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Playing Doctor

By Jenelle Riley

Like Jenkins, Brooke Smith has been acting for more than half her life. She's a recognizable face, but people often assume it's because they went to school with her or know her through friends. Those who are able to pinpoint her as an actor generally remember her from a movie she made 17 years ago, in a part for which she gained 25 pounds and spent most of her onscreen time covered in grime. Of course, when the film in question is The Silence of the Lambs, it's bound to leave a lasting impression.

Smith was 22 when she took on the iconic role of kidnapping victim Catherine Martin, and though she has worked regularly on stage and screen in the intervening years, most people remember her as the "girl in the well" from that Oscar-winning classic. But that started to change last fall, when Smith joined the cast of the hit ABC show Grey's Anatomy as a series regular. Her character, heart surgeon Dr. Erica Hahn, had recurred on several episodes before being brought in to replace Isaiah Washington's departing Dr. Burke at the start of Season 4. Suddenly, Smith found herself amid the antics of the sexy surgeons at Seattle Grace, even being ardently pursued by staff heartthrob Dr. Mark "McSteamy" Sloan (Eric Dane). "It's hilarious to me, even still," Smith says with a laugh. "It feels like a coup somehow. Like, how did this happen that I have McSteamy hitting on me? I still feel like the fat punk-rock chick, you know? I feel like they're going to come to my trailer one day and say, 'Oh my God, we made a horrible mistake. Please leave the lot.' " Not likely. As the no-nonsense Dr. Hahn, Smith has injected the show with a jolt of dry wit and fierce intelligence.

Smith was born into show business, in a manner of speaking: Her mother is Lois Smith, a now-retired publicist who worked with actors such as Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. "I'm sure if Freud was around, he'd have a lot to say as to why I became an actor," Smith jokes. "My mom was always off with actors, so it seemed like an obvious thing for me to become. But it was a different perspective to have; I grew up seeing another side. It's not just your talent."

After high school, Smith attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for a year. "And let's face it, they didn't ask me back," she says bluntly. "But I was never very good at school in general. And I couldn't be like everybody else." Smith was also studying with Marilyn Fried at the Actors Studio and says that was more educational for her than "doing your Spoon Rivers" at AADA. She also recognized she had a unique style. "I was a punk rocker back then, and it was kind of a problem," she recalls. "I don't know if it was said to me or I thought it, but I realized one day you couldn't do Spoon River with purple hair."

Smith was staying busy with stage work Off-Off-Broadway and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival when she got her big break in Lambs through an assistant at an agency. "The agency had said no to me, but the assistant started back-pocketing me," she reveals. "I'd also been in to see the casting director, Howard Feuer, before. And I think [director] Jonathan Demme had heard about my theatre work." Smith didn't audition for the part but met with Demme and discussed how grueling the role would be. "I remember Jonathan was sort of saying, 'Why would you want to do this?' " Smith recalls with a laugh.

Following the success of Lambs, Smith stayed in New York, "just being a young actor type." She did a lot of theatre and occasional films such as Mr. Wonderful and the ahead-of-its-time Series 7: The Contenders, in which a reality-TV series run by the government forces ordinary people to kill or be killed. Many of her film roles were born from theatre roots, such as The Night We Never Met, a comedy written and directed by Warren Leight of the Naked Angels theatre group, and Vanya on 42nd Street, the Andre Gregory–Wallace Shawn adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, for which she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. The actors workshopped Vanya for four years before it became a film. "I probably shouldn't pick my favorite work, but when I was doing Vanya as a play, that was it for me," Smith reveals. "They really became my artistic home for so long." The same group has also been working on a similar production of Ibsen's The Master Builder for 11 years, and Smith attends workshops when in New York. "It's kind of like we're a band and we get together and jam whenever we're all in town," she says.

Earlier in her career, Smith had balked at the idea of being a series regular. "I just wanted to do theatre and movies," she notes. "Back when the cast of Friends was making so much money, I had no interest in being on television. Stupid girl." But as she got older, Smith began to see the benefits of being a series regular. "I thought, 'Enough with being broke and wondering what your next job will be,' " she says. "It's so boring when you're 40."

Smith had done several arcs on programs such as Six Feet Under and Crossing Jordan and was in the midst of a story line on Weeds when she got the call in July 2007 to join Grey's on a permanent basis. She had also shot the pilot for the ABC series Dirty Sexy Money, but there was no guarantee her character would be a regular. So she jumped at the chance to join Grey's. Smith admits her one hesitation in coming into such a monster hit was that she would be recognized more regularly. "I'm really into my anonymity," she says. "One of my favorite things to do is sit on the subway. I love people-watching; I don't want people looking at me!" She also had some concerns about being typecast, as "people tend to associate you with one role." But ultimately her fears were overruled by the chance to play Dr. Hahn. "I love her. She's so cool," Smith enthuses.

Once the punk-rock girl with the purple hair, Smith still manages to maintain an appealing individuality. When asked if she has any advice for actors who would love to have a career even half as fruitful as her own, she takes a moment. "How about the fact that the reasons you don't work are quite possibly the reasons you will work?" she posits. "The fact that I'm not like everybody else is hopefully what got me here. I think the danger is trying to figure out what everybody else wants you to be. Even when you're at an audition, the kiss of death is the second you try to do what you think they want you to do. Just keep being authentic to yourself."

See next week's cover story for a continuation on the topic of character actors, featuring breakouts Judy Greer, Garret Dillahunt, and Ty Burrell.

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