Midday on the Monday before Thanksgiving, Jean Smart is lounging in bed and talking about sex. More specifically, she’s talking about sex with Brad Pitt. Even more specifically than that, she’s talking about having sex with Brad Pitt on the set of Babylon (out Dec. 23), Damien Chazelle’s outrageous take on the apparently even more outrageous early years of Hollywood, a film whose outrageous cast includes not only Smart as the ur-Hollywood gossip columnist and Pitt as an aging star but also Margot Robbie, Olivia Wilde, Diego Calva, Max Minghella, Tobey Maguire, and an animatronic elephant. To be clear, the “big sex scene,” as Smart calls it, with Pitt never actually happens. But like her character, Smart isn’t one to let facts get in the way of a good sell. “Get people titillated! Get them out to the theaters!” she says with a laugh. Then, she turns on a dime. “Like, ’Ew, no. Ew. I don’t want to see that.’”
Over the course of more than four decades, that ability to tell a joke and then turn the knife — or conversely, to use humor to undercut complexity — has become a trademark of Smart’s, culminating most recently in her Emmy-award winning role as comedian Deborah Vance on Hacks and her meme-able performances on Fargo and Watchmen. With the Smart-aissance in full swing, she reflects on her formative years and the people and experiences that shaped her.
Babylon is about the excesses of Hollywood in the Twenties. I heard that in that first crazy party scene there were extras doing molly and coke. Did you know that any of this was going on?
No, I didn’t. If I had seen anybody doing or taking anything, I would’ve just assumed it was a prop. [Laughs.] A few people were asked to leave, I guess. But I did think, “I’m not sure what my mother would think of this scene.” Actually, my mother was extremely well read, and she was born in the early Twenties, so I think she would’ve appreciated the film enormously. My father might have cringed a little bit.
What were your parents like?
They were both very bright. My dad was a history teacher. My mother was super bright and educated, but chose to stay home and raise four kids. They had curious minds, and they both were funny. It was a good childhood.
What were you like as a kid? Not to turn this into a Breakfast Club thing, but if you had to put yourself into a clique, what would it have been?
It’s funny, because throughout my high school years, I used to think it was odd that I didn’t really have a clique. I’d think, “What’s wrong with me?” But maybe that’s why I became an actor, or vice versa. I was a cheerleader, so I was friends with all the athletes and the cool people, but I was also in drama and did plays, so I was really good friends with all the theater nerds — and I say that with the utmost affection and respect. And then ever since grade school, I was always friends with the one girl that no one else was nice to, sort of the outcast.
What’s something that your parents taught you and your siblings that’s really mattered along the way?
We had a very clear message growing up about being on the side of the underdog, which is why, I think, we were all staunch Democrats. When there were votes for school funding and things like that, I’d go around putting up flyers on telephone poles with my dad. They both grew up very, very poor in the Depression, so they knew how to do things for themselves and stretch a nickel. I never could understand friends of mine who wanted to do things deliberately to piss off their parents. I thought, “Why would you want to do that?” I didn’t have that rebellious streak. I never wanted to embarrass my parents.
I read that you and your sister would put on plays in your neighbor’s garage and charge admission and sell popcorn and stuff.
Our first play was some bizarre version of Cinderella. My older sister was the producer, director, everything, and I would do anything she said. Sometimes she’d want to play school, so I would sit at this little desk and she’d give me spelling and arithmetic tests, and she graded me.
Did she ever fail you?
No, no, she didn’t. She was fair.
Was there a moment when you knew you’d made it as an actor?
I suppose there were little moments along the way. I feel like it could have been a little faster, but it’s been for the most part a nice, gradual, steady ascent. Sometimes there are wonderful opportunities that I wish could have come 20 years ago, but I think what would be far worse would be to have had tons of success young, and then have it just all go away. I much prefer being the tortoise rather than the hare.
But you did have success early on.
I did, but not compared to what I’m experiencing now. Trust me, I always knew that making a living as an actor was rare, and that I was very fortunate. I never had to work — oh, actors are going to hate me for this — never worked a civilian job once I left college.
Your HBO series Hacks, where you play a stand-up working with a much younger writing partner, features a lot of intergenerational humor about how the world treats women. How much progress do you think has really been made on that front?
Every time I get into a dress that’s too tight, or undergarments that are too restricting, or eyelashes that don’t feel good for some event, I think, “I don’t think we’ve progressed far. What man would do this to himself?” But at the same time, I think we’re slowly trying to chip away at the inequities and the prejudices. There are more stories about women being told — and that’s not necessarily because we decided to be equitable. I think it’s that throughout history, with obvious exceptions, men were the ones who went out and did things in the world. Women were not out in the world doing stuff except in rare and remarkable circumstances, the Madame Curies and the Jane Goodalls. Now, people are finally catching up with the fact that women are going out and risking things and doing things in exactly the same way men do.
Do you see a difference in the number of women who are writing, directing, producing? Has that changed over the course of your career in a way that is notable?
I’m probably not the best person to ask because I didn’t have, maybe, your average experience. I did a play in New York called Last Summer at Bluefish Cove that basically started my career. It was written, directed, and produced by women. I happened to move to New York a week or two before the audition, and I found it in the trades and thought, “Well, I’ll try that one. It’s got a lot of women’s parts.” Certainly Designing Women’s Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was astonishingly creative. She wrote that show for the first few seasons by herself in longhand on a legal pad.
