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From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jean Smart, has been getting roles that really show off what she can do. And as was recently noted in Entertainment Weekly, she excels at absolutely everything. In the TV series Fargo," she played the hardened matriarch of a crime family. Last year in the HBO series "Watchmen," she played an FBI agent. Now, she's co-starring in the HBO crime and family drama "Mare Of Easttown" as the mother of Kate Winslet's character. Her comedic timing was obvious in the '80s sitcom "Designing Women," and in the early 2000s, when she won two Emmys for her guest-starring role in "Frasier." This week, she returns to comedy in the new series "Hacks" which premieres Thursday on HBO Max.

In "Hacks," she plays Deborah Vance, a comic who overcame a lot of the obstacles women comics of her generation faced and became a top act in Vegas, where she regularly performs at one of the big casinos. When the series begins, her career is in decline. Her jokes are kind of funny, but way past their expiration dates. The casino is cutting back her dates and is trying to book an act that can draw a younger crowd. In an attempt to save Deborah's career, her manager pairs her with a young woman comedy writer, Ava Daniels, who he also manages, to write material for Deborah that will sound more up to date.

Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder, thinks of herself as cutting edge and cringes at the idea of writing for a comic she considers washed up and too showbizzy. But Ava desperately needs work because she was canceled after tweeting a joke about a closeted senator who sent his gay son to conversion therapy. So Ava reluctantly flies to Vegas to meet with Deborah, and Deborah grudgingly hires her.

At one of their first meetings, Deborah tells Ava that the joke she's written for her aren't funny. Then, Deborah asks Ava if she's a lesbian, to which Ava responds that Deborah is her employer, which makes it inappropriate for her to ask that. And then Ava goes on to describe, in graphic detail, her sexual experiences with women and men and concludes by telling Deborah this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")

HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) So anyway, I'm bi.

JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Jesus Christ. I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow's mechanic.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Great. So the jokes, you didn't like any?

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) They're not jokes. I mean, like, are they, like, thought poems? I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voicemail. What?

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) It's funny because voicemails are annoying. It's like, just text.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) First of all, if you start a sentence with it's funny because, then it's probably not. And second, jokes need a punchline.

EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Well, in my opinion, traditional joke structure is very male. It's so focused on the ending. It's all about the climax.

SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Oh, look who's talking. I just got a TED Talk about yours.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Jean Smart, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. You're terrific in this as you've been...

SMART: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah, for so long. So, you know, you've done a lot of comedy, but this is the first time you've played a comic. Do you have any favorite jokes of the bad jokes that your character tells?

SMART: (Laughter).

GROSS: Because they're both funny and bad at the same time.

SMART: Oh, sure, you know? I mean, I don't think of her jokes as bad necessarily. It's just that, you know, she's sort of got her stock-style jokes that she knows. She knows her audience really well. And she knows what they expect and what they don't want to hear from her. And she gives them what they pay for, you know?

I mean, as risque as she gets, it's probably the first joke we hear out of her mouth at the very beginning of the show where you can just kind of hear her before we even see her face, where she talks about being in bed with a guy who keeps saying, you know, are you close? Are you close? And she says, yeah, I'm close. I'm close. I'm close to getting a buzz cut, a flannel shirt and finally accepting Melissa Etheridge's dinner invites. I love that joke.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Are there things you related to about the generational conflict in this, you know, because, you know, the young comic who starts writing for your character thinks of herself as so like, you know, cutting edge and a little transgressive. And she really has kind of contempt for your character because it represents everything that she said the younger comic doesn't want to be.

SMART: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. You know, she thinks I'm a dinosaur, which I am in a way. But Deborah's attitude, I think, is a little bit that Ava's generation has thrown the baby out with the bath water and that all they want to do is shock people into laughing. And that's much easier to do than to come up with something kind of clever that actually makes people laugh, not just out of shock. And so (laughter), you know, she - it's just sort of funny to watch them, you know, navigate this.

