Yeardley Smith recently celebrated 30 years of being an eight-year-old.
She’s the actress behind Lisa, the precocious middle child in “The Simpsons,” who has given the animated series some of its most heartfelt and memorable moments.
Smith has helped create one of pop culture’s most recognizable characters. The role led to an Emmy win in 1992 and a successful career founded on the longest-running prime-time television show in American history, which will start its 31st season in September. But for many years, Smith says she couldn’t allow herself to feel successful — especially since being a voice actor was never part of her life plan.
In an episode of Business Insider’s “This Is Success,” Smith guided us through the ups and downs of her career, and how she’s only recently found some semblance of inner peace and pride.
Smith explained how setting out to become Hollywood’s next big thing led to a gig with an animated series on a network everyone told her was destined to fail, why she kept that Emmy hidden away in her closet for nine years, how she bared her soul in a one-woman show, and why she’s been putting herself out there more, through her true-crime podcast “Small Town Dicks” and her whimsical social media videos.
It’s taken Smith more than 40 years to reach a fulfilling definition of success, and it’s a bar she’s been raising for herself since the beginning of her career.
Listen to the full episode here:
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Yeardley Smith: I got out of high school when I was 17, just about to turn 18, and so for the first nine years I was on it was like being on a rocket ship in terms of my work. I just worked nonstop, and it was going exactly the way I planned in my head when I was 5.
Richard Feloni: What did that look like?
Smith: It was incredible. I had been on Broadway, and I didn’t go to drama school, and I hadn’t gotten into college. And so I had managed, right out of high school, to get an acting job that led to two more acting jobs, that led to a New York agent, that led to an audition with Mike Nichols after being in New York for six weeks, that led to a job on Broadway. And so that doesn’t happen to everybody, and I recognize that.
I do remember being 20 years old and thinking, well, I don’t know how you’re going to sustain this trajectory, but you’d better, because in a couple of years people will expect you to have accomplished all that you have already accomplished. So you’d better figure that out. And that’s a really high and sobering bar to touch, and also, I don’t know how you control that.
Feloni: So is that kind of like saying that what you’re proud of now, people are just going to expect from you?
Smith: Yes. That is exactly what that’s like.
Becoming Lisa Simpson
Feloni: Can you take me to where you were in your career in 1987, when you got this role for Lisa Simpson? It was just a short in “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
Smith: Yes, I had just come to Los Angeles, I had been in Los Angeles for a year, and I was doing a lot of television. I came out to do a pilot. The pilot didn’t go to series, which was great because it was not a good pilot. But I had already started working, like I did a guest spot on “Murphy Brown,” I did a guest spot on “Empty Nest” — depending on how old you are, you know what those references are. And I was also doing some theater in Los Angeles, which is a very, very, very different scene than it is in New York. And they have this thing in LA theater called equity waiver. Now back in the day, back in 1986 when I was doing theater, they literally could pay you zero, so it was for free.
Feloni: So you just get nothing?
Smith: Nothing. And I mean some of the work was good but it also always had this overtone of having this ulterior motive that, oh, some important producer or casting director will come see me and then I’ll get catapulted to something else. So I was doing this play that literally 17 people saw, and one of those people a year later would cast “The Simpsons” on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” And when I was asked to audition for “The Simpsons.” I was brought in to read for Bart, and then I read for Lisa, because of course I sound exactly like a girl. I sound nothing like a boy.
That’s the sort of the amazing story — like, oh my God, you read for Bart and Nancy [Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson] read for Lisa. But it wasn’t that orchestrated. I honestly think it was just a lot of really creative spaghetti thrown against the wall. I think it was just, like, we always have women do the voices of young boys. There are two women here — we were there on the same day — both of you should read for Bart.
Feloni: Had you ever done any voice acting before?
Smith: No, and I didn’t have a voiceover agent. It came through my theatrical agent. I didn’t want to do voiceover. It certainly wasn’t part of my plan for world domination.
