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Yeardley Smith speaks for Lisa Simpson, a kindred spirit
» “There is a very specific and now-familiar music to the way Lisa speaks. I picture her in my head. It’s as though there is this mind meld. I see her, and we become one.”
» For 24 years Smith has lent her childlike, nasal expressions to the smart, vegetarian, saxophone-honking Simpson daughter. “I was brought in to read for her brother, Bart, because they always have women do the voices of young boys, but that lasted about 4.2 seconds. I sounded too much like a girl, even for a young boy.”
» “Lisa and I have a lot in common. What’s interesting is to have played a part for this long—it’s like getting to know somebody very well. In my mind she exists quite separately from me, and I am one of the things that brings her to life. I love her. She is so funny and interesting.”
» Smith, who is 48, was born in Paris. She is the daughter of J.Y. Smith, a foreign correspondent for United Press International who became the first obituary editor of The Washington Post. She acted as a teenager, performed on Broadway, then came west to appear on the Hollywood stage. A casting director picked her for The Simpsons, now in its 23rd season on Fox, making it the longest-running TV comedy ever.
» “To do Lisa Simpson I have to squeeze off my throat a bit. It’s like being on helium, right? But I have pretty much sounded like this my whole life. On the phone I try to lower my voice and say, ‘Hi, this is Yeardley [pronounced YARD-lee]. Please leave a message after the beep.’ And I’ll get messages with people asking me, ‘Yeardley, are you sick? You don’t sound so good—you’re really throaty and deep.’ ”
» Other voice artists have included Walt Disney, who first spoke for Mickey Mouse, and Mel Blanc, the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” including those of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Pepé Le Pew.
» Smith says her pay started at $3,000 an episode. In honor of her mother, who thought money talk was vulgar, she won’t say how much she makes now, but trade publications report that top actors on The Simpsons have been paid $400,000 per show since salary negotiations in 2008. “As a kid, I got teased mercilessly about my voice, but you know who has the last laugh now.”
» Every Thursday Smith and her fellow actors sit at a table and perform the first reading of an episode. Portions are rewritten, and on the following Monday they record the show. “We do it all together like an old radio play. Between my parts I knit. That way I can keep my head in the recording and my hands are busy—and at the end I have something to show for it.”
» Smith uses her free time to design shoes for Marchez Vous YS, her line of footwear, and to direct the Yeardley Smith Foundation, which provides money for microfinancing—giving small loans to people in poverty so they can create businesses.
» “I am the only person on The Simpsons who does just one voice. Everyone else does multiple voices. There is a quality to my voice that makes me sound always the same. That’s why I am not allowed to be in crowd scenes. The show runners say, ‘Yeardley, we can hear you. You are not a blender.’ ”
» “Whenever the show ends, I will really miss Lisa Simpson. It will be like an old friend has moved away and is never coming back.”
Photograph by Dustin Snipes