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TV GUIDE Talks to Yeardley Smith
TVGUIDE © 2000

Actress Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, took time out during the taping of two upcoming episodes at the Fox studios in Los Angeles recently to discuss her character and some others of note with TV Guide Senior Editor Michael Davis. TV Guide: For an eight-year-old, we certainly know a lot about Lisa Simpson’s interior life.

YEARDLEY SMITH: I think that it was a well that needed to be tapped, sort of a balance between Homer’s silliness and Bart’s antics. She’s sort of the humanity of the show. Really humanity is too strong a word, but she brings that sort of cathartic element to the show. But you couldn’t have that all the time. Because it’s not a drama, it’s a half hour comedy.

TVG: What does Lisa yearn for?

YS: She craves understanding and a sense of belonging. She’s quite the loner, and really struggles to figure out where she fits in. And I think that’s a source of enormous sadness for her, as it would be for any 8-year-old. To feel as though you don’t really belong.

TVG: It’s stated so well in the show’s opening every week, when Lisa goes off on that saxophone riff.

YS…and gets chastised by the teacher and sent out of the room. That, in itself, is a great commentary of the whole arc of the character. Lisa is so contained and self-sufficient that when she actually expresses a need and doesn’t get it, I think it’s incredibly heart breaking. So you really pull for her. She’s not reckless or shallow about her needs; she chooses them carefully. And so you rarely hear from her in that regard, so when you do, you really, really, really want her to get it.

TVG: There have been moments when she’s actually been like a mother to Marge in expressing those very things. In a way, Marge learns from Lisa.

YS: Yes, which again, given Lisa’s particular struggle, I think is a very heartfelt moment for her to be able to say “I don’t often succeed in this area, but I know that you should never stop fighting for what you want. So I encourage you as I encourage myself to do that.” She’s a great little character, I’m enormously fond of her.

TVG: Lisa goes against the grain in The Simpsons household in that she excels in her studies.
YS: Yes. You also have children in the family who if they do well and they don’t cause any trouble, they sort of get left alone. They get neither chastised nor necessarily praised…And all the attention goes to the one who’s the trouble maker.

TVG: And Bart is such a lightening rod…

YS: A great deal of the focus goes on him. Actually this is sort of a funny parallel in real life. I get recognized a lot. People come up to me all the time and say “Hey, you’re the voice of Bart Simpson.” And I say, ” No, actually I do the voice of the sister.” And they look at me and they search for a second, then they go “You do Maggie?” And I’m like, “Oh my god. It is such a sad irony that even in life Lisa is the overlooked middle child.”

TVG: Despite the brother-sister strife, Bart and Lisa love each other.

YS: Yeah, there’s great affection between the two of them, I mean in spite of the sibling rivalry there is really this underlying respect for who each of them are. When you peel away all the layers of the onion, you see that Bart really admires his sister for what she does and she is able to appreciate him for what he contributes as well.

TVG: Who are among your favorite residents of Springfield?

YS: I do love Barney, I’ve always thought that he had enormous heart..

TVG: Are you okay with the idea that he has sobered up?
YS: Oh yeah, totally, I think that’s great. One thing I love about the show is that they will invest in character memory. For instance, they won’t make Barney sober and then, in the very next episode, make him inebriated again without there being a reason. The same thing with Lisa being a vegetarian. Once we made her a vegetarian, she stayed a vegetarian. And if she should ever go back, that would probably be a whole episode. Which I think is important and I think that the fans really appreciate that, I think it lends a great continuity to a world, which so many shows don’t honor.

TVG: Indeed, we know how Barney became an alcoholic back in his school days.

YS: Barney was a straight-A student and a total music prodigy and truly exceptional human being and had never taken a drink. Homer offers him a beer, and then it’s over because he has that propensity, the addiction already lives in him and it’s gone. I mean it’s just like. “Oh, the tragedy of that.” But you can’t blame Homer because he’s in college [in that scene] and doesn’t know any better. And doesn’t suffer from that addiction the way Barney does.

TVG: Who interests you among Bart’s circle of friends?

YS: I like Nelson, I think he has fleshed out in a most gratifying way. He is what he is because he feels like he doesn’t have any other options. He’s not fundamentally a bad kid, he just doesn’t know what else to do. He lives in squalor, his parents are God knows where, I think we’ve heard that his father’s in prison. We never see his mother, she’s never home. He’s a total latchkey kid, and he’s a bully because I really think he feels like he wouldn’t know what else to be, that nobody would take him any other way.

TVG: Except Lisa.

YS: Except Lisa who gets a crush on him. And he’s never been encouraged in any way to do anything extraordinary, so he doesn’t feel like he can. But in that moment, when she gets a crush on him and she tries to sort of make him over, even though he’s reluctant, I think there’s a real appreciation for her seeing something in him that, nobody else ever showed him. And while he doesn’t stay in that place, at least he got a glimpse of it. And I think that, there’s another crowning moment when you go, “Oh, God, if everybody got just one chance to see what somebody else saw in them, wouldn’t that be an enormous gift? Wouldn’t you be grateful for that?

TVG: What is your take on Mr. Burns? Is he also misunderstood?

YS: Mr. Burns. is a little too heartless for me. But I’ve come to actually find great comfort in the consistency of his total lack of humanity. Like there is something sort of solid about knowing exactly what to expect from somebody. And you may not like it but it doesn’t really waver. So now you know what that’s about, you can sort of get a jag on that. So even so, his moments, his glimmers of kindness that are seemingly out of character for him are, of course, hugely significant. But I find not enough for me to attach myself to that part of him.

TVG: And it’s fascinating that of all the Simpsons characters, Mr. Burns has had some of his most poignant moments with Maggie.

YS: Yes, those actually are great episodes, when they fight over the bear Bobo, Burns’s teddy bear. They are great episodes because you see the glimmer of truth in him, when you peel away the hard layers. You see there is actually a living, breathing, maybe somewhat sensitive person in there who just never got what he needed, ever. And Maggie in her silence is somehow able to connect to that, which is so perfect.

TVG: What’s your take on Apu?

YS: Oh I love Apu. He’s so funny and so endearing, especially when you see him struggle with his eight children. And he has a real, a very firmly intact moral code. He’s a man of enormous integrity and things matter to him. And he grapples with the recklessness of Homer, for instance. But he’s willing to let the things go that he needs to let go. He picks his battles. He’d rather lose the battle but win the war. And I think he’s really beautifully fleshed out. I have an instant affection and response to Apu.

TVG: Chief Wiggum?

YS: He’s brilliant, too. Chief Wiggum is such a clever social commentary on not the police force specifically but authority and how we respond to it. We don’t know whether or not they actually ought to be in that job. They may not actually be the person who should be wielding that kind of power. It may be a total abuse of power, they may not have any sense of what that means, of what they have, and therefore they squander it or they’re not careful with it. And I think that, of course, we have immeasurable disdain for authority or anybody who thinks that they deserve more than they get. So, of course, Chief Wiggum will always be a target.

TVG: And as the years roll by, he just becomes more incompetent.

YS: He absolutely does. But I think there’s something so disarming about this. He’s so guileless. He’s so like, what? Nothing. Like he totally doesn’t get it.