Kathryn Hahn Is Nobody’s Sidekick

It’s always been easy to take Kathryn Hahn for granted. When we needed her to inject earthiness and believability into network TV series (Crossing Jordan, Parks and Recreation), she did. When we needed her to hold her own with Hollywood’s A-list Funny Boys Club in big studio comedies (Step-Brothers, Anchorman), she did. And then there were all those movies wherein she dutifully played the understanding girlfriend and wife or maybe even the wisecracking co-worker and friend (see: most of her work between 2003 and 2013), yet never wavered in her ability to make the most of her screen time, however limited it was.

But something changed in 2013. Writer-director (and future Transparent creator) Jill Soloway cast Hahn as the lead in her feature film, Afternoon Delight, following an L.A. woman consumed with malaise about being a mother and a wife, who befriends a young stripper (Juno Temple). The Silver Lake–set Sundance darling not only facilitated Soloway’s selling of Transparent, in which Hahn would also star, it recast her in a new, long-overdue role: protagonist.

Vulture spoke with Hahn about her career and her latest collaboration with Soloway, Amazon Studios’ I Love Dick, a high-concept adaptation of Chris Kraus’s game-changing feminist novel starring Hahn as Kraus, a disillusioned filmmaker married to an academic (Griffin Dunne), who becomes obsessed with an elusive artist-cowboy (Kevin Bacon). She says the series, which begins streaming May 12, is the latest in a spate of recent professional watershed moments that have left her feeling, after nearly 20 years in Hollywood, fearless.

It’s funny to be talking to you via phone while you’re in New York when actually we live just down the street from each other.
I know! I’m shooting this Tamara Jenkins movie, Private Life. She’s such a gorgeous mind. I adore her. It’s about a couple going through infertility and IVF. It hits that right spot between funny and sad. Paul Giamatti and me. Absolutely heavenly.

To me, your career lives squarely in the spot between funny and sad.
[Laughs.] I guess it does.

Speaking of your career, I found a newspaper story online from 20 years ago in which you are quoted as a first-year acting student at the Yale School of Drama. The article is called “The High Stakes Journey of an Actress.”
Oh my God.

And you were asked to talk about “the challenges you face as you begin the three-year graduate program, and what awaits you after you leave.” Your response was: “I don’t feel being an actress is so much who I am as what I do – and I think that’s a big distinction. I want to grow as a human being and to hopefully be stimulated in ways that go beyond being on stage and trying on hoop costumes or whatever. I am a smart human being and sometimes the life of an actress, ohhhhh, is a nightmare.”
[Laughs.] That’s amazing and hilarious.

It seems to me you’ve stayed true to this core ethos — maintaining a separation between doing and being acting. Do you think you have?
It’s so funny you bring this up. It’s my day off and I was looking at this new exhibit at the Whitney today. I didn’t know anything about this particular Brazilian artist, but her piece was a video showing a woman on a beach in front of a big shell, shaped like a box. It was like she was coming out of an egg onto the beach, but fully formed as an adult woman. It was so moving. It sent me down this long rabbit hole about what it means to be a first-person artist and how it’s hard to actually separate myself from that — especially after working on I Love Dick. In that world, Chris Kraus is the “first person.”

And this “first person” happens to be a woman instead of a man, which we are less used to seeing.
Right, right. Also, in the Dick world, we’re with Jill [Soloway] and [playwright] Sarah Gubbins. They and other artists on set all use the power of vulnerability, of just being ourselves. We talk a lot on the show about how when we are children, it’s such a particularly feminine thing to write in diary, to have this want or need to express one’s self. Women like Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin … these are the artists I was so turned on by in my 20s and it’s kind of coming full circle around now. As a 43‑year‑old, I now see the power of that kind of intimacy and vulnerability. It works in acting and in life.

It’s just occurred to me how strange it is that keeping a diary is somehow a purely feminine exercise. Why is that?
I don’t know. Both of my children have them! [Hahn has a son and a daughter.] We’ve talked a lot about Chris Kraus’s book and how you could take Dick out of it and have it feel like your own diary. By the end of it, it becomes a battle for her need to be heard and seen, a place for her thoughts. My daughter is 7 and she has four diaries, but she loses the keys to them so it’s always chaos. [Laughs.] She’ll write something and then have an immediate need to show it to me. She cannot keep it secret. “It’s really private, but do you wanna read it Mom?” “Read it? I’m not going to read your diary if I don’t have permission!” She’s like, “I want you to!”

