Jean Smart Has Been TV’s MVP for Years. With ‘Hacks’ and ‘Mare of Easttown,’ the World Finally Noticed

Jean Smart knows what people have been saying about her career lately. She just wishes they wouldn’t use the term “Jeanaissance” when doing so.

Type that into any search engine, and numerous posts pop up with the phrase, invoked as a shorthand to describe the actor’s recent string of standout performances.

The actual Jean Smart is both flattered and slightly embarrassed by this attention — to the point that perhaps we should tone down the use of that particular term (and resist using it as a hashtag). “I told somebody they’re not allowed to say it if they can’t spell it,” she jokes.

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Robert Trachtenberg for Variety

But the truth is, Smart is indeed having a peak career moment, however you want to call it. As Helen, the eccentric and stubborn live-in mother of troubled police detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” she stole every scene she was in — including the moment when we discover Helen’s secret ice cream hiding place (an empty bag of frozen veggies).

And then there’s “Hacks,” the HBO Max comedy from Universal Television that’s a rare leading role for Smart, as iconic but past-her-prime comedian Deborah Vance, who clashes with a young writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), brought in to revise her stale Las Vegas residency. In an early scene-stealing moment, Deborah and Ava are stuck in the desert when their car breaks down. Deborah calls up a local news chopper to pick her up — and leaves Ava behind to take care of the car.

The role perfectly showcases Smart’s range, mixing comedy and drama with both hilarious, over-the-top scenes and deep, soul-searching moments as Deborah struggles to maintain relevance in a world that is moving on without her.

The world’s not moving on from Smart; as a matter of fact, it’s just catching up to her. She is Emmy nominated for both roles, as comedy actress (for “Hacks”) and limited series supporting actress (“Mare”). And she’s among the front-runners in both races — perhaps setting even more of a spotlight on her at the Sept. 19 ceremony.

“I certainly realize that’s not the norm for most actresses of my vintage,” she says of her recent abundance of great gigs, which includes an Emmy-nominated supporting turn for “Watchmen” in the limited series category last year.

There was no grand plan for “Hacks” and “Mare” to hit the small screen simultaneously. “It was pure luck,” Smart says. “The fact that I had two roles that were such good ones, and kind of worlds apart, coming out at the same time — actors never get that opportunity.” The success comes with a bittersweet note, however, as Smart lost her husband, Richard Gilliland, in March, right as she was wrapping filming on “Hacks.” It’s a heartbreaking coda to a professional experience that Smart calls a “love fest. … The show has been more than we ever could have dreamed of.”

For their part, the producers on the series praise Smart’s wide-ranging skills.

“When you start making the list of actors who can play both sides of the coin, be so lightning funny and fast and quick, but then also so dramatic and real, and just bring you to tears at an instant, it’s a really short list,” says “Hacks” executive producer Jen Statsky, who created the show with Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello. “And to us, Jean was at the top of it. Because she is just so incredible at both of those things. And that’s so incredibly rare.”

If there’s any sort of throughline in the characters Smart has excelled at playing in recent years, it’s strong women with just enough vulnerability to make them positively human — and completely relatable.

“You can tell right away just how loving and accommodating and generous she is,” says “Hacks” scene partner Einbinder. “She doesn’t give you the opportunity to be intimidated by her. She just goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable.”

Winslet felt the same way working opposite Smart on “Mare.” “No matter how exhausted and cross-eyed she was, or how long our day had been, or what was happening off set … she just kept going,” she says. “With ruthless commitment and wit; she would show up and tear us to shreds with her comic genius. And I would be so grateful to be rubbing shoulders with someone like that … and she is kind and sweet with everyone. Everyone loves Jean. That’s a quality to aspire to have.”

Take two anecdotes about Smart on the sets of “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown.” On “Mare,” Smart was improvising a scene in which she spied on Winslet’s character — and in going for the laugh, leaned over a railing so hard that she actually broke a rib.

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Robert Trachtenberg for Variety

“My doctor was amazed at how fast I healed because the rib was broken in half,” Smart says. “But I finally realized I can’t do stupid things like that anymore. I don’t need to be falling over railings and down flights of stairs. Although it might have looked cool.” (Adds Winslet: “Jean was basically doing what Jean does best, which was to turn a small, simple blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment into something deliciously funny and cheeky.”)

