role call

Brooke Smith Answers Every Question We Have About The Silence of the Lambs

“I know I’ll forever be the girl in the pit. For sure. And I’m okay with that.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Orion Pictures

It’s been nearly 30 years since Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs destroyed all remaining positive associations with fava beans. But the film, a gloriously fucked-up pas de deux between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, remains as chilling as it was back in the ’90s. Though most of the two-plus hours centers on Foster’s FBI-agent-in-training Clarice Starling as she tries to psychologically penetrate Hopkins’s charming cannibal Hannibal Lecter, some of the most disturbing sequences feature Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) — the human-skin-sporting serial killer whom Clarice is tasked with hunting down — as he tortures his hostage, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), in the dungeon-like basement of his suburban home.

Played with believably raw terror and rage by Smith, Catherine is far more than your garden-variety, interchangeable ’90s horror-movie victim. Though she’s only in a handful of scenes, each one is indelibly upsetting, in large part due to Smith’s extreme commitment and probably inflamed vocal cords. Smith begins the movie cheerfully singing along to “American Girl,” makes “getting tricked into the back of a van” feel like a new and terrifying trope, rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again, uses a chicken bone to turn a small dog into a co-conspirator, calls Jodie Foster a “fucking bitch,” and eventually lives to see daylight again. Though it’d be easy for her to fade into the background, surrounded as she is by god-level performers acting their asses right off, Smith is just as memorable as “I’d Fuck Me” Levine and Foster’s lamb monologue. In honor of Vulture’s unofficial Horror Month, I called up Smith to talk about what it’s like to forever be the “girl in the pit,” her memories of rubbing lotion on her skin, screaming at Jodie Foster and bonding with Jonathan Demme, and why Levine refuses to talk about Silence of the Lambs anymore.

Where am I reaching you?
Well, I started the pandemic in the States, and then on August 1 I drove with my dog to Vancouver, did my first two-week quarantine, and when I had a little break a month later, I went home, saw my kids, and came back and did another two-week quarantine, and now I’m filming David E. Kelley’s new show, Big Sky.

When was the last time you saw The Silence of the Lambs?
Probably when my daughter was 16, I showed it to her, I think. Maybe a year and a half ago?

What did she think?
I’m sure it was really annoying to watch it with me, because I just kept laughing.

I don’t know! I don’t know what it was. Every time I came on, I just started laughing, and she was like, “Moomm!”

Did she find it scary at all, or was that undercut by the laughter?
Maybe undercut by the laughter, maybe undercut by something else. I don’t know — she can watch really scary stuff that I can’t.

What do you remember about where you were when the movie came your way?
Oh, boy. I was a very serious young actress. And I had spent a lot of time losing weight, because you’re supposed to be skinny when you’re an actress. At least you were back then. And then I heard about this role, and I met with Jonathan, and he didn’t audition me, because I think he trusted himself enough. Those were the days when they trusted the director enough that there wasn’t a whole committee that approved me. He met with me, talked with me, told me what it was gonna be. I remember him asking me, “Why do you wanna do this?” Which is a very good question. I remember it was because I thought I couldn’t. I just thought, I don’t think I can do this. So he gave me the part. I had to gain 25 pounds, which was really fun. I was also just coming out of my life in punk rock, and entering my life as an actress.

Your life in punk rock?
I was part of the New York hardcore scene in the ’80s, so I’d been spending all my time there. Then I got my SAG card in Alan Rudolph’s movie The Moderns when I was about 18 or 19, and I started realizing I definitely wanted to be an actress. And then this came along. So, perfect timing.

What do you think Jonathan saw in you that made him think you’d be right for the part without auditioning you?
Hmm … that’s a good question. Because Jonathan weirdly came from publicity, and my mother was a big publicist, he knew I was her daughter. So I guess there’s that element of being the senator’s daughter. I don’t know what he saw in me! I don’t know. I guess just that I was gung-ho to go as far as he wanted me to.

Was there any part of you that hesitated to take on something this dark? Or were you like, “Let’s go for it.”
I was like, “Let’s go for it.” There were certain agents at the time who told me not to do it, which I think is hilarious now. I kinda did then, too. I was like, “I’m gonna say no?!” They thought I’d be stereotyped, locked into the fat-girl category. They said it would be very hard to get out of. Which is not completely untrue. But there was no way I wasn’t going to do it.

