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Jean Smart, of Designing Women and Legion, on combating Hollywood ageism

“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.”

Jean Smart stars as Melanie in FX’s Legion.
Matthias Clamer/FX
Emily St. James is a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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.

Emily VanDerWerff

You’ve been working since the 1980s, and I’m wondering: How has the industry changed for women acting since you started, and how does it still have a ways to go?

Jean Smart

Things have changed in the sense that there’s simply more work for actors, and so there’s automatically more work for women. Although, I was just talking to somebody, and it never occurred to me before: It used to be that doing stories that were based on an actual event or based on a true story — you’d sort of look down your nose at it. It was some silly movie of the week or something, based on a true story.

Now, the movie studios and the television studios can’t get enough. They have scores of people scouring, looking for stories based on true events, although the one that kills me is when they say “based on an actual event.” First of all, that sounds so loose. And secondly, name one thing that has ever been written that wasn’t based on an actual event. Even Legion, I think, must have been. Well, maybe not. Okay, our show’s the only one in history. [Laughs.]

And so because of that, because you’re doing stories about real people and real events, there are going to be more parts for women, because you’re thinking, well, if it’s based on an actual person — women have always been sort of underrepresented in stories because it used to be that it was only men who were out in the world doing things. You know what I mean? Women weren’t out in public. They were at home. They weren’t out there fighting wars or writing books or being doctors, so everything was written about men and we were very, very secondary.

Unfortunately, that just hung on for so long, people just kind of accepted it, so even when the world started to change and women were out in the world doing everything that men were doing, that wasn’t reflected in plays and television and movies, and now, it’s finally starting to reflect the real world.

2018 Winter TCA Tour - FX Starwalk - Arrivals
Jean Smart attends the 2018 Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

Have you had a point in your career when you felt like you struggled to find parts you wanted to play?

Jean Smart

I think just now that I’m not, you know, 35, it’s a lot harder, simply because you go to a movie, how many people my age are there? There’s Meryl, and that’s it. [Laughs.] And maybe somebody’s really cute secretary. Or there’s Helen Mirren, and that’s it. You know? It’s not like there’s going to be four or five parts in the movie for women my age, unless that’s the plot of the movie. Whereas you go to most movies, there’s going to be at least a half a dozen men my age, at least, playing nice supporting roles.

Emily VanDerWerff

Designing Women was at a point where we had Murphy Brown and Roseanne and all these shows led by really smart, interesting women, both the actresses and the characters they played, and it felt like maybe that went away for a while. Did it feel that way to you, as someone trying to get parts?

Jean Smart

It did. In fact, I remember when Designing Women ended, it was right around the time Murphy Brown ended. It was sort of like, clean sweep, no more Monday night women’s night, and every show after that was anchored by a guy. And some network executives ... they don’t actually send around a memo, because that could incriminate them, but they let it be known that no show on our network will be anchored by a woman over 40, or this talk show will never have a female guest on who is over 35, with a couple exceptions, like Meryl. You can see that when you watch talk shows.

Emily VanDerWerff

I sometimes feel like we don’t talk a lot about Hollywood ageism. Obviously you’ve had a very successful career. You continue to get great work, but do you feel like that’s the case, that there is this unspoken line, especially for women over a certain age?

Jean Smart

True. It is true, because for whatever reason, the things that we find attractive in men come with age, and the things that we find attractive in women come with youth. So that of course is going to be reflected in our entertainment.

This was a few years ago, but they said the average age difference, literally, between a male character and a female character in a marriage in a movie or TV show was about 20 years, and in real life, the average age difference between a husband and a wife is two years. Also, if the husband is funny in a movie, the wife cannot have any sense of humor whatsoever. I’ve seen that so many times, and I don’t know why. In real life, I don’t think that’s true. I think funny people get together.

Emily VanDerWerff

When the movie Neighbors came out, everybody was, like, “Wow, they let Rose Byrne” — who played the main character’s wife in that movie — “be funny!” And it was treated as this phenomenally feminist thing, but women are funny in real life.

Jean Smart

I know, see, that’s the thing is, over a certain age they think, “Well, if you’re not sexually attractive, what possible reason would we have to look at you, or be interested in what you have to say or do?” Unless you’re hysterically funny or you’re playing Mother Teresa or something. It’s, like, “We’re not quite sure what to do with you.” But women can be funny and everything they were at 30 [when they’re older].

Listen to the rest of our conversation to hear Smart’s stories of her early career, her memories of Designing Women, and her attempts to understand just what’s happening on Legion.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.