Although Celeste Holm, in “All About Eve,” famously described herself as “the playwright’s wife, the lowest form of celebrity,” the same cannot be said of J. Smith-Cameron. She may be the wife of currently white-hot playwright/ film director Kenneth Lonergan, now gathering raves and award nods for “Manchester By the Sea,” but Smith-Cameron has, for years, also been one of New York’s most beloved stage actresses, dating back to her star-making turn in 1997 in Douglas Carter Beane’s “As Bees in Honey Drown.”
Of late, she has been a more prominent presence on TV, starring in the Sundance Channel’s first scripted series, the Southern Gothic “Rectify,” playing Janet Talbot, the mother of a man released from prison after 19 years when his wrongful conviction for raping and murdering his teenaged girlfriend is overturned.
“‘Rectify’ actually ends this Wednesday night,” the wonderfully warm, smart, and very fun Smith-Cameron said, settling into a booth at the Hudson Diner. “The way people watch TV right now, I don’t think it’s even begun to tap its audience.
“I’m always trying to get a TV pilot or series to help contribute to my family financially. A lot of times it’s really hard, because they’ll tell me, ‘Well, we’re shooting the pilot in so-and-so, wherever, but we don’t know where we’re gonna shoot the series.’ I’m very loath to go to, say, Vancouver, as it would be big deal to be separated from my family and having to go back and forth.
“My agent submitted the ‘Rectify’ script to me because the show had been already picked up for six episodes in Atlanta, which is a relatively short flight and there are lots of them so I can envision doing it. I auditioned for it, and don’t know how I got it. One reason the show is so good is because its creator, Ray McKinnon, had so much creative control over all the elements of it. There were many writers on his staff but he would always weigh in on everything very thoroughly.
“Janet is just a very specific character. I’d known women like that growing up, who were kind of super demure, self-conscious, and quiet. They have a lid on, but inside you felt great depth of feeling –– still waters run deep. I’m from Kentucky but I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, so I decided it was that kind of character. The way it starts is arresting, and I was reading it thinking, ‘That’s interesting,’ and by about page five of the script I couldn’t put it down, a page turner, which is usually not the case.”
Smith-Cameron plays a very different type as Sarah Jessica Parker’s divorce lawyer on HBO’s “Divorce.’ Though she’s not yet seen that show's first season finale, she described her role as “a fun part I really enjoy, and I do hope it’s ongoing. It’s what they call a recurring part –– they write it as they go along. I had never worked with Sarah Jessica Parker, although I have worked with [her husband] Matthew Broderick, who has been best friends with Kenny since high school. We’ve spent many a major holiday with them.
“Their son was born a grade behind our Nell, 15, so we have kids approximately the same age. We were West Village neighbors for years but moved last February to Charlton Street. We’re still not unpacked because I did ‘Rectify,’ and then we traveled all summer, on Kenny’s European press junket. We’re a gypsy family.
“‘Manchester By the Sea’ opened at the London and Rome film festivals and he did press in Paris. It was so exciting to fly on someone else’s coattails [laughs]. He’s busy giving interviews and being photographed, but we are just in nice hotels, going to the museums, and having great meals, and there’s the red carpet. All on somebody else’s dime! It doesn’t happen very much, so you feel a little like ‘Sweet Charity’ –– if they could see me now!”
With an actress possessing the iridescent talent of Smith-Cameron, one might think Lonergan would be writing play after play for her, instead of works focusing on guys or younger characters. I teased her about this, and she smilingly answered, “He definitely does not write to order. He’s also not like Richard Nelson, who is so prolific, a new play like every six months. Kenny is the opposite: sort of painstaking, his plays gestate a long time, and he’ll often write a short play or a scene, put it away, and keep it in the back of his mind. He also used to spend a lot of time making his living doing rewrites on films, which is how he made money for a long time.
