‘Hacks’ Star Jean Smart on Deborah ‘Hitting Bottom’ in Season 2: ‘She’s Never Been Able to Let Go of the Bitterness’

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This story about Jean Smart in “Hacks” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Jean Smart gave another tour de force performance as comedian Deborah Vance in an emotionally charged diner scene in Season 2 of the HBO Max comedy-drama “Hacks,” and it required very little preparation. The scene finds Deborah, an older comedian who’s trying to keep together what’s left of her fame and career, demanding that her young writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) read her an email. But not just any email. Deborah tells Ava she must read the missive the twentysomething sent to some showrunners at the end of Season 1, where Ava raked Deborah and her behavior over the coals, exposing her misbehavior to outside parties. Smart doesn’t have a lot of lines in the scene, but the pain as she listens to the harsh and often brutally honest criticism is palpable.

“That was a great scene, but I didn’t really need to prepare for it because the words are so amazing that all you have to do is react,” said Smart, who won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for Season 1 of “Hacks.” “It was excruciating, I think, for the audience to watch, because it’s even worse than Deborah had imagined. The things that Ava says about her in that email hurt her so badly. She’s not about to really show it, but some of the things Ava mentioned, she thinks, ‘That’s not so bad,’ or ‘What’s wrong with that?’ But then it gets real, real, real personal, and it really is wounding to her.”

It’s one of several moments in Season 2 where Deborah is forced to look at herself, unable to hide behind or make fun of the pain she’s gone through in her life — for instance, the divorce that came when her husband left her for her sister. “She’s never been able to let go of the bitterness that she has about that and the pain that she has about that,” Smart said. “It’s almost like that desire for some kind of revenge or just not letting go of that grudge is what feeds her. That’s her battery, that bitterness, which is the sad part of Deborah that I don’t really identify with particularly.”

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But there are things Smart can relate to about Deborah and use in her performance. “I don’t think of myself as a workaholic — I love to work and I’m fairly competitive, but I also do really well with just staying home and doing absolutely nothing,” she said, laughing. “Certainly I’d love Deborah’s sense of humor. I’m kind of a sarcastic wiseass like she is. I like most of her clothes. I love that she’s kind of vain. I’m kind of vain. But luckily, I’m more vain about my acting than I am about my looks, because if it’s something like “Mare of Easttown” (for which Smart was Emmy-nominated last year), I’m perfectly happy to just let vanity — obviously — drop. So, that’s my saving grace, is that I’m a little bit more vain about my acting. But yes, we both love leopard print. And I would kill to have her kitchen. That’s my fantasy kitchen.”

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in “Hacks” (HBO Max)
Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in “Hacks” (HBO Max)

Season 2 of the show saw Deborah hit even more low points than the Ava diner scene. Her fame receded following the end of her Vegas residency, and audiences on her cross-country comedy club road trip tour found her material lackluster. At one show, she even had to chase after her longtime stalker Axel (Kyle Gass) after he jogs to his car to try and avoid her after a bad set.

“I thought the scene with the stalker was brilliant, because it was funny and painful, as many of our scenes are,” Smart said. “I mean, for your own stalker to reject you?! Let’s talk about hitting bottom.” With the help of Ava, though, that moment led Deborah to discover that talking onstage about the ridiculous things she’s done over the years was her ticket to breaking through. That’s the kind of character growth Smart appreciates.

“It was wonderful for her to have that revelation that people don’t necessarily want to see her get up there and be nasty about somebody in a funny way,” she said. “Actually, she realized that some of her own shortcomings were great material. And for her to make fun of the fact that she wasn’t mother of the year, and things like that — you can see her getting a little bit healthier, mentally, but at the same time she’s able to just say, ‘This is me, warts and all.’ And, it’s pretty damn funny, you know? I mean, sending her drag impersonator to her child’s parent-teacher meeting is, I think, one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.”

Read more from the Comedy & Drama issue here.

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