“There isn’t light without dark, there isn’t comedy without tragedy,” Jean Smart says, sitting back in her pink paisley print chair. She’s talking about the vast variety of roles on her resume. Lately, in Hacks, she’s Deborah Vance – A Joan Rivers-esque Vegas stand-up comic with a hosting sideline on QVC, and in Mare of Easttown, another HBO show, she’s Helen Fahey, the feisty, big-hearted mom to Kate Winslet’s beleaguered blue collar cop.
But Hacks is where she really gets to showcase her ability to balance the comedic with the tragic; belly laughs with perfectly-pitched pathos; wise-cracking warmth with wounded loneliness. As Deborah, Smart walks that line so elegantly, so subtly, we never notice her making the switch.
“Someone asked me recently, ‘How do you switch from comedy to drama sometimes in the same character in the same show?’” she says. “And I guess my answer was basically that that’s what life is… I’m prejudiced against people who don’t have a sense of humor. There are some people that just seem devoid of that. And I am not proud of the fact that I just don’t like them, or at least I’m prejudiced against them. The most classic example being our most recent president. I mean, it was almost to the point of being fascinating, his complete lack of humor. It’s such a joyous part of life, you know, laughing and making people laugh. It’s like sex.”
Like Smart, Deborah is in her late 60s. But unlike Smart, whose career these days only seems to soar higher, Deborah is facing the cancellation of her Vegas show dates, her former flame picking up with a 20-something beauty, and the sense that her stand-up material might have passed its sell-by date.
Enter Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder. A hip young writer sent by their shared agent to freshen up Deborah’s material, Ava has fallen on hard times after an ill-advised tweet met with cancel culture, and needs—but does not want—to work with Deborah. And Deborah resents an interloper in the world she has fought and scratched to create for herself. The core of the show is the evolution of their connection, and how Deborah’s disappointed, calcified heart slowly cracks open for the awkward, recalcitrant Ava, whose pretenses fall away in the face of developing admiration for her mentor.
It’s the snap of Smart and Einbinder’s mutual humor that brings authentic life to Hacks. And Smart pushed for Einbinder to be cast.
“There was just something unique and quirky and unexpected about the way she approached the [audition] scene. I believed that she was a writer. She just wasn’t a typical starlet. And she was just right there and she would react to things in a very natural way, a very immediate way. I was just very, very impressed with her.”
Once Einbinder had the part, in an echo of the teasing, punchy banter between Deborah and Ava, Smart told Einbinder she had had a hand in the deal—with a little added exaggeration.
“I said, ‘I did go to bat for you. You were my first choice. And I told the producers that if they didn’t cast you I wasn’t going to do the show.’ And she said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘No. What, are you crazy?’ I almost didn’t tell her that story. I thought, Oh God, Jean, that’s just too mean. But I thought if she could stand it she’d survive.”
Smart has always survived; has always been an actor all her life. No waiting tables, no side gigs, just acting. Beginning in the theater, she got role after role. “It sounds horrible to say that to other actors,” she says. “Not that I was making a great living for a lot of years in the theater, I was just barely making rent. But you know, when you’re young and single you don’t care.”
She credits her college acting teacher Eve Roberts for reinforcing that drive and self-belief. Roberts was, Smart says, “an incredible actress. She was just remarkable.” Smart describes once being given a seven-minute scene to do when Roberts knew there were only three minutes left in the class. “I said, ‘Well, we’re not going to go to be able finish the scene.’ And she just was like, ‘No, just start, just go ahead, just start.’ I was so furious. I was so angry. And that was her lesson in teaching me how to use what I was feeling in the scene. Because she said, ‘You guys were never better.’”
Despite that learning experience, Smart largely eschews method acting. “I don’t think you necessarily have to experience something to be able to play it as an actor. I mean, the play that started my career in New York City was a play with eight gay female characters. And I remember the playwright, who was a gay woman, said she couldn’t understand how I could play this character if I had never had a relationship with a woman. And I thought, I don’t understand that because it’s like, how do you play a serial killer? You’re not going to go out and, you know…”
After Smart’s television breakout Designing Women, an enormous slew of screen roles followed, from Emmy-winning turns on Frasier and Samantha Who? to her nominated guest role in Harry’s Law. But then, after playing crime matriarch Floyd Gerhardt in Fargo, came a strange, fallow period.