They come from completely different worlds, or at least seemingly at first. And Hannah actually is a stand-up comic. So I was a little bit intimidated at first and thinking, OK, she's playing the writer, I'm playing the comic. And she's an actual stand-up comic. Yeah, that's been the fun part is just their conflict. That's just - and the fact that I just get to abuse her horribly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Is there a generational conflict that's similar for actors, either about the material that's acceptable in a play or movie or TV show, or how standards have changed for the language you can use and what you can talk about and how sexual you can get?

SMART: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Yes, I used to make a joke to friends. I'd say, I would never do any kind of nudity while my parents were still alive, but they lived so long that now I'm at the age where no one asks for me to do a nude scene...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMART: ...You know? So that kind of took care of it right there. But certainly, obviously, things have changed dramatically. I guess part of that is just natural evolution of anything, you know, when you look at television and movies and what's considered just kind of normal entertainment and what would have been considered X rated two decades ago. I'm not sure it's a good evolution. I still think there's some things better left to the imagination. Sometimes, I think they're actually more effective when they're left to the imagination.

GROSS: So your new series "Hacks," the comedy series, starts on HBO Max, on Thursday. Meanwhile, there's, I think, three episodes left of "Mare Of Easttown," the series that you're co-starring in on HBO that's part crime drama and part family drama. Kate Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, who's a police detective trying to solve a murder. But there's a lot going on in her personal life. Her son died by suicide, leaving behind his young son who Mare is raising because the boy's mother has been in rehab. You've moved in.

You're Mare's mother, and you've moved in with Mare to help her raise the grandson, your great-grandson. But you and Mare are afraid that you're about to lose custody because the boy's mother is getting out of rehab. You've been trying to prepare him for the likelihood he'll be returning to his mother. And that's made Mare very angry with you because she wants to keep custody. And let's hear a clip in which she's showing how angry she is that you're trying to prepare him to go back to his mother. The clip starts with Kate Winslet as Mare.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARE OF EASTTOWN")

KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Why are you telling him you might have to go live with this mom?

SMART: (As Helen) Because he might have to go live with his mom.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) He's 4 years old, mom. We don't know what's going to happen, all right? Don't be telling him stuff like that. He lived in this house his entire life.

SMART: (As Helen) Which is why we need to prepare him. Otherwise, he'll feel like the ground is just falling out beneath him. I called Kathy Dryer's today.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) You did what?

SMART: (As Helen) She works for the Child and Youth Services.

WINSLET: (As Mare) I know where Kathy Dryers works. Why the hell are you calling her?

SMART: (As Helen) Because I want to find out how this whole custody thing works.

WINSLET: (As Mare) But that not your place, Mom, all right?

SMART: (As Helen) She told me Carrie has a place to stay and a job...

WINSLET: (As Mare) It's so out of line for you to be telling him stuff like that, Mom.

SMART: (As Helen) ...And she stays clean and takes her meds. She's his mother. She's the mother. She'll get custody, and there's not a damn thing you or I could do about it.

WINSLET: (As Mare) I'll figure something out.

SMART: (As Helen) What's there to figure out?

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

JULIANNE NICHOLSON: (As Lori) Hello.

WINSLET: (As Mare) You're not his guardian, all right?

SMART: (As Helen) I know that. You don't have to say that.

WINSLET: (As Mare) Mom, stay out of it.

NICHOLSON: (As Lori) Hey.

WINSLET: (As Mare) Understand me?

GROSS: Wow. That's - you're really good in this. How did you get the part?

SMART: They offered it to me. It was lovely, (laughter) and I said, HBO? Kate Winslet? Unless I really hate the part...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMART: ...I'll say yes right now. But I love their relationship because, I mean, even though it's a bit dysfunctional, I hope that there is - that it comes across to the audiences as - that they still - there is still love and respect there between them. They've been through so much. And like a lot of families who go through suicide and divorce and things, that there's a lot of blame, there's a lot of regret, and - but they still manage to, you know, eke out a life together and find moments of humor and moments of happiness.

GROSS: So "Mare Of Easttown" is set in Delaware County, Penn., just outside of Philadelphia. And Delaware County has some pretty wealthy neighborhoods and some working-class suburbs. And you probably saw this, or at least heard about it, that "Saturday Night Live" did a parody of the accents.