You have an amazing ability to play women who undercut their own hard edges. But you’ve talked before about how the character you’re probably closest to is your character from Designing Women, Charlene, who was pretty innocent. Do you still feel that way?
I do, although at this stage of my life, I’ve become more of a smartass. Being a smartass gets you out of a lot of situations.
What gets your dander up? When might those hard edges come out in real life?
When things are not fair. It’s part of that upbringing of trying to empathize with the underdog. Growing up, I admired my parents, because we didn’t have a lot of extras, but I never felt like I lacked for anything. There were things we couldn’t afford, and it was fine. My mom, even though she hated to cook, always managed to put a nice, healthy dinner on the table — and that was out of a lot of creativity. And she made me beautiful clothes, because that’s what she had majored in, the history of costume and clothing design. I’d wake up in the morning, and there’d be a little outfit hanging on my door that she’d made after I’d gone to bed. She made the three-piece suit my father got married in. It was absolutely gorgeous.
Do you still have it?
She let me cut it up to make a vest and bell-bottoms in the Sixties. I thought, “It’s just sitting in the attic in a box; it’s just going to get moth-eaten eventually. Let’s make the most out of it.” So I made these very cool bell-bottoms and a long vest. I wish I still had those.
Let’s go back to Babylon. You have a scene with Brad Pitt that sums up the agony and the ecstasy of being a movie star, where you give a devastating monologue about the fleeting nature of fame.
Are you talking about our big sex scene?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that one. [Ed note: There is no such sex scene.]
Yeah, get people titillated! Get them out to the theaters! Like, “Ew, no. Ew, I don’t want to see that.”
No, the scene with Brad was why I had to do the movie. It’s so beautifully written, and Brad was so brilliant in his quietness and the look in his eyes… oh, God. You see, too, that Eleanor, my character, is every bit as caught up in the mystical, magical part of Hollywood, this exciting new industry that made people into gods and goddesses.
Are you in L.A. right now?
Uh-huh. I’m not going to lie, I’m still in bed. I am not a morning person. These people who get up at four o’clock in the morning before they go to work, to go jog and stuff? I’ve always thought, “God, you’re another species.” I can’t think of a reason to get out of a soft, warm, cushy bed except if I’m getting paid or have to take a child to school. Especially if you’re cuddled up with a significant other. Unfortunately, I lost that part.
Yes, your husband passed away unexpectedly as a result of heart issues last year. I’m so sorry about that.
It’s shocking. You hear about it happening to other people all the time, but when it happens to you, it absolutely knocks you sideways. I find it almost harder now, a year and a half later, because you’re kind of running on adrenaline and grief for a while, making sure your kids are OK, just getting things done. Now, slowly, the reality of my new life is setting in, and I find that very, very, very, very sad, very lonely.
Do you remember the last thing that made you cry? Are you a crier?
Oh, I’m a big crier, yeah. I got a little teary at Elton John’s last concert. He brought out Bernie Taupin, his [songwriting] partner. Dua Lipa came and sang with him. He talked about how much he owed to America, which is why he wanted to end his tour here. And I thought back to how much déjà vu I had with so many different songs. And then he brought out his husband and his little kids. It was very cool.
Was there one song in particular that really got to you?
I’ve always loved “Candle in the Wind,” about Marilyn Monroe. I find it an absolutely beautiful song. Such a perfect description of her, as far as I can tell.
Let’s talk about your BFF, Harry Styles. I love the fact that Deborah Vance, your Hacks character, is his secret hotel name.
Oh my god, I know. I sent Olivia [Wilde, Styles’ ex-girlfriend] a text — she and I worked together a couple of times — and I said, “Tell him it was just one of those things, that we just can’t go on like this. I’m sorry.” [Laughs.] I have actually never met the man. He has kindly invited me to his concert twice now, and I’ve had an absolute blast with my youngest [son]. He puts on such an amazing show. It’s just joyous. Because of Covid, we didn’t go backstage. But he apparently is a fan [of Hacks], and he sent me flowers along with a gorgeous vintage pepper shaker, because my character collects salt and pepper shakers.
Do you use it?
No. It’s sitting in my office for inspiration. But this season, I’m going to find a special spot for it in [Deborah’s] display, and make sure it gets a little air time.
You have four Emmys and a host of other awards. Where do you keep all of them? Are you someone who has a shelf in the bathroom?
A couple of them were in the TV room for a while and then one of them, the nameplate sprang off, so I put it in a box and am having to get it fixed by the Academy. And then one time, when my oldest was in high school, a friend of his borrowed it for a movie he was making, without asking. I was like, “If you just asked, I’d have said, ‘Yes.’” But no, they’re on a bookshelf in the hall, down on the bottom shelf. I’m proud of them, but I don’t put them out on the mantel or anything.
Before we sign off, just a quick mental picture: You’re in bed. Do you have coffee?
No, I never got in a habit of drinking coffee, except occasionally when there’s some Baileys Irish Cream in it.
So caffeine is not a vice. Do you have any vices?
Oh, Chardonnay and potato chips.
Sometimes, but then I really feel guilty.