Yeardley Smith's life with Lisa

TOM CARDY
Last updated 05:00 24/05/2013
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THE VOICE OF LISA: Yeardley Smith is a household voice for many New Zealanders.

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Everyone in New Zealand knows who cartoon character Lisa Simpson is and her distinctive voice. But American actress Yeardley Smith? No so much.

Smith, who has been voicing the perfectionist vegetarian daughter in The Simpsons since its debut as a short segment on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, will be a guest in Wellington over Queen's Birthday Weekend for the Armageddon expo.

Despite the popularity of The Simpsons in New Zealand for more than 20 years, it's Smith's first visit.

But what has been known about Smith for several years is that she doesn't have to do anything significantly different to her voice to sound like a permanently 8-year-old girl. Smith really sounds like Lisa, or rather, Lisa sounds like Smith.

All one can imagine then is what happens when Smith is going about the same routines as the rest of us, like buying something in a shop or jumping in a taxi. Do people continue to do double takes and say, "You sound just like Lisa Simpson?".

"Yes," replies Smith. She won't elaborate and all she'll confirm about her childhood is that she was teased about her voice and it was hurtful.

But Smith, 48, has no regrets over where her voice has taken her. She is also an actress in film and television, has her own one-woman stage show, has written a children's book and even designed her own line of shoes.

"I launched my own women's luxury shoe line in fall 2011 called Marchez Vous. The shoes are made in Italy and I'm the designer. I am constantly pushing myself. It makes me happy," she says.

However, The Simpsons, with Smith voicing more than 500 episodes since 1989, is still a big part of her life. She's not concerned about being typecast or being pigeon-holed into similar roles.

"Show business likes to put people in a box because it's tidier, easier," she says. "So any time you become well known for doing a character it has the potential to keep you from getting other work. I can't worry about that. I feel it's incumbent upon me to create my own opportunities."

She also appreciates that landing the role of Lisa created opportunities. For one, Smith is self-trained. More than one biography entry on the internet says she got acting lessons. They're wrong, she says. "I never went to drama school nor had any formal acting lessons."

Growing up in Washington DC, her dreams varied as to what she wanted to eventually do. "There was a minute when I wanted to be a ballet dancer and another minute when I wanted to join the army."

But at age 6, younger than the saxophone-playing Lisa, she discovered performing. "There was a woman in my neighbourhood in Washington DC who turned her one-car garage into a theatre every summer.

"She then rounded up the neighbourhood kids and we'd lipsync to classic musicals like Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. The first summer I participated, I was hooked."

Like many aspiring performers and actors in the United States, Smith took the risk of moving to New York to break into entertainment. "I had only been in New York for five weeks when I auditioned for The Real Thing on Broadway. My trajectory was unusual, to say the least."

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Smith went on to land screen and television roles, including Heaven Help Us, The Legend of Billie Jean and Maximum Overdrive. "I feel I grow with every experience in my life."

But the big leap of faith was auditioning in Los Angeles to voice in short animated segments created by little-known cartoonist Matt Groening for The Tracey Ullman Show.

Smith is amused when I ask why she decided to audition, which included her trying out for the voice of Bart Simpson. That part went to Nancy Cartwright, who coincidentally also auditioned for Lisa. "Your wording is very gracious – 'What made me decide to audition'. I was 23 at the time. I went out on everything, I wasn't that choosey."

But she still has strong memories of the first few months working on a then-untested concept. "The Fox network was brand new when The Tracey Ullman Show debuted. Half the country didn't even get the channel at home. I thought too bad nobody gets to see this weird, hilarious cartoon we're doing on this clever sketch-comedy show."

But when The Simpsons got the green light to become a half hour series, Smith couldn't believe it. "I was thrilled."

By then she was learning that voicing a character, as opposed to being seen on screen or stage, did require some different acting techniques. "Because you have to convey everything vocally, everything about your delivery in voice-over has to be a little bit crisper and more vivid than when you can also use your face and body to express yourself."

A large number of animated films record actors' voices in separate studios, sometimes in different cities. But Smith says most of the time she and her fellow Simpsons cast are all in the same studio together when they record each episode. "We record the episodes all together like an old radio play."

There is the occasional exception. When Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie guest-voiced, some of the dialogue was recorded over the phone while the two were at home in Wellington. But Smith has met them in person. "They were every bit as entertaining as we hoped they'd be. That was a great day."

Smith says she has also occasionally recorded dialogue over the phone so that she could juggle her commitments to other projects.

So is there more than just Smith's voice in Lisa? Is there a little bit of Smith in her character as well? "I love Lisa Simpson. I really do. She's perfect to me," Smith says. "One of our most striking similarities is our sense of humour.

"[People] don't confuse me with Lisa as much as they think I remember every detail of every episode we've done and then ask me about it. Full disclosure: I have one of the worst memories in the world."

And Smith has her own view on why The Simpsons not only remains popular but is one of the few television shows of the past 30 years that really deserves to be described as a pop culture phenomenon. For her, it's retaining creative control.

"I always thought it would be successful, but I thought it would be over in five years. [But] because we get no studio or network notes [we] don't have too many cooks spoiling the soup. The writers are allowed to write for themselves."

THE DETAILS

Yeardley Smith will be at Armageddon, Westpac Stadium, June 1-3. For more information on Armageddon go to armageddonexpo.com/nz/

- The Dominion Post

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