The Silence of the Lambs: Brooke Smith on Surviving Buffalo Bill

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Brooke Smith has enjoyed a career spanning more than three decades across the big and small screen. She’s starred in the cult classic Series 7: The Contenders, had roles in blockbusters including Interstellar and featured prominently on Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, and Bates Motel to name but a few. 

Yet to some, she will always be remembered as Catherine Martin, the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin who winds up being kidnapped by Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill, in The Silence of The Lambs. Not that fans always immediately realise it.

“I don’t get recognized for it that much compared with something like Grey’s Anatomy,” she tells Den of Geek. “With The Silence of the Lambs, it’s more like ‘wait a minute, how do I know you?’. I would get that at the school my kids went to. They knew me but they just couldn’t quite figure it out.” 

Smith was a relative newcomer to acting when she was cast as Catherine back in 1989 having spent her formative years as part of the CBGB New York punk scene. But she possessed one crucial quality: she was fearless. “I was just a gung-ho young actress who wanted to do something I didn’t think I could do,” she explains.  

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The role of Catherine certainly presented a worthy challenge. While the majority of Jonathan Demme’s film focuses on Jodie Foster’s FBI-agent-in-training Clarice Starling and her attempts at coaxing Anthony Hopkins’s dangerously disarming cannibal Hannibal Lecter into helping track down Buffalo Bill, played by Ted Levine, Smith took on the crucial role of the serial killer’s hostage, trapped down a disused well in the basement-turned-dungeon of his seemingly ordinary suburban home. 

It’s her welfare and fate that provides the emotional heartbeat of an otherwise dread-fuelled psychological thriller. As time wears on, Catherine’s increasingly desperate and distressing state only cranks up the tension with audiences aware of the horrifying fate potentially awaiting her.  When Demme first met with Smith to discuss the part he had one important question for Smith: “Why on Earth would you ever want to do this?” 

“I did not audition,” she explains. “That would never happen now. They would never just hire an unknown actor for such an important part. He brought me in and explained to me what he had in mind. He didn’t have to convince me much. If anything, I had to convince him that I was going to go all the way. That I was really going to go as far as I could go as Catherine.” 

She saw some parallels between her relationship with her mother – trailblazing Hollywood publicist Lois Smith – and that of Catherine and her own high-profile politician mom. 

Smith also credits her friend at the time, Michelle Pfeiffer, with helping her get the part. “My mother looked after Michelle Pfeiffer, which was how we met. She was considering playing the part of Clarice. She had done Married to the Mob with Jonathan. She told him about me.” 

Pfeiffer was Demme’s original choice for the role of Clarice while he initially approached Sean Connery for the role of Lecter. Both turned the film down, with Pfeiffer deciding the subject matter was too dark.  Smith does wonder what the film might have turned out like had she signed on to star. 

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“I think of Jodie as very intelligent and analytical. There is something about her being so analytical that made Clarice so fascinating. It would have been different with Michelle, maybe more emotional. I’m not sure.” 

While Pfeiffer rejected the chance to star in The Silence of the Lambs, there were some trying to dissuade Smith from her involvement. “There was one agent in particular who said I was forever going to be known as the fat girl in the pit. Which is…partly true,” she jokes. 

Eager to immerse herself in the role of Catherine, Smith prepared herself for the experience of being trapped in a pit by locking herself in a wardrobe while ruminating on the “worst possible circumstances” someone would face in such a situation.

“It was a basement closet. I went in, closed the door and turned the light off. I thought about what it would be like to be in those circumstances. Stuff like what would it be like if your contact lenses dried out or if you had your period. I stayed in there for about an hour at a time.” 

Part of Buffalo Bill’s modus operandi in the film saw him target plus size women. That created the first major challenge for Smith who was required to put on 25 pounds for the part.

“Because I had been a heavy teenager and lost all the weight to be an actress, to then have to gain it all back really messed with my head,” she says. 

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There were positives and negatives to the experience though. “I was in an acting class with Vincent D’Onofrio and he had just done Full Metal Jacket where he gained like 75 pounds. I remember him saying ‘make sure the studio gives you a credit card, you shouldn’t be paying for your food’ which I would never have thought of. They did actually give me a credit card and I remember taking Ted Levine to dinner most nights when we were shooting.”

But just as with any role that requires a drastic transformation, putting the weight on proved a challenge.

“It was physically exhausting though because of the weight,” she says. “And after it was done, it was difficult as an actress struggling with how I was supposed to look and getting the weight off. I ate a lot of ice cream and pizza and milkshakes. Stuff like that. It sounds amazing to most people but it did put me off that kind of food a little bit.” 

Reading Ted Tally’s Oscar-winning script ahead of filming, Smith felt a sense of fear and intimidation for what lay ahead. 

