The Simpsons Folder
The Simpsons cast member gives ‘More’
Yeardley Smith: ‘Who ever got famous doing a cartoon?’
April 6, 2004
Yeardley Smith with Lisa Simpson — her most noted character — on the set of “More.”
NEW YORK (AP) — Yeardley Smith almost turned down the audition for a role that changed her life.
It was just so hard imagining that providing a voice for an animated kid named Lisa Simpson would lead to anything.
“Who ever got famous doing a cartoon?” Smith asks the audience in her one-woman show, “More.”
Answer: Yeardley Smith.
Fifteen seasons after her agent persuaded her to do the audition, Smith is better known as the 8-year-old saxophone-playing brainiac on “The Simpsons” than for any of her real life roles. She even won an Emmy for portraying Lisa in 1992.
In the autobiographical show, Smith explains that she spent most of the past two decades dissatisfied, despite a career many actors would envy.
Between 1991 and 1994 Smith was double-booked on Fox Thursday nights, playing the virginal Louise Fitzer on “Herman’s Head” following “The Simpsons.” She also had a recurring role on ABC’s “Dharma & Greg” as the secretary Marlene (1997-2002). In between, she showed up on episodes of “Sports Night,” “Murphy Brown” and “Empty Nest.”
But despite the work and the Emmy, it never seemed quite enough.
“There’s part of me that feels it wasn’t even a real Emmy,” Smith says dismissively over lunch at a restaurant across the street from the Union Square Theatre, where she appears through April 18.
It was just a jury-awarded Emmy for a cartoon, she explains. Voiceover Emmys are considered “creative arts Emmys,” which aren’t voted on by the entire Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and are handed out separately from the prime-time television gala.
So Smith received her award at a ceremony a week before the “real” Emmys, then promptly hid it in the back of her bedroom closet for nine years.
Confronting her past
Smith has played Lisa Simpson (lower left) for the entire run of the show — going on 16 years.
Onstage, she confronts this and a host of other insecurities with comedic hindsight. Wearing a glittery lavender outfit that she calls her “disco pajamas,” Smith talks to a cardboard cutout of Lisa Simpson and bounces through a timeline of the ups and downs her life took in the 1980s. She even chronicles her struggles with bulimia by turning into a television game show host who instructs the audience on the finer techniques of binge and purge.
The no-longer-hidden Emmy award (her husband finally took it out of the closet and set it on the mantle) becomes a character onstage that Smith uses to confront her worst nightmare: turning into a woman who takes her Emmy to the supermarket while wearing a sash that reads, “I’m a Celebrity.”
Funny thing is, Smith really took her trophy to the store one day as part of a group therapy session about confronting fear.
“The thrust of it was to accept yourself as a whole, even all the ugly parts. For me that was a very loud, sort of bragging, everybody-look-at-me person,” she says. “I just couldn’t let anybody know how much I wanted what I wanted.”
Dressed in a tailored beige pantsuit, Smith seems much more conservative than the spunky version of herself she plays onstage. Her short brown hair is perfectly coifed and her makeup is subdued. But there’s a hint of playfulness in her beaten-up black backpack with “Simpsons Mania” stitched in yellow thread.
“If I had to be associated with one character in fiction, I will always be thrilled that it was Lisa Simpson,” Smith says.
Yet, she started writing “More” to get beyond Lisa. “I just got really tired of complaining that I wasn’t getting enough work outside of ‘The Simpsons.’ It seemed that after a decade of that, it was really unattractive,” she says.
“I really hoped that I would get another TV show, or a movie — that my career would take off, and the thing would sit in a drawer. Finished or unfinished wouldn’t matter,” says Smith. But she finished the script first.
‘She’s got that earnest enthusiasm’
Smith, 39, seldom makes eye contact as she talks. It’s only at the end of a thought, or when she laughs, that she turns and looks you straight in the eye.
And she laughs often.
“Like Lisa she’s got that earnest enthusiasm,” says “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. “With Yeardley there’s a self-awareness. She’s not quite as naive as Lisa.” He quickly corrects himself: “Well, Lisa’s pretty world-weary for an 8-year-old.”
I just couldn’t let anybody know how much I wanted what I wanted.
“She’s a great little girl,” Smith says of her character. “Some people call her the moral compass, which sort of implies maybe that the family is amoral, but I don’t believe that’s true. I just think they’re misguided, and trying to keep too many plates in the air. And Lisa has this uncanny ability to focus.”
Smith relates to Lisa’s need to break out from a family mold.
Yeardley (pronounced YARD-lee) Smith was born into a family she calls “WASPy,” upper crust and reserved. Smith’s father was a Washington Post correspondent whose work kept him away from his daughter. Her mother was a true “Yankee” who urged her daughter to push her feelings down deep inside. So Smith found two avenues of release: bulimia and theater.
“It would make me high,” she says, describing the eating disorder that plagued her from her teenage years until just recently. “I would feel endorphins and this great sense of victory.” She uses almost the same words to describe her first few times onstage. “I win!” she recalls thinking when the audience applauded.
Smith started acting at age 14 in theaters outside of Washington, D.C., where she grew up. When she didn’t get into the three colleges to which she applied (Vassar College, Northwestern University and Yale University) she decided she wasn’t meant for academia and moved to New York to become a star.
In the mid-1980s, she was 19 when she became the understudy for Cynthia Nixon in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”; she took over the role of Debbie two months into the show. She later moved to Los Angeles to work in television and film. Her movie roles included parts in “City Slickers,” in 1991, and “As Good as It Gets,” in 1997.
Smith is remarkably soft-spoken. She turns her phrases gently, so that even salty language sounds refined. Still, her voice stands out from the noise of the restaurant — it’s so obviously the high-pitched voice that made her characters on “Herman’s Head” and “Dharma & Greg” distinctive.
“I’m the only person on ‘The Simpsons’ who does just one voice because, I’m told, I always sound exactly like myself,” she says in “More.” Lisa’s voice, Smith explains, is just her own pushed up an octave. But Smith’s warm, young voice fits her pixie-ish features. Her round face could belong to a very wise 12-year-old or a very energetic 60-year-old.
Smith’s subdued personality and small frame almost put “More” on a smaller stage, says producer Kevin Schon. “The backers said, ‘But she’s such a small person, and she seems so quiet!’ “
He had Smith perform an impromptu half-rehearsed show for investors to convince them that Smith could play to an audience of almost 500. “More” is Schon’s debut as a producer. Actress Judith Ivey also makes her directorial debut with the off-Broadway show.
“More” has also helped Smith deal with some of her leftover Lisa Simpson anxiety. “I’ve met the supreme challenge,” she says. “I’m no longer an actor from the neck up.”