Jean Smart is one of those actors that we, as a society, do not appreciate enough, even though she gets plenty of appreciation. It’s just not enough appreciation. She mentions ahead her goal as an actor was not to be pigeonholed – especially after the success of Designing Women – and it seems fair to say she’s avoided that. Objectively, Watchmen and The Brady Bunch Movie are very different things.
Now she stars in Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s new film about 1920s era Hollywood featuring an ensemble cast that whips us from debauched party to debauched party, and the casualties the industry takes along the way. It is quite a statement movie from Chazelle. And Smart has the key scene when Elinor St. John, a tabloid reporter, has a long, emotional scene with Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad – explaining to him that, as movies transitioned from silent to sound, he’s not going to be the star he was. Basically, his time is up. It’s the backbone of the entire film and sticks out even more in contrast to the wiz, bam, pow pace of the rest of the film. And none of this is lost on Smart. In fact, when she read the script she took the role because of this scene, then assumed it would be cut because, as she explains, that’s usually what happens to an actor’s favorite scene.
What’s great about talking to Smart is she just seems to love acting and has the same enthusiasm for talking about Babylon and Watchmen (she has a thank you to Sigourney Weaver for turning down her role) as she does the aforementioned The Brady Bunch Movie or her first ever television series called Teachers Only, which co-starred Lynn Redgrave, Tim Reid, and Norman Fell. And, yes, all of these things get brought up, including a The Brady Bunch Movie scene that didn’t make the final movie she really wish had.
So … Elinor St. John?
I assume there’s someone historically you are basing her on. But I’m also wondering if there is someone in your career that picked on you. Like, “That person would never give me a good review, and this is who I’m thinking of when I play this character.”
Oh, gosh. To the latter, no. Luckily, no. I did research a bit on a woman named Elinor Glynn, who was one of the very first female screenplay writers. She wrote a screenplay for Clara Bow. She coined the phrase “it girl.” She wrote very racy novels back at the time, in the day, and moved to Hollywood from England, because she wanted to be part of this crazy new business. But again, no. I mean, the part was so beautifully written, that I just basically based it on what was on the page, which was just Damien’s beautiful writing.
To be fair, I’ve never really read a bad word about you, so I can’t imagine there’s someone out there just giving you the business nonstop.
[Laughs] Isn’t that annoying?
Even back to Designing Women, which I watched when I was 12 years old. I’m originally from Missouri, and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason obviously is royalty there. So you don’t grow up in Missouri without watching her stuff.
But I don’t remember anyone saying a bad word about you or that show. And I think that’s continued throughout your career.
Well, I think that’s good! I value my reputation, so I hope it’s still good. I feel very fortunate to do what I do, and to be given the chance to do what I do. That’s the thing about being an actor, that can be extremely frustrating. And I’ve seen it so much with friends of mine, who were extraordinarily talented but never really got the opportunity to show it. Unlike other art forms in this industry, as an actor, you have to be just invited to do what you want to do. You can’t just go off and act in a vacuum. You have to be given permission to do the thing that you so desperately love to do, unlike a writer or a songwriter, or a painter, who can do it all day long if they want.
Speaking of being invited, how did this one work? Does Damien come to you?
I don’t know. I mean, I should ask him. I had not met Damien, I was a fan, certainly. And my agent called me and said, “You’ve been offered this part,” and I said, “Wow, cool. Let me read it.”
There’s a scene that really stands out with you and Brad Pitt where you explain to him his time as a star is over. That scene feels like the emotional core of what this whole movie is about.
I mean, Damien really crystallizes the idea of the movie in that scene. It’s a long scene, for a film, and I was so terrified that they would cut some of it. Because again, as an actor, invariably, the scene which motivated you to take the movie is usually the scene that gets cut. It was an extraordinary piece of writing. Again, like you say, it’s a speech that no actor ever wants to hear or even think that it’s even the truth. But the thing that’s strange about it, compared to maybe other businesses where you’re told, well, you’re just past your prime, or you’re no longer relevant, is that with acting, it’s something that’s intangible. You can’t really put your finger on why an audience will find somebody interesting and somebody else not. Or they’ll change their feeling about them, or something.
“It’s nothing, really. It’s not you, it’s not your voice, and it’s certainly not anything I wrote about you. It’s just the way it is. It’s just not your time anymore.” That’s terrifying to an actor. [Laughs] One thing good about being an actor, though, is they will always need old actors. So that’s good.
