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Rachel Keller and Jean Smart are two-of-a-kind and self-proclaimed soulmates: Keller the pre-eminent star navigating a prolific, acclaimed oeuvre; Jean Smart the certified Hollywood royal who, across four decades, has been there, done that and won it all – including a Golden Globe at this year’s ceremony for her performance in Hacks. Having worked together on the comedy-crime drama series Fargo and Marvel spin-off Legion, the advice Smart bestowed upon Keller close to a decade ago in their first meeting are pearls of wisdom she’s held close ever since.
Fresh from a leading role in HBO Max’s gritty series, Tokyo Vice, as an astute expatriate hostess in the Japanese capital’s neon underworld, Keller is continuing to expand her repertoire. Premiered at TIFF, Butcher’s Crossing sees her travel back to the 1800s to tackle the Wild West as a ball-busting saloon worker alongside Nicolas Cage in Gabe Polsky’s narrative debut, before starring opposite Tom Hanks in dark comedy A Man Called Otto. Finally back on the same continent, Keller caught up with her “magician” of a friend and mentor, Jean Smart.
Jean Smart: Hi baby girl!
Rachel Keller: Hi!
JS: Oh honey, I haven’t seen you for so long.
RK: I think it’s been years.
JS: You were in Spain for a while, weren’t you?
RK: I was in Spain and before that, Tokyo.
JS: What were you doing in Tokyo?
RK: Tokyo Vice, this show on HBO Max. I’m actually heading back there in about two weeks. Have you been to Tokyo?
JS: I’ve only flown in and out, but I spent three months in Japan when I was married to my first husband who was in the service. I fell in love with it.
RK: I love it, I think I will look back on this time as some of the best in my life. Living there for eight months, twice, it’s been incredible. I’m thinking about the first moment I met you, and I wonder if you remember. It was in the office of our designer for Fargo, Carol Case.
RK: You didn’t know who I was, naturally, I didn’t know who I was at that time either. [both laugh] We passed each other and once you realised I was playing your granddaughter, you grabbed me, very lovingly but with a sharp inhale, and said some really lovely things that have stayed with me since. That was eight or nine years ago.
JS: Oh my god, is it that long?!
RK: I think I was 22.
JS: You were just a baby but you had so much confidence, it was really impressive. You were in a formidable group of people, that cast was a dream and every single person was not only on their A-game but they were nice. Which just made the whole thing extraordinary. You were amazing because, first of all, you’re absolutely beautiful and come with no vanity at all, and nothing phased you, seemingly.
RK: I’m not sure I felt that on the inside. I often felt I was in a dream-like state, it was magical, fantastic and also kind of frightening. But I think the biggest privilege I had was working with all of you, playing this family together was really special. We were in the middle of nowhere in Calgary, I remember having dinners with you and all of us coming back-and-forth from Calgary to LA together. We share a love for theatre, and I think one of the reasons I started in the theatre when I was young was to make friends.
JS: It is true, the theatre is great for camaraderie and bonding, it’s so different to film and television because in the theatre you need each other. When you say to each other, “I’ll see you on the ice,” that’s what it’s like, we really are going out on this slippery surface and I’ve got your back so please have mine. You don’t usually have that same feeling in film.
RK: Sometimes I think about Fargo as setting me up with an interesting standard for what television is. Long-form television is interesting for an actor because suddenly you’re not focused on the beginning, middle or end and crafting this person’s life in something that maybe resembles understanding. It’s so much more open than that. On Fargo we had the privilege of it being a limited series, we had the scripts before and we had this troupe. We were all focused and working solely on the purpose of this particular story at that time. But I found on Legion, which we also worked on together, and on Tokyo Vice, that it’s not so fantastically different from film or theatre. It’s different in that I feel I’m required to have this part of me really open and available for the story.