“There was this one line that scared the hell out of me,” she says. “When Catherine sees the fingernails on the side of the pit – the fake nails that have come off – in the script it just said ‘screams and screams and screams.’ I just thought ‘oh my God, I don’t think I can do that’.” 

Despite some initial confidence-sapping struggles with continuity and hitting her mark during the scene where Catherine first encounters Buffalo Bill, once her character is confined to the basement pit, Smith was in her element. Getting in and out of the pit was something of a complicated procedure, so Smith would often stay down there between camera setups, taking care not to drink too much water in order to avoid any unnecessary bathroom breaks. 

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“I would get myself worked up before we shot. Every day I set out to achieve something and if I got it all out, I felt great. It was like primal therapy. Just going as far as I could and releasing it all…I wonder if I could do it again,” she says. “I remember doing a real mind fuck on myself. At certain points they would take some of the wall away from the side of the pit and be down there filming my misery. I remember getting into this headspace where I would be thinking ‘not only are these people not helping me, they are actually exploiting me and filming me in this horrible space.’ It was just this crazy, extreme thing that added to it all.” 

Occasionally, Smith’s suffering went beyond psychological. 

“I ripped a toenail. It was nasty.  The pit was made out of some kind of fiberglass. They had told me to go crazy so I did and then suddenly there was blood. It took a while for that nail to grow back.” 

Though she suffered for her art, Smith credits Demme with fostering a brilliant atmosphere on set that motivated everyone to bring their A-game. “Jonathan treated us like we were the best people for the job, whether it was Jodie or the people in craft service. He had a way of making everyone want to do their best.” 

As a director, Demme also wasn’t afraid of coaxing more out of his cast, and she says that he. “never thought it was possible to go too far.” 

“There was a guy on set from the FBI who said he had seen similar things in real-life and I remember Jonathan saying that I should try to do it for all the people who are in horrible situations and could not get out. So, no pressure or anything.” 

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Smith recalls one particularly strange and intense conversation held in the pit when Demme looked her dead in the eyes and said “You know that feeling when you’re in prison?”  “I had to be like ‘um, no,” Smith says laughing. 

Away from Demme, Smith also found support among her fellow cast mates. Though she didn’t interact much with Hopkins (“Tony sort of stayed in his own world”), Foster proved invaluable in helping her understand the intricacies of filmmaking and things like “overlapping” on dialogue. 

She formed her strongest bond and friendship, however, with Levine, despite the adversarial nature of their relationship on the screen. 

“I respect him so much as an actor. When the camera was on me and it was my coverage, he gave just as much, if not more. He just had my back. At times I was in awe of him and asking how he did things.” 

Levine has long since stopped answering questions about his breakthrough performance as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs but Smith is able to offer some insight into what went into his terrifying portrayal. Levine famously drew on real-life serial killers like Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, but also offered up another, more unique perspective in his discussions with Smith. “I remember him saying he had a toddler at the time and he had observed how extreme their behavior could be. They act like they are going to die one minute and are then just so happy the next. I think he was tapping into something there.” 

Smith remembers the moment she first saw Levine’s terrifying solo dance number as Gumb and how it blew everyone away.

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“I saw it in the dailies and Ted did not go. I saw him after and told him it was amazing. I don’t think that was in script. He just came up with it. It’s totally terrifying.” 

She does empathise with Levine’s decision to close the book on The Silence of the Lambs too, having herself endured the “strange” experience of fans heckling her with shouts of “it puts the lotion on the skin” a line said by Buffalo Bill to Catherine as he prepares her for her eventual murder. “It’s really hard when people only see you as one character and I can understand not wanting to be seen as Jame Gumb. I think he maybe feels like he’s said all he wants to say.” 

Ultimately though, she credits the experience as one which helped her work through personal issues.  

“It got me in touch with some stuff in myself that I had to work on,” she says. “At the time it wasn’t so easy for me to fight back as Catherine. Working on this film made me think ‘wait why wouldn’t I fight back that much, what’s my problem with me?’ I wrote a letter to Jonathan thanking him for helping me get in touch with that. I came upon some self-worth.” 

A critical and commercial hit, The Silence of the Lambs went on to sweep the board at the 1991 Oscars, becoming only the third film to win Academy Awards in the top five categories for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The film’s success “thrilled” Smith and only added to a sense of vindication in her decision to pursue a career as an actor.

“My mom knew how hard it was to be an actor. There was a discussion between us like ‘Are you really sure you want to do this?’ The Silence of the Lambs ended that. She had great taste in actors. To see her be proud was nice.” 

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Demme would go on to further acclaim with his next film Philadelphia as part of a directing career that continued until 2015. He passed away in 2017, aged 73. Smith last saw him, by chance, at a yoga class. “He was just his usual, sweet, positive self.”  

“Jonathan was such a great guy. The whole experience felt like he was throwing a party and you were lucky to be invited. It was a really special project.” 

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