Welcome to @90sgirlproblem’s favorite feature. We’ll be doing interviews with various 90s stars and posting them on our Tumblr page to share with our followers. Next up is the voice behind every 90s girl’s favorite unibrow. Here’s Francesca Marie Smith, the voice of Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold!
90sGP: So, let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up getting the role of Helga Pataki?
Francesca Marie Smith: I think I was 8 years old when I first auditioned. It was, as I recall, a pretty normal audition process. First, my agency had me come in to their offices and record an audition using the sides that Nickelodeon had sent them. Those recordings went to the casting team, who invited me to come in for a callback. At that point, I met some of the crew and recorded some more lines. I believe we only did those two auditions, and shortly thereafter, I was hired to do the pilot. After the pilot was produced and the first season confirmed (which, as I recall, took over a year), we came back into the studio to start recording the first season—the rest, as they say, is history. :)
90sGP: What was your favorite episode of the show?
Francesca: That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! It’s hard for me to objectively pick episodes of the show as better or worse, too, because my impressions of each episode are inextricably tied to my memories of recording them. So, from that perspective, I have very fond memories of the Christmas and Thanksgiving specials (especially Christmas — I remember our director really pushing me on that one), the opera episode (I can’t even tell you how much fun that was), “Helga on the Couch,” and the Romeo and Juliet episode. I was very lucky to sit in on Jim Lang’s recording sessions a few times, too, which was incredible, specifically when he did the orchestral score for the film and when he had Davy Jones in the studio. The guest stars we had were also absolutely amazing to work with — Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Kathy Baker, Kathy Najimy, and Davy Jones really stand out, in particular, but they were all very cool. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone!
90sGP: What was your favorite part of being on the show? What about of being a voice actor in general?
Francesca: All of it was pretty wonderful, I have to say. I was lucky enough to work with some incredibly cool (and, of course, very talented) folks on the show, many of whom I still count as friends to this day. I’ll always be grateful to (the show’s creator) Craig (Bartlett) and the rest of the crew for including me as part of the creative process the whole way through. It was amazing to be on that journey and see the show come to life and grow over almost ten years; it was amazing to see the kind of effects it had on people, too. I loved seeing what the show meant to fans, I loved having the chance to do events like The Big Help and work with the Boys and Girls Club, and I loved that I could really be proud of what we were doing. Voice acting in general is a small community populated by lovably insane and mind-blowingly talented people, so growing up learning from folks like Maurice, Kath, Dan, Tress, and everyone else was indescribably fun, and the best training I could have asked for. It’s definitely work, but it’s always been rewarding work, for me. Plus, you get to play around with different and bizarre characters even more than you do with on-camera work, and you can be a half-dozen different people in one afternoon and still be home in time for dinner.
90sGP: What was it like being on a show like Hey Arnold! that appealed to viewers of your own age group at the time?
Francesca: I’m not sure I have a great answer for this one. I will say that there was something very genuine about having young actors playing their age (and that was pretty much unheard of at that point in animation; I think Peanuts was the only other major show that had done that), and I’d like to say that the element of realness helped it resonate even more with young audiences. To be honest, though, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time around my peers during that time, other than my fellow actors, because of how much I was working. Throughout my whole life, it’s always been a little weird for my friends to find out about my “alter ego” as an actor (I like to think of it as my less-cool Bruce Wayne/Batman complex).
90sGP: Did you realize the show was going to be such a big hit while it was on? What about after it went off the air?
Francesca: I can’t say that I ever really thought in those terms. I was always thrilled to hear about positive responses to the show, of course, but I guess I generally don’t trust my perspective on what a “big hit” would be. When you’re acting, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in a bubble where you think your show is the greatest thing since sliced bread, since you often only really selectively see the best press coverage and hear from the fans who love you. Maybe that’s why I never really thought about whether we were, or would be, a “big hit.”
90sGP: How long did it take you to fully understand the depth of Helga’s character, and for the show in general?
Francesca: I think that all of us working on the show were on a journey, of sorts, such that none of us really knew upfront who Helga was or would become. She grew and developed as a character, and we all got to know her better, over the course of several years; I’m not sure she would have been the character she was if we hadn’t all gone through that process. The whole show really grew, along with all those who worked on it, in that way. Remember, too, that most of the actors started out around the same age as the characters, so as we grew up, I think the characters naturally become a little wiser, a little more mature, and a little more complex, even if they didn’t necessarily age.
90sGP: Are there any scenes that were embarrassing/awkward to record?
Francesca: Ooohhhh yeah. The scene where I had to kiss the bubble gum head? I remember literally hiding behind the curtains in the recording studio when they played that one back. Singing was also tough, but that group really was like a family; it was a pretty safe place to put myself out there for the sake of the show, no matter how challenging the episode, and I’d like to think that shows.
90sGP: Do you still talk to anyone from the cast?
Francesca: I do, though not as often as I’d like! Craig and I see each other most frequently, though.
