An Interview with J. Smith-Cameron

J. Smith-Cameron on Margaret (2011) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

First things first: this entire issue wouldn’t exist—or, at least, would exist in a much different, lesser fashion—if it weren’t for J. Smith-Cameron. She was the first to get behind our idea of an all-Margaret issue, as well as the first to sign on for an interview. And for that, we’ll be forever grateful.

Smith-Cameron has had a long and illustrious acting career, appearing in her first film way back in 1979 at the age of 22, before making her Broadway debut in 1982 and quickly becoming an award-winning mainstay of the New York theater scene. Still, few roles have ever fit Smith-Cameron quite so perfectly as the one which her husband, Kenneth Lonergan, created her for in Margaret. Theirs appears to be a true marriage of artists, both onscreen and off, fueled primarily by what she described as a “supportive curiousness” about each other’s work and a genuine respect for what the other does—as well as the ability, when necessary, to shut all of that out and attend to the domestic duties of daily living.

She first met Lonergan in 1996, after he had seen her onstage at a Manhattan Theater Club performance of Craig Lucas’ one-act play, Blue Window, and began asking around to see if she might be interested in doing a workshop of one of his own plays. The two eventually married in 2000 and have been together ever since. She appeared in a small role in his first film, You Can Count on Me, before stepping into a much more prominent role in Margaret a few years later, playing the mother of the film’s teenage protagonist, Lisa (Anna Paquin). It was a role, Smith-Cameron told us, that was one of the very best she’s ever had; she felt quite connected to the character of Joan, and felt she had a good deal in common with her—perhaps not surprising, when you consider she thinks the part was “maybe unconsciously written for me.”

Since her remarkable turn in Margaret a decade ago, J. Smith-Cameron has stayed busy doing television—she’s currently starring in the final season of Ray McKinnon’s brilliant show, Rectify—as well as theater, where’s she starred in, among other things, Lonergan’s 2009 play, The Starry Messenger, alongside Lonergan’s best friend, Matthew BroderickShe’s also busy raising a teenager of her own these days (the couple has a 14 year old daughter together) and finding out firsthand just how eerily accurate her husband’s portrayal of the mother/daughter dynamic in Margaret actually was. She spoke to us late last month about the film.


BW/DR: When did you first become aware of Margaret as a project?

J. Smith-Cameron: We had just had Nellie—I think she was right around six months old—and were spending the summer in Long Island, at the beach, when Kenny started writing the script. I think he probably had actually begun before he knew me though, in the form of notes or scenes. But I remember him writing for long hours, carried away, in what seemed like a kind of effortless flow. His writing desk was on an upper level of our bedroom and I remember lying on the bed, napping with the infant Nellie, and watching Kenny in silhouette, with the sun in the window behind him, tapping away at the computer.

He would talk about it a bit, at dinner maybe, just to say he was having a unique experience—he was just letting it all pour out, in an unchecked way, and felt it was like a kind of Great Experiment, because it was coming of its own force, freely, and he was just letting it unfold.

Does he discuss things with you while he’s actively writing them, or do you wait to see a working draft of the script?  

He generally likes to keep a privacy with his work, which seems like a good practice for all writers. But occasionally he’d read me a funny exchange or show me a scene. It was such a long, elaborate process—writing the script, finding financing, casting, delays, casting again, editing, editing again. Even without the eventual snags it hit, Margaret was always a big project, by the nature of it. He used to call it his “teen epic,” only half joking. It did have epic proportions to it, unlike any film I’ve ever known before, even just in its script form.

He usually does give me a draft to read, or let me see a rough cut of something before others see it; he’s curious, though wary of getting reactions too early, understandably. But I think our relationship doesn’t operate within a critical back-and-forth, as much as in a kind of supportive curiousness about each other’s work. If that makes sense?

Yeah, I think I know what you mean, and I really love that phrase, “a supportive curiousness.” Can you say a bit more about how that plays out, in terms of all the work you both create?

It varies. You know, if I get offered something, or say two things conflict, Kenny will read them if he can and give me his two cents. Or we just think aloud with each other and try to suss out the pros and cons of a choice. He’s very thoughtful that way. He knows I’m generally happier when I am working, even if I gripe about this or that, as people do. He’s just generally encouraging to me. I think it’s one area in which he takes me utterly seriously, as an actor. If there’s something compelling about a character or a script that he doesn’t pick up on right away, he’s always curious to discuss it with me. He’s also interested in my casting suggestions, because we often have very similar taste in actors.