SMART: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: Did you see it - of the accents of "Mare Of Easttown"?

SMART: (Laughter) Kate sent it to me.

GROSS: Yeah. And she's the one who got the brunt of the (laughter)...

SMART: It was hilarious.

GROSS: ...Of the satire in this. And the premise of the show is that instead of saying murder and daughter because of the perhaps overly exaggerated Philadelphia accents, it's like mu-mu-mu (ph) - I can't even do it right - mordor (ph) and doorter (ph). Yeah, you do it. You do it.

SMART: (Laughter) Well, I don't know quite where they were going with some of it, but yes, they called it murder dirter (ph) - murder daughter. But yes, like one of the examples of that accent is the way they say water. It's wooder (ph), like almost like W-O-O-D-E-R. You know, you say, give me a glass of wooder (ph) - wooder (ph).

GROSS: So did you have, like, an accent coach?

SMART: Oh, yes. Now, we had a couple wonderful dialect coaches. Mine was a native from the area, and she was extremely helpful, extremely helpful. And I would put my lines on a loop tape and just - on my phone and just fall asleep listening to it. I'd - sometimes I'd use my right ear so it would get in the left side of my brain, and sometimes I'd listen with my left ear so it would get in the right side of my brain. And I'd listen to it on the way to work. And - because you want it to be as automatic as possible. Because if you're thinking about it while you're doing your lines, then you're not thinking about the right things (laughter), which you're supposed to be thinking about it, what your character's supposed to be thinking about. That's the hard part of doing an accent, but it's always fun to do accents.

GROSS: Philadelphia has a pretty distinctive O. What were you told about saying O?

SMART: Oh, that was the hardest one. I said to Brad, the writer, one time, I said, really, Brad? I think this sentence has seven O's in it. You're killing me here...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMART: ...You know? That's a tough one. I mean, or like for instance, I think Kate had a line where she says to her ex-husband, go home, Frank. And you - instead of saying go home, you'd say, geh hem (ph). Frank, geh hem (ph). But it's interesting because the dialect coach told me that - she said the thing that's interesting about that accent from that area is that it's very inconsistent. Some of it is different between the generations. Different members of the same family will pronounce a word differently from each other. Sometimes the same person will pronounce the same word differently in one sentence than they will in another sentence, depending on emphasis, mood, the context. So she said it can seem very inconsistent. I thought, oh, great.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMART: That's sort of a recipe for making you look like a bad actor.

GROSS: When things shut down because of COVID, you were, like, 85% done with your part for the series. What happened to the other 15%?

SMART: Well, then I started - was in talks about doing "Hacks." And as it turned out, I was able to go back to Philly, finish my scenes just in time to come back into town, back to L.A. and start "Hacks" last, I think, November we started, I think.

GROSS: So you shot "Hacks" during the pandemic?

SMART: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How did you make sure - how did they make sure everybody was going to be safe?

SMART: Well, they were as careful as could be humanly possible, but, of course, there had to be a certain amount of trust among the actors. We didn't really know each other from Adam. I mean, the only actor that I'd worked with before was Chris McDonald because we were the only people on the set who had to work without masks. So - and it's risky because obviously if one of the actors gets sick, you pretty much have to close, you know, production down. If a crew member gets sick, God forbid that, they can be replaced. The show can continue. But - the - you know, you're doing scenes with actors right in their faces close up, and you're thinking, I don't really know your habits. I don't know who you live with. I don't know who (ph) those people's habits are. I don't know how careful they're being and people that they interact with. And at a certain point, you just have to say, I trust you, you know, that we're all looking out for each other and we want the show to continue. And - but you get used to it.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Smart. Her new comedy series, "Hacks," premieres on HBO Max Thursday. She's currently co-starring in HBO's "Mare of Easttown." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "TOOT, TOOT, TOOTSIE, GOODBYE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Smart. Her new comedy series "Hacks" premieres on HBO Max Thursday. You can also see her now in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" playing the mother of Kate Winslet's character. Her breakout role was on TV as one of the stars of the '80s sitcom "Designing Women."

