Just call her the new queen of cable.
In the last two years, Jean Smart has appeared in not one but three critically acclaimed HBO series: 2019 superhero drama Watchmen, as tormented FBI agent Laurie Blake; the currently airing crime thriller Mare of Easttown, as the stubborn mom to Kate Winslet’s police detective; and new HBO Max comedy Hacks (first two episodes streamed Thursday — on Crave on Canada), as a Joan Rivers-style comedian in need of fresh material.
"They can just give me some (HBO) stock, I’ll be satisfied," jokes Smart, 69, who gained fame starring in the late-1980s CBS sitcom Designing Women.
Fans have been hailing Smart’s recent TV resurgence, which started in 2015 with FX anthology Fargo and continued with roles in Netflix’s Big Mouth, FX’s Legion and now multiple HBO projects.
"I certainly can’t deny that I’m getting offered bigger and better opportunities," she says. "Most actors in their entire careers never get a chance to show what they’re capable of. So I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been offered so many varied roles. And you know, I was always a late bloomer — I don’t know what to tell you."
A showbiz satire with the acid tongue of Veep and heart of Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, Hacks follows legendary Las Vegas standup Deborah Vance (Smart), who’s told she’ll be put out to pasture unless she reinvigorates her act.
Cue the arrival of Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), an unemployed 20-something who got "cancelled" after a salacious tweet. The young comedian reluctantly takes a job as Deborah’s new joke writer, and the caustic duo trade barbs about their talent, love lives and personal style. ("Jesus Christ, I was just wondering why you’re dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic," Deborah greets Ava in one episode.)
"I love that they feel like qualified opponents: both heavyweights and truly funny," Einbinder says. "They share that, regardless of some of their fundamental and surface-level differences. That is the throughline and I love that dynamic."
Hacks was created by Broad City producers Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, although they didn’t write it with Smart in mind.
And yet, "it’s almost got little bits and pieces of all my favourite characters I’ve ever gotten to play," says Smart, a three-time Emmy winner for Frasier and Samantha Who? But unlike those sitcoms, "there’s so much darkness in this show. It’s kind of like Laurie in Watchmen: She’s a funny character but a very sad and lonesome one, too."
Deborah gradually sheds her viperous persona and becomes more vulnerable with Ava throughout the 10-episode first season, revealing the emotional scars left by her ex-husband, who ran off with her sister.
"Part of her philosophy is ‘living well is the best revenge,’" Smart says. "She spent a lot of her career doing exactly what she wanted to do, which was to be onstage and make people laugh. But she also wanted to show her ex-husband she was funnier and more successful than he could have ever dreamed of, and that drove her."
Smart says she doesn’t share Deborah’s bitterness, nor the feeling that she’s had to fight every step of her career.
"I always kind of knew that it was all ahead of me because I didn’t start out as an ingenue," she recalls. "I knew that I would always work, even if I didn’t get the parts I thought I deserved or the roles I wanted. I had enough confidence in myself."
She was less confident in her Delaware County (or "Delco") accent for Mare, which is set in a rural Pennsylvania county where multiple girls have gone missing or been murdered. The unique dialect is known for its slurred consonants and drawn-out vowels, "which was daunting because you don’t want to be thinking about that while doing the lines," Smart says. To help, "I would record my lines on my phone, and listen to them on a loop as I was falling asleep or in the car until it became automatic."
Smart had a much easier time learning Fruit Ninja, which her character, Helen, plays furiously on her iPad even amid heated conversations with Winslet’s Mare.
"I’d never even heard of Fruit Ninja," Smart says with a laugh. "But I got pretty good at it — I was getting some good scores. I don’t have the time right now, but if my kids put it in front of me, I’ll definitely play."
— USA Today