Maid to Order
J. Smith-Cameron sparks the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Tartuffe.
The idea of doing Molière on Broadway really appealed to her: "I was out of town but came in to meet with Joe Dowling [the show's director]. I didn't know Henry Goodman's work but I knew Brian Bedford's and I think of him as the premier Molière actor of his time. [Goodman portrays the title role; Bedford is Orgon.] And my close friend Kathryn Meisle is playing Elmire. She's terrific!" Since J. considers all the women's roles to be good and feels that "none of them have to carry the show," she thought that Dorine "could be the perfect first part back after having a baby." (J. and her husband, playwright Kenneth Lonergan, have a daughter, Nellie Sharpe, who will soon celebrate her first birthday.)
When a play is written in verse, as is Tartuffe, does that make it more difficult to learn a role? "Yes and no," J. replies. "It's a little like lyrics to a song. When you're very familiar with them, the rhyme can help you. On the other hand, it's terrifying, because if you substitute a word it falls like a lead balloon -- especially if it's on the rhyming word. The first thing is the exhausting push to get the lines; you can't finesse your part with that hanging over your head. It's not like a contemporary play where you could keep the scene going if you had to paraphrase. Everyone in this production has gone up on a word, or substituted or left one out at some point. It's hard for the audience to tell unless it's a flagrantly bad mess-up, but everyone on stage knows. There are a lot of raised eyebrows!"
Born Jeanie Smith in Louisville, Kentucky, J. grew up in South Carolina. She was inspired to act by her sister ("nine-and-a-half years older"), who performed in high school plays and later turned professional actress but is now a teacher. When sis went off to college, J. auditioned for a school play. "My first was The Diary of Anne Frank and I got to play Anne," she says. "My creative outlet before that was playing the violin -- first grade through senior year in high school -- but I was so excited by the theater."
She began her career billed as J. Smith, "but that conflicted with way too many people. So I added my maternal great-grandmother's name, Cameron. I always use the hyphen [Smith-Cameron], but people leave it out. The Playbill and the printed poster for Tartuffe have the hyphen; the poster in the lobby doesn't. (Motherhood doesn't allow the actress time to run around with a Sharpie, correcting posters.)
How does she enjoy the role of mother? "Fantastic! Much better than my wildest dreams. It's a uniquely torturous experience to want to be with your baby and want to go back to work -- really wanting to do both things. It's an embarrassment of riches. On two-show days, I rush back just to spend time with her." And J. has occasionally brought her daughter to work. "She loves it there; she gets a lot of attention. I got a lot of teasing [from the company] because one of her first tricks was that she learned to clap."
J. and her husband chose the child's name because "we both love the old song 'Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.' We thought that if she wants, later on, she can drop the ending and just go by Nell." The "Sharpe" is for Smith-Cameron's late father, an architect whose name was Richard Sharpe Smith. ("We thought it balanced the frilliness of the name Nellie.") When I mention that the name goes nicely with Lonergan, J. responds, "Doesn't Nellie Lonergan sound like a vaudeville tap dancer? I was quite pregnant when Kenny and I went to see 42nd Street and, during every tap number, the baby kicked right along with the dancers!"
Might her daughter be a budding performer? "If she grows up and wants to try acting, I wouldn't get in her way," J. says. "As for child actors, I find that a little repellent. As an adult actor, you sometimes have to work with and audition with child actors. They're not really precocious, but they pretend to be. It's disgusting and heartbreaking. I have friends who acted as children and they all turned out fine. But if kids don't get cast, their little hearts break, and I couldn't bear that for Nellie."
Asked if she considers one particular role her breakthrough, J. replies, "There are so many. I was in Our Country's Good and got a Tony nomination. As Bees in Honey Drown certainly helped me immeasurably. There are personal growth roles that may not all look externally like big successes. When I was cast in Lend Me a Tenor, that was a big step for me. I don't think I got mentioned in a single review, but I was in the play for a year and it was a turning point. A long run separates the men from the boys: You can either get bored or dig your heels in and find things that are interesting, take some pride in how the story's being told. I chose to work hard at it, and that was a defining moment for me."
It was while appearing in an evening of short plays that she met her future husband: "I was doing a movie, In and Out, and I was a bit bored because I didn't have much to do in it. Patrick Breen asked me to be in this short play he'd written. Kenny had written one of the other plays [on the bill] and was also performing in one. At the tech rehearsal, he was extremely funny and adorable. I made it my business to get to know him and flirt. We've been married two and a half years."