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Jean Smart of ‘Legion’ on Understanding Melanie Bird
March 8, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Noah Hawley says one of his primary inspirations for writing the FX sci-fi series Legion was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

But Jean Smart suggests she was more inspired by another classic rock band of that era: Blind Faith.

So far, Smart told TV writers Tuesday, it’s paying off – even though she knew almost nothing about what to expect when she took the Melanie Bird character in Legion, which starts the second half of its eight-episode first season Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET.

Since then, she says, she and Melanie have been figuring things out together.

“Ordinarily I approach every show similarly,” says Smart. “I let the script be my guide. But I took this part without having read a single word of dialogue. So I had no clear idea who Melanie was.”

In the broader picture, Melanie is the therapist who works with David Haller (Dan Stevens, left, with Smart), the show’s central character.

David has extraordinary powers that he’s only now coming to understand, and through the earlier parts of his life, they caused him nothing but trouble. He was medicated, studied, institutionalized and otherwise treated as, basically, a crazy person.

Melanie, who sees his life and behavior for what they are though she also doesn’t completely understand the scope or implications of his powers, has worked with him through the first half of the season to help him realize who he is and what that means.

Nor is Melanie merely a sounding board for David. She has issues of her own, including the fact that her husband has been gone for 20 years, apparently spirited away.

“Melanie is a work in progress,” says Smart. “It’s been my journey to kind of find her.

“Once we saw the storyline about her relationship with her husband, I think we began to understand her a little more. I know I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the fact that she’s been waiting for 20 years.

“That’s a kind of unwavering devotion, an almost desperate belief that someone will finally find where her husband has been.”

Because the show focuses on David Haller, his relationship with Bird gets the most attention, and by this week’s episode, that relationship seems to have shifted a bit.

Haller has left to look for his sister, causing a physical separation from Melanie that obviously affects their interaction.

“David’s off on his own, and he’s pulled away from Melanie,” says Smart. “I think he realizes the enormity of his powers and that’s a good thing because he realizes he may be used by someone else or he may self-destruct.”

What this means for his relationship with Melanie, she says, is that “he may pull away from her emotionally… and I’m not sure they fully get that back.”

Legion has been both criticized and praised for its complexity and its non-linear storylines. Smart says it’s been fun to play and confirms her decision to join the project simply based on her faith in Hawley.

“If he’s writing it,” she says, “I know it will be something good.”

She had worked with Hawley on the second season of Fargo, in which she played hard-shelled crime matriarch, Floyd Gerhardt. The role earned her an Emmy nomination.

Comparing Melanie to Floyd, she says, “Both are extremely private. They don’t show their emotions. And they both have a strong maternal instinct. Other than that, they’re not much alike.”

Smart, 65, has always played a wide range of characters.

She won two Emmys for her role in Frasier and a third for Samantha Who?. Her longest-running role was Charlene on Designing Women (right), but she has also had extended runs on shows from 24 to Style & Substance, and Girlfriends Guide to Divorce.

She says with a laugh that her longevity sometimes works against her on the Legion set, where she hasn’t been asked to do any of her own stunts.

“As a senior member of the cast, I think sometimes they ask less of me,” she says. “I don’t mind something like getting shot and falling down.”

But she says she loved trying out different approaches during a scene with Bill Irwin, who plays scientist Cary Loudermilk, and she adds that her only real complaint is not having been invited to join a dance scene earlier this season.

“I’m really jealous,” she says. “I hope that the next time, they include me.”

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