After four decades in showbiz, the Emmy-winning actress is living out some Hollywood dreams in her new HBO Max comedy.

By Gerrad Hall
April 12, 2021 at 06:56 PM EDT
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When Jean Smart was a kid, she fantasized about being a stand-up comic.

"I wanted to be Phyllis Diller," the three-time Emmy winner tells EW with a laugh. "I went to a costume party in middle school as her."

Now she's living out that dream in Hacks, a new HBO Max series debuting in early summer. EW has an exclusive first look at the series, in which Smart plays Deborah Vance, a Las Vegas comic whose audience sizes have seen better days. When threatened by the loss of show dates — and in turn a hit to her relevancy and ego — she reluctantly agrees to meet with a young Los Angeles comedy writer, Ava (played up-and-coming comic Hannah Einbinder), who also isn't keen on meeting with someone she thinks is a hack.

It's a concept that creators Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky (all three worked on Broad City) came up with a few years ago, when they were all in production on Downs' Netflix comedy special The Characters, while thinking about "these really incredible and talented women who have been doing stand-up for such a long time, yet for some reason they've all in one way or another kind of cast off and no longer had the huge careers the way that a lot of men who've been in the industry for a long time do," Aniello says.

Hacks
Jean Smart in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max

Deborah Vance isn't so quick to let that happen, though.

"She has a very high opinion of herself," Smart reveals. "Some of that is well deserved because she's always worked as hard as anyone. The three phrases I use and hang in her dressing room are: 'Living well is the best revenge,' 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,' and 'Less is less.'"

Comedy, naturally, is a big component of the series, but it's also not short on drama, a lot of which the in-demand Smart has been doing of late, including Watchmen and Fargo, and in the upcoming HBO limited series Mare of Easttown. But Hacks presented an opportunity for her to lead a series, and she "really made the character her own," says Downs, who costars as her and Ava's manager, Jimmy. "[Smart] didn't base it on anybody. She really wanted to bring herself to it."

Adds Aniello: "Knowing that she can handle anything, whether it's the comedy or the drama, made it so freeing for us because we knew any wish we had, she could execute, and she has done that beyond belief."

Hacks
Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max
Hacks
Hannah Einbinder in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max

She does all that in Deborah's first meeting with Ava, which quickly goes off the rails as Ava insults Deborah's old-school sense of humor. "It's fun to have that be part of the generational clash between her and Ava, along with a million other things," Smart says. "I love their relationship so much, and we have so much fun. I'm awful to her on the show, but we're laughing all the time. I can't say enough about Hannah. She's incredible."

The feeling seems to be mutual. "Jean Smart is a comedic genius with a heart of gold," Einbinder says. "Deborah Vance wishes she was Jean."

The producing trio — or Three Musketeers, as Smart calls them — saw "hundreds and hundreds" of actresses in their search to find the right Ava, says Statsky. "It was a real challenge to find someone who we felt could go toe to toe with Jean," she continues. "When we saw her first audition, we were all just like really blown away. There was something special about her, and it really felt like she could play both of those cards equally. We were just so astounded by her because she's never acted before, this is her first thing, which it's hard to believe because she's so good. It was a real journey to find her, and we feel so lucky that we did."

Hacks
Carl Clemons-Hopkins in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max
Hacks
Poppy Liu and Hannah Einbinder in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max
Hacks
Meg Stalter and Paul W. Downs in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max

Aside from Ava and Jimmy (and his assistant, Kayla, played by the hilarious Meg Stalter), Deborah also has a chief operating officer, Marcus, played by Carl Clemons-Hopkins. He "started as a fan, but she took him on when she recognized his business savvy," Downs explains. Then there's Poppy, a blackjack dealer who comes to Deborah's home. And further complicating her life is daughter D.J., played by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Mick star Kaitlin Olson.

Hacks
Kaitlin Olson and Jean Smart in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max
Hacks
Jean Smart and Kaitlin Olson in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max

"We're so excited for the world to see her do this because obviously she's so funny," says Statsky, "but it also feels like she had the chance to do her stuff that maybe you haven't seen her do, like a little more emotional more drama. [D.J.] loves Monster energy drinks and maybe dresses like Britney Spears circa early 2000s, which is a good look — no shade on it."

"We don't have the best relationship, unfortunately," Smart elaborates, "because everything that I did bringing her up that I thought I did out of love, she says that I only scarred her for life."

Hacks
Jean Smart in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max
Hacks
Jean Smart in HBO Max's 'Hacks.'
| Credit: HBO Max

The drama of the show aside, though, Smart is relishing in the role and the series, which also finds Deborah living on a street in Los Angeles where the actress herself always wanted to live.

"At this stage in my life, if someone had said, 'Okay, do you want to do a series? Pick up a pen and paper and write down everything about it that you would want. Everything: words, the characters…' This is it. It's really, really been special."

Check out our daily must-see picks — plus news, celeb interviews, trivia, and more — in EW's What to Watch podcast, hosted by Gerrad Hall. 

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