Late Night With ‘Hacks’: We Join Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder & Company On The Vegas Set As Season 3 Reaches Its Finale

It is three o’clock in the morning at a blackjack table inside Las Vegas’s sprawling Caesar’s Palace casino. A woman in town on business has just turned a $150 bankroll into $800, and she moves to retire to the nearby bar to buy her work family, whose fortunes at the same table have varied, a drink.

“I swear I barely know how to play,” she tells them. “But I do know the most important thing is to leave the table before your luck runs out.”

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Jean Smart already has five gilded Emmy awards causing her shelves to groan under pressure. She deserves another for her “barely know how to play” nonsense. She has spent the evening feeding me advice on basic blackjack strategy — it’s my first time at the tables — yet I have only two chips left, totaling all of six dollars.

I follow Smart to the bar — the least I can do is claim a cocktail or two to drown my sorrows — and begin to wonder if her advice was on the level. She was, after all, sat in the upstream position, very aware of the cards she needed to see from the dealer after I’d busted out.

Jean Smart interview
Jean Smart

Still, spirits are high on this first big night out in Vegas for the team behind Hacks, which includes showrunners and creators Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, and Paul W. Downs, and actors Hannah Einbinder and Mark Indelicato. And such is the warmth shown to the show’s mother hen, Smart, that I reluctantly decide that getting hustled by an acting icon is probably worth it, if only for the experience of it.

Probably worth it.

For three seasons now, Hacks has followed the travails of stand-up comic Deborah Vance, who we met as she attempted to spice up her material for her long-standing Vegas residency. The show debuted on HBO Max — now just Max — in 2021 and has spent much of its runtime on the Strip, or Strip-adjacent.

But Hollywood is an industry built by magicians and charlatans, so it should come as no surprise that the principal cast and crew have spent very little time here. Hacks primarily shoots further west, in Los Angeles. In fact, this is Smart’s first trip to Sin City for the show, and these three days mark the longest stretch the Hacks team has spent on location in this grown-up Disneyland.

I’m with them for most of this trip and watch as Aniello, Statsky, and Downs maximize their limited time. The call sheets for these days stamp a giant ‘Vegas’ across the show’s title, and scenes being shot will be scattered throughout the nine-episode season. Later, I’ll watch Smart whack golf balls at a driving range in sight of the Las Vegas Sphere. But my first encounter with Deborah Vance is preceded by the glint of a hundred thousand pink sequins.

The Hacks team is gathered outside a gaudy recreation of Rome’s Trevi fountain, right on the edge of the Strip. In Rome, the fountain spills out of the gorgeous 16th Century Palazzo Poli. Here in Vegas, it leads from an ever-gaudier shopping mall, which is what Deborah is here to sell. The layers of artifice run deep — afront the fake fountain, a fake film crew preps to shoot an ad for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. A real film crew is set up to shoot them, but even they’re getting confused about which piece of lighting kit belongs to them and which is a prop for the scene.

At the center of all this chaos, Aniello, Statsky, and Downs seem remarkably relaxed. Downs has the added complication of starring in the scene too, in his role as Deborah’s long-suffering manager Jimmy. Megan Stalter, as Jimmy’s assistant-cum-special project Kayla, readies a parasol for Vance. Aniello, directing, pauses briefly to decide whether to wait for the crowd noise from the Strip, or the airplanes taking off from the nearby LAS airport, or the many party buses driving past blaring obnoxious 2000s dance ‘classics’. She rolls her eyes and determines to press ahead regardless. Then, Statsky has an idea for the scene. The trio huddle.

It is at that point that a mess of sequins sparkle against the sidewalk, preceding a woman with a tall beehive hairdo, who steps in front of the fountain clutching multiple bags of high-end designer goods. Deborah has arrived.

It has taken a long time for the cast and crew to reach this moment. “And part of that was my fault,” Smart tells me self-deprecatingly, referring to the season’s first significant pause in production, on February 14 2023, when Smart went in for what she later described as a successful heart procedure. She announced the news on Instagram, a little under two years after her beloved husband, actor Richard Gilliland, had passed away suddenly following heart complications. “Please listen to your body and talk to your doctor,” Smart wrote. “I’m very glad I did.”

It was a major surgery, Smart says, and her path to recovery took many weeks, but her colleagues on the show didn’t hesitate to give her the time she needed. Indeed, says Downs, “Most crew people, because it’s gig work, would move on to other jobs, but everybody waited because they love Jean and wanted to come back with her to this show.”

