Yeardley Smith

By L.W. Michion

"Yeardley Smith Confesses: "I Love Lisa"
© Simpsons Illustrated Magazine, Volume 1, Number 5, Spring 1992, pp. 20-23.

Yeardley Smith makes her way across a virtually deserted outdoor patio, searching for the most remote and inconspicuous place to conduct an interview. "How about that one? she asks, pointing to a small table in the farthest corner of an out-of-the-way San Fernando Valley espresso bar. She sits with her back to the restaurant, hunkered down behind a cup of hot apple cider, and peeks out through a pair of Ray-Bans she doesn't remove once in 90 minutes. Yeardley Smith clearly does not want to be noticed.

But so far today, so good. Nobody has so much as raised an eyebrow at the diminutive woman, who drives a Honda and wears decidedly non-star-like attire: baggy pants, tennies, a white turtleneck, and a hot-pink cardigan. In fact, with the exception of an overly solicitous young waiter, no one has noticed Smith's presence. And that's just the way she likes it.

"I think the worst part is being observed," says the 27-year-old actress of her chosen career. "If you are so private that you just like to go on about your business, wander up and down the aisles of the grocery store and figure out what you're supposed to buy, or go to the mall and just be a human being, then it will bother you if people are pointing and whispering."

For Smith, who has been acting professionally since her late teens, the perils of being a working actor have been a fact of life. But with a major role on Fox's series Herman's Head, a high-profile cameo in last year's hit movie City Slickers, and, of course, her role as Lisa Simpson, Smith is being recognized more and more often. "I'm not saying it's a mob scene by any means," she says. "But it's happened enough where you sort of learn to handle it. People are mostly pretty polite and it's OK, but there's no better way to disrupt a conversation than somebody coming up to you and saying, 'Hey! I saw you on blah blah blah!' Then they go away and you're like, 'What was I saying?'"

All this is not to say Smith, who laughs a lot and speaks deliberately and intelligently, dislikes her fans or is conceited. She always has been painfully shy, and just as Lisa channels her inner angst into her saxophone, Smith chose acting as a way to express herself while she was growing up in Washington, D.C. She delighted in the recognition she got from appearing in school plays.

"It wasn't so much the attention I got from my peers," she says. "It was the attention I got from adults. Kind of across the board, an adult was an authority figure, and I had never made such an impression on people not my age before."

Like Lisa, who sometimes suffers the pain of being different from her classmates, Smith also remembers some of the difficulties of standing out. First there was her unusual name, which became at turns, she says, "Yard Weed, Yard Dog, Yard Bird, Yardstick...." Then there was that voice (yes, she does sound a lot like Lisa in real life.) "Certainly when I was a little kid, it was something I got teased for. It was one of the things that kids used to latch onto." But if Smith were one to count laughs, she would indisputably get the last, at least with regard to her voice--which is the primary cause of her success with The Simpsons. "It's so distinctive you can't ignore it," she says. "As far as work goes, it's either something [producers] can live with or something they can't."

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, finds Smith's voice more than just something he can live with. "It's a happy fluke," Groening says. "When she was cast back in 1987 [when The Simpsons was a series of cartoon shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show], I just liked the sound of her voice. "She's also a great actress. In general, people who make their living doing voices on cartoons aren't always great for us. Most cartoons want things peppy and cartoony. Yeardley is able to go through moments of great emotion and wring it for all she's worth."

Smith, who says the role of Lisa was "the easiest job I ever got," also recalls the audition: "The casting director [Bonnie Pietila] just called in a bunch of people she knew had interesting voices. Nancy Cartwright [the voice of Bart] was there, and I first read for Bart and she read for Lisa. Then we swapped, and that was it."

It really was that simple, says Pietila, who has cast voices for every episode of The Simpsons since the show's inception. "As soon as Matt explained Lisa, I said I knew who that girl was," says Pietila, who had seen some of Smith's theatrical work. During the audition, both Cartwright and Smith read for the role, because at that point the writers hadn't provided a lot of material for them to read.

"But I definitely had Yeardley in mind for Lisa," Pietila says. Although Groening would make the final decision, "in my mind she was always Lisa."

Despite possessing That Voice, Smith hadn't done a lot of work in other animated shows before landing the role of Lisa. "This is really the only voiceover I've ever done," she says. "I had a voiceover agent for about two years, and I used to go out [on auditions] all the time, but it never really came to anything. Everybody said, 'Oh Yeardley, you'll clean up,' and that was definitely not the case. I get a few commercials here and there, and I did a Steven Spielberg animated feature, but that won't come out for, like, four years. Nothing you can really point your finger at." Instead, most of Smith's work has been on stage or in front of the camera. She graduated from school plays to a local theater production of Peter Pan, then on to other local plays in Washington, D.C., before moving to New York. In 1984, which she describes as a "huge year," she appeared on Broadway with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in The Real Thing, did her first film, Heaven Help Us, and The Legend of Billie Jean, after which she rejoined The Real Thing.