I want to come back to that idea, but what kind of prep work did you do? Were you looking into victims of serial killers?
I didn’t do that kind of research. I more did the visceral, “lock yourself in your parents’ basement closet” research. I literally did that. I remember thinking, If you’re kidnapped by a serial killer, he probably doesn’t leave the lights on when he leaves. We had this storage room in our basement, and I remember closing the door and going in there and being like, “Oh, man. This is a lot.” [Laughs.] And then thinking about things — I thought about things like, What if I was having my period when the serial killer got me? What if I had contact lenses and they dried out and I couldn’t see very well? That kind of stuff.

I had a lot of bad dreams before we shot. But by the time we got there, I was pretty relaxed. I think all that screaming is a kind of primal therapy. So I’d be really relaxed at lunchtime, and all of the teamsters and everyone would be not relaxed, after having lived through the past few hours of me screaming.

What were your nightmares about?
The whole movie confronted me with the fact that, if you’re in this circumstance, are you gonna fight for your life or are you gonna give up? I’m not gonna lie, I had some issues going on, and I remember thinking that was the difference between Catherine and myself. I didn’t have as much self-worth back then. It wasn’t the most obvious thing for me to do. And that made me sort of examine, “Okay, wait a minute, why don’t I wanna live?” I’m making it sound a little more than it was, but, I just remember going, “Oh, okay, so what’s going on here?” And it led me into years of therapy.

So at the time you couldn’t relate to her struggle to survive?
Yeah, I just remember feeling like … it was something about how it wasn’t that easy for me to jump into that. I just looked at that and tried to figure that out. And hopefully I have figured that out, now that I’m 53!

Do you think you have figured it out?
Oh, yeah. And maybe I wouldn’t have gotten myself into that situation [that Catherine gets into].

What do you mean, you wouldn’t have helped Buffalo Bill with the couch?
Maybe not, if it was Ted playing Jame Gumb, looking the way he did. Maybe I wouldn’t have. [Laughs.]

I know we’re talking about fictional people here, but do you blame her for being kidnapped?
No! Come on. You should be able to help people without being kidnapped by a serial killer. I haven’t read the book in awhile, but I believe in the book, she’s stoned. Smoking weed with her boyfriend, and something about potato chips in the car. Not a convenient time to be kidnapped by a serial killer. But no, I don’t blame her.

Let’s talk about Ted. I understand you auditioned with a few different people for Buffalo Bill, right? What stood out about Ted?
I already had the part and it was like, “Hey, Brooke, can you come in and read for the three people for callbacks, for the three people we’re bringing in for the role?” I guess they wanted to see what we looked like together. And oh my God. Ted was just it. He walked in the door, and he wasn’t an actor trying to get a job. The guy who had gone before him had props, had everything figured out, what he wanted to do. And they were like, “Thanks for coming in!” And he was like, “Well, you flew me here.” I was like, “Oh, damn! Okay!” I can’t really say what [Ted] did in that room, except I thought, Oh my God, I’ll never be able to audition again. Because if people are this good in the room, I’ll never be able to get any work.

I remember asking him later, on set, “What did you do? You were unbelievable.” He was like, “It’s so funny you say that. Because I didn’t know what I was gonna do. So I just drank a lot of coffee.” And I’m not even kidding, for the next 20 years, whenever I was in doubt about an audition, I was like, Oh, what the hell, I’ll just drink a lot of coffee.

Did it work?
It didn’t always work out so well, no.

What was your relationship with Ted like? Were you friends? Were you a little terrified of him?
No, we were friends. And I’ve thought about that. Is it that thing people talk about, where you overcompensate? For the weird stuff we were shooting? Jodie nicknamed me Patty Hearst, because I was always hanging out with Ted, which people thought was a little odd. But all my scenes were with him and — I can’t remember the name of the dog. I knew this recently — Darla! We had to take care of each other to shoot those scenes. We had to trust each other.

When was the last time you saw him?
Oh my God, it’s been awhile. I remember having lunch with him in New York. So maybe 13 years ago.

So you don’t keep in touch?
No, no. But I love Ted. I just love him.

I reached out to him for an interview, too, and his agent said he doesn’t talk about the movie anymore. Did you know that?
I did, yeah.

What do you make of that?
I think he’s probably said all he wants to say about it, you know? And in terms of getting pigeonholed as something, it’s about that. He’s not just that thing, and for a long time, those were the roles he was offered.

Do you feel like you were pigeonholed?
No, no I wasn’t. I just feel like, whatever I do, I’m gonna commit to it, and do it. And if people can’t deal with that, that’s their problem. I’m an actress! That’s what I do. If you wanna forever think of me as whatever, go right ahead.

