VOICE OF LISA SIMPSON Smith shines in one-woman show
The show reveals Smith's secrets, including that she suffered from bulimia.
By LYNNE HEFFLEY
LOS ANGELES TIMES
HOLLYWOOD -- By most measures, Yeardley Smith is a success: an Emmy Award, a reported $5.5 million salary, a place in entertainment history as part of TV's longest-running sitcom.
Dressed in jeans, T-shirt and blue cardigan, Smith easily blends in with other mall denizens. But what's in that paper bag she's toting? "I washed my purse last night, and it was still damp this morning," she said.
Ah, earnest and obscure. An explanation worthy of Smith's animated alter ego: brainy, soulful and quirky Lisa, whom she voices on "The Simpsons."
At a yarn shop and a tea import store, where she's a regular, the owner and staff greet Smith with easy familiarity. But other customers remain unaware that there's a TV star in the house, even when Smith's kid-like voice ("my mother always said my voice could cut glass") shifts naturally into Lisa Simpson's plaintive, higher register.
That's life for an invisible celebrity.
"It's one of the greatest jobs in the universe," she said. "And I feel deeply connected to Lisa. I'm so proud of her."
And yet, the anonymity Smith experiences as the voice of a cartoon, while comfortable, is peculiarly chafing for someone who would "never, ever take the liberty of resting on my laurels in any way, shape or form."
So much so, that she is stepping out of her comfort zone with an intensely personal one-woman show. Called "More," it is a seriocomic chronicle of what has been a lifetime quest for enough fame, enough love -- and enough food -- to assuage Smith's "sucking vortex of need" to succeed.
Directed by Tony Award-winning actor Judith Ivey, "More" ran off-Broadway last year; a revised version of the show opened Feb. 18 for a three-week run at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
"It was important that it be funny, but I had to dig deep to do it well," Smith said. "It's the hardest work I've ever done."
Among the intimacies she shares within a framework of whimsy and salty humor is her secret battle with bulimia, Smith's drug of choice. "I didn't have time for hangovers, so I was bulimic instead. For 25 years. And nobody ever knew. It was easier to keep under wraps than falling down drunk. It gave you this incredible sense of control, and boy, you thrived on that illusion."
In New York, Smith's satiric Martha Stewart-meets-the Food Channel, binge-and-purge how-to (complete with whiteboard diagrams) spurred a few early departures.
"There were young women who would leap up and leave," Ivey said. "That said to me that a nerve was struck."
But "More" isn't about "chest-pounding," Ivey insists. "It's whimsical and wacky with a universality to it, whether you're bulimic or not, whether you're an actor or not. What you can relate to is, 'I wasn't being honest with myself.' I think everyone has some version of that."
Still, Smith says, "if you expose yourself and people walk away going, 'I don't like it, I don't get it,' it's kind of you that they don't like, isn't it?"
She seemed well on her way to adoration and fame when, at 19, she made it to Broadway, appearing in the 1984 production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." That early breakthrough was followed by big parts in forgettable films, small parts in Oscar-winning films ("City Slickers" and "As Good as It Gets") and regular roles in sitcoms ("Dharma & amp; Greg" and "Herman's Head").
Stardom without the face time Smith craved came in 1987, a year after she had appeared as "a knife-wielding tomboy who sang Elvis Presley songs and wanted to join the Army" in Terry Garner's play "Livin' on Salvation Street," at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. "I think 12 people, total, came to see it," Smith said.
Fortunately, one of them was "Simpsons" producer Bonnie Pietila, who thought Smith was the play's "standout" and remembered her when the time came to cast Matt Groening's animated clips for "The Tracy Ullman Show," where "The Simpsons" began.
Smith's "tone of childlike earnestness and outrage were perfect for the character of Lisa," Groening said. "She brings an almost steely intelligence to her work. Yeardley could be the grown-up version of Lisa."
Groening says his "jaw dropped" when he saw "More" in New York. "There was so much about her personal life that I didn't know," he said. "But the issues she deals with, from the actorly ambitions to the eating disorders and some of the weirdnesses that come with becoming famous, seem to apply not just to Yeardley but to other actors I know. Now, I feel like I've got their numbers."
Over lunch at Fox Studios, after recording new Lisa lines ("Hey, stop it! Ow! My eye! Bart!"), Smith muses that being able to reveal herself so publicly marks a turning point for her. She's still angst-ridden -- she'll never work again, she'll cause hurt feelings by choosing one knitting class over another, her show will bomb and damage the Falcon's reputation -- but she's learning to focus on what she has accomplished, "not on what's undone."
A happy marriage of two years (to actor Daniel Erickson) has helped. So has an eating disorder recovery program. Her voice-over Emmy, once a symbol of her failure as an actor with a body as well as a voice, has been rescued from a closet shelf. It appears on stage with her, as does a cutout of Lisa Simpson, who she says always makes her happy.
"Think of all that energy that I've wasted being this hard on myself," she said. "On the one hand, I feel that it's part of what drives me, keeps me sharp. But surely, 20 percent of all that energy would have done the same thing, and the other 80 percent would have been better spent somewhere else." She smiles.
"I'm finally starting to get it."