Feloni: It was more, like, all right, I’ll just do it?
Feloni: No big deal.
Smith: Because I wasn’t an actor who said no to auditions. I was rapaciously ambitious. I really went on everything, for the most part, unless it was terrible, and this wasn’t terrible by any means. I just didn’t see how voiceover was going to sort of get me over the next goal line.
Feloni: So then how did you feel when a segment on a show ended up getting its own TV deal two years after that?
Smith: I was excited, because in show business it’s so rare for an actor to have a job that lasts longer than a week. For that to parlay into a half-hour series seemed pretty extraordinary. Fox was still a very new network.
Feloni: They’d just come out, right?
Smith: Yeah. So they were, like, well, that’s all well and good, but you know the network is never going to last because, at the very least, the big three, ABC, NBC and CBS, are not going to let it last. They’re going to gobble it up. They’re going to cannibalize it. So that’s nice for you, enjoy the ride, you got 13 episodes, but then it will fade away. Nobody will remember it.
There wasn’t a whole lot of promise. It wasn’t, like, huzzah — we hit so big! And then the turnaround was immediate. The show-business community was all of a sudden, like, oh my God — we knew it all along!’ And I was, like, OK …
Feloni: Yeah, they always do that.
Smith: Yeah, and they have no shame about it. There’s something sort of extraordinary and fantastic about that if you can find the humor in it.
Career dreams falling apart while new opportunities arise
Feloni: Were you dedicating more and more time to the series, as opposed to the other jobs that you were working on?
Smith: No, recording “The Simpsons” was one day a week, and I was still auditioning a lot for on-camera stuff. My on-camera career was still really robust. I was still doing movies and doing television at the time that “The Simpsons” spun off. I got a series called “Herman’s Head,” which Hank Azaria was also on. He does Apu and Chief Wiggum and Snake and …
Feloni: A whole bunch of characters.
Smith: A whole bunch. He’s brilliant. He’s so, so funny. I thought, oh my God. It doesn’t get any better than this. And then when both shows were airing, I was on the Fox Network on the same night on two different shows an hour apart. So I was, like, I’m living the dream, dude!
My character had actually been quite popular, what we call in show business a breakout character. And I thought, this is really good. I’ll for sure get another series. And I didn’t. And then “Herman’s Head” was canceled. I still had “The Simpsons,” and then things started to slow down on camera.
In retrospect, it was the perfect storm and a confluence of many events and nobody’s fault, but I also think part of the downside of being so successful at such a young age. I liken it to having built a house without any foundation. So it wasn’t that I didn’t have to work hard. It was that opportunities presented themselves and I was able to seize the opportunity, but I didn’t have to find the opportunity. So when the opportunity stopped presenting itself, then I didn’t know what to do.
Feloni: So you felt like you weren’t working for it. It was just coming to you.
Smith: I had an agent who was able to find the opportunities, and maybe because my contemporaries were in drama school or were in college, and I was out working. And so when that sort of equation started to even out and the playing field was leveling out, now I didn’t have the advantage so much. When that started to happen, then the people who used to star in television were now going to start to play the best friend. I had always played the best friend. Now I was going to play the friend of the friend, if there was a friend of the friend. And so again, that’s nobody’s fault, that’s just the pecking order. That’s the food chain. So if my agent or producers weren’t going to think of me first or second for those supporting roles, then I didn’t know how to fill in those gaps, is what I’m saying.
I had never had to create work for myself, and I didn’t know how to do it. At that time, too — so this would have been like mid-’90s — it became de rigueur for you to have to be a multi-hyphenate. It was less good for you to be just an actor. It was better if you were actor-writer, actor-producer, actor-writer-producer, actor-writer-director-producer, and I didn’t want to be any of those things.
Feloni: You didn’t want that?
Smith: I just wanted to be an actor. I was, like, that’s what I’m good at. I want to stay in my lane, and that was probably not my best move. I was very slow to the party. You know Darwin has a thing like adapt or die, and I was, like, oh God.
