Jean Smart is Emmy-nominated for HBO’s “Watchmen,” playing an anti-vigilante FBI agent. It’s yet another of Smart’s surprising performances, tackling offbeat roles and making them distinct and memorable.
Smart became a household name with her five-year run as Charlene on CBS’ “Designing Women,” starting in 1986. But when the sitcom debuted, she had already racked up multiple credits, including guest parts in various series and many theater roles, earning a Tony nomination for playing Marlene Dietrich in Broadway’s “Piaf.”
Since then, she’s played the smart but mentally unstable first lady in “24,” a woman forced into organized crime in FX’s “Fargo,” and films including “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Garden State,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “A Simple Favor.” She has also played onstage in Kaufman & Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild,” among many others.
She and her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, have two children. She talked with Variety about life lessons she’s learned over the years.
‘This too shall pass.’
I completely understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. When the quarantine started, I felt content: I was home, I could be with my family. I found it fruitful. But as it has gone on and we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s become unnerving. But it will end. That’s a fact. This too shall pass.
I think about my parents’ generation. My father survived the Spanish flu as a 1-year-old, then he and his family went through the Depression. They were desperately poor. When his mother realized that someone had stolen the family’s chicken, she thought it was the end; she didn’t think they could make it. But this too shall pass.
I compare the COVID quarantine to running a marathon. Marathon runners know they’re going to run 26 miles, and they train with formulas and strategy — the pace, the breathing. They have mapped out what’s best for them, and they know how to get to Mile 26. What we’re going through, we don’t have a Mile 26. If someone could say, “Yes, it’s miserable, it’s scary, and massively inconvenient, even life-altering, but it’s going to end on this date” — then people would be so much healthier mentally. But we don’t have an end date, we don’t have a Mile 26 plan, so there’s no way of gauging what to do with our lives. So maybe we can make little goals for ourselves: By Halloween, I want to accomplish this; by the holidays, I will have changed this and that. And by next spring, just believe that we will have a reasonable treatment and vaccine. Try to give yourself mini-goals and believe that people are trying to figure this out. And try to stay healthy and be good to each other.
‘We are all in each other’s back yard.’
In terms of world events, 9/11 is unfortunately right up there. It really did change our way of life permanently. The crashes accomplished the goal of terrorism, which is to instill fear in all of us and literally changed our way of life. About two weeks after 9/11, I had to fly. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but I hoped it was safe. After we hit elevation, the pilot came on and he had a very heavy accent. I’m pretty good at identifying accents, but I couldn’t pinpoint his. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen (long pause). Ladies and gentlemen (long pause again). I have an announcement to make (long pause).” By this time my heart was beating so fast. Then he said, “We have a birthday in row 21!” I remember thinking he was either clueless or sadistic; I think I aged five years in that moment. But I got a valuable perspective: One of my brothers-in-law and his wife had lived in Saudi Arabia, and she is very fond of the culture and the people. She said, “I know exactly who those young men were, the things they’ve been told and taught, the fact that they’ve never been around women; they have nothing to look forward to.” The thing that made it shocking and real and so tragic on a personal level is that David Angell and his wife — David was one of the creators of “Frasier,” and he was a gentleman, funny, polite and kind — and they were on the first plane to hit. When I found that out, it was so horrifying. And it was suddenly, shockingly real.
My son was 12 at the time and my daughter is 12 now. When I look at my kids, I feel bad that they’ve grown up without a more innocent, less frightening time in the world. Part of this is the evolution of things; in the computer age, the world is becoming smaller and smaller, other worlds don’t seem so far away, we are all in each other’s back yard. This is why it’s so important to find a way to live together. I hope it’s not too late.
‘Nothing is ever as bad as you think.’
I always say — to my husband, kids, friends — that nothing is ever as bad as you think it’s going to be. You’re afraid of something, or you worry what people will think. Whether it’s something serious, or something frivolous like embarrassing yourself in front of a group of people, really how bad can it be? Ask yourself: What’s the worst possible scenario? And it’s never that bad. I find that very calming, because it always turns out to be true.
‘It’s so healthy to laugh, especially when you’re scared.’
