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Kathryn Hahn and Tamara Jenkins Break Down Private Life’s Perfect ‘Vagina-Vagina’ Scene

Kathryn Hahn, Winnie the Poohing in Tamara Jenkins’s film Private Life. Photo: Netflix

Tamara Jenkins’ 2018 dramedy Private Life more than lives up to its title. Like some sort of extremely discreet household spy, Jenkins manages to capture the embarrassing minutiae of the human experience — the sort of bizarre-yet-prosaic, “this will be funny later” personal moments that we’ve all experienced but rarely discuss out loud. In one scene, a doctor explains the mechanics of IVF to longtime couple Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) by comparing Richard’s penis to a soda machine: “If the pipe gets clogged, you don’t get Mountain Dew, you just get seltzer.” In another, Rachel is artificially inseminated while her physician gleefully bops to classic rock and, examining her insides, exclaims that he would “put money” on her uterus.

But the scene that’s by far the most shockingly insightful — the sort of scene that had me convinced that Jenkins had, in fact, been spying on me specifically — happens about 20 minutes into the film. Rachel and Richard, who’ve been attempting to get pregnant and to adopt simultaneously, are preparing their slightly dilapidated, artsy East Village apartment for a social worker’s visit. As the scene begins, we see Rachel from the waist up, sitting in the bathtub, scrubbing it down in an old T-shirt; Richard, who’s hiding all of the IVF materials strewn around the apartment, pauses in his efforts to stare at the dozens of paintings on their wall. One in particular catches his eye: a gigantic painting of a young woman with her legs spread, exposing her entire vagina. Richard yells to Rachel from across the apartment. “You think we should take down the Lisa Yuskavage?” Rachel pauses in her scrubbing. “What? No,” she says, utterly confused.

“I’m just thinking about it from Beth’s perspective,” he says, the camera facing the back of his head as he stares meaningfully at the gigantic painted bush. “You know, we’re used to it, but, if we sit on the couch and Beth sits across from us, it’s right in her face.” Rachel walks into the room, still off-camera. “What is?” she asks. “The vagina,” says Richard, just as Rachel wanders into the frame and is revealed to be wearing absolutely nothing from the waist down. They stare at the vagina together thoughtfully, neither of them remarking on Rachel’s equally exposed nether regions.

“I think we should at least move it so it’s not so central,” says Richard finally. Rachel, still pantsless, flies into a profound moral rage, her arms flailing, sponge and bottle of Comet akimbo. “If our social worker is so uptight that she would deny us a child because we have a vagina on our wall, then it’s like, no. Just fuck it,” she yells, her exclamatory arms pulling her T-shirt even higher. “Just fuck the whole fucking thing!”

Rachel storms back to the bathroom, this time giving the camera an unobstructed view of her butt. She begins to scrub again, still melting down. “I’m so sick of these people judging us and telling us what to do all the time,” she says, shaking the bleach into the tub with a pure and glorious fury. “Between the doctors, the social workers, the support groups, it’s just like, you know what? Shut the fuck up already!” She violently expels a poof of bleach into the air. “Shove it up your fucking asses!” she screams. The camera then cuts quickly to the two of them, fully dressed and cleaned up, smiling placidly in front of the social worker. The vagina painting sits, undisturbed, directly behind their heads.

There are no pants below that waist. Photo: Netflix

The first time I saw this scene, I laughed so hard that I nearly had to strip off my own pants. (Just kidding, I was not wearing any.) Watching it, I could almost sense Jenkins muffling her own laughter behind the camera, delighting in her visual pun. More than two years and several viewings later, the scene still feels like comedic nirvana: a flawless joke execution paired with witty commentary on female nudity and an incredibly on-point representation of the sort of pedestrian domestic conduct that’s rarely shown onscreen. I think about it constantly, in part because of its objective perfection, but also because of its relevance to my own life. I’ve been in a pantless argument with my partner at least a dozen times over the course of our relationship; I’ve also cleaned the bathtub, made lunch, drank wine, watched TV, worked out, and wrote this entire article in only a top, without giving a second thought to putting on a bottom layer. My boyfriend has long referred to this phenomenon as “Winnie the Poohing,” and when I mentioned to my editor that I’d like to write about this scene, she joyfully exclaimed that her husband calls it the same thing when she does it.

