Jean Smart’s ‘Watchmen’ Debut: On Silk Spectre, Becoming an Action Hero, and the ‘Designing Women’ Comeback
One of TV’s reigning MVPs talks wrapping her head around the “Watchmen” universe, finally becoming an action hero at age 68, and the resurgent popularity of “Designing Women.”
Everyone was talking about Watchmen. Critics were raving about it. Fans were debating it. Trolls were trolling it—which is how you know something really clicked. Jean Smart, however, was taking her daughter to school.
The premiere of HBO’s Watchmen series may have struck the zeitgeist like a lightning bolt three weeks ago, but when we spoke the morning after that first, highly discussed episode, the Emmy-winning actress was biding her time. It was not until Sunday night’s third episode, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” that Smart made her debut in Damon Lindelof’s alt-history sequel to the iconic graphic novel, in what not only ranks among its most pivotal roles but also among the best television performances of the year.
She was tickled by the massive response to the show, she tells me. But she was also antsy for people to finally see her character, Laurie Blake, a no-nonsense FBI agent on her second career after retiring her superhero alter-ego, Silk Spectre. (That latter bit of information should be a major revelation to Watchmen fans.)
After letting out one of her instantly recognizable cackles, a laugh that shoots into the air like a jack-in-a-box, both musical and guttural at the same time—if you’ve seen her work on the series Designing Women, Frasier, or Samantha Who?, you know it—she takes a breath to land her punchline. “Who’d have thought I would get to be the badass at this point in my career?”
“She Was Killed By Space Junk” is framed by a monologue Smart delivers as Laurie, likely to satiate fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1987 graphic novel as it finally calls on more of the mythology and canon of the source material.
Turns out Laurie is speaking through a phone booth to Dr. Manhattan, the love of her life who has been living in exile on Mars following the near-apocalyptic finale of the novel. She’s not even sure he’s receiving her messages, at least not until he gives her an unmistakable sign at the end of the hour that leaves her in a stunned fit of laughter with her head turned toward the sky.
The speech to Dr. Manhattan, calling on their relationship from the past—HBO’s Watchmen takes place more than 30 years after the events of the graphic novel—brings into question her motives for working on the FBI’s anti-vigilante task force. (Keeping in line with the first two episodes, not every question is easily answered.)
At the top of the episode, Laurie stages a heist in a sting operation meant to catch a masked vigilante. Later, she heads to Tulsa to investigate the murder of Sheriff Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) and learn more about Regina King’s Angela Abar, whom Laurie fully knows is a vigilante herself, Sister Night.
Though the old days are behind her, Laurie still boasts Silk Spectre’s sensual swagger, sporting her auburn hair and long trench coat with the easy confidence of a superhero in spandex, and weaponizing her lack of patience in a deadpan that she wields like a poison dart. “Sir, are your civil rights being violated?” she asks when she encounters a white supremacist who has been nabbed by vigilantes and taken in for questioning. “Sorry, I was just kidding,” she tells him after he pleads for her help. “I don’t care.”
Keeping you highly entertained while questioning her characters’ morals and motives, of course, is Smart’s specialty. Forty years into her career, she’s cemented herself as among television’s reigning MVPs, a bellwether of whether something is going to not just be good, but legitimately excellent, just by her presence.
There was her breakout role as the good-natured, if naive Charlene Frazier Stillfield on Designing Women. The surprisingly progressive celebration of four Atlanta-based steel magnolias launched in 1986 and is seeing resurgent popularity now, a result of Hulu making it available for streaming for the first time earlier this year.
From there, take your pick for the series you like her most from: her Emmy-winning guest turns on Frasier; playing first lady Martha Logan on 24; Christina Applegate’s batty mother on Samantha Who? (for which she won another Emmy); the bone-chilling matriarch Floyd Gerhardt on the second season of Fargo; or Dr. Melanie Bird on the trippy X-Men series, Legion. At the moment, she’s preparing to shoot the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown, alongside Kate Winslet. “I’ve never seen her play anything like this part,” she teases.
Fittingly, the same could be said of Smart when it comes to Watchmen.
