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Thursday, October 6, 2022

‘Kate Winslet calls me mummy!’ – Jean Smart on Hacks, Mare of Easttown and superstardom | Television

There are 18 participants on my video call with Jean Smart, the veteran actor whose striking return to the spotlight has brought about what US commentators are calling “the Jeanaissance”. It’s a rather grand title but it seems justified – especially if this high-security interview experience is anything to go by. The disorientating vetting procedure involves multiple texts and emails, two different Zoom calls, one “breakout room” and 16 industry bods silently observing our interview. Clearly, the 70-year-old is extremely hot property in TV land.

Smart may not be a household name in the UK but she’s an increasingly familiar face. Across the Atlantic, she’s long been both. The actor first found fame in the mid-1980s as one of the leads in Designing Women, a trailblazing sitcom set in an Atlanta interior design agency populated by female characters who were, she says, “so distinctive, so original and so detailed”. But it wasn’t just progressive in a feminist sense: “No one had done a show about southerners that made them real three-dimensional characters, so that was fun!”

Later, she won two Emmys for her extended guest star stint as old school-pal Lana Gardner on Frasier, while the 2000s and 2010s brought a string of standout supporting roles in everything from 24 and Fargo to Samantha Who? and Watchmen. Yet it wasn’t until last spring, when she was simultaneously starring in the exceptionally sharp sitcom Hacks and stealing scenes as Kate Winslet’s mother in the dark detective drama Mare of Easttown, that the world seemed to decide an effusive celebration of Smart’s talent was long overdue.

Hacks – whose first season was finally released in the UK on Prime Video in April, with season two following this Friday – has proven a particularly satisfying showcase for Smart’s skills. She plays Deborah Vance, a very glam and terrifyingly cutthroat old-school standup who butts heads with Ava Daniels, the “cancelled” Gen Z comedy writer tasked with breathing new life into her increasingly stale Las Vegas residency. Smart is so convincing as Deborah – a blisteringly acerbic diva hellbent on avenging those who have wronged her – that interviewing her becomes an increasingly frightening prospect the more episodes of this snappy, emotionally knotty sitcom I devour.

‘So distinctive’ … in Designing Women in 1986.
‘So distinctive’ … in Designing Women in 1986. Photograph: CBS/Getty Images

As it turns out, there is not a hint of derision or dismissiveness to Smart in real life. She is, however, as coiffed, glossy and gorgeous as Deborah. “We both like leopard print and sequins,” she says, eyebrow raised. The pair also have a wry sense of humour and a feel for a punchline (“I’m a smartass like her – sarcasm is in my arsenal”).

Yet Smart doesn’t seem to share Deborah’s gilded-cage lifestyle. The latter would be conducting this interview in a gleaming corner of her sprawling mansion. Smart is sitting in front of a shelf unit crowded with books and framed family photos (including a picture of her late husband, the actor Richard Gilliland, whom she met on the set of Designing Women). The impression is of a cosy, low-key home.

In fact, everything about Smart radiates well-adjusted serenity. One of the themes of Hacks’ new season is Deborah’s professional anxiety: she worries she has become irrelevant and unwanted. Surely that’s something an actor who has been jobbing for almost 50 years could relate to? Not so, apparently. “Even when there were times when I wasn’t getting a lot of work – which thankfully didn’t last for long – I always had that confidence it would work out,” she says, keen to point out that she doesn’t identify with the rage and indignation that roil through Deborah’s life as a result of having been betrayed by her husband and sister.

“Her bitterness is her battery. I’ve never understood people who say, ‘Somebody broke my heart. I’m just never going to trust men again.’ You think: ‘Why are you treating a relationship with one person as if it has anything to do with half the population of the world?’ But she’s never let herself try to get past it. It fuels her.”

It quickly becomes apparent that everything to do with the gratifyingly sour Hacks is infinitely more lovely off-screen. The unforgiving job of a standup, for example, was transformed into something safe and sanitised for Smart, who had all the fun of cracking jokes “without the scary parts – because the crowd are all extras who are paid to laugh”. Delivering Deborah’s sets came relatively easily, but Smart didn’t see the appeal of standup much beyond that. “The difference between being a standup and doing a play on stage is you can be bombing in a play and you don’t have to really face it – because 99.9% of the time you’re not addressing the audience directly. But if you’re a standup, it’s painfully obvious when you’re doing poorly. That’s got to be the worst feeling in the world.”

