Interview: Phyllis Smith Talks 'Bad Teacher' '& 'The Office'

Director Jake Kasdan's new "bad girls do it better" comedy Bad Teacher (starring Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel and Justin Timberlake) opens in theaters this weekend. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Phyllis Smith, who plays Lynn Davies, a sweet-tempered (and somewhat easily corruptible) teacher at the Jr. High School where the very corrupting Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) works in the film.

Normally, it is standard to refer to talent by their last name in an article or interview -- but in this case, I find it impossible to refer to Phyllis by any other name. Phyllis and I greeted each other in the only acceptable manner -- with an old-school/new-school hybrid fist bump (minor explosion), and immediately tucked into the sofa for a chat about working with Cameron Diaz, the incredible story of her career, missing Steve Carell, and what would happen if Phyllis took over The Office.

SR: The writers for Bad Teacher (Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg) are also writers on The Office, did you audition for the role, or did they have you in mind in the writing?

"I did audition. It came about really quickly, actually. One of the writers saw me across the room (on the set of "The Office") and told me he wanted me to audition and I went, 'Oh...okay...' The casting director and I met a day or two later, and I walked into the room and...see I had worked with Jake (Kasdan, the director of "Bad Teacher") on "Freaks and Geeks," but he didn't really know me then because I was like in the background. I was you know, setting up the sessions...because I was in casting at the time. So, I was not a person that was in his face communicating with him on a daily basis. But I went in (to the audition for "Bad Teacher") and said (in a seductive voice) 'Hey, you know we have a past.' I made him squirm a little bit wondering what that past was."

SR: That's hilarious. In addition to working in casting, you had also spent some time working in education, were you using anything as a template for Lynn?

"Not really. (Laughing) I know I'm supposed to be very intellectual here and say yes...but no. I literally took the character scene by scene and tried to just make her real within those. The script was so solid. Lynn was just like, there for me you know. I do have that part of my personality that everybody does, I mean you're not just one thing, but I do have insecurities and stuff so I was able to draw from that very easily and it was kind of cathartic for me to have that part of me be voiced."

SR: So is acting more of an instinctual process for you?

"It is, it's very instinctual. I think that when I was in casting for so many years I had to examine scripts and find the meat of what I thought the writer, director and producer were wanting out of it. And when you're auditioning people as a reader you have to be giving the actor something to work off of. So you have to examine that. So for nineteen years that's what I did, I examined the character, the truth of it and I think that...I didn't know it at the time but I was learning. So for me it was instinct you know, how can I make it sound as real as possible? I have to say that I don't consciously, like, look in a mirror to see, 'Oh, is that a funny thing?' So it's not a conscious thing. And also it comes out of who you're working against. Like working with Cameron was just fantastic, when she would look at me, because her character like steamrolled me, and when she would just look at me with those dagger eyes, I literally would coil inside and as soon as they'd yell cut it's like, 'Oh!' she's just the sweetest thing."

SR: You guys had such a great chemistry and so many funny moments in the film. I know you're used to working with hilarious people -- but were there moments that you found yourself just cracking up?

"Sometimes just watching and listening while standing in the background, it could be as difficult to keep a straight face as when you're actually immersed in the scene."

SR: Can you give me an example?

"Well, the movie, you see it's been trimmed..."

SR: If it's something that might show up on the DVD that could be fun.

"Well, there's the scene where Elizabeth came in completely drunk and hungover and Lucy's character was telling her about the love of her life and this and that and Elizabeth is just like, 'Oh, my God' and she throws up all over her. And it was a number of times, and I had to sit there and react, not only to Cameron's throw-up and stuff, but also Lucy's ridiculous pontification on the best boyfriend ever. And they were so funny I had to get it together, I had to react and not react at the same time. So that was a mixed bag of tricks."

If you read our interview with Lucy Punch, you know that Phyllis and Lucy both walked away with vivid memories of this particular scene -- here's hoping (for their sake) that it shows up in the DVD/Blu-ray extras.

SR:You know, you've had the most amazing trajectory in your career...a cheerleader for the St. Louis Cardinals, a Burlesque dancer, various jobs, working in casting for nearly twenty years and then getting a role on what was to become one of the most popular sitcoms on the air, all because the creators liked the way you were doing the line readings when you were auditioning the actors.

"I know. I'm speechless about it. Because it was never...when I look back, all the things that I did in my life have contributed to this moment, and it's been a path of this or that, but I never, ever, thought that this would be the end result. The beginning of the new result. You know I did things because I needed to pay my bills. To pay my health insurance, my car insurance, my rent -- to be responsible. But all of the different jobs that I had have indeed helped me. Like, I worked in a Aerospace defense office, in a corporate office for three years (prior to that I'd never worked in an office in my life) but I worked there not knowing that a couple of years down the line I would be working in "The Office" and that it would help that I knew what collate meant."

SR: As to The Office, I know you can't tell me, but...seriously who's going to be the next boss?

(Both laughing)

"I really don't know! But seriously I really don't know."

SR: Who would you like it to be in your dream world?

"Oh, gosh, I don't know...I at one time thought it would be hysterical for Ricky Gervais to come in. But he's got his own thing going, you know. He did a little cameo for us, but I really thought it would be a hoot to have that cross over. Steve was almost irreplaceable though -- he's so, he's just fantastic. I mean, you got to see a finished product and think it was great, but you should have seen the six other takes prior to that which were all different and wonderful. In between takes he would just think for a moment and all of a sudden he would open his mouth and say the same words, but it would be a whole different direction to get there. That was actually a real privilege to watch him work."

SR: How are you guys doing without him? How did it feel to do those few episodes without him at the end of this season?

"Well the writers were smart enough that when his character left we had Will (Ferrell) for two weeks. So it kind of eased us out of his absence...Because you know everybody was crying. I mean I was bawling openly, but the grips were crying and everyone...the camera crew. So it was like part of our family had left us. So they were smart enough to put Will in for two weeks which kind of eased us. And then the last episode we had all the wonderful guest stars."

SR: It was like a buffet.

"Yes, it was like a buffet of guest stars. It was an interesting couple of weeks."

Smith on 'The Office'

SR: What do you think it's going to be like next year?

"I really... you know, I trust the writers so much that they are going to do it justice. You know, they've kept it afloat for seven years, and we truly never know what our character is doing until we sit down at a table read on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I find out that I might be getting married or I find out that I might be the mother of Ellie (Kemper). So that keeps it fresh and it's just, 'Okay, I can do that, or I hope I can do that.'"

SR: What would happen if Phyllis ran the office?

"I think it would be -- the paper industry would just sky rocket. Well look, she has a professional wingman in Bob Vance who has this successful refrigeration business, so any time she needs some business savvy, she can always go to Bob and get a few pointers. Besides, you know I think down deep she really is the authoritarian. She's just trying to find her voice as Lynn tries to find her voice in this movie."

You can watch Phyllis find her voice as the easygoing and charming lover-of-fun Lynn Davies in Bad Teacher beginning Friday, June 24, 2011 and witness her take over the world as Phyllis in The Office beginning next fall.

Follow me on twitter @jrothc

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