-Barbera, are new.

In addition, Cavanaugh is the voice of a bookworm in a new line of Disney "Sing Me a Story" videos and does a voice role in Steven Spielberg's animated feature "Balto," which will be in theaters on Dec. 22. (If all of that doesn't keep her busy enough, she is also a member of the Playhouse West Theatre Company in North Hollywood, where she regularly appears in stage productions.)

Cavanaugh hasn't given up on-camera performances, however. She can be seen in "Down, Out & Dangerous," a made-for-cable thriller starring Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison, which premiered this week and will be repeated on Sunday, Aug. 27, on the USA Network. And she has a prominent role in the upcoming Showtime cable-TV movie "The Wedding Guest," starring Rod Steiger, Julie Harris and Kelly Preston, which marks the directing debut of actor Jeff Goldblum. Cavanaugh plays Steiger's "bratty daughter."

She loved working with Steiger and said he offered her a bit of philosophy that she believes is true. "He said that you either need to be an actor or you're not an actor. If you don't need it, chances are you won't make it.

"I tend to agree with that. You can't have a normal home life because the hours are irregular. In theater you have to work at night and on weekends, and it's hard to correlate vacation time. And early on you're struggling to make money.

"So it takes a big commitment."