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.