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Team Detail Making Season Three of Jean Smart Series

Team Detail Making Season Three of Jean Smart Series

The three creators and showrunners of Hacks are as concerned with amusing lead Jean Smart as they are with entertaining their audience. Storylines, set pieces and even guest stars are often engineered just to get a reaction from the venerable actress, who has now won two Emmys — she has five in total — for portraying veteran stand-up Deborah Vance on the Max original comedy.

“We try and do it in every episode, give her things that are really juicy,” says Paul W. Downs, the co-creator who also plays Deborah’s manager, Jimmy. “For us, when Jean comes to set and says, ‘I can’t wait to shoot the scene today,’ that’s the goal.”

Hacks’ third season, which premiered May 2 and drops episodes in pairs until the May 30 finale, easily delivers on unexpected scenarios for its characters and viewers. Smart and co-star Hannah Einbinder — who plays Deborah’s Gen Z writing partner and occasional punching bag, Ava Daniels — find their alter egos lost in the woods, playing golf with a sadistic executive (guest star Christina Hendricks), partying in a frat house and, perhaps most uncomfortably of all, yes-and-ing with a collegiate improv group. 

“I don’t know if ‘excited’ is the right word for how I feel about doing some of these things,” says Smart, laughing about two particularly long shoots spent trudging around outdoors. “But at this point, the audience is one step ahead of us. They know how these characters are going to react to being put in these situations. And that’s what makes filming them so fun.”

From left: Aniello, Downs and Statsky on location for season three of Hacks.

Eddy Chen/MAX

To get to some of the more slapstick storylines in the back half of season three, one that positions Deborah aggressively (and publicly) jockeying for the hosting gig of a late night talk show after a hit comedy special revives the septuagenarian’s career, first they had to navigate a few setbacks. Production on season three of Hacks was sidelined twice, first by Smart’s recovery from a heart procedure and then again, after only a week of being back at work, by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. “To give you an idea of how long we’ve been working on this season, we started writing it in May 2022 and filming it that November,” says Lucia Aniello, the series’ co-creator and most frequently used director. “We didn’t finish shooting until January 2024.”

All episodes in each season of Hacks — including those without multiple delays ­­— are written ahead of the first day of filming. So, one might assume that the show’s creative trio — two of them, Aniello and Downs, a married couple — might have felt compelled to revisit a few of the scripts before shooting them. But that’s not how they like to work. “We actually tend to make adjustments while we’re filming,” says co-creator Jen Statsky. “We edit while we shoot. If we see something we want to change, we figure it out, write something new and film it during the shoot. There’s never an ‘Oh no, all the sets are down and the crew is gone and we need this scene.’ ”

Real-life couple Downs and Lucia Aniello are in the rotation of Hacks directors in addition to showrunning with Jen Statsky.

Jake Giles Netter/MAX

Says Jon Philpot, editor on three of the season’s nine episodes, including the finale: “Sure, there’s potential to see something you want to add, but with this crew, there’s rarely a thing that they miss. They’re very prepared.”

In keeping with this planned spontaneity, neither Smart nor Einbinder read the scripts earlier than necessary, which meant neither spent their long hiatus marinating on the scenes and episodes they’d eventually have to film. Each had her own reasons to avoid familiarizing herself with the scenes too early. “I just like to be surprised,” offers Smart, while Einbinder’s rationale is more out of self-preservation.

“There is always something heavy and emotional toward the end of each season,” says Einbinder. “Knowing that, I need for it to feel as fresh as possible. It’s hard for me to even read these heavy scenes without crying.”

Einbinder and Smart spent two days hiking around the Angeles National Forest to film an episode about a walk gone awry.

Jake Giles Netter/MAX

Still, the season’s two most taxing episodes, both filmed during the third and final stretch of production, seem to have posed more of a physical challenge than an emotional one. The week of a pivotal location shoot in Angeles National Forest for episode five (“One Day”), in which Deborah and Ava get hopelessly lost in the woods on what is supposed to be just a post-lunch constitutional, Smart took a poorly timed spill. “I wasn’t used to these steps in my new house, and I tripped and really hurt my knee,” she explains. “This was literally the day before we had to hike in the woods for two days.”

Hale, hearty and fully recovered from her 2023 health scare, Smart was still up for it — though it helped matters that her stage directions called for her to limp through most of the shoot, leaning on her co-star when Deborah suffers a much more dramatic fall than Smart’s own. But after shooting a scene in which Ava attempts to scale a tree in search for help, Einbinder took a hit as well.