When Smart’s agent called to tell her that show creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) and HBO were going to offer her the role in Watchmen, she didn’t know much about the graphic novel or the intensity of the fanbase that surrounds it and its lore—though she learned quickly when she started telling comic-book diehard friends about the project and they nearly deafened her with their excitement and disbelief.
The series was just about to start shooting, which meant there was only time for Lindelof to give Smart a crash course in all things Watchmen. When it comes to a property as steeped in politically charged themes and history as Watchmen (as the polarized discourse since the series premiered suggests), class is never really dismissed. Smart immersed herself in the novel, not to mention the attachés and information packets she was supplied with about the world before shooting.
Helping her from feeling too disoriented was the fact that she was coming off working with Noah Hawley, who first cast her on Fargo, then Legion, a series so often confusing and mysterious that she learned, more than at any other time in her career, to hold your breath and jump off the cliff, trusting that the material will catch you when you fall.
“I did love the character of Laurie so much when I read [the script],” she says. “You identify with her more than some of the other characters, in a way. But then you realize that she’s a really kind of damaged, depressed, lonely person. The reasons she ends up in the FBI, which you find out later, and the compromises she has made in her life… I just keep thinking of new things about her.”
As her voice starts to trail off, she takes a deep, almost wistful breath. “I hope I get to do another season with her,” she says, indicating that she has no concrete information on the future of the series in a sing-song tease: “We shall seeeee…”
When she first got the script, she was struck by Laurie’s devotion to Dr. Manhattan and how the character still read as such a sexual person, despite having spent all these years pining away. But she did have one pause.
“One of the first things I asked Damon on the phone was, ‘OK, let’s talk about the big, blue elephant in the room…’” she laughs, referring to a photo in an attaché that caught her eye of Dr. Manhattan’s indelible blue penis, as unimpeachable a part of Watchmen’s canon as anything else. And that's not to mention a cameo appearance by a certain blue dildo. “He said, ‘Oh don’t worry about that.’ Meanwhile I’m thinking, thank God my poor parents are gone. What would they think of this?”
She was also enticed by the opportunity to, for the first time in her career, become a gun-slinging, sharp-shooting action star, showing off a slick bluster that suits the 68-year-old actor well. “It’s a terrible thing to say—I’m not a gun person at all—but you think, the guys always get to do the fun action stuff, so this could be sort of fun,” she says.
When it came to the big heist scene and the tense sequence at Judd’s funeral, both of which conclude with Laurie shooting the bad guy, things were slightly hampered by the fact that, two days before she got the call offering her the part, Smart got stem cell injections in her left knee.“I said, I can fake it. I can’t squat down with this knee yet. I said, I can be in a squatting position. You just can’t film [me] getting into it or getting out of it.” She laughs again. “My husband’s so jealous.”
For all the research done to make sure she had a handle on the universe and Laurie’s backstory, Smart says there was one source Lindelof told her and the actors to steer clear of: Zack Snyder’s much maligned 2009 big-screen adaptation. Though Smart was intrigued—she had, funnily enough, worked on a TV pilot with Malin Akerman, who plays the younger Silk Spectre in the film—Lindelof didn’t want anyone to have preconceived notions about their characters before shooting his version.
As for the other thing to prep for—fan pandemonium—Smart plays it cool. She’s been trained for that already, what with the rabid fan base for 24 and her trips to Comic-Con in support of Legion. The cast of Watchmen appeared at the New York Comic-Con this fall, just ahead of the series premiere.
She figures that she’ll see plenty of people dressed as King’s Sister Night for Halloween this year. Though, because her episode airs just a few days after the holiday, it’s unlikely there will be many Laurie Blakes. “In New York, everybody wears a black trench coat anyway,” she says, sort of giggling in her speech. “Like, where’s your costume?”
As if I was going to talk to Jean Smart without asking about Designing Women.
It was a trippy experience, you see. When Watchmen screeners arrived for editorial and review consideration earlier this fall, I was already four seasons into a binge rewatch of Designing Women, taking advantage of Hulu’s recent coup to watch the former CBS hit for the first time since reruns aired on Lifetime around the time I got home from school in the ‘90s.
