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Whether starring in HBO Max’s cutting comedy Hacks or stealing scenes in HBO’s gritty limited series Mare of Easttown, Jean Smart conveys a complicated, resilient and sharply funny powerhouse the second she hits the screen. Earning Emmy nominations for both roles, Smart endears while dropping wry jokes, either because it’s her official job as a Vegas stand-up or simply because she’s providing welcome comic relief in the family kitchen. Smart’s distinct costumes also help illustrate layered character stories — and earned the shows’ respective costume designers, Kathleen Felix-Hager and Meghan Kasperlik, nods in the contemporary category.
“People don’t understand how important our costumes are … it immediately says something to our audience about the character, even if it’s subliminal,” says Smart, who previously worked with Felix-Hager when guest-starring on Veep and with Kasperlik for Smart’s Emmy-nominated turn on Watchmen. “On top of that, it makes the actor feel a different way about themselves.”
On the border of Philadelphia in Mare of Easttown, Smart’s Helen Fahey is the rock holding the extended family together in the wake of tragedy at home and in the community. The matriarch makes her debut clad in an autumnal cowl-neck sweater, while pregaming for her former son-in-law’s engagement party with cards, whiskey and Cheez Whiz. For authenticity, Kasperlik studied the area’s community and style of dress and outfitted the world-weary adults in a somber palette. “I walk in and she’s got this rack full of earth tones and darker-colored stretch polyester pants and horrible sweater-vests and blouses, and she’s looking at me in an apologetic way,” Smart recalls with a laugh. “I’m going, ‘No, this is so great!’ “
But Helen’s subtly festive sweater, a contemporary piece aged down to look lovingly worn-in, establishes her role in providing dependable support (and wisecracking banter) to the fractured clan. “I wanted there to be a little bit of a lightheartedness,” says Kasperlik, adding, “The knit pants that she wears with it are one step up from a sweatpant. She still wears her classic Skechers to go across to the party.” To transform into Helen, Smart wielded her nimble humor behind the scenes, too. During an early fitting, the two deliberated over a vital missing element. “[Smart was] like, ‘You should give me a butt,’ ” says Kasperlik.
Over on the Strip in Hacks, we first see Deborah Vance as she closes out her set while catching the stage lights in a glimmering sequined duster. “There’s nothing like wearing something super sparkly to give you the confidence to walk out onstage,” Smart says. The camera then trails Deborah into her dressing room, as the lighting brightens and the camera pans to reveal dazzling multicolor sparkles, highlighting her glammed-up visage and resigned yet resolute expression.
“It was just a really beautiful opening image for her character to tell you that she is multifaceted and there’s more to her than you might expect,” says Felix-Hager. “I mean, that’s a lot for a coat to say.” She collaborated closely with director/co-writer Lucia Aniello and DP Adam Bricker to land on the most expressive metaphorical wardrobe opener, which she found at an Anthropologie store.
Felix-Hager explains that Smart initially envisioned Deborah wearing “short dresses and sparkly blazers,” referencing comedy pioneers Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. “I wanted to make Deborah Vance her own person, since she really isn’t based on anyone specific,” Felix-Hager says. Adding inspiration from trailblazer Lucille Ball’s ’50s-trouser aesthetic, Felix-Hager combined the sequin concept with a pantsuit approach for a “masculine edge.”
Felix-Hager finished Deborah’s debut ensemble with red rhinestone-embellished stilettos punctuated with “POW!” in cartoon graphics, adding a proverbial punch to the character’s punchlines. The shoes are actually Smart’s personal pair: She previously wore the superhero-themed shoes to accept her Critics Choice Award for Watchmen, but they never received a close-up. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to bring these back for Deborah,’ ” says Smart, laughing. “Again, probably nobody saw them, but they match that first costume perfectly.”
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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