A real character A real character A real character

Versatility has been Jean Smart’s strength since her UW days. Now, the Emmy-winning actor’s star is shining brighter than ever.

By David Volk | March 2022

To hear Emmy Award-winning actress Jean Smart talk about her career, it is hard to tell if she’s more proud or embarrassed of her unique bragging rights. As it turns out, the star of HBO Max’s series “Hacks” didn’t have to wait for a big break. While many of her contemporaries had to take odd jobs to make ends meet, she says she has never had trouble finding acting work.

“I hate telling this to my actor friends [but] I never worked a civilian job after I got out of college,” she says. Were it not for the sense of amusement in her voice, Smart, ’74, would almost sound like Deborah Vance, the character she plays in “Hacks,” a successful, hard-edged Joan Rivers-style Las Vegas comedian who has fought to get to the top of the heap and is struggling to remain relevant. While Vance won’t hesitate to say to a prospective employee, “I was just wondering why you’re dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic,” Smart is more diplomatic. When she recounted her experience auditioning for a lesbian cabaret singer who gave her her first major role in New York City, for example, she says, “Wow, I never met anybody like her and, um, I think ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ went through my mind.”

Smart might have worked just as hard as her fictional counterpart and played plenty of tough women along the way, but there’s one other key difference between the two. Smart is so versatile, she’s as relevant today as when she started her career, effortlessly moving from live theater to TV and movies, transitioning from network TV to cable and now capitalizing on the growth in podcasting.

And the funny thing is, she has her mother and the University of Washington to thank.

The UW program was quite an education for Smart, who had been the family ham from way back.

Smart says her mother, Kay, wasn’t thrilled when her daughter said she wanted to study acting—Kay felt it was frivolous. The elder Smart didn’t stand in her way, but vetoed her daughter’s plans to leave her native Seattle to join her sister at Washington State University out of concern for her health. Smart had been diagnosed with diabetes when she was 13, and her mother “still wasn’t comfortable with my being away,” she says.

“Thank goodness,” Smart says, looking back on the life-changing decision. “Washington State might have been fun, but it didn’t really even have a drama department. It was part of the speech department.”

Given the distance from New York’s theaters and California’s studios, the UW might seem an unlikely launching pad. The University of Washington isn’t a home for summer stock performers trying to make it big on Broadway and it doesn’t appear to have a Seattle-to-Hollywood pipeline for aspiring screen actors, either. What it does have is the Professional Actor Training Program, an application-only, three-year intensive drama program that was just getting started when Smart attended in the early 1970s. Although it’s now a master’s-level program, it also admitted undergraduate students when Smart became one of 10 who made the cut.

As a student in the UW’s Professional Actor Training Program, Jean Smart played a cornucopia of characters in dozens of productions at the UW School of Drama.

The UW program was quite an education for Smart, who had been the family ham from way back. When she was a young girl, she and her sister put on shows in a neighbor’s garage and charged admission.

She benefited from the program’s lower teacher-to-student ratio, working with top-notch visiting directors and performing in higher-quality productions. At the same time, she was also introduced to styles of theater ranging from 18th-century England’s bawdy Restoration comedies to the tragic-comedies of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello.

Smart was also able to try a wide variety of roles, including a ditzy maid in a Restoration comedy; Grace, the jaded owner of a diner in “Bus Stop;” and Hecuba, a queen who avenges the death of her son after the fall of Troy. “It gave me an enormous amount of confidence and experience,” she says.

Her roles also brought her to the attention of local theater companies that were eager to cast her. “I was actually offered a job by Joe Papp’s Public Theater in New York, and I said I couldn’t do it because I [was] getting married. Everybody in the drama department thought I’d lost my mind.”

When the marriage ended, she returned to acting, starting with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and performing in regional theaters around the country until she could afford to move to New York.

She developed her penchant for playing unusual personalities shortly after cabaret singer and first-time director Harriett Lighter cast her as the lead in “Last Summer in Bluefish Cove.” Smart played Lil, an earthy, sarcastic lesbian who falls in love with Eva, a straight woman escaping an unhappy marriage by vacationing at a beach community, which she doesn’t realize is an informal summer gathering spot for gay women. What Eva doesn’t know is that Lil is dying of cancer. It was a breakout role for Smart. “It’s still one of my favorite roles I’ve ever played,” Smart says. Given the quirky characters she has played over the years, that’s saying something.

Smart never planned to go into TV. She’d only been interested in theater, and the UW’s actor-training program didn’t cover acting in front of a camera. But when she got an audition for the recasting of “Teachers Only,” a show starring Lynn Redgrave, she recalls thinking, ‘Maybe it’s time I find out what this part of the business is about.’ ”

The show was canceled after nine episodes, but she stayed in Los Angeles because she was making decent money, offers kept coming, and the work was somewhat similar to stage acting. As she put it, “It was kind of like doing a one-act play every week, except you can stop and say, ‘Can I do that again?’ ”

I thought of myself as more of a character actor than anything else, which is really the best thing because character actors work a hell of a lot more than the leading man or the leading lady.

