Students of the UW Professional Actor Training Program eagerly soaked up stories and career advice last week from popular actress Jean Smart, who made a rare visit to her alma mater.
Smart, a veteran actress with two Emmy awards, a Tony nomination and scores of television, film and stage roles to her credit, is a graduate of the UW’s highly regarded program, where students earn MFA degrees in acting. Smart graduated from the program when it offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, in the late 1970s.
Over the years, in the sitcoms Designing Women and Frasier, critically hailed stage appearances and movies such as Garden State, The Kid, Bringing Down the House and Sweet Home Alabama, Smart has gained a reputation as a classy and capable actress, at home both in comedy and drama, an actress audiences like to watch. She currently appears as the mentally unstable first lady of the nation in the taut TV thriller 24.
Smart chatted amiably with students about her experiences in the acting profession and also gave them some serious advice: Find your best attributes and market them well, and try not to the let the brutal business side of entertainment get you down.
Casting directors are usually more interested in “types” than talent, she said. “If you’re a real strong type, you’re going to work more.” Successful film actors often “have a kind of offbeat look,” she said, which they use to their advantage. Many young actors try to make themselves into what they think casting directors want, but that’s often a mistake, she said. “You’ve got to try and find the strength in yourself to not always be what they want.”
Though a successful performer herself, Smart said she occasionally discourages young people from seeking fame and fortune in entertainment because the industry can be so dysfunctional. “You find yourself at the mercy of people you have absolutely no respect for, and I can’t think of anything more unhealthy than that,” she said.
Such is not the case, however, with the cast and crew of 24, she said. “From the producers on down they are the nicest, most fun, open-minded people you could ever hope to work with.” The critics and viewing public seem to enjoy her performances on the show, too; The New York Times called the arrival of her character, first lady Martha Logan, “perhaps the most memorable character debut in 24 history.”
Asked about her time studying acting at the UW, Smart said she appreciated the faculty-student ratio and added, “I loved the feeling that we were almost treated like a theater company — we were treated like professionals.”
She said, however, that the PATP in her era was a little light on the business end of acting, and approached the craft from a fairly “high-falutin’ level.” At the time, she said, there was a distinct bias against musical comedy, “so we went to New York with our noses in the air about musicals, let alone commercials and soap operas!” Since her time, the PATP has strengthened its approach to the business end of show business.
During her stay in Seattle, Smart also visited with UW undergraduate drama students, lunched with faculty (and one lucky PATP student), visited her old elementary school, North Beach Elementary, where she read a story to the youngsters.
Asked by PATP students whether her career has been “worth it,” she said wistfully, “Some days I’m not sure, but most days I realize how fortunate I am. I’ve always worked, I never took a civilian job.”
As a parting comment to the young actors — grinning, expressive, wide-eyed faces that will fill stages and screens in years to come — she said, “Be proud of yourselves, you’re in a noble profession. You are storytellers.”