Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Kathryn Hahn has been a ubiquitous presence in film and TV, particularly comedy, for the past decade, from a scene-stealing cameo in Anchorman to an unhinged supporting role in Step Brothers to her hilariously amoral campaign manager in Parks And Recreation’s fourth season. For the new Afternoon Delight, she stays closer to her dramatic roots, playing a bored thirtysomething housewife who goes on a mission to help a down-on-her-luck stripper. That could be the basis for a comedy—and Afternoon Delight is frequently funny—but the film pushes Hahn into darker territory than viewers may expect from the woman who told John C. Reilly in Step Brothers, “I wanna roll you up into a little ball and shove you up my vagina.”
Afternoon Delight (2013)—“Rachel”
Kathryn Hahn: I haven’t been able to explore that side of myself, work-wise, in a long time. I’ve been in the big, beautiful comedy world, which I love, but definitely this hasn’t been asked of me since I was in grad school. That’s kind of where I started. I was always the class clown, I’ll be frank, but I was always able to do big, beautiful plays in college and grad school. That’s kind of where I was. It’s so funny, because I really did not see myself—which of course I think is maybe typical—but I did not see myself as a comedic actor. Yet people would always start laughing. [Laughs.] I should have taken that as a sign.
The A.V. Club: This is not only more of a dramatic role, but it’s also fairly racy at times. Was it tough for you to do those kinds of scenes?
KH: It was not that hard. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’ve had two kids. It’s not like I’m not known as like, “The Body.” God knows. It’s not like that’s my currency. [Laughs.] Anyway, it didn’t feel like I had a crazy amount of pressure in that department. It was just another revealing of this character, which I thought was really moving and important. It wasn’t so much about the nudity as it was about the vulnerability, and that she was actually comfortable in her own skin. One of the things I love about Rachel’s journey is her physical life. When you first meet her, she’s in sweatpants and a T-shirt, like she’s hiding under so many huge layers of clothes. She is so far removed from her womanhood and from her body, and she has no idea who she is. So I love by the end that she’s actually just in her skin experiencing such a primal, as it were, feeling. It feels like a really, really clear arc to me.
AVC: How did you get involved with the film?
KH: I begged. I was so excited. I loved the script. We were laughing before, like it couldn’t have been closer to me. I live in Silver Lake with my two kids. Justin, my youngest, is in preschool. All of a sudden, the baby part of their lives is over. It’s like a really pretty intense period because they are no longer needed in the same way. They just don’t need mommy in the same way, which is like, “What do I do with all that extra energy?” That job, that very physical mommy job, is so brief before—obviously it shifts, and I’m always mommy. I can’t wait for that relationship. Every second is heaven—I shouldn’t say that, actually. That’s crap. Every second is not heaven. But, that specific kind of mommyhood is really brief, the infant mommyhood. All of a sudden, my babies are free. When I’m not working, what do you do with that energy? It made a lot of sense to me. I had a lot of empathy with what womanhood is after motherhood. What is being a woman after the kids have grown up?
Flushed (1999)—(no character name)
AVC: Your first credit is Hickory Hideout in 1981, which was a children’s puppet show?
KH: Which was another dramedy. Involving strippers. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were a kid in that one, but IMDB has Flushed as your first adult credit. What do you remember about that?
KH: I remember it was like a huge, crazy ensemble. Definitely didn’t get paid anything—had to bring jean options and top options. We shot it in some bar bathroom in the middle of the day. I was like, “This is pretty bottom.” It was only up from there. But a lot of people in that movie ended up being pretty successful, I think. It was a huge ensemble. I don’t even know how I got involved. I have no idea. There were some names that came out of it.
Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy (2004)—“Helen”
KH: I had been doing Crossing Jordan. I got a call to audition. The great casting director Jeanne McCarthy, who’s always been a huge, awesome supporter, besides the fact that she’s so gorgeous and looks like Sissy Spacek. I love her so much. But she has always been a real huge supporter. She put me on tape for Anchorman. There’s no reason I should have gotten the job. I knew nobody involved with it. I went to school in Chicago—that’s kind of my only connection with any of that comedy world. Adam McKay is incredible. My husband was so geeking out comedy-wise that I was like, “Uh-oh, I guess I have to put myself on tape for this.” He had no idea it was such a small part in this very hilarious, surreal script. But he was so excited about the possibility of me being anywhere in there. He was like, “Oh my God, you have to do this.”
