'Hacks' Stars Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder Share Their Worst Vegas Mishaps
The new HBO Max comedy takes place in Sin City.
The actress Jean Smart has done just about everything on television, but over the past five years, she's been absolutely dominating the prestige cable landscape. Starting with her 2015 turn on Fargo, she's been popping up in all of the most talked-about dramas. She wielded a giant blue dildo in Watchmen and is currently battling Fruit Ninja on Mare of Easttown. But before her most recent roles, Smart was arguably best known for comedy, breaking out in 1980s sitcom Designing Women and winning Emmys for her guest spots on Frasier. Now she's back in that genre with HBO Max's Hacks, playing Deborah Vance, a legendary stand-up comedian with a Las Vegas residency whose patience and ideas are tested when Ava, a 20-something TV writer, is sent to help her punch up her act.
Her younger counterpart is played by Hannah Einbinder, a stand-up herself who has roots in the industry—her mother is original SNL cast member Laraine Newman—but is a newcomer to television. Einbinder's success is in stark contrast to Ava's. Her character finds herself out of work and essentially unhireable when a controversial tweet goes viral for the wrong reasons. Her agent sends her off to Vegas to work with Deborah, and their initial animosity grows into a begrudging respect when they realize they are similarly stubborn and isolated.
Created by Broad City veterans Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, Hacks is a showcase for both of these women who talked to Thrillist via Zoom about their initial meeting and their bad Vegas experiences.
Thrillist: Jean, you are all over television right now, between this and HBO's Mare of Easttown. Are you the busiest woman in show business?
Jean Smart: The most grateful woman in showbiz, that's for sure. I always was a late bloomer in my life about everything. Sometimes I grumble. I think, "Where was all this 20 years ago?" I'm not any better now than I was then. But things come along for a reason at their own time and I am very, very grateful.
You've done basically every genre. What first appealed to you about the Hacks script?
Smart: It was so well written, for one thing, which is key to everything. I just thought: What a fun character to play. I realized the other day she has bits and pieces of some of my favorite characters I have ever played.
Who, for example?
Smart: Agent Laurie Blake from Watchmen. She's got a little bit of Lana from Frasier. They've all kind of amalgamated into this wonderfully unpredictable character. I like the fact that she has such a different relationship with every person in her life. I mean, we're all like that to a certain extent, but with her, it seems to be extreme. Giving Hannah a hard time was my favorite part of the whole show.
What was your first meeting like? How did you develop your spiky barbs back and forth?
Smart: You sent me some money, right? Didn't you send me some money?
Hannah Einbinder: Yes, I paid Jean off to love me. It's a strategy that has proven lucrative in the long run. The night before my screen test, Jean called me and was so sweet and just wished me luck and told me, "With COVID, it's going to be a little less casual and we are going to have to be distant and all of these things, and I just want you to feel comfortable and have a lot of fun and know that I think you're great." That made me feel so comfortable going forward. I think both of our love languages are based in humor and we just started cracking jokes together and became fast friends, honestly. It was pretty immediate.
Hannah, you are a stand-up comic. Do you think there is a current disdain for the setup-punchline humor that a Deborah Vance works in among people of Ava's generation?
Einbinder: I see performers like Bob Newhart from the '60s and Steve Martin from more of the '70s-ish era as being alternative comedians who aren't using the setup-punchline format. I think alternative comedy has always been alive and well and almost mainstream in the case of those two examples. I think that setup-punchline is a way to go, but I think more alternative stuff is getting more attention these days. [People] talk about the boom and the bust of comedy and how the early days of post-'80s, '90s, early 2000s, it was sort of dead and now it's big again. And with the internet and all of these things, I feel like it's a boom that has busted and it's a constant boom that will last forever, but the quality will be questionable. So it's that much more special to find something that is truly, 100% fresh, if you ask me. You know what I mean?
Jean, how did you work on Deborah's standup?
Smart: I don't know, put a mic in my hand. It was fun, although unfortunately what you see of it, there's no audience. I think there was one day when we were shooting at the Wiltern theater [in Los Angeles] and they brought in some people to scatter through the first few rows, and then I guess they will CGI in the rest of the [audience]. It was fun. I really had fun just working with that handful of people, even though they'd been paid to laugh.
The show is an almost loving depiction of Vegas. Hannah, in your stand-up set, you have a joke about Vegas, men, and being bi. Did your opinion of Vegas change at all filming the show?
Einbinder: So, here's my feeling about Vegas: I'm not a partier. Gosh, should I tell the truth? Look, maybe I just haven't done it right. You've got to go, you've got to see a show, you have to go to a nice restaurant. I've never gone to Vegas with money, so I've never been able to really do it. The last time I was in Vegas, I'll just tell you: My girlfriends and I were on a girls' trip, we tried to cut costs. We went to the Whole Foods hot bar and, yes, we all got food poisoning, and it was not fun. That's Vegas to me. But also my gorgeous, fantastic grandmother, God rest her soul, Buttons, RIP. Buttons was her nickname. She lived in Vegas and was a real estate agent and she and her partner had a lovely life there. You love Vegas, you love it, but I can't do it.
Jean, what was your relationship with Vegas?
Smart: My biggest relationship with Vegas was losing money at the blackjack table, but I enjoyed every minute of it. The most dangerous thing you can do is go to a casino and win, which happened to my husband and I the first time I went to a casino and we won a nice little chunk of money playing blackjack. You think, This is easy, this isn't so hard. You find yourself at 4 am and you're smoking your second pack of cigarettes and [having] watered down drinks. There is something about the atmosphere of a casino that can be really fun if you're feeling energetic and healthy and have a little bit of money to throw away.
Einbinder: I'm going to change my answer and say if I can go to Vegas with Jean, I will leave it.
How did you see your characters developing over the course of the season?
Smart: A huge part of what has made Deborah the person she is, besides the fact that she was in a very tough industry that didn't particularly appreciate her right away, is her relationship with her husband and her sister, which I think shaped the whole rest of her life. She trusts no one. No one, but maybe Marcus, her COO, a little bit. That's a sad trait for anyone to have. And it's one of the reasons she's a workaholic, and doesn't want to have idle time. She wants to be busy. She doesn't want to sit around and have time to think because she doesn't have a lot in her life.
Einbinder: I would say the journey is, for Ava and Deborah, letting down some walls, emotionally and literally. Deborah letting her in the house, truly letting down the wall and letting her stay in the house and not a hotel room where she has to eat in the downstairs double basement commissary. I think the journey is certainly about opening up. These two women have been on their own for most of their lives. They need to see that maybe it's OK to need somebody and depend on somebody.
The set for Deborah's house is incredible. Did you have a favorite feature? I love that she has a soda machine.
Smart: Every time they put up a new set, I would just squeal with delight because it was like running around a giant dollhouse. "Did you see my bedroom? Come and see my bedroom!" The details that the set designer put in! For instance, in the entrance to Deborah's bedroom, there's a beautiful oil painting, quite large—I'm assuming it's a copy of a famous painting, but I keep forgetting to research it—of a dead matador. And the designer told me that was a subtle warning to any man who got even that far [laughs]. It's my fantasy kitchen of all time. The living room is gorgeous. My office room is just gorgeous.
Einbinder: The office!