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Jean Smart is holding on to optimism ... crying to Whitney Houston helps

Jean Smart poses for a portrait wearing a turtleneck, one hand on hip and the other on her shoulder.
“I’m a very optimistic person, but I can feel that going away, and that scares me, because I don’t want to lose that optimism,” says Jean Smart after some rough personal times.

Jean Smart just pulled her car over to the side of the road. She needed a moment. Whitney Houston’s soaring power ballad “I Have Nothing” is playing on KOST-FM (“love songs on the Cooooast), a song that ranks as Smart’s “all-time singalong if you want to cry,” and she had to call and tell me this because a couple of days earlier we had been talking about singing in cars, which she loves to do — always to what’s on the radio, because “then the song catches you by surprise and it’s more intense.”

The day before, it was Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” a rocker about self-confidence that could easily double as an anthem for Deborah Vance, the legendary stand-up comedian Smart plays on “Hacks.” Tomorrow it could be Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You” (“Dusty Springfield always makes me so very happy and definitely inspires a high-decibel singalong”) or maybe Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5" or “Cold Heart,” the Elton John and Dua Lipa mash-up, or anything by Hall & Oates (“oh, my God!”), but right now, it’s Whitney.

“You have to put that on right now, and you have to crank it!” Smart tells me. “And then you have to let me know ... if you don’t cry, you have no heart. I’m sorry.”

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Smart has a heart, a big, generous, thoughtful, open heart. When we initially spoke a few days ago, she was in her rental house in the Valley and, after making a comment about the home’s vintage midcentury bar, she later wanted to clarify that she thought it was absolutely lovely, so as not to offend her landlord. When we were trying to remember how many Emmy nominations “Hacks” had earned this year (was it 20? 17? “17 thousand,” Smart cracks), she called later, thinking that the “17 thousand” quip might have been a little flip, and then went into great detail to sing the praises of each and every one of those 17 Emmy nominees.

Such small, deliberate acts of kindness are a rule of thumb with Smart. When they were screen testing women to play Ava, Deborah’s protégé and comedy co-conspirator on “Hacks,” Smart called each of the actors to introduce herself and get to know them before they read together.

“Having been an actor for so long, she knew how nerve-racking that screen-testing process is, so she just wanted to call these women to try to make them feel a little more comfortable,” says Jen Statsky, who co-created “Hacks” with Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs.

Adds Downs: “She’s very old-school, just like Deborah on the show. She doesn’t text. She calls.”

Our most recent call, the one following her “beat-your-breast, good-cry” Whitney Houston singalong, found Smart embarking on her “millionth” drive from her rental house to her L.A. home of two decades, which she’s selling so she can be closer to work and closer to her young son’s new school. It’s the house she shared with her late husband, actor Richard Gilliland, who died from a heart condition last year, and the house she raised her children in. (She also has a 32-year-old son with Gilliland.)

Moving isn’t easy. (“I’ve got to clear out 20 years of crap,” Smart says, “pardon the expression.”) Moving while raising a teenager and after unexpectedly losing your partner of more than three decades can sometimes be overwhelming. Smart, 70, has enjoyed some of the greatest triumphs of her long career in the last couple of years — an acclaimed turn on “Hacks” that won her another Emmy, her first as a lead actress, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — but there have been rough stretches too, some of the hardest in her life.

“I’m trying not to be jaded,” Smart says. “I’m a very optimistic person, but I can feel that going away, and that scares me, because I don’t want to lose that optimism. Once you become jaded, that’s permanent, kind of like losing your virginity. It’s not coming back. That’s why it’s so scary to see kids getting jaded at such a young age, because they have no idea that they’ve been cheated out of the most wonderful part of their life, and they don’t realize that they’re being just robbed, just robbed blind.”

Smart pauses, reflecting for a moment and then affirming that she’s holding on to optimism and believes that being an actor pushes her to maintain that outlook, saying it helps her “take people as they first present themselves.” The character she played on the hit sitcom “Designing Women” for five seasons, the sweet, trusting Charlene, was very much like that, a woman who, in the words of co-star Annie Potts’ Mary Jo, would have dated Lee Harvey Oswald in high school.