You've played, like, brassy, cynical, sarcastic women in comedies and in dramas. In Entertainment Weekly, you were described as the reigning Meryl Streep of tough broad types.

SMART: (Laughter).

GROSS: So I want to play an example of that. And this is from your role in "Fargo" when you played the matriarch of a crime family that controls Fargo. And you've taken over from your husband after he had a debilitating stroke. Meanwhile, the Kansas City mafia made an offer to take over your operation. And in this scene, you meet the gangster representing the Kansas City family. And you make a counteroffer, an offer for a partnership between their family and your crime family. So in this scene, you're laying out the terms of your deal and then warn him not to underestimate you. And the mobster from Kansas City is played by Brad Garrett. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

SMART: (As Floyd) Now - I don't know - maybe when you look at me, you see an old woman. And I am 61. I've borne six children, had three miscarriages. Two of my sons are here today. Two were stillborn. My first born, Elron, killed in Korea - sniper took off half his head. The point is, don't assume just because I'm an old woman that my back is weak and my stomach's not strong. I make this counter because a deal is always better than war. But no mistake, we'll fight to keep what's ours to the last man.

BRAD GARRETT: (As Joe) You're a good woman. I wish I had known your husband.

SMART: (As Floyd) No. My husband would have killed you where you stood the first time you met. So be glad you're talking to his wife.

GROSS: You must have loved that speech when you read it.

SMART: (Laughter) Oh, I did. That was the speech they gave you to audition with for Noah. And I said, that tells me so much about this person.

GROSS: So I read that initially when you got the part and the wardrobe came out (laughter) and the hairdresser came out that you looked at yourself in the mirror and you actually burst into tears. What was the problem? What were you seeing in the mirror?

SMART: (Laughter) Well, I mean, I was very much - it was very much a collaboration. The costume designer and I had great fun coming up with the sort of less than attractive but very practical wardrobe. But - and then I suggested with the hair that they give me one of those kind of poodle perms that women of a certain age wore, especially back then - I know my mother did for a while - because they're just less maintenance. So I said, let's just get the blond out of my hair and cut it shorter and give it a little - give it a perm. And the first time I - but first time I looked at it, I just - my eyes started welling up. I thought, oh, my God. But I said, it's perfect. There she is. There's Floyd. There she is.

GROSS: What about the clothes?

SMART: Oh, the clothes. Well, it was so great to be physically comfortable and not have to worry about - it's kind of like the same with Helen in "Mare Of Easttown." It's such a relief when you don't have to worry about, you know, holding in your stomach and, you know, looking good. You can just be physically relaxed. And I remember the first time I played a character like that where there was no makeup and kind of nondescript clothing. And I thought, this is how the guys get to feel all the time, the men. This is so unfair. My job is so much easier. It's so much more - I'm thinking about the scene completely. I'm not worried about, oh, how am I being shot? Or how am I being lit? Or how am I being - I'm not thinking about anything like that. I'm just thinking about what I'm supposed to be thinking about. And it was such a pleasure. And I thought, this isn't fair (laughter).

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Smart. She stars in the new comedy series "Hacks," which premieres Thursday on HBO Max. She's currently costarring in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown." We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY BURTON AND FRIENDS' "TOSSED SALADS AND SCRAMBLED EGGS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Smart. Her new comedy series "Hacks" premieres tomorrow on HBO Max. She plays a Vegas comic whose jokes have become out of date and stale. To rescue her career, her manager teams her up with a young woman comic to write more current, edgy material. Needless to say, they constantly clash. Smart is also currently costarring in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" as the mother of Kate Winslet's character. Her breakout role was on TV as one of the stars of the '80s sitcom "Designing Women." She won two Emmys for her guest appearances on the sitcom "Frasier."

So I'm going to squeeze in one more clip. This is from "Frasier." This is the role that you won two Emmys for. And you're hilarious in this. So for people who don't know the sitcom "Frasier," Frasier is a psychiatrist who has a radio advice call-in show. And you played Lana Lenley, who was one of the most popular and pretty girls in high school. And Frasier had a crush on you. And now, years later, you run into each other at a cafe. And you're a fan of his radio show. You hit it off. And you end up spending the night together. And this is like Frasier's high school dream come true.