Why she kept her Emmy in the closet for nine years
Feloni: As you were feeling all this conflict, wasn’t “The Simpsons” becoming a phenomenon?
Smith: Yes, it was. One of the things I learned the hard way was having known from such a young age that I wanted to be an actress. I also formed a vision of what that success looks like from a very young age, like 7, and then the folly was that I attached my measure of success to that vision.
Feloni: So what did that look like?
Smith: I will be in the biggest movies and I will be a massive star and I will have the pick of the roles and all of the awards, and of course that’s how it will go. Why not? Everybody said of course it won’t work that way, and I thought, well, what do you know?
Feloni: That’s just the dream.
Smith: Right. The problem, though, and I think part of being a control freak and also suffering from perfectionism is that you attach to these very rigid rules of what your success should look like, so it doesn’t allow for what your success actually looks like. And if you can’t bend like a reed in the river, then you become quite brittle, and two things happen. One, you miss your own successes because you are merely focused on what is not yet done. I remember winning the Emmy in 1992 for my work on “The Simpsons.” It was the very first year that an Emmy was given for voiceover, the first year that the category was eligible and six of us won that year — it was a jury award, which meant that more than one person could win. My Emmy sat in the closet for nine years.
Smith: Yeah, because the following week I went to the televised Emmys, because the voiceover Emmy still to this day is given at what they call the Creative Arts Awards, and that is the non-televised Emmys. And it happens a week before.
Feloni: Yeah, they show like a quick montage of it.
Smith: Yes. And so when I went down the red carpet at the televised awards, nobody asked me what it was like to win an Emmy the week before because, of course, nobody knew. And so in my little mind, I was, like, I guess my Emmy doesn’t matter because nobody asked me about it. So I stuck it in the closet for nine years.
Feloni: So you had accomplished something really cool and you’re, like, I don’t care.
Smith: It doesn’t matter, because the value of that was predicated on somebody else recognizing what the value of that was. When I step outside of me and I look at that younger Yeardley, I think it’s a heartbreaking story that you would not be able to enjoy that, and that it took you so long.
I only tell that story as a cautionary tale, not for anybody to feel sorry for me, but if there’s anybody out there who’s even thinking that they would go down that road, please, please, please don’t, because you’ll miss so much. I just feel like when you attach to a very specific, rigid idea of what you think your success should look like, you will get the short end of your own stick.
Taking pride in her work
Feloni: And you can maintain your ambition while appreciating what you’ve got?
Smith: Absolutely, 100%. It does not in any way, shape, or form infringe on your ambition or your ability to set the bar higher and higher, and then touch the bar. Swing from the bar, for God’s sake. You can continue to raise the limit. It’s such a cliché, but try to enjoy the journey along the way, because it’s all you have.
I remember somebody asked me in an interview a year ago or so, and I was embarrassed. They said, I know you used to not really appreciate Lisa Simpson and used to discount it — to your point a few minutes ago about “The Simpsons” was blowing up and didn’t you appreciate that? And I think because I’d always been teased for how funny and weird and nasally my voice is, and the fact that voiceover had never been on my radar, I really didn’t give it the gravity, the weight, and the honor that it deserved for a great many years. Because I was, like, but no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t on the list! So look, I’m a slow learner, but God damn it, finally I get it.
Feloni: In 1998 there was a strike among voice actors. Fox was even thinking that threatening to replace the cast.
Smith: Yes, yes, they did threaten to replace us.
Feloni: Did that lead to recognition, like, this is something I could be proud of — I can stand up for myself here for the work that I’m putting out?