Meanwhile, on “Hacks,” Smart stood firm on a joke that she found a bit graphic and asked the show’s producers that it be changed. She felt horrible about it though. “We kind of had a little disagreement for a couple of days,” she says. “And I was really depressed because I felt like, ‘Oh, they loved me, and now they hate me. You just blew it, Jean; the honeymoon’s over.’ But it was fine.”

Of course it was. “Jean is too good for any one moment to end our honeymoon period. It’s a collaboration through and through,” says Statsky. “I mean, she is so dedicated. In Episode 2, she really wanted to run up to that helicopter and jump in it herself. And for lots of legal and safety reasons, it had to be a trained stunt double. Not a lot of actors have that kind of dedication, especially after they’ve been doing something for so long. She never takes her foot off the gas.”

Most of Smart’s recent roles have been brash and delicious to watch — but also very different. The sheer breadth of her on-screen performances may be the reason why it seems, every few years, that critics, fans and the industry alike all feel like they have rediscovered Jean Smart. “It’s great to see everyone catching up to where the real stans have always been,” says Einbinder, who personally remembers, as a kid, obsessing over Smart as the voice of the mom in the animated Disney Channel series “Kim Possible.”

And that’s a good example of how Smart, by aiming to never do the same thing for too long, has always popped up in unexpected places. Says “Watchmen” executive producer Damon Lindelof, “She is paradoxically confident and humble, hilarious and serious — simultaneously the teacher at the head of the class and the kid in the back
row cracking jokes.”

• • •

Growing up in Seattle, Jean Smart first began performing via impromptu plays her sister would put on in their garage, which led to hopping on actual stages in high school and college. She still marvels at her upbringing in a supportive household with parents she idolized. “A lot of people who are in the arts think that you kind of need to suffer or have a dysfunctional childhood to be creative,” she says. “I’ve never bought into that. And I certainly didn’t experience that.”

Smart remembers how, two days before moving to New York to try her hand at Broadway, her mom watched the TV movie “Hustling.” In it, Jill Clayburgh played a prostitute in New York, “and a couple of guys beat the crap out of her in the movie,” Smart recalls. “My mother got so upset, she didn’t want me to go!”

She still wound up moving, and most likely to her mother’s chagrin, landed in a dicey neighborhood. “I got myself out of some interesting situations just by talking,” she says. “A friend of mine started calling me the ‘thug whisperer.’”

Perhaps it’s that ability to read people — their motivations and their characteristics — that has served Smart so well in her day job. A hallmark of her career has been to deftly navigate from one project to the next and never linger long enough to be pigeonholed into one type of role.

Early help came from producer Linda Bloodworth, who had cast Smart and Annie Potts as jewel thief sisters in the short-lived Robert Wagner action drama “Lime Street.” Bloodworth loved their chemistry so much she brought them back to play something completely different in the landmark comedy “Designing Women.”

“That cast was extraordinary, and yet Jean was able to blaze her own path and make the character of Charlene so authentic and unforgettable,” Bloodworth says. “I kind of wince when somebody writes that Jean Smart is the ‘Meryl Streep of comedy.’ Jean isn’t anybody else’s name of anything. She’s the Jean Smart of everything — comedy, drama, all of it.”

As Charlene Frazier, the naive office manager of Atlanta interior design firm Sugarbaker & Associates, Smart’s “Designing Women” character was quite a change from her previous series role — as the warden on early 1980s HBO prison drama “Maximum Security.” Says Potts: “One of the giveaways about how talented she is: There’s a rule in acting that you can’t play dumber than you are. And Jean is a really smart cookie. Charlene, on the other hand, was not the brightest candle on the cake. But Jean played her so well.”

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Robert Trachtenberg for Variety

Smart has fond memories of Charlene and, having played so many intense characters recently, wouldn’t mind revisiting someone a little more lighthearted like that role.

“I always felt like she was my actual core person, kind of gullible and trusting and believes that everybody’s basically good,” Smart says. “And I’d like to play a character like that again, instead of someone who’s angry or defensive. I mean, I’m not complaining. I’ve gotten to play some amazing roles lately that are so multifaceted. But it was a lot of fun to play her.”