I know you only have that one scene with Jodie, but I’m curious how much you actually interacted with her on set, especially considering most of the scene is just you screaming at her from within the pit.
I remember her being around. I remember we were around at the same time, so, I don’t know. I guess for the whole last sequence of her coming in there, that was a huge marathon of shooting for a few days. It’s funny, I just ran into her at a children’s birthday party in L.A. It was such a trip to be sitting there with her — her with her kids and me with my kids. I didn’t spend too much time with her on the set, but enough. I was blown away by how smart she was. She really sees things as a director. I remember it this way; I don’t know if this is true: But I remember it was her idea to keep everything in such extreme close-up in the scenes between her and Lecter. She just thought all we needed were the close-ups, we didn’t need to go wide or do a big master. I just remember being so totally impressed. She grew up in it. She knows everything about filmmaking.

What are your favorite memories of Jonathan?
I’m gonna sound like a cranky old bitch, but I was basically saying how I remember the old days, where they’d hire who was the best at the job and just let them do their jobs. When you work on a TV show, there’s all these people you never meet who have a say in what you’re wearing and what you look like. It’s kind of wild and feels corporate, at times. With Jonathan, it was just such an incredible feeling. It felt like a big party. We were all invited to this great party, and we were having a great time, but in the final moments, we would want to do our best for Jonathan, because he believed in us. You really felt that on every level, from craft service to the DP to the star. It’s a great feeling.

A lot of times I work on a show now and you do camera tests and they’re like, “Oh, this is what they want your hair to look like.” And you’re like, “Who are they? And what are they basing this on?” [Laughs.] I don’t really get that. If I was running a studio, I’d hire the best people and let them do their jobs, and take all the credit.

And I also remember being in the pit with him, and having this really intense conversation, and him saying, dead seriously, “You know that feeling when you’re in prison?” [Laughs.] I was like, “No, I don’t, Jonathan.” The last time I saw him, weirdly, he’d moved to the town next to my hometown, which is so strange. And I was visiting my parents and I went to a yoga class and I ran into Jonathan.

Wow. When was that?
Wild, right? Oh my God. I have no idea. Maybe 20 years ago?

When we first meet you, you’re singing “American Girl” and driving, totally carefree. It’s the only time in the film you’re not being tortured. What was his direction there?
There was a lot of talk about what the song was gonna be. And they asked for my input, and like I said, I was coming out of hardcore punk, so I thought the Bad Brains was the way to go. I wasn’t seeing the big picture of me representing the American girl, and all of that.

I remember when we shot [the scene], it wasn’t on the schedule. They threw me in a car, and it was on this enormous two-by-four, and they were rocking it. It was totally wild. The only direction I remember from Jonathan was, “Keep your eyes on the road!” Maybe I wasn’t the safest driver.

And the song it almost was Chaka Khan, “Tell Me Something Good.” So when I hear “American Girl,” obviously, I think of [the movie], but also when I hear [Chaka Khan].

There are all these childhood photos of Catherine onscreen when her mom pleads with the killer to return her. I’m assuming those are really you? How did you pick those out?
Oh my God, hilarious. They asked for childhood photos, I sent them a big folder full of them, and they picked those ones. But they also really wanted home movies. I remember giving them all of these Super 8s that my parents had, and I guess they couldn’t use a single one, because they were so terrible. When we got them back, some poor assistant had to write, like, “Psycho beach party, out of focus from 20 feet.” I guess my home movies were not up to par. But it’s wild, because that one picture of me as a tiny baby with my head on my dog Beaver’s belly, is kind of an iconic Smith family photo. I’m sure it shocked my family members when they saw the film.

What was their overall reaction to it?
You’d have to call them! I’d be curious to hear what my brothers think.

The lotion in the basket scene is, I think, the most memorable. How disturbing was that for you to be a part of, in the moment?
My memories were that I was doing some big mind-fuck on myself. It was in a studio, on a stage; I had to climb up a ladder to get in the pit, close it, and cover myself with dirt. And not drink a lot of water, because you can’t pee. I remember using the camera — I had to do a lot of my coverage basically begging for my life, and looking right down the barrel of the camera. So I played all of these mind games on myself. The camera could give me what I wanted; I’d beg the camera for what I wanted. And they could remove parts of the wall and come down and put the camera right alongside me, and I remember having moments there where — I had this hyperawareness, not dissimilar to being … this is really weird, I can’t believe what I’m saying …when I’m in Africa, in the bush, and I can see an animal a million miles to my right. Your senses are charged. I remember sitting in between setups and feeling like, Why aren’t these people helping me? They’re literally exploiting me!

The cameraman! The boom operator. The still photographer. Whoever was down there. I was like, I’m in agony here and these people aren’t helping me. So I guess I was really deep in something.

