Dr. Erica Hahn, the head of cardiothoracic surgery at Seattle Grace Hospital, may be a breezily officious, raging workaholic. But the actress who plays her, Brooke Smith, isn’t entirely surprised when the escalating chemistry between Hahn and Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) leads to a liplock in the May 15 episode of Grey’s Anatomy (Thursday at 9 pm/ET, ABC).
“She came to the wrong hospital if she thought she wasn’t going to have a personal life!” cracks Smith, who confesses to eavesdropping on a recent writers’ meeting in an attempt to find out where the relationship will go. “They won’t tell us anything, so I literally had my ear to the wall. I keep hearing this rumor about this big surprising kiss [in the finale]. Everybody’s thinking that it’s Meredith and Derek. But how surprising would that be?” Grey’s Anatomy fans are speculating that the big buss will be between Hahn and Torres and will lead to a love affair next season.
Perhaps viewers, who have watched her mentally abuse Cristina (Sandra Oh) and mock admirer McSteamy (Eric Dane), are ready for a softer side of Hahn. Not that Smith, 41, minds playing a hardass. When she joined the series, the writers let her know Hahn wouldn’t be winning any popularity contests. “They said they didn’t want to rush to make me likable, and hoped I didn’t mind,” she says. “A lot of actors don’t want to be unlikable, even if they’re the bad guy. But I’m okay with that — I’m good with being unlikable.”
Learn a few tidbits about Smith’s ’80s-era rebel New York City adolescence, and it’s no wonder Hahn’s hard edge seems natural. While her mother, legendary celebrity publicist Lois Smith, was helping burnish the reputations of A-listers like Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, her teen daughter took the anti-glam route, working as a coat-check girl at the Ritz rock club and playing bass in a punk band at CBGB. Still, Smith, whose first professional job was at the age of 7 in Marlo Thomas’ classic 1974 kiddie special Free to Be…You and Me, never let anything interrupt her acting ambitions.
Trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she did more than her share of off-off-Broadway plays before landing a career-changing part in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. As the mouthy captive of a serial killer, Smith stole scenes by managing to seem undismayed while standing in a dirt pit, gripping a poodle and telling her skin-peeling kidnapper, “Don’t you make me hurt your dog!” Roles in prestige pictures like Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda followed, but mostly Smith portrayed advice-giving sidekicks on seemingly every procedural on TV.
“All right, I’m done with this,” was Smith’s grim realization a few years ago when she decided to get her real estate license and stop waiting for Hollywood to wise up. Immediately, she landed arcs on Six Feet Under, Crossing Jordan and Weeds. Does she believe the stars finally aligned? “I hate to get all The Secret about it,” Smith says, “but I literally started saying out loud, ‘OK, I’m ready for a regular job.’ I like to work. Who doesn’t?” Although she still heads back to Manhattan frequently, Smith, her Russian cinematographer husband Steve Lubensky and their two daughters (Fanny, 5, and an infant adopted from Ethiopia just weeks ago) have been living in the Hollywood Hills. On a recent afternoon, Smith could be found drinking a glass of pinot noir in a café near the beach. A few feet away, Entourage’s Kevin Connolly sat, repeatedly craning his neck to stare at the curly blond with the distinctively gravelly voice.
Smith says she’s been wondering if being on a hit series means she won’t just be another face in the crowd anymore. “I was just talking to the cast about losing their anonymity,” says Smith. “I thought, ‘That’s not going to happen to me.’ I don’t lead an exciting life that the paparazzi would want to capture.” She pauses. “You know, whenever I go home to New York, I still get on the subway. So far, so good!”
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