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The Re-Re-Rebirth of Jean Smart

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With “Mare of Easttown” and now “Hacks,” an actor who Hollywood undervalued for years continues her career resurgence.

Jean Smart plays a celebrity comedian in “Hacks,” her latest prestige TV role in what has been a professional renaissance.Jean Smart plays a celebrity comedian in “Hacks,” her latest prestige TV role in what has been a professional renaissance.Credit…HBO Max

Published May 17, 2021Updated May 27, 2021

Jean Smart knows how to commit to a bit. Late into the shoot for “Mare of Easttown,” the grim HBO limited series in which Smart plays Helen, a plain-spoken great-grandmother with a Fruit Ninja habit, she had an idea. During a scene in which Helen’s daughter, Mare (Kate Winslet), leaves for a date, Smart thought that Helen should lean over the stair rail to spy on her.

The first take went well. So did the next few. Then Smart leaned out too far and tipped over the railing, tumbling down a flight of stairs and landing flat on her back. Winslet rushed to her side.

“I thought she’d broken every bone in her body,” Winslet recalled in a recent phone interview. “And all she could say on the floor was: ‘This is a punishment because I’m such a ham. Why do I [expletive] do it every time? Why I won’t learn? Anything for a gag, anything for the laughs.’”

Winslet shushed her. But Smart had one more question: “Did you get it on camera?”

Smart, 69, isn’t exactly an ingénue. “I was never an ingénue,” she said during a recent video call. During nearly four decades in the business, she has accumulated nine Emmy nominations — three for comedy, four for drama, two for limited series — and three wins, all of them for guest and supporting roles. But Hollywood seems to undervalue her for years at a time and then rediscover, with awe and pleasure, that she can really, truly, actually act.

“Honestly, I don’t know a better actor than her,” her longtime collaborator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason said. “I don’t think there’s anything that she can’t do.”

Recently, prestige television has welcomed her as a mob matriarch in the second season of “Fargo,” an unorthodox therapist on “Legion” and an F.B.I. agent with an extremely complicated back story in “Watchmen.” Even as “Mare of Easttown” nears its final episode, Smart has already popped up again onscreen as Deborah Vance, a celebrity comedian, in the barbed, blingy HBO Max comedy “Hacks.”

A lead role and the rare instance when Smart’s name appears first on a call sheet, her “Hacks” work is the capstone — or maybe the moussed bouffant — atop a career resurgence that the epigrammatists of Twitter have referred to as both a “Jeanaissance” and a “Smartaissance.”

“It’s just odd, because I don’t think I’m any better now than I was before,” Smart said.

ImageIn “Mare of Easttown,” Smart plays the mother of Kate Winslet’s title character.In “Mare of Easttown,” Smart plays the mother of Kate Winslet’s title character.Credit…Michele K. Short/HBO

Wistful and no-nonsense, an unmoussed Smart was speaking from her Los Angeles home, perched atop a satiny pink chair with a rococo design. Pictures of roses ornamented the wall, and over her shoulder was a framed photo of her husband, the actor Richard Gilliland, who died, suddenly, in March. Which means that this professional triumph has met her in a moment of private grief. “There’s a big, big hole in the family that we’re still not quite believing,” she said.

Smart grew up in Seattle, the second of four children. She studied theater at the University of Washington — at 5-foot-9, she played a lot of villainesses — and married the night she graduated. She spent a few years as a Marine Corps wife, and when that marriage ended, she found her way back to acting, eventually moving to New York City where she somehow managed to rehearse Lady Macbeth, in “Macbeth,” and a dying lesbian, in “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” simultaneously.

Soon after, producers saw her in a Broadway show and flew her out to Los Angeles to test for a role on a series. The show, “Teachers Only,” lasted just one more season. But other TV parts followed — a secretary, a prison warden, a jewel thief.

Even back then, no one could quite type her. Maybe because she was tall. Maybe because she had a gift for daffy comedy, but veined with melancholy and poise. Maybe because, as Melissa McCarthy, who has worked with Smart several times, put it, “You can’t put someone so interesting, so intelligent and so kind in a box.”

She played that jewel thief opposite Annie Potts in an episode of “Lime Street,” a show written by Bloodworth-Thomason. When Bloodworth-Thomason began to rough out “Designing Women,” she had both Smart and Potts in mind. Smart loved the “Designing Women” pitch, but she hesitated, mostly because the contract required a five-year commitment.

“The night before I decided to take the deal, I really cried and cried and cried,” Smart said. “I’m an actor because I don’t want to do the same thing all the time.”

But she didn’t do the same thing. Not really. Smart never thought of the show as a sitcom and she never treated it like one. It didn’t occur to her — it never occurs to her — to bring anything less than her entire skill set to the role. On the page, Charlene, the office manager of an interior design firm, may have seemed little more than a sweet, dim blonde, but Smart gave her resiliency, a legible emotional life and, according to Bloodworth-Thomason, an astonishing degree of realism.

