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Jean Smart on being an HBO star — and mom to a 12-year-old — at 69

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When I tell Jean Smart she’s going viral, she says her daughter told her that too.

“I don't do social media, so my 12-year-old has insisted that I open a Twitter account," Smart said from her home right outside of Los Angeles. Laughing, she added, “I'm not so sure I’m going to do that.”

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The 69-year-old actor is seemingly everywhere right now, from a superhero drama to a gripping murder mystery to a politically incorrect comedy, and that's why her name has been trending on social media. Pop culture junkies can’t get enough of her work, or her. This trilogy of projects all happens to be on HBO and its streaming platform, HBO Max, which is not a bad place to be.

“You got to make hay while the sun shines, especially if the roles are really, really good,” she said. “I mean, I really couldn't say 'no' to any of those parts.”

“I just don't want people to get sick of me; that would be terrible.”

With a career spanning nearly five decades, Smart opened up to TODAY about the various acts of her life, and how this latest has been the busiest and quite possibly best one yet.

Jean Smart in
Jean Smart in

The queen of HBO

Audiences may be most familiar with Smart from “Designing Women,” where she played naive and sweet-hearted Charlene, whose ditziness was often the butt of many jokes. The pandemic inspired fans to revisit nostalgic favorites like "The Golden Girls" and "Designing Women" (which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1993) — and Smart did too recently, for a good cause.

“Annie Potts and I did a reading of the pilot script for Sony for a fundraiser, and it was bizarre,” she shared. “We both said it felt like we've just done it the week before. It was crazy.”

'Designing Women' (Fotos International / Getty Images)
'Designing Women' (Fotos International / Getty Images)

Born and raised in Seattle, Smart credits her parents — a public school teacher and a stay-at-home mom raising four kids — with instilling a work ethic in her that is still in full force today.

“We didn't have a lot of extras, but I didn't feel deprived whatsoever,” she said. “I knew that at Christmas, you're not always going to get everything on your list or exactly what you wanted. We didn't take vacations much. I didn't even fly on an airplane until I was 20 years old. It was a very happy childhood, but you were just expected to help out.”

“I always had faith in myself. I knew that I would always work. I didn't know if it would be the kind of work I always wanted."

At 15, she got her first job working at a hospital, serving meals to patients. “Unfortunately, I looked a lot older than 15 and they thought I was a nurse and would ask me and often show me things that I didn't really need to see.”

These formative experiences developed a determination that drove Smart to constantly keep working throughout her career, even when times got tough or parts got stale after "Designing Women." She is one of those actors who seems to have been in everything. From television projects like “Frasier” and “Fargo” to films like “Sweet Home Alabama” and ”Garden State,” her filmography reads like a CVS receipt.

But the past few years have brought especially rewarding work for her. ”I'm very appreciative of the amazing opportunities I've had the last several years in roles,” she said. “Who could have thought that? Especially for women over a certain age, there's not always a lot out there and so I'm making the most of it.”

Jean Smart in
Jean Smart in

In “Watchmen,” she played “a very badass FBI agent,” a role she won a Critics Choice Award for in 2020.

“They literally called me two days before I was gonna start and sent me the pilot script and it was just amazing,” she said of the superhero drama, based on the 1986 DC Comics series of the same title, created by Damon Lindelof.

“Damon used an incredible piece of our own history that most of us weren't even aware of: the Tulsa race massacre,” she said of the show’s impact. “I was shocked and embarrassed that I had never heard of it. He used that as the springboard for telling this incredible science fiction story. I mean, the way he blended that piece of history into this amazing piece of science fiction was just brilliant.”

Smart currently stars in “Mare of Easttown,” a “perfect whodunit” murder mystery that also stars Kate Winslet. While the HBO series is set in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Smart said she never went to Wawa — as her co-star Winslet did — because she doesn’t drink coffee, and that the Delaware County (or Delco) accent was challenging to grasp.

Jean Smart in
Jean Smart in

“We had a dialect coach who was from there and she was fantastic,” she said. “What frustrated me about it, and the thing that she admitted, is that it's so inconsistent. Well, that's not very good, because that will make us all look like bad actors! The o’s were the scariest.”

Despite never having met her before, Smart bonded with Winslet, who plays her daughter in the series — so much so that Winslet calls her “mummy” in real life. “I didn't know what she was gonna be like, other than brilliant,” Smart said of the "Titanic" star. “But she turned out to be the most fun, delightful, generous, down-to-earth person you could ever hope for.”

Smart’s latest lead role, in “Hacks,” has critics applauding her portrayal of a washed-up Las Vegas comedian who teams up with an out-of-work millennial to write new material. When asked if anyone, specifically Joan Rivers, inspired her character in the new HBO Max series, Smart says no.

“I didn't try to model that for anyone in particular because I think I wanted it to just be my own sensibilities,” she said. “First of all, I could never do Joan. If you look at early Joan, that machine gun delivery that she had, it was so brilliant and so fun. It just left you gasping for air and it was very, very self-deprecating. I think I'm probably more like an Elayne Boosler, if anyone.”

Jean Smart in
Jean Smart in

“I wanted it to just come from me and hopefully that would work. Because if you look at all stand-ups, they're completely different in their styles, completely different in their rhythms and their deliveries and you can't compare them. You can't compare Jerry Seinfeld to Robin Williams to Sarah Silverman. It's got to come from you or it's just gonna seem fake.”

“I just didn't become an overnight star when I was 30 years old, which would have been fun, but probably wouldn't have lasted."

Well, it worked. Television critic Glen Weldon wrote in his review for NPR, "I don't know if the role of Deborah Vance was written for Smart, but she certainly makes it seem like it was,” adding, “Smart's also convincing as a standup, performing Deborah's vaguely hokey routines with a naturalistic flair as if she was born to it."

Smart says what she has learned about herself through this moment of good reviews and great parts at 69 is that her “patience and confidence" paid off.

“I didn't let this business beat that out of me, which it can do,” she said. “I always had faith in myself. I knew that I would always work. I didn't know if it would be the kind of work I always wanted, but I've been extremely fortunate to be connected with some really superior projects and work with such extraordinary people. I just don't take any of it for granted.”

25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards - Arrivals (David Crotty / Getty Images)
25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards - Arrivals (David Crotty / Getty Images)

This moment, as beautiful as it is for her, is also bittersweet. In March, her husband of 35 years, actor Richard Gilliland, died at the age of 71. “I just would have liked to have shared these two shows with him,” she said. “I know he loved the ‘Hacks’ script. He thought they were brilliantly written, very funny and it’s just hard not to share that with him.”

The role of 'mom'

Of all the recent roles this latest act has brought her, “mother” may be the one she is finding the most solace in.

Her son, Connor, is all grown up, but she is especially sharing this moment with her 12-year-old, the person explaining what viral means and urging her to go on Twitter. (After I mistakenly identified her as a granddaughter, Smart sweetly corrected me, adding, "Thank you very much.")

Premiere Of Disney's
Premiere Of Disney's

Bonnie is her daughter, who was adopted from China in May 2009 after a “frustrating” five-year application process. Smart found the silver lining even with that, saying, “We wouldn't have gotten the same baby If we had gotten a baby right away, so she was worth the wait.”

To parents out there who may be considering growing their families later in life like she did, Smart urges them to “do it.”

“There's so many babies who need loving homes and you'll never regret it. It's the most fun, exciting, important thing you'll ever do," she promised. "It's also scary, but it's like nothing else.”

Smart's life has been unconventional in some ways, but she looks back on its acts with gratitude most of all.

“I, for sure, don't take anything for granted,” she said. “I just didn't become an overnight star when I was 30 years old, which would have been fun, but probably wouldn't have lasted. I’d rather be the tortoise than the hare. So I guess ‘slow and steady wins the race’ really should be my motto.”

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