It’s a disaster running lines with him, though. Being a writer, he’ll nitpick over being word-perfect, and for me that comes in stages. I try to first learn the scene in a way that seems natural and makes sense for me—so that I really follow the logic of the conversation in the scene—and then I’ll work on making sure I get every word exactly right. He himself really appreciates actors not paraphrasing his own words, understandably. He says there are some instances where an actor ends up learning a line wrong by mistake and it doesn’t bother him; other times it does. Some actors don’t realize how painstakingly precise he is when he’s writing dialogue. But sometimes you get to a set and the director actually encourages you to put the script aside and improvise a section of it, so I think it’s nice to know the intentions of a scene, so that you could say it as written, or you could try putting it into your own words if asked to.

Do you remember your initial impressions of Joan, your character in the film?

In general, Joan always seemed like a sympathetic character to me. It didn’t occur to me to judge her for being a “self-involved actress” or an “unsympathetic mom,” which it could possibly look like at times from the outside. Certainly, it’s one of the amusing things in the story: how one of the things Joan is insecure about, and juggling, is her production of a play that is going on simultaneously with Lisa’s very real life and death revelations. But, theatre acting is this woman’s livelihood—and anyone who knows anything about the realities of that knows that it’s a very unsung, underpaid kind of career. In the acting community, off-Broadway is where it is acknowledged that the truly serious actors work, and want to work…but it’s stressful. Between critics and small paychecks, months of work can lead to nothing but huge disappointment. And in this case, Joan has this great opportunity and she is trying to get the most out of the moment.

And remember, she doesn’t realize that she’s given Lisa the exact wrong advice and let her down; she never gets the whole explanation that Lisa gives Mr. Aaron. I always saw Joan as being very, very much on Lisa’s side, but being left out of the true scenario of what was going on in her daughter’s head. So of course her daughter rolls her eyes and judges her, because Joan keeps unwittingly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and her problems seem so petty compared to the drama that Lisa is going through.

I personally absolutely believe that if she’d gotten the point of Lisa’s moral dilemma, she’d have responded more helpfully. But boy, she spends the rest of the story wondering what the hell happened to their relationship, wondering if that’s just the inevitable experience of being a mother to a teenager.

You know, I’ve seen the film so many times at this point, and I don’t think I ever actually realized until just now that Joan never got the full story from her daughter. Because we sort of pan into that conversation, as it’s already in progress, and I guess I had just assumed she’d told her mom the whole thing, including her own role in it.

You know, I had to ask Kenny and look at the script after you asked this question. In the extended cut and in the published script, Lisa says “I guess I was kind of waving back to him, because I was trying to get him to stop…” To me this is a fine distinction that is very important. I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying “Mom, I was jumping up and down and flirting with him and he ran the light! Don’t you see why I need to go back to the police?” which is more explicitly what Lisa is feeling guilty about—she does feel somewhat responsible. But it isn’t patently clear to Joan the way she puts it. This was something I hung my character on, really, because to me Joan is not careless, not a bad listener. Maybe she’s a bit guilty of being a knee-jerk liberal and too quickly empathizes with the working class bus driver, by policy, but only because she doesn’t get the real picture. I always felt, in fact, that Joan thinks Lisa needs reassuring that it is not something to feel guilty about, but rather a horrible turn of events that wasn’t her fault, or “not anyone’s fault,” as she says in the script.

I think Kenny felt the whole thing was clear anyway, because Joan is so distracted and embarrassed to be caught in a very private act by her teenage daughter. So, she’s distracted, and doesn’t happen to catch on to what advice Lisa really is hoping to get. Either way, it’s an innocent and understandable misunderstanding on Joan’s part, I think. But to Lisa, it’s a terrible disappointment not to have that firm moral compass there for her at a terribly difficult moment in her life. It’s like in It’s a Wonderful Life, when young George Bailey sees the chemist putting the wrong thing in the capsules and he looks up on the wall and there’s a sign saying “Ask Dad, he knows!” so he takes off for home to try and talk with his father about what the right thing to do is. But his father is in a tense business meeting and can’t talk, so George has to make this scary moral decision all on his own. Lisa has to make a moral decision too, but needs guidance. She wants an adult, someone to be firm with her—and finds it eventually in Jeannie Berlin’s character, Emily. Or anyway, that’s the way I always understood it.