“There was no discernible difference between her acting and her simply being alive,” Bloodworth-Thomason said. “Really, the greatest gift that a comedian can have is that kind of authenticity.” As the only non-Southerner in the cast, which also included Dixie Carter and Delta Burke, she also did some killer dialect work.

“We were all just magical together,” Potts said. “It was one of those synergy things.”

The show debuted in 1986 and went on to earn 18 Emmy nominations. (And one win. For hairstyling.) Magic, it seemed, was everywhere on set, plus what Bloodworth-Thomason called “some kind of kinky female pheromones.” Gilliland appeared in an early episode as a love interest for Potts’s character. The line Smart likes to use is that she met him when he was kissing someone else. Actually, she first saw him at a table read. “I thought, ‘Cute,’” she recalled. “We basically were never apart after that day.”

Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.

Smart left when her contract was up in 1991. She bounced around, from movie to TV movie to network series. In 2000 and 2001, she took home Emmys for guest stints on “Frasier,” so that was one early Jeanaissance. Five years later she played a wily first lady on “24,” and in 2008 she won another Emmy as a supporting actress on “Samantha Who?,” so that was another. In between, the parts were plentiful and very often forgettable.

“I was always kind of part character actress, part leading lady, and they didn’t know quite where to put me sometimes,” she said. Sometimes that hurt.

“For actors, I think the most painful thing is knowing how much you have to offer and never being given the opportunity to do it,” she said.

“Fargo” kicked off Smart’s recent string of complex, critically lauded performances in high-end dramas. “She just owned the role,” said the series’s creator, Noah Hawley.Credit…Chris Large/FX, via Associated Press

And then suddenly opportunities came. Noah Hawley, the showrunner who heralded the current Jeanaissance, hadn’t seen much of her previous work. “But she just owned the role,” he recalled of her audition for “Fargo.” She also insisted on undergoing a terrible perm for it.

That role led to “Legion.” “Legion” led to “Watchmen.” Smart’s first episode of “Watchmen” begins with her character perpetrating a bank heist and ends with her crying in a phone booth. Along the way, she takes out a terrorist and caresses a giant blue sex toy.

“Every single thing we asked her to do in that episode is a difficulty black diamond,” Damon Lindelof, the “Watchmen” creator said. “And she didn’t even waver.” Actually she did waver, but once the producers assured her that she wouldn’t have to do anything with the sex toy other than cuddle it, she was in.

As varied as these women are, they all belong, roughly, to the “tough broad” category. Helen, too. Smart isn’t so weak herself. Her “Mare” accident left her with a cracked a rib and a mild concussion. (She thinks the padding in her costume, padding she requested because as several colleagues mentioned, she operates with little vanity, kept her from graver injury.) But she returned to set as soon as her hospital stay and quarantine allowed.

“I’m just lucky that I didn’t break my nose or an arm or something that kept me from working,” she said.

These recent characters are women in full command of their powers, unworried by what the world might think of them. (Which some women, like me, find extremely aspirational.) But that isn’t how Smart sees herself.

“I’ve always been interested in what people thought,” she said. “But I can channel these other women very easily.”

The creators of “Hacks” — Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky — relied on that. But they also layered Deborah with vulnerability and pizazz. They wanted Smart from the start. “Jean was always like the dream,” Aniello said. “Like, if there’s a world where God is real and maybe we behave really, really well our whole lives, that could happen.”

It happened. Smart read the script and thought to herself: “This is this is a dream part. It’s got everything.”

A legendary standup, Deborah has long since settled into a Vegas residency. When a casino owner threatens that residency, Deborah hires a flailing young comedian, Ava (Hannah Einbinder). “Write me 20 jokes by tomorrow morning and nothing about pantyhose or the Challenger explosion, I’ve done them all,” Deborah snaps.

On the Vegas stage, Deborah’s style — bawdy, assertive, adroit — resembles a less self-deprecating Joan Rivers, a less shouty Sam Kinison. But mostly it’s all Smart. “I knew it just had to come from my gut or it was going to seem put on,” she said. Offstage, Deborah is commanding, too, while also showing the costs of a life spent living punchline to punchline. (As Smart has shown, an “anything for a gag” ethos has its price.)

As usual, Smart surrendered to the role entirely — she drove too fast because that’s what the character would do, she went puffy and bruised for an episode in which Deborah has an eye lift. She was unsparing in Deborah’s treatment of Ava, though between takes she would often apologize to Einbinder.

“I know Jean to be really empathetic, giving, loving, smart,” Einbinder said. (Now that the shoot has finished, the two women keep in touch via rude text messages.)

Smart also found time for some offscreen gags. After a sex scene, she walked around the set pretending to smoke a prop cigarette. Between takes of a scene at a wax museum (she played her own statue), she posed with statues of Simon Cowell and Elton John and texted relatives about her new guest stars.

Einbinder tried to make her laugh while Smart stayed frozen as that statue. She failed. “It is a fool’s errand to try to crack that fortress of professionalism,” she said.

Smart doesn’t understand why the industry seems to have only recently recognized her craft and versatility, but she doesn’t mind so much. She has always wanted to show the world what she can do, and now she has.

“I think it just went the way it was supposed to go,” she said.

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