Hacks Jen Statsky interview
Jen Statsky

It has been this way for the Hacks cast and crew throughout its run to date, and on set, it’s clear to see the bonds that have been formed through years of collaboration. Downs, along with his fellow showrunners Aniello (who also directs) and Statsky, have fostered that environment from the start. Season 3 alone will have taken them nearly two years from start to finish, with the first words hitting the page in the spring of 2022, and post-production set to continue until right up to the show’s premiere date. At this point, “I feel like we’ve been 16-months pregnant,” laughs Aniello. “The baby’s baked and ready to go.”

“It’s an overwhelming sense of wanting the world to see it now,” says Statsky, with the finish line   in sight.

Further complicating matters for Hacks Season 3 were the two industry strikes of last year. The show would reschedule production for May 1, nine weeks after stopping for Smart’s procedure and recovery, and then shoot for a day before the Writers Guild of America announced its intention to strike beginning May 2. Hacks was one of the first shows in production to announce a complete halt, citing the need for the writing team to be on set as scenes come together.

“We [made the decision] on day one,” says Statsky. “We write as we go, and we couldn’t do our jobs as showrunners unless we were writing. We couldn’t write, so we had to stop.”

“We wouldn’t want to make the show that way,” says Aniello. “You wouldn’t want to find some kind of loophole that allows you to keep making something, especially if you’re making a worse version of it.”

Downs says bosses were supportive of their decision. “When we told HBO that we didn’t think we could make the show the way we want to make it, they really understood. I don’t think every show had that luxury. Some people faced a lot of pressure.”

The message was heard, though, by the wider industry, and the Hacks team were grateful that the impact of their decision, and HBO’s amenability, helped other creative teams struggling to make their own cases to down tools. “It was a line in the sand,” says Statsky.

Hacks Hannah Einbinder interview
Hannah Einbinder

Though the writers’ strike came to an end in late September, the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike delayed production further, with the cast and crew gathering again, finally, in December.

“What’s good about the show is that when we’re not making it, we’re usually talking about the fact that we made it, so we tend to get to be together and live in the reality of doing the show,” says Hannah Einbinder, who plays Deborah’s co-writer Ava, the Gen Z foil to Vance’s dated wit. “It sucks not to see the crew who make it every day when we’re not in production, but the show never feels far away. It does make me sad, because I wish this was my job forever, a little bit. I do prefer to be doing it than not doing it.”

It’s about 10 p.m. in Vegas before production retires for the night, and Smart, Einbinder, and the creative trio hit The Palm restaurant in the gaudy mall for dinner. Call time was 9:30 a.m., and everyone is exhausted — not least this reporter, who is blaming jetlag for his lack of stamina. But when Smart sweeps in, it’s like an injection of fresh energy. She’s already gearing up for our session at the blackjack table later, discussing the strategy she claims she’s heard about but never practiced (whatever you say, Jean).

Later, Downs will tell me that Smart brings this same energy to the set every day. “She works nonstop. She works so hard. She never phones it in.” Smart means it when she describes this cast and crew as her family. “After her surgery, she wanted to come back two weeks later, and her doctors were like, ‘Absolutely not’,” says Downs. “When she was deciding to go in for the surgery, she said, ‘But I don’t want to shut down the show.’ I happened to be with her in the hospital in that moment, and I said, ‘Jean, worry about your health only in this moment.’”

“It’s just the most wonderful work environment to be a part of,” Smart says, placing the credit for her fervor firmly at the feet of her collaborators. “I was talking to a young man who just worked on the show for a day. He might have been one of the caddies when we play golf this season. But we were sitting around, and he said this was the most welcoming set he’d ever been on, and it’s true. If they hadn’t created that environment, I just couldn’t imagine being able to do it. I would shrivel up.”

Smart remembers the Frasier set having a similar energy. It was her guest role on that show that brought her the first two of those five Emmys (the most recent two are for Hacks). But she’s also the only one who won’t credit herself for fostering it. When Einbinder was auditioning to play Ava, the team had narrowed the field to three actresses who would screen test with Smart. She remembers receiving a call from Smart the night before, reassuring her that she would be supportive, and that Einbinder needn’t be nervous.

“Everyone always talks about building chemistry,” says Einbinder now. “‘How did you build the chemistry between you?’ But we didn’t build anything. It was there from day one.”

