Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep of television. deal with it

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep of television
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in HBO Max’s ‘Hacks’.
Karen Ballard/HBO Max

Like Streep, she can do anything brilliantly: lead roles, supporting roles, comedy, drama, thrillers, you name it. And like Streep in the movies, Smart has won every major acting award television has received. She is now on top of her game and busier than ever thanks to the huge popularity of her Emmy-winning role as Deborah Vance, a seasoned and cynical comedienne, on trickshis HBO Max original series, which begins its second season on May 12.

On top of all that, Smart is loved in her industry. Talking to her via Zoom, it’s easy to see why; she somehow combines the glamor and beauty of an old-school movie star with the ability to immediately make you feel comfortable.

“We’ve talked before, haven’t we?” she asks. We haven’t, of course, but it looks like we have. Over the course of our conversation, she flashes her trademark smile and easily transitions from telling diabolical jokes to displaying the kind of emotion you’d normally reserve for close friends. Which makes sense, considering her years on television. She has been in our homes for over 40 years, making us laugh and cry; she is family

“It’s always very rewarding to win something for a project that you’re very, very proud of,” Smart says of her Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series last year for tricks. But the moment was bittersweet. Her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, had died shortly before the end of the first season. “He was too ironic. I didn’t even try to understand it in terms of why this is happening now. It will always be related to losing it.

“When he passed away,” he says, “I had five days of work left on the first season. The producers and HBO were very kind. I opted to go back and do the five days in a row. One of the scenes was the funeral scene for Ava’s father. [Ava, the young joke writer working for Smart’s Deborah Vance, is played by Hannah Einbinder]. I was really scared that I wouldn’t be able to get over that scene, but it actually turned out amazing.” a second season of the series.

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep of television
Jean Smart (left) and Hannah Einbinder (right) on HBO Max’s ‘Hacks’.
Karen Ballard/HBO Max

This season, Deborah is dealing with the loss of her Las Vegas residence. Facing an uncertain future, she and Ava hit the road in an incredibly flashy pink and white bus, trying to gather enough new material to reinvigorate Deborah’s career. Smart says, “Someone said, ‘Vegas is almost like a third character on the show.’ And I said, ‘But we’re not shooting anything from Vegas this season.’ So the road has become the third character, which is fun because it gives us new opportunities for all sorts of terrible things to happen.”

“There’s the psychology of being on a road trip with someone where they’ll start to get nervous after a while, even if it’s on a big bus. I mean, my God, Deborah’s room on the bus compared to where she makes Eva sleep? As if she were in a submarine. You couldn’t really see it on camera, but I have hot pink spikes coming out of my hubcaps. Like in Ben Hur. Hysterical.”

The show revolves around the powerful chemistry between Smart’s Deborah and Einbinder’s Hannah, two characters who obviously have nothing in common who build an unlikely alliance despite themselves. Says Smart, “I think part of it is because Deborah finally has to admit, maybe not out loud, but even to herself, that she really does need someone. I think Ava also brings out some maternal instincts in Deborah, as Deborah has a lot of guilt for her own daughter. I think she has many layers. And I think she enjoys being friends with her, but she also enjoys forcefully abusing her. She is a kind of sick joy ».

Considering how mean Deborah can be, it’s hard to imagine Smart seeing any part of herself in the character, but she does. “We’re both very vain,” she says, “although I can put my vanity aside entirely if it’s worth it, as for Easttown Mare [a performance Smart got an Emmy nomination for]. We both like shiny things. We both love to be smart or sarcastic and make others laugh.”

“I like the fact that Deborah is not a cliché. She doesn’t abuse the people around her, except for Hannah, because she respects people who work hard because she always worked very, very, very hard. I think that’s what she has in common with the character Marty [the casino boss played by Christopher McDonald who fires Deborah]. I think they are almost too similar. They both respect each other and started at the bottom in a really tough industry and worked their way to the top of what they do.”

Still, Smart says that, like any other great TV villain, Deborah can quickly turn evil: “If she’s in a bad mood, all bets are off and she could be rude to anyone.”

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep of television
Promotional portrait of the cast of the television series ‘Designing Women’, c. 1987. Clockwise from bottom left: Jean Smart, Alice Ghostley, Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, and Meshach Taylor.
International Photos/Courtesy Getty Images

Smart’s path to this point in his career wasn’t exactly a straight line. Originally from Seattle, Washington, her big break came in the early 1980s playing Marlene Dietrich on Broadway in Piaf, a biographical play on singer Edith Piaf. From there, Smart landed a string of supporting roles on sitcoms, leading to her first major television role as the lovable and naïve Charlene Stillfield on the hit CBS sitcom. Designing Women. After five years, he left the series and immediately did something completely different.

“My first job after Designing Womensays Smart, “it was the story of Aileen Wuornos [the TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story]. She had the dubious title of being America’s first female serial killer.” Smart says walking away from bubbly Charlene “crossed my mind”; the idea to cast her so dramatically against type came from the film’s producer. «It was offered to me and I liked the script, and I thought it would be very interesting to do it. I remember asking the producer at one point, ‘Why did you think of me for this?’ And he said, ‘I wanted her to be understanding.'”

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep of television
Actress Jean Smart poses in the press room at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theater on September 21, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

Smart’s dramatic turn as First Lady Martha Logan on the Fox series 24 showed his versatility. “That was probably the biggest change,” he says, “That was one of my favorite jobs. When I read the script, I said, I have to do this. The first scene where the character is introduced is the best character introduction I’ve ever had, where she’s standing there, dressed to the nines in a beautiful expensive suit, hair, makeup, jewelry. And she’s sitting there looking at herself in the mirror and she says ‘I look like a wedding cake’ and she dunks her face into the sink under the water. She then walks out and starts yelling at the Secret Service agents that she wants to see her husband. She has mascara running down her face and damp, stringy hair. And they’re trying to stop her because he’s giving a press conference but she needs to talk to him. They won’t let her and she is screaming. This is the best introduction to a character that has ever existed.”

Smart received consecutive Emmy nominations for 24. Since then, she has received more accolades (and awards) for her dramatic roles on shows like Fargo, dirty john, Legion, vigilantes Y Easttown Mare. In comedy, Smart shares an Emmy record with the late Betty White as the only actors, male or female, to win an acting Emmy in all categories of comedy (lead, supporting, and guest actor).

In addition to Hacks, he will soon star opposite Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in Damien Chazelle’s film. Babylon. Were unknowns Pitt and Robbie appropriately intimidated to find themselves working with TV’s Meryl Streep?

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Smart says with a devilish smile.

Hear H. Alan Scott’s full conversation with Jean Smart on Newsweek’s Parting Shot podcast this Friday. Twitter: @HAlanScott

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