"And then I did nothing for about six months and kind of went into a panic, thinking, 'Oh God, so that was it. A year and a half of really good work, and now I'm done, I'm a once-was at the ripe old age of 20." Things improved. "I did Maximum Overdrive, which was a Stephen King movie--truly a dreadful film but I had a great part in it," she says. "Then I moved to LA."

It was in Los Angeles that Smith learned one of the hard realities of show business. She had come, not intending to stay, but with the "semi-promise of a job" in a TV movie. "It was a bonafide audition, but it was like, 'It's in the bag, we're just gonna match you with some siblings, not to worry.' Then of course, I didn't get the job."

It was at this time, she says, "I realized that people don't mean what they say. It's not malicious. They just don't realize how much impact they have on an impressionable actor--and all actors are impressionable." After that, Smith learned to "just sort of build a wall around myself. The disappointment is so huge, if you take something like that to heart, and I had been doing that for three or four years already, every time it didn't come through it was devastating." Even now, "If I come up to an audition where I really, really want the part, and there's any indication that, um, I might have a slight head start on any of the other competitors, I start to hope. And even if I curse myself and say, 'Don't hope, don't hope, don't hope,' I just can't help it."

These days, though, Smith might have more reason to be cocky. She got unprecedented attention for her part in City Slickers, where she played a supermarket checkout girl having an affair with one of the male leads (played by Daniel Stern, who also supplies the voice of the grown-up Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years). Smith also is amazed by the success of The Simpsons--a show that is both critically acclaimed and enormously popular--though she takes less credit than perhaps she should. "I love Lisa Simpson and feel great affection for her," Smith says, "and at the same time I feel quite separate from her--almost as if I had ever so little to do with the way she's turned out."

But Groening sees a little bit of Yeardley in Lisa, and vice versa. "Like Lisa Simpson," Groening says, "Yeardley has strong moral views about her character. There are lines that are written for Lisa that Yeardley reads and says, 'No, I wouldn't say that.'"

Smith thinks she has the best possible acting job for someone as private as she is. "It's wonderful," she says, "to be in the midst of all this hype about the show and all the merchandising, and people enjoying the show so much, and to be totally a fly on the wall. People never recognize me solely from my voice. They don't hear me and say, 'Don't you do the voice of Lisa Simpson?'"

She also enjoys the process of taping The Simpsons, which she calls the "creme de la creme" of animation. "It takes all day to do a half-hour show," Smith says. "They do it like a radio play"--meaning the actors get together and work off each other, rather than recording their lines separately, to be edited together later. Such a taping style means Smith gets to work with the show's numerous guest stars--which in turn helps her develop her own acting skills, says supervising producer Jay Kogen. Kogen recalls the episode in which Lisa falls in love with her substitute teacher (it's also Smith's favorite episode). "That show challenged her to move past comedy to something really strong and serious and dramatic," he says.

For her part, Smith would like to continue her on-camera acting--especially in films, but she says she'll do anything as long as the characters are good. And while she knows more fame would mean more disturbance to her quiet life, so far, she says, even being whispered about and pointed at is a small price to pay.

At this point, as if to test her "small price" theory, the waiter comes up to Smith and stands before her awkwardly. He is young, shy, and gawky, and he wants to know if he's seen her somewhere before. She says yes, she's been on TV. The waiter grins.

"I was so surp...I was like, wait a minute, I mean I usually meet a lot of people coming in here...."
"Right," Smith says patiently.
"And I was like, wait a minute, I've seen her before. But I have, because I've seen you on TV [Smith laughs politely] and I was just, like, so surprised."
"People always ask me if I went to their college," Smith says. They both laugh.
"But anyway," says the waiter, "It was nice to meet you. I was just, like, so surprised. I was just, like, wait a minute, I've seen her on TV before [Smith laughs again]. But anyway, I'm a musician and what I was going to do was give you this, as a gift." He hands her a tape cassette.
"Oh, that's so kind of you!" says Smith.
"It's our music," he says.
"Is this your demo tape? How great!"
"It's kind of like Journey, pop rock, just like that," he says.
"Anyway, I saw you on the movies and stuff and I was so surprised....:
"What's your name?"
"Hi Jim," she says, shaking his hand. "I'm Yeardley."
"Nice to meet you," he says. "Well, see you."
He walks off. From behind her Ray-Bans, Smith laughs.
"Well," she says, "That's usually about how it goes."

Submitted by Jeanette Foshee

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