Jean Smart Only Wants to Be Revered by “Designing Women” Drag Queens

The “A Simple Favor” star on her queer origins and what’s next for Sugarbaker & Associates.

Need an actress to play an eccentric matriarch? Be smart and call Jean Smart.

Smart adds a boozy doozy to her bad moms club in A Simple Favor, Paul Feig’s new thriller starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. The 67-year-old Hollywood veteran plays Margaret McLanden, estranged mother of Lively’s enigmatic femme fatale.

A three-time Emmy winner for her scene-stealing work in Frasier and Samantha Who?, the Designing Women star has also made a home in dramas like 24, Fargo, and Legion. But as she recalls, her long career was launched with one little lesbian.

A Simple Favor/Peter Iovino/Lionsgate

Does anybody play a boozy broad better than you, Jean Smart?

[Laughs] I don’t know. Do they? It’s a questionable honor.

Your hard-drinking characters in The Brady Bunch Movie, The Oblongs, and Fit to Be Tied would be hard to beat, and your 1995 sitcom High Society was basically Ab Fab. Did you do hands-on research to prepare?

Gosh, when you look back at my résumé, you do have to wonder.

What’s your drink of choice?

It’s pretty boring: A California chardonnay—buttery and oaky. But I went out with a friend the other night and we enjoyed cocktails with dinner. She ordered a martini and I thought, Oh, how cosmopolitan! So I acted like a grown-up and got a vodka martini with three olives.

Margaret, your character in A Simple Favor, swigs straight from the bottle. What drew you to her?

She just seemed like fun, and the whole project seemed like fun. I’ve worked with Anna Kendrick before and she’s so fabulous. I also know Paul socially and I’ve always wanted to work with him, so when he asked me to do it, I said, “Of course!”

I like that even though Margaret’s a mess, she still puts on her wig for company.

Yes, it’s like a hat.

High Society/CBS

Did your maternal experiences inform your performance?

Uh, no. I would hope my children think I’m a good mom.

I’ve always had a soft spot for your trashy moms in movies like Garden State, Youth in Revolt, and Forever Fabulous. Is it freeing to play that kind of role?

Oh, sure. No one really wants to play Donna Reed, do they? Although maybe I should at this point. I do tend to play a lot of dreadful mothers, don’t I?

When you work with younger actors like Anna in A Simple Favor, do they ever seek your advice or guidance?

Well, Anna was very complimentary, but she certainly needs no guidance from me. I have gotten to the point, though, where I’ll be on set and I can tell that the younger actors are treating me with reverence. It’s really depressing, like, Oh, Jesus, I’m that person now?

But you don’t impart your hard-earned wisdom?

I would if I saw someone going down a detrimental path. There was a situation where an actress was doing a nude scene she didn’t seem totally comfortable with, so I pulled her aside to make sure she was okay. But if I were to give anyone general advice, it would be to look at the actors you most admire and think, What would they do?

From 1986 to 1991 you starred in Designing Women as Charlene, interior design firm Sugarbaker & Associates’ sweet and naive office manager, alongside Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, and Annie Potts. When did you become aware of the show’s big gay following?

Probably during the second season, right after Halloween, when we found out that a bunch of guys had dressed up as the four of us, which was such an honor. We later found out from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, our creator, that there was a gay bar in the South that played Designing Women scenes on a loop—particularly Dixie’s Julia Sugarbaker tirades like her “night the lights went out in Georgia” speech—and the guys would say the lines along with her. I love that.

Frasier/Chris Haston/NBCU

Linda gave her blessing to a long-running drag parody, Designing Women Live, in Atlanta.

Oh, I’d give anything to see that.

Have you ever seen a “Charlene” queen?

When I turned 40, my husband went all out and threw me a surprise party. He hired this gal to dress up in one of my Designing Women costumes with her hair done like mine, and she sang a song that I’d sung on the show. While she’s singing to me, she sits on my lap—which I thought was a little weird, but okay. Annie leans over and says to my husband, “Look at her, Richard. She’s just like Charlene. She’s the only person in the room who doesn’t know that’s a guy.” I didn’t know!

ABC has confirmed a Designing Women revival. How do you feel about this trend of rebooting shows from the ’80s and ’90s?

I think it’s wonderful. I hate to make it political, but in this day and age people are so stressed and worried, and that kind of nostalgia makes people feel good. As long as people aren’t trying to reboot All About Eve or Grapes of Wrath, you know?

What does a Designing Women revival look like?

People want all these reboots to look exactly like the original show they loved. Unfortunately, because we’ve lost so many cast members—Dixie, Meshach Taylor, Alice Ghostley—I don’t think we could ever do that. So what Linda is doing is more of a sequel than a reboot. I think it’ll be like Designing Women: The Next Generation, maybe with our characters’ kids.

Will you be involved?

Delta, Annie, and I could pop in occasionally.

Designing Women/Fotos Intl/Getty Images

What do you imagine Charlene is doing today?

Well, it’s been almost 29 years since her child was born—because I was really pregnant on the show and my son is almost 29—so she’s probably bugging her daughter, asking, “When are you gonna make me a grandma?”

I just hope the sequel’s Anthony equivalent is openly gay and not just subtextually gay.

What? Anthony wasn’t subtextually gay! Why, because Suzanne used to dress him up in women’s clothes? He was dating women all the time! You know, somebody else once told me they thought Anthony was gay, and I was like, “What are you talking about?” Honestly, that was not the intent at all.

I can’t wait to see how the new Designing Women addresses the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But I can only imagine what you had to put up with in the ’80s.

