Photo by Robin Holland

Halfway through a breakfast interview at the Fairway Cafe on New York’s Upper West Side, I find out Brooke Smith and I were kicked out of the same acting school. As I recall, my problem was laziness; hers, as she tells it, was that she did not fit the school’s standards of generic perfection. “I could never homogenize myself into what an actor’s supposed to be for them,” she says, “because I just thought, well, I’m a person and I’m playing people, so why can’t I just be a well-rounded person?” I was devastated; she was not. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she says with a laugh. “Come on. They were wrong.”

Obviously, they were (about her, that is). Even if Smith, who is currently starring in Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders, remains an obscure talent to American moviegoers, she’s inarguably beloved by critics, who collectively swooned over her 1995 performance as the lovelorn Sonya in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street: “All the performances . . . are extraordinary,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington Post, “but somehow Smith rises above the rest.” Even Liz Smith puts acclaimed before Smith’s name, even when her subject is the actor’s mom, famed PMK publicist Lois Smith.

The “rest” to which Hinson referred included Julianne Moore, who played the beautiful and beloved Yelena, and just as Chekhov’s Astrov falls for Yelena and scarcely registers the adoring Sonya’s existence, it was Moore whom Hollywood chose for stardom after Vanya. Meanwhile, Smith, who has since appeared in Robert Altman’s Kansas City and made a name for herself in the New York theater, was on the verge of making the end of 2000 her deadline for giving up acting. “I’m always setting ultimatums for myself,” she says, “and I’d already done some directing, so I thought maybe it was time.” (She made a documentary about a blues musician, Jake LaBotz, in 1999, “but nobody really liked it,” Smith admits. “It was too heavy.”) Until recently, she was having a hard time paying her rent. “It was my own fault, though,” she insists. “I have a serious addiction to travel.”

It was never celebrity she was after, just steady work. “I’m okay with not being all that famous,” she says. “I always thought you were supposed to be anonymous if you were an actor — I never want to not be able to take a train, and my favorite, favorite thing is to be in a market in Africa among veiled women and to try to blend in as much as possible. Before Series 7 was edited and released, I’d just spent the whole summer working as a volunteer with scientists in Africa and I loved it. So I was thinking I’d have to go back to school to become a zoologist.”

With wide-set blue saucer eyes that droop at the corners, Smith is a moony, idiosyncratic beauty, but not an easily marketable one. Minahan describes her looks as reminiscent of the women in Flemish paintings, and in her wallet she carries a photo of herself done up in 1940s glamour — penciled eyebrows, rolled hair. But the people who cast movies still think of her as the girl in The Silence of the Lambs who was kidnapped and starved in a pit for the sake of her hide. “When I did Silence of the Lambs, people said, ‘You’re insane, they’re not going to let you live it down,’” Smith recalls. “And to a certain degree that was true. I gained 30 pounds for the movie, but I lost it right away, and by the time the movie came out I was rail thin, but people still thought of me as that fat girl.”

Still, Smith does not have the type of body ever to emulate the kind of ectomorph the industry seems to crave, and at 33, happily married (to cameraman Steve Lubenski) enough to be thinking about babies, she is finally starting not to care. Her natural defiance used to result in diets; now, she says, she politely refuses to conform. “I think maybe when I was younger I was more literal and retarded about these things. I’d think, ‘Okay, I’m supposed to be thin and whatever? Fine.’ So I got thin and whatever. Now I’ve started to just be totally myself, whatever that means. That will be the best revenge.”

In Series 7, Smith plays Dawn Lagarto, a 33-year-old woman who’s eight months pregnant and the reigning champion in a game whose contestants are chosen by lottery, armed, advised and dispatched to kill one another. Minahan wrote the script with her in mind, after seeing her off-Broadway in a play called Little Monsters, in which the native New Yorker played a “completely insane” Queens-bred beautician. “She has a fierceness about her that protects her vulnerability and makes her instantly sympathetic,” Minahan noticed. “She struck me as the perfect heroine for the movie, and helped me to write to imagine her in it.” Even in a reality-TV show whose contestants don’t stop at voting one another off an island, there is something reassuringly familiar about Smith’s presence — something that makes you believe that in a world gone mad, her Dawn Lagarto is the girl who can put it all right. She’s also the contestant you root for to win, which is one of the film’s many moral quandaries: You might think you deplore the game, but you can’t stay off her team.

Offscreen, that same sympathetic quality translates into an easy intimacy with strangers. Observe her long enough and you can see her pull out a common thread for everyone — for the groovy young man who does her hair before a photo shoot (“I had a dream about you!” she says. “You saved me.”), for the photographer who offers up an art book about Africa after Smith confesses that the continent is among her passions. Minahan, too, found in Smith a kindred spirit: “We were both fat kids,” the now-slender Minahan told me. “That was just one thing that we really bonded over. Fat kids are outsiders the rest of their lives.”

And as outsiders, the two are well-situated to critique the intensifying societal obsession with watching real people in candid suffering. Minahan came up with the idea for a send-up of reality TV back in 1996, inspired by Cops and Real World, but in the five years it took him to finish the movie, Survivor and Big Brother had already brought mediated voyeurism to another level, in which real life was being manipulated by game-show producers. It made Minahan look prescient, and the film uncannily pertinent. “They scooped us,” says Smith. “We’d shot the whole film before Survivor ever came out.”

On the press tour, Smith has noticed, TV is imitating its satire: Like the producer in Series 7 who interviews the contestants, talk-show hosts want to know how she really feels. “I’ve been on these morning talk shows lately where people say to me, ‘Dawn’s a bloodthirsty killer!’” Once again, Smith worries that she may be so deeply identified with a performance she’ll be bound to the real-people genre.

“Somebody was saying to me recently, and I know he meant it as a compliment, that he thought of me as a very emotional actress, and he didn’t see me in films that were more stylized and less emotional. I hope that’s not true. I’d like to do both, and I like the idea of putting the style and the emotion together — like Giulietta Masina did in Nights of Cabiria, or the way Claire Denis does her movies. I’d like to try everything.”

With a recurring role as a wheelchair-bound ALS victim in a new television series called The Big Apple by NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch, and another round of critical success for her performance in Series 7, Smith is resisting any new ultimatums about her career. “I remember being told when I was 21, you’re not really going to work a lot until you’re 33, 34. And I just thought, ‘Well, that’s 12 years away! What the hell am I supposed to do until then?’ And now here I am 33 and it might be true. It’s almost like I’ve grown into myself.

“And now,” she reflects, “I’m thinking maybe I don’t have be a zoologist. Maybe I can just play one.”

LA Weekly