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From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Actress Jean Smart is nominated for two Emmys this year. One is for starring in the comedy series "Hacks," as a comic whose career is in decline. The other is for her supporting role in the drama "Mare Of Easttown," as the mother of Kate Winslet's character. Her comedic timing was obvious in the hit '80s sitcom "Designing Women," and in the early 2000s, when she won two Emmys for her guest-starring role on "Frasier."

We're going to listen back to Terry's interview with Jean Smart, recorded in May when her HBO Max series "Hacks" premiered. She plays Deborah Vance, a comic who overcame a lot of the obstacles faced by women comics of her generation and became a top act in Vegas. When the series begins, her career is in decline. Her jokes are kind of funny but way past their expiration dates. In an attempt to save Deborah's career, her manager pairs her with a young woman comedy writer Ava Daniels, whom he also manages. Her job is to write material for Deborah that will sound more up to date.

At one of their first meetings, Deborah tells Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder, that the jokes she's written for her aren't funny. Deborah asks if Ava is a lesbian, to which Ava responds that Deborah is her employer, which makes that an inappropriate question to ask. And then Ava goes on to describe in graphic detail her sexual experiences with women and men and concludes by telling Deborah this.


HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) So anyway, I'm bi.

JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Jesus Christ, I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow's mechanic.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Right, so the jokes? You didn't like any?

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) They're not jokes. I mean, like, are they, like, thought poems? I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voicemail. What?

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) It's funny because voicemails are annoying. It's like, just text.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) First of all, if you start a sentence with it's funny because, it is probably not. And second, jokes need a punchline.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Well, in my opinion, traditional joke structure is very male - so focused on the ending. It's all about the climax.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Oh, look who's talking. I just got a TED Talk about yours.


TERRY GROSS: Jean Smart, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. You're terrific in this, as you've been...

SMART: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah, for so long. So, you know, you've done a lot of comedy, but this is the first time you've played a comic. Do you have any favorite jokes of the bad jokes that your character tells?

SMART: (Laughter).

GROSS: 'Cause they're both funny and bad at the same time.

SMART: Oh, sure. You know, I mean, I don't think of her jokes as bad, necessarily. It's just that, you know, she's sort of got her stock-style jokes. She knows her audience really well, and she knows what they expect and what they don't want to hear from her. And she gives them what they pay for, you know? I mean, as risque as she gets, it's probably the first joke we hear out of her mouth at the very beginning of the show, where you can just kind of hear her before we even see her face, where she talks about being in bed with a guy who keeps saying, you know, are you close? Are you close? And she says, yeah, I'm close, I'm close. I'm close to getting a buzz cut, a flannel shirt and finally accepting Melissa Etheridge's dinner invite. I love that joke.


GROSS: Are there things you related to about the generational conflict in this, you know, 'cause, you know, the young comic who starts writing for your character thinks of herself as so, like, you know, cutting edge and a little transgressive. And she really has kind of contempt for your character 'cause it represents everything that she - that the younger comic doesn't want to be.

SMART: Exactly. She thinks I'm a dinosaur, which I am in a way. But Deborah's attitude, I think, is a little bit that Ava's generation has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and that all they want to do is shock people into laughing. And that's much easier to do than to come up with something kind of clever that actually makes people laugh, not just out of shock. And so (laughter), you know, she - it's just sort of funny to watch them, you know, navigate this. They come from completely different worlds, or at least seemingly at first.

And Hannah actually is a stand-up comic so I was a little bit intimidated at first. I'm thinking, OK, she's playing the writer, I'm playing the comic. And she's an actual stand-up comic. Yeah, that's been the fun part. It's just their conflict. That's just - and the fact that I just get to abuse her horribly.


GROSS: Is there a generational conflict that's similar for actors, either about the material that's acceptable in a play or movie or TV show, or how standards have changed for the language you can use and what you can talk about and how sexual you can get?