Smart on set with Downs, her showrunner and frequent scene partner.

Jake Giles Netter/MAX

“We were both pretty fucked for that whole episode,” recalls Einbinder. “We look haggard and we feel it, too. Jean really was leaning on me, and I actually cut my hand on the bark of the tree I climbed and actually fell out of. It was a little Method.”

If roughing it in the forest with an injured knee was manageable, surely a few days carting around the links should be leisurely in comparison. But episode six (“Par for the Course”) brought its own share of obstacles. When Smart received the script, she saw that the episode would find Deborah infiltrating a children’s charity golf tournament populated by affiliates with sway over the decision of who’ll be tapped for the late night job. A deft golfer, Deborah initially pretends to be a bad one in an effort to court the vote and affections of one particular affiliate (guest star Tony Goldwyn). And when that fails, she shows him up. Bad golfing is something Smart was more than ready for, but the rest of the episode was daunting for a woman who’d never really swung a club before. 

“Tony Goldwyn [center] just seemed like someone who would have great chemistry, especially because there’s a line where she says he’s ‘even better-looking in person,’ ” Downs says of the Scandal actor.

Jake Giles Netter/MAX

Smart has a fellow castmember to thank for her challenge. “We’ve always thought it’d be fun to have Chris McDonald play golf because he’s such a great golfer,” Statsky says of the actor who plays casino magnate Marty Ghilain. “He said something offhandedly, talking about charity golf tournaments: ‘It’s for the kids!’ We just thought it’d be so funny for him to get frustrated and say that line on the show. For some reason, that little idea stuck.”

At least McDonald’s skills came in handy. The actor was one of several people to coach Smart as she prepared for the scenes where she couldn’t use a double. “He really is an excellent golfer,” says Smart. “So Chris and Joe Pacheco, a friend of mine who’s on The Morning Show, both gave me golf lessons. My stand-in was a professional golfer, so I got some great tips from her, but I’m really saved by the scenes where I’m not supposed to look like I’m good.”

“It was actually kind of a realistic arc,” adds Philpot, who cut the episode. “She starts off crappy, and then, as we played it, she gradually got better.” 

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Aniello (left) and Smart run through lines on one of the more hospitable location shoots of season three, episode five.

Jake Giles Netter/MAX

Einbinder didn’t have to learn how to golf for the episode; just to play Deborah’s reluctant and ill-informed caddy. Her real challenge was not breaking during the culmination of an episode-long flirtation with Hendricks (Mad Men). The actress cameos as a mysterious power broker who barks orders at Ava on the course before ultimately inviting her to a hotel room. She loses amorous interest, however, as soon as Ava reveals she is not actually a caddy, but a successful Hollywood writer and producer. Hendricks’ character, in turn, admits she’s a Republican whose kink is peeing on the working class. “We’re so lucky to get these people who are gifted in both genres,” says Einbinder, an avowed Mad Men fan. “Knowing I was going to have such a gifted opponent for the comedy that plays out at the very end was just an instant relief.”

“We met Christina Hendricks out and about in the world, and she was very lovely about Hacks,” Paul W. Downs says of the actress (right) cast to play opposite Hannah Einbinder. “When we were writing this part, we were like, ‘Oh, do you think she would ever do this?’ It’s so different from what she’s done.”

Jake Giles Netter/MAX

Hacks hasn’t officially been renewed for a fourth season just yet, but the creators, who have a five-season plan in mind, are already concocting new scenarios to please Smart and Einbinder. “We’re thinking about Deborah and Ava all day, every day,” says Statsky, who spoke alongside Downs and Aniello during a break from writing. “We can’t ever stop,” adds Downs. “So we’re working on it regardless of what happens next.” 

While their cast waits for the green light, these latest episodes may have inspired a new way for Smart to kill time. She admits she kind of digs golf now. Unfortunately, Smart’s local country club needs to update its bylaws. “I recently moved not too far from a club, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll apply,’ ” she explains. “Someone said to me, ‘Oh, nobody told you? You can’t join. You’re a woman.’ What? I was so mad, but boy, what a good little lesson in what it feels like to be discriminated against. This is really minor on the scale, but what a shocker.”

The actress is politely mum when pressed to identify the offending institution. But for anyone who belongs to a private club in metropolitan Los Angeles, it’s something to consider the next time dues come up. Some of your fellow golfers still think themselves too good to share the course with women — even if they’re TV legends. 

Poppy Liu (left) — a season one fixture as Deborah’s personal blackjack dealer, Kiki — makes her return in season three.

Courtesy of MAX

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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