J. Smith-Cameron's role-changing, name-changing career

Actress J. Smith-Cameron has fashioned an impressive career on stage and in film.

But what about her unusual name? It's the result of an identity change that started a long time ago.

"I was called Jeanie when I was growing up. And in high school, I felt that it was a little girl's name. My family's last name was Smith," says the actress, who has just completed a run in Douglas Carter Beane's off-Broadway comedy "Music from a Sparkling Planet."

Seated in a large, comfortable armchair in the Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her husband, writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, the actress explains that she was known as "J. Smith" for several years.

"But when I got my Equity card, I found out that they have a rule where two people can't have the same professional name," she recounts. "There were lots of Smiths with a first name that starts with J. And Cameron is a family name."

She settled on J. Cameron, until an early film she worked on as a teenager showed up on the New York Film Festival list. "I wrote to the director, Victor Nunez, and asked him to change my billing, so I could capitalize on this movie coming out. He sent me a poster in the mail, and when I unrolled it, it said J. Smith, dash, Cameron. I thought, well, I'll figure something out later. And, of course, I never did. Finally, I just legally changed my name."

A dozen years later, the brown-haired South Carolina native continues to impress audiences and critics. Three seasons ago, Ms. Smith-Cameron caused a sensation portraying Alexa Vere de Vere in Mr. Beane's wickedly funny "As Bees in Honey Drown," produced by New York's Drama Dept. theater company. The New York Times enthused that she "approached divinity in the role."

But long before that, her early New York roles included Babe in "Crimes of the Heart," Beth Henley's story of sisters dealing with loss through black comedy. As Dabby Bryant in Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1991 assaulting drama "Our Country's Good," she portrayed "a nasty, rotten, despicable woman, a real survivor," she says, in a Australian prison camp, and received a Tony nomination for her efforts. A string of comedy parts included roles in Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor," David Lindsay-Abaire's "Fuddy Meers," and a recurring role in TV's satirical series "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd."

"As a child, I studied violin," she explains between bites of a bagel topped with cream cheese and tomato. "My sister, who's 10 years older, was the actress in the family. I was painfully shy." Winning the lead in her high school production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" changed all that.

She credits "playing in an orchestra as one of the best experiences, because it forces you to listen, to learn when you're playing the melody, and when you're playing the harmony. Actors need to learn when their character is front and center, and when it's more in the background. And it does help you learn a sense of timing."

She endured one year at college, but quickly picked up roles in regional theater and children's theater for three years, "which sort of served as my college education. I've done a lot of classics, and worked with some really good directors and actors. It was very good training."

That paid off when tackling complex comedy parts. "People think that, when you're doing comedy, nothing means anything, that people run around and act crazy. It's quite the opposite. The stakes are life-and-death."

She recalls, in "Lend Me a Tenor," how each character "believed they would implode if they didn't get what they needed, right that second. Our director, Jerry Zaks, had a very good handle on that. And also, because it was a '30s-style comedy, he was very good at that Rosalind Russell-Cary Grant 'His Girl Friday' rat-a-tat-tat speed to the repartee."

Looking back a few years, Smith-Cameron recalls that "people were thinking of me as this fizzy comedienne, because a lot of the plays I did that had long runs had those roles."

She again challenged those who categorized her when she joined the cast of Emlyn Williams' "Night Must Fall," a brooding '30s suspense thriller revived on Broadway in 1999, starring Matthew Broderick. Her calculating characterization - matching wills with, and plotting against, Broderick's intruder - kept the audience spellbound.

Filmgoers saw her in a small role as Broderick's office assistant in "You Can Count on Me," written and directed by her husband, Mr. Lonergan. "People keep asking me when Kenny's going to write a major role for me, and I explain to them that it doesn't work that way," she says. "A character has to come naturally to a writer, and not simply because he wants to write something for his wife."

A favorite stage appearance for her was in "Fuddy Mears." It was "the kind of play I love - very funny but very tragic and poignant." As an amnesia victim trying to fend for herself amid an array of deceitful yet charming family, friends, and enemies, her character "was an innocent, agreeable, and hopeful. And they don't usually write women over 35 with those qualities. But, in fact, women between 35 and 50 face a bewildering time, when everything's changing, biological clocks are ticking, their kids are either not coming or are growing up and leaving, and their roles in society are shifting. It's a very fertile ground ... [that] rarely gets exploited theatrically."

In real life, Smith-Cameron is ready to take on a new role. She and Lonergan are expecting their first child in late January. Her last role to date is a guest appearance on NBC's new "Law & Order" spinoff, "Criminal Intent," scheduled for later this season. "I do have a few plays I've been looking at ... that I can think about, once the baby comes," she says. "Right now, that's where my mind is."

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