90sGP: Briefly, what are some of the things you’ve been up to since your Hey Arnold! days? School, work, etc…
Francesca: Can you believe that it’s been a decade!? Of course, I’ve been up to all sorts of things during that time, but here’s the summary: I went through college and a master’s program, and I’m currently in the middle of a PhD program. I research, write, present, and teach in the field of communication; though I have a fairly extensive background in speech and debate, my work right now mostly focuses on (dis)ability rhetoric, how impairments and mental illnesses are expressed through entertainment media, and how we can strengthen the relationship between media producers, scholars, and audiences to improve both the stories we see and the ways we interact with and use those stories. I guess some of the other major highlights from recent years include living in Italy for a short stint, representing the U.S. on a debate tour overseas where I got to speak at all sorts of fantastic places (the U.S. Embassy in London, Oxford Union, Cambridge Union, and others), and becoming a professor. I’ve also been very involved in dance and music, among other things. I’m looking forward to returning to Europe later this year, as I’ve been invited to speak at the Sorbonne and one or two other universities (but still finalizing my itinerary). I’m incredibly lucky to be pretty much living the dream! :)
90sGP: Hey Arnold! seems to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity (it’s on Netflix!), while a lot of other shows from the same era have slowly been forgotten about over the years. Why do you think Hey Arnold! has a bigger following today over shows that were more successful at the time?
Francesca: Hmm, I hadn’t really noticed that sort of a trend. Is that the case? If so, I would suspect it has something to do with how genuine it was, in many ways. We poured a lot of ourselves into that show, and I think the resulting emotional depth of the characters and narratives tended to resonate with audiences. Also, having young actors meant that the show really did speak to the worries, hopes, and imaginations of audience members who were around the same age; that probably helped it become a more meaningful resource in the long run — almost like a group of friends or a trusted confidante you grew up with — than other shows that were valued more as pure entertainment. That element is probably particularly relevant right now, as people in that age group become more nostalgic and reflective about their own development.
90sGP: What are your views on television today vs. television in the 90s?
Francesca: Forgive me if I slip a bit into “academic mode” to answer this one. ;) Honestly, I haven’t had all that much time — now OR in the 90s — to watch a lot of television. I tend to pick specific shows to follow, which is even easier now with Netflix, Hulu, and other online services (I don’t think I’ve actually had a television connection in years). So I’m not sure it would be fair for me to draw sweeping generalizations about the state of the industry from a personal standpoint, nor do I really feel that it makes sense for me to weigh in on the “quality” of TV content (a version of this question that seems to come up a lot lately). That said, here’s my take on things. Sure, some things have changed, and new business models have emerged: to name a few examples, we can look at reality television, “narrowcasting” that lets shows be targeted to very specific audiences, greater access to technology that lets independent creators make and distribute their own work, and even more officially sanctioned transmedia and new media elements that let audiences get more involved with the world of a show. I suspect there’s also a lot more competition out there, which is in many ways fantastic, and in other ways tough. I think a lot of these changes are really exciting, and I think other ones are less interesting for me, but I do try to recognize that most of the content that’s out there now exists because it’s working for some audiences. At the end of the day, I’m grateful that I can pick and choose the parts of that content that I’m interested in, and I’m thrilled that opportunities exist for other audiences to find the things that are meaningful for them, too.
90sGP: What are people’s reactions when you tell them that you played
Helga on Hey Arnold!?
Francesca: You know, it doesn’t come up in conversation all that often. ;) But there will often be days where, when I’m talking to a student or a friend, I can just tell that they’ve randomly Googled me and they now know about my secret identity. At that point, though it’s a little awkward for people to bring it up, they tend to be really excited about it. They also have a hard time imagining me as that character, especially based on how I am and what I do today. Once you’re listening for it, though, you can definitely tell that we’re the same person — especially when I get annoyed. :)
90sGP: You were given one of the best lines of the show - “Move it
football head!” Did people ask you to say that a lot when you were
younger? What about now?
Francesca: Folks used to ask me all the time to say that line, “do the voice,” or—my own personal favorite — “talk Helga” for them. It almost never happens now, though. As a side note, however, my heart just about stopped when I saw that line being used as the title for a talk at my university; a renowned scholar was presenting her research on children’s media, so I told Craig and we both showed up to the event.
90sGP: What do you think are the best lessons to take from Helga’s character?
Francesca: That’s another tough one! Off the top of my head, I’d say that Helga represents a strong, brilliant, passionate, and ultimately tortured soul, and I hope that she helped (and still helps?) audiences see what being that kind of person is all about. In other words, I hope she helped people see that it can be very cool to be that intense, that bright, that assertive and driven and engaged (and it’s not something to be ashamed of). That said, she also represented the dark sides of those personality traits: how much suffering she put herself through, how much she took out on the people around her, and how hard it can be to go through all those things, especially at that age, and when you feel like you don’t have people who understand you—not to psychoanalyze too much, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that so much of the drama with Arnold was self-imposed, and it was really just an outlet for her to process a whole lot of other things in her life, including her family and the challenges of coming into her own at a tough age and with that kind of a personality. In some ways, Helga may have helped audiences feel like there was, in fact, someone else who understood, and they weren’t alone in going through this stuff.
Of course, it’s also my hope that through the humor and hyperbole of the show, we were able to help people put their own lives into perspective, laugh at some parts of it, and — importantly — figure out what elements of her personality aren’t always healthy and productive. I’m really interested in how audiences use stories to help them make sense of their own lives; in the end, I think Helga was and is an incredible character not only for her entertainment value and her capacity to draw people in to her story, but also for the ways she can hopefully help audiences think about what they’re going through and decide how they want to respond (and that most likely won’t always be in the ways that Helga would).
90sGP: Last but not least — a question all 90s girls have to answer — Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync?
Francesca: I think I’ll have to plead the fifth on that one. :)