“They narrowed so many actresses down to the three I read with,” says Smart. “By the end, there was no doubt in my mind that it had to be Hannah. She was just such a natural. I hate to use an acting term, but she is in the moment at all times. There’s nothing before, nothing after; she’s just prepared.”

“I feel like Jean and I started to spend time with one another every day when there was a lot of life happening for both of us,” adds Einbinder. “We leaned on each other pretty early on. Of course, we laugh together, which is a great bonding force, but so much life has happened since we got to know each other. She’s been through so much, and I’ve been through so much. She has allowed me to be there for her, and that has felt like an honor.”

Einbinder, who is currently in post-production on her stand-up comedy special for Max, is never shy to count the blessings Hacks has brought her. “This show has made every other opportunity in my life possible,” she says. “I was a feature act for other comedians when I got cast, and it instantly made it possible for me to headline and sell tickets.”

“I told her I want 5%,” cackles Smart with a devilish glint.

When they first pitched Hacks to networks around town, the creative trio imagined a five-season arc, and even described the very final scene of the series in every pitch meeting they took — all except one, with Max’s comedy chief Suzanna Makkos, who would wind up buying the show. “It’s a really interesting thing,” says Downs, “because all of the networks knew the end of the show, and Suzanna cut us off before we got there and said, ‘I get the show, it’s bought, we don’t need to keep doing this.’”

“She’s the only one who doesn’t know how it ends,” laughs Statsky.

Hacks Paul W. Downs interview
Paul W. Downs

But neither do Smart and Einbinder, who both say they don’t want to know just yet. “They said they had five seasons of this in their heads, but that was it,” says Smart of her first meeting with the team. “Well, then it was five… it might be different now.”

“That’s still our plan,” says Aniello. “We started pitching the show in 2019, but we’ve been thinking about it since 2015, so we’ve had a great time to plot out and talk about where we wanted the show to go.”

“Yeah,” says Statsky, laughing, “But I’m in some debt, so…”

“Our fortunes at the blackjack table tonight might dictate the future of the show,” jokes Smart.

The show’s third season picks up the action about a year after we last saw Deborah and Ava. And the cast list alone was a relief for Einbinder, who remembers the moment she read the finale of Hacks’ second season, in which Deborah cuts Ava loose and instructs her to pursue her own dreams as a writer. “I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of the season,” Einbinder laughs, recalling the memory. “So, I read this last script and I just started crying. I called Jen, Paul, and Lucia, and I said, ‘Am I fired?! Are you writing me off the show?’”

Of course, they quickly reassured her that wasn’t the case. “They didn’t know just how low my self-esteem was,” chuckles Einbinder, as Smart gives her a hug. She says she has since learned more about the show’s trajectory.

Part of that five-season plan was always going to factor in a return to the topic raised in the show’s pilot. Sometime in the past, Deborah had shot a pilot for a late-night television show, a job she had coveted from the start of her career. But it was never picked up, and Deborah had done her best to forget it had happened until Ava unearthed the tape in her voluminous archive.

In Season 3, late-night comes back. “It has been a lynchpin of the whole series in a way,” says Downs. “As we were writing the season, Chelsea Handler went on a campaign to take over from Trevor Noah, and it was still being talked about while we were making the show.”

Late last year, Taylor Tomlinson was tapped to take over the late-night slot from James Corden with her show After Midnight. “But it’s not a traditional late-night show, so still no woman has ever been given that opportunity,” notes Statsky. “I don’t know that late-night is doing well for [the networks]. It might go away as a concept before a woman ever gets to host a true, network late-night show.”

Hacks has obsessed itself with poking at these industry hypocrisies, particularly when it comes to the roles women are forced to play. Deborah is one of the rare survivors; a woman whose career has ebbed and flowed, but who has lasted for decades in one guise or another. And yet, we first met her at the financial zenith and creative nadir of any performer’s career: a Vegas residency. Sure, Deborah’s mansion could comfortably house a small country, but the person we come to know is far from the entertainment industry overachiever we’re frequently convinced someone of her stature must be. Deborah’s victories have been hard-fought. She has been treading water her entire career, and she can’t admit to herself that she is exhausted from the effort, because to do so would be to lose everything she has built.

