'Office' star visits Jackson Junior High

Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Actress Phyllis Smith spoke to Central High theater students Monday at Jackson Junior High. Smith, a St. Louis native, had a little experience in an office setting before landing a role on the sitcom, "The Office." Smith visited the Jackson school Monday and a handful of students from other schools came to hear her talk. (Kit Doyle)

After politely listing her favorite actors, explaining how she got into showbiz and saying, no, there aren't any real jerks on set, Phyllis Smith is asked a question that makes her snort. A junior high girl wants to know: Now that you're famous, do you go shopping all the time on Rodeo Drive?

Smith, who plays the motherly sales representative Phyllis on the TV show "The Office," laughs because she is far from the stereotypical idea of a Hollywood actress. She recounts a time when she bought a pair of expensive heels, only to have her credit card rejected at dinner later. It turns out the credit card company had put a stop on her card because they found the purchase unusual.

The actress, cousin of Jackson Junior High secretary Beth Salyer, visited the school Monday. She read the daily announcements, visited each class, ate lunch with teachers and signed autographs.

Like her character Phyllis Lapin, Smith is demure, friendly and has "some insecurities." But she does have a "jaunty" side as well, she said. She loves to dance, smiles constantly and enjoys watching outtakes of the show.

Since the writers' strike began, Smith's been living in South St. Louis with her mother, where she grew up. Smith attended St. Louis city schools and eventually earned a degree in elementary education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Now with the strike over, she'll soon be heading back to California to film six more episodes for the season.

"The strike was necessary. I'm glad it's settled, and I'm glad to get back to work," she said.

Phyllis Smith signed a photo of herself from the sitcom "The Office" for students Monday at Jackson Junior High School. (Kit Doyle)

Smith came to California originally for dance, not acting. After dancing with the St. Louis Civic Ballet and the St. Louis Dance Theater, she began touring the country with a vaudeville burlesque show that ended in California.

After an injury, she took various jobs to pay the bills, including working in a warehouse and as a receptionist. She eventually began working for a casting agency, where 19 years later she began screening candidates for "The Office."

"One of the producers said 'I want Phyllis to read the character of Pam.' It was only three lines. The next day I read for Dwight and Jim's character. I just thought I was doing my job. But they were auditioning me," she said.

After working with actors and actresses for nearly two decades, she had inadvertently landed a part herself. "I had been honing a craft I didn't really know I was honing," she said. "God did have a better plan for me."

Students passed around a script from " The Office" that Phyllis Smith brought Monday during her visit to Jackson Junior High School.

As she becomes more comfortable behind the camera, Smith said she has allowed herself to take more chances. Once scenes are shot as written, if time allows, the actors are allowed to ad-lib or improvise. She isn't told what is coming down the pipeline, so she is frequently surprised while doing a first-read through. "I'll see 'Oh, I'm engaged!'" she said. For this reason, Smith can't predict what is coming next on the show.

She said the hardest part of her job often is trying to keep a straight face. She said Steve Carell, who plays the boss Michael, is just as funny in person, and is "very nice" and "appreciates everything he's doing."

Her character often takes the brunt of Michael's jokes, and on more than one occasion a director has asked her if the jokes affect her personally. She just laughs. "I know who I am as a person," she said. "And I am very happy with where I am."

Smith will appear next in the independent movie "I Want to Eat Cheese with Someone," along with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" actor Jeff Garlin.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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