SMART: (Laughter).

GROSS: And in the morning, you wake up in his bed. You still have a glass of wine on the night table next to you, which you used in the scene I'm about to play to swallow some pills later in the scene. You'll hear a reference to that. But you won't be able to see it. And so you wake up in the morning together. Things are still dreamy between the two of you until - OK. Here is the scene. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

SMART: (As Lana) I had a wonderful time last night.

KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Me, too. It was like being back in high school but with sex.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) I don't want this to end.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) I must warn you, now that I've learned to finally ask you out, I'll be doing a lot more of it. You free this evening? See; there I go already.

SMART: (As Lana, laughter)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) How about tomorrow night? Somebody stop me.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) Not me. I wonder what time it is.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, 10 o'clock.

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, crap. I'm late.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Is there something I can do?

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, yeah. Make this lousy hangover go away. Where the hell are those aspirin?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) You know, perhaps, I should get you a glass of water for those. Would you prefer sparkling or still? Or not - I see you're fine.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want to finish this?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) No. No. You're the guest.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) Oh. Yeah. It's me. I'm running late. Move my 10:30 to 11:30. Just move it to 11:30.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) I didn't realize you smoked.

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, yeah. I'm always trying to quit. But my weight just balloons up. I mean, trust me, you don't want to see my ass when I'm off these things.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) You know, I hate to be a fusspot, but I'd prefer...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SMART: (As Lana) Yeah? Well, who let the dog in? Put your brother on. Put your brother on. Put your brother on.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, will you be a sweetie and make me some coffee?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) You know, that mess better be cleaned up by the time I get home - both of you. Put your brother on. Put your brother on. Put your brother on the phone.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: (As Lana) Oh, this is nice.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, you're so good in that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What do you think about when you hear that back?

SMART: Oh, it was so much fun. That was the first episode I did as that character. And it was my favorite one.

GROSS: Did it say in the script, get louder every time you say put your brother on? Or was that something you just figured out you should do?

SMART: I think I just assumed that that's what it would be (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

SMART: I have women coming up to me in supermarkets saying, oh, my God. That's me. That's me. Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: I'm - oh, dear. OK, you know? People still come up and say, put your brother on the phone.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, you were so good in that scene, they brought you back for another season. And that - it was the second season. And you won an Emmy for that role. So you grew up in Seattle, right, where Frazier was set? How did you get interested in acting?

SMART: I had a terrific drama teacher my last year in high school. His name was Earl Kelly. He was kind of locally famous because he put on particularly good shows and musicals and things at our high school. And so then I took the class my senior year. And he was great. He was tough. I mean, he taught us - he treated us like we were, you know, a professional acting troupe. He expected a lot from us. He hated the fact that I was a cheerleader. He thought that was just appalling (laughter). But he liked me. And so I really got bitten by the bug. So I told my parents that I wanted to major in theater in college. And my mother was not too happy with me. But after I started doing some plays at the University of Washington, she became my biggest fan, my biggest supporter.

GROSS: When you were getting started, what were some of your day jobs?

SMART: You mean after I got out of college? I'm embarrassed to say I've never had another day job.

GROSS: You never - you were able to make a living acting right from the start?

SMART: Yeah. It wasn't much of a living, but yeah.

GROSS: How'd you do that?

SMART: Well, there's a lot of professional theater in Seattle. And between Seattle and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., where I would do summers, I managed to just get by, you know? You'd always think, oh, jeez, I don't know if I have next month's rent. But something would come along.

GROSS: Did you go through any fallow periods where you thought, I'm never going to get a role again?

SMART: The only time that springs to mind that that happened, ironically, was after "Fargo." I, you know, got great reviews. The show was a big hit. I think I won the Critics Choice Award for that role - and crickets.

GROSS: Why?

