Over the last 20 years, Jean Smart received nine Emmy nominations across a variety of genres. She also won three Emmys for her comedic performances in Frasier (Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2000 and 2001) and Samantha Who (Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 2006). She has a Tony nomination, a Critics’ Choice Television Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Awards ensemble nomination for 24.
Given that enviable pedigree, Smart remains an incredibly down-to-earth actress. When we spoke about her latest Emmy nomination for HBO’s Watchmen, we first shared anxieties and neuroses about living in America as parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. The looming virtual schooling weighed heavily on us both.
“That sort of became your routine, not that you didn’t want your kids to be home, but that was the part of the day when you would get stuff done while the kids were at school,” Smart sympathized. “Then, they’d come home. You got to have them back. But now, you don’t even remember what day it is. It’s just all one long blur.”
I call it “Blursday.”
Jean Smart’s ninth Emmy nomination comes for HBO’s Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s follow up limited series to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel. Smart plays Laurie Blake, one of the few characters to carry over from the graphic novel. Her Blake put the Silk Spectre II super hero past behind her and (not voluntarily) signed up with the FBI’s Anti-Vigilante Task Force.
Watchmen famously explores much more than masked super heroes. It uses the property to explore the decades-long legacy of racism and racial violence against its new characters. Thanks to that timely theming, this nomination emerges as a very meaningful recognition for the actress.
“You try not to put too much importance on it, but when it happens, it’s very nice to be recognized by the industry and your peers. Especially when it’s something that you not only really enjoyed doing but also are particularly proud of in so many ways because of how topical — unintentionally and uncannily — it is.”
Smart’s role as Laurie Blake follows in a recent string of acclaimed performances as powerful, in-control women. That demand for authority and willingness to disrupt the power structures established by others (namely men) leads to one of Smart’s best scenes in years. Blake arrives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to investigate the murder of local sheriff Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). The journey eventually leads her to Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) who interrogates criminals in an elaborate circular room — a pod — filled with images designed to break their psyche. Think of it as an elaborate lie detector.
Or as Laurie Blake refers to it, a “racist detector.”
Smart’s scene with Nelson is a triumph of pure acting prowess. Nelson’s natural high-strung nerves are set ablaze by the slyly sarcastic approach of Laurie Blake. Smart’s line readings and flippant delivery are a marvel, giving viewers a welcome dose of comic timing in an incredibly serious series. She uses her natural gift for comedy to illustrate how Blake upends the local police department in her search for answers. I mean, why else would she belittle Looking Glass’s prized possession by calling it a “racist detector” or by using his reflective mask to pick a seed from her teeth (that probably wasn’t even there anyway)?
The scene remains one of Smart’s very favorite in the series thanks to Laurie Blake’s audacity.
“She loves messing with people! That was my first day of work, actually. It was such a beautifully written character that felt so right. She uses that to keep people off balance. That’s her only fun in life, messing with people’s heads, I think. But the whole time, she’s getting an enormous amount of information out of him.”
And “fun” is not something of which Smart’s Laurie Blake experiences a great deal. Smart plays her as borderline melancholy — save for the occasional outbursts of sarcasm. She recalls Blake’s legacy of having two lovers taken from her and plays that as an undercurrent of sadness and loneliness throughout the series.
But Blake discovers an equal in Regina King’s Sister Night, a masked vigilante investigating the same murder through questionable means. The face-off between these two strong female characters gives Watchmen much of its high-powered juice.
“They’re both phenomenal characters. The way that they were able to both overcome some of the profound evil that had been brought mostly by men… I would have loved to have seen where that relationship went because it was really fun playing with her. I just loved working with [Regina King].”
Unfortunately, we may never know how Laurie Blake and Sister Night’s relationship evolves following the events of HBO’s Watchmen. Lindelof widely considers the limited series a complete whole and has yet to establish a plan for additional Watchmen seasons. So, while Jean Smart may be saying goodbye to Laurie Blake, Laurie Blake will remain with Smart for a while to come.
“I’m getting ready to start a new HBO Max series where I’m playing a woman who is a Las Vegas entertainment legend. Her success is starting to wane a little bit, and she’s forced to hire a twenty-something gal as a comedy writer, which she’s never done before. It’s really pissing her off. There are some similarities to the characters in the way they use comedy as a weapon and as a shield and the parts of their personal life that are so excruciating and lonely. I’m trying to find the things that are the most different about them because I don’t ever want to slip into anything that feels too comfortable.”
Jean Smart is Emmy nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her role as Laurie Blake in HBO’s Watchmen.