Phyllis Smith is the gentlest lady you could ever have the pleasure of interviewing. Smith, who is best known as the saleswoman Phyllis Lapin-Vance on the long-running sitcom The Office, is the only person who has ever complimented me on my preparation and quickness while conducting a professional discussion. Unlike her eponymous character on The Office, who can be conniving underneath her warm maternal exterior, the real Phyllis comes off as utterly genuine.
She wasn’t always the mild-mannered knitter who appears on NBC. Smith started out as a hot-pants-clad NFL cheerleader in the ‘70s, and danced professionally into her 30s as part of a burlesque show. Around the time she hit it big with The Office, Smith was supposed to play Steve Carell’s mom in the Judd Apatow hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but her scenes didn’t make it to the final version. It’s really too bad—America missed out on seeing Smith dress up like Marilyn Monroe and call Carell a pervert.
She spoke to Slate about how she went from strutting on the sidelines in St. Louis to acting professionally in Los Angeles, her role in the new Cameron Diaz comedy Bad Teacher, and her poor broken ankle.
Slate: You took a circuitous route to acting. I read you were an NFL cheerleader, a burlesque dancer, and a casting director. Can you tell me more about your path?
Phyllis Smith: It certainly is not the norm, that’s for sure. I was in casting for about 19 years prior to my current new profession, and … hold on, I gotta get situated, I fractured my ankle.
Slate: Oh no! How’d that happen?
Smith: Do you want the truth? I slipped on water in the basement, OK? I’m trying to make up a more colorful story like the pole came loose from the ceiling, I fell off my motorcycle … but I just slipped on water.
OK, back to the question. In my heart, my first desire was to be a dancer. I always wanted to dance and I danced from the time I was 7 till I was well into my 30s. I did ballet, tap, jazz, modern, I taught dance here in my hometown of St. Louis. I danced in two different companies in St. Louis and in San Diego, and I was on the road for several years in a vaudeville/burlesque show—we did line dancing, tap dancing. Not line dancing like country, but a guy and a girl.
Slate: How risqué was the burlesque?
Smith: Not risqué. No stripping, no nudity. We had feathers that covered everything. But [by doing the vaudeville show] I was able to watch these guys who had honed their craft to the hilt. They had impeccable timing and knew how to work with a live audience. I never knew that any of that would come to pass later on in my life. As I was working with them, I had an injury—not on water that time—but while I was dancing, and at this point I was in my 30s, and I knew I was gonna have to hang up the shoes sooner or later ‘cause there were kids coming along, who I didn’t want to have to compete with.
Slate: I thought burlesque and vaudeville were really big in the ‘30s and ‘40s—you were doing it when, in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Smith: Well, this was the revival of it. This was during the dinner theater era, and we travelled around the country. We’d go from 1,000-seat theater to some really intimate theaters, too.
When I hurt my knee, I knew it was time to retire from dancing and I needed a job just to pay the bills, and I ended up as a receptionist for about three-four years. At that time I was trying to get into commercials, and my friend told me about an audition for a mousy woman—a court show in Hollywood. Because I worked in a corporate office I had to wear hose, and I ripped a runner in the entire knee. When I went in, I said to the casting director, “Are you looking for mousy, or a tacky woman?” We hit it off, and in the process, I told her that I might be good in casting. And a year later, she said there was a position open. I really thought that the performing part of my life was over. I was happy in casting and I really never thought, “Oh, is there a role for me, am I right for this?”
But over the course of those 19 years, I literally had read with thousands of actors, because it’s nothing to have a casting session and have 100-200 people set up within a day or two, back to back. So evidently, I was honing a craft I didn’t know I would ever use or need. But when you think about it, when you’re reading with actors on a daily basis, you can see what works and what doesn’t, are they telling the truth, do you believe them?
Slate: So you subconsciously picked up on these things?
Smith: Right, exactly. I had worked with Allison Jones, who was the casting director for The Office. We started doing the casting for The Office, first for the five leads. And, like most casting processes with pilots and TV shows, usually you take the actor to the network and they audition in front of the executives at the network and it’s a very kind of dry, staid process. It’s nerve-wracking for the actors. Well, Greg Daniels, who was the executive producer of The Office, knew that with the nature of the show, it wouldn’t bode well to put the actors in that kind of situation. So he decided that he was going to pair the actors up, put them on tape, and take the tape to the network, because it’s more in the line of a documentary; this is a mock documentary.
It was the second day of the process. We were pairing up the men and women to see if they had any chemistry together, and walking through the lobby trying to get everybody together to make sure they had their coffee, pencils, lists. And the director said, “Phyllis, I want you to read the character of Pam today.” And I looked at him very oddly, and said “Ugh, OK …”
In my mind, because I was not aware of anything that had gone on between the director and anybody else, I just thought that one of the ladies hadn’t arrived on time and they were ready to start. I ended up reading with John Krasinski and another gentleman who did not get the character of Dwight. And the next day, they had me read again in scenes with Dwight, Pam, and Jim at one point. But they were auditioning, and I had no clue that it was my audition, too.
Slate: I had read that the producers liked you so much that they made this whole back story for your character. How close is that character and her conception to who you are? I watched a video with fellow Office cast mates Ellie Kemper and Angela Kinsey out of character, and they were talking about how they would both want fashion tips from your character, Phyllis. Do you also have an affinity for costume jewelry?
