Playing Herself: The Proximity Makes It Disturbing

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Actress Yeardley (pronounced "yardly") Smith does not like the word "lie" to describe the optimistic teachings that most American youngsters are exposed to. "'Lie' implies malice. I prefer to call it 'the big mislead.'" She is specifically referring to notions of causality: Work hard, hang in, and it will pay off. "The idea that A plus B necessarily equals C. Life just isn't that linear."

Not for most actors (not for anyone), and certainly not for Smith, best known as the perky voice of Lisa Simpson, the perennial eight-year-old daughter of Marge and Homer (and sister of Bart) Simpson of the legendary Simpson family. "The Simpsons" is, of course, the globally successful animated series, soon starting its 16th year on the Fox network.

Smith stresses that she is not complaining; it's just that, well, her life hasn't worked out the way she had fantasized. And contrary to the received wisdom that international (albeit invisible) exposure plus an Emmy Award will open doors, Smith asserts it is far more difficult for her to get an audition now than it was when she started out with no credits to her name.

But then that -- the stunning lack of rationality in the world, coupled with her own relentless obsessions -- is the defining theme of her one-woman autobiographical show, "More," which bowed Off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre March 22.

"More" comically describes Smith's emotionally laden journey -- from a disintegrating upper-crust Washington, D.C. family to Broadway actress to Hollywood voice-over star to frustration and an insatiable need for public recognition, which has not been forthcoming. On the red carpet to many awards shows, Smith is largely ignored, and although she is able to afford the gold lamĂŠ gown (she earns $125,000 an episode), very few know who she is, short of a stalker who tiled her bathroom and became an ominous presence in her life (the dark side of fame). Smith also reveals her obsession with her appearance -- she's endured every nip and tuck procedure known to man and has suffered much of her life with bulimia, a condition graphically evoked in this piece. "More" most pointedly recreates the wild incongruities in a profession "where the union lets you work for free [in an Equity showcase] and I said, 'Oh, could I?' "

Interestingly enough, it was the aforementioned showcase that led to Smith's role in "The Simpsons." "The casting director [who was looking for 'Simpsons' voice-overs] actually showed up," notes the very well groomed 39-year-old Smith, who meets me in a Midtown coffee shop and does indeed have a quirky, high-pitched voice. "It was the first and only time in my life where one thing led to another. I have gotten the most positive response to 'More' from actors who are so grateful that someone is finally articulating the randomness of their professional lives.

"The other thing that actors -- and many others -- relate to in the piece is the idea that 'I am what I do.' The belief that I'm only as good as my last job or my next job is pervasive throughout the culture. We all put so much emphasis on what we have not done, as opposed to what we have already achieved."

Smith is keenly aware of life's absurdities and contradictions. Consider her response to the reviewers who feel that her show is a tad whiny, and that she is unappreciative of a career that most actors would give their eyeteeth for. "Simply because doing a voice-over wasn't my goal does not mean I don't enjoy the freedom I've had. And it doesn't mean I don't love being in a popular show. But, yes, I do want more.

"There are so many paradoxes throughout the culture," she emphasizes. "You're supposed to set the bar high, get what you can, but not so much that it's unattractive. You're never supposed to settle, but at the same time, you're always supposed to remain satisfied. You're put on a pedestal and then everyone takes out a bat."

Smith knows that jealousy is a powerful motivator. Check out her resume: Following a stint in summer stock, the year she graduated from high school, she was understudying the role of Debbie (a major part) in the original Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," directed by Mike Nichols. Two months into the run, she took over the role and played the part for eight months. Hollywood was her next step, where, in addition to her long-running Lisa Simpson gig, she enjoyed a regular role on the Fox sitcom "Herman's Head" and had a recurring part on "Dharma & Greg." Her film credits include "As Good as It Gets," "Toys," and "City Slickers."

Still, she maintains it is virtually impossible for her to be considered for roles outside of certain parameters. Typecasting is part of the problem. So is age. "If after a certain point you haven't achieved a level of [visible] success, it becomes that much more difficult. I no longer take it personally."

Creating a Stopgap

Smith was born in Paris but raised in Washington, D.C., where her father wrote for The Washington Post, first on the metro page and later as the paper's obituary writer. Smith, who had no intention of following in the footsteps of her father or mother (a well-heeled homemaker), had her sights set on an acting career from the outset.

Interestingly, Smith never studied acting formally and is ambivalent about it. "There's a deficit in my knowledge," she says. "When I'm asked, 'What's your motivation in the scene?' or 'What does your character want?,' I don't know what the questions mean. But my lack of training has not interfered with my work at all."

That said, Smith concedes that there were acting challenges in playing Lisa Simpson, at least initially. She is talking about forging a wholly defined character using nothing more than a disembodied voice. "Expressing yourself with only your voice is a special form of acting," Smith says. "And it's also very different from radio acting. We are, after all, the voices of animated figures, although the animation is designed around our vocal performances, which come first."

Smith makes the curious observation that she wrote "More" to "create a job for myself that I wouldn't have to finish. I wanted to feel creative. And then when the movie or TV series interrupted, I could put 'More' in the drawer and that's where it would remain." But one thing led to another and it became a full-fledged production.

The self-revelation in the piece, Smith acknowledges, was extremely uncomfortable for her; she was especially careful in describing family members. Indeed, her parents read the script before she proceeded. "Until I knew I had their support, I held my breath for six months. But I found the acting even more difficult than the writing. I'm not wearing the protective mask of a character behind which I can hide. Here, I have to make myself accessible. [Director] Judith Ivey said, 'If you're not willing to let the audience in, why do it?' I know people are talking about themselves on TV shows, but that's very different from someone doing it in a theatre. The proximity makes it that much more disturbing."

So what will "More" ideally lead to for Smith?

"For once in my life I'm not spending time in the future. I haven't prepared my Obie acceptance speech," she remarks. "Still, I hope my performance shows people [in the business] that I have some ability as an actor and am comfortable on stage, and if they're stuck in the notion that I can only do Lisa Simpson or the half-hour sitcom, they'll realize they are wrong."