While a handful of TV shows and films have paid tribute to Winnie the Poohing over the years (Short Cuts, Transparent, I’m Sorry, Broad City, Girls, and Always Be My Maybe, among others), it’s just one of the many behaviors that women display in the comfort of their own homes, but don’t see reflected in their media. Instead, most onscreen female nudity is overtly sexual, and often filtered through the male gaze, meaning it’s either pornographic or idealized or attached to a dead body somebody dredged up in a canal. But Jenkins treats Rachel’s nudity as matter of fact, imbuing the vagina with the banality and hilarity that it has long gone without. (Tamara Jenkins said Winnie the Pooh Rights!) Considering the fact that merely thinking about this scene has brought me to a cry-laugh for more than two years, I reached out to Tamara and Kathryn to get the story behind their brilliant joke.

Had you ever heard of the phrase “Winnie the Poohing” before this interview?
Tamara Jenkins: I’ve never heard that in my life. Maybe it’s because I’m old. Is that like, a modern thing, like a young millennial expression?

Kathryn Hahn: Please tell me. Explain to me. Because I saw that this [interview] was called “Winnie the Poohing” and I was very confused by that!

Well, Winnie the Pooh walks around with a T-shirt but no pants.
Jenkins: That’s so funny.

Hahn: Oh, that’s so cute! Aw, that’s why! I was like, Is there something I’m missing, I cannot figure it out.

Jenkins: I was pulling together images for the movie — kind of scrapbooks, or whatever you want to call them, and I pulled out that great Julianne Moore scene from [Short Cuts] where she’s wearing a skirt, and then she spills [wine] on it, and she has to take it off and iron it. I don’t think I was referring to it when I was writing that scene, but I was like, “Oh yeah, there’s another great version of that — a domestic, unselfconscious reality.”

Hahn: I kept thinking of how revolutionary that was, and feeling like, “What?!” I just remember seeing that and being like [gasps.] It just felt so thrilling and terrifying and aggressive and youthful. It was perfect for that scene, and that fight; it was a seminal cinematic moment for me, of a woman’s body in film.

Jenkins: And there’s a great Gaby Hoffmann scene in Transparent. That should go down in the Winnie the Pooh record.

Was she always meant to be partially nude in the scene? 
Jenkins: The scene as it was written didn’t have her being pantsless. We were approaching production, and somewhere between her signing on to do the part and realizing we were actually gonna make this movie, I thought to myself, Oh, well, what if she wasn’t completely clothed? What if she comes out in a T-shirt? It was like a double entendre, the vagina-vagina: She’s having this argument about the social worker [who] is gonna be so upset that there’s a vagina on her wall, and then I was like, Well, what if she storms in and she’s, you know, without pants?

How did you approach Kathryn about it?
Jenkins: It wasn’t written in the original script, but I wanted to do it, so I was very sensitive about approaching Kathryn about it. I was asking an actor to do nudity and it wasn’t pre-established. You’re supposed to work those things out in advance. I asked her to do a movie and then suddenly I’m like, “By the way, you’re in the nude.” And you just feel like you’ve entrapped someone. So I didn’t want to seem like I was being sleazy or something.

I was very grateful that I wasn’t a man at the time. Maybe sometimes I wish I was a man, but at that point, I was very happy that I wasn’t a man.

Hahn: It was originally written as, I was in a T-shirt and underwear running around cleaning and bleaching the shower, while my husband was trying to clean up all the evidence of our IVF journey for this impending visit from the social worker. He comes across this huge gorgeous piece of art — it’s a woman whose legs are pretty spread and showing a very healthy bush, and it’s just gorgeous. It’s beautiful! And at a certain point Richard says, “What should we do about the Yuskavage? Don’t you think it’s a little too much?” And Rachel comes in and has a total meltdown about it.

And Tamara did spring it on me. It’s funny, because I said, without even thinking, “Of course.” I think that there was an unconscious thing when I read it — I really did imagine myself without having underwear on. The ballast needed to be as weighted when you see this piece of art as when you see the actual human body next to it. Richard was afraid that that naked form was going to be taking up too much space, and then when you see an actual female form walk into the room, she’s taking up too much space with her actual vagina. It completely made sense. I just knew with my spidey sense like, Of course, I shouldn’t have my pants on. Of course. If I had underwear on, it just wouldn’t have packed as much of a punch.

And so there are a lot of quick back and forth emails just with the subject line, “Merkin.” Which made me laugh.

