Elisabeth Caren
May 17, 2016

A Risk Worth Taking

For actress Jean Smart, a juicy role on Fargo was her just reward.

Amy Amatangelo

Sometimes it’s good to say no to the script in the hand.

Not long ago, Jean Smart turned down a pilot that, in her gut, she knew wasn't right for her. Less than 48 hours later, she got word that executive producer Noah Hawley wanted her to play Floyd Gerhardt in the second season of FX's Fargo. The offer, she says, was "my reward for being true to myself."

Playing the stoic matriarch of a crime family provided her with something she doesn't always get — a fully realized character. Smart related to Floyd's devotion to her family and created her own backstory for the no-nonsense, pipe-smoking gal with a guy's name.

"For better or worse, she obviously loved her sons. I decided for myself that she was possibly the son her father never had. I was kind of a daddy's girl growing up. I went everywhere with my dad — to the hardware store and the dump and the lumberyard. That was my favorite thing to do."

For the role, Smart wore almost no makeup, drab clothes (with the exception of Floyd's favorite red coat) and a head of tight poodle curls. "I looked in the mirror and I thought, 'Oh, my God. There she is.' Sometimes there is a lot to be said for working from the outside in, in terms of the physicality of the character."

And Floyd's lack of vanity was freeing. "You stop worrying about all that silliness — what angle you're being shot from. You stop holding in your stomach, You actually get to think about what you're supposed to be thinking about."

Like many others on Fargo (spoiler alert), Floyd met a bloody, brutal end. Smart was initially concerned about the level of violence but soon realized the murder and mayhem differed from that of other shows.

"There's something almost operatic about it," she says, "like a Greek tragedy. There is this dark humor than runs throughout the show. You find yourself laughing at really terrible parts. It seems so right for that little world."

The role has led to some welcome opportunities — for example, she reteamed with Hawley for FX's Legion — but that's not always the case.

"I don't know how to say this without sounding like I'm complaining — because I'm not," she says. "I'm very happy with things, but there's not a lot out there, You're either the uptight, annoying Republican mother that nobody can stand, or you're the wacky mother who wears leopard prints and always has a martini in her hand."

The Seattle native became a household name as sweet Charlene on the successful CBS comedy Designing Women. When she left the series in 1991, she was immediately cast in Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story, starring as the notorious serial killer.

"I thought, 'They're certainly not typecasting me,'" she recalls, Since then her career has ranged from the unhinged First Lady on 24 to the governor on Hawaii Five-0 to the demanding editor on Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce.

Along the way, she's picked up three Emmy Awards, two as a guest actress on Frasier and one as a supporting actress on Samantha Who? "I've gotten to play a wide variety of characters, and I'm very appreciative of that. I never take that for granted."

And that career has not only been wide-ranging, it's been long-lasting; she's been working since shortly after college graduation. "I never paid my dues," she says with a laugh. "I never waited tables or anything."

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