Smith: I don’t know that I married those two things together at that time. I actually don’t remember the moment where I realized this is something valuable. I certainly never questioned my desire to throw in with my fellow castmates and stand in solidarity with them for this fight, when Fox was saying nobody knows who you guys are so we can easily replace you. And I’ve now gone on the record and said in the last several years, when you have a lot of celebrities doing animated films, the only thing I take exception to is if any of those celebrities who are doing those animated films feel like they’re just slumming it because somehow doing animation is a lesser form of acting. That’s the only thing I take exception to because I don’t think it’s true.
Feloni: Is that what you had once thought?
Smith: Yes, probably. Well, I mean, while I was doing it, I didn’t feel in any way, shape, or form that I was phoning it in doing Lisa Simpson. But if you had said to me, Yeardley, you’re going to make your fortune and your legacy will be voicing an 8-year-old for most of your career and that’s going to resonate for generations ever after, I would have thought, oh, that’s not how I want to be remembered. I, of course, no longer feel that way, but it was probably an interesting … would that be a dichotomy? Where on the one hand, the opinion didn’t actually match the action and the way I was treating the job. When I would go and do Lisa Simpson, I gave you everything and I love that girl. But if you’d asked me how I liked doing voiceover, it was not something that I could’ve hung my lifelong career hat on.
Putting everything out there on stage
Feloni: What compelled you to do your one-woman show more in 2004? It’s very revealing. You really put a lot of yourself out there.
Smith: I did. I did it because I wasn’t getting any work and it was, well, now you have to figure out how to create work for yourself. So per usual, I was, like, all right, go big or go home. And I really threw it all in. It got very mixed reviews. We did get a really wonderful review from The New York Times, but it was too late.
Feloni: In the show you’re sharing your life story, all the good and bad.
Smith: Again, I was trying to convey this cautionary tale, which was you can’t fill up the inside from the outside, which is what I felt I had tried to do my entire life. It was, OK, if I can just get more successful, if I can get more famous, then whatever this gnawing deficit I feel like I’ve had inside all my life, maybe that will go away. Guess what? It never works.
And it’s such a cliché, again, where you hear a celebrity say, oh my God, I just thought if I can get the world to love me, then I’ll love myself. You can’t reverse-engineer it. You just can’t. Because the play was often misunderstood by critics, I must not have said it very well, but that was ultimately what I was trying to get across.
Why perfectionism is a barrier to success
Feloni: Did you still have that inner conflict even after that show?
Smith: Sure. And I liken it back to the perfectionist struggle. I’m 54 now, and when I think about perfectionism, I’ve come to regard it much like addiction. And depending on how young it strikes you and how strongly it grips you by the throat, it will dictate how much you end up having to grapple with it throughout your life. So I do think, as with all things, it has an ebb and a flow.
For instance, I have this true-crime podcast called “Small Town Dicks,” and I’ve been doing a lot of press for that and I’ve also been trying to up my social-media game, because in this new world it really counts how many followers and likes you get, like that’s our currency.
Feloni: You’ve got some good videos on “Simpsons Sundays” on Twitter.
Smith: Thank you. Yes, we’re trying to do a thing here, people! But I will tell you that there’s also something quite vulnerable about putting yourself out in the world. Perfectionism and vulnerability are like oil and water. They do not go together. So that has been a really interesting introspective journey for me. And so it has sort of made some of those old doubts about “Are you good enough?” bubble up.
Feloni: So that’s interesting. I saw one video on Twitter where you’re meeting up with a guy in New York with his pug.
Smith: Yeah. I was walking by and he tweeted, “Oh my god, I just walked by Yeardley Smith, who does the voice of Lisa Simpson! I wanted to say hi, but I was too shy and I was going to the barber shop.” And so I tweeted him back and said, “Dude, you should have said hi. I don’t bite. At least not that hard.” And he said, “Well, I live just around the corner. If you want to meet up, I could bring my wife and my dog.” And I was, like, “All right, meet me in the lobby.” And as much of a scaredy-cat as I am, I just sort of have this overabundance of courage. I’m not a fearless human at all, despite the fact that I’m oddly risk-averse. I just — I do those things.
