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Emmy nominee Hannah Einbinder on Hacks, having Jean Smart as a mentor, and why she can’t party anymore

Hannah Einbinder, joking about her friendship with her Hacks co-star: “I can’t imagine I taught Jean Smart anything.”
Main image: Photo: Justin Bettman; background images: Photos: Hacks (HBO Max)
Main image: Photo: Justin Bettman; background images: Photos: Hacks (HBO Max)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Season one of HBO Max’s Hacks was an unqualified success—the comedy, from Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, won over viewers and critics with its acerbic comedy, picked up a season-two renewal, and garnered a whopping 15 Emmy nominations earlier this summer. The complicated relationship between legendary (fictional) stand-up comedian Deborah Vance, played by the legendary and very real Jean Smart, and Ava Daniels, played by real-life comic Hannah Einbinder, was key to the show’s appeal, along with the gutsy performances by the two lead actors. It was no surprise when the Television Academy recognized Smart and Einbinder with nominations in the Lead and Supporting Actress in a Comedy categories, respectively.

Hacks offered Einbinder her first major role, but she was already well versed in various forms of comedy—as a performer, she incorporates music, anecdotes, and commentary. (Not to mention, she probably picked up some things from her parents, comedy writer Chad Einbinder and original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman.) The series offered plenty of challenges for the actor, though; she had to think like a TV writer, engage in the occasional bacchanal, and trade withering barbs with Smart. Einbinder more than held her own, imbuing the prickly Ava with great vulnerability, and even improvising some of the inspired insults her character flings at her boss/antagonist/mentor.

Smart was in Einbinder’s corner from day one, helping her on-set and off, which led to a meaningful friendship between the two. The A.V. Club spoke to Einbinder about having her co-star and fellow Emmy nominee as a guide, Ava’s self-destructive tendencies and desire for institutional change, and how coffee fueled the season’s epic bender.

The A.V. Club: The world of stand-up comedy is one you were already familiar with, but what about Las Vegas? Had you been there before? Was there any culture shock when you were exploring the nooks and crannies of it?

Hannah Einbinder: To me, Vegas is almost frozen in time, but a time that has not happened yet and will never happen. Vegas feels like this leak in the matrix or some sort of weird simulation that you pass through on your way to somewhere else that never actually happened. It’s just this sci-fi weird world to me. My grandmother lived in Vegas, so my association is primarily with her. She loved the slots, loved to gamble. She was a great person, but you know, we actually only shot four days total in Vegas. The rest was in L.A. So, gotcha. [Laughs.] So we didn’t spend a ton of time there, but I have been there since, and my experience with Vegas up until that point was going with my friends from college and trying to skirt around spending money and getting food poisoning from the Whole Foods hot bar. Just trying to navigate the place without doing any financial damage, but you know, physical damage was done.

I think I have now figured out the way to do Vegas properly, which is: dinner and a show. The club environment is not one I’m awesome in, I don’t love it. And I also feel that it’s like my experience, at least one of the past times that I was there–I always feel like being in this body in Vegas is not great because it feels like a playground for men sometimes where they feel entitled to invade your space. So that’s a not-so-awesome element of it that I’ve experienced. But I also know that there’s there’s room for good clean fun there. And I love Penn and Teller, the magicians. They’re so cool. And they’re a part of Vegas that I feel like is really, really special and amazing, cool shows. That’s the best of it, I think.

AVC: This was your first major acting role, so it must be great to be recognized for it right out of the gate. But do you feel more pressure now in terms of what your follow-up role or project might be?

HE: I don’t know about pressure. I definitely feel a lot of freedom because I feel like it is such an immense privilege to be able to select things that I really connect with. So going forward, I’m just basically going like, does this align with various interests of mine or things I’m passionate about? Is this character someone that I think is going to move the needle in some way, in terms of opening up people’s points of view about a female character or a non-male character? It feels like a real big privilege to be able to be more selective. And yeah, I hope to just engage with work that speaks to me and is good for the team, the cause, the girls.

AVC: Deborah kind of grudgingly becomes Ava’s mentor, but you’ve said that Jean Smart was really supportive from the beginning, kind of guiding you through the process. But I’m sure that went both ways, right? Is there something you taught Jean Smart on the set of Hacks?

HE: [Laughs.] I can’t imagine I taught Jean anything. I mean maybe something on her phone, maybe there was a technical thing I helped her with, maybe? I really was like, following her around with a notebook, just watching everything she did really closely. I can’t imagine I taught Jean anything, but I do think that our love and friendship is a beautiful, mutually beneficial thing that I’m really happy exists.

AVC: There is this generational tension between Ava and Deborah that’s really at the core of the show. And you probably gave Jean some insights on what it’s like to be… you’re Gen Z, right? Or are you a very young Millennial? 

HE: Technically very young Millennial. I mean, by the way, everything is constructed—it’s not even the year 2021, you know what I mean? Like, we’ve been here for much longer than 2000 years. But they say it’s ’96, ’97 that is Gen Z [birth year] and I’m ’95, so the last Millennial. No pressure.

AVC: But in that sense, were you able to share some insights with her? Did you talk about those generational differences?

HE: Jean has two kids: One is 13 and the other is 30. So she’s really familiar with the spectrum of the Gen Z-ers. But in terms of classic comedy and sort of the era that a Deborah Vance would have come from, that’s one of my favorite eras. So I feel like we both kind of had these resources going in, which was helpful, I think.

