For the past nine years, Phyllis Smith has played Phyllis (Lapin) Vance, the sneakily snarky den mother on NBC’s The Office. The Lemay, Mo. native was a dancer during her youth—she was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals cheerleading squad and was once part of a burlesque troupe in her home city—but her role on The Office was her very first acting gig. When the series finale airs May 16 at 9 p.m., she will have appeared in all 184 episodes.
At 61, Smith plans to continue her unexpected acting career. We talked with her by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives with her 91-year-old mother and her four cats.
You filmed the final episode of The Office a few weeks ago. What was that like?
Bittersweet. Just about everybody on the crew has been with us for the entire nine years. We’ve seen so many babies born, and kids starting school and everything else. So that was hard. And for me, in the morning we’re so used to being greeted by the lovely people in the trailers who make us look gorgeous. Now I get out of bed and nobody does my hair and nobody does my makeup. I have to get used to that after nine years!
The Office was your first acting job, after years of casting shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Spin City. How did that happen?
I was working on the pilot in the casting department and we were pairing up people to see what the chemistry was like. The director had me read the character of Pam one day. I just assumed that someone hadn’t shown up, or was late, or whatever. I had no idea he was auditioning me. I’m glad I didn’t know.
How did the show change your life?
My parents were living in St. Louis at the time and they were older, and my dad was ill, and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to keep my job in casting. The work was in L.A. and they were in St. Louis. And I literally prayed to help me win the lottery. There was absolutely no way on my salary in casting that I could ever afford to travel back and forth to them and do what I’ve been able to do.
One of the appealing things about The Office was that it treated its older characters with the same respect (or comedic lack thereof) as the younger ones.
I felt kind of ageless there. Occasionally they would make note of the fact that Phyllis was older. They called me Granny Goose one time. In general, I think (creator) Greg Daniels and the writers did a great job of keeping the characters fresh. They didn’t dwell on age.
Any favorite episodes?
I enjoyed my wedding, of course. There were other little moments that really didn’t involve me that I loved. The Oscar/Michael moment when he kisses Oscar was very funny. That was completely ad-libbed. He planted one on him!
Any thought about what happens to Phyllis after the finale?
Well, I think even though she’s married to one of the richest guys in Scranton, she’s going to continue to work. Maybe a refrigerator falls on Bob and she ends up running Vance Refrigeration while he recuperates.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a voice in a Pixar movie, though unfortunately I can’t tell you the title. I think it’s really going to be great. I auditioned this past week for a film. I did an ABC pilot, though we won’t find out for a while if it’s going to get picked up.
You had quite a career transformation after your 50th birthday. What would you say to others who are transitioning to a new phase of life, either at work or in their personal life?
Just go for it. Don’t be afraid of trying new things. You have absolutely no idea what’s going to present itself to you. Don’t be frightened. Just buckle down and do whatever your heart desires.