Jean Smart Is Hitting Her Stride

Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

Jean Smart is having a moment. In addition to a sly supporting role on the crime drama Mare of Easttown, she is the star of HBO Max’s new comedy Hacks, playing a Joan Rivers–esque Vegas comic named Deborah Vance who can’t catch up to today’s changing sensibilities. No gig is too disgraceful for Deborah, but she has barely tweaked her stage show in years. When her manager (Broad City alum Paul W. Downs) sends an embittered 20-something writer (Hannah Einbinder) to punch up her material, the women form a reluctant intergenerational partnership.

The first two Hacks episodes premiered earlier this month, extending Smart’s recent hot streak, which includes trendy series like Fargo, Legion, Dirty John, and Watchmen. Smart is a versatile performer, though many of the hallmarks on her résumé have been comedic, from Designing Women and Sweet Home Alabama to Samantha Who? and A Simple Favor. In Hacks, Smart’s brassy wit gives way to a delicate melancholy that hints at Deborah’s isolation. It’s a career-defining role that highlights Smart’s many talents.

We talked to the 69-year-old actress about perfecting her stand-up delivery, what led to her current career surge, and that enormous Watchmen dildo.

You’ve said you idolized the comedian Phyllis Diller when you were young. What was the appeal of stand-up comedy for you?

I was about 11, maybe 12, and there weren’t any other women doing things like that. Lucille Ball had been on television, but for some reason, her humor didn’t appeal to me because I thought she was acting like she was stupid. It bothered me. Years later, I very much enjoyed watching I Love Lucy, because it’s nostalgic and fun, but as a child, I remember thinking, Why is she doing that?

Phyllis Diller, I had never seen anyone like that. I thought, Boy, that looks like fun. I went to a costume party as her. But I learned fairly early on that that was probably a pretty scary profession. It’s excruciating when you fail, and everybody in the audience knows that you’ve just failed and you’re trying to climb out of it. If they don’t respond, that’s gotta be really, really uncomfortable.

In Hacks, Deborah shares some biographical traits with Joan Rivers, specifically her willingness to take any job she can get as she ages, her QVC line, and the type of humor she is attracted to. Even though you’re not doing a Joan impersonation, did you study her career when preparing for this?

I did certainly watch some of her earlier work. I wasn’t trying to do her, because my sensibilities are different than what she did, but she was just genius when she was younger. There’s a whole generation of people who only think of her as being catty on the red carpet, and her early stuff was amazing. She had that machine-gun humor. Talk about not holding for a laugh. You were ten jokes behind and still laughing. She was a pioneer, and she had lost her husband and had a daughter [like Deborah], so you can certainly draw comparisons.

Stand-up comedians often have familiar rhythms to their delivery, particularly the traditional ones who host late-night shows or do nightclub residencies. What did it take for you to feel comfortable with your delivery?

That was my biggest concern, but I guess I trusted myself enough because I love telling stories and long, protracted jokes. Because the writers were so good, I trusted that between their instincts and my instincts, it would work. I had a scene in a small nightclub where Deborah’s going to try out some new material, and the host there is a [real-life] stand-up comic. He paid me a very high compliment, because he felt like it was very natural to me.

The only time I actually had an audience, besides a scene on a double-decker bus, was one time when we were shooting in a theater. Because of COVID, they brought in less than two dozen people, and they were sitting far apart. That was fun because a lot of it, I had to do for nobody. I wish I could have done more of that, although, of course, I realize they were getting paid to laugh. I would thank them profusely between takes for continuing to laugh at the same joke over and over.

How did Deborah’s wardrobe inform your perception of her?

We had such a great designer, Kathleen Felix-Hager. She and I fortunately saw it pretty much the same. Basically, if we saw sequins, we bought them. One weekend, I saw this silver-sequined jacket that was on sale for nothing, and I called her on my cell phone: “Should I buy it? Should I buy it?” She goes, “Yes, yes, yes!” I will admit that a few of the items are my personal possessions.