For Ava, too, this pressure is ever-present. Cancelled for tweeting an off-color joke, the promising career she felt she had ahead was snatched away from her before it had even begun. Writing jokes for a hack comedian — and one who has made her stock-in-trade a mean-spirited version of her comedic faux-pas, no less — is Ava’s own creative nadir. Watching the ruthlessness with which Deborah fights for her place on the stage revolts Ava. But though she couches her own fight in self-righteousness, the two are not so dissimilar. Both are forced, constantly, to become ever more wicked versions of themselves to keep afloat. Deborah is just years further down the road of making her peace with that.

Hacks Lucia Aniello interview
Lucia Aniello

“We’ve always said this show is a redemption story for them both,” says Aniello. “And that redemption takes a while, because of where we find them in the beginning; both outcasts of the entertainment industry.”

Season 3, then, will end on a higher note than the two that preceded it. “Finally,” adds Aniello, “we’ve given Deborah her white whale.” But though it might end well, things are never quite all well; Deborah has harpooned the beast, but she will have to hold onto it as it thrashes. “And that’s not something we feel like we’re ready to resolve in a single season,” hence another two seasons ahead.

“It’s giving her what she wanted for so long, but at what cost?” asks Statsky. The sting in the tail of Season 3 is that Deborah cuts Ava loose again the second she fears that fighting for her might jeopardize that prize. That’s a line too far for Ava, who has spent three years now struggling for her place at Deborah’s side.

“What we’re setting up is that Deborah is now on the biggest stage of her career,” says Statsky. “She’s got this huge gig that she now has to make work, because it’s what she’s wanted more than anything. But now she’s at odds with her closest collaborator — and closest friend, to be honest — because she has betrayed her.”

In perhaps the most electric of the season’s many charged scenes, Ava will punch back. When Deborah decides to maintain the status quo by not replacing the show’s head writer with Ava, Ava will take a leaf out of Deborah’s playbook. “Much to Deborah’s dismay,” notes Smart, “Ava has learned the lessons she taught her a little too well.”

If I’m dancing around the moment in question, it’s because it hasn’t aired as this story goes to print; the finale arrives on May 30. “It’s so Eve Harrington,” teases Smart, referencing Anne Baxter’s title role in the 1950 Bette Davis classic All About Eve. “It’s a mixture of rage with some admiration; almost pride. And then, at the very last moment, it’s like, ‘Oh, this will be fun.’”

It’s a mark of a show that has firmly ensconced itself into the creative consciousness that big name guest stars start lining up for their chance to join in. Hacks has always had an impressive roster, but Season 3 ups the ante by several notches. Among the names on the call sheet this season: Helen Hunt (“who out-Deborahs Deborah,” notes Smart), Christopher Lloyd, and J. Smith Cameron, to name just three. Even that Las Vegas mainstay Carrot Top graces the set with his presence.

“When I’m coming to work and I’m opposite Jean, I’m always coming to play,” says Einbinder. “But I definitely feel like I gotta have nerves when the big dogs come to play. All these people come in who are so iconic, and suddenly, they’re just sitting there, knitting at their chair between scenes. Everybody slots right into the environment that Paul, Jen, and Lucia built.”

J. Smith Cameron plays Deborah’s estranged sister, Kathy, and must surely be on every voters’ Guest Star ballots by now. “I’ve admired her for so long,” says Smart. “For her to come onto the show after Deborah has been talking about her horrible sister for two seasons, and then to play that person who turns out to be very sweet… She was wonderful. We have a similar approach to our work, and we had a great time together. We’re already conspiring to do a play together.”

Hacks Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder
Einbinder and Smart as Ava Daniels and Deborah Vance in Hacks.

The scenes between Deborah and Kathy hit with the kind of familial truths that have percolated the show since its premiere. Hacks is, at its most fundamental level, an uproarious comedy. That has always been the first intent of this creative team. But as a study of human nature, especially within the confines of this business of show, its third season has been particularly adept at getting to the root of what drives us. Many of this show’s characters feel like archetypes in the broadest terms, but especially this season, those archetypes have been dismantled.

In the main cast, as well as Ava and Deborah, there is Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), the fan-turned-business manager who has been forced this season to clear some more of the fanatical shine he has lathered on Deborah for so many years. There is Kayla, the nepo baby assistant who is so unaware of her blind spots that she can’t even detect when she’s being competent. And Jimmy, her boss, who has been forced to take her along for the ride because, deep down, he’s aware of his own easy walk into his career.

Jimmy and Kayla have a particularly touching moment in the season’s finale, details of which I again must skirt. “You get to understand more about where Kayla is coming from and how she became the person she is,” hints Downs. “I think we’ve really tried, with every member of our ensemble, to deepen our understanding of what their journeys are, and what they really want.”

