The Emmy winner on politics, popularity, and sex with Brad Pitt
Your new movie Babylon is about the excesses of Hollywood’s early days. I heard that in that first crazy party scene there were extras who were actually doing coke and molly.
[ Laughs.] If I had seen anybody taking anything, I would’ve just assumed it was a prop. A few people were asked to leave, I guess. But I did think, “I’m not sure what my mother would think of this scene.”
What was she like?
My parents were both very bright and funny. My dad was a history teacher. My mother chose to stay home and raise four kids. They both grew up very, very poor in the Depression, so they knew how to do things for themselves.
What’s something they taught you and your siblings that’s really mattered?
A very clear message about being on the side of the underdog, which is why, I think, we were all staunch Democrats. I never could understand friends who wanted to do things deliberately to piss off their parents. I didn’t have that rebellious streak.
So you weren’t cutting class with the burnouts.
It’s funny, because throughout high school, I used to think it was odd that I didn’t have a clique. But maybe that’s why I became an actor. I was a cheerleader, so I was friends with all the athletes and the cool people, but I was also in drama, so I was friends with all the theater nerds — I say that with the utmost affection and respect.
You’ve played some hard-edged women, but you’ve talked about how the character you’re closest to is the innocent one from Designing Women.
I do still feel that way, though at this stage of my life, I’ve become more of a smartass. Being a smartass gets you out of a lot of situations.
Your comedy series Hacks, where you play a stand-up working with a much younger writing partner, features a lot of intergenerational humor about how the world is for women. How much progress do you think has really been made?
Every time I get into a dress that’s too tight or undergarments that are too restricting or eyelashes that don’t feel good for some event, I think, “I don’t think we’ve progressed far. What man would do this to himself?” But I think we’re chipping away at the inequities. There are more and more stories about women being told. That’s not necessarily because we decided to be equitable; I think it’s that, throughout history, with obvious exceptions, men were the ones who went out and did things in the world. Now, people are finally catching up with the fact that women are risking things and doing things in the same way.
In Babylon, you have a pivotal scene with Brad Pitt where you give a devastating monologue about the fleeting nature of fame.
Are you talking about our big sex scene?
[ Laughs.] Yeah, that one. [Editor’s note: There is no such sex scene.]
Yeah, get people titillated! No, the scene with Brad was why I had to do the movie. It’s so beautifully written, and you see how my character is caught up in the mystical, magical part of Hollywood, this new industry that made people into practically gods and goddesses.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
I got to go to Elton John’s last concert, and I thought back to how much déjà vu I had with so many different songs.
It’s wild that Harry Styles uses Deborah Vance, your Hacks character, as his secret hotel name.
I know! I have actually never met the man. But he apparently is a fan. He sent me flowers and a gorgeous vintage pepper shaker, because my character collects them.
Before we sign off, just a quick mental picture: Where are you right now?
I’m not going to lie, I’m still in bed. I’ve always said I can’t think of a reason to get out of a soft, warm, cushy bed except if I’m getting paid or have to take a child to school.
Do you have coffee?
I never got in a habit of drinking coffee, except when there’s some Baileys Irish Cream in it.
So caffeine is not a vice. Do you have any?
Chardonnay and potato chips.
Sometimes, but then I really feel guilty.
Jean Smart costars in the drama ‘Babylon,’ in theaters now.