AVC: Did your paths overlap with Adam McKay or any of those folks in Chicago?
KH: No, he was a touch older. I was at Northwestern. But my husband and I know a lot of people from Second City and from UCB.
AVC: Are you in the sequel?
KH: No. I wish. I really wish I was a part of it, but I’m going to be there as a fan, freaking out. It already looks amazing.
Crossing Jordan (2001-2007)—“Lily Lebowski”
AVC: Crossing Jordan, that part was written for you, right?
KH: It was written as a one-episode or three-episode thing. They very sweetly made it a recurring after I did an episode, which was such a mixed blessing because I was so excited to work on that show and to maybe pay off my student loans, of which I had accrued so much. It was so stupid. I was like, “Oh, something had better happen, because I’m not a doctor. I don’t know why I’m accruing all of this debt.” I loved being an actor in school, I really did. I didn’t have to worry about the auditions. I loved grad school. Crossing Jordan was awesome because I knew it would be a boot camp. I’d never done anything TV-wise besides Hickory Hideout. I knew it would be an incredible boot-camp experience, but it was also in L.A. I was not ready to go. I loved New York so much, but it ended up being really awesome, and they ended up being incredibly flexible. I was able to go do plays and movies and stuff whenever I had time.
AVC: That was a long run you had on that show, too.
KH: Tell me about it. It was a really long run. People loved that show. They really did. And it was a great cast. It was awesome. It was certainly not in any way what I was anticipating doing for seven years right out of grad school. That was a surprise.
Girls (2012)—“Katherine Lavoyt”
KH: Lena Dunham, before it was even aired, she and [writer-producer] Jenni Konner had thought of me for this part. They named her Katherine—so crazy flattering. I think I was so thrilled to represent the momma in that show, like the girl a decade or so older. I couldn’t believe how that young woman was able to get into the mind of that part. How would she know that perspective at her age? It was just crazy to me how talented that young woman is. It’s insane. That was heaven. I think Jill [Soloway, Afternoon Delight writer-director] had seen something in that part and thought of me for Rachel. There’s definitely a sense of that woman wanting to rescue.
AVC: Katherine definitely seems related to Rachel. Here’s a person who’s more of a career-driven version of Rachel, but still isn’t happy at home.
KH: I understand. It’s such a child-centric parenting culture we live in. Maybe it’s just because I have kids; that’s, like, what’s been in my face, but there’s so many books and blogs. My mother is always saying, “We didn’t have this…” There’s so much crap that is just marketed to parents. It’s so child-centric. [Rachel] reads everything. She knows what every magazine and book and article is telling her about how to be a perfect mother and have that perfect, natural bonding and how to do it the right way. She’s knows all these. She’s read everything. She has access to way too much information because she is so privileged. She has the time to do everything most mothers don’t—and because of that, it’s also more depressing. It just doesn’t feel the way she thinks it should. She doesn’t know why. It just doesn’t sit the way all the magazines and articles and blogs are telling her that it should.
Free Agents (2011)—“Helen”
AVC: Crossing Jordan was 100-something episodes, then you went to Free Agents, which only ran for four. What was that experience like?
KH: It came and went so quickly. That show, it was a grand experiment that just never had a chance to find itself. I just don’t think that was ever able to gel because we just didn’t have the time. We couldn’t quite figure its tone out or its rhythms or its comedy or what it was. We just didn’t have the time. Unfortunately, it was a period of time in the schedule and NBC’s life where they just could not afford the patience.
AVC: Did you have any sort of sense that, as you’re putting this together, “Oh, maybe this isn’t going to work out”?
KH: I think we all knew. We’re all smart peeps. I think we knew it was going to take some time to iron out kinks. We knew it wasn’t a home run from the beginning, but we knew all the pieces were there. There’s such extraordinary talent working on it.