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JS: You have to have it because unlike theatre and film, you don’t know what’s coming next and you don’t know the ending. When you’re doing a movie you’ve read the whole thing, when you do a play you’ve read the whole thing, but when you’re doing television you’re trying to create a character but there’s a part of you that thinks, “Maybe I don’t want to commit to that part of the character completely because what if it turns out that doesn’t really help me.” But you want to be really specific, so it’s a weird balancing act.
RK: I’m trying to bring all of my curiosity toward that because you intentionally pick up the character and you’re totally invested in telling the story in such a specific way, then you have to intentionally put it down. It’s been months since I played this character in Tokyo Vice. She’s a hostess, which there isn’t really a Western equivalent of… That is one of my favourite parts of the story, I feel like it’s never been dramatised before. These women come from all over the world, from England, America, Russia, Ukraine, Thailand – anywhere. It’s a way for you to become financially independent, I’m not condoning it, I’m just looking without judgement. I have studied it for a couple of years now and find it fascinating.
JS: So you’re sort of an escort?
RK: That might be the best equivalent, it might be an escort mixed with a bartender.
JS: Is there a little Geisha thrown in?
RK: It comes directly from Geisha culture, it’s the performance, the art of conversation.
JS: Wow, now I have to see it.
RK: It’s really fun, and Michael Mann directed our first episode. If you can, think of Miami Vice combined with a journalistic- police-beat-underground. Japan, as perfect and wonderful as the culture is, there is quite a lot underneath that. Thinking about Legion and Fargo, when you’re looking at something that open-ended, I certainly have to look at it with a light hand. Something I’ve always admired about you, and I noticed it when you first grabbed me in that costume room…
JS: Sorry! [laughs]
RK: You had this really quick unquestionable depth to you, but it’s done with a very light hand and it’s something I aspire to. I don’t know if I’m able to strike the balance but I really admire that about you. I wonder if it’s something you’re aware of, because you look at these television shows and you need a level of lightness. You can’t be so heavy about it, it has to have some air to it. Do you think of those things?
JS: You’re right, I hadn’t really thought of that. I was thinking about Legion again because the story and style was so unusual. For me, I had to just let go and say, “I know this man [Noah Hawley, creator] knows what he’s doing, everything he’s doing has reason and purpose. It’s not just to get a reaction or just for its own sake, it’s for a very specific reason in the story and if I don’t completely get it, I’m just going to trust.” That was the hardest thing for me, to just think, “Okay, I’ll go wherever you take me because I can’t tell where we’re going.” [laughs]
RK: I remember always looking to you and Bill [Irwin] in the show.
JS: We were the camp counsellors. [laughs]
RK: It was a tricky creative endeavour. I think when you’re looking at a show like Mayor of Easttown or Hacks or Tokyo Vice, you have given circumstances, a real-life moment, a real relationship or something you can relate to and hold onto. In Legion we had each other to hold onto with this deer-in-headlights look in our eyes, then you just have to trust.
JS: It was a great acting exercise. Especially for me at that stage in the game to just go, “Okay, you can’t reach in your bag of tricks for this one, Jean.”
RK: I had a moment when I was working on A Man Called Otto with Tom [Hanks], there were a few scenes where we were trapped in a car together… we talked about you actually, he’s a big admirer of yours.
“If you’re the first woman on the call sheet in any capacity, then you are suddenly the voice of yourself and all of the women that are with you in that piece.”
JS: That’s nice. I know his wife a little bit but I’ve never met Tom.
RK: Rita [Wilson] was a producer on this and I hope you forgive me for this question but I wondered why there was something about working with Tom that reminded me of working with you and reminded me of working with Bill. A sort of knowing, not of the material and not of an endpoint, but a self-knowing, a self- confidence. I asked Tom about it and he spoke very eloquently about how he used to be this kid who thought he knew it all. I felt that too when I first started, even in Legion I don’t think I was as trusting as I can be now because I was quite frightened by the uncertainty. Is that a place you get to with time?
JS: To a certain extent, of course.
