Anna Deavere Smith’s West Wing role came (in part) thanks to Madeleine Albright
Anna Deavere Smith almost turned down the role of National Security Advisor Dr. Nancy McNally on The West Wing. The acclaimed playwright-actress, who had appeared in Aaron Sorkin’s film The American President, was in the midst of finishing up work on one of her own projects at Harvard and some important folks were coming to see her. Her then publicist, the late Stephen Rivers, a big fan of the NBC political drama, intervened. “He was like, ‘You’re out of your mind, you have to go! Get on that plane!’ He was like a terrier,” she says with a laugh.
At the time, there was talk that if George W. Bush was elected president, Condoleezza Rice would be part of his cabinet. “I knew Condi from Stanford, where I had been a professor,” says Smith, 70. “So my joke is, I’m actually the first African-American woman national security advisor. ” But, she says, another powerful woman also chimed in on casting. “Madeleine Albright would credit herself with me having this job,” says Smith, well-known for her roles on Nurse Jackie and black-ish and her critically acclaimed one-woman stage shows including Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Notes From the Field. “I also had known Madeleine. She would say it's because they would be filming around her house in Georgetown. She went over to one of the producers and said, ‘Look, John Spencer [as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry] couldn't possibly be doing all the things you have him doing, and you really need to have a woman. You need a secretary of state, and it ought to be a woman.’ Of course, it was the national security advisor, not the secretary of state, but she credits herself with me being employed.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had worked with Aaron and Martin Sheen in the 1995 film The American President, so you knew a bit about what you were getting into.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I lucked out because I don't do television that often. I've just been really lucky in terms of the writing that I've been able to be a part of, and the acting, the directing, all of it. It's just really high-class people, let alone very talented people, but really great human beings. Martin Sheen should have an award for just being one of the best human beings in the world. Getting to know him and therefore his family, his wonderful wife, Janet, that was a real gift.
I’m curious about your time working with the late John Spencer.
First of all, he was incredibly disciplined. It was pretty scary, I would have to say, with that show, because the language that I had was not language that your common walking person speaks.
Yes, besides having to talk quickly you had so much military lingo to get right.
Even my mother was like, "I don't know what you're saying. It's too fast for me." It was a language that people don't really speak. [As a recurring character] I was there infrequently. They're playing with each other every day, and the last thing you wanted to do was be thrown out onto this all-star basketball court. I was always scared that I would mess up a line, or that my mouth wouldn't move fast enough. I remember John Spencer saying to me that what he would do is every weekend was just learn it all so that he could, as he put it, play.
Now, I know that Aaron was notorious for changing stuff as well, but I just remember thinking, “Wow, I admire that kind of discipline.” Usually I got my stuff the night before, so I didn't have that luxury. [Laughs] But look, for something that I did infrequently, for something that I wasn't particularly looking for, it was an amazing gift.
In my stage work, I've gone out on stage in places and when people were applauding, I'd go, "Well, now, how many of you are applauding because you know my work in the theater?" Just a few people were applauding. "How many of you are applauding because you saw me very infrequently on The West Wing?" [Louder, more enthusiastic] Clap, clap, clap, yay, yay, yay. [Laughs] I have a healthy dose of humility in terms of what the exposure for being on that show did for me as well.
In that trademark Sorkin fashion, Nancy was both deadly serious but also briskly snarky, dunking on Leo and the president or Admiral Fitzwallace [John Amos]. Was it fun to play her?
Yeah. I have to say that again, the biggest demand is like the singers who say, "Look, I'm just trying to hit the note." It was a bit like that. It's just the coming in infrequently, the sense I come in, I leave, I'd better do a good job.
I used to get my hair done in L.A., at a place called Menage a Trois. It's no longer there. There was a Japanese hair stylist I would see, who would never say anything to me. Sometimes hairstylists would be a little bit snobby. And one day he walked by me and he said, "Oh, oh. You’re on that show." I looked at him, and he goes, "Yeah, yeah. I don't know. You talk so fast, I don't know what you’re saying. I just know every time you come on, everybody's scared." [Laughs] I thought, well, I guess I'm doing my job.
Were you a fan of the show, independent of your participation on it?
It wasn't that I wasn't a fan, but I wasn't tuned into it. At the time I was involved in multiple projects. I had that thing happening at Harvard. I was finishing up a play of mine called House Arrest, and I was also preparing to do Twilight: Los Angeles as a film. I had not been watching the show. Now, I know that makes it sound like I lived under a rock, but in fact at that time I was living under a rock. [Laughs] That's also why I was like, "Well, I'm sorry, but I've got this thing happening at Harvard, so I can't go." When I look back on it, it's sort of ridiculous. It would have been awful when I came up out from under my rock and realized what I had passed on! So I have to thank the late Stephen Rivers for insisting that I get on that plane.