Ice-cream scoffing Fruit-Ninja obsessive … with Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
Ice-cream scoffing Fruit-Ninja obsessive … with Winslet in Mare of Easttown. Photograph: HBO

Another savage aspect of the show that’s decidedly warmer in real life is Smart’s relationship with Hannah Einbinder, who plays Ava. On screen, their professional collaboration is fraught. Deborah, a traditional comedian for whom a great punchline is non-negotiable, rails against Ava’s looser, gag-lite approach – a way for the show to cleverly probe comedy’s generation gap. But in season two, the pair’s personal dynamic becomes increasingly twisted as they develop an intimate and unhealthy mother-daughter bond.

Behind the scenes, however, Smart and Einbinder’s friendship sounds heartwarming. When Smart was recently awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, her Hacks co-star gave a droll but hugely affectionate speech. “We just laugh all the time,” says Smart, “and send each other silly text messages – a cartoon I saw or a joke I heard.” She smiles. “Because I love seeing back that ‘hahaha!’ or ‘lolololol!’”

Clearly, Smart is somebody who bonds with her co-stars. In Mare of Easttown, she played Kate Winslet’s ice-cream-scoffing, Fruit Ninja-obsessed mother – another combative, but marginally less dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Smart says Winslet insisted on calling her “mummy” when the camera’s weren’t rolling. At one point, Smart had an accident on set: she was leaning on a bannister for comic effect and fell right over it. “So I’m lying in a heap at the bottom of the stairs and they’re waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Kate was supporting my back because it hurt so bad. And she was saying, ‘It’s all right, mummy. It’s all right. They’re coming.’

“Later, when they got me an ambulance, the guy getting ready to hook up the morphine drip said, ‘Boy, your daughter was sure worried about you.’ I said, ‘What? Oh no! That actress is playing my daughter – didn’t you recognise her?’” When Smart told him it was Winslet, he was devastated to have missed his chance to speak to her. “I said, ‘Could you get back to the morphine, please, fanboy?’”

Garlanded frequent guest star … in Frasier.
Garlanded frequent guest star … in Frasier. Photograph: NBC Universal/Getty Images

In Hacks, Deborah is continually forced to reckon with her own parenting decisions, such as bringing Deborah Jr on tour with her back when she was a child. “Dragging her to all these awful clubs where she stayed up too late and got into alcohol and was hanging around with horrible male comedians. She thought it was out of love – she just wanted her little girl with her. Of course, her daughter remembers that it was highly inappropriate and that’s what makes it so painful.”

Has Smart felt a similar pull? “Oh, it’s terrible,” she says of a working mother’s predicament. While filming Mare of Easttown in Philadelphia, she “flew home twice a week” to be with her son Forrest, whom she adopted with Gilliland in 2009; she also has an older son, Connor. “It was exhausting, but I wanted to. I had to.”

Despite having entered her eighth decade last year, Smart is showing no signs of slowing down. And her next film role may take her profile to another level. In Babylon, directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, she plays a British film critic in the golden age of Hollywood. Smart has never done an English accent on screen, but going by her Winslet impression during this call, she has it nailed. The film – which also stars Brad Pitt as 1920s heartthrob John Gilbert, Margot Robbie as Clara Bow and Tobey Maguire as Charlie Chaplin – seems like Oscar-bait. It wouldn’t be surprising if it provides Smart with something new to go on her already crowded awards shelf.

Promisingly, Smart says playing this critic won’t be a complete departure from Deborah. “She knows she intimidates people – that people are a little afraid of her because they know she has the power to make or break a career. There’s an interesting twist in a big scene I have with Brad – you see a side of her you haven’t seen.”

And with that teaser, my time is up: I am halfway through thanking her, when all the machinery behind the interview springs into action and I’m ejected from the call. Left, like everyone else, to marvel at the Jeanaissance from afar.

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