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Nancy Cartwright, voice of Bart Simpson, has personal theme: 'Simpsons Forever'
It was destiny that put Nancy Cartwright's voice in the mouths of so many TV cartoon characters, beginning in the 1980s.
As a kid, Cartwright made the great voice actor Daws Butler a pen pal. He's the man who put "PIC-a-nic" basket into Yogi Bear's vocabulary. Cartwright wanted to be just like him.
In the decades since, Cartwright's been fulfilling that destiny on everything from My Little Pony to Rugrats, Kim Possible and The Family Guy.
But fate intervened 20 years ago when she was picked to do the voice of one of the icons of American popular culture, Bart Simpson.
"I usually bring three or four choices for a voice when I audition," she says from Los Angeles. "Their idea of a 10-year-old boy might be different from yours. But for that one, I gambled. One voice. I was hired on the spot."
Now, a 49-year-old divorced mother of two, an actress who has had only a tiny taste of a movie career, is ready for her big screen close-up. Or Bart's close-up. And Maggie's, Nelson's, Ralph's and Todd's. Those are the characters she voices. And they are among the stars of The Simpsons Movie, which opens Friday.
The film is "everything a fan of the series could ask for," raves Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt.
And Cartwright's is the first voice we hear in the film, as the dimmer-than-dim kid Ralph Wiggum, singing the 20th Century Fox theme.
"TV is great," she says, laughing. "But the movies? That's real fame."
We reached the ever-bubbly Cartwright at her Hollywood office.
Question: I've asked Pavarotti this, so it's fair to ask you. How has the instrument changed? Does Bart still come easily as the voice mellows with age?
Answer: He's the easiest voice I do. It's nothing [she changes voices] to switch over to Bart Simpson, man. Todd Flanders is really high [she does Todd], girly, conservative. Easy. But Nelson Muntz [changing voices again], he's a throat-ripper. He's so crude. "Yeah, my mom works at Hooters. Maybe we can go get some sodas, check out the babes!" Based him on my dad. Oh I am so kidding! Come on! The only character I based on anybody was Todd Flanders, who's a little Sherman, the boy from "Sherman and Mr. Peabody" [a '60s cartoon from the Bullwinkle show]. Ralph Wiggum's too easy.
Q: So Ralph's out of the closet for the movie, is he?
A.: Oh, who isn't gay on The Simpsons? Hahaha!
Q: You have kids. What do you think is the appropriate age for watching the TV show, and seeing the movie?
A.: The MPAA gave us a PG-13, because we are un-censored! Hah! But, to be honest with you, big deal. If you like the TV show, if your kids are old enough to watch the TV show, they'll love the movie. My kids, Jack and Lucy, are 16 and 17. The way I raised them was that, even though they grew up with The Simpsons, with Bart as their older brother, the older brother who's always 10 years old, was that they didn't see it until they were 8 or so. They were going to bed and I didn't let them stay up. Eventually, as they got older and the bedtime got later, they finally saw the show. But before then, the only way they heard Bart was when I was reading bedtime stories. And they hated when I did voices. I was using them as guinea pigs to test out voices I could use for work. Hated it. 'Oh Mommy, just read the story!'
Q: The movie returns to one of the show's most familiar themes -- Bart, wanting, needing, a more involved, smarter dad than the one nature provided.
A.: Oh, that's a good, solid theme. It never gets old. It tugs at your heartstrings and shows that deep down, Bart is a really good kid. He's just mischievous. He's not bad, like characters who followed him such as Cartman (South Park) or Beavis and Butthead. Bart can do some nasty things, but they seem so tame, by today's standards. What was shocking 19 years ago, when the show started, isn't the least bit shocking today. Bart hasn't changed.
Q: The movie's out. You're 400 episodes into the show. It's a take-stock moment. You've survived being pilloried by Bill Cosby, and being a subversively liberal show on Rupert Murdoch's network. Do you think the family reflects the country, or has the country come to reflect you?
A.: Oh, I love that! Which comes first, Bart or 'BART?' I have to think about that. I think The Simpsons reflect the country, the American family, through satire.
The show makes you wonder which comes first, the TV family or the American family it sort of satirizes. I don't think we change culture. The culture is degraded by other things. We look at what's happening in society and the writers poke fun at that.
Q: Any sense that you've put an exclamation point on the series? Can you see the end from here?
A.: You know, I don't sense the end. I sense a resurgence. In terms of ratings and stuff, the movie just pushes the show back out front.....
When we finish this season, our contract is up. January or February, they have to decide whether to renew it. Contract negotiations are always quite disturbing and threatening and all that stuff. But six months later, we'll be back at work. My personal target is 500 shows. We do them in 100 show increments, it seems. Those are our goals. We just finished 400. Let's do 500, about another four years or so.
My personal theme is "Simpsons Forever."