“He wrote that part in ‘The Starry Messenger’ for me and I think the germ of that idea predated him meeting me. He’s always writing things but they tend to evolve with actors like Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hamilton, or Casey Affleck, all fitting into his anti-hero hero type characters, soulful, sort of lovable fuck-ups, I call them, who might have done the wrong thing, but there’s something funny, appealing, and dear about them. He wanted me to be in ‘Manchester,’ but it conflicted with ‘Rectify.’”
Affleck in “Manchester” won the Golden Globe Best Actor Award, and I told Smith-Cameron I’d admired his natural talent and sun-kissed beauty ever since reviewing his teen film “Race the Sun” in 1996.
“Casey is so talented. He’s very natural, and I feel in recent years I’ve seen him in a number of indie movies, which don’t get released everywhere and are not on the awards track, but he’s blown me away several times in a row before this. He’s really building up steam and is a really accomplished actor. He did Kenny’s ‘This is Our Youth’ in the West End, and I remember thinking, ‘He’s amazing, really, really good.’”
New York theatergoers haven’t been enchanted by Smith-Cameron in a while.
“I’ve just been doing much less theater,” she explained. “My mother’s been ill and I just didn’t think it a good idea to commit to eight shows a week and not being able to go spend time with her in Virginia with my father’s family. Once ‘Rectified’ ended, I was offered two really cool plays straight away. One I said yes to very early on, but as it got time to start rehearsals, last fall I had a very bad feeling in my chest, like don’t do this because Nell, who was starting high school, Kenny, and your mother all need you.
“It’s such an exhausting and exhaustive, thorough commitment to be in a play. Even if you have a big part in a film or TV show, it’s different every day. There’s whole days when you’re not shooting, or on a TV show you might have a very heavy episode but they do most of your scenes in two days. It’s a lot of work and you have to be studying when you’re not in front of the camera, but you have some flexibility, unlike a play where you have to be rested, concentrate, and there’s no cutting and going back and starting again.
“Sarah Jessica, who’s a really good mother, a natural at it, is also so busy with her businesses. She’s somehow trying to burn the candle at both ends constantly, but she’s kind of bionic. I don’t know when she sleeps, but she’s a bit of an unusual case. This is my second marriage, and I didn’t try to have a kid until I was older. I had had some miscarriages and I wanted to really get the full-on experience. We did have a nanny but it’s a big thing to miss bedtime. I get offered more theater than I do, which I am not saying in a boastful way. I just had to make a choice to be more available, also for my mother who is in a hospice, not terminal, but for the care, as she is in her 90s and you never know.”
I’ve not heard a more charming, more New York courtship story than that of Smith-Cameron and Lonergan. She was doing the film “In and Out,” which had a long, four-month shoot, in which she was often idle. Her friend Patrick Breen had put together an evening of short, one-scene plays and had asked her to be in one. Lonergan was performing in another short play, “not his but someone else’s, and he was really funny and adorable.”
Smith-Cameron recalled, “The best play of the evening turned out to be in the second half of the program, and turned out to be written by him, this cute boy. It was a one-scene, set in a diner between a brother and sister, a version of what eventually became the film ‘You Can Count on Me.’ I’d been around New York for a while, and wondered how could there be an actor of his age who I’d never laid eyes upon? ‘Oh, he’s really a writer,’ I was told.
“I tried to strike up a conversation with him but he was really curmudgeonly, and I got flustered and said, ‘Your play reminds me of a William Inge play.’ I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t even think that. And he said, ‘Oh.’ ‘Oh, you don’t like Inge?,’ I asked. ‘I don’t know who that is.’ ‘You don’t know? “Picnic?” Did you go to college?’ He went, ‘Yes, I went to college.’ And I said, ‘Well, I didn’t, and I know who William Inge is.’ He said, ‘Don’t act proud of it!’ That was literally the way we met.
“So then I had to miss a day of the show because of shooting the movie, and the next night was the last night of our little one-week run. I was on the subway, coming down from Washington Heights, where I lived then, and said, ‘I’m just going to try flirting with that grumpy boy gain. What have I got to lose?’
