Jean Smart has been a small-screen fixture since the early ’80s, but it wasn’t until a 2000 guest role on “Frasier” that Smart took home an Emmy. She’s been nominated seven times since (and turned two of those noms into wins) including this year for a standout role as crime family matriarch Floyd Gerhardt on FX’s limited series “Fargo.” Although the “Fargo” cast changes every season, Smart will soon reunite with showrunner Noah Hawley and co-star Rachel Keller on the upcoming FX series “Legion,” set in the Marvel “X-Men” universe.
Your first Emmy was for a guest role, what do you remember about the win?
They had the guest actor category at the Creative Arts Emmys before the Primetime Emmy broadcast. I was in New York doing a Broadway play with Nathan Lane. Jerry Zaks, the director, very kindly let my understudy go on for a couple of performances so I could fly out. And then I got to be a presenter on the Primetime Emmys. I got it all, it was fun.
Was it your first time presenting at the Emmys?
Yes. I remember one of the first people I made eye contact with when I walked out was James Gandolfini. I wanted to meet him, but I didn’t get a chance. I was nervous because I stepped on the hem of my dress backstage and some wonderful crew guy grabbed some gaffer’s tape and taped me up. I was walking out there very gingerly thinking any moment I would do a faceplant on national television. I made some joke that I felt like I was walking like John Wayne. I think that’s when I saw James Gandolfini, laughing his head off.
“Frasier” had a lot of luck at the Emmys. Did you think you might win?
I had loved that role on “Frasier” so much, particularly that first episode. It’s nice to get nominated and win for something you were particularly proud of. At the time I was a little bit snobby about doing guest parts. Based on what I don’t know. It wasn’t something I was seeking. But my agent said, “You have to read this.” I thought it was hilarious and the show was brilliant so I didn’t even hesitate. I remember when we did the table read with the rest of the cast we could hardly get through it we were laughing so hard.
And then they brought your character back, but changed her name.
Apparently Mark Reisman, who wrote that episode, had written it about a gal he went to school with. He’d even told her, and she was flattered he’d written her into the show, until she saw the episode. And then I guess she didn’t think it was so funny. So they changed the name when [the character] came back and no one talked about it.
You were nominated the year “24” won for drama series — how does that compare to winning an acting prize?
That was great. That show was another one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. That was a big thrill. I would’ve loved to have won as well. I was glad the show got recognized, because it really was an incredible season. I kept thinking, “How can they bring [Martha] back? Give her a straitjacket and shaved head, rambling on in Russian!”