'Legion' Star Jean Smart on the "Extremely Specific" Nature of Noah Hawley's X-Men Series

"It's different from anything I've ever done," the Emmy-winning star tells THR about reuniting with the 'Fargo' mastermind.
Michelle Faye/FX

[Warning: this story contains spoilers for the fifth episode of FX's Legion.]

Few things on television right now can render someone speechless quite like Legion — literally speechless, even, at least in the case of fifth episode of Noah Hawley's singular new series.

The incredibly bizarre FX series, which takes its initial premise from Marvel's X-Men comic books before veering into wildly uncharted territory, continued its fearless path down the rabbit hole with "Chapter 5," an episode that ends in stunned silence. And that's not a description of the audience, either, although it certainly applies. Instead, as Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) and their allies head into the childhood home of the immeasurably powerful and mentally fragile telepath David Haller (Dan Stevens), something extraordinary happens: all sounds are canceled out, rendering these mutants mute, without any apparent explanation.

Who turned out the sound? The most obvious suspect is the nightmarish Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), revealed in this episode as a possible parasitic entity who has lived within David since his earliest years. But really, who knows? In an ocean of television shows packed with meticulously crafted plots, Legion can sometimes make something like Westworld look as straightforward as an episode of Paw Patrol. Chalk it up to the intricately crafted plot, but even more so to the distinct narrative mechanisms in play, as story information is parsed out in prescribed doses, almost pill-sized, like the audience consists of patients at the Clockworks mental institution David once called home. Add bold visual flourishes and surreal sequences — like the soundless scene at the end of this week's episode — and you're left with a show that leaves even the most faithful water-cooler types speechless.

It stands to reason that someone who has worked with Hawley in the past might have a firmer grasp of Legion than most viewers, right? In Jean Smart's case, the answer is yes, but only to a point.

"It's so hard to talk about this show, because I'm still sort of figuring it out myself," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I just have to embrace that. It's different from anything I've ever done. I think it's safe to say it's different from anything any of these actors have ever done. It's even different from what most people have seen on television."

This week, Smart spoke with THR about her journey with Legion, how she's come to understand the series, her views on playing Summerland boss Melanie Bird and what she thinks of her husband Oliver's (Jemaine Clement) existence within the Astral Plane, a realm that exists far away from our reality — assuming our reality even is our reality. Again, it's all very complicated. 

You and Noah Hawley worked together on Fargo. Did he seek you out specifically for the role of Melanie Bird?

We were at a publicity event for Fargo, and he came up to me at one point and said he wanted to talk about his new show. I said great, and that was that. We didn't talk in great depth about it. I did not know it was based on X-Men when I started out, for one. He just neglected to mention that.

Really? Would it have made a difference? 

Probably not. But it was a surprise. I was so shocked. "Really? This is X-Men?" But he described her as a rescuer, and that got me hooked. I liked that idea a lot.

Did your past experience on Fargo prepare you for Hawley's method of storytelling? 

Actually, not really, because the styles are so different between the shows. Pretty much with Fargo, I could kind of envision how things were going to look on the screen. But with this? Not a clue. Katie Aselton (who plays David's sister Amy) told me, "I go in and I do looping for [audio] and I'm like, 'Oh, that's what we've been doing? What is this?'" (Laughs.) For instance, there was a scene the other week in which I get my hand crushed inside of a book, when we're in David's childhood room. And there's a monster that creeps up behind me. I didn't know the monster was behind me! That was added later! One of my brothers told me, "I thought that was it for you. I thought you were going to bite it right then. That's it for you."

It's a fair concern! That's part of the excitement with a show like this, where it's constantly changing every week. There isn't much of a road map for viewers, so really, anyone could die at any time.

Exactly. Exactly. I guess that was true of Fargo, too. You never knew when somebody was going to bite the dust. But here's the thing about working with Noah. You always know that whatever he writes … you might not get it right away, but whatever he writes, it's going to be extremely intelligent and extremely specific and thought out by him. Nothing is ever haphazard or lazy. He's such a renaissance man. He's so well read. Everything that you see is something very specific and meaningful to him, and important for him. To me, that's all I need to know.

