Emmy winner Jean Smart headlines one of the year's most acclaimed new series

HacksCraveOne of the most accomplished actors currently working on film, TV or stage, Jean Smart first rose to fame in the 1980s on CBS’s Designing Women. To mention just a couple of her accolades since then: she picked up two best-guest Emmys for Frasier, recurred as First Lady Martha Logan on 24 and just recently has been piling up gigs on prestige cable shows like Fargo, Legion, Watchmen and Mare of Easttown.

Her latest television project finds her in a rare lead role. She plays Deborah Vance, a washed-up comic bottoming out in Las Vegas who gets the chance to rekindle her career and her creative spark by teaming up with a young comedy writer (played by Hannah Einbinder) also in need of a fresh start. She chatted with TV Week about the experience.

TV Week: Do you find any extra pressure in being the lead of a show, as opposed to just a member of the ensemble?
You’re making me nervous, because I hadn’t really thought about all that on my shoulders until right now. Thanks a lot! No, I mean, certainly I feel a big responsibility, but it’s been so much fun that I haven’t really worried about it. We have an enormous amount of freedom, thanks to our amazing writer-producers and they let us improvise. And Hannah [Einbinder, co-star] and I get a lot of time to work things through, work things out. She’s hilarious, and she’s a comedienne, so I was sort of nervous to do stuff in front of her at first because she has done a lot of standup; there was a little pressure. But no, it’s just been a total pleasure.

HacksCraveDid you base this character off of any real-life comedians?
No, actually I didn’t. I’m certainly a fan of a lot of female comics. In fact, I just recently bought a book called We Killed and it has interviews with about 30 or 40 female comediennes. But I haven’t even opened it yet. Every once in a while, there will be a scene or I’ll do something and I’ll think, “Oh, that kind of reminds me of so-and-so.” But I don’t know, I guess I borrow things from other comedians unconsciously — certainly anywhere from Elayne Boosler or Phyllis Diller to Sam Kinison; there’s a little Sam Kinison every once in a while. So no, I haven’t based it on anyone and I haven’t been doing that kind of research. I kind of go with my gut instinct, and the writing is so good that that usually works out.

One of the themes of Hacks is how hard it is for older women in Hollywood. Does that ring true for you?
I think that is true, certainly, but to a much lesser extent than it was in the past. I mean, for me personally, I’ve had some of the most incredible opportunities in my career in the last several years and I don’t take any of it for granted whatsoever. I’m very appreciative of the opportunities that have been offered to me. But at the same time, I probably wouldn’t encourage my daughter to be an actress. Because the thing is, if you’re a mom too, if you have kids, there’s always the feeling that you’re shortchanging either your job or your family, kind of. That’s the hardest part to me, is feeling like you’re not giving your all to one or the other. But certainly, yes, there are fewer jobs for women. That’s true and that always has been true.

What’s it been like to act alongside someone who is primarily a standup?
Hannah’s so good, she’s such a good actress. You can say, “Well, if she’s so good... she hasn’t done that much before this.” But the thing is, we were talking about this the other day: to be a good standup, you really kind of have to be a good actor. It’s like some of the great singers: you have to be a really good actor—that’s how you sell your material.

HacksCraveWere there instances where the generation gap between you and Hannah—and the different perspectives that creates—came up in real life?
I could be Hannah’s mom, easily, and so I feel very maternal towards her sometimes. But I mostly feel like we’re just people/partners in this thing and having fun. We just laugh all the time. She’s a fabulous person. In fact, we spoke on the phone last night because I wanted to talk to her about something personal that was totally unrelated to the show, and she was a great listener and gave me some good advice.

Hacks is currently streaming on Crave