I spoke to Maura Tierney last year about what it feels like to always play the best friend, the girlfriend, the dutiful wife.
She’s amazing.

And then what it feels like to finally inhabit full, dimensional characters. It seems to me that when you started to work with Jill, first as the lead in Afternoon Delight, then in Transparent, and now in I Love Dick, your career underwent a palpable shift toward playing protagonists. How does this feel?
I mean, it certainly wasn’t a conscious choice to be supporting all those years! There was a disconnect between the work I was asked to do and the work I knew that I was capable of doing. I knew I had a whole soul and set of tools that weren’t asked for on camera. I would do only what was required of me and then felt completely unsatisfied creatively. Jill was able to see that inside of me. Afternoon Delight was a turning point. It was mind‑blowing to all of us that there didn’t need to be a disconnect between the work we do and want to do. But you have to bring your whole self to it every time. I have been and will be again “supporting” in many things, but there is a freedom and ease in knowing you’re going be there every day, in every scene. It’s almost harder to jump in for a day or two a week.

You don’t feel as much universal ownership over the material.
Yes. I’m personally blown away by someone like Michelle Williams [in Manchester by the Sea,] coming in for just a few scenes. A part like that that happens in two days in the middle of a shoot? It’s so hard. By being there every day, there’s a foundation of trust and faith. There was one day on I Love Dick where we two had two units going. [American Honey writer-director] Andrea Arnold was directing one unit; Jill was directing the other. We all looked at each other like, “Can you fucking believe we’re doing a show inspired by Chris Kraus?” The whole thing was too much to bear!

No one has been more vocal than Jill has about the impact of the female gaze on storytelling. How palpable is it really for a female actor to know that a woman is not only behind the camera, but inhabiting other crew member positions typically held by men?
It’s incredibly powerful. We are being asked to be quite vulnerable in the deepest ways. So, to know that there are women’s eyeballs behind it; to know you’re being taken care of; that you are the subject, even if you’re taking your clothes off, is pretty potent. It’s a definite shift.

I’ve heard from many female actors that when they are directed by men, they feel like the object in a scene, but by a woman, they are the subject of the scene.
Yes, absolutely.

Your work in Transparent and I Love Dick doesn’t erase the fact that you’ve held your own in big studio comedies for years alongside A-list comedy actors like Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Paul Rudd. For me, your performance in Step-Brothers is one of the most brilliant comedic turns I’ve ever seen on film. What did you take away about being a supporting comedy player from these collaborations?
So much of Anchorman and Step-Brothers was [writer-director] Adam McKay. He and Will are just titan dudes of comedy. But there are pretty deep feelings there, too. The vibe on those sets was so anarchic, or self‑anarchic, in the best way. I had been, up to that point, just hitting my mark in comedies and saying jokes that had been written. With them, it’s a different way of working; it’s about upping the comedy spiral. You have to let go of your actor homework and just be present. There’s something incredibly freeing about that. And I’m not an improviser. I am not a comedian. I would never consider myself those things. I just never even try to be funny! I’m always blown away by stand-ups. I’m blown away by people like that who are craftspeople at comedy.

You were raised Catholic in Cleveland, but have played many characters who are Jewish. We actually talked at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall about how you’ve become a bit of rock star among female rabbis for your role as Raquel on Transparent. And your character on the Showtime series Happy-ish openly wrestled with her Jewish faith. Have these roles inspired you to reevaluate your own relationship with spirituality?
Oh, so much. I worked and I’m still in contact with a rabbi named Susan Goldberg, who is an incredible human in mind, spirit, and energy. She was such a help while I was trying to find Raquel. I knew that trying to “become a rabbi” for Transparent was going to be impossible. I went to Catholic school growing up. I can barely remember any prayers or anything! But I knew I just needed a way in that was going to be useful to me as an actor, which was sitting and talking with her. She’s a modern dancer, she’s a mom of three kids, she’s married to an actor. She’s a really interesting, beautiful human. And I think it was in spending time with her, and her stillness and her listening that made me — I don’t know if this sounds petty — a better listener. And really, I grew up culturally Catholic. I went to Catholic school for the cheapest private education. But there is something about having a direct line to God — your own individual relationship, whatever that means. It has been pretty profound. My husband is Jewish and our kids go to a secular school. But we have a little after-school Hebrew class with the local rabbinical students. My son is kind wrestling with it and trying to figure it out now. It’s really deep going into it for sure. But I took all of that very seriously and I held it very dear.