SMART: Oh, sure. Oh, sure, yes. I used to make a joke to friends. I'd say I would never do any kind of nudity while my parents were still alive, but they lived so long that now I'm at the age where no one asks me to do a nude scene...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMART: ...You know? So that kind of took care of it right there. But certainly, obviously, things have changed dramatically. I guess part of that's just natural evolution of anything, you know, when you look at television and movies and what's considered just kind of normal entertainment and what would have been considered X-rated a few decades ago. I'm not sure it's a good evolution. I still think there's some things better left to the imagination. Sometimes, I think they're actually more effective when they're left to the imagination.

GROSS: So your new series "Hacks," the comedy series, starts on HBO Max on Thursday. Meanwhile, there's, I think, three episodes left of "Mare Of Easttown," the series that you're co-starring in on HBO that's part crime drama and part family drama. Kate Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, who's a police detective trying to solve a murder. But there's a lot going on in her personal life. Her son died by suicide, leaving behind his young son, who Mare is raising because the boy's mother has been in rehab.

You've moved in. You're Mare's mother, and you've moved in with Mare to help her raise the grandson, your great-grandson. But you and Mare are afraid that you're about to lose custody because the boy's mother is getting out of rehab. You've been trying to prepare him for the likelihood he'll be returning to his mother. And that's made Mare very angry with you because she wants to keep custody. And let's hear a clip in which she's showing how angry she is that you're trying to prepare him to go back to his mother.


KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Why are you telling him he might have to go live with his mom?

SMART: (As Helen) 'Cause he might have to go live with his mom.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) He's 4 years old, Mom. We don't know what's going to happen, all right? Don't be telling him stuff like that. He's lived in this house his entire life, Mom.

SMART: (As Helen) Which is why we need to prepare him. Otherwise, he'll feel like the ground is just falling out beneath him. I called Kathy Dryers today.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) You did what?

SMART: (As Helen) She works for the Child and Youth Services, and I thought that she might be...

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) I know where Kathy Dryers works. Why the hell are you calling her?

SMART: (As Helen) Because I want to find out how this whole custody thing works.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) That is not your place, Mom.

SMART: (As Helen) She told me...

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) All right?

SMART: (As Helen) Carrie has a place to stay and a job...

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) It is so out of line for you to be telling him stuff like that, Mom.

SMART: (As Helen) And she stays clean and takes her meds. She's his mother. She's the mother. She'll get custody. And there's not a damn thing you or I can do about it.

GROSS: Wow, that's - you're really good in this. How did you get the part?

SMART: They offered it to me. It was lovely. And I said, HBO? Kate Winslet? Unless I really hate the part, I'll say yes right now. But I love their relationship because - I mean, even though it's a bit dysfunctional, I hope that there is - that it comes across to the audience as they still - there is still love and respect there between them. They've been through so much. And like a lot of families who go through suicide and divorce and things, there's a lot of blame. There's a lot of regrets. And - but they still manage to, you know, eke out a life together and find moments of humor and moments of happiness.

GROSS: So "Mare Of Easttown" is set in Delaware County, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia. And Delaware County has some pretty wealthy neighborhoods and some working-class suburbs. And you probably saw this or at least heard about it, that "Saturday Night Live" did a parody of the accents.

SMART: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: Did you see it, of the accents of "Mare Of Easttown?"

SMART: Kate sent it to me (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. And she's the one who got the brunt of the (laughter)...

SMART: It was hilarious.

GROSS: ...Of the satire in this. And the premise of the show is that instead of saying murder and daughter, because of the, perhaps, overly exaggerated Philadelphia accent, it's like - I can't even do it right - murder and daughter. Yeah, you do it. You do it.

SMART: Well (laughter), I don't know quite where they were going with some of it. But, yes, they called it "Murdur Durdur" - murder, daughter. But, yes, like, one of the examples of that accent is the way they say water. It's water, like - almost like W-O-O-D-E-R. You know, give me a glass of water, water.

