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Nancy Cartwright on landing the role of Bart Simpson: “I did not want to do Lisa”

The voice actress tells us about playing the role of a (literal) lifetime on our podcast.

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Nancy Cartwright hangs out with her famous alter ego, Bart Simpson, in 2012.
Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The name Nancy Cartwright might not immediately ring a bell when you read it on the page. You might not even recognize her if you bumped into her on the street (the premise of a viral video featuring the actress from earlier this year).

But you know what? You know Nancy Cartwright. The second she opened her mouth to speak, it would take all of a few seconds to say, “You sound familiar.” And then she might slip into the voice of her most famous character — one Bart Simpson — and everything would click into place.

The fun of playing Bart is that many people do a bit of a double-take when they learn that the most famous 10-year-old boy on television is voiced by an adult woman, who was pregnant when she auditioned for the role, in her early 30s when The Simpsons began, and is now a grandmother as the series enters its 29th season. (It became only the second primetime American scripted series to make more than 600 episodes in 2016.)

But when Cartwright first got the audition, she wasn’t even sure what it was for. People kept telling her it was for “interstitials” on the sketch comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show — but she knew what that meant as much as you do.

“I was told it was called an interstitial, and I had never heard that word before. ‘What’s an interstitial?’ ‘Well, it’s a bumper!’ ‘What’s a bumper?’” she says on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

After she had clarified that the animated shorts were designed to buffer The Tracey Ullman Show from its ads and serve as an eye-catching segue into and out of commercial, she felt a mild disappointment. “I thought, oh, so it’s not even really a show? It’s just one minute of animation? … I was a little nonplussed by the whole thing,” Cartwright says.

Cartwright had gone in to audition for Lisa Simpson, but Lisa wasn’t the character she was drawn to. I’ll let her tell the rest:

I did not want to do Lisa. I saw Lisa there, but the audition for Bart was right there, and bam, between 8-year-old middle child and a 10-year-old school-hating underachiever and proud of it, [adopts Bart voice] who would not wanna do that, man?

That’s the one I wanted to do, and I did it, and [creator] Matt Groening hired me on the spot. So that was a very good decision on my part. But other than that, to me, it was just another job.

Flash-forward about 48 interstitials later, and PR for the show was saying, “Yeah, we’re going to develop this into a half-hour show on primetime, and Bart’s gonna be the star.” I was, like, “Whoa, really? I love that idea!” ... But none of us had a clue, including [co-developers of the series] Matt and Jim [Brooks] and Sam [Simon], that 30 years later we’d still be on the air, still producing new shows. It’s incredible.

And why did she take to Bart so quickly?

It was his personality. It was fun. He was a fun character to do. He was recalcitrant. He was a troublemaker, and you just got one dimension on him for quite a while.

When we entered into the half-hour show, though, they had a lot of leeway, not unlike a half-hour sitcom. So there was time to develop him, and obviously Matt and Jim and Sam all of them contributed to the development and the arc not only of the show but of the characters.

Recently, I’ve been looking at the oldest episodes and realizing, God, there was so much happening. The look of the show, it’s changed so much, because of the introduction, decades later, of digital [animation], but even our voices. People have asked me, “Do you think Bart’s voice has changed over the years?” And I say, “No, I don’t think so,” but it actually has.

From there, you should really listen as she demonstrates all the various voices of Bart she’s adopted over the years. To check it out, jump to the five-minute mark in the podcast, then keep listening for more stories from The Simpsons and Cartwright’s upcoming screenwriting debut, the film In Search of Fellini.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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