Jean Smart has, in her own words, a “first world prissy acting problem.” Like many in the entertainment industry, she was in the middle of production on a project when the first stay at home orders hit in March. That project, the Craig Zobel-directed limited series “Mare of Easttown” with Kate Winslet, was only 80-85% completed when filming was halted. As the global entertainment engine begins to slowly get its mojo back she wonders how she’ll finish her portion while fulfilling her commitment to another project in October.
“I know Kate still has a lot of stuff, I think I have maybe five more scenes to do,” Smart says of “Easttown.” “I mean, I spoke briefly with the writer and he said they’re just trying to figure out what to do. They may have to rewrite some scenes because I know there was a big wedding and reception scene with lots of extras. That part was going to be completely rewritten. There are scenes with the little boy who’s important in the show, little Izzy [King]. Izzy and his mother and I emailed each other, I think he was four when we started shooting. I said, ‘Do not let that child grow. Do whatever you have to do.’ I said, ‘Tie an anvil to his head. That kid’s going to be a foot taller by the time we finish.'”
Again, Smart is aware such troubles are an embarrassment of riches, but its a problem many in front of and behind the camera are having to deal with as Hollywood tries to get up and running again. On this day, however, she had jumped on the phone to discuss her Emmy-nominated performance as FBI agent Laurie Blake in Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen.” Smart has already won three Emmys in her career but says her seventh nomination was meaningful because of how proud she is of the Peabody winning series. Especially a show that resonates so strongly in an era of intense social justice protests where Black Lives Matter has taken center stage and police and federal officials have hidden their identities wearing masks while dealing with peaceful protestors. A tactic strikingly similar to the “fantasy” of “Watchmen.”
“I called Damon and I said, ‘Can you even process how sort of prophetic your writing was?’ And he said, ‘No. I’m kind of speechless.’ Because it’s almost like it was meant to be, you know? It’s like this time of reckoning that we’ve come to, in so many ways,” Smart says. “And that’s another reason I’m really proud to be in the show because it does feel different this time. It doesn’t just feel like, ‘Oh, we’re going through another school shooting or something and we’re all up in arms and then nothing’s going to happen and it’s going to go away until the next one.’ It does feel different this time. And maybe it’s because the [George] Floyd incident happened in the midst of this pandemic, maybe this was like the perfect storm. And maybe because this is what it took for us to really look at ourselves and say, ‘There’s a sea of change here and we can’t go back. We can’t. We have to go forward and really talk about these things and face ugly truths.'”
Smart is proud the show is a small part of that national discourse. And, that if nothing else, the program educated the world about the Tulsa race massacre. An event she had never heard of before she became involved with the show.
“I was appalled that I had never heard of the Tulsa Massacre. I thought, ‘How is that possible? That was less than 100 years ago,” She admits. “And what happened in Portland with these federal agents in camouflage with no ID and unmarked cars arresting people. You’re thinking, ‘What the hell is happening? This doesn’t happen in the United States of America. It just doesn’t. I mean, it’s just bizarre. And I don’t know, between you and me, no I don’t want to get into Mr. Trump, I just can’t.”
The “Fargo” alum describes landing the role as a “whirlwind” mostly because it was so last minute. She was instructed not to watch Zack Snyder’s 2009 film and had never read the graphic novel. They thrust one into her hands, however, and she consumed it on the plane to the production’s base of operations in Atlanta. Outside of “Legion” (her “baptism into Sci-Fi”), “Watchmen” and its superhero mythos was a genre she’d never really tiptoed into particularly. Smart credits writer Lila Byock, who co-wrote “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” and almost stand-alone episode for Smart, with giving her a crash course on her character’s relationships with her parents, Dr. Manhattan and the never-seen Dan Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl) as well as what Laurie’s been up to since the end of the novel over 30 years prior. Smart admits it was a lot to take in.
