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How Joan Rivers haunts Jean Smart’s dark comedy ‘Hacks’

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Jean Smart headlines the 10-episode HBO Max series “Hacks,” a darkly comedic look at the relationship between two women with disparate viewpoints — who have more in common than meets the eye.

Smart stars as Deborah Vance, a veteran standup comic whose glitzy headlining career at a (fictional) Las Vegas hotel is jeopardized when the casino manager starts hiring acts catering to a younger audience. Through a series of events, Deborah’s manager, without asking, pairs her with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), an upstart twentysomething comedy writer who’s unemployed since being “canceled” after tweeting a joke about a closeted politician. The hope: that Ava’s say-anything approach will help Deborah connect with a younger audience and keep her career relevant. But there are personal and emotional hurdles they must overcome before that can happen.

Smart, 69 — whose vast 40-year TV, film and stage career includes “Designing Women,” “24,” “Fargo” and (most recently) HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” — spoke to The Post about “Hacks,” premiering Thursday, May 13.

I see shades of Joan Rivers in Deborah’s life and personality, including her shopping channel merchandise, her work and her energy and her drive.

I think the writers certainly thought of Joan. There aren’t many women with that kind of [industry] history, and she was certainly one of the inspirations for Deborah, who also has that somewhat self-deprecating humor. A couple of times, though, when I’m yelling I think I’m channeling Sam Kinison.

The series is set in Las Vegas. Do you like the city?

I’ve enjoyed it while I was there, but I haven’t been there too many times. I was talking to Hannah [Einbinder] about this. She said the last time she was in Las Vegas was when she was around 21; she and her girlfriends got very drunk and very sick on a hot food buffet and had to stay in some crummy place. That’s her vision of Vegas. Mine is a nice hotel, a fabulous dinner, a nice show and blackjack tables — having fun.

Jean Smart portrays veteran standup comic Deborah Vance in "Hacks."
Jean Smart portrays veteran standup comic Deborah Vance in “Hacks.”
HBO Max

Did you need any coaching to fire off the jokes in the scenes in which Deborah is on stage doing her standup act?

No. It was great fun. I was very excited about all those scenes. I think people who are standup comics have more guts than anybody in the entertainment industry. I did get up in front of people [but] they were actually paid to laugh at my jokes. What could be better than that? We didn’t have a [live] audience most of the time — they were CGI’d in later. The one time we actually used live audience members was when we were shooting at the Wiltern Theater in Hollywood, and they brought in about two dozen people and scattered them around the theater because of COVID. They were wearing masks most of the time and it was dark, so I couldn’t see them. But for some reason, standing in the wings, I start getting really nervous, like I do before a play. I said to myself, “What are you doing? These people didn’t have to go and buy a ticket!”

Ava watches videos of Deborah’s appearances dating back decades in order to get to know her better. Is that you in those videos?

It’s partly me. They used my voice and morphed my face with a younger actress and put me on a younger, skinnier body. She copied my physical gestures in those scenes, then they used my voice and my movements and combined my face with hers. That was weird.

Jean Smart takes the Vegas stage in "Hacks."
Jean Smart takes the Vegas stage in “Hacks.”
HBO Max

How do you describe Deborah?

She’s such an unpredictable person; there are so many dichotomies in her personality but, because of the writing, they all see to make perfect sense somehow. She can be very cruel and unpleasant and also capable of enormous kindness; you’ll see that a bit later in the series. She’s cheap and such a penny-pincher but, at the same time, in other situations, she’s extraordinarily generous. She’s probably the most unpredictable character I’ve ever played. She’s very bitter about what happened to her when she was young. She enjoys that she’s so handsomely paid and rewarded — it’s something she feels she has over her ex, like, “You’ll never be as rich or successful as me,” so living well is her best revenge. But it hasn’t really made her happy.

Were the scenes of Deborah in her sprawling Las Vegas mansion shot in a real house?

Those were sets. Were they not to die for? I ran around like a little kid, like I was in a giant dollhouse. The set designer, Jon Carlos, is a genius. There’s one detail in the living room in which he took great pride that no one else is going to notice and he did it for me, for Deborah. There’s plasterwork on the wall — a row of leaves, then another shape in-between, then more leaves — and he said, “Look at the shape between the leaves. What do you see? I said, “It looks like a tongue” and he said, “It is, because [Deborah] describes herself as a mouthy broad!”

There’s also a beautiful painting outside the entrance to Deborah’s bedroom … of a dead matador. She obviously has a wonderful art collection. It’s quite large, and Jon told me he put it there so “It’s a subtle warning to any man who even gets that far!”

Photo of Hannah Einbinder as Ava in "Hacks."
Hannah Einbinder as Ava in “Hacks.”
JAKE GILES NETTER

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