Jean Smart of ‘Hacks’ Is Having a Third Act for the Ages

At lunch, Smart was open about the recent tragedies in her life. In 2021, Richard Gilliland, an actor she met on the set of “Designing Women” and married in 1987, died after a heart attack. Covid restrictions meant that she got to see him only twice in the hospital. There was still a week left of filming for the first season of “Hacks,” and Smart was asked if she wanted to take some time off. Her inclination was to keep working. “I figured, I’m still in shock,” Smart said. “Let’s just do it, you know?” In the episode they were filming, Ava’s father has suddenly died, and Deborah crashes the funeral and gives a speech that brings the house down. When the time came to get in front of the camera, Smart started shaking. It had been only a few days since her own husband’s death. She wasn’t sure she was going to make it. She recalled taking a deep breath (and an Ativan) and jumping into the scene. Deborah asks the mourners to share a memory of the deceased when he was drunk. Aghast — and titillated — they allow themselves to be goaded into unruly stories, which she tempers by sharing a rare gem of praise for her protégé. Smart remembers it as cathartic.

You can see, in that scene, how Smart excavates her own subterranean emotions in her performance. Occasionally, while talking about her life’s hardships, I got the impression of Smart as a large, silvery body of water and her difficulties as opaque shapes moving underneath. But they never fully surfaced unless she wanted them to. Smart is now raising her youngest son alone, something she never imagined doing at her age. (She has another son who is in his 30s; she and Gilliland adopted their second son 20 years later.) He is now a teenager, and she wants to be present for all the moments of wonder, anxiety and introspection. As our meal wound down, she began talking animatedly about picking him up from school. He was in rehearsals for his high school’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and she was excited to hear about it while she made him dinner. She doesn’t go to bed before he does, even if he stays up until 10 p.m. and she has a 4 a.m. call time. Smart’s zest for her life — all of it, even the challenging parts — comes through clearly. She is determined to enjoy the pleasure of her children and her career as long as she can.

At the end of the previous season, after a tumultuous road trip, a lawsuit and the triumph of pulling off a comeback tour, Ava and Deborah part ways at Deborah’s insistence. She wants Ava to forge her own career. She is also pushing her away out of fear: The closeness has proved to be too much. Deborah is still working out her trust issues, believing that dependence on others has never served her.

When she finally gets what she craves — recognition and power — the axis of the show turns to wondering how this second wave of success will influence her. Will she operate like the ruthless executives she worked under, or will she create new ways of being? Can she? Can anyone? “Hacks” also asks the question of Hollywood itself: What would it be like with different people at the helm? It’s a fantasy of second chances, shifting hierarchies, upended power dynamics — but, appropriately for a moment when the gains of racial-justice movements, #MeToo and D.E.I. initiatives are being rolled back, if not eradicated, “Hacks” refuses to be rosy. Deborah Vance is no utopian leader. She is as flawed as anyone else, but through her, the show explores how people are shaped by systems that misuse them and the damage they can inflict, or undo, as a result.

Deborah’s relationship to biological motherhood is evidence of her priorities and ambivalences. DJ, Deborah’s daughter on the show (played by Kaitlin Olson), is a monument to Deborah’s narcissism. (DJ stands for Deborah Jr.) Their relationship is fraught, as DJ, who feels neglected, commits minor acts of sabotage toward her mother, including tipping off the paparazzi to photograph her in unglamorous moments. It’s later revealed that Deborah not only knows about this but lets DJ get away with it. “Makes her feel self-sufficient,” she tells Ava. It’s a clarifying moment: It is easier to let her daughter think that she’s exploiting her than to affirm or be affectionate toward her.

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