Now that “Designing Women” is available on streaming, Smart has caught up on some episodes — and recently talked with co-star Delta Burke, who is upset with the way the shows have been cut down for syndication.

“It’s such nice nostalgia, and makes me appreciate the show more,” Smart says, while sharing Burke’s concerns. But don’t bring up any idea for a reboot. “Doing it without Dixie [Carter, who died in 2010] would be ridiculous.”

When her initial five-year contract was up on “Designing Women,” Smart — not wanting to get too comfy in one place — left the show. “It’s like getting married — it’s a big deal,” Bloodworth says of committing to a sitcom. “I didn’t know she had that trepidation [at the time], but I would understand it because she has such a voracious appetite for acting, and she likes to do a lot of things.”

From there, Smart again took an extreme pivot: playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a TV movie, followed by Rhett’s racy confidant Sally Brewton in “Scarlett,” the TV miniseries sequel to “Gone With the Wind.”

Then, it was back to the sitcom world, in two shows that didn’t go the distance for different reasons: 1995’s “High Society,” a U.S. take on “Absolutely Fabulous” that was perhaps too boozy for American primetime audiences, and 1998’s “Style and Substance,” in which she played a Martha Stewart-like character that was said to have not amused the actual domestic diva.

In the early 2000s, Smart received her first two Emmys: back-to-back guest actress wins for her role as Kelsey Grammer’s brash love interest in “Frasier.” It’s still one of her favorite TV experiences. “The character was just so much fun, just her, the way she’d turn on a dime with her anger issues,” Smart says. “She could be sweet as pie, and then just become a harridan instantly. To come that late in the run of the show was particularly gratifying because their audience knew these characters so well. They could predict how a character would react to something, and they saw the banana peel way before anybody slipped on it.”

Smart’s other memorable roles at the turn of the century and just after included indie films “Guinevere” and “Garden State,” a year as first lady Martha Logan on “24,” and her second Emmy-winning role, as Christina Applegate’s mother in “Samantha Who?” Despite solid ratings, awards nominations and critical acclaim, that show surprisingly ended after just two seasons.

• • •

But the rise in so-called prestige TV over the past decade is what really opened the door for viewers to witness the many sides of Jean Smart. And it perhaps started with Season 2 of “Fargo.” Creator Noah Hawley has told the story countless times of how he wasn’t familiar with “Designing Women” but was keen on placing actors known for comedy in more satirical roles (Ted Danson was also a major part of that season). And as mob matriarch Floyd Gerhardt, Smart was given a lot to play with.

“An unfortunate reality of the business is that you tend to get cast in the same role that you had before,” Hawley says. “And the opportunities, especially for actresses when they reach a certain age, they’re just not the roles to stretch their persona and their craft. [Smart was] committed to playing this really hardscrabble Midwestern wife of a crime boss, who takes over the business herself and has to basically compete with her sons. There was a very no-nonsense quality that she brought to it that I’m sure surprised a lot of people.”

Smart earned raves for “Fargo,” but she says her character’s frumpy hair, makeup and wardrobe came at a price: “After ‘Fargo,’ I got nothing. Crickets. I really think it was because of the way I looked — and that I looked older than they remembered me.”

But Hawley once again rang, and cast Smart as a therapist to the mutants (and married to one, played by Jemaine Clement) in “Legion.” “There was never anything that [Hawley] wrote that was just for the sake of being strange or gratuitous, ever,” she says. “It was always something very thought out and very specific. And he knew exactly where he was going with it. So it was very freeing, then, to just kind of let go and let it take me wherever.”

Then came “Watchmen,” in which Smart plays Laurie Blake, aka Silk Spectre, a former vigilante (and Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend) who becomes an FBI agent. “There is literally nothing she can’t do, and almost every time we wrote something for her, she found a way to surprise us,” says Lindelof.

That includes the infamous moment where Laurie is seen with a large blue sex toy (the color of Dr. Manhattan, naturally). “I was reading the script, and I thought, ‘This is so fabulous. Oh man, I can play the heck out of this. This is going to be so great,” Smart recalls. “And then, oh no. What is that? That was one of my first questions to Damon: ‘What do you have in mind for that particular prop?’ [But] it sort of adds to the sadness of her character. I mean, she lives such a lonely existence.”

