“There’s not going to be four or five parts in the movie for women my age, unless that’s the plot of the movie.”
Designing Women, Frasier, 24, Fargo, Legion — some of the best TV shows of the past 30-plus years have one terrific actress in common: Jean Smart. Tall, striking, and bold, Smart has carved out a path in Hollywood that involves never doing the same thing twice, to the degree that her immediate follow-up to the sitcom Designing Women was a role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a made-for-TV movie.
Smart is currently one of FX’s Noah Hawley players, bouncing between the TV producer’s Fargo (where she played an unlikely Midwestern crime boss in 1979 in the show’s second season) and his X-Men series Legion (where she plays the head of a secret program investigating mutants). Just watching Hawley write for Smart makes clear how versatile she is. He keeps tossing new challenges her way, and she keeps landing them with precision.
But, needless to say, there are plenty of actresses who haven’t managed to build nearly 40-year careers. What’s unique about Smart is how she seems to never stop working, even as she’s never content to be pigeonholed into a “Jean Smart role” (whatever that would mean). So when she joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I wanted to know if she had found it more difficult to get work as she aged.
Her answer, as you might expect, was “yes,” but it was a more qualified yes than I was expecting, and I was interested in how she traced the differences in roles offered to men and women back to the very roots of storytelling itself — before offering up a sly takedown of Hollywood sexism in her inimitable way.
That portion of our conversation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
A familiar face around Indiana University Southeast appeared on the season finale of “Who Do You Think You Are” on TLC.
Dr. Kelly Ryan, a historian and dean of the School of Social Sciences at IUS, made a guest appearance on the cable network show to help actress Jean Smart, known for her roles in “Designing Women” and “24,” understand her lineage.
Ryan, who lives in Louisville, said she was initially contacted by the show to help with another celebrity who later backed out. They never told Ryan who the celeb was, so the mystery will remain, but when Smart had an ancestor in Salem, Mass., they contacted Ryan again.
Smart, with the help of genealogists, traced her ancestry back to one particularly interesting person, Dorcas Hoar, her eighth great-grandmother. In 1678 in Essex County, Mass., Hoar was charged with running thievery ring, which used domestic servants to pilfer items from wealthy homes. Her daughter Annis Hoar, who was 14 at the time, testified against her in the case. Annis is Smart’s seventh great-grandmother.
This is where Ryan comes in. She specializes in race, gender, sexuality and violence in early United States history, and her first book “Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700-1830” tells the stories of women charged with sexual crimes in early Massachusetts. She is currently working on a second book about women who faced criminal charges.