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Jean Smart, a veteran of "Designing Women," "24" and "Fargo" among many other projects, has most recently added HBO's "Watchmen" to her list of credits. The limited series, created by Damon Lindelof and based on a graphic novel, is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes go after criminals decades after the actual Tulsa race massacre in 1921.
Smart plays Laurie Blake, a reformed vigilante turned no-nonsense FBI agent who has some internal conflicts of her own. "You've got to see so much of her public and totally private moments. It really was a gift as an actor," Smart says of the series.
In this excerpt from the Can't Stop Watching podcast, she also fills us in on a recent "Designing Women" reunion and shares some details about what she has coming up next.
Laurie Blake is called in to Tulsa to investigate the death of Police Chief Judd Crawford. How much did you know about the story and the real-world massacre of Black citizens in Tulsa?
I knew nothing about that. It was shocking to me, shocking that I had never heard of it. And my father was a history teacher. It's astonishing to think how prophetic the show was in a way, because first with the coronavirus and the idea that something happened that gave the entire world a common enemy and that that would help bring peace if we had something big to fight together. But then it was set against a historical event of unbelievable brutality against the Black community. It's just incredible that Damon wrote that right before all of this happened, right before.
What was your crash course into the world of "Watchmen"?
I went out for martinis with one of the writers and she gave me a lot of information about Laura's background, her family and her relationships, because I knew nothing about it. "Watchmen" wasn't something that my son had been into when he was growing up. I always feel like research is good. Just to a point, I mean, it was actually very valuable to know about her parents and her personal relationships. But research only goes so far. You have to base it really on the script.
So much of what's going on in the news right now is explored in the series: racism, cop culture, leadership. And fear — of fellow citizens or the use of fear to control.
We were doing the show in the time of our present administration, which is to say, that seems to be their tactic for everything. If you find out what people are afraid of, they have used that to get voters to come to their side. My character, she obviously has come to hate vigilantes. You know, she's not a person necessarily to hold up as an example. She's not the most ethical law enforcement person. She certainly doesn't believe in people taking things into their own hands.
Well, how is it to be part of art that takes on subject matter like this head-on?
Oh, it's great. This is what actors crave. I mean, yes, sometimes you want to do stuff that's just fun and just entertainment. But there was a quote from an actor a long time ago that said, "As an actor, if you want to believe that you can affect people in your audience in a good way, in a positive way, open their eyes to something."
You also have to accept the fact that you can be a negative influence as well. You have to make your own personal wise choices about the kind of material you do. So you get to do something like "Watchmen," it's extremely rewarding. And it was nice that the audience responded the way it did. Of course, we had no idea what was coming. Like I said, it's prophetic to an alarming degree. We had no idea about the pandemic. We had no idea how the race relations were going to come to a head in 2020.
Your "Watchmen" character's pining for somebody who's been living on another planet for 30 years. How do you find the truth in that?
Good question! That says a lot about her. Then she finds out that he is living here with another woman. She thinks that she's kind of got it all together, but she's really kind of a mess. And she tells Angela [Regina King] that, you know, you don't strike me as the kind of person who has friends. I'm thinking just look in the mirror! She's living alone, in an apartment with an owl and has a closet full of black pantsuits and no social life whatsoever. She's in love with a man who, like you said, she hasn't seen in 30 years. And another guy who's in prison. A shrink would have a field day with her.
Sony has a YouTube channel called Throwback TV, and they have been getting together shows that are no longer on the air, like "Designing Women," and having the actors do a remote table read of one of the scripts. How was that?
Delta [Burke] was not able to participate. She's taking care of her mother. And unfortunately, we don't have darling Dixie Carter. We read the pilot script. You would not have thought that 30 years have gone by for Annie [Potts]. I mean, we just felt like we were right back there. It was just so much fun. It was weird not having an audience laughing, but it was really fun.
What were you working on before stay-at-home orders from the pandemic?
I actually just got a deal producing a movie that I might also be in for Amblin. It is a combination of somewhat topical and also very uplifting and entertaining, hopefully a working title as "Miss Macy." I hope it turns into something in the way that we envision it right now. I'm also in the middle of another one, a miniseries with Kate Winslet. And it's been such an amazing time. I love Kate and I play her mother. They live together and they can't stand each other. And they're very blue-collar South Philly. I look forward to getting back to it. I'm not quite sure when we will.
What are you watching while at home?
My guilty pleasure is HDTV. "Fixer Upper," my relationship with my husband is sort of like their relationship. Also, I've recently discovered "Flea Market Flip." I really desperately want to be on that show.