Yeardley Smithby Nancy E. Dalin
"Ms. Smith goes to Springfield"
Yeardley Smith, the voice behind Lisa Simpson, talks about life in and beyond the animated world
You know her as Lisa, the saxophone-toting sister of prime-time bad boy Bart Simpson. Whether she's a girl on the lam (in The Legend of Billie Jean), or a neurotic co-worker (in Herman's Head), her distinctly awkward-yet-lovable voice is instantly recognizable. Every week Yeardley Smith enters millions of homes as Lisa Simpson, a little girl with a lot to say.
Smith is a lot like her cartoon counterpart, apart from her age, and the fact that she's not quite as yellow and doesn't have spiked hair. Lisa may be an animated child, but Smith says, "She's very alive ... The credit must go to the writers, though, who have such an incredible sense of humanity." Smith doesn't give enough credit to what also brings so much to the character - her voice. While one might think that she has most often been cast in parts for her sound, she says, "I've heard people say, 'I don't know what to do with that voice...' I've sounded pretty much the same way since I was six. Maybe it's a little deeper now." Simpsons fans have grown to know her voice as Lisa's voice. Without her child-like yet wise voice, Lisa would not be as real as she seems to be.
Eight years after its small-screen debut, The Simpsons is still going strong. Smith feels that the show has persevered because the writers have created familiar situations, ones with which the viewing audiences can identify. She says, "[Simpsons executive producer and director] James L. Brooks' credo at the beginning was, '[The Simpsons] will not do anything cartoony, anything real people can't do..." And as a member of the Simpson family, Smith knows that they've always stuck to this.
When the show premiered, the higher-ups insisted on keeping the cast as anonymous as possible - meaning no interviews. You'll find that many people don't know that Bart Simpson is played by a woman (Nancy Cartwright), and that's because they've given practically no exposure to the people behind the cartoons. This air of mystery around the production, Smith explains, is so that Springfield can seem alive, "to allow Springfield to exist in it's own right." As for interviews, Smith is glad not to have to do them. "I am shy, but I have an extroverted persona which I can draw on when I need to," she says. However, not doing interviews at all is perfectly fine for this private actress.
In the beginning of The Simpsons' TV run, some parents objected to the show, claiming Bart was a bad influence, and that the Simpson marriage was not a role-model union. This controversy has long since died down; Smith says this is because "They're a really well-meaning family; they bumble along a bit, and perhaps that's what some people object to, but mostly they're very well intentioned."
Since The Simpsons began, notable actors have been drawn to guest star in various episodes, much to the cast's delight. Among the many celebrities to come to Springfield, Dustin Hoffman was Smith's favorite guest. "He was incredible. It was one of the best days of my career," she gushes, and then lists a few more of her favorites, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Kelsey Grammer and Meryl Streep. Why have these bright lights of Hollywood come to do a cartoon show? Smith says that there are two reasons. "Oftentimes their kids will say, 'C'mon, you've gotta do that show,' or sometimes they're just fans and like the writing. Mostly I think it's for their kids." Whatever the reason, the fans are always excited to hear their favorite actors and musicians in a guest role.
Besides her life as Lisa Simpson, Smith has acted in many films, including the box office bomb, The Legend of Billie Jean, and the hugely successful City Slickers.. While many movie guides list The Legend of Billie Jean as a turkey (rating less than even one star), Smith thought it would be her ticket to fame. "I thought it would be the movie that launched my career. And then it was out at the box office about 10 days before it died." Movie guides and critics may have panned it, but it still remains an underground favorite of the VCR generation.
On the opposite side of the movie spectrum was the role she played in City Slickers, as Nancy, the pregnant check-out girl. "I got so much more attention for that one little scene, more attention than all my previous roles combined," Smith says. "I learned that it's far better to have small parts in big movies that everyone sees. However, I still try to pick roles that interest me." In that attention-getting scene with Daniel Stern, people got to see the woman behind the voice that is a staple of prime-time television.
Currently she is in two films: one financed by five dentists and the other starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the small, independent film Just Write, she plays a not-so-sober palm reader "who's not very good." Five dentists who wanted to be in the movies put their money together, and created a simple love story. "I think we need to have independent films," Smith says, "Because they're sort of our last hurrah for art for art's sake." And, in the Schwarzenegger holiday film Jingle All The Way, she gets to hit him with her purse. When asked if he commented on her role as Lisa Simpson, she says, "I don't think he even knew my name." He may not have, but any fan of The Simpsons certainly does.
During her many years of acting (she's lived in California about 11 years), she's met and worked with many famous directors and producers. James L. Brooks, executive producer of The Simpsons, has always been good to her, first working with her in her role as Lisa, then trying to find a part for her in I'll Do Anything (she was cut out because she was in one of the film's failed musical numbers). Of him she says, "His favorite character on The Simpsons, I've heard and can't confirm, is Lisa."
She's also worked with Stephen King when she played Connie in the King-directed Maximum Overdrive. Smith doesn't remember him not as a gloomy, dark person, or someone who reflected what he wrote. "During the film he was an average guy, sort of interested and intrigued to be there directing. He loved to go out and have a beer with the crew," she says.
Besides acting, Smith enjoys writing and painting as well. She taught herself to paint by copying famous painters, during her first season on the show Herman's Head. That Christmas she wanted a way to personalize her cards for a group as large as the one she needed to thank. And so she painted some designs and had them printed up, and has been doing so ever since. Much like Lisa Simpson, a smart, musical girl, Smith comes across with a quiet intelligence and an artistic side she has preferred to keep to herself.
In the near future she will be published for the first time, in a book called Just Humor Me (Park Lane Press, Random House), with a story called "The Race." Writing is something she's done for years, in a journal she keeps. Now, though, is when Smith is beginning to want to make her work public. She has written a play about what happens to a family when a difficult situation arises. It was originally written with the idea of generating more work for herself. She will not say more than that because it's not quite done ("I'm having trouble with the last 10 pages," she explains). We can only wait to see what happens.
In the meantime, fans can still catch her six nights a week as Lisa. Her pearls are still as big, and her hair is as high and spikey as ever. What began as a stint in a cartoon with a cult following has become a role on the soon-to-be longest running prime-time animated show ever. For an actress who likes her anonymity, everyone sure knows who she is.
Last updated on October 2, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)