Seattle Culture

Trailblazing Women: Jean Smart

'Hacks' star reflects on her career and how growing up in Seattle shaped her

By Daniel Anderson May 27, 2024

A middle-aged actress dancing joyfully in a studio, wearing jeans and an oversized shirt, with a subtle smile on her face.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

It’s almost noon, and Jean Smart is present as ever during a phone call. She actually asks the first question, about whether I’m a Seattle native. “Oh, you are!” she exclaims, her voice lighting up with even more warmth when she finds out I am a fellow University of Washington alum and, like her youngest, also a Chinese adoptee. She then proceeds to tell me how wonderful it was to grow up in Seattle. She still calls the city home.

Nowadays, most people recognize Smart as the character of Deborah Vance, the lead character in HBO’s Hacks, a legendary comic every bit as callously cruel as compassionate with those in her circle. That title, alongside other prestigious roles in series such as Fargo, Mare of Easttown, Watchmen, Legion, and Damien Chazelle’s film Babylon, are part of what many critics have dubbed the “Smartissance” or “Jeanissance.” Smart has also earned the title “the Meryl Streep of Tough Broads.”

In addition, Smart has appeared in classic TV shows, playing characters Charlene from Designing Women, Lana Gardner from Frasier, Martha Logan from 24, and Regina Newly from Samantha Who? She is also the voice of Kim Possible’s mother from the Disney animated show of the same name. The third season of Hacks began May 2. Smart is as unequivocally evergreen as her roots. She is a timeless trailblazer, one whose award-winning work touches lives across generations, and finds ways to unite them together.

How did Seattle shape your career, and you as a person?

I had an extraordinary drama teacher, Earl Kelly, who was well known for putting on great plays and musicals at our high school. He was very supportive, very demanding, but very kind. Then, at the University of Washington, I had some remarkable professors in the drama department, such as Eve Roberts and Bob Loper, and Duncan Ross, who started the professional actors training program that I went through.

I don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t had that experience in college. Initially, I wanted to go to WSU because my older sister was attending, and she made it sound like so much fun. However, I credit my diabetes, and mostly my mother’s concern for my well-being, for ultimately steering me away from WSU. It had only been a few years since my diagnosis, so my parents were hesitant to let me go away from home for school, which I totally understand.

Black and white yearbook photo of a young actress with shoulder-length hair, smiling at the camera.

Jean Smart as a senior at Seattle’s Ballard High School in 1969.

SPS District Archives, Ballard High School 1969

Thank God they did because, while WSU is a great school, its drama department couldn’t compare to what I experienced at UW. I’m not putting down WSU at all, but their drama department was essentially just an arm of their speech department.

 

What quintessential Seattle qualities are still with you today?

Oh, I love Seattle. It was such a great place to grow up. It had the best of both worlds. You had this wonderful cosmopolitan city with the great outdoors within minutes. We had world class opera, world class theater, world class ballet, a world class symphony, and comedy clubs starting up. The Pike Place Market is one of my favorite places in the entire world. When I’m back in Seattle, I’m just so happy whenever I’m there. I look at people on the street and like them just because they are from Seattle.

I love Seattle. It was such a great place to grow up. You had this wonderful cosmopolitan city with the great outdoors within minutes.

 

Your mother studied clothing history and design. How did that influence a creative spark in you?

I always admired her. I loved looking through the notebook she put together for her final. It’s absolutely gorgeous, with meticulous drawings. It gives the entire history of costume from ancient Greece to modern day. My mother was a very creative person, but she was mostly a housewife and a mom. She didn’t pursue some of the things I think she would have liked to pursue. That’s one reason I took my parents to Italy on a trip, because I knew my mother would absolutely go crazy over the architecture. She had always wished she had majored in architecture, but back in her day, she said, “Nice girls majored in home economics.” So, that’s what she did.

I was thrilled to be able to do that trip for her. It was special. She was also a wonderful writer and artist, but she didn’t pursue any of it professionally — she just did it for her own enjoyment. My mother was actually very pretty, and she even had lead roles in a couple of plays in college at the University of Washington. However, her mother kind of discouraged her from that.

 

Did you have a woman mentor early on in your career?

Well, I would go back to Eve Roberts, one of my professors at the University of Washington. Not only was she a wonderful instructor, but she was also a fabulous actress in her own right. She was a part of the Seattle Repertory Co. for quite a while. Eve was this gorgeous, dynamic redhead, though she was probably only 40 at the time — we all thought she was mature beyond her years. We all wanted to see her in The Price at the Seattle Rep, and she just took over the stage. We were all just busting our buttons that she was our teacher. Eve was demanding and a little intimidating, but she was incredibly smart, funny, and supportive. She even introduced me to a couple of her friends when I eventually moved to New York. She’s in her 90s now, but living here in Los Angeles.

 

Toward the end of Hacks season 2, your character, Deborah, fires her writer, Ava, because she wants her to grow and pursue new opportunities. Have you ever experienced a similar situation in your career where a mentor nudged you toward something better, but you didn’t fully understand?