But Joan is trying, which I think is absolutely the most endearing thing a character can do, and something that is wonderful to play as an intention. Likewise, with Ramon [Jean Reno], I think Joan is really trying to understand who he is and trying to give that relationship a chance. So, Kenny did this masterful thing where the relationship between mother and daughter is one of the chief conflicts in the story, but he’s made both women fallible and both women struggling to do the right thing. Joan is starring in this kind of sensational, “moral-dilemma” play that is a hit off-Broadway; Lisa is starring in a true-story teen-opera in her own private life. And neither understands what is going on with the other. It’s poignant and funny and frustrating in turns.

“I don’t know how Kenny can be inside all these different characters’ heads with such equal accuracy all the time, but to me that is just the nature of Kenny’s genius, if I can say that without making him too mad.

Did you and Kenny talk a lot about the role beforehand, or was it something you worked out during rehearsals?

We did talk about Joan beforehand, during rehearsals and then on set, of course. But I think it was fairly obvious to both of us that Joan was maybe unconsciously written for me; there were a lot of things I myself had in common with the character.

What was that like, then, playing a character your husband had written for you that was partially based on you? As an actress, is that more or less of a challenge than, say, the role you currently play in Rectify?

It was fantastic. It was one of those rare times when you feel 100% in communion with the writer—and the director, in this case—about who the character is, and that you’re absolutely on track. It was exhilarating. I felt assured about building, hopefully, a very dimensional character. But, really, I also felt a weird connection with Janet on Rectify too. Not because she was like me, but because I felt I had known that kind of woman from my youth, growing up down south, and I felt a real connection to it, even though it was not at all written for me. Ray McKinnon and I met for the first time at the screen test.

Actors are all really different, naturally. Anna [Paquin] was very facile and very willing to change on a dime to Kenny’s direction; I tended to have really given a lot of thought to it and really worked things out in my head. So I imagine that’s weird for a director, to figure out all the different ways to direct people.

Also, when you work with a spouse—or a best friend, as in Matthew’s case—there’s a certain frankness you can have with each other on set. And even if it means you get crabby with each other once in awhile, it’s ultimately a boon. I mean, every actor has a different process, sometimes even a different process themselves from film to film. Sometimes you want to talk about stuff and sort it out, and other times you just long for them to roll the camera, turn off your critical thinking, and just react. So that’s got to be confusing for a director, too. But we muddled through pretty well. It’s funny to be working on a big project and finally get home at night and talk about Nellie, and school, and who’s going to call to get the heat fixed in the apartment—and not just sit around talking about the next morning’s scene. I think maybe that’s lucky, to maintain a closeness but not make every moment together about the movie.

You and Anna Paquin share several fairly intense scenes—what was it like working with her?

Anna is like an acting warrior princess. And Lisa is sort of a teen crusader in the movie, you know? Plus Anna is just unusually skillful. It was great to work with someone so incredibly ready for the challenge and tireless in this monster part—and to watch her just be crushing it. As for working together, that was sort of a mixed bag, because our characters were not getting along for most of the movie. So, those scenes were not fun exactly; they were lonely, they were wrenching. They keep misunderstanding each other. Joan keeps reaching out but Lisa keeps rebuffing her. But Anna Paquin was just really impressive.

You mentioned in a previous interview that a director once told you “You can’t play something if you don’t have it in your own psyche…” So I’m wondering where you drew Joan from?

I think what I meant about playing something you haven’t experienced is that…if you’ve been in any close relationship, like a family relationship, or a dating relationship and felt out of sync and tortured in it, then I think you can understand Joan! And I guess I meant you can’t play a deep-feeling person if you yourself are not in touch with your emotions—if they’re not accessible. Otherwise it’s more like mimicry, not acting.

And as a mother of a teenage daughter now, do you think you’d approach it any differently today?

I saw the film recently after a long time away, and our daughter has only just started high school this year, but I was shocked at how “true” Kenny had crafted the tug of war of attachment/detachment that happens between parents and a teenager. And I think it holds up! She was, I think, about five when we were shooting the movie, so at the time I was simply going off of what was written, and not drawing from firsthand experience—empathizing with both mother and daughter—but now it screams back at me with great accuracy. Ugh!