Jean Smart

She rose to prominence during her five-year run as ditzy Charlene Frazier Stillfield on the CBS sitcom “Designing Women,” then risked leaving a successful series when her contract ended. Plenty of actors have faded into obscurity after leaving a series, but not Smart. Her move paid off when she was cast as the nation’s most famous female serial killer in the TV movie “Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story.” The role kept her from being typecast and also seems to have set her up for a career playing quirky characters.

Again, chalk one up for the UW’s Professional Actor Training Program, where “you weren’t ever made to feel that you were a type, and I never thought of myself that way,” she says. “I thought of myself as more of a character actor than anything else, which is really the best thing because character actors work a hell of a lot more than the leading man or the leading lady.”

Her perspective has helped her remain busy ever since, often playing oddballs. The mix has included a Martha Stewart-like doyenne of domesticity in “Style and Substance” on CBS and her Emmy Award-winning turn as Frasier Crane’s unrequited high school crush-turned-aggressive love interest in “Frasier” on NBC. Her transition to shows on FOX and other cable networks allowed her to take edgier roles, including chain-smoking, alcoholic Pickles Oblong in “The Oblongs,” an animated adult comedy about a family deformed by toxic waste, a first lady so mentally unstable that she stabs the president in “24,” and the boss of a Midwest crime family in “Fargo.” Smart also upped her coolness quotient and captured a whole new fan base years into her career with major roles in two superhero comic book-inspired series, “Watchmen” and “Legion.” Not bad for an actor in her mid-60s.

And that was five years before she had two shows on HBO and HBO Max at the same time. In “Mare of Easttown,” a heavy psychological story about an unsolved murder, she provides comic relief as the Fruit Ninja-playing mother to Kate Winslet’s police detective.

Comic relief has a whole different meaning in “Hacks,” where she plays Vance, a headlining comedian who is being relieved of some of her show times by a casino owner who wants to hire an a cappella group to attract a younger crowd. In an effort to update her material, her management company hires a recently fired young comedy writer, Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), even though neither wants to work with the other. Not too surprisingly, sparks fly when they meet and their enmity fuels much of the show’s humor.

Watching Smart as Vance, it’s little wonder why one critic called her “The Meryl Streep of Tough Broads” (a label she laughs at) and USA Today nicknamed her “The Queen of Cable.” She gets to say and do things she never could have on network TV and she appears to enjoy every minute of it. When her alter ego listens to Ava prepare for a comedy writing session, she says, “Wow, it’s like listening to Picasso sing.” Her counterpart replies, “You mean paint.” Vance shoots back, “No.” And when Ava storms out of their first meeting at Vance’s palatial home, the younger comedian quips, “It’s so cool they let you live in a Cheesecake Factory.”

Smart says she enjoys working on cable because of the freedom it gives actors, writers and directors. While networks worry about standards covering what’s appropriate and shows must provide a season’s worth of material, networks like HBO offer limited series that allow top talent to appear without having to commit to a long-term contract. “And the material is sometimes better than what they’re being offered in movies.”

While her comedic alter ego on ‘Hacks’ is a legend in a rut, Smart herself seems to be continually pushing her boundaries.

While her comedic alter ego is a legend in a rut, appealing to the same fans and telling the same jokes over and over, Smart herself seems to be continually pushing her boundaries, appealing to new audiences with whatever she does.

If you need evidence of Smart’s interest in staying current, there’s her interest in podcasting. She and friend Angeliki Giannakopoulos were so inspired by a podcast that they created SmartAngel Entertainment just to produce it. The fledgling company is also working on three other productions including the movie, “Miss Macy,” which Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment will produce and Smart will star in and executive-produce. And did she mention she’s hoping to appear again in “Mare of Easttown” if the limited series is renewed?

Like many women, she’s still juggling her busy career with her family life as a mom to a teenager. Unlike most parents, Smart, who is 70, is trying to find that balance at a time when her contemporaries’ kids have kids who are already grown. “I still can’t wrap my mind around that. It’s a typo. It’s so frigging bizarre,” she says, referring to her age.

Smart, who has a 32-year-old son, also has a 13-year-old child adopted from China with her husband, Richard Gilliland, an actor she met on the set of “Designing Women.” Gilliland put his career on hold to support her success and be a stay-at-home dad. He died from a heart condition in early 2021. “I need another me real bad, especially now that I’m a single mom, I’m trying to figure out how to deal with all this stuff,” she said in early fall.

It’s a far cry from where she likely expected she would be when she started acting. Even when she was struggling to make ends meet, she remained confident. “I just always felt that it would work out the way I hoped. I’m not saying it necessarily played out the way I envisioned, but I always felt that I would work. I never thought, ‘I’m going to go to LA and make movies and I’m going to make money.’ To me, people who start out in the theater, they’re not doing it for the money, God knows,” she says, laughing. “That wasn’t on my radar. My radar was thinking about eventually going to New York City to do theater and that was the goal.”

And the UW helped get her there.

At top: Jean Smart plays a book editor in the TV series “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.” Among her current projects, she reprises her Emmy-winning role in the second season of “Hacks” and joins the cast of the upcoming motion picture, “Babylon.”