“So I came in early and we finished, and he was standing there, holding some roses he’d brought for his actors, waiting for his cast, real shy. I said, ‘Are those for me?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I wasn’t here last night.’ ‘I noticed.’ ‘Did you miss me?’ Brazen, just brazen. He said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ‘Well, you don’t have to be rude!’ He went, ‘No, I mean are you kidding? Can you doubt it?’
“And his cast came out, and I turned around and was like ‘Whooo!’ We went out and watched his play, and there was no place to sit except on the steps. Our knees are touching and I had my friend Allison Janney in the audience, who left me a message: ‘I’m at Nadine’s [a defunct landmark Bank Street restaurant] –– come meet me.’
“There was a little party and I was hoping to talk to Kenny and exchange contact info. We were flirting –– this is more information than you asked for, David. I said, ‘Allison, not yet. Can you just come to the party for like 20 minutes?’ ‘I’m really hungry. I wanna go to Nadine’s. Tell him to come.’ ‘No, I can’t. I don’t know him yet! We can’t go now. I have to flirt with the boy at the party!’
“She said, ‘Tell him to come to Nadine’s.’ I said, ‘No! I can’t. I have to play it cool!’ She was like, ‘Go right now. Go tell him. Now.’ And I got scared of her –– she’s tall –– and said, ‘Hi, Kenny. I have some friends at Nadine’s. If you wanna come over…’
“And he went, ‘Well, is Brian going to be there?’ because I had been dating Brian McDevitt six months before, and we were just friends by then. ‘I don’t think so,’ but I had no idea he knew that. So at some point it came out that I was not dating Brian and his face lit up: ‘Well, I have someone also I have to go out with, afterwards, but I’ll look in afterwards, and if you haven’t left yet, I’ll come and see if I can squeeze in at your table, if that’s all right.’
“And I thought, ‘Well, this will never happen because he had to go somewhere and someone came to see him.’ So I was sitting in Nadine’s, and then he came in, looking around, and you know how Nadine’s was really crowded. Allison kicked me under the table: ‘Go get him, go get him!’ I said, ‘No, I’ll just wait.’ ‘Go! Go get him!,’ and she pushed me out of my chair.
“I had to walk over, like an asshole, and he told me afterwards, much later, ‘The fact that you got up and walked over to me was so impressive to me.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can thank Allison Janney, because there was no way I was gonna get up. I was trying to play it cool.’
“That was fall of 1996, 20 years ago, married 16.”
Smith-Cameron and Lonergan were married in Bridgehampton, in a big house with a huge lawn they’d rented for the summer.
“It was both wedding and honeymoon, a Monday night, with last minute catering and a big tent. We got a really great band, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, and it was very old school, easy, no crazy planning. Great, because we were fully adult and planned it all. Sometimes when people are younger, it’s all for the bride’s mother or parents, their party.”
Asked about her dress, Smith-Cameron laughed, “It was my second marriage, so it was sort of off-white, not a bride dress per se but a pretty, flowy Morgane Le Fay dress I love.”
Then reminded that Parker preceded her in her choice of bridal designer, she said, “You’re right! I remember Sarah Jessica also wore Morgane Le Fay, and it was black, at their wedding! That’s so funny you knew that, so good of you! They got married before us –– we were dating when they wed. And then much later, she was like, ‘One thing I would do over,’ but I think she just wanted to wear a chic black dress. She looked amazing, of course.
“Our song was ‘The Very Thought of You.’ ‘Shut the fuck up! That’s your song, too?! We love that song, so sweet: ‘how slow the moments go ‘til I am near to you…’ The Nighthawks came and put down a dance floor, in their tuxes with their instruments and funny microphones. We haven’t gone to hear them in a long time and it was kind of beautiful, a lot of classic ‘30s music and so many talented friends who sang or gave toasts. Neither Sarah or Matthew sang, but he gave a great toast."