Yeah, it must be so interesting now to have a teenage daughter, after having made a movie where you and Kenny played the parents of one more than a decade ago! So, now that you have a teenager in the house, has it changed the way you think about the character of Joan (or Lisa) at all?

Well, like I said before, mostly I’m just shocked by how dead-on it is. So maybe it’s the other way around: doing Margaret made me a little bit more prepared to parent a teenager. I try not to take things too personally as she asserts her independence. So far, things haven’t become that extreme, though, thank god.

Has she seen Margaret?

No, she hasn’t seen it yet. I think it would be a little weird at this point to see her mom in some of those scenes. She doesn’t even like to watch me in Rectify, I think because the character is often so sad and heartbroken. Also, I think Nellie needs to think of me as a mom, not an actress. Maybe in a few years. I do think she would appreciate the story though. Maybe she should read it! It’s a very good read.

We’re mostly trying to stay away from all the hassles, legal and otherwise, that your husband went through in trying to get his vision of the film released by the studio. But as his partner during that process, what was it like to watch him go through all of that?

It was naturally very, very heart wrenching and draining for me, as both a wife and a collaborator, to stand by and watch the deluge of issues that beset Kenny at various stages. It was very hard, because even though I think all his scripts are really remarkable, Margaret was a kind of “master opus;” just the scale and size and scope of it. I felt that this script, the casting, the way it was shot…it was all wondrously virtuosic, so it drove me crazy to see Kenny saddled with all these restraints, and then not have the film properly released and celebrated.

What was your favorite scene to shoot in the film?

I guess my favorite scene to shoot was the scene towards the end of the story where I come into Lisa’s bedroom to try to get a hug and connect with her, after the funeral. I also really loved breaking all those dishes in the scene where she tells me she’s thinking of moving to California with her dad, and the scene in the abortion clinic, where Joan is worried about Lisa but is also taking in all the anguished people in the waiting room.

There are many, many scenes I was not involved in, too, that I think are pretty incredible. Really, truly, too many to list. I think the bus accident is a masterpiece of a scene; not just how incredible Allison and Anna are, but all the people gathered in the streets—even the non-speaking actors. I also really enjoy all of the classroom scenes; all those kids, and Matthew Broderick as the English teacher reading King Lear, or T. Scott Cunningham and the fabulous theatre rehearsal sequence! And every time I watch Jonathan Hadary as the lawyer—it’s so specific and well drawn a characterization; Betsy Aidem as the cousin in those scenes with him as well. Likewise, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Kevin Geer with Anna in the police station! I just get such pleasure at how distinctly these characters are written and performed.

And also, well I guess they’re not scenes so much as shots, but: the snaking, glimmering, twinkling cabs shimmering all the way up Madison Avenue as the camera pans up and up to follow them into infinity; the 360 degree shot of Central Park, with the birds and the planes and the child singing off-camera (which was Nellie apparently, I recently learned); the incredible long tracking shot from off Ramon’s balcony; the overheard dialogue, the slow-mo credits of all the zillions of New Yorkers making their way up and down Broadway…these “scenes” kill me. New York City is a major character in the movie!

I also have to ask about the imitations you do in the restaurant near the beginning of the film! Were they in the script because they’re something Kenny already knew you did?

Ha! We all like to do impressions around here…even Nellie is good at mimicry. Kenny is, himself, an excellent mimic. But yes, he knew I could imitate Shirley Temple fairly well. When we were getting to know each other, I told him one of the first signs I had that I might become an actor is that I would do a very credible baby-cry for my baby-dolls when I was little and played dolls. He eventually heard it and wanted to put it in.

Do you do other impressions then?

Yes, I sort of do some other impressions, or I imagine I do. I do a pretty good Audrey Hepburn. I kind of wish that was in the film rather than that crazy baby cry. I think Kenny liked the baby cry because it is so odd—it kind of breaks everything down to some kind of friendly, goofy mood. And it’s one of the very few times where you see what their relationship was like before they start not getting along.

I always said to Kenny: it’s hard because we have to insinuate that they were once close—but for most of the story, for the audience, what you see is them not connecting. And he cited this scene as the scene that kind of shows the fun they normally had together. It’s a very little bit, proportionately, of the story, where you see them getting along well—but I think the scene is so helpful to the story, because you get to see how cheerful the camaraderie can be between Joan and Lisa, and what the jolly side is of having a mum who’s an actress. Plus, it’s a little bit of relief from the horror of recent events for Lisa.