Jean Smart has built a career on stage and screen. The Seattle native is best known for her work in comedy and TV programs ranging from “Designing Women” to “Watchmen.”
None of that gave her any background for her starring role in the new HBO Max series, “Hacks,” set to launch May 13. Smart plays Deborah Vance, one of the most successful female standup comedians on the planet who has reached a point in her career where she has to face the reality of needing someone to help her find a younger voice.
That task falls to Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a 25-year-old comedy writer who can’t find work because of a joke that was deemed insensitive and out of line. The fact she speaks with no filter got her into trouble and the reason Vance hires her.
Smart has been a fan of female comics all her life but she isn’t consciously channeling any of them to play Vance.
“I guess I borrow things from other comediennes unconsciously and certainly anywhere from Elayne Boosler or Phyllis Diller to Sam Kinison. There’s a little Sam Kinison every once in a while,” Smart says. “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. “
Smart went so far as to buy “We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy” by Yael Kohen but has not found time to read it. One reason is that Smart has a hectic acting schedule. Along with getting “Hacks” off the ground, she was just on the series “Mare of Easttown” and teamed with William Shatner for the feature film “Senior Moment.”
Most of her work has had Smart working as part of an ensemble cast. “Hacks” puts all the pressure on her shoulders as the series is built around her character. And, there’s the added pressure of having to film scenes of her doing standup comedy.
Smart feels an enormous amount of responsibility with the series.
“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,” Smart says. “And Hannah and I especially get a lot of time to work things through, work things out.
“She’s hilarious and she’s a comedian. So I was first sort of nervous to do stuff in front of her because she has done a lot of standup.”
Einbinder’s background in standup comedy balances out Smart’s lack of work in that arena. As a working comic, Einbinder understands the rhythm of jokes, how it gets pitched and what happens when that joke doesn’t generate a laugh.
She sees the strength of “Hacks” being how her character’s perspective on humor clashes so soundly with Vance’s.
She is certain being a comic helps her in regards to acting.
“I’m used to doing comedy for a group of people and it feels like that’s what this is, if you just boil it down,” Einbinder says.
Smart has been steadily working in TV and film since appearing in the made-for-TV film “Before and After” in 1979. The roles have kept coming despite Smart being 69 years old, a demographic for women that doesn’t get a lot of love in Hollywood.
In Smart’s case, she has landed acting jobs over the last several years that she considers to be some of the best opportunities in her career. She is very appreciative of the work she has been given recently but Smart would not encourage her daughter to make acting her career.
“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,” Smart says. “But certainly, yes, there are fewer jobs for women. That’s true. That always has been true.
“But unfortunately, our business is a very subjective business, so you can’t really put some of the same rules and expectations on it as other parts of society where I think fairness in the workplace to women has come a long way and has still got some ways to go. But it’s very hard to put those same expectations on a business that is, as I said, so completely subjective.”
And with “Hacks,” Smart gets to play a woman who is being devalued simply because she has gotten older. In addition to Smart and Einbinder, the cast of “Hacks” includes Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Kaitlin Olson, Christopher McDonald, Paul W. Downs, Mark Indelicato, Poppy Liu, Johnny Sibilly, Meg Stalter and Rose Abdoo.
Hacks” debuts May 13 with two episodes. There will be two new episodes posted to the streaming service each Friday through June 10.