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When she was 7-years-old, Yeardley Smith decided she would be an actress when she grew up. It was instinctively a done deal. “I never considered any other profession after that.”
What Yeardley didn’t know then was that her acting career — particularly voiceover work — would cement her spot in pop culture history. Yeardley Smith voices the moral compass of the Simpson family, Lisa Simpson, on the hit animated series The Simpsons. It’s a gig she has had for the last 30 years.
When she isn’t spending time in Springfield, Yeardley is engaged in the world of entrepreneurship. She cofounded production company Paperclip Limited and co-hosts and co-produces a true crime podcast called Small Town Dicks. She even dabbled in fashion as the CEO of Marchez Vous, a luxury shoe line.
With The Simpsons now in its 30th season and Small Town Dicks returning for season four on March 15th, I got the chance to chat with Yeardley about being Lisa Simpson, why her production company is all about saying ‘yes’ and the joy of being better instead of being perfect.
Deborah Sweeney: What was your career like prior to The Simpsons?
Yeardley Smith: I was killing it before I got The Simpsons! I had been on Broadway in The Real Thing with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. I had done four movies, I was guest starring on television shows like Murphy Brown, Brothers and Empty Nest. I worked all the time. It was going exactly the way I had pictured it in my head. Ha!
Sweeney: What led to you landing a role on the show? Did you initially audition to be Lisa?
Smith: I was doing a new play in a small theater in Hollywood that very few people saw. Yet, one of those people would cast The Simpsons a year later on The Tracey Ullman Show. She said, “I know who should play Lisa Simpson.” So, they brought me in to read for the part.
I read for Bart first, but I don’t think it was because they thought I was right for the role. (And I surely wasn’t!) I think they just had me read for Bart because, in voiceover, women always do the voices of young boys because our voices don’t change.
Sweeney: The Simpsons is going into its 30th season which is huge for any television series, but truly groundbreaking for an animated show. How would you describe the nature of your relationship with Lisa over the last three decades?
Smith: I liken playing a character for this long to getting to know a friend over 30 years. Lisa Simpson is extremely close to my heart. I love her like I love my flesh and blood friends.
Sweeney: Over the last 30 years, Lisa has become a vegetarian, found a saxophone mentor in Bleeding Gums Murphy, created a less sexist version of the Malibu Stacy doll, and tapped into a love of ice hockey. This is skimming the surface of everything the character has done, but what Lisa moment has stuck with you over the years?
Smith: It’s less about a moment and more about aspects of her character that stand out to me. For instance, I greatly admire her resilience. Every time she gets something — a friend, a pony, a win — the writers have taken it from her by the end of the episode. Lisa Simpson is one tough cookie! I greatly admire her humanity, her genuine curiosity about the world and her strong sense of justice. She really does want to make the world a better place.
Sweeney: Aside from The Simpsons, you’re the cofounder of Paperclip, Ltd. Who cofounded Paperclip with you? What does this production company do and who do they work with?
Smith: Ben Cornwell, who has been my business partner for the past eight years, cofounded Paperclip with me. At Paperclip we wanted to be the people to say “yes” first. We started out developing projects across all mediums at their earliest stages. That quickly morphed into seeing some projects through to completion. We just wrapped our third film which fell under the “See It Through to Completion” banner because we loved the project so much we didn’t want to wait for other people to slowly make up their minds about coming onboard. That film is called GOSSAMER FOLDS and is currently being edited.
Sweeney: What kinds of projects does Paperclip specialize in spearheading?
Smith: We spearhead things that speak to us, that have a point of difference and a reason for being. Because of that our slate is very diverse. We have a successful true crime podcast called Small Town Dicks, two animated kids shows, several full-length feature films and a docu-series about Minor League Baseball. There’s a lot of very tasty spaghetti on the wall!
Sweeney: I read that you finance and produce Paperclip projects on your own with the help of a lean team. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced, and successfully overcame, running this kind of entrepreneurial venture?
Smith: There’s an old saying in show business “Nobody wants to say ‘yes’ first.” This is why we started Paperclip: to change that narrative.
Because show business operates in this commitment-phobic landscape, at Paperclip, we go as deep as we can when developing something. We never go to a pitch meeting with a half-baked idea. We show up having pulled out all the stops in terms of development, and ready to partner with someone who loves the project as much as we do.
Sweeney: You also cofounded a shoe line in 2011 called Marchez Vous, even though you didn’t have previous shoe design experience. What did that teach you about entrepreneurship?
Smith: What I learned in having Marchez Vous for five years is that every problem is solvable. Sometimes it’s an easy fix. Sometimes the entire future of the company hangs in the balance. You have to ask yourself, “Is this problem worth solving? Is the ROI high enough?” I also learned that conflict is just a difference of opinion. And finally, that success rarely looks like the original picture you painted of it in your head when you were imagining what that success would look like.
Sweeney: Tell me more about Small Town Dicks. What made you decide to get involved in true crime and what’s going to surprise listeners about this podcast?
Smith: I co-produce and co-host the podcast with my friend, Zibby Allen, and identical twin detectives Dan and Dave (we don’t give their last names). The podcast came out of Zibby and I being enthralled by Dan and Dave’s stories of their day-to-day as detectives. It turns out big-time crime is happening in small towns all over the country with the same level of violence of depravity as they happen in big cities, just with less frequency. Zibby and I also wanted people to hear the stories from the source. All of our cases are told by the detectives who investigated them. Zibby and I are the just the audience, asking questions like we’ve always been.
Sweeney: As a former perfectionist, you’ve said perfection is a ‘zero-sum game.’ Without knowing what’s to come, what kind of advice would you give the younger version of yourself?
Smith: I would tell her to “Stay out of the weeds!” Striving to be better each time you do something is a worthy goal. But don’t get so bogged down in trying to make every single detail perfect. It’s not worth it. It robs you of the experience as a whole and all you’ll remember down the line is what you didn’t get right. Not what you did.
March 8, 2019 at 08:15AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs