Jean Smart and Bowen Yang Discuss the Genius of ‘Hacks’ and the Adrenaline Rush of Working at ‘SNL’

Jean Smart (“Hacks,””Mare of Easttown”) and Bowen Yang (“Saturday Night Live”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors. For more, click here.

On HBO Max’s “Hacks,” Jean Smart plays the queen of comedy. Her Deborah Vance is a Joan Rivers-style figure, a dominant but fading presence on the Las Vegas Strip who must learn to adjust to a new era of humor. (She also played a dramatic role this year on HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.”) Few comedians more aptly represent the new era than Bowen Yang, a breakout on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” whose absurdist sensibility and erudite wit have made him a fan favorite.

Bowen Yang: I wanted to ask you about “Hacks.” I’ve heard you talk about how the idea of playing a standup comedian was daunting. But was there anything in the scripts that drew you to the project in spite of that fear? Or did the fear sort of help?

Jean Smart: I always thought it would be fun to be a standup comic, but I always also thought it would be incredibly terrifying. You’re kind of living one of my fantasies. I get to do it for pretend. The audience that I have has been paid to laugh at me.

Yang: In some ways, that’s comforting, right? The fear of failure isn’t quite as present. Although I’m sure maybe it is.

Smart: I remember a couple scenes, getting nervous before going onstage. Most of the time, I didn’t have any audience at all. But when we did have a little audience, I started getting nervous. And I thought, “Why are you nervous? They didn’t have to buy a ticket.”

Yang: Did that have any parallel to your theater experience at all, or was it completely foreign?

Smart: It’s very similar, in a way, because you’ve got that audience right there. But at least when you’re doing a play, you’re very rarely addressing the audience. If you’re doing a play that’s supposed to be really funny, and they’re not laughing, it’s not as uncomfortable as if you are a standup and you said a joke, and there was no response. It’s painfully obvious that you’re failing.

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Yang: I truly have watched this show and thought this is my favorite show about comedy that I’ve ever seen.

Smart: Thank you.

Yang: It’s so honest about the way comedy is made, the way you’re supposed to perform ease and confidence and likability, but the entire lead-up to that finished product onstage is rife with struggle and suffering and pressure. What was it like figuring it out with Hannah [Einbinder, who plays Ava]?

Smart: We hit the jackpot with her, because she’s never really done much acting. When I auditioned with her, I thought, “This has gotta be the girl.” We had instant rapport. We just kind of fell in love with each other and sent each other awful text messages all the time.

Yang: That’s perfect.

Smart: But I’m so jealous of you. Oh, my God. Were you always funny when you were a kid?

Yang: I was not. I needed to have that identity conferred upon me by other children growing up. Moving around a lot, you just had to adapt. My dad got his doctorate in Australia, and then we moved to Canada, and then we moved to Colorado. I’d spoken French better than English. I thought, I’m dealing with a language barrier — what’s the best way to get the kids to like me? It was about being broad and funny. The comedic North Star for me at that time was Mr. Bean, because it doesn’t matter if you spoke the language. Anyone could like Mr. Bean.

Smart: Mr. Bean! Did your parents think you were funny?

Yang: They had no gauge for what Western humor was. I would never bring home a joke or a funny story. And so, the moment I decided to pursue comedy was very confusing to them, because they were like, “Are you, are you funny?” And I was like, “In, in another language, I am.”

Smart: One of my favorite things that I’ve seen you do was the iceberg, which was so off the wall and hilarious, and you were so deeply sincere. The iceberg’s monologue was crystal clear.

Yang: Thank you, Jean. No one’s described it as sincere yet, so that’s huge. I wrote that with one of our head writers, Anna Drezen, who I’ve known since college. She texted me in February and said, “Maybe for the April 10th show, because the Titanic sinking anniversary is around that time, you come on Weekend Update as the iceberg that sank the Titanic and you’re just really annoyed that people still associate you with that.“ I told her it sounds like something we would have done back in the days — before we got professional comedy jobs and we would just, like, pound the pavement at bar basement shows in New York City with these outré concepts. In the back of my mind I thought, I don’t really see it.

We vomited out this draft in a few hours. We read it at the table; it did pretty well, and then usually they let you know, Thursday night, Friday morning, if your Update piece is gonna go to the show. By Friday afternoon, we hadn’t heard anything, so I texted Anna, “RIP iceberg.” Friday night at midnight, I got a text from Colin Jost saying, “I think we’re gonna try this iceberg thing.”

So then midnight to, like, 1:30 a.m., me and Anna are texting the departments, costumes, you know, uh, music, all these things, like, “OK, so he’s gonna have this song at the end that he sings and then, just ’cause he’s there to promote his album, and I think we want, like, a headpiece that’s made out of Styrofoam, white clown makeup, gloves, a blazer with stones on it.” And then, all day Saturday, she and I are just, sort of, writing and rewriting and rewriting and just trying to punch up jokes, and then multiple times we turn to each other and just burst out laughing because we were like, there was no way this was gonna make it onto TV. There was no way. It got picked for air and we’re like, let’s just let go and let God … How did we stick the landing on that? It was just a lovely surprise that it even happened.

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Jean Smart plays a fading comedian who must adjust to a new era of humor in HBO Max’s “Hacks.” Courtesy of Jake Giles Netter/HB

Smart: That’s one of the wonderful things about that show — the fact that you could really feel like you’re watching a high school play gone wrong. And it’s so much fun.

Yang: I think my favorite part of working there is the quick changes, which you only get in theater.

Smart: Yes. Oh Jesus, yes. Velcro. I don’t know why because I’m so busy, but I volunteered to do the costumes for my youngest’s class play. They did some different Shakespeare plays, so of course we went to all the thrift stores and, you know, Ross Dress for Less, to pull together pieces, and because they had to do so many quick changes, I have to costume them in layers, so I had like a bunch of 13-year-olds at my house yesterday. My God.

Yang: I’m a little too invested in how this will go. I love snippets of Shakespeare. Break a leg to the entire cast.

Smart: On a more serious note, I would like to thank you personally for speaking out against the violence against Asian people. I thank you, because my daughter is from China, and we adopted her when she was a few months old. So thank you.

Yang: I’m so touched to hear you say that. I had this vulnerability hangover the next day. It was just me as myself talking, trying to add some levity to this really bleak, terrible situation, and it’s just so hard to make light of any of it. Thank you so much. Have you seen the Murder Durder “Mare of Easttown” sketch?

Smart: Kate [Winslet] sent it to me. It was hysterical!

Yang: I felt the Delco accent to be — I’m not even joking, like beautiful. I find it to be a gorgeous oral posture. It’s just a rich way of speaking.

Smart: I’m not sure I would describe it that way. Certainly not the way they did on “SNL.” Years ago, when they were doing “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell asked me to go on tape to audition for the part of Bradley Cooper’s mother. It’s the same accent, and so I had to get a dialect coach; I had two copies of the book. I got a hotel room the night before so I could practice and I could be right near where I had to go to get the tape down. And as I was walking out the door to go to the casting director’s office, she called me and said, “Oh, David cast it last night. It’s OK.”

Yang: Oh, my God. That’s diabolical.

Smart: That seed of it was somewhere in my subconscious. There’s a million Southern accents out there.

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“Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang is an audience favorite for his absurdist sensibility. Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

Yang: That was “Designing Women.”

Smart: Do you know that they originally asked us? Our first table read for all the suits went great. Everyone was very happy. We get together after lunch, and they said, “Oh, they loved it, but they’ve decided they don’t want anybody to do any accents.”

Yang: No.

Smart: I flipped. I was the one who was the most upset because I was the only Yankee northerner in the bunch. You can’t just take somebody’s accent away and say it’s the same character. It’s not the same person. I was really thrown. But they changed their mind after about a week, because we just went ahead and did them.

Yang: I’m glad they reversed course on that for the betterment of all of the viewing public. I have just had such pleasure watching you over the years, but especially recently with “Watchmen.” Silk Spectre, the way you portrayed her, I thought added multiple layers in ways I didn’t expect. What was it like working with Damon Lindelof on that?

Smart: I was sort of shot from guns because they hired me two days before I started. I’ll be really honest: I had Sigourney Weaver to thank for turning down the role. So, thank you, Sigourney. I knew nothing about the graphic novel. I knew nothing about the story at all. I started reading the pilot, and I said, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” I’d never really done that science-fiction genre, and the fact that Damon was able to use that tragic part of our history that almost no one knew about — that was what was so shocking, that I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre. That’s why I think he said no when I asked him to do a second season because I think he put everything into that.

Yang: I think you do this with so many of your characters in different ways, but with Laurie, you were able to perform a confidence and a likability, with an emotional distance. I’m talking about this in relation to Deborah Vance. How do you decide to play these things in different contexts with these different projects?

Smart: There are some similarities between those two women, in particular in the sense that they are both living lonely lives. They think that they’re very successful and they enjoy intimidating people. But they’re both actually too lonely and they’re both carrying a torch for a man who they will never get back. Deborah is much more chaotic and brittle. That’s one of the things I loved about her character when I read it — it’s so different with different people. She has a different relationship with everybody in her life. But at the same time, it’s written so well that it all seems to make sense. She can be so mean and dismissive and rude. She can be incredibly kind and thoughtful; she can be such a cheapskate.

Yang: She’s incredibly likable, because, because by trade she is supposed to perform likability as a comedian.

Smart: You wanna be loved. I look at myself and say, why did you become an actor? My excuse is I was second of four, so it’s like, I didn’t get enough attention. Hey, love me!