RK: I want it, I want it now. [laughs]
JS: Honey, you have everything you need, I’m not worried about you at all.
RK: I like that.
JS: It’s true. I remember there was a scene in Legion in my character’s office, you and Dan [Stevens] were having an argument and I was just watching. I was watching as Jean and also as Melanie [Jean’s character in Legion] and the way you looked at him, the way you would look at any person but especially in your scenes with Dan, it was so intense. It was like we could’ve set a bomb off next to you and you wouldn’t have flinched. It was wonderful because it was as if you were trying to say something just by the way you were looking at him, I can’t even explain it. It was just incredible. Somebody said that about Holly Hunter once after she did that brilliant movie with William Hurt, Broadcast News. A critic said, “The way Holly Hunter looks at a man it’s like they’re connected…” Something like that!
RK: That’s such a nice compliment because my character on Legion couldn’t touch anyone, so if something could have been communicated with a look, that’s great.
JS: That’s right, exactly. Oh my god yes.
RK: It’s all coming back. It’s funny to think back on things like those scenes because I have many moments of you that flash into my head in Calgary, Vancouver, LA, and even in my living room. Do you remember we hosted a play reading here?
JS: Yeah, that was fun.
RK: When someone says to me, “Oh you’ve worked with Jean Smart, you know Jean Smart,” I always get kind of solemn and I’m like, “She’s a magician.” [Jean laughs] I sometimes feel like I wish I could excavate all the secrets from you, then there’s another part of me that loves how it lives in this mystery. My favourite part about this work is that there is so much of it that’s unexplainable, it’s quite difficult to actually talk about what goes into building a life or how to really explain what a particular experience was like. I was just at TIFF with a film called Butcher’s Crossing I made with Nicolas Cage and Fred Hechinger.
JS: How fun.
RK: Fred and I were talking about how you can’t possibly sum up these creative experiences that are in your bones in a soundbite.
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JS: I know, somebody asked me once if I’d ever thought about teaching acting and I said, “I don’t think I would be very good.” I would like to direct maybe, I think I could do that, but I wouldn’t know how to explain why I did a character or scene a certain way. I’d just say, “I don’t know, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” which would be a terrible thing to say. [laughs]
RK: You’re trying to explain impulse or instinct. I felt like that when I read the script for A Man Called Otto, there are two different timelines going on.
JS: You’re the deceased wife in the past, right?
RK: That’s right. When I auditioned and had these conversations about it, I was invited to come along and spend time with Tom and Truman [Hanks], who is Rita and Tom’s youngest son. He has cinematography aspirations so they convinced him to play young Tom in these flashbacks then sometimes the older version of the character appears as well. So I spent three months with Tom, Truman and Marc [Foster] our beloved director.
JS: Does Truman look like his Dad?
RK: He does. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for Tom Hanks in the 90s, and then you get him all dressed up and there he is! [both laugh] Just like Tom, Truman is funny, generous and kind. They all are in that family and it was an invitation to create this gorgeous love story, but also spend time together as a family with lots of dinners.
JS: That’s so great.
RK: It was so magical.
JS: It should always be like that, there is no reason it shouldn’t be.
RK: Again, I’m thinking back to the costume room where you said some very nice and protective things to me. I feel like you are inadvertently always an advocate for yourself and for your character. Particularly for women, if you’re the first woman on the call sheet in any capacity, then you are suddenly the voice of yourself and all of the women that are with you in that piece.
JS: Partly because I’m the oldest person on the set, I feel very maternal towards my cast mates on Hacks, especially the girls. I remember telling Hannah [Einbinder] when I first met her because it was her first gig, “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do, don’t let them pressure you.”
RK: You said that to me.
JS: Just because it’s a big fancy show don’t let anyone intimidate you into doing something you’re going to regret.
