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.