In Depth

‘Who’s’ Emmy Veteran

Smart Has Statuettes for Comedy and Drama

Jean Smart is smart enough—and experienced enough at the Emmy game—to know that you just never know when it comes to getting an Emmy nomination or a win. The actress is a two-time Emmy winner for guest roles on the NBC sitcom “Frasier” (as two different characters, in 2000 and 2001), and her critically acclaimed dramatic turn on “24” as the high-strung first lady Martha Logan (2006-07) earned two more Emmy nominations, for supporting actress and guest actress, respectively. She also was nominated as guest actress for her work in 2001 on the CBS drama “The District.”

Now, she’s likely to be nominated again, back in the comedy category for playing Christina Applegate’s complicated mother, Regina, on ABC’s “Samantha Who?”

“I’ll be surprised if the show doesn’t get nominated,” said Ms. Smart, skirting the question of her getting a solo nod. “If we get some, that would be really great. We were so thrilled to win the People’s Choice Award, especially at that time with the writers strike. Winning that award gave the show a little boost and kept it in the forefront of people’s minds. It was just a shame to lose all the momentum that we had because of the strike.”

In spite of the strike, “Samantha Who?” proved to be a success for ABC and has been picked up for next season. But don’t call it a sitcom. “I never heard of a single-camera comedy called a sitcom,” Ms. Smart said, laughing. “We don’t call our show a sitcom.”

The single-camera style, currently the vogue in TV production, is different from the traditional three-camera comedies filmed before a live audience, like Ms. Smart’s first big TV success, “Designing Women.”

“I kind of prefer filming this way,” said Ms. Smart about “Samantha Who?” “When you do something single-camera, it is more like reality. You’re shooting in real locations, we’re not in front of an audience, and so it’s incumbent upon you to make it more real. Three-camera sitcoms are really, really fun, too, because it’s kind of like a one-act play. It’s more like theater when you know something works because they laugh or they don’t.”

On “Samantha Who?” Ms. Smart is playing a character very different from the down-home, sweet and naïve Charlene on “Designing Women.” The “Samantha Who?” story concerns amnesiac Samantha Newly trying to come to terms with the woman she was before the accident that caused her ailment.

‘Figuring Her Out’

Of her new alter ego, Regina Newly, Sam’s mother, Ms. Smart says, “I’m still sort of figuring her out. It’s interesting to play someone who really doesn’t have any self-knowledge. It’s the unexamined life and she’s absolutely fine with that. She’s one of those people that’s perfectly happy living in denial about all sorts of things.

“She wants things, emotionally at least, to be like her house—orderly. But her daughter is emotionally very messy. She’s constantly searching and asking questions that make Regina very uncomfortable. She’s thrilled to have her daughter back in her life, but you can see how they would have always been at loggerheads.”

Receiving Emmy nominations would be a positive for the “Samantha Who?” company, but the reward the actors are getting already seems to be in the work. Ms. Smart is effusive in her praise for Ms. Applegate.

“Christina is a lot of fun to play off of. Christina is a pleasure. There’s something just so natural about her. It’s true that every single person in that show is hilarious. All of those women and all three of the guys are just so incredibly talented and fun to watch. It’s a wonderful ensemble.”

And Ms. Smart knows about ensembles. She was part of “24” the year it was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble in a drama series award, and says it was a memorable experience joining “24” in the middle of its run. “That was something. It’s wonderful to join a show that’s a critical success and also has the most die-hard fans in the world,” said Ms. Smart.

On “24,” Ms. Smart had great chemistry with Gregory Itzin, who played her husband, the president. “He and I had done a play together years and years ago at the Coronet Theater, so there was an immediate sort of comfort level there. We work the same way. Working with Gregory Itzin was great.

“The creators of the show were incredibly open to things that we wanted to do,” she added. “Gregory and I would get together and talk about things that wouldn’t necessarily even affect the scripts, but we wanted to have this information in our heads and our hearts when we were doing it. We created a whole backstory to bring to their marriage.”

Of all the top TV shows in which Ms. Smart has been involved, her personal favorite was a CBS sitcom that didn’t last a year. “It was a short-lived series called ‘Style and Substance,’ written by Peter Tolan. Quite frankly, it was a takeoff on Martha Stewart, and that was absolutely glorious to play.”

With success on “Designing Women,” “The District,” “Frasier,” “24” and now “Samantha Who?” Ms. Smart would seem to have the Midas touch for choosing the right TV projects. And the Emmy touch, too.

“I’ve been incredibly blessed,” she said. If she were to get another Emmy nomination—and maybe a win—the new Emmy could join her other two. “It could be a brooch to go with a set of earrings.”