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Jean Smart’s Just Getting Started

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The on-fire actress spoke to Katie about Hacks and the loss of her husband. 

Katie can’t get enough of Jean Smart, and she’s not the only one. This past year alone, Smart has had two starring roles that made quite the splash: First as increasingly irrelevant comedy legend Deborah Vance in Hacks, and then as the worn down, tough-as-nails grandma trying to keep her family together in Mare of Easttown

Hacks, a dark comedy in which Smart plays an aging comedy legend forced to mentor an entitled young writer, was one of the most popular shows of the past year, largely due to Smart’s larger-than-life portrayal of comedian Deborah Vance. From the moment Smart got the script, she knew that she needed to play this role.  “My agent sent me the script, and I couldn’t believe how great it was,” Smart tells Katie on this week’s episode of Next Question. “When I walked into the room with the producers, I said, I’m absolutely perfect for this. You should hire me.” Smart was right, and the role earned her both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

Despite her immense success this past season, Smart’s year was also marred by tragedy: Her husband of almost 35 years, Richard Gilliland, passed away suddenly last March from a heart condition. In her interview with Katie, Smart recalls meeting him at a table read decades ago, when she was instantly smitten: “I saw him and I just thought, wow, who’s that? I wonder if he’s gonna be on our show,” Smart tells Katie. “Lo and behold, he was sitting across the table from me. I’ve never been so aggressive. I invited him into my trailer to help me with a crossword puzzle. We started talking on the phone for two hours every night, and then he invited me to see this play he was doing. We were never apart from that day.”

Like anyone grieving the sudden loss of a loved one, Smart still feels the sting as though it just happened. “It’s been just over a year,” she tells Katie. “I can’t believe it. I love his little laugh lines around his eyes and his hands. When he was talking to someone he just had the greatest smile on his face.” 

Smart is now a single parent to two kids, the youngest of whom Smart and Gilliland adopted in 2009. Despite her enduring success as an actress, Smart tells Katie that her kids will always come first. Her two children are almost 20 years apart, and she recalls trying to protect them from the lack of privacy that accompanied her high-profile career when they were younger: “It must be very hard to have a famous parent,” Smart explains. “I remember when my oldest was young, if I would be out in public and people would ask for an autograph, I would say, I hope you don’t mind if I say no, I’m just Mom today. After this happened several times, my son looked at me and said, ‘Mom, it’s OK. You can sign it.’ So that was really sweet.” 

To hear more of Katie’s conversation with Jean Smart, including how she transformed into Deborah Vance for Hacks, make sure to listen to Next Question