Jean Smart has been a television staple since she was a member of the original cast of hit CBS sitcom Designing Women in the late ’80s. In an unusual turn, she left the successful show five years in and has gone on to an often-surprising TV career, with her roles ranging from a 24 first lady who conspires to undermine her corrupt husband to Emmy-winning performances on sitcoms like Frasier and Samantha Who? Now she’s about to take a departure into the world of sci-fi and fantasy, joining the cast of Legion, FX’s entry into the X-Men universe. The show is helmed by Fargo’s Noah Hawley and stars Dan Stevens as Charles Xavier’s powerful telekinetic son, with Smart’s character, Melanie Bird, billed as an unorthodox therapist. (It premieres next Wednesday, February 8.) At the recent Television Critics Association winter conference, Smart sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the highlights from her long TV career and the changes she’s noted in the industry.
The A.V. Club: Twenty-six years ago, you left Designing Women because you said you wanted to do other things. Do you remember what kind of things you were looking for?
Jean Smart: You become an actor because you don’t want to do the same thing all the time. [Laughs.] And you find you’re doing this show that is a really, really cushy 9 to 5 job. Not even 9 to 5. And after five years you start to feel like, “Maybe I need to get back to work.” Because I came from the theater, and so I was used to doing different things all the time, and it was time to go.
AVC: Do you still do theater?
JS: You know what, not as much as I would like, because I have two kids. I love the theater, and I did tons of theater before I ever did anything in front of the camera, but I haven’t done anything in New York in a while, and I really, really want to. I’ve been offered a few things, but it’s got to be something that works, because it’s so disruptive to the family that it’s got to be something that I cannot turn down.
AVC: So you’re based in New York now?
JS: No, L.A. So that’s why it would be so hard. Also, my son is 27—the one I had during Designing Women—but, my daughter is 8.
JS: Yes. I didn’t mean to spread them out so far. Eight shows a week is hard for kids. Because if you’re gone during the day, they’re fine. They’re with their friends, they’ve got school, they’ve got playdates, they’ve got whatever. But if you’re not there for dinner six nights a week and bedtime and bathtime and storybook time six nights out of seven, that’s hard.
AVC: Legion is like no other series out there.
JS: It is so unique, and Noah is such a talented, extraordinary writer. He continually amazes me. He’s the renaissance man. I would do anything he wrote. So when he said, “I want to talk to you about my new show.” I said, “I’m in.”
AVC: Sci-fi is a pretty new genre for you, right? Is it more strenuous than what you’re used to?
JS: Not necessarily. It hasn’t been that strenuous so far, but a lot of the special effects stuff is fun, stuff I’ve never dealt with before. And of course my son—I haven’t been as cool at my house since 24, so now I’m cool again, because my son is thinking, “Free tickets to Comic-Con!”
AVC: Did you have to school yourself a little bit on the comic book background of the series?
JS: Well, a little bit. Not as much as some of the other actors, because my character isn’t really of that comic book world, so I can have a little more freedom.
AVC: It was just announced that Jemaine Clement will play your husband.
JS: He is just fabulous. I’m such a fan of his, so it was such a treat to work with him. He’s so charming and so talented and so hilarious. And he’s kind of a sexy, absentminded professor, you know? And it’s very romantic and sad, because she hasn’t seen him in 20 years. She keeps waiting and waiting and waiting for somebody to help her bring him back.
AVC: It looks like you’re working more now than ever. Is that a conscious decision?
JS: It doesn’t really feel like it to me. You know those episodes I did of Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce? That was one day. All of my five episodes. All of it in one day. So it didn’t feel that busy.
AVC: FX offers a lot of creative freedom. Can you talk a little bit about that? Formerly, heavy-duty studio TV shows were very rigid. And now it’s like, “You’re an auteur. Go create your universe.”
JS: Television is a completely different industry now. It’s just extraordinary. It’s so wonderful, because there’s more interesting product. It attracts the best writers and directors. And one thing that’s really interesting about it is that it used to be, if you were on a big network show, like it or not, you were a household face and name. And believe it or not, not all actors like that. That’s not their goal. They just like being actors. And there are so many actors that are on hit shows that I have never seen, I’ve never heard. And they are working full-time as actors and making good money and have complete anonymity, except for their specific fan base, their show. It’s kind of cool.
AVC: Speaking of your fan base, was it difficult for you to transition into those kinds of dramas? Because people saw you as that lovable office manager and then the first lady who basically saves the country on 24.
JS: The first job I got after Designing Women was an NBC movie called Overkill. It was about Aileen Wuornos, the first female serial killer in the United States. And I said, “Why did they cast me?” Because he hadn’t seen me do a lot.
AVC: When you were doing 24, you and Gregory Itzin must have had such a chemistry.
JS: I love him. We had actually done a play together years and years and years before. So it was really fun to reunite with him. My favorite thing that entire season was to describe Gregory Itzin to people, because people would come up to me and say, “Oh, my god, I can’t stand that guy who plays your husband. I mean, I know he’s a brilliant actor, but I can’t stand the character. He reminds me of Richard Nixon. And he’s creepy. And he’s this and that.” I said, “This is the guy who shows up at work in the morning. He’s wearing jeans and a faded denim jacket. He’s got spiked hair. He’s got about four earrings in each ear and tats everywhere. And he comes out of his trailer as President Logan.
AVC: From the very first moment, you two had a whole unwritten history, so clear on the screen—the tension and the resentment.
JS: We hoped we worked for that. We tried for that. That was one of my favorite jobs.
AVC: Do you have any other shows that you look back on and really liked? Maybe ones that didn’t get as much attention as you thought they would?
JS: Well, I did an American version of Ab Fab, although at the time, I didn’t know I was doing an American version of Ab Fab. It was called High Society, with Mary McDonnell. I think we only did nine or 12 episodes or something. I got to play this alcoholic, pill-popping, fabulously dressed writer of trashy romance novels, and Mary was my best friend and my publisher who got her publishing company in her divorce. [Laughs.] It was just so much fun. And I lusted after her 17-year-old son. Now they would probably let us, but they were like, “Can we tone it down a little bit?” And we said, “It’s got to be a little bit over the top or it won’t be funny. It’ll just be tasteless.” And they wanted it to be more like Cybill.
AVC: Any others?
JS: I could have happily done a couple more seasons of Fargo.
AVC: That’s another instance where TV now is becoming more cinematic. Would you rather do TV now than movies, given the option? Or does it just feel so similar now?
JS: Now, there’s not really much difference. In fact, most good television is better than most movies that are out.