“I don’t know why that’s funny,” Smart says, letting out a huge laugh, recalling the Oswald line. “But it was true. She saw the good in everybody. I remember the episode when Charlene ran into Monette, a friend from her small town. She hadn’t seen her in years, and Monette has ... changed. And Dixie [Carter] and Delta [Burke] and Annie confront me, saying, ‘Charlene, don’t you know what Monette does? We have reason to believe she’s practicing the oldest profession in the world.’” Smart pauses before delivering Charlene’s response. “Monique’s a carpenter?”

“I’m not that bad,” Smart says. She does often admit to being a bit gullible, telling me her husband could get her to believe just about anything. “He’d come home and say, ‘I was just at Starbucks, and you’ll never guess who was at the table next to me. Soupy Sales and Jane Goodall!’ And I believed him! Jane Goodall ... I wanted to be her so bad when I was a kid. Anyway, with him, I bit every time.”

But when magic regularly finds you, how can you not believe that almost anything is possible? “Hacks” has won many fans during its two brilliant seasons on the air, among them Harry Styles, who, after enjoying the episode in which Deborah tasks Ava with buying an antique pepper shaker from a reluctant seller, sent Smart a bouquet of flowers along with a beautiful, Old World salt shaker.

“Harry and I are thick as thieves,” Smart says with a laugh. She took her young son, Forrest, to a Styles concert late last year and had a great time, grooving on the energy that the singer put out. “I’ve never seen anybody look more like he was just having the time of his life,” Smart says.

Could she relate to that vibe, maybe just a little bit, given all the scenes in “Hacks” featuring Deborah performing stand-up on stage to appreciative (and, occasionally, hostile — remember the lesbian cruise?) audiences?

“I certainly can’t keep up with Harry physically, but, oh, my gosh, I’m having a blast filming those,” Smart says.

The lesbian cruise episode from this past season gave Smart a chance to sing on the show, something she had requested. But when the time came to actually do it — she performed "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — she told the show’s creators to never listen to another one of her suggestions again.

“I had envisioned months of work with my vocal coach and draped across a piano at a night club,” Smart says. “My voice has gotten so out of shape. I used to sing quite well. But I thought, ‘Oh, just go for it. Just make a fool of yourself.’ And it shouldn’t have sounded like Broadway. It should have sounded like someone who’s not a singer for a living.”

We talk some more, touching on the powerful gossip columnist she plays in “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s upcoming drama about Hollywood’s transition from silent movies to talkies (“It’s going to blow people away”), her anxiety about getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (“it’s so permanent”) and her hope that, now that Deborah Vance has found redemption, she might realize her dream of hosting a late-night talk show when “Hacks” resumes for a third season.

But the conversation always returns to song, with Smart serenading me during various calls through decades of hits. (Full disclosure: I egged her on. Or as she put it: I continued “enabling” her.) I’m a little surprised she has never been to a karaoke bar, confining most her her singing to the car, sometimes to annoy Forrest, but mostly just to enjoy herself.

“I hope that the people in the next car don’t see me or recognize me,” Smart says. I share my belief that you’re invisible behind the wheel, so she needn’t worry. “That’s not true!” she counters. “I saw a woman driving and eating a salad the other day!”

Later, she leans into the wistful jazz standard “Some of These Days” (“which predates me,” she says, “thank you very much”), reminding her of the days she taught both her children when they were toddlers to be able to identify which legend — Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and the like — was singing a particular song.

“My oldest thought Ella Fitzgerald’s name was Elephant Gerald,” Smart remembers. “One year he asked me to play ‘Jingle Bells,’ and I asked him which one ... Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, I have them all. And he said, ‘Elephant Gerald.’ I said, ‘I don’t know who that is. Is he a character on “Sesame Street”?’ ‘No! Elephant Gerald! You play it all the time!’ ‘Honey, I’m not sure what ... ooooh.’ "

Smart cracks up at the memory. “I wish she were still alive so I could tell her that story.”


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