What was the atmosphere like on set? Would the actors huddle together to figure out what was happening in the story?

Every week. (Laughs.) We would huddle together and keep checking in with each other: "Did you read the next script? And did you understand it?" For a long time, we lived in fear of doing interviews, because someone might ask us what the show was about, and we would have to sit there with blank looks on our faces. But it finally began to gel for everybody.

This week's episode is a great example of that, where things are starting to become a little clearer, emphasis on little. For instance, we hear Cary Loudermilk's (Bill Irwin) theory that there's another entity living inside of David, which seems like it's playing out in the form of Aubrey Plaza's character. 

Yeah, absolutely. The show really starts to get wilder and wilder from here. I remember saying that for Fargo too, and it was true. There's another episode coming up soon, I think it's number six, and it has a twist that's just fabulous. It's great. It's fabulous.

So, before you signed on for the series, Melanie Bird was described to you as a rescuer. Who did you find her to be, as you started to learn more about the character?

Well, she is a rescuer, but also, everything she does is driven by this desire to get her husband back. I'm trying to imagine what that must have been like for her, for 20 years. She's kind of an isolated person with really no life except for what she does at Summerland, and her friendship with Cary — well, Cary and Kerry (Amber Midthunder, who plays a young woman who lives inside of Bill Irwin's character). It's a pretty lonely existence. I've had to imagine what it's like for someone, someone who is still in love with a man who is dead for all intents and purposes. That's why right now, now that she has the prospect of seeing him again? I can't imagine what that must be like.

From the get go, is that what she sees in David? Has she always seen David as someone who can travel to the Astral Plane and help bring her husband home? 

I think it occurred to her fairly soon, but not immediately. I think she had profound empathy and sympathy for him, being so young and having been institutionalized off and on for so much of his life, and being medicated. For someone like her, that would be extremely criminal. For her to have the chance to save him and try to teach him and help him be what he really is? That's what's most important to her, at least at first. But I think she quickly realizes that he might be the one.

There are a few standout scenes this week, especially the climax, in which Melanie and the others travel to David's childhood home — and suddenly, all the noise is canceled out, and they're forced to operate in silence. What was this like to play out?

At first, we figured it would be pretty easy. We'll just do the scene, and they'll turn the sound off. But obviously, it was not even remotely that. It was much more complicated than that. As the characters, we had to have those moments of realizing that nothing is coming out of our mouths, which you would realize almost instantaneously, obviously. But also, there's an instinct to turn towards someone when they speak to you. We had to fight that, because of course we can't hear anything. It required some rehearsal. We would rehearse in full voice, and then we would rehearse with mouthing our lines. Sometimes we would do takes that were a bit sillier and over-the-top than others. I'm very curious to see how it came out. I haven't seen it yet.

It's a wild scene. It speaks to what's fascinating about Legion, that it plays around with genre. The series has moments of extreme psychological tension, shades of romantic comedies, musical numbers. This scene in particular plays like a horror film. As an actor, is that part of the joy of working on Legion, that it scratches a lot of itches?

Absolutely. Absolutely. And the director of the episode, Tim Mielants? He was so much fun. He only did one episode, but it was such a shot of adrenaline. It was a wild week. But it was great fun. He just raised the stakes in every scene as high as he possibly could, which was great. And sometimes, we would even question things: "Why is that character treating me that way? Why am I dealing with this character differently than I ever have before?" But it just seemed to work. There's something about the style of a show like this that gives you a little bit more freedom, because in the end, you can always say that it's not reality as we know it. It's not this world entirely. 

Which brings us to the end of the episode, which sees David, Melanie and the rest of the Summerland team as inmates at Clockworks, with Lenny now playing the role of doctor. What is happening here?

You're going to have to find out! Maybe that's the real world.

No, don't do that. It's too many layers to process.

We'll have to see, we'll have to see. I can't tell you which world is real!

Which world is which when it comes to Legion? Sound off with your theories below, and follow along with THR.com/Legion all season long for more interviews and news.