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Why Jean Smart singles out her ‘Hacks’ role as the best of them all

Jean Smart as Deborah Vance gets ready backstage with the help of her hair and makeup team in a scene from "Hacks."
“If I could pick out a dozen of my favorite parts I’ve ever done, on stage or in front of the camera, and put them in the body of one person, I feel like [Deborah Vance]” would be it, Jean Smart says of her “Hacks” character.
(Jake Giles Netter / HBO Max)

“I was always a late bloomer, but this is ridiculous!” Jean Smart laughs. The 69-year-old actress is referring to the deluge of great roles that have come her way in the last five or six years, including those in “Fargo,” “Legion” and “Watchmen.” Her two latest projects, “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown,” both on HBO, couldn’t be more different, but that’s the point for Smart, who says she seeks out characters who feel new to her.

“Ideally, I want to do something [I haven’t done before],” she says. “Or at least a version of that person I’ve never been able to show. The thing about actors, which is why I feel so lucky, is that most actors go their entire career and they don’t ever really get to show what they can do or what they’re capable of. I feel extraordinarily grateful that I’ve been in so many interesting roles, at least in the last couple years. Part of me wishes it would have happened 20 years ago, or even 30 years ago would have been nice — I don’t think I’m a better actor now than I was then — but I am certainly not complaining.”

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Jean Smart plays a Las Vegas comedian in “Hacks,” but the real subject of HBO Max’s new series is the generational divide.

On “Hacks,” Smart stars as Deborah Vance, an old-school stand-up comedian with a Vegas residency who is forced into hiring a young writing assistant named Ava (Hannah Einbinder). It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy from creators Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, and it feels both nostalgic and current, thanks to its cross-generational appeal. It’s also exactly what Smart was looking for when she was cast last summer.

“I read it, and I just said, ‘This has it all. This could be so great,’” the actress recounts. “It’s so funny, and it’s balanced with these dark moments. If I could pick out a dozen of my favorite parts I’ve ever done, on stage or in front of the camera, and put them in the body of one person, I feel like [Deborah] is an amalgam of a lot of my favorite things.”

Smart, who shot “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown” in succession last year, didn’t do any stand-up in preparation to play Deborah, partially due to the pandemic and partially because she wanted to make the character her own. She cites such comedians as Phyllis Diller, Elayne Boosler and Joan Rivers as influences, but not specific inspirations. Deborah is compelling because she exists alongside these iconic women in the world of “Hacks” as a unique entity.

“I wanted it to come from my own instincts of having watched comedians over the years and my own sense of humor,” Smart says. “There are a lot of incredibly talented women out there. But each one of them has their own style, so I wanted to have my own style. I didn’t want to pick someone and try to copy them. If you try to compare Ellen DeGeneres to Joan Rivers, they’re completely different women with completely different styles.”

She adds, “I told the writers I wanted to emphasize the generational differences in terms of tastes and comedy. Deborah thinks that Hannah has something to offer, but I think she definitely believes Hannah’s generation and her type of humor has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Just to say something to shock your audience into laughing isn’t nearly as valuable and doesn’t take as much talent as actually coming up with something really hilarious. They’re always going to disagree about certain things, and I don’t think you’ll see Deborah turn into Andrew Dice Clay to embrace that shock value.”

“Mare of Easttown” differs both tonally and thematically, and Smart says her main reason for taking the role of Helen was to get to play Kate Winslet’s mom (she claims to have responded “Duh!” when asked to do it). She loved the page-turning whodunit aspect of the series from the outset, but it was really the relationship between Helen and Mare that interested her.

“As unhealthy as it seems from the outside, hopefully it comes across that there’s love and respect there,” says Smart, who worked on her accent for the series with a dialect coach ahead of production. “They haven’t had easy lives. I don’t think Helen’s ever been a particularly happy person. I don’t think she had a particularly good marriage. Whenever there’s a suicide in a family — and they’ve had two — there’s so much blame and so much regret and so much bitterness.

“The fact that they still coexist at all and find moments of humor and joy and love is extraordinary. I thought it was an interesting, fun dynamic to have that kind of relationship with a daughter who you loved and admired and who made you nuts.”

It wasn’t necessarily purposeful for Smart, who will executive produce and star in Amblin’s “Miss Macy” for director Tate Taylor later this year before filming the second season of “Hacks,” to take on two female-led projects simultaneously. She sees it more as a reflection of a changing entertainment industry.

“The relationship between Ava and Deborah is just so special,” the actress says. “It’s one of the most interesting, fun relationships I’ve ever gotten to explore on film. It is a really good, interesting time for women right now, although I don’t take any credit for trailblazing. But I’m certainly the lucky recipient of it.”


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