Jean Smart as a comical divain The Man Who Came to Dinner(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jean Smart as a comical diva
in The Man Who Came to Dinner
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
She's got leading lady looks and the edgy instincts of a character actress, so it's no wonder that Jean Smart has enjoyed a busy career in every medium. In film, Smart found a niche in family-friendly movies such as Snow Day, Guinevere, The Brady Bunch Movie, and the current Bruce Willis comedy The Kid. On television, she followed a five-year run as Charlene Frazier in Designing Women with star turns in two critically praised but short-lived sitcoms, High Society (an Absolutely Fabulous clone) and Style and Substance (in which she played a character based on Martha Stewart). She was recently nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance as Kelsey Grammer's abrasive childhood friend on Frasier.

Now playing diva Lorraine Forrester in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner, Smart boasts 25 years of stage credits, from the classics in regional theater to recent New York premieres of works by Jon Robin Baitz (The End of the Day in 1992) and Nicky Silver (Fit to Be Tied in 1996).

In Jerry Zaks' production of the Kaufman and Hart classic, Smart looks glamorous in William Ivey Long's gowns, Paul Huntley's platinum wig, and blood-red nail polish. She's a hoot trying to force tears at the predicament of Sheridan Whiteside (Nathan Lane) and barking orders at her unseen French maid. Off stage, Smart leads a far more casual life centered around her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, and their 10-year-old son, Connor. (She arrived several days late for rehearsals because she was unwilling to miss Connor's school play, for which she served as costume designer.)

Between Wednesday performances, the friendly actress chatted about her enduring love of theater and her successful professional and personal juggling act.

********************

TM: Why do you think that The Man Who Came to Dinner remains so popular with audiences?

SMART: There's something about that pre-war period that seems so glamorous and fun. Things were still innocent, and Hollywood was in its absolute heyday. Kaufman and Hart were writing send-ups of their real-life friends and acquaintances, people like Alexander Woollcott and Noël Coward, the Marx Brothers and Gertrude Lawrence. The play was like an enormous "in" joke, and we're doing it in the spirit in which it was written.

TM: Were you familiar with Gertrude Lawrence, the model for Lorraine?

SMART: Not really. No one even told me about that until a week or so ago. I just looked at this as a fun character to play, and Jerry [Zaks] and I worked out what we thought was funny. Lorraine is a woman who got out of Kansas City, made good, and ended up being this huge international star. But she's so used to putting on a fake mid-Atlantic accent and being "on" that I don't even think she knows who she is anymore.

TM: But she knows she wants to trap a husband.

SMART: Oh gosh, yes--an extremely rich husband!

TM: As I watched this large and talented cast, I was wondering if you think that comedic talent and timing can be learned.

SMART: I think you have to have an innate sense of it, more so than with drama. My parents were both funny, and I was a funny kid, although I was never thought of as a comic actor until I moved to Los Angeles. I'd always done the classics: Shakespeare and O'Neill and Greek tragedy.

TM: You've worked at a long list of regional theaters, including Hartford Stage, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Seattle Rep, the Alliance Theatre, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. What were some of your most memorable productions?

SMART: At Hartford Stage, I did the Royal Shakespeare Company's script of The Greeks, a trilogy directed by Mark Lamos. If you wanted to see the whole thing, you had to come on three evenings. On the opening day and closing day of the run we did all three in a day, starting at noon and finishing at midnight. I played Clytemnestra and her sister, Helen of Troy--two dramatically different roles--and it was a thrill. One of my favorite roles of Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten, which I did at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I've also played the Scottish queen, which I'd love to do again. If I'd known that Kelsey [Grammer] was doing [Macbeth], I would have begged him for the role.


TM: Given your extensive stage background, do you feel annoyed when people identify you only as a star of Designing Women?

SMART: I've finally reconciled myself to that. You forget that, when you're on stage, you're acting for 750 people, but one episode of a TV show is seen by millions. You can't fight the math.

TM: What's the appeal of stage acting for you?

SMART: Theater is my home; I feel comfortable on stage. And I like being able to act from head to toe, not just from the shoulders up, which is basically what you do on camera. My legs are the skinniest part of my body, and they don't get seen on camera! I don't ever like to stay away from the theater for too long, but it's difficult--especially doing a play in New York, because I live in Los Angeles. It's very expensive to come here, and I can't afford to do it very often. The only reason I was able to do this play and the two I did at Playwrights Horizons [by Jon Robin Baitz and Nicky Silver] is that I've made some money in film and television.

TM: And yet you've managed to work with two of the theater's brightest emerging writers.

SMART: I know. I think Nicky Silver is extremely talented, and Robbie Baitz is astonishing. Before I did his play, I saw The Substance of Fire, which I thought was one of the most incredible pieces of writing I'd ever seen. And Robbie is so young! They were talking with me about a series he was writing for Showtime, but I don't know what's happening with that.

TM: You haven't had the best luck with TV series since Designing Women.

SMART: The last one [Style and Substance] was a real disappointment. I have a friend who has come up with a very funny idea for a series that we're going to pitch to the networks in the next few weeks, because [a sitcom] is a great schedule if you have a kid. If I could get the Frasier writers, I would think I'd died and gone to heaven.

TM: Those of us who are parents have enjoyed your recent movie work. The Brady Bunch Movie [in which Smart played the Bradys' sexy, alcoholic neighbor] was particularly funny.

SMART: Michael McKean [as Smart's smarmy husband] and I had so much fun doing that--you have no idea! The movie ended up being about four hours long, so they cut at least 30 percent of our stuff, and some of it was a scream. It was really sick. Have you seen The Kid?

TM: Not yet.

SMART: My son loved it. I wasn't sure what he would think, because it's kind of grown up, but he thought it was great. I play a woman that Bruce Willis meets on an airplane who befriends him and gives him some good advice. My son said, "Well, your part wasn't very big." [laughs] That's all he had to say about my performance!

TM: What's the key to balancing two acting careers in one family?

SMART: [pauses] Oh, boy. First of all, you'd better really like each other! Any time you have a husband and wife in the same business, I suppose there could be problems. But I always think that actors have an advantage, because Richard [Gilliland] and I can never be up for the same part.

TM: But you're more famous than he is. No problems there?

SMART: He was a huge household name when I was still plugging away in the theater. He had his own series a few times: He starred in Operation Petticoat and Just Our Luck. When we go to Europe, everybody recognizes him and nobody knows me from Adam. The thing that's good about our careers is that we're usually not working at the same time, so our son is used to having one of us around.

TM: Are your husband and son with you in New York this summer?

SMART: Yes. It all worked out great. In May and June, Richard was here working on a production of a new play by Ernest Thompson called The Penis Responds, a response to you-know-what [The Vagina Monologues]. They did it for just three weeks to see how it went, and now Ernest is going to do some rewrites. My son didn't want me to plan anything special for him while we're here; he said, "It's my vacation, Mom!" I finally coerced him into doing a two-week music program. But he has made friends with the six little choirboys in our play. They're at the movies right now watching Rocky and Bullwinkle together, so he's in heaven.

TM: And you get to christen a newly restored Broadway house [the American Airlines Theatre].

SMART: Oh, I know. It's just great. I love a proscenium stage, and I love the fact that we have this breathtakingly beautiful, old-fashioned set. There are 750 seats in the theater, and they're all close. It's like they've uncovered this little jewel.