Sunday, August 20, 2000
New York As Jean Smart darts about her dressing room and its mirror-lined walls, making herbal tea for a visitor and answering the constantly ringing telephone, she appears to have you surrounded.
Everywhere you turn, she's there.
And that seems to be true of her career, too.
She's back on Broadway -- in a revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1939 comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner" -- for the first time since her 1981 debut in "Piaf." She also can been seen at cineplexes nationwide in "Disney's The Kid."
And she maintains a strong presence on television, recently receiving an Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on "Frasier," and living on as Charlene in reruns of the sitcom that made her famous, "Designing Women."
Once the tea finishes steeping and the phone stops ringing, she talks about the personal reasons that kept her away from Broadway.
"We live in Los Angeles, and my son goes to school in Los Angeles. To decide to do a play out here is an enormous, enormous undertaking and a big decision for the whole family," she says.
But now that her son Connor is 10, the decision was a little easier. Plus he was starting summer vacation and her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, was working in the East, too.
The convenient timing on the home front and the chance to work with two Tony winners -- actor Nathan Lane, who stars as Sheridan Whiteside, and director Jerry Zaks -- made Smart decide to play vampy, predatory diva Lorraine Sheldon.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do come September when my son starts school," she says. "I'm in total denial about that. I'm just pretending it's not happening. I'm good at that."
Variety in roles
The 47-year-old Smart is having fun playing an actress who can't cry. Zaks came up with the idea of Sheldon's no-more-tears blather, Smart says, adding: "He let me just sort of take that idea and run with it."
In the play, Smart's Sheldon hilariously tries to squirt tears, but her wincing lids come up dry.
A diabetic since she was almost 13, Smart doesn't have to do anything special while performing in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" except make sure that her blood sugar level is right before the curtain goes up and again at intermission.
She takes the disease in stride now.
"I used to stash candy all over the sets when I was doing plays," she says, knowing that she couldn't stop like in a movie or TV show.
Smart has filled a broad range of roles since leaving "Designing Women" in 1991. She played Rhett Butler's stogie-smoking friend in the CBS miniseries "Scarlett" and starred in made-for-TV movies as a retarded woman fighting for custody of her kids and as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
She's also had two sitcoms of her own since 1995, but they quickly were canceled.
And last year, she received rave notices as the bitter mother of a girl who has a May-December relationship with a photographer in the independent film "Guinevere."
She feels fortunate to have snagged such varied roles, since versatility is often seen as a liability by the movie industry.
"They want to be able to plug you into a certain slot, and they really don't have the time or the inclination to try to figure out how to use you, unless you're a mega-box-office star," says Smart, whose film credits include "Mistress," "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "Snow Day."
"And I was stunned when I came to L.A. (at the) number of actors I met who had never done theater. I actually didn't know that such people existed. I really didn't," she says. "I didn't get it."
Grounded in theater
The Seattle native has been continually working on stage since she graduated from the University of Washington. She began at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving onto regional theater in Hartford, Conn., Pittsburgh, Seattle and Alaska.
More recently she starred in a Los Angeles production of "Marvin's Room" and off-Broadway in "Fit to Be Tied."
"Part of me thinks, 'If you had known then what you know now, you'd have gone straight to Hollywood when you were still young.' But I can't regret that because it gave me not only great times and great experience but an enormous amount of self-confidence," she says.
Looking forward, Smart hopes to reprise her role on "Frasier," as Kelsey Grammer's paramour who turns out to be quite different from his longheld fantasy.
And she jokes that the reason she received an Emmy nod this time around was because she didn't vote (her mail was not forwarded to New York).
"Maybe that's why I didn't get nominated before -- I voted for myself," she says. "Piggy little actress."