SMART: I shouldn't say this. But I think it was because of the way I looked. And all of a sudden, it was sort of like, oh, dear. You know, she's an older woman. And now what do we do with her? And I don't know. I mean, literally, not a meeting, not an audition, not an offer for a long time. But once it started again, it's just been, you know, a steady climb towards, you know, wonderful roles. I mean, I just can't - I'm extremely grateful.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Smart. Her new comedy series "Hacks" premieres on HBO Max Thursday. She's currently costarring in HBO's "Mare Of Easttown." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "CATCH A RIDE")

SMART: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Smart. Her new comedy series, "Hacks" premieres on HBO Max Thursday. You can also see her now in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" playing the mother of Kate Winslet's character. Her breakout TV role was in the '80s sitcom "Designing Women."

So you have two series now, a comedy and a drama, "Hacks" and "Mare of Easttown." And that's coming off HBO series "Watchmen," in which you played a tough FBI agent. So you're having this really huge success in your late 60s. I mean, you'll be turning 70 soon. Is that a sign that things are changing a little for women? I think earlier in your career, you thought there was nothing for women over 35 unless you were Meryl Streep. And these are, like, three great roles.

SMART: Oh, I know. I've been pinching myself. I've been offered such wonderful opportunities in the last several years. I do think part of it is a changing climate in television. Certainly, they're writing more stories about women than they used to. And since I'm not leaning on, you know, a background of being an au jeune, I'm benefiting from - I'm reaping the rewards (laughter).

GROSS: When you were younger, did you wish you were an au jeune?

SMART: No. I mean, because I knew that there wasn't longevity there. Very rarely could someone who was a classic au jeune sort of make the transition.

GROSS: Well, Jean Smart, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I want to say I'm very sorry because you're - I know you lost your husband in March, and I know you must still be grieving. And I appreciate that you're trying to carry on. And I appreciate you coming to our show and talking about your work and your life. I know from my own life and from other people who I'm close to, that there are times when the career seems to be going so well, but there's something that's so awful or tragic that's happened in one's personal life. And I feel like that's the situation that you're in now.

SMART: Yeah, I was talking about a friend with that the other night who said, oh, no, no, no, don't go there. And I said, I don't, I really don't think that way, that the other shoe has to drop or - I mean, I - like I said, I've always been a very optimistic person. I always felt like a lucky person. I mean, I've had loss in my life. I lost my beloved sister 11 years ago. I still miss her terribly. But I don't believe that if one part of your life is going well, that means that something bad is going to happen necessarily. But it did kind of feel that way at first because it was very unexpected. It was his heart. They had no reason to believe whatsoever that he had any issues with his heart. So it was very shocking, and it was right when we just both gotten vaccinated.

There was this wonderful kind of giddy sense of relief. I was doing my dream job. And I just was feeling very, very positive about everything, just feeling like there's so much ahead of us and so many things we have, you know, we can do. And so there was a part of me in dark moments where I thought, this is the universe looking out and saying, oh, you thought you could have it all, huh? Not so fast. I don't like to think that that's true. I hope not. That would sort of prevent you from ever enjoying anything in your life. You're looking over your shoulder all the time. And I don't want my children to be, you know, cynical at all. They're having enough, you know, on their shoulders.

Although, they - I think they're handling this better than I am. Mother's Day was rough. And I didn't necessarily expect that, but that was very, very hard. But, you know, he just - he really kind of put his own career on the back burner so that I could take advantage of these amazing opportunities I've got in these last several years. And I wouldn't be here, you know, without him, you know? And I just wish I could enjoy it with him, you know?

GROSS: He was an actor. You met on the set of "Designing Women."

SMART: Yes, he's a wonderful actor.

GROSS: It must have been strange because he played Annie Potts' boyfriend. So you had to...

SMART: (Laughter). Yeah.

GROSS: We had to watch him being somebody else's boyfriend. Was that strange?

SMART: No, it was funny because, I mean, well, it was the first - we'd just met. And we worked together that first - we were never apart after the day we met. And I'd watch scenes where he was kissing Annie, you know? And I thought, oh, he's so cute.