It was at once unsettling and a marvel to spend nights before bed watching Smart twang in her Southern drawl, daffy and full of lightness as Charlene, and then head to work the next day and watch screeners of her in full dark and intense badass mode as Laurie in Watchmen.
Smart loses it a bit when I tell her this, erupting in one of those circular fits of laughter that cycles through hoots, breathlessness, and some hearty guffaws that scored so many scenes of Designing Women. “I wish someone would cast me in a Charlene-type role again one of these days,” she says. “I miss playing those kinds of characters.”
Apparently Delta Burke, who played former beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker on the series, which centered on four strong-minded friends working for a boutique design firm during changing social and political times in Atlanta, has been texting Smart and their co-star, Annie Potts. She has been making her way through the series again on Hulu, and noticed that chunks of scenes and lines were missing, and that some episodes were airing out of order.
“So we’re kind of not happy about that,” Smart says. “I’m thinking, how hard can it be to just show it in order? I don’t understand.”
While some reaction shots and jokes may be missing, what’s still on display is the groundbreaking ways in which the series tackled social issues, in some cases way ahead of its time, considering how long it would take for other TV series to catch up.
There were episodes that educated about the AIDS crisis, at a time when the president himself was ignoring the plague, and supported the LGBT community. Storylines routinely championed feminism, and explored everything from racial biases to domestic violence to pornography to faith and religion, all filtered through the cast’s fiery monologues and banter, as envisioned by series co-creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
“Linda was amazing,” Smart says. “I don’t think she ever really got the credit for that show that she deserved. She was fearless that way. And so funny.”
In 2018, Bloodworth-Thomason wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter, in part titled “Not All Harassment Is Sexual.” In it, she chronicled how despite being one of CBS’ biggest hitmakers and the recipient of the largest writing and producing contract in the history of the network, every project she had in development for seven years was torpedoed by Les Moonves, who hated what he perceived as her feminist agenda. For almost a decade, he veritably and single-handedly ruined her career out of misogyny and spite.
“I was shocked,” Smart says. “I had no idea the extent of it. There had been little hints of it. Not when we were working on the show, but later, comments here and there. But I had no idea. I can’t imagine how bitter that would make you and how frustrating that would be.”
The ordeal makes it especially vindicating that the show is finding a new audience now, though Smart is tickled by how fans’ passion for it—specifically, it must be said, gay fans—never extinguished in the decades since it went off the air.
She thinks it was Bloodworth-Thomason who told her maybe 10 years ago about the gay bars in the South that played certain speeches from the series on loop, particularly the arias delivered by the late Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker. “I thought that was really cool.”
I tell her that I can corroborate, having seen more than one drag queen lip sync to Carter’s legendary “the night the lights went out on Georgia” speech on various stages. She seems genuinely touched by that. “I miss Dixie,” she says. Smart was actually married in Carter and husband Hal Holbrook’s rose garden over 30 years ago. “I miss her so much.”
Smart is in amused disbelief about several things. That it’s been so long since Designing Women aired, for one. The baby that she was pregnant with while shooting the show is now about to turn 30. But also that she’s been able to have such a diverse, wide-ranging career and not be typecast as Charlene after the success of the show. Laurie Blake is lightyears away from Charlene Frazier.
“I don’t know how or why it happened, but I’m very appreciative of it,” she says. She remembers that the first role she was offered after leaving Designing Women was serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story. (Charlize Theron won an Oscar for portraying Wuornos 11 years later in Monster.)
“I thought, I wonder why they thought of me. So weird.” She laughs again. “There must be something about me, Kevin, I don’t know…”
She seems to be taken by surprise, but also delighted by a reporter’s interest in Designing Women. But to bring things back around to the real occasion at hand, her sure-to-be-buzzy work on Watchmen, I end our conversation by asking her to tease something that people should be excited to see from the rest of the season.
“People will like seeing how my relationship with Regina’s character evolves,” she says. “Also, I have some scenes with Jeremy Irons that were really fun,” referring to Irons’ character, presumed to be Adrian Veidt from the comics. “So get excited for that.”