Feloni: But it’s funny when you say that you still deal with this and sometimes it bubbles up, even recently. When I see something like that, I don’t get that impression at all.
Feloni: How’s that work?
Smith: Well, it’s because there’s a bigger part of me, I sort of feel like, well, if I live in a house with self-doubt, f— you, you will not own me. So all right, you can live in my neighborhood, but you will not own me. So I don’t know. It doesn’t mean that I don’t go meet Jay and his pug, Rico, and his lovely wife, Betsy, and then put together the video and put it out and go, does anybody care about this? This is so dumb! And not because of him, but because of me, right?
So at every turn, there’s an opportunity to go, to sort of say, well that was stupid. And you just, I mean, I guess if you gave into that every time, you’d never do anything.
Feloni: So just go for it.
Smith: I always try to lead with kindness, and when I post my “Simpsons Sunday” videos, I really, I want to tell you something that you hopefully don’t know about the show or something that you don’t know about me and the way I address my character. Or, again, if I can give you a minute on your Sunday that made you smile, it’s a win. It’s win, win, win. That’s all I’m trying to do. That’s it. It’s pretty simple.
Feloni: And so, yeah. I mean the Simpsons hit 30 seasons. It’s now the longest-running —
Feloni: Yeah, like, the longest-running show in American history.
Smith: Yes. The longest-running prime-time show, because I think “60 Minutes” has been on for 150 years.
Feloni: OK, so next to “60 Minutes,” yeah, but that’s a major accomplishment, and I feel like that’s something that you were saying that this is — you’re proud of it and you embrace it. When did that evolve to this, as something you should really be proud of?
Smith: I think probably about 15 years ago.
Feloni: So around the time of your one-person show?
Smith: Yes. I think when I realized, I did the one-woman show. It did not get me any work the way I thought that it should. Like, I created that show. It was a really interesting and grueling and phenomenal creative endeavor. And I also had a very specific plan for it. That plan didn’t work out. And so for a number of years in my head it was a failure.
Feloni: Did it at least help you understand more of yourself?
Smith: Perhaps, but that was uninteresting to me.
Feloni: It didn’t even matter.
Smith: It didn’t matter to me because that wasn’t the goal.
Feloni: So you were still trapped in that, even though you were telling everyone in the audience, this is my burden. I can’t do it.
Smith: That’s what I’m saying, Rich. I couldn’t even take my own medicine. I’m like, don’t be like me. Do something else. Yes. I mean, it was really tough. And people ask me, would you ever do it again? And the answer is no, I certainly wouldn’t do it like that.
And then after that, actually, after that I fired my agent that I’d had for 22 years and I couldn’t get an agent because I wasn’t willing to give up “Simpsons” money to somebody new who hadn’t actually done anything yet. And they were all like, well, screw you. So I was like, all right, well, screw you. And so I then sort of noodled around for a while and I started, I decided I would take a writing class from a woman who lived in my neighborhood. And she taught a class in the evenings and I went and I ended up writing a novel out of that and it started as these little sort of, you had to bring something in every week and so I started writing these vignettes about Lorelei, who was 11 years old, who had this really cockeyed, very funny view of the world. And I strung them together and it became this book called “I, Lorelei,” which Harper Collins published in 2009, and it was beautifully reviewed book. And it was not a commercial success because the publishing game is a racket and extraordinarily hard.
But this will make you happy. It was at least the book I really wanted to write. And at the end of the day, even though it wasn’t a commercial success, it is a book that I feel like I’m really glad my name is on.
Feloni: You allowed yourself to be happy about it.
Smith: Yes. Yes. And so for that whole journey probably took about three years where I didn’t have an agent. And the beauty of that was I realized my creativity wasn’t just about show business, that I could perhaps do other things. And that was really important for me because I felt like I didn’t have any skills really. I didn’t have a college education. I was like, oh s—, oh f—. What now? What am I gonna do?
