It’s hard to imagine the world of entertainment without Jean Smart. With “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown” bringing her back to the forefront in the recent years, some call it a Jean Smart renaissance — but that’s not really the case. In fact, she’s never not been working — maybe we just haven’t been paying attention.
“In the last five or six years, I’ve had some extraordinary roles that were just kind of handed to me on a silver platter, which has been really amazing — ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Fargo,’ and of course, ‘Hacks.’ I couldn’t have written something for myself that I would have enjoyed more,” Smart tells Variety. “But there are other things I’ve done that weren’t as visible as most shows.”
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The four-time Emmy winner has made quite an impact in the industry, so much so that she will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 25. But before the star came to L.A., Smart had set her sights on New York City, acting on stage.
“I did a play in New York that started my whole career, ‘Last Summer at Blue Fish Cove,’ which I’m very proud of. Obviously, plays don’t get the eyes on them that film and television do,” she says. “I didn’t really think much about L.A., I just went to New York. I was enjoying theater so much and the program that I was in at University of Washington, at that time, they did not emphasize television or film at all — maybe they should have covered all the bases!”
In fact, during her time in college, the head of her drama program was only focused on plays, not even musicals, which had a direct effect on her.
“We all kind of went to New York with our noses in the air about musicals, which I regret now because I would have liked to have pursued that. I think I would just have a great time,” she says.
Still, Smart went on to spend three summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is still pleasantly surprised today with how incredible the experience was.
“I feel guilty sometimes because I feel like I didn’t really struggle the way a lot of actors did in terms of having to work another job. I worked with professional theaters in Seattle and just got an invaluable experience playing amazing roles that gave me an enormous amount of confidence,” she says. “I think theater gives actors a lot of confidence, and it teaches you how to act with your whole body instead of just with your face.”
©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Oddly enough, it was TV where Smart began gaining global recognition. In 1985, she was cast in CBS’ “Designing Women” and went on to play Charlene Frazier Stillfield for five seasons. The sitcom earned 18 Emmy nominations and catapulted Smart’s career.
“There weren’t a lot of shows that were just about women back then. Linda [Bloodworth-Thomason] is such a good writer that she made the characters so distinct from each other. A lot of times, back in the day on sitcoms, you could practically all trade lines and nobody could tell the difference. The jobs are kind of all the same. She was very specific about our characters,” she says when asked about the comedy’s staying power. “She would do another thing that nobody did back then: Give us page-long monologues. Nobody had that in sitcoms, and that really made it fun and made the characters, I think, much more interesting for the audience and much more entertaining.”
She adds, “I would kill to play a part like that again — someone who’s kind of sweet and gullible. It’s funny, in some ways I see myself more that way than some other roles I’ve played recently. Like a Betty White on ‘The Golden Girls’ kind of part, that’s what I need.”
Throughout her career, Smart has thrived in both comedy and drama; her four Emmy wins are for her work in comedy in “Frasier,” “Samantha Who?” and “Hacks,” while her nominations include her drama work in “The District,” “24,” “Harry’s Law,” “Fargo,” “Watchmen” and “Mare of Easttown.”
Still, she has no plans to choose one genre over the other.
“I wouldn’t ever want to want to have to choose,” she says. “If I’m able to still do both all the time, I’d be very lucky and very happy.”
Courtesy of HBO
In 2021, Smart landed a role that made audiences feel like the lucky ones: legendary Las Vegas comedy diva Deborah Vance in HBO’s “Hacks.” Not only does she jump off the screen, the series shines overall — something Smart had a feeling would happen the moment she read the pilot script.
“There was no question I was gonna say yes. The script had so much there already on the page — the comedy was there, obviously, but there were moments where you see behind her defenses and these dark moments. What more can you ask for as an actor?” she says. “That makes a person a real person. You get to see a lot of what makes them tick, even more so in the second season that’s coming up. I’m really happy too that it’s also as funny as last season, because second seasons are always a little nerve-wracking, because especially if the show’s been a hit, you feel like everyone’s dying for it. I think the writers have knocked it out of the park.”
With more than 40 years of acting behind her, she’s learned what works and what doesn’t and continues to learn today. As for advice she’d give other actors, specifically women, it’s simple: Stop worrying what others want.
“You’re always figuring out, ‘I’ve got to give them what they have, what they want!’ ‘How do I come across?’ ‘What are they looking for?’ ‘I’ve gotta try to be sexy or funny.’ Go in and do what your first instinct is. That’s going to ultimately make you stand out — maybe not the first few times but it will definitely pay off,” she says before pausing and laughing. “Also, I would have started wearing hair pieces sooner.”
Looking to the future, Smart has some ideas about what she’d like to do next: more period pieces and returning to New York for another show. However, with her youngest son starting high school in the fall, the Big Apple will have to wait as she finds a way to navigate doing a bit of everything.
“I don’t really think I have the secret to balancing it all. I wish I did. Especially since I lost my husband, that just changed everything. Being a working, single mom is very difficult — more difficult than I ever imagined it could be,” says Smart of her husband, Richard Gilliland, who died in 2021. “I feel so fortunate I have a lot of support and resources that most single working mothers don’t have. My hat is off to them in the most humble way. It’s hard — and it’s not just hours of the day, it’s also the constant worry about when your work. We’re working 15-hour days [on ‘Hacks’] and family is always running through your mind your work. The first season, I didn’t have that, so everything felt much lighter and more carefree because I was just thinking about what I’m supposed to be thinking about which was my work. So, I don’t really feel like I have the secret. I wish I could say that I did. You just have to put your family first when humanly possible.”
WHAT: Jean Smart receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. April 25
WHERE: 6150 Hollywood Blvd.
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