Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep of Television. Deal With It

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep ofTV
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance on HBO Max's 'Hacks.' Karen Ballard/HBO Max

Like Streep, she can do anything brilliantly—lead parts, supporting parts, comedy, drama, thrillers, whatever. And as Streep has done in the movies, Smart has won every major acting award television has got. Now she is at the top of her game and busier than ever thanks to the massive popularity of her Emmy-winning turn as Deborah Vance, a seasoned and cynical stand-up comic, in Hacks, her HBO Max original series, which begins its second season May 12.

On top of all that, Smart is beloved in her industry. Speaking with her via Zoom, it's easy to see why; she somehow combines old-school movie star glamour and beauty with an ability to put you immediately at ease.

"We've spoken before, no?" she asks. We haven't, of course, but it feels like we have. Over the course of our conversation, she flashes her trademark smile and flows easily from cracking devilish jokes to showing the kind of emotion you'd usually reserve for close friends. Which makes sense, considering her years on TV. She's been in our homes for over 40 years, making us laugh and cry; she's family.

"It's always very gratifying to win something for a project you're really, really proud of," Smart says about her Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series last year for Hacks. But the moment was bittersweet. Her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, had died shortly before the first season wrapped. "It was just too ironic. I didn't even try to get any meaning out of it in terms of why is this happening now? It will always be intertwined with losing him."

"When he passed," she says, "I had five days left of work on season one. The producers and HBO were so kind. I opted to just go right 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 afraid I wasn't going to make it through that scene, but it actually turned out really amazing." Funny, but also raw and vulnerable, Smart gave the scene a balance of emotions only she could pull off, and helped guarantee a second season for the show.

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep ofTV
Jean Smart (left) and Hannah Einbinder (right) in HBO Max's 'Hacks.' Karen Ballard/HBO Max

This season, Deborah is dealing with losing her Las Vegas residency. Facing an uncertain future, she and Ava hit the road in an insanely gaudy white-and-pink bus, trying to gather enough new material to reinvigorate Deborah's career. Smart says, "Somebody said, 'Las Vegas is almost like a third character in the show.' And I said, 'But we're not shooting anything of Vegas this season.' So the road has become the third character, which is fun because it kind of gives us new opportunities for all sorts of dreadful things to happen."

"There's the psychology of being on a road trip with somebody where you're gonna start to get on each other's nerves after a while even if it's in a big bus. I mean, my God, Deborah's bedroom on the bus compared to where she makes Eva sleep? Like she's in a submarine. You couldn't really see it on the camera, but I've got 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 with nothing obviously in common who build an unlikely alliance despite themselves. Smart says, "I think part of it is Deborah having to finally admit—maybe not out loud, but even just to herself—that she actually does need somebody. I think Ava also brings out some maternal instincts in Deborah, as Deborah has so much guilt about her own daughter. I think it's really layered. And I think she enjoys the friendship, but she also enjoys abusing her mightily. It is sort of a sick joy."

Considering just how mean Deborah can be, it's hard to imagine Smart sees any part of herself in the character, but she does. "We're both very vain," she says, "Although I can completely toss my vanity aside if it's worth it, like for Mare of Easttown [a performance Smart got an Emmy nomination for]. We both like sparkly things. We both love being a smartass or sarcastic, and to make other people laugh."

"I do 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're almost too much alike. They both respect each other and they started at the bottom in a really tough industry and worked their way to the top of what they do."

Still, Smart says, like any other great TV villain, Deborah can turn evil in a hurry: "If she's in a bad mood, all bets are off, and she could be rude to anybody."

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep ofTV
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. Fotos International/Courtesy Getty Images

Smart's path to this moment in her 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 about the singer Edith Piaf. From there, Smart landed a series of supporting roles on sitcoms, which led to her first big TV role as the lovable and naive Charlene Stillfield on the hit CBS sitcom Designing Women. After five years she left the series and immediately did something completely different.

"My first job after Designing Women," Smart says, "was the Aileen Wuornos story [the TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story]. She had the dubious title of being the first female American serial killer." Smart says getting far away from the bubbly Charlene "crossed my mind"; the idea of casting her so dramatically against type came from the movie's producer. "They offered it to me and I liked the script, and I thought it would be really interesting to do. I remember asking the producer at one point, 'Why did you think of me for this?' And he said, 'I wanted her to be sympathetic.'"

Jean Smart is the Meryl Streep ofTV
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 in the Fox series 24 proved her versatility. "That was probably the biggest shift," she 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 introduction of a character I've ever had, where she's standing there, dressed to the nines in a beautifully expensive suit, hair, makeup, jewelry. And she's sitting there looking in the mirror and she says 'I look like a wedding cake' and she dunks her face in the sink below water. Then she goes out and starts screaming at the Secret Service agents that she wants to see her husband. She's got mascara running down her face and wet stringy hair. And they're trying to stop her because he's doing a press conference but she needs to talk to him. They won't let her and she's screaming. This is the best intro to a character ever."

Smart received back-to-back Emmy nominations for 24. Since then she has received more acclaim (and awards) for her dramatic roles in shows like Fargo, Dirty John, Legion, Watchmen and Mare of Easttown. 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 every comedy category (lead, supporting and guest actor).

In addition to Hacks, she'll soon star alongside Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in the Damien Chazelle film Babylon. Were relative unknowns Pitt and Robbie appropriately intimidated to find themselves working with the Meryl Streep of TV?

"Yeah, I don't think so," Smart says with a devilish grin.

Listen to H. Alan Scott's full conversation with Jean Smart on Newsweek's Parting Shot podcast this Friday. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Twitter: @HAlanScott