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Jean Smart Talks Family, Grief and Aging: ‘Every Day Is Precious Now’

Emmy-winning ‘Hacks’ actress tells AARP how she’s dealing with grief, teases upcoming one-woman show

spinner image Jean Smart against green ombre background
AARP (Matthias Clamer/MAX)

On the hit Max show Hacks, Jean Smart, 72, plays a veteran comedian, Deborah Vance, who develops a complicated relationship with a 20-something comedy writer, Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder. When asked what viewers can expect from the characters in Season 3 of the show, out May 2, Smart teases that “It’s the season of sex and ambition.” The Emmy-winning actress tells AARP why she feels the show resonates with different generations, plus she reveals how she’s dealing with the sudden loss of her husband and how his death changed her perspective on aging.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Any insights into why fans are loving your show?

A lot of it is they enjoy that headbutting of the generations, and that dynamic between those two characters [Deborah and Ava] because they’re both slightly neurotic. So it’s fun, but [there’s] also the generational thing everybody can relate to, whether it’s with their parents or a coworker. I was very pleasantly surprised and pleased that [the show is] continuing, [and] that men love the show. At the very first, I thought, I don’t know, are guys gonna say, “Oh, it’s a chick show”? But men love it. I hear all the time … ‘Oh, my husband loves the show.’ I love that.

While you were filming the first season of Hacks, you unexpectedly lost your husband [actor Richard Gilliland died in March 2021 from a heart condition]. How are you doing?

Both my sons [Connor, 34, and Forrest, 15] live with me right now, which has been great. Since we lost their dad, my oldest son has been so helpful. I don’t know how I would have done it without him. I don’t know how single working mothers do it — I really, really truly don’t — without the kind of support and resources and everything that I have. It’s still so, so hard sometimes.

What else has helped you get through this difficult time?

We all miss him still so much, but it’s getting a little easier only in the sense that now it’s very real and part of our life. For so long, it literally just did not seem real. It was the strangest feeling. It just didn’t seem possible. Laurie Burrows [Grad] wrote a book after her husband passed away very suddenly from a heart attack. The title of the book — it’s a wonderful book — is Joke’s Over, You Can Come Back Now [How This Widow Plowed Through Grief and Survived]. And that is exactly how it felt. It’s bizarre. Work — as much as I felt like I should be home all the time — it helped a great deal.

When you’re home with your kids, do you spend time together watching TV? Any guilty pleasures?

Well, our guilty pleasure is watching South Park. My oldest and I were watching The Crown together, which we both love. [Forest] had his spring break recently, and so we decided to go to New York for a week and see some shows. So the three of us went, and we had a really good time. … We saw some old friends, which was really nice.

What’s the best advice you gave your sons as they were growing up?

I always told both my sons, especially when they were little, to always be kind. Don’t ever get your pleasure from somebody else’s pain or your entertainment from someone else’s discomfort. I can say absolutely without hesitation that they are both 100 percent like that. They are both incredibly, incredibly kind human beings. 

What’s your perspective on aging?

That feeling — that sense of every day is precious now, or certainly more precious than it used to be. It’s that whole thing of your mortality — and certainly when you lose your partner of 35 years — suddenly, your mortality becomes very real. Physical aches and pains are the things I hate most about it. … I told a friend the other day, “I feel like an antique car that just needs constant parts and polishing.”

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When you get some free time, what’s on your to-do list?

I would like to do some traveling. I haven’t done much traveling for years. And I really, really want to do that. I want to go back to the British Isles. I love the British Isles. I would like to go to Portugal. For some reason, that’s someplace I’ve always wanted to go. I would like to go back to Asia. We were in China for two weeks when we adopted our youngest. And also Japan. I loved Japan when I was there. I was there briefly during my first marriage. My then-husband was stationed there, and I fell in love with Japan.

Any travel strategies when you hit the road?

I make sure that I bring something so that I’m warm enough, because airplanes are always like meat lockers and I hate that. I just make sure I wear really comfortable clothes, slip-on shoes, and try to bring something to read. Or just plan on catching up on some sleep.

What are you reading?

One book I recently read that I absolutely loved was The Boys in the Boat [by Daniel James Brown]. They made it into a movie, which George Clooney directed. The book is just phenomenal. And what was fun for me to read was that it took place at my alma mater, the University of Washington. It’s a true story and set in the 1930s. It’s just incredible.

You haven’t written a book yet. Do you want to?

No. People have asked me that a few times. I said the problem is the parts of my life that people would find interesting are not the parts of my life that I would be willing to share. So no, I don’t think I’ll do that.

spinner image Jean Smart in a seat on a plane in a still from Hacks
Smart stars as seasoned comedian Deborah Vance in the Max series "Hacks."
Courtesy MAX

Now that Hacks production has wrapped, what’s next for you?

I’m working on a one-woman show [for summer 2025]. We finally did [a reading] yesterday. It was exhausting, but it was really, really, really fun. Oh my gosh, it is such a gorgeous script. It’s about this woman who lives in a trailer park in Louisiana, and she got married when she was 17 right out of high school, and poetry just pours out of her, and she’s learned that she has to hide it. She has a husband who is very abusive and he hates this part of her. The thing that she most treasures about herself, he hates. Some of it’s very funny, some of it’s very painful.

You’re still getting offered juicy parts. I guess you won’t be retiring anytime soon?

Apparently not. Actors don’t retire, they just go until they drop. We figure they’ll always need old people in movies and TV shows. That’s the only profession you can say that about, really.

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