You mentioned it being a longer scene, but it’s also in a movie with so much going on, then this scene just takes its time, and it makes it even stand out more.
No, completely, completely. And I always say, when people talk about how much they love that scene, I say, well, part of it is Damien’s brilliance. Because he paces the movie in such a way, that when there’s a scene like that, that are very still, and more quiet, and that the audience suddenly, it pulls their attention. So I give credit to that, too.
Has anyone said anything like that to you? Because they would have been wrong, obviously.
Actually, no. I’ve been very lucky that way. I mean, seriously, as much as I loved acting, I don’t know how much perseverance I would have had if, in the beginning, right in college, and right out of college, I hadn’t gotten a lot of positive reinforcement. If I had just run up against a wall all the time, I wonder how long I would have kept just plugging away at it? I don’t know.
I had to look this up because I remember when I was a little kid you were on a show I watched, it was called Teachers Only.
[Laughs] Oh gosh…
That cast is pretty stacked and it probably feels like something that might be a success, and then it gets canceled.
Right. Well, that was my first time, really doing anything on camera. So it was just kind of fun. When it ended, I was like, Oh, well, I guess that happens. I didn’t know anything. That’s what brought me out to LA from New York, that show. I was immediately offered another series, which didn’t last very long. And then I did another one, which didn’t last very long. I did one on HBO, which went for a season, and then I did another one that didn’t last too long. Then I did Designing Women, which I did for five years.
You said you got so much positive reinforcement. Those were five things in a row that didn’t last before you got Designing Women. That has to take perseverance to keep going.
But I was really never out of work.
Oh, I see.
Yeah, and people told me, they thought I was good. I mean, I was offered other things that I didn’t necessarily want to do, but even before I started making money, I’ve tried to be very choosy about what I did. And I think that has paid off. And I’ve always tried to be very versatile. I never wanted to be pigeonholed as one kind of character or another, or get typecast. The first job I got offered after I left Designing Women was to play Aileen Wuornos, America’s first female serial killer.
And I thought, “Why did they think of me for that part?”
That’s the same person Charlize Theron played? Is that right?
She did it as a feature later. Yeah, it was a network film. I would love to have had a chance to do it as a feature, without sponsors and sensors and things. That would have been nice. But it was so opposite of my character in Designing Women. I said, “Why did you think of me for this part?” And he said, “I wanted her to be sympathetic.”
Well, you’ve done a really good job of not being pigeonholed. You succeeded. Watchmen is very different than The Brady Bunch Movie. These are very different things.
I loved Watchman.
Can I ask you about The Brady Bunch Movie? I do have one thing I want to ask you about that.
Of course! Brady sandwich!
It was on TV the other day and I re-watched it. It’s such a statement on early ’70s culture, but now it also works as a statement on mid-’90s culture.
Yes, that was so much fun. And I loved working with Michael McKean. I’ve actually played his wife or girlfriend a few times. He’s so great. There was a scene there in that movie that they cut, and I thought, why would you cut that scene? Because it summed up the Bradys and their neighbors.
Yeah, the Dittmeyers! Because it was a scene where it showed both our driveways, and there was a little hedge that separated our two driveways? And the greenery, the hedge on the Bradys’ side was bright green, and the hedge outside of the driveway was dead. Then it showed both husbands leaving for work, and of course, the Bradys kiss each other. And she hands him his briefcase, and he goes off in his car. Mr. Dittmeyer comes out, and then he goes back in, yells something to me, and I heave his briefcase at him and he walks into his car. And I thought, that was so perfect, it was so hilarious. I don’t know why they didn’t leave it in, because it was a very short little bit. I don’t know why they would have cut it.
You mentioned Watchmen. I’m sure this isn’t a surprise, but people still talk about that show. You knew that before doing it, right? That this is something that’s going to last for a bit.
Watchmen was such an extraordinary experience, and I was so shocked and humbled to not have known that piece of our history. You know what I mean? My father was a history teacher, and taught U.S. history, and I thought, “How did I not know?” Astonishing.
Like I said, I grew up in Missouri. Guess what? They didn’t teach us that in school, and we were one state over.
No, isn’t that incredible? Well, it was a matter of shame, I’m sure, too, for a while. It was very last minute. And I meant to thank at some point, publicly. So I have to thank Sigourney Weaver for turning the part down. Yes, that was a really fun character. I loved that character.
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