Ballard-born Jean Smart hacks Hollywood’s formula for leading ladies


In ChopJean Smart stars as aging stand-up legend Deborah Vance, who performs nightly on the Las Vegas Strip in a rut so deep she could dress it in glittery kaftans from her own home shopping line. In the first season of the HBO show, she exchanges incredulous views on the state of comedy with a young writer named Ava (Hannah Einbinder). Gen Z in this equation wants to take their reluctant new boss’s jokes beyond pantyhose punchlines, though they guarantee laughs from the aging Floridians who fill the theater each night.

Smart, like Vance, snorts in disbelief, “So you’re telling me if a lot of people find something funny, isn’t it?”

Broadly speaking, this exchange describes so much of our cultural debates about art versus commerce – novels, exhibitions, even (erm) journalism in the digital age. However, it does not describe Smart.

The Ballard-born actress consistently hits the zeitgeist with roles that are artistically rewarding and commercially successful, at least by the zoomed-in standards of high-end TV. At an age when many of Smart’s peers are settling into roles like “cheeky grandma” or “judge who’s not amused,” her dossier is getting badass: crime boss Floyd Gerhardt in the second season of Fargo. Guardian‘s Laurie Blake, a reformed vigilante turned romantically foiled FBI sniper. In 2021, Smart dove deep into (and honed) Pennsylvania’s distinct Delaware County accent fruit ninja Skills) to play the wise mom to Kate Winslet’s grieving police officer Mare by Easttown.

Deborah Vance is the kind of woman who will call in a news helicopter to pick her up when her Rolls-Royce breaks down, then drop $10,000 on a pepper shaker for collection — but also get up at 5 a.m. to keep a work ethic acquired over decades while navigating an industry fraught with setbacks and ass grips. Chop debuted less than a month later mare started reeling off his weekly episodes, giving Smart, 70, rare — and deeply deserved — top billing.

The show returns on May 12. “Seasons are notoriously nerve-wracking because you kind of have to prove yourself,” she admitted in a recent phone interview.

Her ability to own a scene like it was a $10,000 pepper shaker dates back to Ballard High School’s intense acting program and Earl Kelly. Smart grew up in the Crown Hill neighborhood, one of four children, with a father who taught at Ballard before transferring to Nathan Hale High School. “All his friends were my teachers; I had to be really good.” Smart was, in her own words, a “good two shoes cheerleader” who didn’t discover drama until her senior year.

In the midst of it all, she worked. At the age of 15, she was serving meals to patients at the University of Washington Medical Center. She looked older – being tall helps – and some patients mistook her for a nurse. “I would see things I shouldn’t have seen.” She switched to restaurant jobs, washing dishes and huge pots by hand under the curved roofline of the old Manning’s Cafeteria.

After high school and a coveted spot in the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program, Smart didn’t immediately think of Hollywood. Her status as a willowy blonde might mark her as a wannabe genius, but Smart was a Ballardite, after all, raised among taciturn Swedes and fishermen’s kids. It was her job. She has performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Rep, ACT, the Intiman. Smart later appeared as Lady Macbeth at the Pittsburgh Public Theater while traveling to New York to play a terminally ill lesbian who falls in love with a straight woman in the seminal play Last summer at Bluefish Cove. Both roles were anything but naive.

On the night Smart won her fourth Emmy, she took the stage in a long black dress and an aura of raw emotion. She told the crowd: “I must acknowledge my late husband Richard Gilliland who passed away six months ago yesterday. I wouldn’t be here without him putting his career on hold so I could take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had.”

During one of the lowest periods of her successful career, Smart lost her 34-year-old husband to an unexpected heart condition in March 2021. Gilliland was an active co-parent to her sons Connor, now an adult, and Forrest, who is 13 and is often seen at her side at awards shows. The second season of Chop offered a welcome distraction from the grief, says Smart. But during filming, “I’m always worried about what’s going on at home,” she says. “Everybody getting fed and coming to school?” This season, Deborah Vance is touring and touring comedy clubs across the country. This meant longer filming times on location compared to last year’s more family-friendly sound stage schedule.

Smart has already embarked on her own national tour — her most memorable roles in four decades of television tend to be rooted in and intertwined with specific regions of America. In shape women, Smart was the only leading lady not born into a southern twang; as Charlene Frazier Stillfield, she deftly fought her way through five seasons of witty naivety. She fought for control of her syndicate Fargo‘s frozen flatlands of North Dakota, stalked the streets of the alternate universe of Tulsa Guardiannailed that Delco accent mareShe even continued to play the first lady 24 Back in the day.

Las Vegas practically has a character of its own Chop– During the first season, Smart’s character gets a street named after her. “It’s fun to push yourself,” admits the actress. “Use parts of yourself that you might not use in everyday life.”

Smart won her first Emmy — and her second — theoretically playing a character from Seattle. on Frasier, she guest-starred in seven episodes when Frasier Crane’s high school crush sparked adult romantic interest; Smart horrifies the demanding Crane with merry mornings drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and screeching obscenities.

Naturally, Frasier Incidentally, it was discontinued in Seattle shape women was a show about fabric samples. Smart, on the other hand, spent last Christmas here and returns when she can to visit her brothers and their families. (“Who knew Ballard would be hip and groovy?”) In 2020, she had a cameo in Melissa McCarthy’s film superintelligence. It’s set in Seattle, but like so many others, it was mostly filmed elsewhere. One scene shows satellite imagery of Pike Place Market, incorrectly dubbed Pike’s Place Market.

“God, this is driving me crazy,” says Smart, proving irrefutably that she’s still one of us.


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