GROSS: So did you have, like, an accent coach?

SMART: Oh, yes. No, we had a couple of wonderful dialect coaches. Mine was a native from the area. And she was extremely helpful, extremely helpful. And I would put my lines on a loop tape and just - on my phone and just fell asleep listening to it, because you want it to be as automatic as possible because if you're thinking about it while you're doing your lines, then you're not thinking about the right things (laughter), what you're supposed to be thinking about, what your character is supposed to be thinking about. That's the hard part of doing an accent. But it's always fun to do accents.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jean Smart. She co-starred in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" and stars in the HBO Max comedy "Hacks." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded last spring with Jean Smart. She's been nominated for two Emmys, one for her starring role in the HBO Max comedy series "Hacks" and another for her supporting role in HBO's drama series "Mare Of Easttown." She got her start in TV on the 1980s CBS sitcom "Designing Women."

GROSS: You've played, like, brassy, cynical, sarcastic women in comedies and in dramas. In Entertainment Weekly, you were described as the reigning Meryl Streep of tough broad-types.


GROSS: So I want to play an example of that. And this is from your role in "Fargo," when you played the matriarch of a crime family that controls Fargo. And you've taken over from your husband after he had a debilitating stroke. Meanwhile, the Kansas City mafia made an offer to take over your operation. And in this scene, you meet the gangster representing the Kansas City family. And you make a counteroffer, an offer for a partnership between their family and your crime family. So in this scene, you're laying out the terms of your deal and then warn him not to underestimate you. And the mobster from Kansas City is played by Brad Garrett. You speak first.


SMART: (As Floyd) Now - I don't know - maybe when you look at me, you see an old woman. And I am 61. I've borne six children, had three miscarriages. Two of my sons are here today. Two were stillborn. My first born, Elron, killed in Korea - sniper took off half his head. The point is, don't assume just because I'm an old woman that my back is weak and my stomach's not strong. I make this counter because a deal is always better than war. But no mistake, we'll fight to keep what's ours to the last man.

BRAD GARRETT: (As Joe) You're a good woman. I wish I had known your husband.

SMART: (As Floyd) No. My husband would have killed you where you stood the first time you met. So be glad you're talking to his wife.

GROSS: You must have loved that speech when you read it.

SMART: (Laughter) Oh, I did. That was the speech they gave you to audition with for Noah. And I said, that tells me so much about this person.

GROSS: So I'm going to squeeze in one more clip. This is from "Frasier." This is the role that you won two Emmys for. And you're hilarious in this. So for people who don't know the sitcom "Frasier," Frasier is a psychiatrist who has a radio advice call-in show. And you played Lana Lynley, who was one of the most popular and pretty girls in high school. And Frasier had a crush on you. And now, years later, you run into each other at a cafe. And you're a fan of his radio show. You hit it off. And you end up spending the night together. And this is, like, Frasier's high school dream come true.

SMART: (Laughter).

GROSS: And in the morning, you wake up in his bed. You still have a glass of wine on the night table next to you, which you used in the scene I'm about to play to swallow some pills later in the scene. And so you wake up in the morning together. Things are still dreamy between the two of you until - OK. Here is the scene. You speak first.


SMART: (As Lana) Oh, I had a wonderful time last night.

KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Me, too. It was like being back in high school but with sex.


SMART: (As Lana) Oh, I don't want this to end.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Must warn you, now that I've learned to finally ask you out, I'll be doing a lot more of it. Are you free this evening? See? There I go already. How about tomorrow night? Somebody stop me.


SMART: (As Lana) Not me. I wonder what time it is.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, 10 o'clock.

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, crap. I'm late.


GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Is there something I can do?

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, yeah. Make this lousy hangover go away. Where the hell are those aspirin?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) You know, perhaps I should get you a glass of water for those. Would you prefer sparkling or still or not? I see you're fine.