RK: I’ve carried that with me for almost ten years and I think it’s a really special thing to impart to someone. I appreciate it, I think it’s difficult in a good way. I like it when I feel a kind of tug and wonder if that’s how things are supposed to be. I wonder about myself as a creative being, in my participation, where’s the line? Where is the boundary? Because you are playing this character but it’s also built by a team of writers who get a lot of notes from someone, so it starts to trickle down and you wonder: what is this collaboration? What is the secret we’re all trying to tell?
JS: I think actors naturally fall into this feeling sometimes of the directors or producers being the grown-ups and we’re the children. [laughs] They infantilise themselves, you think they’re the boss and you’re the employee. It’s not really a healthy thing. I just started producing with a friend of mine a couple of years ago, we’ve got three really good projects and we’ve got deals on all three so it’s very exciting. I remember thinking how I always wanted to produce, I thought it’d be fun. I thought I’d be good at it but there was always that feeling of, “That’s what the grown-ups do, I can’t do that!” [laughs] But my friend just does everything, she’s a stand-up comic, she’s an actress, she’s a writer, she’s a director and I met her doing a play she’d written. When she finds a project she likes, she’s like a dog with a bone and says, “Let’s just call them! Let’s do it!”
RK: How special to have a female friend around you with that kind of confidence.
“I think about how wonderful it is to live a life as a maker, things are constantly being lost around us, but we are somewhere inside of it trying to create something.”
JS: She is amazing. We got this guy’s life story and tracked down a girl he went to college with who was partly one of the characters in the story. She still had his contact information, so my friend called and left a message but got no response, she left another message and got no response so she thought, “He’s either not interested in talking about himself and telling his story or he’s already got some deal.” She practices Buddhism and she said, “I’m going to try one more time and I’m going to chant.” So she chanted for almost an hour for him to call her, and I’m not kidding you, minutes later her phone rang and it was him. It was wild, it was meant to be.
RK: It must feel like something in you is saying it’s time for this creative responsibility or power.
JS: Sometimes you hear a story and just know it would make a great movie, or a great musical, or a great limited series. Then you take it to HBO, they agree, they want to do it and you go, “Really?! Wow.”
RK: I’m so happy for you, I know it’s something you’ve been talking about for a while.
JS: I learned from my friend to just pick up the phone and call them.
RK: It’s about confidence, that’s what I’m really feeling from your chanting friend. I have a very good friend who said, “It is not their fault if you don’t ask the seventeenth time.” I heard an interview once where somebody was talking about how this business separates people who hear the word no, and people who just truly don’t hear it. They hear something else, they hear, “Ask again,” they hear, “Maybe I’ll chant this time.” [both laugh] I find myself increasingly interested in the people pivoting and adjusting, not to say they’re agreeing to whatever comes to them, but they are shaping themselves into all kinds of creative ways because it doesn’t always feel easy. Even inside of a job or inside of the work you think, “I must be a master pivoter here.” In that, I finally feel I’m starting to taste some of the glamour of this. I don’t know if that makes sense but there are a couple of different ways to approach being an actress in this industry, and I’ve found myself getting on and off this rollercoaster of what is expected of me. If it’s unsatisfying, or something in me goes, “I don’t love that,” I start to think, “Well you need to ask yourself what you’re doing for yourself.” The more I’m curious about that question, the more Greta Garbo I feel.
JS: That’s cool. I’m going to repeat what I said earlier but you are so naturally beautiful, so not vain, and really an intellectual. It’s not what people expect from someone really young and pretty. That’s one of the things that makes you special.
RK: Thank you, Jean. I’ve thought of various people I’ve worked with and think I’m closer and closer to the people who seem to go slowly. What’s the rush? I think particularly now with people my age with social media, there is a sort of panic.
JS: I feel bad for your generation with all that pressure.
RK: I’m not sure why but I’ve been able to sidestep that.
JS: Thank god.
RK: It’s difficult. It’s like a really fast river, it’s fucking going.