Jenkins: As soon as this was coming out of my mouth, “I was thinking that maybe it would be a great kind visual pun—” she was like, “Oh! Without my pants!” She said it super bluntly. I could barely finish the proposal. So every time I saw her or spoke to her after that, I kept thinking maybe she didn’t hear me right, because she was so comfortable with the idea. So I’d say it again the next time: “You know, I had this idea.” And she’s like, “… Yeah.” I’m so neurotic about it and she was so un-neurotic. It was kind of great.

Hahn: [Laughs.] I don’t know what that says about me.

How did you know that this sort of visual joke would work? Why is it so poignantly funny?
Jenkins: I think it’s a combination of things. There’s the painting on the wall — it’s provocative, it’s sexual, and it might freak out the social worker who’s gonna be judging them to see if they’re appropriate. And then there’s the fact that half the population has a vagina. So it’s like the domestic version versus the objectified version, almost like a split screen. Sometimes you’re in the middle of getting dressed or in the middle of doing something where it’s not completed, and you notice dirt, and you’re compulsive and you want to fix it right then, and you’re walking around in like a bra and pants — or you’re wearing, in her case, no pants. [You’re] clearly in the process of getting ready. But then she’s by the filthy tub and she’s going at it. There’s that wet factor of cleaning, too, where you’re sort of half-wet, so you don’t want to be wearing pants and cleaning or whatever.

Hahn: I remember talking about this with Jill [Soloway] too, while making Afternoon Delight. I love the idea of just — domestic nudity; like, casual nudity in a marriage. How you don’t have to inhale the belly anymore. That kind of nudity between a couple is so real. That was a great way to get into that marriage, too. Richard is talking about an image of a vagina taking up too much space in the frame and saying, “Is this too much?” And then she just busts in. I didn’t think about it while it was happening, but then, on some unconscious level when I saw it, I was like, “Oh, of course! She’s railing against the idea that that would be possibly taking up too much space, or being too much.” And it’s in this movie about a woman’s body, and not being in control of it — being in the hands of all these doctors and this technology, being out of control of her own fecundity. Her own womanness. It was just a great primal assertion of something.

Jenkins: Even though the painting is by a woman painter — and I wouldn’t call it exploitative by any means — you’re seeing this au natural vagina in its natural habitat versus a painting. Vaginas have so much power! But then to see it in its natural habitat, or whatever, is so anticlimactic in a weird way. There’s just something funny about it — being caught without your pants on. That’s a very interesting turn of phrase, right? It means that you’re without power. You’re off guard. You’re vulnerable. So here she is in this kind of vulnerable state, but she’s very emotional and opinionated and angry. The two of those things next to each other are like opposites: pants down, but having this very assertive opinion, being enraged about the unjustness of stuff.

And then nobody comments on it. Richard’s not saying, “You don’t have your pants!” Everybody’s just kind of not commenting on it — it’s like the elephant in the room. That’s the difference between domestic nudity and movie nudity. It’s not sexualized, it’s just run-of-the-mill.

How’d you choose that specific painting?
Jenkins: The painting in the movie is not what I have on my wall. I do have a really provocative thing on my wall that Lisa gave me in real life. I’m looking at it right now. I have a 9-year-old, and sometimes when kids come over, they’ll be like, “You have a lot of vaginas and boobs on your wall!” And it’s like, “I know, what can I tell you? It’s the subject of a lot of painters’ work. I didn’t make it up! Just go into the Met.”

In real life, my husband and I did pursue adoption — not in the same way that they do in the movie, [but] this process, when a social worker shows up to your house, and you think that they’re going to be judging your ability to parent the child — it’s stressful. You probably would hide things that you would think looked suspicious.

How did you find the right T-shirt and merkin?
Jenkins: The most fun thing about the scene was the fact that when we costumed it, the T-shirt’s sort of low enough that for a minute you don’t really know what’s going to happen. When she storms out there’s a second — because she’s backlit — and then you realize, Wait a minute, she doesn’t have pants on. If it was a little higher, you would see like the pubic line or something, but it’s just low enough that it’s almost like a double take. You’re like, Wow. She’s really … she’s freestyling. 

Hahn: I have to give props to my amazing makeup artist Brenna McGuire, who had the idea and [gave the merkin] a name. I think it was Dolores, but I can’t quite be sure. Or Diane. But she definitely was treated and handled with much care and love — the merkin, I’m talking about. It was very freeing to be able to scream with a merkin on.