You started to turn on the crew?
Yeah, and just think, If they’re here, why aren’t they helping me get out of this? [Laughs.] It’s hard to imagine yourself in that circumstance, thankfully. I also remember I tore a toenail, almost off, because I remember having to go as far as I possibly could.

Just getting really physical in the pit?
Just thrashing around, going, Well, I didn’t hear cut yet, I’ll keep going! I was also really neurotic as a young actor. I was talking to one of the young actors on my show now, and I was saying, I remember talking to my agent at the time, and he said, “How’s it going?” And I said, “Eh, I’m doing okay.” And he said, “I’m sure they’re humoring you, they don’t want to hurt your feelings.” When you’re a young actor, you want to do your best. I was brand new! I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It’s such a relief not to be neurotic anymore. Now it’s like, I guess if they wanted something different, they’d tell me!

Were you able to go home at night and let go of the mind-fuckery?
Oh, gosh. It’s funny. I don’t really remember going back to the hotel room much. So I don’t really know. I think the mind-fuckery was mostly when I was right in the pit.

What was the choreography like for the dog scene, where you yank the dog in with you?
P.S., right there: Who would have thought of that? I never would have thought of that! I was like, Damn, this Catherine is like, all about living. She wants to survive, and that’s it.

She simply loves to live.
I mean, what the hell, tie a string to the end of a bone? What?! I can’t even. I’ll attempt it if it ever happens to me, but oy. It’s hard. Let’s face it. I just felt so bad for that dog. I thought, This dog doesn’t know this isn’t real! What does this dog think?! I was just holding this dog and sobbing. I really felt for her. I think the dog trainer was even scarier than Ted was. I’d look up and see the camera, Ted, and the dog trainer. I’d been told, “Don’t squeeze too hard! Just pretend!” And I just remember [the trainer’s] face, who was like, “Don’t hurt my dog.”

In your last scene you’re still down in the pit, calling Jodie Foster a bitch for not helping you while she’s roaming around the house. What were the logistics of filming that?
There were a couple of technical things they don’t tell young actors. Overlapping, for example. You can’t speak when the other actor is speaking, even if it’s how you’d speak in real life. They want to get a clean sound. And I also remember — I was coming from theater —and I remember her sort of saying, “You need to save it. You need to save it when the camera is not on you. You can’t just go full-blown.” I still feel to this day that my best work is when I’m not on camera. [Laughs.] Which is probably not great. We shot that whole ending in a big marathon. Many, many, many hours. I remember being on that stage for a very long time.

I remember seeing Jodie only for the seconds that I see her on film, when she peeks her head over. All of those lines are so great. It’s what you always want to say when you’re watching those movies. When somebody’s running and they fall and you’re like, “Get UP!!” It’s like, “Really, you’re leaving me?! No, I don’t think so!”

I want to return to what you were saying about being typecast or pigeonholed as a “fat girl” due to this movie. Rewatching it, I was really sort of weirded out by how fixated the script as a whole — not just Jame Gumb — is on the weight of these women. It’s brought up constantly, more than the narrative demands, I think.
Well, it’s because he needs to make a woman suit! And it has to fit him.

Right. But there’s just a weird amount of scenes where the other characters are commenting on all of these women’s size.
You’re right! Hello! When is it gonna be time for the fat girls, people! That’s interesting. I grew up as a fat girl. I know what it feels like. What do you make of it?

Watching it now it just felt really ’90s — I understand the logistics of the skin suit, but it was just so odd how everyone kept being like, “AND the victim was FAT!”
Right, and? Jesus, exactly. It’s a good point.

How do you think it affected your career overall?
I know I’ll forever be the girl in the pit. For sure. And I’m okay with that. Hopefully people thought I could act, and maybe that helped me get the next thing. What do you think?

Well, on your Wikipedia, it says, “known for her role as Dr. Erica Hahn on the ABC medical drama series Grey’s Anatomy, and for her role as Catherine Martin in the 1991 horror film The Silence of the Lambs.” Does that feel accurate? Which are you more recognized from or associated with?
Oh, interesting. Grey’s comes first. That was a huge hit. I guess because you’re on TV, in people’s rooms? That’s funny. I think I’m more recognized for Erica Hahn, even though I don’t have that hair that’s beaten down into straight submission — that TV hair. People recognize me from that. I guess I don’t really look like Catherine Martin so much anymore? But I’m a big traveler, and I’ve been in very remote places, and they’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs. Whereas not so much with Grey’s Anatomy. 

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In the film, Buffalo Bill’s victims are often overweight so that he can starve them and use their extra skin to make a skin suit for himself. Catherine Martin is a prominent senator’s daughter in the film.
Brooke Smith Answers Every Silence of the Lambs Question