JS: It’s also just unnatural, it’s not a natural way to interact, to communicate. I was talking to a casting director one time and said, “Let me ask you a question. Have you noticed a difference in young actors? For instance, when they have to audition with a real intimate scene, or a scene where they’re breaking up or having a big fight?” Because they meet online, they date online and they definitely break up online or on the phone. They’ll date by texting and they’ll break up in a text. They’ve never had those face-to-face conversations with awkward pauses and pain. They text it and you wonder how they’re going to be able to do those scenes, they’ve never even had an experience like that in their life. And she said; “Oh my god, you’re right!”
RK: Which is not to say we ignore that kind of communication. because if we ignore it people are sort of like, “Too bad for you.” Because it is what it is.
JS: I love to text.
RK: Yeah. There is a certain kind of freshness to what it means to have friendships and relationships. I’ve felt so nomadic since I’ve known you for the past ten years. I feel like I belong nowhere, there is no home, I call myself turtle girl because I feel like I bring my home with me. I wonder how you foster a sense of who you are inside of this thing that is moving very quickly. I feel like for some reason I’m constantly resisting feeling like I’m being pushed. Do not push me. I will not be pushed, sorry but I just won’t.
RK: It’s just not going to happen. If someone doesn’t want me to participate then there’s another person who will be right for the job. I believe that and I believe there is enough to go around. I like a lot of time and space between things, I watch some of my peers feeling very differently about it. They like a busy life, they like a busy schedule of filming and working. It’s too vulnerable to me.
JS: You’re so lucky you feel that way because I, for whatever reason, have all of a sudden been getting all these amazing opportunities in the last six or seven years since Fargo. I feel I have to fight the compulsion to just take things because they’re offered. I’ve always tried to be really picky about what I do, but I’m having to remind myself of it. Also now I’m a single mum, there is a part that thinks I have to work to make sure my kids are taken care of. What if I get hit by a bus tomorrow? All those horrible things. I get really anxious when I’m over-committed, I ask myself why I said yes to these things. Sometimes I just want to sit and stare out the window for weeks. I’m renting a house for a year with my kids, we’re on a little lake and it’s just been heaven. Except I’ve got it into my head that our house of 20 years is still full of 20 years’ worth of stuff and when am I going to get around to sort it?
RK: Interesting. I trust you completely in all things, and you will get into that house when you need to, when the right moment comes. I believe that. It’s so refreshing to hear it from you because carving out all of that time, you need to feel like you’re living the life you want to be living. You’ve experienced loss; people in the past few years have experienced immeasurable loss. I think the way the world is right now is frightening, and a little electric. There’s a wonderful poem by Elizabeth Bishop that reads, “The art of losing is not hard to master.” We can’t learn it because it is a part of our life forever, to be losing something constantly. I think about how wonderful it is to live a life as a maker, things are constantly being lost around us, but we are somewhere inside of it trying to create something. It seems like a nice way of being. I have to just pivot for a second and compliment your writers – there is a writer on Hacks named Pat Regan and I am really into Pat’s podcast called Seek Treatment, which he does with another comic and writer, Catherine Cohen. I watch the show and listen to them talk about the show. It’s all bouncing around, Jean, and I feel very grateful for that.
JS: I can’t tell you how impressed I am by the writers.
RK: They’re smart cookies!
JS: Really smart cookies. They do half my job for me.
RK: But you do also knock it out, you’re all helping each other.
JS: It’s so much fun.
RK: It’s a really fun show and you are a magician, truly. I don’t want to know anything about how it happens, I just really enjoy it.
JS: You’re just making my head swell up.
RK: Thank you for doing this.
JS: Honey are you kidding?! Of course. I hope we get to do something together again sweetie.
RK: Oh we will, we’re destined. I love you.
JS: I love you too.
Interview originally published in the HERO Winter Annual 2022. A Man Called Otto is out in select theatres on December 25th.
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make-up LARAMIE at DAY ONE using DANESSA MYRICKS BEAUTY;
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