What I love most about Raquel is that she is a spiritual woman, but also sexual and vulnerable; she wants a family, a lover, and a partner — qualities that are not mutually exclusive to being a woman of faith. And yet this is sadly something we never see depicted onscreen.
Right. We want to purify the idea [of spirituality] but sexuality is so paramount to a human being’s existence. We can’t divorce these things!

And in Judaism, women are perhaps more empowered to be both than in other religions.
Right. To be leaders, sexual, sensual, intimate, and vulnerable. The third episode in the first season of Transparent was called “Symbolic Exemplar.” I love that phrase, which is all about how people put spiritual leaders on some sort of holy platform, but they are just humans who want to express their deepest needs and vulnerabilities.

And many types of experiences can inform spiritual guidance.
Right. It’s not just the white male’s experiences and perspective on morality.

Which one wouldn’t know by how morality is currently being managed in Washington, D.C.
My God, if I see another image of 14 white men in suits around a table making decisions for us.

There is a wonderful wave of female actors like you in their 40s — people like Sarah Paulson, Michaela Watkins, Amy Landecker — who have spoken about feeling they are at the creative peaks of their careers. Do you feel this way too?
You know what? I do. It’s been a long road with a lot of dissatisfaction. It’s not coincidental that I feel I’m landing in a place of creative fulfillment and at the same time, personally, I also feel just awesome letting go. I think that’s why I was so moved by that piece I saw today. This wholly formed adult woman climbing out of this egg. A soft egg! And it wasn’t feminine, smooth, or round. It was a box. I have the same feeling. I feel fearless in a way because I don’t feel like I’m trying. And I think this is probably true for the women you were just talking about. We don’t have to try to conform to anything. This is who we are. I’m a mom in my 40s with two kids and I’m married. And I’m still able to have this deep creative life. It’s crazy fulfilling.

It makes me think of when Raquel Welch was becoming a star in the early 1960s and studios were worried that if fans found out she was a young mother, it would diminish her appeal. Today, perhaps because of social media, motherhood seems to actually help boost a female actor’s image. Fans like knowing that women in Hollywood are well-rounded and have lives outside of work.
Yeah. I can still drop off the kids and go to parent‑teacher conferences. All those things, every second of it is flying fucking by with these children. And my poor kids can barely see anything I do as an actor. [Laughs.] I am so happy to explore what it is to be 43 on camera in this way; seven years ago this would not have happened, and that is something to be excited about.

Are you at a point now where you feel can say no to roles? I imagine Bad Moms making $114 million, and the forthcoming sequel, have allowed you to relax a little about your next job.
Yes. I didn’t have any choice even five or seven years ago. I felt like I was constantly in a scramble and would do anything that I could get. It was never about having a career or a “body of work.” I have the same agent I’ve had since the beginning, and we decided maybe I can just learn to like my chaotic career? It was all over the map. I’ve never had to fight for certain genres. Like, I love a big movie. Bad Moms is a ball! It is exciting to see that do well; it’s buoying and validating. There’s a huge audience out there dying for that kind of a catharsis for sure.

There is a certain joy in watching women being just as absurd and ridiculous as men.
Yeah. There is something about seeing two dudes on a poster right now that just doesn’t feel of the moment.

By the way, I stand by what I said to you last fall, which is you and Paul Rudd essentially have the same career. You just need your superhero franchise now.
[Laughs.] Yes, that was hilarious. I love it.

Okay, so where’s your Ant‑Woman?
My Ant‑Woman! Oh my God, that would be a ball.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kathryn Hahn Is Nobody’s Sidekick