When these stories first started coming out in the news, I thought, I haven’t really been in any compromising situations like that. Maybe men didn’t see me as a victim? But the more I thought about it, it was like, Well, there was that time so-and-so did such-and-such…

What are your thoughts on post-#MeToo Hollywood?

It’s an important conversation we’re having. Not to diminish anyone’s discomfort, but I do believe there are degrees to these situations, and you don’t want to equate someone saying something lewd with women being physically abused and violated. I’ll admit there have been times I’ve heard a story and initially thought, Maybe she could’ve dealt with that privately. But every time I find myself reacting that way—and 99% of the time I don’t—I’ve stopped myself, because I know all of it needs to be out there. Because I don’t think men realize the common thread of constant intimidation and fear that runs through women’s lives.

Designing Women tackled many serious issues, but the episode “Killing All the Right People” stands out for how it dealt with homophobia. Tony Goldwyn guest-starred as a man with AIDS who hires the women to design his funeral. What do you remember about bringing that story to primetime in 1987?

Linda is such a good writer, and that was a personal story for her because her mother had died of AIDS, so I never doubted she could pull it off. Sitcoms would do these “very special episodes” about cancer or child abuse, trying to cram an important story into 22 minutes, and it would often feel forced. But Linda was always able to handle serious subjects, and that episode in particular was extraordinarily moving. It didn’t hurt that Tony Goldwyn was so talented and adorable.

Last Summer/Pat Field

When did your relationship to the LGBTQ community begin?

My whole professional career really started in 1980 with a little off-Broadway play called Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, which was about seven gay women and a straight woman who wanders into their beachside community. I played a lesbian with cancer, and I remember thinking at the time that, at least to my knowledge, I had never known a gay woman.

Did the lesbian community come out to support the play?

It was quite moving, actually, to see the women that would come to this tiny theater in the West Village. These women would come five, 10 times, over and over, bring their friends, and I realized that they’d never seen anything that represented them or that spoke to them in the way shows like Boys in the Band had for gay men. Our audience was only women at first, but after word got out that it was a good show, we started getting a mixed audience. It was a great experience, and I later got to do it again in L.A.

I read some of the reviews by straight male critics. You were facing an uphill battle to normalize lesbians for mainstream audiences.

Yeah. I remember the playwright, Jane Chambers, saying she’d been told that “fags are funny but dykes are gloomy.” So she was like, Oh really? I’ll show you! We can be just as witty and charming and smart and everything else as anybody. I’ve always wanted to do Last Summer as a film. If I’d known anything about the business, I would’ve tried to option the rights back then. I’d welcome another part like that. It’s been a long time.

Next you played bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich in the 1981 Broadway premiere of Piaf. You were cultivating your queer fanbase early.

[Laughs] I guess so, huh? I’ve definitely felt tremendous support from gay men and women over the years. It’s wonderful. I appreciate it so much, and I don’t take it for granted.

Your first project after leaving Designing Women was the 1992 TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story. Were you aggressively trying to play against type?

I didn’t go after that role; it was offered it to me. I remember asking the producers, “What did you see me in that made you think of me for this?” They said, “We want a good actor who can also be sympathetic.” I think they did a very good job with that balance, making Aileen sympathetic but also taking responsibility for the fact that she was guilty of terrible things. She was a tragic character, doomed from the day she was born.

Overkill/CBS

Did you have any concerns playing Aileen so soon after her arrest and sentencing?

My biggest concern was that I didn’t want to hurt any family members of her victims by dredging things up or by not representing things in a good way. But I also felt bad for her, sitting on death row, having no say in how we were telling her life story. I don’t know if she ever saw it.

The movie didn’t really explore Aileen’s sexuality, did it?

Oh, please. The network wouldn’t even let me put my arm around the other girl. It was frustrating. When I saw the Charlize Theron movie, Monster, I was so jealous they got to tell that story without censorship.

Your Aileen was also surprisingly attractive.

I don’t know about that. But I do wish I’d done what Charlize did. She had that great dental prosthetic that totally changed her face.

Let’s talk about your 1998 Lifetime movie A Change of Heart.

Yes! I loved that movie. I just thought it was a great role: A woman who’s happily married for many years, and her whole world explodes in one moment when she finds out her husband, who truly loves her, has a male lover. Somehow they negotiate a friendship after that.

It was later repackaged on DVD as Promises & Lies and marketed as “a true story.”

Well, it was a true story—the screenwriter’s story of what had happened to his parents. I remember talking to him about it. His parents both visited the set, actually, although not together.

24/Fox

You also did the 2015 audiobook of Patience and Sarah, Isabel Miller’s classic lesbian romance novel, with Janis Ian.

Oh, I was so thrilled when Janis wanted me to do that with her. I loved that project. It was very special to me. And we were nominated for a Grammy! We lost to Jimmy Carter.

You got a Tony nomination starring opposite Nathan Lane in the 2000 Broadway revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Any plans to do more New York theater?

I want to so bad. But I have a 10-year-old daughter, and theater has the worst possible schedule when you have a child. I’m occasionally offered plays in New York, and I’m just waiting for that one I can’t turn down. My daughter starts middle school in a year, so I’m figuring out how to come back after that.

I hear you play the president in the upcoming Melissa McCarthy movie Superintelligence.

Yeah, I just finished shooting that. I told my little girl, “Guess what. Mommy’s playing the president!” She looked at me, sort of horrified, and said, “You’re playing Trump?” Uh, no.

You also played a first lady on 24. Did those roles give you any insight as to what’s happening in the White House right now?

No. Does anybody know what’s going on in the White House? Don’t get me started.
 

A Simple Favor is now in theaters.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.
@brandonvoss