In the eyes of most TV critics and viewers, Jean Smart can do no wrong.
The delightful and dazzling "Designing Women" star is the current reigning queen of HBO, with Emmy-nominated roles in recent miniseries "Watchmen" and "Mare of Easttown," and an Emmy-winning turn in "Hacks," which returned for Season 2 on HBO Max this month.
But Smart, 70, admits she worried about doing another round of the showbiz comedy (two new episodes streaming weekly on Thursdays), in which she plays an acid-tongued Las Vegas comic trying to mount a comeback.
"I knew it was going to be good, but it's just a psychological thing," Smart says. "If a show has been praised, then (critics) are ready to come after it: 'Oh, yeah? Prove it. Make me laugh.' You feel you have a target on you a little bit."
Smart's fears were unfounded, as "Hacks" once again received near-universal acclaim. The new season picks up as Deborah Vance (Smart) launches a cross-country standup tour to test out fresh material, with her writing assistant and unlikely confidante Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in tow. But tensions mount between the duo after Ava has shared unflattering stories about her boss with TV producers, and Deborah sues her for violating her nondisclosure agreement.
In this week's episodes, Laurie Metcalf ("The Dropout") guest stars as Deborah's stringent new tour manager, and Deborah gets thrown an unexpected curveball after booking a cruise ship gig. Smart opens up about the new season and going back to work after the death of her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, early last year.
Question: How does the new dynamic between Deborah and Ava change the show in Season 2?
Jean Smart: The highs are higher and the lows are lower, because they know each other better now. They've invested in each other more. It's like in a long-term relationship: You have a deeper bond, but at the same time, you feel free to say things you might not have said earlier on. Familiarity breeds contempt, especially if you're on the road together. A road trip is fuel for a lot of conflict and comedy.
Q: Deborah sings two songs this season: Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" during a car ride, and later, Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at a cruise ship bar. How'd it feel getting to belt out those numbers?
Smart: That didn't feel good. When I mentioned in passing last year that I wanted to sing on the show sometime, I thought I'd have months of preparation with a vocal coach, doing some fabulous song in a nightclub. No, we had a car and then me in this bar drunk. I'm singing two of the most difficult pop songs ever written, sung by two of the most iconic singers of all time. I was like, "Really?" But between the bad singing and bad dancing, I thought, "Jean, just let your ego go and make a fool out of yourself."
Q: You've said your favorite line from last season was when Deborah asks Ava why she's dressed like "Rachel Maddow's mechanic." Is there a Season 2 zinger you most enjoy?
Smart: When I finally get Ava to try on a dress, I say, "Finally, a woman!" And she says, "You know, you really need to hire an HR person, Deborah." (Laughs.)
Q: Congratulations on your Emmy win for "Hacks" last fall. What do you remember about that night?
Smart: Well, it was wonderful, of course. It's wonderful to be recognized for something you're proud of. But I have to be honest, most of my thoughts that evening were about my late husband and whether he was going to be included in the "In Memoriam" section. Because they won't tell you 100% whether he is or not, so I was kind of a nervous wreck most of the evening waiting for that. I was there with our youngest child (son Forrest) and I thought, "That's going to be very hurtful, but I'll try to explain if he's not included somehow." And he was, which was lovely, but I was pretty stressed about that.
Q: It was really sweet to see Forrest join you at the Emmys and the "Hacks" premiere. Does he watch any of your shows?
Smart: There's definitely some stuff that's off limits. It's only been recently that he's even cared about watching them. I think a lot of kids don't particularly want to watch their parents pretend to be other people. It's like, "No, you're just my mom. I don't want to watch that weird stuff."
Some of his friends started watching "Hacks," which was annoying to me, because then they'd say, "Why don't you watch your mother on her own show?" I don't understand these other parents – they let their kids watch anything, and I'm like, "No, they're still only 13." But I finally started showing him certain scenes last year and then I let him watch all the episodes of Season 1. He finished them the night before the (second season) premiere.
Q: Was it at all cathartic to come back for Season 2 after your husband's passing?
Smart: Yes and no. Whenever I'm doing the actual work, it's very therapeutic and enjoyable and satisfying, and can be distracting if you're feeling bad. But it was a very difficult season compared to the first season because Dad wasn't at home running the ship. So I had this constant stress level of, "What's going on with the house?" Plus, we had longer hours this year because of the locations, so it was, "Did (Forrest) get breakfast? Did he get to school on time? Who's picking him up today? Who's getting him to this appointment?" That's just constantly on my mind all day, so that's hard. I had no idea how hard single mothers have it, and I have so many resources that other working moms don't. I can't even imagine.
Q: You next appear in Old Hollywood drama "Babylon" (in theaters Christmas Day), from "La La Land" writer-director Damien Chazelle. What can you tease about your role in that?
Smart: It's always fun to do period pieces. It has the most amazing clothing, and virtually all of my stuff is with Brad (Pitt) and Margot (Robbie), who were both terrific. My character is loosely based on an actual woman named Elinor Glyn, who was a British screenwriter who came to Hollywood and wrote a column. People were nice to her because they didn't want her to write bad things about them, so she got invited to all the parties. But she coined the term "It girl" and turned Clara Bow into a little star. She's quite a character.
Q: "Mare of Easttown" creator Brad Ingelsby and your co-star, Kate Winslet, have floated the possibility of a second season. Are there any updates?
Smart: I think they would like to – it might just be a matter of timing. I would certainly want to be a small part of it, if possible. I don't know if I could do as many episodes as I did before, but in a perfect world, I'd be more than happy to revisit Helen.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Hacks': Jean Smart on 'very difficult' Season 2 after husband's death