This song’s for my dog,” says Shawnee Smith, taking center stage at L.A.’s trendy House of Blues club. The actress—who plays Ted Danson’s spacey assistant Linda on CBS’s Becker, when she isn’t moonlighting as a singer with her four-member band Fydolla Ho—begins to Wail for her dear departed pooch Roja. But it’s hardly a somber moment: Smith’s passion has the crowd cheering as she kicks off her red platform shoes, drops to her knees and belts out one of her original tunes in a style she describes as “heavy pop with a soulful punk edge.” When the set ends, the audience is on its feet.
“That was momentous,” Smith, 30, reflects the next morning in her dressing room on Becker’s Paramount TV set in L.A. “I felt like I was gonna jump out of an airplane all day. Then just before the curtain opened, I looked at the other guys in the band and everyone was smiling, and it just felt right. It was like, ‘Yeaahhh.’ ”
Which is pretty much how her Becker castmates feel about Smith. Though the comely if barely competent Linda is just one of the airhead types Smith has portrayed (she was a ditzy pregnant teen in 1987’s Summer School and a barroom bimbo in 1998’s Armageddon), “people would be surprised how smart Shawnee is,” says Alex Desert, who plays the show’s blind newsstand owner Jake Malinak.
She and Linda “do walk in their own worlds—but Shawnee is a little more grounded in this reality.”
Grounded, but hardly standing still. “There’s never a dull moment with Shawnee,” says Saverio Guerra (who plays Bob, one of Becker’s coffee shop cronies). “She’s either got the baby or band practice or an event….”
Ah yes, the baby. Smith and her husband, Jason Reposar, 31, a surfing-magazine photographer, share their four-bedroom Asian-Pacific-style Malibu house with 20-month-old daughter Verve (as well as two English bulldogs, Gracie and Vegas). Verve—accompanied by Reposar’s mother, Colette, her de facto nanny—has become a Becker set fixture. “We take her for golf-cart rides,” says Guerra. But Verve can’t keep up with her mom, who often darts from set to band rehearsals to photo shoots. “She’s like a little fireball,” sighs her spouse.
Smith began blazing a showbiz trail when she was 8 and landed a McDonald’s commercial. That same year her mother, Patricia, 57, an oncologist who had divorced Shawnee’s father, Jim Smith, 59, a financial planner, when Shawnee was 2, married Owen Lee, 66, the L.A.-based owner of a printing business. At 11, Smith was cast as one of 20 dancing orphans in the 1982 film version of Annie and later landed her share of teen-screen roles. But auditioning left her feeling, she says, “like a five-dollar ho.” (Hence the name of her band.) “You’re always just out selling it.” When Smith grew too old to play adolescents, producers stopped calling.
So she embarked on a three-year hiatus from Hollywood “just to figure out,” she says, “how to be a small human being in a big world.” That included climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro at 21, competing in a triathlon at 22 and in 1995 enrolling at North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountain Community College.
Shortly before she was due to start classes, however, Smith auditioned for the barfly who flirts with Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. She got the part—and has been working steadily ever since, on TV (Stephen King’s The Stand) and in movies (Breakfast of Champions).
Just as her career was picking up steam, Smith met her future husband at a Malibu cafe. “At that point in my life, I just wanted to have fun,” Reposar admits. “But I knew that if we got together, it would be a lot more than a one-nighter.” Much more. Four months after their initial encounter the couple moved in together. In 1998, unable to organize a wedding (“Half my family’s in England, and a bunch of Shawnee’s is in the South,” Reposar explains), they eloped on vacation in Scotland.
Within months Smith was pregnant. Verve, she says, “was a big surprise. I had just started Becker, where I’m supposed to be this sex-pot.” But at a meeting with the show’s producers, “everybody was so supportive,” says Smith, who relied on lab coats and patient charts to hide her pregnancy onscreen. “They threw me a baby shower on the set of Soul Train!”
She and Reposar named Verve, in part, after a British band they like, and music may well be in the toddler’s genes. At a recent party she began pounding away on a friend’s drum set. Her mom has a theory about that. “When I was pregnant, I was driving around with Tool and Helmut blasting in the car,” she says. “If Verve’s anything like me, I’m gonna get payback.”
Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles