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When Jean Smart was in middle school, it was popular for girls to dress as Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s tiara-adorned character from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for Halloween. Elizabeth Taylor’s version of Cleopatra from the 1963 film was also a hit, not to mention the usual suspects: witches, ghosts, and princesses (oh my!).
Eleven-year-old Jean Smart, however, dressed as Phyllis Diller.
The trailblazing comedian with the electroshock cloud of teased hair, a wardrobe of gaudy, technicolor-sequined dresses, a long cigarette as a permanent fifth appendage, and a caustic, self-deprecating sense of humor may have been a surprising choice for a young girl’s Halloween costume.
“But when I first saw her, I thought she was really something,” Smart tells The Daily Beast in a recent phone interview. “I just thought she was a hoot. And she looked like she was having so much fun! She was making people laugh, and that seemed fun to me.”
The veteran performer quickly learned that stand-up comedy “would actually be terrifying.” But catching the acting bug in high school has carried Smart through her own storied career, lasting four decades, earning her three Emmy Awards, and, now, paying homage to Diller and the comedians like Joan Rivers and Elayne Boosler who swashbuckled a path for future generations of women to be crude, funny, and successful on the stand-up stage.
Smart gets to be all those things starring as Deborah Vance in Hacks, the new comedy series premiering Thursday on HBO Max. After spending much of her comedy career chiseling cracks into the industry’s Boys Club glass ceiling, Deborah finds herself riding a career plateau into the sunset in Las Vegas.
There’s no foot spa Vance won’t shill for on QVC, no strip-mall pizza joint she won’t cut the ribbon for on opening day. Once, she was in TIME magazine and tipped to be the first female late-night host. Now, despite being surrounded by the gaudy luxury of a record-setting Vegas residency, she’s gasping for relevancy.
The casino manager wants to cut back on the number of shows she performs to bring in new acts that attract a younger crowd, like a capella group Pentatonix. (Deborah’s priceless reaction: “What the hell is that?”)
It triggers another fight in a woman who has had to play defense her entire career. Begrudgingly, she agrees to work with a young writer (played by Hannah Einbinder) to punch up her act and rediscovers what inspired her sparring comedy edge in the first place.
“I always had the confidence that I could always work and at least keep a roof over my head and feed my kids, even if it was in something that was less than thrilling to me,” Smart says. “But for someone like Deborah, who went as far in her career as possible and hit the pinnacle, to lose that, especially since she’s someone who’s a workaholic and really has no other life, that’s like death to her.”
It’s a performance that sizzles with tempestuous glamour. Smart’s Deborah swans through mansions in kaftans and designer wear, tossing off exasperated one-liners and then quietly contemplating the uncertainty of her future with a fearful vulnerability in private. The showbiz glitz of it all falls in stark contrast to the other performance you can currently watch Smart acing: playing Kate Winslet’s wry yet empathetic mother on the HBO crime thriller Mare of Easttown.
Smart turns in a master class of scene banditry with what’s already proven to be a fan-favorite turn on social media. Whether she’s hiding ice cream in frozen vegetable bags or firing off insults with sniper-like precision, she’s the maestro of the show’s dark humorous streak. But it’s the intimacy she finds in the relationship with Winslet’s Mare, two women who care deeply for each other—to the point of uncorked frustration—that makes the series work as a meditation on grief and how families heal.
Mare of Easttown was the first project Smart returned to after the pandemic shutdown, which brought its own litany of anxieties for the actress. Chief among them was whether she would be able to slip back into the difficult—and, to outsiders, ludicrous-sounding—“Delco accent” of the Philly suburb where the series takes place. Viewers’ fascination with the peculiar pattern of speech, an aria of long “o” sounds and marble-mouthed articulation (“water” becomes “wudder”), even inspired a sketch on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live.
“The hard part about that accent is that it is kind of inconsistent,” Smart says. “Even members of the same family will pronounce words differently. Or sometimes a person will even pronounce a word two different ways. And you’re thinking, well, that’s all well and good. But that’s gonna make me look like I’m a horrible actor...”
She punctuates it, like she does much of her sentences, with a piercing cackle. Especially if you’re a fan of Smart’s work on Designing Women, the pioneering late-’80s sitcom showcasing the strong personalities four Atlanta Steel Magnolias, you’ll recognize the laugh, a foghorn that sort of wanes into a giggle.
Playing the soulful optimist Charlene Frazier Stillfield made Smart a recognizable figure on screen. And, in the decades since, she never really left, picking up Emmys for guest appearances on Frasier and for playing Christina Applegate’s mom on Samantha Who? along the way.
If the past decade has earned her a reputation as prestige TV’s MVP supporting player, thanks to remarkable turns on Fargo, Dirty John, and Legion, there seems to be even more energy celebrating Smart’s “moment” right now.
Not only are The Mare of Easttown and Hacks airing simultaneously, both series come as Smart is fresh off her Emmy-nominated run on HBO’s Watchmen series, on which she played Laurie Blake, a no-nonsense action hero at age 68.
In the grand tradition of the Matthew McConaissance, the Laura Dernaissance, or the recent Kathryn Hahnaissance—designations earned when a fortuitous timing of great projects collide with an unbridled fan appreciation of a veteran star—you could consider this, as many critics on social media already have, the Jean Smartaissance.
The foghorn blares again at the mention of this. “Donate now at the 1-800 number…” Smart jokes, adding, “I hope people don’t get sick of me.”
She’s at a loss to explain how or why this is happening for her at this point in her career, other than to say that she’s grateful. She laughs again. “I mean the ungrateful, petty part of me says, Well, where was all this 25 years ago…?”
“I just accept that things happen when they’re supposed to happen, the same way I think sometimes, ‘Oh gee, why didn’t I go to Hollywood right out of college?’” she says. “I don’t regret for a minute all the years of theater that I did before I ever set foot in front of the camera, I think it made me the actor that I am. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Besides, she adds, “I was always a late bloomer.”
Does Jean Smart like going to Las Vegas? She doesn’t mince words. “I don’t make it a habit…”
The news that Hacks would predominantly be shot in Los Angeles was met with a hallelujah, though Smart does amend her original answer about the appeal of Sin City. When she’s visited in the past, it was “kind of fun.” The most recent trip was for her 25th wedding anniversary with her husband Richard Gilliland, who passed away in March. “We could afford to stay at a nice hotel, eat at a fabulous restaurant, go to a show. So that’s how you want to do Vegas.”
She remembers her co-star Hannah Einbinder regaling her with stories about visits to the Strip in her twenties with friends, all of whom were broke and got sick from the buffets. You could hear Smart wince over the phone while recounting it. “I think of Vegas as having champagne, playing blackjack, and having a good time.”
To prepare for playing Deborah Vance, she watched old footage of comedians’ sets. The most obvious inspiration for the show is the career of Joan Rivers, and Smart watched plenty of tapes of her early material. But she wanted to remind herself of the kind of comedy she herself enjoyed at the time more than she was interested in modeling her performance after any one performer.
She watched sets from Elayne Boosler and Roseanne Barr, and tracked down Ellen DeGeneres’ first appearance on Johnny Carson. She had always liked Elaine May and revisited some of her stuff, too.
A major plot point in Hacks centers around Deborah’s attempt to be the first female late-night host in the late ’80s, before a crushing personal humiliation torpedoes everything. When Rivers became the first woman in real life to achieve that historic milestone (and the only one to do so for decades after), Designing Women was breaking out in a major way. She and co-stars Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, and Annie Potts even all appeared on The Joan Rivers Show together.
“I’d like younger people to really watch the early Joan Rivers stuff, because a lot of them just think of her as Chatty Joan on the red carpet, and she was so much more than that,” Smart says. “She just had this stream-of-consciousness machine for jokes where you just could not stop laughing. Every time you laughed at a joke, she'd already told you three others that you were laughing at, too. She just was incredible.”
Another comparison to Rivers’ career is in Deborah’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the number of side gigs and snake oil sales pitches she must juggle to maintain her fortune, be it hocking wares on home shopping channels or appearing in embarrassing commercials. Some criticize her for the indignity of these jobs, but Deborah seems to take pride in the hustle.
“I was very much a snob about all that kind of stuff: commercials, soap operas, all that,” Smart says when asked if she ever considered those kinds of opportunities. “I’m not saying I was right to be, but I was.”
She remembers that while shooting Designing Women, Delta Burke wanted to do Circus of the Stars, an annual CBS television special on which celebrities performed circus acts in a variety show. Brooke Shields and Jamie Lee Curtis did the trapeze. Linda Gray showed off “sensational psychic powers.” Scott Baio did an aerial routine.
In any case, Burke’s three co-stars talked her out of the idea. “We said she’d be insane to do it!” Smart says. Now, she realizes that it sounded like a blast. She wishes she had done a lion-taming routine herself. “Now it’s OK for big stars to do commercials and voice overs and things like that. Everything’s OK now.”
It’s interesting to look back to Smart’s time on Designing Women when you track where her career has taken her.
She endeared herself to America playing a character who was sweet almost to a fault. Charlene was a woman who might have been ruled a dumb blonde if she didn’t have such profound emotional intelligence. But over the years, even when she’s done comedies like Samantha Who? and especially now in this “Smartaissance,” the characters she’s played have fallen on a spectrum of tough, domineering, and harsh.
“I don’t get it either,” she says. After playing Charlene for 120 episodes, the first job offer she got was for a role as Aileen Wuornos (the serial killer Charlize Theron later won an Oscar for portraying) in a 1992 TV movie.
“I’m thinking, why did they think of me?” she says. “I like to think of the characters I play as varied. But I suppose there’s some element of they're not shy, retiring wallflowers, most of them. I would love to play a Charlene again.”
It’s hard to pinpoint when the “Smartaissance” began in earnest, given how regularly the actress has worked, and how well-regarded her career has always been.
Some might peg it to her work on Watchmen which, among the “not shy, retiring wallflowers” she’s been known to play, did show her in a new light. Her Laurie Blake boasted a sensual swagger, sporting her auburn hair and long trench coat with the easy confidence of a superhero in spandex, wielding a gun and, generally speaking, kicking ass.
It was also a sexy performance, a trait memorialized in the scene in which her character retires to bed with a massive blue dildo. Screenshots of the moment still circulate online in memes a year and a half after the series premiered.
“I didn’t know that, so thanks for telling me,” she laughs. “I remember at the time I was on Seth Meyers and I said, ‘This is the only time in my life I’ve been relieved that my parents are both gone. Because that would have put them in the grave right there.’”
Surely, the scene’s lasting power must be a compliment? “I just hope it doesn’t scar my children. That’s all I can say.”