“I found out that she and Dan to make a plea deal. And she took the deal and he didn’t,” Smart reveals. “So I think there’s also a lot of guilt there as well. That’s why she ended up working for the FBI and he ended up in prison. Which, I suppose in some bizarre, twisted way, is one of the reasons she also sort of turned against masked vigilantes and has such disdain for them. Although, a lot of that I think is more primal. I think it comes from her problems with her mother. Doesn’t everything?”
The beautifully written “Space Junk” was something of an action-packed mini-movie with Smart at the center of it. The problem for Smart wasn’t just the fact she had only a few days to prepare for the role. She’d recently had STEM cell therapy on one of her knees, was in pain, and wearing a knee brace. You’d never know it watching that episode or her performance in the series overall, however.
“I remember telling Damon on the phone. I said, ‘Now I know there’s a scene in the cemetery where I’m supposed to be down in a shooter stance. I can get into a shooter stance, but you’re not going to be able to film me getting into the stance or getting out of the stance,'” Smart recalls with a laugh. “‘It will not be pretty. But I can assume the stance.’ They could not have been kinder about that but I was sort of embarrassed because there was a scene where I had to walk down three steps and they had to actually use a stand-in to walk down the three steps.”
Smart adds, “I did a lot of walking. It was not terribly comfortable, but I mean, it wasn’t harming me. I was having so much fun being a badass. It was like, ‘Yeah, bring it on!'”
One of the biggest revelations in the series surrounds the identity of the super-powered Dr. Manhattan. The world, including Laurie, believes her former boyfriend has left humanity behind and has been living on Mars for decades. Not only was that not the case, but he was right under Laurie and Smart’s nose in a character played by fellow Emmy-nominee Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. A revelation Abdul-Mateen wasn’t even aware of until after shooting a number of episodes as Dr. Manhattan’s new identity, Calvin Abar, the curiously quiet husband of Regina King’s character Angela Abar.
“I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it when Laurie finds out that not only Dr.Manhattan is, you know, Jon’s alive and he’s here on earth, he’s not living off on Mars,” Smart says. “Not only that, but he’s also been happily married all these years to Angela. I mean, that was sort of a lot to try to figure out how to react to that.”
Intriguingly, Lindelof and his directing team left it to Smart to determine Laurie’s response to the news. Of course, Smart thought the repercussions of the revelation would be dealt with down the road in a second season. She also hoped Laurie would reunite with Dan and that her relationship with Angela would be expanded on because, as she notes, “There was so much potential there for an interesting partnership/friendship.” Unfortunately, in an announcement that came as a surprise to both the cast and HBO, Lindelof decided after post-production that “Watchmen” should stand alone as one season of television.
The acclaimed writer and showrunner of “Lost” and “The Leftovers” had been slightly cagey during filming around what a second would entail. Smart wanted to know if she’d be back so when a number of the cast and crew ventured out to dinner one night she simply asked.
“I remember Tim [Blake Nelson] said, ‘I can’t believe you just came out and asked him.’ I said, ‘Well,’ because I wanted to know if there was a second season was Laurie going to be part of it? And Damon said, ‘Yes, absolutely. If there’s a second season, Laurie will be very much a part of it.’ And I didn’t ask them anything further than that. I thought, ‘O.K., that’s fine. That’s all I need to know for now.’ So I did think that there was a good chance.”
On the other hand, it also sounds like she wasn’t completely surprised at his decision.
“I also knew that Damon felt like, to use a corny phrase, we left it all out there on the field,” Smart says. “He put so much thought, even into making the decision to say, ‘Yes, I will do this show.”‘ It was a huge decision for him, because the material meant so much to him. And to have the Tulsa Massacre be the sort of inciting incident, was so brilliant. It did not seem imposed upon the story, in that, the ‘Watchmen’ world, that I think he felt like, ‘I did it, I don’t even want to try to best that. It’s done. It’s a package.’ Now, maybe if he wants to write a movie someday, maybe.”
Smart pauses for a moment. And adds, “If he wants to write a movie, I would volunteer for that.”
“Watchmen” is available on HBO and HBO Max.