At what point in the shoot did you film the scene?
Hahn: It was hilarious, because Tamara beat around the bush — no pun intended — for so long and then when she finally got to [asking me to do the scene nude], she had to come back and be like, “OK, another awkward question: We might have to shoot it the first day.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Of course!” We decided to lift the Band-Aid off.

Jenkins: We were shooting in that apartment first, and we were shooting many of the daytime living-room scenes first, so all the lighting is set up for that. So, for a whole series of ridiculous reasons, it ended up that we were scheduling that scene on either day one or day two. I called her and I was like, “It’s really awkward, you’re gonna do the thing without your pants and it’s either gonna fall on like day one or day two, and I don’t know what would be better, and let’s talk about it.” She paused and she said: “Day one.” And I was like, “Really?” And she said, “Because then I don’t know anybody, I don’t know the crew, I can just storm out there. Once I start getting to know people, it will be more uncomfortable, so let’s just knock it off on the first day.”

Kathryn, what made you feel comfortable enough to shoot it on day one? Would you have been as comfortable with a male director?
Hahn: It just has to do with the intention behind the camera. And the empathy. For a scene like this, it had nothing to do with sexuality; it was just a domestic scene. It was just trying to get to a place of, like, complete lack of inhibition. It’s almost trickier than a [sexual] scene, because you have to be so relaxed, as if zero people are watching. This was just how any of us would walk around our apartment, or by ourselves.

So that kind of Jedi mind trick is a tough one to pull off. I don’t know if I would say it matters gender-wise — you’re able to feel it with certain humans and souls. But with this particular bird of Tamara, she made it so crazy easy and so effortless and safe. And we had an amazing DP, which also helps, just to have empathetic eyeballs, safe eyeballs behind the camera. Just to feel like you’re the one in control of it.

How many times did you do it?
Jenkins: I don’t think we had to do it that many times.

We did have to do something kind of odd. The bathroom in the film wasn’t the bathroom that’s in the apartment. We had to shoot that in the studio space, because the apartment bathroom wasn’t working. So we shot the part in the living room where you see her — the lights, the windows are behind her — and that’s the actual location. There’s another angle where you see her butt, and she’s marching away to throw the cleanser all over the place, and she’s really mad — that shot was shot on a soundstage.

And when you see like the cleanser flying, the Comet or whatever — that was definitely written into the script. I remember Kathryn saying something like, “When I’m trying to get pregnant, would I put these chemical cleaning agents that close to my body?” And I was like “Oh, that’s an interesting point.” It was a very actor point-of-view question, and I was like, “Yeah, but you’re probably still in a rage.” I don’t know how I justified it, but I wanted that Ajax flying.

What are the main differences between shooting a nude scene that’s funny and a nude scene that’s sensual?
Jenkins: I feel like I don’t have any sensual nudity [in my films], which is probably revealing. It’s all kind of anti-glamour. I haven’t really done an erotic sex scene for an erotic thriller. It’s not my sensibility, and often when I see things like that, I kind of roll my eyes. I mean, once in a while, you’ll see something that’s truly sensual, and you’re like, “Wow, that really gets it right.” But that’s not usually my jam. I’m more interested in a non-idealized portrait of life. The humor often comes from quotidian.

Hahn: I guess I would say it’s always uncomfortable [to film nudity]. It’s never, like, the most comfortable thing. I had an intimacy coordinator on Mrs. Fletcher, and I’ve never worked with that kind of person before. It’s kind of a great go-between just to make sure that everybody’s [comfortable]. So you know there’s no grievance or any gray area walking into it, and you don’t have to kind of figure it out on the day.

I think for sex scenes and nudity in general, your closest ally is usually your wardrobe, your dresser, because they are the one standing there with a towel or the robe to throw on you between the takes, and to be your confidante during it. I’ve just been lucky and blessed enough that I’ve had really good communication between scene partners and directors.

I was talking to Andrea Savage, who has a scene like this in her show, and she said that her male crew were like, “This isn’t a thing” — that women don’t walk around the house with just a shirt on.
Jenkins: Ok, this is actually funny. They must not have wives, or girlfriends. But I mean, men walk around like that too! There’s always a moment, at some point in your life, between having a shirt on and having gotten your pants on. Or maybe men always put their pants on first, and then I don’t know.

I do remember when we were making our movie — because there was so much in the movie about female reproductive organs, there’s vagina, vagina, vagina — I remember a crew member said, “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a movie where the word vagina was spoken so many times.” And I thought that was pretty funny.

Was it a man or a woman?
Jenkins: It was a man, and he was very charming about it.

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