“Fargo was sort of a game-changer in one sense,” she says. “The reviews were incredible; the ratings were incredible. People just loved the show. I got personal accolades. I won the Critics’ Choice Award and then silence. Silence. And I hate to say this, but I think part of it was because of the way I looked on the show. I think it was sort of like, ‘Oh dear. Well we know she’s good but yikes. What do we do with her?’ You know what I mean?”
A year went by without so much as a meeting.
Smart muses on the capricious nature of an acting career, the way that acting ability can only be perceived subjectively. “That’s art, you know?” she says. “It’s not like being a professional athlete where if you are really, really good, you are going to be very successful. Did you put the ball through the hoop or not? That’s got to be very gratifying because pretty much, if you are the best you’re going to end up at the top of the heap.”
She also believes there’s a general disrespect for actors and their art; a way that “infantilizes” actors. “Like we’re all these overpaid babies [saying] ‘Look at me, look at me!’”
She recalls a particularly unpleasant instance of this some years ago at the Emmys when, as a nominee, she was sent what she calls “the usual kind of letter” with details of how long winners’ speeches can be and so on. Only this time there was an added comment. “They never said this again, so people must have really been offended. They said, ‘Oh, by the way, if your name is announced and you win and other people around you in the audience jump up to congratulate you or shake your hand or give you a hug, ignore them because they’re just trying to get their face on camera.’ I thought that was so offensive and it showed me how people think of actors.”
After the post-Fargo silence, a new era emerged. The Daily Beast called it the ‘Jean Smartaissance’—at almost 70, Smart is everywhere. Emmy-nominated in 2020 for her Watchmen role, and now with these two latest Emmy-buzzed HBO shows.
In Mare of Easttown, she performs a stunning gear switch—changing her movement and physicality to become the tough, weathered mother character, using a full-body acting technique she puts down to her theatrical background.
“I sometimes thought about my mom, because she lived to be 94, and as you get older, the shoulders kind of roll forward, you know? There’s obviously a harder time getting up off the couch than you used to have. It’s like the opposite of method acting— the idea of working from the outside in. When you wear certain kinds of clothing, just as we do in real life, it makes us feel differently. And we move differently. We feel differently about ourselves. And so, I mean, I love my wardrobe and the costume designer was so thrilled because I said to her, ‘I want a little padding around the hips and the butt. That’s how I just see her in my head.’ And so, between that and the polyester pants and sweater vests and the bad hair, it just felt right. Sometimes I would give her high, crossed arms, the way Trump did when he was feeling very defensive in meetings.”
Smart was so physically committed to the role she fell during shooting and snapped a rib so badly she required five days in hospital. She recalls the paramedic who put her in the ambulance was disappointed he’d failed to recognize Kate Winslet and mistook her for Smart’s real-life daughter—an understandable error, since, even now, Winslet refers to Smart as ‘Mummy’.
Next up, Smart has “hopefully Season 2 of Hacks” she says, although renewal is yet to be confirmed. “I mean, HBO likes the show, the audience likes the show, the critics like the show, so I’m not sure what else would come into play there.” And then there’s her first ever go-round at producing, on the film, with the working title of Miss Macy, based on an NPR podcast, in which she’ll also play the titular role.
While Smart cracks jokes and doesn’t dwell on how she busted through every obstacle and glass ceiling as an actress who began her screen career in 1979, there’s a particular scene in Hacks so skin-prickling, it gives one pause.
Ava complains that Deborah is making her life hard, and Deborah retorts, “You don’t know what hard is. You got plucked off the internet at what? 20? You just got lucky… ‘Good’ is the minimum, ‘good’ is the baseline. You have to be so much more than good. And even if you’re great and lucky, you still have to work really fucking hard. And even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends. And it doesn’t get better. It just gets harder.”
Smart may not be especially into method acting, but with her 120-plus screen credits, and this powerful lead role coming to her only now, she might know a little something about Deborah’s speech. Long may the Smartaissance continue.