Anna Deavere Smith Hopes to Inspire With ‘Notes From the Field’ and New Shonda Rhimes Series (Exclusive)

Anna Deveare Smith
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The former ‘West Wing’ actress learned a lot about courage while working on her 2016 play that’s being transformed into a film for HBO.

In her celebrated work as an actress, author, playwright and teacher, Anna Deavere Smith has made empathy an art form -- never more so than in the documentary theater she has crafted to address vexing social issues and events, such as the early ‘90s riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Los Angeles, respectively the subjects of Smith’s Fires In the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

For her latest play, Notes From the Field, Smith once again did extensive research to bring a troubling phenomenon -- the school-to-prison pipeline that has led to the mass incarceration of underprivileged and minority youth -- to light through the perspectives of those who have confronted it most closely. Smith interviewed some 250 people for Notes, which ran Off-Broadway and in other cities to wide acclaim. “It was a transformative experience,” she tells ET.

Now Smith -- also known for her roles on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie -- is bringing a film of the one-woman play to HBO on Feb. 24, where fans can see her morph into 18 characters, from congressman and civil rights champion John Lewis to a South Carolina teenager who was jailed after making a cell phone video of a police officer assaulting her classmate.

“I had the opportunity to learn a lot about courage,” says Smith, who started working on Notes in 2011, before the Black Lives Matter movement formally took shape. The play wound up being greatly informed by a series of high-profile police shootings and other racially charged violent acts that followed; the Baltimore deli worker who shot the video of Freddie Gray’s fatal beating is a character, as is Bree Newsome, a young artist and activist arrested for civil disobedience after she climbed a pole to protest a Confederate flag’s presence on North Carolina state grounds.

“Bree had never climbed anything before, and she put this together in just two weeks,” says Smith, still sounding awestruck. “They were afraid a vigilante would try to shoot her, but she had decided that if that happened, everyone should just scatter. I said, ‘What? What?’ She had something in common with people in the ‘60s, who literally risked their lives.”

Smith hopes that in providing a wider audience for Notes, the HBO broadcast will serve as “a call to political action. There’s a sense in this country that people are once again concerned about race relations, but I honestly worry that these kids are being forgotten, because when you open the paper there are so many other things to pay attention to.”

Anna Deavere Smith with Mary McCormack in a scene from 'The West Wing' and onstage in 'Notes From the Field.' - NBC / HBO

Onstage performing Notes the night of President Donald Trump’s election -- “a deadly night,” she recalls -- Smith is aware of the polarized climate and deep ambivalence surrounding politics right now. Having amassed a legion of fans playing national security advisor Nancy McNally on The West Wing, she is intrigued by current nostalgia for the series, evident in the growing popularity of the podcast The West Wing Weekly. Smith speculates that many in the drama’s original audience were “crestfallen about [George W.] Bush being in office, and felt the show was their alternative reality. And of course, the enduring nature has to do with [creator] Aaron Sorkin’s incredible imagination, the magnitude of the writing and the acting.”

Smith adds that Sorkin, with whom she also worked in the 1995 film The American President, “had a kind of romance at that time with the White House. There is something magical about the place.” Of her West Wing role, Smith muses that she and Condoleezza Rice both taught at Stanford University, and when the series was being prepared, “there was talk that if Bush won the [2000] election, he would make her his national security advisor. So I asked Aaron, ‘In casting me [as Nancy], were you thinking of Condoleezza Rice?’” she recalls, “and he said, ‘Who?’”

Smith’s next TV role will be Tina Krissman, a veteran court clerk in the Southern District of New York, in For the People, a Shonda Rhimes-produced series focusing on young lawyers, premiering March 13 on ABC. “I believe Shonda will have been the first African-American of either gender to have as much influence as she does through literature and letters,” says Smith. “Maybe it has something to do with this moment in history. You wonder, would Toni Morrison have written for TV, if it had been like it is today?”

As Tina, Smith quips, “My job is to whip everybody into shape. But she’s witty, and has a lot of love in her. And the young public defenders and assistant DAs all believe in something, they’re all fighting for something. There’s nothing jaded or sinister here. I hope that idealism will be inspiring for people, too.”