Jean Smart was doing a publicity event with Fargo creator Noah Hawley when he casually mentioned he might have a new show for her. Smart didn’t know anything about Legion — based on a Marvel comic and debuting Wednesday on FX at 10 p.m. ET — or about her role opposite star Dan Stevens working with young mutants. But it didn’t matter. “I thought if Noah was writing it and he wants me there, that’s pretty much all I need to know,” says Smart.
The 65-year-old actress has appeared on dozens of TV shows, and yet her character on Legion, Melanie Bird, manages to be different from anything she’s played before. “Like Fargo, this is something completely new and unique,” says Smart. “I think people are going to be blown away.”
In honor of her latest television transformation, we asked Smart to take us through some memorable roles from her four decades in Hollywood.
Smart had been a theater actress before landing this NBC show starring Lynn Redgrave and Norman Fell. She played Shari, a secretary having an affair with the principal. Smart quickly discovered that Hollywood was different from the New York stage scene — “warm-ups” referred to a comic for the studio audience, not vocal exercises, for example — something she marveled over with her agent after her first live taping. “She was from the South and she said, ‘You poor baby. You really don’t know your ass from apple butter, do you?’ All evening I thought, ‘Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.'”
For five seasons and 120 episodes, audiences fell in love with Charlene Frazier, the sweet and often naive office manager who worked alongside Julia (Dixie Carter), Suzanne (Delta Burke), and Mary Jo (Annie Potts) at the Sugarbaker interior-design firm in Atlanta. The show became a hit for CBS and won critical acclaim for all the leads. It was a big break not just professionally for Smart but personally, too. She met her husband, actor Richard Gilliland — who played J.D. Shackleford, the on-again off-again love interest of Potts’ character — while working on the series. “I met him when he was kissing someone else,” Smart says with a laugh. Later, when Charlene got married, she had another big epiphany. “I was sitting in my dressing room strapped into this gorgeous wedding dress. And I’m sitting there, looking at myself in the mirror and smoking a cigarette, and suddenly I just knew I was pregnant — I’d suspected for about a week. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You are pregnant.’ I put out my cigarette, and it was the last one I ever had.” So while fans may remember the witty banter among the women, Smart cherishes the offscreen milestones. “Those are the things that stand out most to me when I think about the show.”
Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story
Sure, Charlize Theron would win a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster. But 11 years before that film, Smart tackled the same complicated character in this made-for-TV movie that aired on CBS. Smart received good reviews for her performance but wishes the timing had been different. “It was a network, and at that time they were still pretty conservative. We didn’t have the freedom that the story needs,” she says. “When I saw Monster, I was pea green. I admired it very much.”
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Smart won two Emmys for her seven-episode run playing Lana Gardner, a former classmate and old crush of Frasier‘s (Kelsey Grammer) who could turn the normally suave doctor into a stammering adolescent. “The way he reacted to me made it very hard to keep a straight face.” She recalls being struck by the fact that even seven seasons in, the cast still enjoyed one another. “They didn’t disappear into their offices when they were done shooting. They’d watch each other’s scenes and laugh.” She remembers Grammer and David Hyde Pierce playing the piano during breaks and table reads no one could get through due to laughing. Frasier’s wit and smarts is something Smart says other series should pay attention to. “They never talked down to the audience. That show was so intelligent and so screamingly funny. They made jokes about obscure vintages of wine, for God’s sake!”
There’s a nickname Smart gave her character in Zach Braff’s directorial debut. “I fondly call her Skank Mom,” she says. The film‘s starry cast included Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jim Parsons (in one of his first roles). Sarsgaard played Smart‘s son in the movie, but it was the actor who taught her an important lesson. “I was a little humiliated because he and the others had to teach me how to smoke a bong!”
Before signing on to play Martha Logan, the whistle-blowing wife of President Charles Logan, Smart had never seen an episode of 24. But she soon learned why audiences loved it. “When they offered me the job, I got this huge box of videotapes. I sat down to watch with my son and husband and I was instantly hooked — we started watching a few every night,” she says. Her onscreen husband was played by Gregory Itzin, with whom Smart had done a play years before. “It was nice to reunite,” she says. “We’d sing show tunes between scenes. People don’t know that he’s a bit of a song-and-dance man.” Critics loved her portrayal, and Smart names this role — particularly when Martha was off her meds — as one of her all-time favorites.
This ABC comedy starring Christina Applegate was on the air for only two seasons, but it created lifelong friendships among the cast, which included Melissa McCarthy, Jennifer Esposito, and Barry Watson. “This was a special one,” says Smart, who played Samantha’s mom, Regina. “We all still get together regularly — usually at Christina’s every New Year’s.” It also earned Smart her third Emmy award with an episode involving drunken makeovers. “I credit Melissa McCarthy for that,” Smart says of her scene partner. “She’s hysterical.”
“Oh, Floyd. I miss that old gal,” says Smart of her character, Floyd Gerhardt, the flinty matriarch of the most powerful organized-crime family in North Dakota. Just like audiences, Smart was hooked by the writing and the twists and turns that unfolded over this acclaimed ’70s-set second season, which garnered Smart another Emmy nomination. “The anticipation would grow with every script: Is it out yet? Have they printed it? But it got bittersweet for me — 10 episodes were just not enough,” she says. She laughs when remembering how she asked creator Noah Hawley if there was a way to keep Floyd around. “Oh, I begged him. Are you kidding me? I told him, ‘I’ll be a ghost! I’ll be anything!'”