From the outside looking in, you have had a seismic career surge in the past six years: Fargo, A Simple Favor, Legion, Watchmen, and now Mare of Easttown and Hacks. Why do you think the past few years have been so fruitful for you?

That’s a good question. I’m extremely grateful and don’t take it for granted at all. Part of it is there’s more great stories out now about women, and I think, for a long time, casting directors didn’t know quite what to do with me because I was somewhere in between character actress and leading lady. If you don’t fit neatly into a certain category, I think it’s harder for them to read a script and go, Oh, yeah, let’s plug so-and-so into that part. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. I pride myself on being versatile, but sometimes I think, Gee, this would have been nice 20 years ago.

I wonder if there was something more tangible, though. Was there a point when you realized you wanted more ambitious material?

One turning point was when I did 24. I think people in the industry started to look at me a little differently. Doing The Man Who Came to Dinner on Broadway with Nathan Lane, at least for me, was a high point. That was the year I was nominated for my first Emmy [for a guest role on Frasier], so that felt like a stellar year. That was 2000.

After leaving Designing Women in the early ’90s, you had a few sitcoms that didn’t connect with audiences: High Society, Style & Substance, In-Laws. Was there a period when you were frustrated with the way things were going?

Yes, I was a little bit, partially because I loved Style & Substance, and I absolutely loved High Society. I think if High Society would have come five years later, it would have been a hit. I don’t know why the network did the show, because they were a little appalled at the same time. I remember I had a conversation with [former CBS chairman] Les Moonves: “We’ll pick up the show if you kind of do it more like Cybill.” And I thought, But that’s not what this is. In fact, if this isn’t over the top and slightly tongue in cheek, it’s just going to be tasteless.

High Society was a spin on Absolutely Fabulous, which, to your point, sounds like something people would go gaga for today.

It had a little cult following for the few episodes that we did. I had never seen Ab Fab, and the writers told me, “People are going to ask you, ‘Are you doing an American Ab Fab?’ And we’re not. We thought of this way before Ab Fab.” At that point, I deliberately never watched an episode of Ab Fab, because I wanted to say truthfully that I had never seen the show. Of course, years later, they confessed to me that they were writing an American version of it. But Mary McDonnell and I had a great time. I loved that character. There’s even a little bit of her in Deborah.

With Style & Substance, we were kind of doing a send-up of Martha Stewart. I was told she was not remotely amused and was possibly going to bring some kind of action.

You provide comic relief in Mare of Easttown, I would say. Is it harder to keep a straight face when you’re delivering sly humor in an otherwise dark series than it is to deliver obvious laugh lines in something like Hacks?

In a way, I think it’s just the opposite, because Helen, my character in Mare of Easttown, is such a grumpy old bird. She has a very dysfunctional relationship with her daughter, and she’s bitter about the past. Most of the things she says and does that are kind of funny, I don’t think she would think, necessarily, were funny. Because she’s not a very happy person by nature.

At what point were you made aware that the internet is obsessed with the Watchmen scene where you hold a giant blue dildo?

I didn’t know they were obsessed! [Watchmen creator] Damon Lindelof told me that one of the female writers suggested it as sort of a joke, and he said, “Let’s do it.” They actually ceremoniously presented the dildo to her at the wrap party. I remember my first phone call with Damon, when he offered me the part, because I remember reading the script and thinking, Oh my God, this is fantastic. I have to do this. Wait. No, no, no. I’m going to have to say no. But then [the dildo] didn’t reappear in the script, and so after we talked for a few minutes, I said, “Okay, I have to ask you about the big blue elephant in the room. Do you have any plans for this thing?” He said, “No, it’s just a onetime thing.” It’s sort of a joke, but it also represents that this woman is a desperately lonely person who is carrying a torch for a guy who doesn’t even live on the same planet, who she hasn’t been with in decades. It’s kind of pathetic, but it also shows that she’s still a sexual being.

Why did you immediately think “no” when you saw that in the script?

Because I thought, What is she going to be doing with this thing? Oh God, no! No, no, no! I kept turning the pages, waiting for something horrible. But it was okay.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jean Smart Is Hitting Her Stride