Jean Smart has never filmed a TV series or movie in Seattle, where she grew up, but she has one big pet peeve with those who do: mangling the name of Pike Place Market by making it possessive, as in, “Pike’s Place Market.”
Even in Smart’s 2020 Melissa McCarthy HBO Max movie “Superintelligence,” which filmed a few scenes locally (just not any featuring Smart), she caught that blooper.
“You’d think that there must have been a lot of locals working on the production. Did no one say anything?” Smart said in a phone interview earlier this month. “Years ago, there was another movie or maybe it was a series and they called it ‘Queen Anne’s Hill.’ Made me bonkers.”
Smart stars in HBO Max’s 10-episode comedy “Hacks,” debuting May 13, as Deborah Vance, a veteran stand-up comic with a residency at a Las Vegas casino who’s coasting on her old material. When Vance’s manager sends a young Gen Z comedy writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), to work with her, it’s not a great first meeting.
“Deborah’s sort of on automatic pilot a bit when we first meet her, which is why [her] manager has insisted that [she] meet with this young person to punch up [her] act a little bit, which of course [she] resents because Deborah’s always done her own writing,” Smart says. “Neither one of them are right and neither one of them are wrong. They disagree a lot about what’s funny. Ava’s point of view is if the masses think something is funny, then it’s not cool. If the people from Florida who eat at Panera like it, then it’s not funny.”
“Hacks” executive producer Mike Schur (“The Good Place,” “Parks and Recreation”) says the real meat of the show is in the generational divide between the two women. In one scene, Vance reads jokes Ava has written, including, “I had a horrible nightmare that I had a voicemail.”
“What you don’t see in the trailer is that there’s then a seven-and-a-half second pause as Jean just slowly looks up at Hannah and then just goes, ‘What?,’ ” Schur says. “And those moments where the two of them and their comedic sensibilities clash are more important and funnier than Deborah Vance’s act when she’s on stage because that’s just not what the show’s about at all. It’s about the two women and how those gears grind somewhat unpleasantly at times.”
A 1969 Ballard High School grad, Smart says she was “bitten by the [acting] bug” her senior year thanks to the “spectacular shows” put on by longtime Ballard drama teacher Earl Kelly (Smart starred in “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker”). She decided acting was what she wanted to study at the University of Washington to the initial dismay of her mother, who thought her daughter was taking her college education for granted.
“But once I started doing shows at the university, my mother became my biggest supporter, my biggest fan,” says Smart, a 1974 UW grad.
Although she trained in the stage classics (Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill) and thought of herself as more of a dramatic actress, Smart’s breakthrough role was on the 1986-93 CBS sitcom “Designing Women,” where her Pacific Northwest upbringing was hidden behind a convincing Southern accent.
“I’m the only Yankee here in this group,” she says of her “Designing Women” days. “I was surrounded [by Southerners], so [the accent] was easy.”
In the years since, Smart’s bounced between comedy (“Frasier,” “Samantha Who?”) and drama (“Fargo,” “24”), excelling in both, particularly in 2019’s HBO series “Watchmen,” which earned Smart her ninth Emmy nomination (she’s won three Emmys for guest actor in a comedy).
With “Hacks,” Smart gets to play both the comedy and the pathos as Vance. She didn’t model Vance off of any one comic but acknowledges she may have borrowed unconsciously from Elayne Boosler, Phyllis Diller and even Sam Kinison.
“I kind of go with my gut instinct,” Smart says, “and the writing is so good that that usually works out.”
Smart says playing a stand-up comic opposite Einbinder, the daughter of “Saturday Night Live” veteran Laraine Newman, initially gave her pause.
“She’s hilarious and she’s a comedienne so I was at first sort of nervous to do stuff in front of her because she has done a lot of stand-up,” Smart says.
Einbinder says their relationship off-camera is completely different from the caustic back-and-forth the characters have on screen.
“I think I’m kind of an old soul,” Einbinder says, “and I think Jean is a really young spirit.”