When it came to signing on to her latest role, as a psychiatrist to the mutants in the FX sci-fi drama Legion, Jean Smart took a leap of faith.
The Emmy Award–winning actress, probably best known as naive office manager Charlene Frazier in the hit ’80s sitcom Designing Women, was hot off her role as mob boss Floyd Gerhardt in the acclaimed black comedy Fargo, also on FX, when she was approached by Legion creator Noah Hawley with an offer to join his new series. The catch? The character was a bit of a mystery.
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“I actually had no idea of who or what she was going to be,” admits Smart, 66. “Just based on my experience with Fargo — and I have never done this before — I said, ‘Yes, where do I sign?’ Because I knew if he was writing it, it was going to be good and interesting, and I trusted him. That was a new one for me; it was a little scary!”
After a first season that saw her character, Melanie Bird, find and lose (again) her beloved husband, Oliver (Jemaine Clement), while helping David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) understand and harness his secret powers, Smart promises that the new season (which premieres April 3, 10 p.m. ET/PT) will be even more mind-blowing. “I keep telling everyone that Season 2 makes Season 1 look like See Spot Run.”
Q. Was sci-fi a new genre for you?
I was aware of Marvel and some of the comics, but… [the show] is not a typical superhero movie. It’s very cerebral, very psychological. It’s almost a study in madness. People would come up to me after the end of Season 1 and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I love your new show. I don’t completely understand it… but I can't wait to see it again!’ I’ve never had that kind of reaction before.
Q. You’ve played everything from a ditzy Southern woman to a serial killer, a first lady, a crime boss and now a mutant psychiatrist. How?