Yep, Jean Smart was her own wax figure on Hacks
Next month Jean Smart could join Betty White as being someone who has won lead actress in a comedy, supporting actress in a comedy, and guest actress in a comedy Emmys. But she doesn't want to talk about it. "Whenever people talk about it they get jinxed," she says, humbly brushing aside the potential of adding to her collection of wins for Frasier and Samantha Who?.
Win or not, there's no doubt Smart delivered one of the most talked-about performances of the year as veteran stand-up comic Deborah Vance, whose reign as Queen of Sin City may be over if she can't turn things around and get audiences back in seats at her Las Vegas residency. Helping her freshen up her act is a young comedy writer, Ava — played by a young comedy writer, newcomer Hannah Einbinder. Deborah and Ava butt heads immediately, but they also develop a deep understanding and respect for each other that made for a season full of laughs, drama, and uh-ohs come the season finale.
Here, Smart talks about the first season of her show — including that episode with edibles and her wax figure (or was it?) — the mother-daughter relationships both here and on HBO's Mare of Easttown, for which she's also nominated, that on-set injury where costar Kate Winslet looked over her, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You work so steadily, but were you looking for a lead role like this?
JEAN SMART: The only stipulation I had with my agent was, "Please, not a commute." [Laughs] I had just finished a show in Philadelphia—
Mare of Easttown, I assume?
Yes. And then not too long before that, I was shooting Watchmen in Atlanta. Both were wonderful experiences but the commute was a bit much — whenever I had a day or two off I would fly home to see my kids. So this is nice; I'm home every night for dinner. And this show has everything I could possibly want: the character is not really like any character I've played before, but she's got bits and pieces of some of my very, very favorite roles I've embodied in this one eccentric, bizarre [woman].
How does comedy get you revved up in ways that drama doesn't, and vice versa?
You can take audiences on an experience with drama and hopefully make people think about something they've never thought about before. Comedy — if it works and you get that laugh, there's nothing like the feeling. I used to joke that if I ever had to pick, I'd pick drama, because if you're getting all of that out of your system at work, then maybe you're a sweetheart at home. [Laughs] And vice versa — if you have to be funny and charming all day at work, you're a monster when you come home.
You previously told me about idolizing Phyllis Diller when you were younger and wanting to be like her. But when did your focus switch from stand-up to acting?
Definitely in high school. I'm not sure I ever seriously thought about stand-up in the sense that I didn't even know anything about it — I just knew that what she was doing looked like a lot of fun, standing up on stage and making people laugh. So when I started doing plays in high school I really got the acting bug, and that was it.
Well, you are now getting to be a stand-up on Hacks. I don't know how much of a comedy set you really have to learn, but you do have to know those rhythms and find that necessary connection with the audience. So do you rehearse the stand-up at home in a mirror, or is this a case where there's perhaps an alter ego that takes over when you hit the stage?
I think you have to have the audience — or a semblance of an audience — for that to work. And unfortunately, because of COVID, we rarely had an audience; when we did it was a smattering of people sitting apart, in masks. So I never had the full experience of a full house — hopefully next season [crosses fingers]. But I loved it, it was great fun. It's all the fun of stand-up with none of the danger because…they have to laugh. [Laughs]
In addition to the dramatic material here, there are, of course, a lot of laughs — especially between you and Hannah Einbinder. The episode with edibles and the plastic surgery fits in perfectly in the bigger picture of the season, but it is a departure in a way as well. A necessary one, even.
Yes! I remember saying it's almost like we're in a madcap comedy here! When they told me my character was going to have surgery on her eyelids I thought, how are we going to pull that off? [Laughs] They said, "Oh, we've done it on other shows, no one will even notice later. It's fine." I said, "You know what would be really great? If I actually get my eyes done and then we take a quick hiatus or something [for me to heal]." But that wouldn't work because we were shooting scenes from different episodes every day. But my makeup artist did a great job with that — amazing. But yes, that episode has a little bit of everything.
So do you have personal experience with edibles? Were you unlocking some memories for those scenes?
[Laughs] I knew you were going to ask me that! I am not a marijuana fan. The first time I had marijuana was in college, and it was in brownies — that was the only time I had it and enjoyed it, and I laughed my ass off. It was the best.
Did you have to pose for a wax figure for that episode?
That was me.
Wait, that was actually you. It wasn't a wax figure.
[Shakes head, laughs]
Because that would've been a lot of time and money to make that for it to only appear on camera for such a short amount of time.
It's a very extensive process, and very expensive.
Would you equate that to playing dead?
Yes! That's really hard. [Laughs] The tough part was, my eyes get really dry so I was like, "Say 'cut' the second you can because I gotta blink!" And, of course, I didn't know what [Hannah] was going to do. She was doing all sorts of crazy stuff right in front of my face, flipping me off and doing cartwheels. [Laughs]
Let's talk about the mother-daughter relationship and your scenes with Kaitlin Olson. There's such tension there, and the slow reveal of things there has been really compelling. What have you enjoyed about that dynamic between Deborah and DJ?
Well, first of all, Kaitlin is amazing. Just love her, love working with her, think she's a real pro. But it gave me a sort of bittersweet feeling because, and I've known this for years as a parent, you never get anything just right. You do too much, or you do too little. You give them too much freedom; you don't give them enough freedom. It seems like you never hit that sweet spot. And Deborah, she took her toddler on the road with her because she couldn't bear to be without her, and her daughter, of course, says that was child abuse. To Deborah, it was love. And let's face it, mom is always the problem — you never hear jokes about people talking about dad on the therapist's couch. It's always mom. Everything comes back to that number one, primal relationship.
If we want to talk about another mother-daughter relationship: Mare of Easttown, where you're playing Kate Winslet's mom, for Pete's sake!
[Laughs] Another dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Kate is just one of the most impressive gals I've met. She couldn't be kinder and smarter and nicer and more fun to work with. I didn't know what to expect. We had a great time. She always called me "mum." It's funny because I got hurt on the set and had to go to the hospital. I fell down a flight of stairs; I was leaning over the rail trying to spy on her and Guy Pearce and I leaned a little too forward and fell. Broke a rib in half, got a concussion. Anyway, as I'm laying at the bottom of the stairs, I'm like, "You better have gotten that on film!" [Laughs] But my back was hurting so bad and she was right there behind my back supporting me while we were waiting for paramedics and she kept saying, [with British accent] "Oh, mummy, it's all right, they're coming. It's all right, mummy." When I was in the ambulance a few minutes later and the guy's getting ready to hook up my morphine he said, "Your daughter was sure worried about you." I said, "My daughter isn't here. What?" He pointed to Kate. I was like, "Ohhhh, no no no, that's not my daughter. That's Kate Winslet! Don't you recognize her?" So he's like, "No, I missed meeting Kate Winslet!" I'm like, "Uh, excuse me, the morphine, please!" [Laughs]
You have three Emmy wins — two for guest star on a comedy, both for Frasier, and one for supporting actress in a comedy for Samantha Who?. You just need a lead actress in a comedy trophy to complete the collection.
Yep. A tiara to go with the earrings and the broach. [Laughs] But I don't wanna talk about it. Whenever people talk about it they get jinxed.
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