Smith: That’s all the writers. They decided that the character, because her husband is Bob Vance, one of the wealthiest guys in Scranton, she is able to dress rather well. She needs it to set off the finishing touches of her outfits. She has changed over the years. In the beginning, she was mousy and shy. But once she found her man, her personality came out and she was more assertive; she’d have her one-on-ones with Angela. It all came out of the confidence of having found her man.
Slate: You were a St. Louis Cardinals cheerleader in your early days. What was NFL cheerleading like then?
Smith: I was at the height of my glory, because I loved dancing and wearing the boots and the hot pants, the tied up shirts, looking really hot. And I was able to dance, I loved football. My dad used to have season tickets, so I was flirting with the guys on the sidelines as much as I could. The organizations make sure that the cheerleaders and the players have minimal contact, but that’s what you try to do. It was great, in the ‘70s.
Slate: Do you still dance for pleasure?
Smith: I still do from time to time. Something like that is inherently in you. I find myself dancing in the grocery store. Embarrassing at my age. But it’s always in the back of my mind. I’ve never done Pilates, but I want to check it out. It’s on my bucket list. It’s not really a bucket, more of a bowl.
Slate: You were supposed to play Steve Carell’s mom in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but that scene was cut. What was your character going to be like? His character is so stunted—was his mother the cause of his problems?
Smith: I did two scenes—one with a little 5-year old boy. And I said to the mother of this 5-year-old, “Am I harming him?” Because I was trying to tell the kid to play with his doll and not with himself. And she said, “Nah, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.” And there was the dream sequence scene.
Slate: The one with the porn star?
Smith: Yeah. And I appeared as Marilyn Monroe, imitating her, and then would break out saying, “I’m your mother, you pervert.”
Slate: How did you snag the role in Bad Teacher?
Smith: [Bad Teacher co-writers] Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg were writing on The Office. I was sitting there talking to one of the ladies, and Lee asked me if I wanted to audition in this movie. I didn’t even know they were writing one or casting one. So I went and the script was so solid, and I saw the part and thought, I might be able to do this.
Slate: What did appeal to you about the script? Did you like the fact that the heroine is so unconventionally unlikable?
Smith: I liked my character, I thought I was capable of doing her. And it wasn’t like I analyzed it completely—the script was funny, I could see that from my years in casting. Cameron’s character has no redemption. Usually, the character starts changing, but she makes no apologies. After it was shot, not prior, I realized that I was reliving my seventh- and eighth-grade life. My character, Lynn, wants to be liked and wants to be popular.
Another anecdote: I had only ever been to smaller, TV table reads. But when I walked in and they had a huge U-shaped table that had the executive from Sony, the casting crew, it was a huge room full of people. I was extremely nervous, and a person kind enough to be doing my deal—although he was not my agent—told me to be on my toes, because it has been known in table reads that they will re-cast people. That’s another level of angst on top of wanting to do my job.
When I actually got to the table, I was really shaking, and people started laughing after my first line to Cameron. So I actually started thinking, this might work. Part of Lynn’s character grew out of my own fear at the table read.
Slate: What sort of script tends to come your way? Is it always comedy, or is it ever dramatic roles?
Smith: I actually just had to pass on a script, a period piece that took place in World War II, and the character was a snarky churchwoman, and it was a drama. I really liked the character, and I wanted to do it, but it was shooting out of the country and it would have been simultaneous with The Office. But I would have loved it. And I have another one now I have to see what happens with. I did do Butter after I did Bad Teacher, with Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell, Hugh Jackman, and Alicia Silverstone.
Slate: That’s a comedy, right?
Smith: It’s a dark comedy. It’s more like Little Miss Sunshine, a satirical comedy. It’s about butter sculpting, actually a real thing in the Midwest. It started in China, where people take a huge hunk of butter and sculpt like, The Last Supper. It’s a massive thing done in the refrigerator. The detail is pretty remarkable. I’m the head of the committee in this role, and I think the rules are the most important thing. I don’t know where it stands. I believe they’re adding the music to it. The director said they’d put it in the festivals.
Slate: According to IMDB, it will be out this year, but who knows?
Smith: Right, who knows? IMDB’s not the most accurate. Even my birth place and my age are wrong there.
Slate: Do you ever try to correct it?
Smith: I tried to correct it myself. The process of trying to do things on IMDB—the harder they make it, the less resistance they get. I was sitting at the desk in The Office trying to correct it.
Slate: The stuff at your desks in The Office works?
Smith: It all works. When we first started the pilot, there were fake computers and we had to look like we were working. I remember doing my taxes—if you remember long pieces of paper at my desk during earlier episodes, it’s because I was actually doing my taxes. I’ve done my Christmas cards.
Slate: Do you know anything about the next season of The Office? What’s going to happen after the departure of Michael Scott?
Smith: The departure of Steve was heartbreaking. He’s such a great guy. And I do not know who’s going to take his place. The powers that be may know, but we’ve been on hiatus since the middle of April, so by that time they had not made a decision. The rumor is that [British comedian] Catherine Tate was being considered, but she had conflicts.
When we do our press at the beginning of each season, on the red carpet, that’s when I find everything out. We’re always at the mercy of the press.
This interview has been condensed and edited.