For more than 20 years, Emmy Award–winner Nancy Cartwright ’81 has lived a double life — hers, and the role that made the accomplished voice actress world-famous: Bart Simpson. But there are many other aspects to this multi-talented artist: She’s a comedian, playwright, author, Internet producer, app creator and race-car driver, just to name a few.
Of all your voice roles, what’s your favorite non-Bart character?
Probably Nelson. His character arc has changed the most dramatically of any character on The Simpsons. He has evolved into Nelson Mandela Muntz. His dad abandoned him when he was really young. His mom works at Hooters. He’s a latchkey kid. And an incredible vocalist. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s just really fun to play. But it’s tough on my throat.
You say Bart is a very easy voice to do.
Yes. Just where it hits on my larynx. It doesn’t stress my vocal chords.
You started doing voices in fourth grade, right?
I started telling stories in competition when I was 10. It was “How the Camel Got Its Hump” by Rudyard Kipling. I started getting laughs from the audience and I milked it. I ended up winning. And I won the next year with a poem. Then I started to pursue other things like children’s theater, and by the time I got to high school they had a speech team, and that’s when things really opened up.
Was there ever a point where you said, “You know, I’d like to be a voice actor”?
I think when the competition judges start saying you’ve got an unusual voice, you should do cartoons.
And it wasn’t long before you began to be mentored by Yogi Bear.
That’s right. I met Daws [Butler, the legendary actor who voiced Yogi and Huckleberry Hound, among many others] through a representative of Warner Bros. Music while I was working at a radio station in Dayton [Cartwright’s home town]. She said, “If you send me a tape, I can get it to the right person.” And she was true to her word. So I called Daws up and next thing you know, we had this long-distance, student/mentor relationship. I was at Ohio University at the time, on the speech team. I would record my voice on a cassette, and sometimes the members of the speech team would come to my dorm or my apartment and we’d record stuff and I’d mail it back and Daws would critique it.
And the summer after graduating from UCLA, you ended up in Kenyon College performing with Jonathan Winters.
I was a huge fan. Plus, it was an opportunity to go back and play in Ohio where my family could come see me. You have to be able to hold your own on stage with a performer like that, because the guy is such an amazing artist. That was an interesting summer. While I was gone, they were casting for a TV movie and they had seen a lot of actresses. Mare Winningham, Helen Hunt. It was a true story set in the 1930s about Marian Rose White, whose mother was not a great person and gave Marian over as a ward of the state. She was put in the system and drugged. But Marian also had a sense of humor. Jonathan had given me this ridiculous, polyurethane visor in the shape of a lobster. So I went to the audition with this lobster visor. I got the part.
Speaking of unusual credits, how do you get into character when you’re playing a shoe about to be dipped in acid, as you did in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Well, what I don’t do is dip my own foot in acid. No, it’s easy. I’m an actor, I act.
Let’s say you could transport yourself back 20-plus years to the first time the original Simpsons cast did a script reading. How would that scene be different from watching the cast do a table read today?
We didn’t do table reads at the beginning because the show started as little vignettes [on The Tracey Ullman Show]. So we would just go to the sound stage and go up to the production booth. Now, there are 80 to 100 people in the room. Writers, producers and the actors, all at this big, huge conference room table. And around the perimeter are a lot of guests and all the writer’s assistants and staff.
It’s almost like a performance.
I think all of us consider it a performance. And it takes twice as long as the actual show because of the laugh factor. Sometimes, it stops the show because we are so thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
People certainly know your name. But how many know your face?
Yeah, I have celebrity status but I’m anonymous at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds.
You’re also a multiple-threat entertainer and a NASCAR driver.
Indeed. 158.2 miles per hour. In 2001 or 2002, we noticed that there wasn’t any animation in the sports arena and it might be cool to bring that to the Internet. So I established a relationship with Turner Sports, who ran the NASCAR.com website. My company created an animated web series called The Kellys. We wrote and produced 40 three-minute episodes about this animated stock-car racing family. The Internet was just gathering momentum [and] the bandwidth and video platforms reaching homes weren’t fully developed, so we ran into brick walls — sorry for the pun! I took my writers and staff and went out to what is now the Auto Club Speedway and took some lessons. I beat all of my writers. Left ’em in the dust. I decided to go for it and get my NASCAR license.
And you have a racing app now, too.
Smoke Your Tires is not a race-car driving app. That’s what’s cool about it. In this app, you’ve won the race and you’re going to smoke your tires. Take a victory spin. You get points for spins. The first two tracks are free — Homestead and Daytona — and after that, you have access to all the International Speedway Corp. tracks.
You’re working in all these different platforms. What’s the next frontier?
A screenplay that I’m writing called In Search of Fellini. In the late ’80s [pre-Simpsons], I went to Italy to find Federico Fellini. I had been studying acting and knew every scene from La Strada. Something about that film I really connected with. I started in Milan and went to Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa and ended up at the Vatican on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass. It was amazing. Here was this little blonde chick in a sea of nuns. I ended up not meeting Fellini, but I did a one-woman show about it, also called In Search of Fellini [which won a Drama-Logue Award in 1995]. The other thing I’m doing is a prime-time animated show. We’ve got all the characters developed; the concept’s not been done before. So you will be hearing about that.
That’s all you’re going to say about it?
No, I can’t.
Too soon, huh?
Will it be a Fox show?
That would be fabulous.
Ay, Caramba! Check out Cartwright’s Smoke Your Tires app, read the latest news about her projects and more at her official website, NancyCartwright.com.