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Jean Smart on ‘Hacks’, Career, Getting ‘Watchmen’ Role

Jean Smart on ‘Hacks’, Career, Getting ‘Watchmen’ Role

On May 18, five-time Emmy winner Jean Smart added another accolade to her résumé: hometown hero. The star of Max’s Emmy-winning comedy Hacks returned to her Washington roots at a special career-retrospective event and award presentation hosted by the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), which marked 50 years this spring.

Held inside the famed SIFF Downtown Cinema, the event featured Smart winning The Hollywood Reporter’s Trailblazer Award, after which she sat down for a colorful, career-spanning chat about her breakthrough roles and professional turning points — from her theater roots to Designing Women and, more recently, her ascension to the throne of Peak TV royalty.

For Smart, the Trailblazer Award, which is given to Hollywood figures whose work has broken down barriers for women and other marginalized groups, accented a career that’s become as diverse as it is impressive. And with her close-knit Seattle family among the 600 fans in attendance, Smart revisited the gamut of her professional highlights with an earthy, hilarious candor that proved that a Northwest girl can make it (really) big, but never forget where she’s from.

You were born here in the Ballard neighborhood. What was life like growing up? 

My dad was a public school teacher and also sold encyclopedias, painted houses and taught night school, and my mother was a homemaker. I loved climbing trees, scaring my sister with snakes … the usual. I also loved sewing. And, as my brother who is here today can attest, I was always the ham in the family. Then, in high school, I was the cheerleader going out with the bad boy. (Laughs.) But my teachers were also my dad’s former co-workers, so I had to behave.

You studied theater at the University of Washington. What was your postgraduation plan? 

I wanted to go to New York, but needed to support myself first as a theater actor in Seattle. I also did three summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the beautiful town of Ashland, Oregon. It was like a fabulous summer camp.

When did acting on TV first become a reality? 

I’d made it to New York and my agents got me an audition for a comedy in Los Angeles called Teachers Only, with Lynn Redgrave. My first sitcom. At our rehearsal, someone said, “Who’s doing the warm-up?” I thought they meant vocal warm-ups. [They said,] “No, a stand-up comic warms up the audience.” I’m thinking, “Why? Because we’re not going to be funny?” (Laughs.) After that, I decided to stay in L.A. 

You were cast in 1986 to play Southern belle Charlene Frazier-Stillfield in Designing Women. How did it feel to be part of what became an iconic quartet of women?

Very special. As more time has passed, I realize just how special it was. I actually saw [Designing co-star] Annie [Potts] recently. I just bought a house about 50 yards from her front door!

You left the series in 1991 when your contract was up. Why? 

I think I didn’t want to get used to such an easy schedule and money. By season two, we were working only 30 hours a week! I thought, “This is fun, but not why I became an actor.” So I left and was immediately offered a TV movie role playing Aileen Wuornos, America’s first female serial killer. (Laughs.) I remember asking the producer why he thought of me. He said, “I wanted her to be sympathetic.” 

You’ve said you had “pea-green envy of Charlize Theron” that she could inhabit this role so fully in Monster. And she, of course, won an Oscar for it. 

Yes! She didn’t have commercial sponsors to answer to. You couldn’t be a serial killer and a lesbian in a network TV movie at that time. Her script was much freer than ours could be. 

I think your Oscar’s still waiting for you, by the way. 

Better hurry! (Laughs.

Smart (right) with Hacks co-star Hannah Einbinder. “There aren’t enough wonderful words to say about her,” says Smart.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Max

The early 2000s saw you playing a wider diversity of characters, from your Emmy-winning guest arc on Frasier to a cameo in Zach Braff’s indie Garden State. What did you enjoy about those roles? 

Frasier was an absolute blast. I wish more writer-producers would take a clue from that show: You don’t have to talk down to an audience if a show is that well written. For Garden State, I’d been working with an actress who was dating Zach Braff, and she told him, “What about Jean to play Peter [Sarsgaard’s] mom?” He said, “Oh … cool.” That was a very special film. I love doing indie roles. 

After an Emmy-nominated turn for season five of Fox’s 24, you entered into what now feels like the ultimate run of Peak TV work: season two of FX’s Fargo, and HBO’s limited series Watchmen and Mare of Easttown.

Fargo is one of my all-time favorite projects. [Series creator] Noah Hawley is an absolute genius. People said that my [mob-boss] character scared them, which I didn’t understand. She was just a supportive mother with a psychotic killer son. (Laughs.) As for Watchmen, Sigourney Weaver turned it down, which is why I got the role. Thank you, Sigourney. I had no idea what Watchmen was! What a part. And working with Kate Winslet on Mare was such a treat. She is a doll and still calls me mummy. (Laughs.)

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Deborah Vance in Hacks, for which you’ve won two Emmys so far, is arguably the role of your career. What scared or worried you initially about playing her? 

When I read the script, I said, “This is everything I could possibly want for my next job.” But I needed to be sure that real stand-ups could believe I was a comic. I had never been a comedian, so they were the real litmus test. And I passed, I think!

What about her felt familiar and what was new territory for you as an actor? 

Well, I look like her, I laugh like her and I like leopard print. (Laughs.) I’m a little sarcastic and like making people laugh. I do consider myself competitive, but not on her level. I don’t identify with her bitterness and anger. I understand it, but it’s not me. 

In what ways has this role changed you? 

I make more money. (Laughs.) Finally, after all these years, I’m doing it for the money! 

In all seriousness, I couldn’t ask to be working with nicer, more supportive and collaborative people. And Hannah [Einbinder] … there aren’t enough wonderful words to say about her. She’s extraordinary. 

How has your relationship with fame evolved over the years? 

I used to think, “I’m a housewife with a really weird job.” When my oldest son was little, people would ask for an autograph and I’d say, “Sorry, if you don’t mind, I’m just kind of being a mom today.” Then one day my son said, “Mom, it’s OK. It just means they like you.” So sweet. I’ve always found people to be respectful. It’s just whenever I think I look fabulous, they don’t recognize me. But they want a picture when I look like hell! A guy once followed me out of a store and asked for a photo. I was like, “Really? Oh God, OK.” (Laughs.) I’m constantly amazed at fan reaction to Hacks and am particularly pleased that men like the show. 

What is something you wish you’d known when you started your artistic journey that you’d impart to young actors?

When I was younger I was constantly trying to figure out, “What does the business want from me?” Obviously we all want to be versatile. But I’d say this: Figure out what makes you unique, and whatever is special will come through. And hopefully you won’t have to wait as long as I did! 

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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