In 1992 Yeardley Smith won an Emmy for outstanding voiceover, for her performance as Lisa, the whip-smart middle child of Fox’s The Simpsons.
But after that, she admittedly lost touch with the Television Academy — until last year. In June, at the opening of the Saban Media Center on the Academy’s campus in L.A.’s NoHo Arts District, Smith found herself so inspired that she ultimately made a transformative gift to the Academy Foundation’s New Destination Campaign.
The effort, which helped raise funds to build the media center, also supports the education and preservation programs of the foundation.
“Unless you are going to start a school yourself,” the actress says, “it’s difficult to support budding actors, writers, directors — people who want to get into the industry and don’t necessarily have the resources or a place to go to learn these crafts. I thought, 'This really ticks a box for me.'”
Smith’s unrestricted donation will generate income to benefit the highest areas of need for the foundation.
“I always give unrestricted,” she explains. “If I believe in the organization, I trust [its representatives] to put the money where it needs to go.” While it can be glamorous to make a contribution that directly impacts the frontlines, the Simpsons star values work done behind the scenes. “I’m all about supporting the whole entity,” she says. “Somebody has to put the mortar in the bricks.”
For Smith, part of the appeal of the campaign was the emphasis by the foundation on preserving television’s past through its significant collection of interviews with television luminaries. “Preservation is very important to me. I’ve benefited a lot from hearing my predecessors’ stories.”
The actors who’ve inspired her, she says, include Jane Fonda, “who has been remarkably candid about her journey as a person and an actress. Lily Tomlin is a legend and an icon. And I’ve always admired Jean Smart and Betty White.”
Fittingly, the studio in the Saban center where the foundation conducts interviews with TV legends now bears Smith’s name. “I’m delighted that my gift would give me a little legacy like that,” she says. “I have a real love for life stories.”
“Given Yeardley’s passion, it is especially fitting that her generosity will impact the journeys of so many aspiring television professionals,” notes Karla Loor Kitchel, the foundation’s senior director of strategic partnerships.
Growing up, Smith didn’t have a mentor. “I flew blind,” she says, adding that she would have loved to have been able to participate in the foundation’s internship program as a youth.
Her advice for those looking to enter Hollywood? “Show up on time,” and don’t shy away from adding additional skills to your resumé . “Nowadays, it’s all about being a multi-hyphenate: actor-writer, actor-director, actor-writer-director — it’s helpful to get your finger in another pie.”
But expanding her own reach hasn’t come easy, she admits.
“There’s a nasty little troll inside me and most creative souls I know, and it wants to get the better of us as much, as fast and as often as it can. You have to learn to overcome it — or not to let it win every time.”
In a recent push past her comfort zone, Smith teamed with Ben Cornwell to launch a boutique development company, Paperclip Ltd. “We develop projects in any medium, at the earliest stages,” she explains. “We want to be the people who are able to say yes first.” The firm has eight new projects in house, two of which will feature the Simpsons star.
Besides the iconic Fox show, Smith has appeared in films such as City Slickers and As Good As It Gets; she’s also had her own one-woman show off-Broadway, More. A painter and writer, she has published a children’s book , I, Lorelei.
Of her TV work, she looks back fondly on her role as Greg’s crabby secretary on Dharma & Greg. But the mere mention of Lisa Simpson brings the biggest smile to her face, especially when she’s reminded that she’s been voicing Lisa for 28 years — “30 if you count The Tracey Ullman Show!” Smith chirps.
“Lisa Simpson is one of the best characters ever created in the history of entertainment,” she proclaims. “I would say that even if I didn’t do her voice.”
Though she’s looking forward to her future endeavors, she’s going to be devastated when The Simpsons comes to an end. “It will be like one of my very best friends in the world has moved away and is never coming back. I will be in a fetal position!”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2017
For more on Yeardley Smith, see the Academy Foundation Interviews here.