(LAUGHTER)

SMART: And I invited him into my trailer to play Scrabble. And he invited me to come and see a play that he was doing. It was a horrible play, but he was absolutely hilarious in it. And I went, like, three or four or five, six times. And then his producers kept begging me to come back when there were reviewers in the audience, because I would always laugh and I would get the audience laughing. I don't know, I guess something about my laugh (laughter). I don't know.

But yeah, we were never apart. It was that - it's actually a great way to meet somebody at work. When you have to be together, but it's not a date. It's great because you're getting to know each other with no pressure, no feeling like, oh God, we're on a date, you know? Just like, well, we're together all day because we have to be together all day.

GROSS: But then you have to ask yourself, am I supposed to keep this a secret from the other people (laughter) who I'm working with?

SMART: No, I don't remember feeling that way because I remember I found out that Delta had worked with him on "Love Boat" once. So I said, go find out if he's married or has a girlfriend or something. So she marched up to him and said Jean wants to know if you're married or have a girlfriend.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMART: Yeah, thanks, Delta.

GROSS: (Laughter) So no secrets there. She was in on it at the beginning.

SMART: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: It's strange. You know, like, during the epidemic, I've known so many people who've gotten sick, who've had surgery, who've died, who've, you know, like, some horrible health crisis not related to COVID more than usual. I don't - and I don't know if you've experienced that, too - I mean, certainly with your husband. But it just - I don't know. I don't know what to make of it.

SMART: I have two friends who lost their husbands...

GROSS: Really?

SMART: ...In the last six months. Yeah. It's - you know, I mean, obviously, my husband didn't have COVID, but I still feel like he was a victim of the pandemic because I took him - when he started not feeling well, I thought it was a delayed reaction to the immunization because he'd gotten very sick from the second one. So I took him to urgent care because he hated hospitals and doctors. He didn't want to go to the hospital. Took him to urgent care. And even though he was 71 and complaining of tightness in his chest, they didn't do an EKG. And the hospital later was shocked that they didn't. And - but he just started getting worse. And I said, you know, this is crazy. I'm taking you to the hospital. And that was when they realized how sick he was.

GROSS: I'm just so sorry. And I appreciate your strength in continuing to work and to move forward. And I'll just add one thing about that. When I was growing up - and I lived in an apartment building, and the neighbor right upstairs from me, her husband died. And I felt like, well, I know what it's like for women to lose their husband. That means it's the end of their life because most women then - they didn't work. Their identity had so much to do with their marriage. Their income was completely tied up with their marriage. And you know, I thought, like, what is left for somebody after their husband dies? But I - you know, I don't know if you grew up thinking that, too.

SMART: I don't remember thinking that exactly. But for some reason, even though my mom was a housewife, I didn't ever expect that a man would support me or take care of me. And I don't know why I thought that. I really don't. I can't base that on anything. But with "Hacks," when Richard passed, I had to finish the show. I had a week's left - a week's worth of work left to shoot. And that was very, very scary and distressing, but I had to. I mean, we had to finish the show. And I - being the lead of the show, I mean, I feel a huge responsibility, you know, for the success of the show. And I feel a responsibility to the crew and the cast and - but they could not have been more accommodating and more wonderful to me.

GROSS: Well, I just want to end by saying that, you know, I love your acting and...

SMART: Thank you.

GROSS: ...I admire your strength. And I wish you well during this period.

SMART: Thank you.

GROSS: And you know, thank you for coming on our show in spite of the fact that I'm sure you're still grieving. And - I apologize if I'm sounding clumsy in expressing all these things but, you know...

SMART: No, it's hard. I mean, I - you know, I have two friends who lost their husbands this year, and I sympathized and everything. But I didn't have a clue what they were going through - not a clue. It's - yeah. It's indescribable.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, what can I say? Thank you. And I wish you well.

SMART: Well, thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Jean Smart was recorded on Monday. She stars in the new HBO Max comedy series "Hacks." It starts streaming tomorrow. You can also see her in the current HBO series "Mare Of Easttown."

After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by alto saxophonist Vincent Herring. He started the album last year before he got COVID and completed it after he recovered. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET'S "NORTHEAST RISING SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.