If there was a downside to all of these prestige projects, it was the fact that they were increasingly out of town — “Fargo” in Calgary and “Watchmen” in Atlanta, for example. For Smart, who adopted a baby with Gilliland (their second child) in 2009, it was tough to be away.

“I thought, what am I doing?” Smart recalls. “My husband was home to care for the littlest one and the other one was a teenager, but I took it very seriously and I flew home almost twice a week every week. I had to. I wouldn’t have felt right about not doing that. I just wanted my child to know, Mom’s still here, you know? That mommy guilt is a tough one. Because then you feel like everything’s getting short shrift.”

“Hacks” is set mostly in Las Vegas but was shot in Los Angeles, which was a great relief to Smart. Being close to home and her children will now likely take even more priority with the death of Gilliland, her husband of nearly 34 years. (They met on the set of “Designing Women,” where he played the boyfriend to Potts’ character.)

“He was a great dad, and he made me laugh every day,” Smart says. “Him passing away was just not ever even a thought. And it’s changed every moment of my everyday life; every atom of my existence I feel like is altered. But I just want people to know how much he’s sacrificed for me to be where I am, and to get the opportunities that I’ve gotten and let his career kind of take a back seat to help take care of our home and our kids. And it kills me he didn’t get the chances that I got, because he was so talented. I was very lucky when I met him.”

Smart says her “Hacks” family rallied around her and were supportive in the weeks that followed, offering multiple schedules for her to pick from. Her friend Potts, for one, is grateful that through the loss Smart might find solace in “these wonderful projects. The universe can be pretty kind that way.” Adds Bloodworth: “I believe the deep love and the hole that’s been left will show up in her work — so he will live on.”

Meanwhile, Smart continues to remain busy, back at work — in L.A., thankfully — filming Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” set in 1920s Hollywood as the film industry shifts from silent movies to the talkies. Smart plays a British film critic and gossip columnist who strikes a bit of fear in the business. Not only is she enthusiastic about working with Chazelle — and yes, co-star Brad Pitt — but it also represents another unique project to add to her catalog of standout gigs. “I just spent the last two days working with a lot of naked people!” she teases.

As she prepares to return to shoot “Hacks” in November, Smart is also getting ready to enter yet another Hollywood lane: producing. She and her production partner have optioned the real-life story of Tricia Mitchell Coburn, who recounted for the public radio show “The Moth” her experience in an Alabama charm school in the 1960s. Smart will produce “Miss Macy” and also star as Olma Macy Harwell, the owner of the institution in the title.

“It’s always something that I thought would be fun to do,” Smart says of producing. “And now we’ve got two other projects that we’re shopping around town. When people are sick of my face, I can just put somebody else’s face out there.”

Not that Smart is about to go anywhere. After more than 40 years in the business, she has figured out one secret to longevity that too many others in Hollywood have missed: “I realized that you can nicely stand up for yourself. You don’t have to scream and yell; you can make a point in a nice, professional way. Which is a valuable lesson to learn. … You can’t always worry about what everybody thinks of you. Just worry about the people that you love and respect and what they think of you.”

It’s a wise take on the business that even her well-seasoned colleagues have taken to heart. “Watchmen” star Regina King calls Smart “an OG. Any actor that has been in this business for a long time and still respects and loves the art form knows what I mean when I say that.

“Jean is always prepared, is always going to discover new things with her scene partner and will ask questions about story that the writer or director may have missed,” she continues. “If you think that it is impossible to be direct and still be gracious, then you need to spend a day with Jean. And she is funny as fuck!”

Now, that is a renaissance that even Deborah Vance could appreciate.

Styling: Jordan Grossman; Makeup: Jo Strettell / Causemetics; Hair by Robert Vetica/äz Haircare; Look 1 (metallic coat): Coat: St. John; Look 2 (Word Print Dress): Balenciaga available at Neiman Marcus/Beverly Hills; Look 3 (yellow pants): Blouse: Theory; Pants: Roland Mouret; Heels: Miu Miu