Jean Smart Loves It All
Jean Smart has the career everyone wants. The hit series and the awards, yes. But perhaps more importantly, the unbridled joy. The genuine enthusiasm for what she does. The visible delight on red carpets. The beloved co-stars held close through the years. From the early days of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s Designing Women straight through to her Emmy win for Hacks, there are hours of falling-down-funny memories to recall. (She still stays in touch with Bloodworth-Thomason and castmate Annie Potts, and will always miss Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook.) She relishes hosting parties for the Hacks cast and texts advice to Hannah Einbinder often. And she’s built a new community working on Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s fourth film, which stars Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo, and Chloe Fineman. The reasoning is so simple but, when you really consider it, rare. “I still feel very fortunate to be able to make a living at something that I love and I’ve always wanted to do,” Smart says.
Babylon, a cinematic ode to Hollywood, presented Smart with the chance to do the kind of large-scale ensemble period piece she had been itching to do for a while. “The pressure is just huge. You think, ‘I don’t want to be the one to screw this shot up, because to go back to the beginning and start over [would be challenging]. There are about 27 little bits as the camera’s weaving its way through these wild, insane party scenes,” she recalls. Thankfully, the stress didn’t get in the way of her enjoying herself. “It was so much fun,” she says. “I remember we shot one particular party scene outdoors, which was supposed to be at Brad’s character’s house. It was just nuts because people were jumping into the pool in their tuxedos, women were topless,” she says. “And I didn’t realize throughout the entire scene that there were five guys who were UCLA students completely naked throwing the football around right behind me. As if anyone’s going to even look at me!”
Everyone says that Smart, with Babylon and Hacks and 2021’s Mare of Easttown, is having a moment, which is, in a way, ridiculous. When has she not been inside the room? Designing Women, Frasier, 24, Fargo, Watchmen. It almost feels a bit insulting, even to a third party. But for her, Hacks hits a bit differently. “It sounds terrible, but I remember my first scene with the producers. I said, ‘Well, you’re right. I’m perfect for this,’” she says. “It had absolutely everything I could ask for in a role. Of course, there’s humor. It had relationships and moments that were very, very moving.”
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Four decades in, Smart still finds magic in the work. She found a lot of it with Chazelle. “Damien is kind of a genius; I remember when I first saw his movie, Whiplash, I was just blown away,” she says. “It’s funny, too; he’s so cute. You’d think he was a college kid; he’s running around the set 16 hours a day with all this energy. Someone like Damien is just so exciting to work with, because he’s just having the time of his life.”
Some might say Smart is too. She sees something in the early days of film portrayed in Babylon that’s in line with the way she approaches her career. “You look at the people who started this industry and it was all about wanting to make a movie. The new technology was just crazy, when you look at the early silent films. Just the idea of sitting and watching something moving on a screen, people would’ve watched anything,” she says. “Now, of course, we’ve become so jaded and so sophisticated that people want more and more stimulation from it…it’s become such a big business that sometimes the priorities are a little out of whack.”
So, what are her priorities? “Just for people to respect my work and my reputation being [that I’m] professional and easy to work with,” she says. “I don’t want that ever to change.” It seems unlikely to. A few weeks after we speak, she’ll host another get-together for her Hacks crew. Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, who created the show with Jen Statsky, have a new baby that Smart is excited to get to know better. “It’s heaven, just the cutest little baby. They’re going, ‘Oh no, what do we do? I want to take him to work. What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘No, I know. I know.’ But they’ll have him there. He’ll be there.”
Family is something that’s always been baked into Smart’s career as well. Her older son grew up on set. In fact, she can picture him at 2 years old sitting on a director’s chair with headphones on. “He picked up right away that when he hears that buzz, that’s when everybody has to be quiet and they’re going to say ‘action.’ So, sitting there, the buzzer goes, he goes like, ‘Shh, shh,’” she recalls with a smile. “He was a very serious child, very serious. And he grew up on the set of Designing Women. I mean he was in utero when I was doing the show. I always say that he was formed hearing lots of laughter but came out very serious.”
Less than two years ago, as Hacks’ first season was being filmed, Smart lost her husband of 33 years, actor Richard Gilliland. She’s figuring out how to navigate a life without him. Her sorrows are met with honesty and openness. “I don’t know how to answer that question. I’ve just been going through such a rough patch,” she responds, when asked what she finds exciting right now. “We recently moved. People always say, ‘Oh my God, moving is as traumatic as losing a spouse,’ that kind of thing. [But] I wasn’t expecting it to throw me like it did,” she says.
Smart admittedly struggled filming the second season of Hacks while having a young son at home. “Working and being a single working mom, I don’t know how so many women do it. Because I’m so fortunate, the support I have and the resources I have compared to most women. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, not having my husband,” she admits. “[At work] I just felt like half of my mind was at home. Oh God, did [my son] get to school on time? Did he get breakfast?” Still, after all the career highs—past and present—she recognizes what’s most important. “My 14-year-old still kisses me and says, ‘I love you.’ That’s as good as it gets.”
Adrienne Gaffney is an associate editor at ELLE who previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.