SMART: (As Jean) Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want to finish this?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) No, no. You're the guest.


SMART: (As Lana) Oh. Yeah, it's me. I'm running late. Move my 10:30 to 11:30. Just move it to 11:30.


SMART: (As Lana) Oh.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) I didn't realize you smoked.

SMART: (As Lana) Oh. Yeah, I'm always trying to quit, but my weight just balloons up. I mean, trust me. You don't want to see my ass when I'm off these things.


GRAMMER: (As Frasier) You know, I hate to be a fusspot, but I'd prefer...


SMART: (As Lana) Yeah. Well, who let the dog in? Put your brother on. Put your brother on. Put your brother on.


GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, will you be a sweetie, make me some coffee?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) OK.

SMART: (As Lana) Well, you know, that mess better be cleaned up by the time I get home. Both of you. Put your brother on. Put your brother on. Put your brother on the phone.


SMART: (As Lana) Oh, this is nice.


GROSS: Oh, you're so good in that.


GROSS: What do you think about when you hear that back?

SMART: Oh, it was so much fun. That was the first episode I did as that character, and it was my favorite one.

GROSS: Did it say in the script, get louder every time you say put your brother on? Or was that something you just figured out you should do?

SMART: I think I just assumed that that's what it would be (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

SMART: I had women coming up to me in supermarkets saying, oh, my God, that's me. That's me. Oh, my God.


SMART: What? Oh, dear. OK. You know? People still come up and say, put your brother on the phone. It's like...


GROSS: You were so good in that scene they brought you back for another season. And that - it's the second season that you won an Emmy for that role. So you grew up in Seattle - right? - where "Frasier" was set. How did you get interested in acting?

SMART: I had a terrific drama teacher my last year in high school. His name was Earl Kelly. He was kind of locally famous 'cause he put on particularly good shows and musicals and things at our high school. And so then I took the class my senior year, and he was great. He was tough. I mean, he taught us - he treated us like we were, you know, a professional acting troupe. He expected a lot from us. He hated the fact that I was a cheerleader. He thought that was just appalling. (Laughter) But he liked me. And so I really got bitten by the bug. So I told my parents that I wanted to major in theater in college. And my mother was not too happy with me. But after I started doing some plays at the University of Washington, she became my biggest fan, my biggest supporter.

GROSS: When you were getting started, what were some of your day jobs?

SMART: You mean after I got out of college?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

SMART: I'm embarrassed to say I never had another day job.

GROSS: You never - you were able to make a living acting right from the start?

SMART: Yeah. It wasn't much of a living, but yeah.

GROSS: How'd you do that?

SMART: Well, there's a lot of professional theater in Seattle. And between Seattle and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., where I would do summers, I managed to just get by. You know? You'd always think, oh, jeez, I don't know if I have next month's rent. But something would come along.

GROSS: Did you go through any fallow periods where you thought, I'm never going to get a role again?

SMART: The only time that springs to mind that that happened, ironically, was after "Fargo." I, you know, got great reviews. The show was a big hit. I think I won the Critics Choice Award for that role - and crickets.


SMART: I shouldn't say this, but I think it was because of the way I looked and that, all of a sudden, it was sort of like, oh, dear. No, she's an older woman. And now what do we do with her? And I don't know - I mean, literally not a meeting, not an audition, not an offer for a long time. But once it started again, it's just been, you know, a steady climb towards, you know, wonderful roles. I mean, I just can't - I'm extremely grateful.

BIANCULLI: Jean Smart talking with Terry Gross. Jean Smart is nominated for two Emmys this year, one for her starring role in the HBO Max comedy series "Hacks" and the other for her supporting role in HBO's drama series "Mare Of Easttown." The Emmys are scheduled to be televised this Sunday night on CBS.

Coming up, we remember jazz entrepreneur George Wein, who created the Newport Jazz Festival which became a jazz institution. He died Monday at age 95. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY GIUFFRE'S "GOTTA DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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