The moment of catharsis for Jimmy and Kayla is somehow both hilarious and touching in equal measure. “It’s such strong comedy from Paul and Meg,” says Statsky. “But it’s also so sweet. It’s a testament to them as actors, that they’re able to do both in a single scene. The hardest thing to do in comedy is to elicit true empathy while being so funny. It’s a high-wire act that they both perform beautifully.”

Though I don’t witness this particular moment on set, it becomes clear very quickly that the script is a jumping off point. Take after take, this creative team finds new veins to mine. Ideas don’t just float between Aniello, Statsky and Downs; they come from everybody, and if they’re funnier than what’s on paper, they get shot.

“There’s an egolessness to them,” says Einbinder. “The best idea wins. All they want to do is make the show better, and they create an environment that is welcoming and supportive. They walk around and do bits; everybody’s always laughing. Our DP is funny. Our grips are funny. Our boom operators are funny. It really is a charmed experience.”

“What’s great is that I’ve been involved in the editing, I’ve directed, and I’ve written on the show,” says Downs, “so as an actor, I feel very free to be able to live each scene on the day, and to change things. There isn’t a huge amount of improvising, to be honest with you, because we move so quickly. We shoot a lot of pages in a day. You have to be disciplined about how you change things and be really, really prepared. But having such a great scene partner like Meg, we’re able to bounce off of each other.”

Downs is right; improvisation is not the right word for it. Particularly on the bonus features of Adam McKay movies, we can see that process, as some of the funniest actors around riff altenative lines for minutes at a time, trying ceaselessly to say the right zany thing. On Hacks, alt lines are written into the script multiple times an episode. This feels almost like an invitation on the day of the shoot, to keep things open to possibility. But the luxury of throwing mud against the wall until something sticks doesn’t compute when there’s only a few short months to bank nine episodes. Changes must be more precise; and they must be earned instead of indulged.

In the scene outside Caesar’s, I witness how this is realized. The underlying gag of the scene is so subtle that it isn’t immediately apparent: the first AD on this commercial introduces himself to Deborah at the start of the scene. They roll a take on her, she yells, “Shopping!”, holding her designer bags aloft. And then the director calls cut and the same first AD announces, “That’s a wrap on Deborah Vance.” All of this production value, at one of the busiest spots on the Strip, to capture one word in a single take. We’re left to wonder just how sizable the check was that brought Deborah to this set.

The scene, as written, calls for Deborah to smile at the applause that greets her wrap announcement, curtsey theatrically, and then move to her car. At some point, the suggestion becomes: what if Deborah completely ignores the plaudits, drops the bags to the curb, and wanders off oblivious and disinterested? All of a sudden, the scene has the punch it needs.

“Sometimes, it’s only when you get something up on its feet that you realize something’s slightly off,” says Aniello. “It doesn’t feel quite right. And so, we’ll huddle together and figure out a solve. Sometimes those moments are so intense, like you’re on a game show and you have two seconds to find the answer, but the more we’ve done it, the better we get at it, and at this point, it’s like we have a gut feeling as to what our characters would do in any given moment.”

“We live for the tiny things,” adds Downs. “The tiny tweaks that you almost can’t describe, and sometimes that’s because it’s not even that something doesn’t work to begin with. It’s just like, ‘How can I tickle it a little more?’”

After a long season with many unfortunate, unavoidable gaps in production, it seemed fitting to Smart that filming should end with a proper trip to the Entertainment Capital of the World. “It was so perfect that we were wrapping up that long, long season in Vegas,” she says. “It was a chance for our entire cast and crew to party together, and overindulge slightly, and it was a real shot in the arm at the end of the season.”

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Comedy magazine <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:here;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">here</a>.
Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Comedy magazine here.

“Slightly”. If Caesars Palace had windows, Smart would have seen the sun rise from her vantage point at the bar as she frittered away her ill-gotten blackjack winnings. It was 5 a.m. before she called it a night.

Months later, I discover my six dollars’ worth of chips buried at the bottom of my luggage. “Level with me,” I ask Smart when we reconnect. “You hustled me at that blackjack table, didn’t you?”

There is that cackle again; Smart’s riotous laugh that she has gifted to Deborah Vance. At once wicked and delightful, it deserves its own place in television’s hall of fame. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she demurs. “I was only trying to help.”

The trouble is, I believe her. She really has earned every single one of those Emmys.

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