Exclusive: Jean Smart on being Legion's mutant matriarch

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Feb 23, 2017

Whether she's designing Southern homes, grappling for control of a North Dakota crime family or now wrangling troubled mutants to safety, there's no character that actress Jean Smart doesn't fully own. The three-time Emmy award winner is the kind of talent who has defied being pigeonholed by inhabiting disparate women from an unhinged first lady (Martha Logan in 24) to a serial killer (Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story) and selling them with every fiber of her being.

It's no wonder writer/executive producer Noah Hawley scooped her talents up for Fargo's second season and immediately after as the enigmatic but sincere Dr. Melanie Bird in Legion. Playing in the superhero realm is entirely new for the actress, who's been working in theatre, film and television for over three decades ... but then Legion is unlike any Marvel TV series that's been attempted before, which suits Ms. Smart just fine.

In an exclusive interview, we talked with Smart about the appeal of working with Hawley, the challenge of working on Legion and where she hopes Bird will go as a character.

Fargo's second season introduced us to your steely matriarch, Floyd Gerhardt.

It was such an extraordinary experience.

How so?

Working with Noah on Fargo was like having a great playwright, where you have these great lines to speak, which you don't get nearly as often on television and film. It was like an oasis in the desert and a thrill. Plus, the character that he wrote, I found her so complicated and so interesting and so much fun to play.

You obviously clicked. When did he first float Legion to you as a second collaboration?

I don't remember exactly when it actually was but it was at a publicity event for Fargo. He sidled up to me later and said I want to talk to you about my new show. Inside, I said, "Yes!"

What was in his initial pitch?

He told me a little about Dan (Stevens) and Rachel's (Keller) characters and what they were going through. He said that [Melanie] was a bit of a rescuer and that was it; that was all I needed to know.

Did the pilot give you more context?

The problem in the pilot is that I'm in the last ten seconds. You can't base much character research on "Take my hand, son."

True. So did he provide a lot more context during those early days of shooting Legion?

Um, a little. Not a lot because he was very busy with Fargo Season 3. [Legion] was a completely different experience. We were all feeling our way. The way that the world that this is taking place in is almost like the starring character. At one point, Rachel said, "I think we all just have to trust. If we don't understand it, just say it." And she's absolutely right, the little pisher. [Laughs] So we all just held hands and took a step off the edge.

With little to prep with, did Melanie's physical look help you get more insight into how she operates in the world?

[Noah] mentioned the look Angelica Huston had for The Royal Tenenbaums, although I drew the line at the Chanel suit. It's not a good look for me. So that was fun, that '60s flair. It makes a huge difference in how you feel, the way your costume holds you. When you look at yourself in the mirror, it makes you feel a certain way. Actors like to talk a lot about working from the inside out, but there's a lot to be said also about working from the outside in. It can be extremely helpful.

Did you work closely with the costume designer?

Yes. We have an amazing costume designer [Carol Case] who was also on Fargo so there was a great comfort level. She sent me all kinds of sketches.

How else did Legion feel like a unique experience for you?

It was also fun to be working on a show with all these technical things because it's new and not something I've done before.

Are there are a lot of sets that are pretty incredible and technically challenging that you spend a lot of time in?

The sets are staggering! On top of that, when I go into looping, you see the scenes put together and I'm like, "Oh my God! Is that what we did? Wow." And half the crew was from Fargo, so that was great too.

Was there a moment filming Season 1 where you finally got a sense of who Melanie is?

Yes, it was when there was a hint that she might be able to see her husband again.

Jemaine Clement plays Melanie's husband who has been missing for years, right?

Yes! Plus, he doesn't remember her so it's heartbreaking. She's trying to keep it together. At one point, she invites him to have dinner with her.

Let's talk about the mutants Bird brings to the compound. Do you feel she's equally invested in these people?

A little bit. I think she has a certain level of maternal feelings and has a different relationship with everybody at Summerland. I'm still working out some of those relationships, and because we had all those different directors, they all had different takes. We're all feeling our way. But I hope there's more of that. At one point, [Noah] said that she's a rescuer of these mutants and "God help anyone who messes with them." I would like to see more of that because that really appealed to me.

She's obviously most concerned with David right now. Will their relationship change this season?

There's not a reversal of roles, but he almost becomes her equal after a while because he finally realizes that he has more power and meaning and purpose in this world than even she had any inkling of. You see him taking huge steps. He's almost like a universal peacemaker or something.

As the season scripts progressed, did you get a sense of how this was all tying together?

No, when we were shooting Episode 7, we were all wondering how Noah would end this, or finish this, or wrap it up at all. Then we got [Episode] 8, and said, "He's done it again."

Until Legion gets a second season pickup, what's going to fill your calendar acting-wise?

We're talking about doing a Shakespeare play back East. I haven't done any Shakespeare in a long time so that would be great. I'm doing a little guest spot on Angie Tribeca. That show is hilarious! I love that kind of humor so I'm doing a little part as her stepmother.

Legion airs Wednesday nights at 10PM on FX​.