AVC: The cast was pretty stacked: Hank Azaria, Natasha Leggero, Joe Lo Truglio, Al Madrigal…
KH: The cast was crazy good, and we just knew that we were all smarties. We just knew we needed some time.
AVC: Shows now have so little time.
KH: Exactly. The odds were just not in our favor.
Parks And Recreation (2012)—“Jennifer Barkley”
KH: Oh God, I love those people so much. That set is the most welcoming. It’s the dreamiest. It all starts with [Amy] Poehler. She’s such an incredible number one to have on a contact sheet, on a cast list. Cream just rises. She’s such a stud and such a nice person. She’s a goddess. I worshipped her before, and I worship her even more after seeing how she behaves on a set. She’s incredible. That whole group. I hadn’t been in a situation where the writers just know the people. I thought there was so much more improvising going on than there actually is. The writers just know these characters inside out and without ego. It’s crazy how good it is over there. It’s such a beautifully well-run machine. They have dance parties at lunch. That was like nirvana. I’m in awe, and I turned into a pumpkin at midnight. I was like, “And they have In-N-Out Burger trucks? This is too much.”
AVC: That’s pretty sweet.
KH: At least they had it the day that I was there. I was like, “This can’t happen all the time, or I’m going to start bawling. This is so perfect.” I was like, “This is too much.” Even the first table-read, I was so nervous. I don’t get starstruck very often, but that first table-read when everybody was sitting around, it was like walking into my TV set. I don’t really watch just because of the kids and yada yada. I haven’t been able to sit with a television show that much except for this one. I was always in love with the comedy and the writing of the show. Just to sit at that table with those actors was like, “What’s happening?” I was doing the reading, but I was also floating above it looking down at me, like, “This is surreal, and I’m the luckiest girl in the world.”
AVC: But it definitely seemed like it was in your wheelhouse.
KH: They just know actors. They know actors so well, those writers, that they know your strengths without you even knowing. It’s so weird. I don’t understand it. They usually write the parts for the people. I don’t know [executive producer/co-creator] Mike Schur that well, or any of the writers that well. I’ve always worshipped them, but we don’t know each other that well. But they just know actors. They just get into your strengths and just write to it. It’s so weird. The part was such a great, easy fit. It was funny because I was talking with someone, like, “If they had asked me to audition for Jennifer Barkley, I wonder if I would have gotten it?” It’s so weird, because it’s not necessarily who I get to play, usually, that much of a cold bitch. It’s not usually what I’m asked to do. They just know people so well.
Revolutionary Road (2008)—“Milly Campbell”
KH: I had done a scene with Kate Winslet in this Nancy Meyers movie called The Holiday. It was one scene. It was basically cut down to a line, but we bonded during it. I’m in love with her. We just had a connection, and then she thought of me for this part in Revolutionary Road. [Laughs.] Which makes me laugh when I think of the part now. That was heaven. That was also the same summer that I shot Step Brothers. It was awesome. Going back and forth between the two was quite surreal, quite surreal. But that’s why I got into this mess in the beginning: for those kinds of experiences. Last summer, to be able to do We’re The Millers at the same time as doing this movie, Afternoon Delight. That’s the actor’s dream, to be able to play pretend in those vast degrees of scale and role and tone and makeup. That’s the best. That’s when I feel like I can turn to my kids and be like, “Your mommy really has a fun job.”
Step Brothers (2008)—“Alice”
AVC: What was the production process for that like? There must’ve been a lot of improvising?
KH: Oh my God, yeah. That was mostly improvising, which is a testament to McKay, too. The script itself was so genius and so surreal and so anarchic. There was a lawlessness about it that was really exciting—same thing with Anchorman. In that, we just improvised the hell out of it. It was so fun.
AVC: That movie didn’t do so well when it came out, but it’s sort of taken on another life.
KH: Same with Anchorman, right? They seem to take on lives of their own after they come out. I don’t think critics quite knew what to do with it. It’s two man-children and Richard Jenkins, but it is so funny. It is undeniably funny. Those two guys are crazy good.