One of the great rises to fame in recent television history has been that of Jean Smart. The veteran actress has accumulated an impressive number of film, TV, and theater credits in her four-decade career, developing a reputation for playing strong-willed and dignified women, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she gained widespread critical admiration for her role on the second season of FX’s Fargo. Smart played Floyd Gerhardt, the nigh-sociopathic matriarch of the Gerhardt crime family, and earned an Emmy nomination for her performance.
Now, she’s reunited with both FX and Fargo auteur Noah Hawley. On Legion, a Hawley-helmed series loosely inspired by the X-Men comics, she plays a very different matriarch: Melanie Bird, the leader of a group of superpowered mutants who are being hunted down by the government. Vulture caught up with Smart on the Legion set for a conversation about the high standards she sets for herself, baking cupcakes for her castmates, and how little she knew about Legion before she stepped in front of the camera.
Legion is a little off the beaten path. How did Noah pitch you on it?
He said, “I’m doing a new show that I want to talk to you about.” Basically I just said, well, whatever’s in there. I didn’t really even know what it was about. That’s a first. I’ve never had that before. I had such an incredible experience on Fargo, and I was so impressed with him, as a writer.
What impressed you about him?
Actors like me, who come from the theater, are used to having really good words to say. When you start doing film and television, there seems to be, all of a sudden, a dramatic change in the kind of material you have. It’s not necessarily that it’s not as good, but it’s different. Theater is much more about the words, so to have someone like Noah giving you words to say was kind of like an oasis in the desert.
When he told you about the show, what did he say it was?
Well, he didn’t, really.
That’s one way to do things, I suppose.
I just kind of went on faith, you know.
So he literally just said, “I’m doing a show.”
And you said, “Let’s do it.”
Yes. I didn’t even know right away that the show was based on an X-Men character.
Did Noah at least tell you about your character? Did he tell you anything before you shot the pilot?
No. [Laughs.] It’s been kind of a learning process. But in the pilot, I just come in literally in the last 30 seconds. So that wasn’t really a problem. He sort of described her as a rescuer, which appealed to me very much.
I don’t know. I think it’s ’cause I’m a Virgo or something. I like taking care of people. Taking in stray cats and things.
Have you become something of a caretaker of the cast?
Well, I don’t know if I’m a caretaker, but I sort of think of myself as the house mother. Being one of the senior members of the cast, it’s sort of like house mother at the co-ed sorority/fraternity. I brought in cookies the other day.
Some cupcakes, the other day.
Did you bake them?
Yes, of course I did.
Sorry, shouldn’t have doubted.
I put X’s on the cupcakes. Little X’s.
How do you build a character if you know so little about her?
Well, at first it was scary and difficult because I felt like I didn’t have a lot of road maps. She’s not a character that is really in the X-Men world. And as far as I know, I have no special powers besides making cookies. So I just gave myself over to the notion that it would just evolve. Which in a way can be a good thing when you’re doing a series, because if you marry yourself to certain things at the beginning that then aren’t supported by the script, you’re in trouble. You want to be specific, you don’t wanna be vague, but at the same time, you have to be careful what you solidify at the beginning. That might not serve you so well toward the end.
Were you nervous about slipping into the superhero genre?
No, I thought it would be fun. And also, again, knowing the auspices under which it was going to be done, I knew it would be classy, like Fargo.
You’ve been shooting out here in the rainy and cold Pacific Northwest. Does that environment provide any challenges or advantages?
I’m from Seattle, so this feels normal. I’ve always felt part Canadian. My grandfather was actually Canadian. Born and raised on Prince Edward Island. So now, I figured that some Americans are thinking of moving to Canada — for reasons we won’t name — I figured I might have a leg up on that movement.
As a stage actor, how do you adjust to green-screen work?
Well, first of all you’re looking at nothing, so you have to pretend a lot. There’s a scene where I literally walked through a wall. So they had all this green fabric, and I sort of stuck my hand in.
You’ve been in the hustle for a while. Does the TV industry that you work in now, the TV that you do now, resemble at all the TV you did decades ago?
Not a lot, no. The evolution of it has been remarkable, and so quick. Really good television now is better, by far, than most movies. It’s interesting, too, because it used to be very big networks and pretty much that was it. We had HBO and Showtime. Now, what’s nice is that you can work steadily and still be kind of anonymous. It used to be if you were on a series, that was it. That was how the world saw you. You know what I mean? Now, people are running hit shows that I’ve never heard of. That’s kind of wonderful. Most people assume that actors want to be famous, but I don’t think that’s what most actors want.
Was that ever true for you? When you were younger, did you want to be a movie star?
No, but I was definitely the ham of the family. I liked making people laugh. No, I didn’t think of it that way because I did theater. No one becomes famous through theater.
The younger actors I’ve interviewed all say they adore you and have learned from you. What have you learned from them?
Oh, good God. Mr. Riesman, that makes you feel old.
I’m thinking, Really, I’m that category now? Oh, dear God. Shoot me now. Just take me out and shoot me. ’Cause I remember feeling that way about certain actors. Now, I … oh, God. I admire all of them. I think they’re all gonna be hugely successful after this. Some of them already are, but, oh my God. They’re all so talented. I don’t think there’s anything Dan can’t do.
He certainly nails the American accent.
Oh my goodness, yes. Some Brits can’t do that. He had trouble with one word after his family came to visit. It was rapport. For a few days after, he slipped back on this one word. He kept saying ra-pore. We go, “No, no.”
Do you miss your Fargo character?
I do actually. I do. I had a great time playing Floyd. Ten episodes wasn’t quite enough. That was a great experience. I would have been addicted to the show, whether I was in it or not. It was absolutely flawless from top to bottom.
I was particularly fond of Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst.
Weren’t they magic together? They broke my heart. It was like watching somebody driving toward a cliff. You just knew it was not gonna end well. Jesse, he just looked like a big 9-year-old to me. I really wanted to just hug him. And I wanted to be able to kill off Kirsten. But no.