My mother gave me a great piece of advice once. I was talking to her about the play that kickstarted my career in New York, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. I first did it when I moved to New York, in a small off-Broadway theater. Eventually, it moved to off-Broadway, and then I performed it again in Los Angeles after moving there. It opened doors for me. I got my first agent, my first Broadway play, and even a series on HBO because of it. I remember at one point they were considering making it into a movie, but time just seemed to be slipping away. I told my mother, “Oh, they are never going to get this thing done. I don’t want to wait and do this when I’m 40.” She said, “Don’t worry about if you’re playing the older woman. Just think of it as any other theater role. Strive to be the best older woman you can be. You can’t let that get in your way.”

She was very right. I so wish my parents could have seen Hacks. My mother especially would have gotten a kick out of it. I love Seattle. It was such a great place to grow up. You had this wonderful cosmopolitan city with the great outdoors within minutes.

 

Hacks hinges on the generational differences between Deborah and Ava. What is one thing your co-star Hannah Einbinder has taught you and vice versa?

Oh, gosh. Well, it’s interesting because we do have some similar conversations in our private lives with each other as we do in character. I think Hannah, definitely, in terms of her considering herself a part of the queer community, has taught me a lot.

First of all, just that term, you know, of course, when I was her age, that was considered a terrible insult. She has taught me a lot about that. I’ve seen her through a couple of different relationships. She’s a very wise girl. She really is. She’s a very deep thinker, feels things very deeply, takes things to heart very deeply. I mean, she’s been very helpful to me in times of personal stress. And I’m trying to think, what have I taught her? Absolutely nothing! No, because she’s very young and passionate about things, and feels things very deeply. I think sometimes I try to temper that if I think it’s for her own good, in terms of maybe a job choice or a personal issue.

Again, when you’re young, you don’t really believe it when people say, “Look, I’ve been there, I know.” You don’t really believe it. You don’t think of your parents as ever being really like you or feeling like you, but of course, they did.

 

How has the industry evolved for women compared to when you were starting out?

It’s definitely improved. When I first started working, I was told that there were 20 roles for men for every one role for a female, especially in movies. Television was a little bit better. But even then, for instance, someone says, “What’s her name? She was the girl in that movie.” They never say that about a man, right? It’s always, “He was the guy in whatever.” And, in so many movies, there are all these men, and then there’s “the girl.” It’s been like that for ages. But there are more stories being told about women now, which is wonderful. People realize that so many women are out there doing everything that men do. And some women have always been that way, which makes their stories more interesting because they’ve broken tradition.

Many women do more action-oriented roles, which is great. I’ve had the opportunity to play some amazing roles that I never thought would be waiting for me at this stage of my career. Fargo was one of my favorites, and Watchmen — I loved playing a badass FBI agent in my 60s. And, of course, Hacks is everything I could have wanted in a role.

 

Drama or comedy?

I really would hate to ever have to pick. I don’t think I could choose. I find them both equally satisfying if they’re well written. Well, that’s one thing about Hacks that’s so great — it has both. I mean, like Fargo, it was just an incredible experience. If I had to choose one at gunpoint to only do for the rest of my career, drama, or comedy, I guess I would have to pick drama. Partly because you can be funny in your private life, but no one wants you to be a drama queen.

 

Are there any roles you still want to try?

I would love to tackle Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Also on my bucket list is to perform a Noël Coward play on Broadway. I was offered a role last year in Hay Fever at the Roundabout in New York, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out at that time. Since then, the artistic director of the theater has passed away, so I’m unsure if they have plans to revive the show in the future. I’m also starting work on a onewoman show, which is a bit daunting. I’ve always thought it would be great to do a one-woman show, but the longest monologue I’ve ever done was 30 minutes, which was pretty terrifying. This one will be 75 minutes long, just me talking and portraying three or four different characters.

 

Do you still have family here?

My little brothers both lived in Seattle, but one recently moved to Northern California, and my other brother lives in Monroe. When my parents and my sister were still alive, I was home much more often. I still go home at least once or twice a year.

My niece and nephew still live in Seattle, but they’re the only ones who still live in the city. My nephew, his wife, and kids live up on Whidbey Island because he’s stationed there as a Navy fighter pilot. Growing up, practically all my relatives were in Seattle, so every holiday and birthday was spent with grandparents, uncles, and cousins. But now, many are gone or have moved away, so it’s not quite the same. I have a good buddy I’ve known since I was 2 who lives in Redmond, so we try to get together occasionally. She recently came down here to see me, and it was lovely. It’s such a beautiful area.

 

What does a perfect day in Seattle look like for you?

Well, I would definitely go down to the marketplace and eat at one of the great restaurants downtown. Dahlia Lounge was a favorite. Of course, there’s Biscuit Bitch, too. I always say that we stay at the Westin. My sister worked there for years, so it feels like home. Unfortunately, she’s gone now, but I was so close to her, and we loved staying there. It just feels comfortable, and has a beautiful bar lounge with great food. Plus, it’s in the perfect location to walk to everything downtown. It has everything we need.

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