PROFILE
Name:
Anna Deavere Smith
Birth Date:
September 18, 1950
Birth Place:
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Nationality:
American
BIOGRAPHY
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Fires in the Mirror

Background:

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize nominated actress, playwright, and university professor Anna Deavere Smith received her breakthrough solo performance piece in "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities" (1992), which she also wrote. She followed it up with the Broadway play "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" (1993), which was adapted into film in 2000, "House Arrest" (1997, 1999, 2000), and "Let Me Down Easy" (2007). She debuted “The Arizona Project,” at the Herberger Theater Center's Stage West in Phoenix in November 2008.

Meanwhile, TV viewers could catch her as D.A. Kate Brunner (2000) on the ABC legal drama "The Practice" and as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally (2000-2006) on the hit NBC political drama series "The West Wing." She has also appeared on "All My Children," "Presidio Med," and "Numb3rs."

On the big screen, Smith could be seen in the films "Soup for One" (1982), "Unfinished Business" (1987), "Philadelphia" (1993), "The American President" (1995), "The Human Stain" (2003), "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004), "Cry Wolf" (2005), "Rent" (2005), "The Kingdom" (2007), and "Rachel Getting Married" (2008).

This petite, attractive African-American is also an author (she published a book in 2000 and 2006) and taught at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and the NYU School of Law. She was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for having created a new form of theatre. She serves as an artist in residence at MTV Networks.


Genius

Childhood and Family:

In Baltimore, Maryland, Anna Deavere Smith was born on September 18, 1950, to Deaver Smith (died in 1995), a coffee merchant, and Anna Smith, an elementary school principal. She has one younger sister named Rosalind Allen (born in 1960).

Smith attended Western High School, in Baltimore (class of 1967) and received a BA degree in linguistics from Beaver College (now Arcadia University), in Glenside, Pennsylvania, in 1971. She went on to earn a MFA degree in theater from the American Conservatory Theatre, in San Francisco, California. Smith, who was the assistant professor of theater at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1978, taught at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. From 1990 to 2000 she was a professor in the drama department at Stanford University. She has also taught at the NYU School of Law.

Smith, who published the books “Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics” (2000) and “Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind” (2006), has received honorary degrees from Arcadia University, Bates College, Bryn Mawr College, Smith College, Skidmore College, Macalester College, Occidental College, Pratt Institute, Holy Cross College, Haverford College, Wesleyan University, School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University, Colgate University, California State University Sacramento, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wheelock College, and the Cooper Union.

Smith, who appears as herself on “Technology Entertainment and Design,” a series of academic lectures on human ideas and imagination, was also the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant in June 1996. In 2006, she won a Fletcher Foundation Fellowship for her contribution to civil rights issues. She also received a 2008 Matrix Award from the New York Women in Communications, Inc.


Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Career:

With a BA degree in linguistics and a MFA degree in theater, Anna Deavere Smith made her stage debut in 1974 in a production of "Horatio." In the early 1980s, she made her feature film debut in "Soup for One" (1982), a comedy written and directed by Jonathan Kaufer, and had her first play, "On the Road" (1983), produced. She made her TV debut in 1983 with the short-term role of Hazel on the ABC soap opera "All My Children."

Smith moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and was cast in "Unfinished Business" (1987), an independent film directed by Viveca Lindfors. In the early 1990s, she had her breakthrough solo performance piece in "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities" (1992), in which she interviewed and played 29 characters connected to the 1991 Crown Heights Riot. Smith, who also wrote the play, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 and won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She also appeared in its TV movie version in 1993.

Smith subsequently premiered her play, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," in which she portrayed 40 characters, in L.A. in 1993. It was later produced on Broadway and earned her Tony Award nominations for Best Actress (Play) and Author of Best Play. She received a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance and a Theatre World Award. The play would later be adapted into film in 2000 with Smith starring in the lead role.

Anna also appeared in the films "Dave" (1993; starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver), an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy directed by Ivan Reitman, "Philadelphia" (1993; starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), an Oscar-winning drama helmed by Jonathan Demme, and "The American President" (1995; with Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, and Michael J. Fox), an Oscar-nominated romantic movie by director Rob Reiner. She also narrated an episode of the PBS documentary television series "The American Experience."

In 1997, Smith appeared on stage in "House Arrest: First Edition," which premiered in Washington, DC. She would later reprise "House Arrest" on stage in L.A. in 1999 and New York City in 2000. She was also appointed the head of The Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue.

The new millennium saw Smith publish her first book, “Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics.” On television, she played the recurring role of D.A. Kate Brunner on the ABC legal drama "The Practice" and began playing National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on the hit NBC political drama series "The West Wing." She played the latter character from 2000 to 2006 and received two Image Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

During her "West Wing" stint, Smith served as artistic advisor for "Nickel and Dimed" (August 2002), a play adapted by Joan Holden from a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. She was then cast opposite Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in Robert Benton's film adaptation of Philip Roth's 2000 novel, "The Human Stain" (2003), for which she won a Black Reel Award for Film: Best Supporting Actress, and a Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Anna appeared in Jonathan Demme's film based on the 1959 novel "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004; starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, and Jon Voight). The following year, she played a headmaster in Jeff Wadlow's murder mystery "Cry Wolf," which starred Julian Morris, Lindy Booth, Jon Bon Jovi, and Kristy Wu, and acted in Chris Columbus' film adaptation of the Broadway musical "Rent," alongside Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, and Rosario Dawson.

Besides appearing on the series "The West Wing," TV viewers could catch her guest starring in an episode of the short-lived courtroom television drama "100 Centre Street" and the CBS dramatic series starring Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, "Numb3rs." She also appeared in two episodes of CBS’ "Presidio Med” and starred in the TV movie "Expert Witness" (2003), alongside Matthew Modine.

In 2006, Smith's new play, "Let Me Down Easy," debuted at the Public Theater in New York City. Also that year, she released the book “Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind.”

Following the demise of "The West Wing," Smith costarred with Queen Latifah in the Golden Globe-winning, true story-based TV movie "Life Support" (2007), playing the mother of an AIDS victim. She then supported Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, and Jennifer Garner in Peter Berg's action film "The Kingdom" (2007).

Most recently, Smith supported Anne Hathaway in Jonathan Demme's contemporary movie "Rachel Getting Married," which competed for the Venice Film Festival's top prestigious prize, the Golden Lion, and was released at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released in select theaters on October 3, 2008. She then debuted “The Arizona Project,” which was inspired by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.


Awards:

  • Black Reel: Film: Best Supporting Actress, "The Human Stain," 2004

  • Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA): Best Supporting Actress, "The Human Stain," 2003

  • Drama Desk: Outstanding Solo Performance, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," 1994

  • Theatre World: "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," 1994

  • Drama Desk: Outstanding One-Person Show, "Fires in the Mirror," 1993

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