Great comedies are one of healthiest things you can watch. Two of my favorites are “The Russians Are Coming” and “Galaxy Quest.” I’m so jealous of the actors who got to be in that movie! It was so brilliant, and funny and moving. And I love old movies like “My Man Godfrey,” I love that spirit. I am trying to get my son to watch 1980s comedies like “Midnight Run.” It’s so healthy to laugh, especially when you’re scared. More than ever, people need to laugh. Sometimes as an actor you think, “I’m not doing anything important in terms of what’s going on in the world.” But if you make people think or laugh, it is important. I feel privileged to do that if I can.
‘Doing theater gives you a lot of confidence.’
I did theater for years, in Seattle and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Eve Roberts was an acting teacher at the University of Washington and she was a phenomenal teacher; we’re still friends. Then I went to New York. When you’re young, you think, “I’ll find the rent somehow.” I always knew it would work out. When I first moved to L.A., I was shocked to meet lead actors who’d never done theater. I was astounded; I didn’t know such people existed. I thought everybody started in theater and that was the natural progression. A lot of people wind up in L.A. because somebody told them they were good-looking and should be an actor. I thought, “If you have to be good-looking to be an actor, who plays all the other parts?” One time I had a conversation with a casting director, who said, “I can always spot which actors are theater-trained and which ones aren’t.” Doing theater gives you a lot of confidence.
Cicely Tyson is Emmy-nominated for her guest-starring role on the ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder,” just the latest in the actress’ many honors.
She was born Dec. 19, 1924, in Harlem to parents who had emigrated from the West Indies. With her striking looks, she began modeling while still a teenager, and then realized she wanted to be an actor. Among other classes, she studied with Vinnette Carroll, a teacher at the High School of Performing Arts in N.Y. who also formed the nonprofit Urban Arts Corps, a workshop for aspiring young actors. Tyson began in small roles in film and television, then became the first African American who became a series regular in a TV drama with “East Side/West Side,” starring George C. Scott as a social worker. Since then, she has done landmark work, including the film “Sounder” (1972), “Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974), “Roots” (1977), “A Woman Called Moses,” playing Harriet Tubman (1978), “The Trip to Bountiful” (2014) and her recurring role in “How to Get Away With Murder,” the show created by Peter Nowalk and exec produced by Shonda Rhimes.
‘Time takes care of everything.’
When my mother learned I was pregnant, she was very upset. I did what I always do: I say nothing, and I wait for you to address the matter. She and my father had separated when I was 9. I was the string bean, the apple of his eye. He warned my mother that if anything happened to me, she would have to answer to him, and that was her greatest fear. I don’t think she ever got over it. She was delighted to have a grandchild, but it wasn’t easy for me. She had such great hopes and dreams for me and she saw them go up in smoke. There was an adjustment, and she made peace with it. Time takes care of everything. Time takes care of the good, takes care of the bad. It’s the greatest force in life.
‘The only way to learn anything is to ask the question.’
My mother always said I was nosy. I have to know everything. She would say, “Why do you ask so many questions?” I would say, “I want to know. I can’t function if I do not know.” So I “why’d” her to death. I’ve always been very curious. I have to know, and then I can deal with a situation. That was always an advantage to me. I can’t function if I don’t know; tell me and then I can move from there. If you are confounded, the only way you learn anything is to ask the question.
‘My favorite hymns were comforting.’
In difficult times, I played piano and that was my solace. I would go into the living room and play. I learned hymns from singing in the choir or playing the piano at church; my favorite hymns were comforting. To this day, if something disturbs me, I start singing. My mother did the same thing, she would be singing away. That’s something I got from her, and it’s very consoling.
‘Each moment that you live is a benefit.’
We are born into life. Everything that happens in our lives, becomes part of the sum total of what we are. Life is to be lived. If you do not live it, you cannot appreciate it. I prefer situations that could be damaging because it forces me to find a solution to whatever the problem is. In doing that, I’m living life as it’s meted out to me. Once you live it, you will always develop. Once you develop, you will realize, “I licked that problem, and now I’m a step higher.” Life is to be lived and each moment that you live is a benefit to an individual.
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