Feloni: Well, along that way, did you allow yourself to have ownership of Lisa Simpson as a character, which was known globally and incredibly iconic?
Smith: Yes, yes, yes. I did come to my senses, like I said. And I do think that actually that transformation took place privately, long before it took place publicly. I grew up in a household where we don’t toot our own horn. I grew up in a quite formal upbringing. And so praise, I would say was more implied than it was sort of lavished upon us. So I just, I wasn’t in a practice of sort of blowing my own horn, so I would, if there were victories, I kept them close.
Spending 30 years on “The Simpsons”
Feloni: And then on just even the practical side of things, too, how do you keep … A project that you’ve been working on for more than 30 years fresh, even as you’re doing other things as well.
Smith: That’s easy, because for Lisa Simpson the words change every week, so it’s not like doing “Cats” for 30 years on Broadway, where the words are the same, you sing the same songs, you know?
Smith: Her storyline is different every time we do an episode, so that’s pretty easy. And at the same time, the character is so familiar, and I love her so much that it’s like going to visit an old friend every time I drop into those pages. So that’s a real treat.
Feloni: You’ve been working with some of the same people for that same time as well. How does that relationship build over such a long period? Does it help with the performance?
Smith: Obviously, we know each other’s rhythm and we actually don’t socialize together outside of our work, but there really is the deepest, most profound love and respect for what each person brings to their work, to that process. I stand between Dan and Nancy, and to see Dan go from voice, to voice, to voice, from Grandpa to Homer to Groundskeeper Willy, I could watch it all day long, seven days a week. It never gets old.
To see Nancy go from Bart to Nelson to Ralph, same thing. All day long. To act with Dan, and Nancy, and Julie, and Tress, it is pure joy. And I wish they allowed cameras in that room because you just want to show people, this is my job, people, come on. I come to work and I make silly noises, and then I sound like an 8-year-old, and I say stupid things, and we do this four times each day, and if it’s still not right, we do it again. I mean, really? I don’t know. I don’t know what I did in another life to be able to show up to get to do this.
Feloni: So at this point, talking about this whole evolution of your career, do you still have some of those doubts or feelings, pigeonholed by “The Simpsons” or any of that? Does that still bother you?
Smith: I don’t know that I ever felt pigeonholed by “The Simpsons” as much as I felt pigeonholed in general because that’s just what show business does. They like to go, oh, you’re good at that, you do comedy, that’s what you do. And they don’t like to give you a chance to do something else because it’s just easier. If you’ll kindly stay in your box, if you’ll just stay in your lane, we can do that. Right?
Feloni: So at this point, have you finally found some peace?
Smith: Ah, that’s a big question. Yes, I have intermittent peace.
Feloni: Intermittent peace. So it’s an improvement.
Smith: It’s a vast improvement. Yes. Intermittent peace. Peace is a work in progress. There are people who never worry. There are people who are masters at living in the moment, and I envy them, and I just was never wired that way. Even as a kid, I was a terrible worrier. How are you a worrier at 5? I don’t know, but you come out that way. You’re fully baked.
Recognizing success is a matter of perception
Feloni: So how do you define success at this point?
Smith: I do think that success as well as failure is a matter of perception, and some days I feel successful, and some days I feel successful but not successful enough. I just think it’s fluid. Much like the peace thing. Where sometimes you wake up and you go, f— yeah it’s going to be a good day. I saw a guy here in New York when I was walking to Duane Reade the other day, and his shirt said “Make Today Count.” I’m like, OK, I’m going to. I’m going to. And then of course I had anxiety, like, oh God, what if I don’t achieve that?
Feloni: That guy’s positive shirt gave you an anxiety attack.
Smith: Somebody else would go, dude, I’m good, I got it, it already counts. There is great value in realizing that maybe you don’t have to do anything else, maybe you just have to be. And that doesn’t mean that you’ve dropped the bar.
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Yeardley.
Smith: Thank you.