AVC: We see over time that Ava and Deborah are a great fit as collaborators, but what made Hacks one of the most suspenseful shows of the spring is that you didn’t really know if that collaboration is going to be in place from week to week. Were you guys in the dark about any of that, or did you know from the beginning how their arcs would play out?

HE: I feel like we got scripts one, two, and then three at a time, like they were rolled out sort of as production went on. And that was really helpful for me just as a new actor so that I could kind of stay in whatever moment was upon us.

AVC: You have tried different things in your own stand-up, including a bit of music, but if you had to sum up your brand of comedy, how would you describe it? And how does it compare with Ava’s? 

HE: Oh, that’s really interesting. How does it compare with Ava’s? My comedy, I really like a lot of everything. Like I said, I really love the classic stuff and I also love the most “now,” sort of “breaking every single rule that was established in the straight stand-up” thing. I guess what I’m going for, to try to sum it up, is like a variety show within one hour. I like to do characters and I like to do serious stuff that’s not even meant to be funny. And also stories and also set up punchline jokes and also new things. I’m just really kind of trying everything. I think my generation is super restless and has a really short attention span—I know I do—so I kind of do what I feel like I could sit through. Or I try at least to do that.

How does it compare to Ava’s comedy? Well, she’s not a stand-up, she’s a writer. So I think Ava’s stuff is more a reflection–okay, so she didn’t know who Deborah Vance was at first. And that’s where she and I are just totally coming from a different place. She’s someone whose influences are so much more modern. So if you asked her who her favorite comedian was, she would probably say someone that she knows or someone who is only 10 years older than her, tops. Her style is more reflective of the current moment through and through. She might even say people she likes on Twitter, which is cool, but yeah, I think we fundamentally approach it differently. But I still think she’s very funny and great, but just like in a totally different world.

AVC: Stand-up is a bit more solitary of a process than working on a TV show. What was it like to move into this more collaborative environment?

HE: It was great. It was so cool. I just got lucky that everyone I was collaborating with was patient and so sweet and funny and good in their hearts. You know? Everyone held my hand the entire way through. I love this collaborative process. I’ve not experienced it up until this project. And it’s just so nice. And also having takes, like being able to do something multiple times and for various angles, it takes away any element of any fear or nervousness or anxiousness, because the amount of attempts and interpretations of the material that this art form allows, that this medium allows, is great. So nice, really freeing.

AVC: I want to go back to something you mentioned about the toll that Vegas can take on the body. There’s an episode where Ava and George, a guy she meets at the hotel, go on a massive bender. Did you work with someone who was like, “Well, this is what somebody is like on coke. This is what it would be like if they also threw in a whole bunch of alcohol”? How did your performance there come together?

HE: Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen so many of my friends do cocaine. I truly did. I was like, “Oh yeah, this is the posture. This is the attempt. This is the intake. And this is the vibe after.” Luckily I got some practice studying it. I had never actually done cocaine because I did Adderall for so many years, and by the time uppers were fun, I was burned out. I was like, “I’m out of the game, folks. I can’t keep up.” [Laughs.] But that stuff was all just basically, I got a little bit of guidance from friends and people who had more experience. I’m so withered and tired–I can’t party anymore. I had a lot of lattes, lot of espresso. Just a lot of caffeine. So, that was kind of the attempt.

AVC: Ava thinks she’s had a breakthrough when she’s high, but that leads her to almost blowing up her career again–and not for the last time in the season. When you talked with the creators of the show, was “self-destructive” a word that was thrown around a lot for Ava’s characterization?

HE: Certainly one of them, yeah. One step forward, two steps back was sort of the way that self-destructive was characterized to me by the three of them. And yeah, like you said, it’s an element of her, and also a lot of young people. A lot of what I know about being young is that it’s kind of about understanding the changes that you need to make, but having trouble enacting them fully because impulsiveness kind of takes over. And that is, as far as I know and understand it, sort of like a universal truth of this time in our lives.

AVC: The eighth episode has this wonderful exchange between Ava and Deborah, which explores this idea of lifting as you climb, and the responsibility older generations have to newer generations. Ava is all about reminding Deborah what her obligations are, but is Ava somebody that practices what she preaches in that respect?

HE: Man, that’s a good question. I mean, I don’t think we get to see her in her community in this season as much. We see those girls in episode five, who she runs into and they kind of describe her as being someone who is kind of social climber-y. I mean, look, for a lot of young people in comedy, there is that. Specifically, I think Ava comes from a scene that’s pretty true to the LA, New York comedy scenes today. There’s a lot of conversation around the institution itself, it’s being examined now more than ever. I think she hears those conversations and she’s a part of those conversations. To me, there is an element of her understanding the right thing. And again, as we know, she understands what’s right and wrong, but putting action behind it as a different thing.

Ava and Deborah are similar in a lot of ways, and this is maybe a place where that very thing is rearing its head. That very idea. But I don’t know. I think a lot of times when Ava and Deborah are kind of butting heads, they’re getting mad at themselves outwardly. Does that make sense? Like they’re putting up their defenses because it, whatever it is, hits a vein and they know that maybe they don’t do that. And so they go, “Why don’t you do that?”

AVC: As much as they like each other, they’re always trading blows, which they’ll probably keep doing in the second season. As far as the future of the show, Paul, Lucia, and Jen have said said they’re more interested in narrative tent poles, marks they want to hit, rather than number of seasons. Is that something you’re up for?

HE: Yeah. Oh my God. I haven’t seen any of the scripts for next season, but I mean, I trust them so deeply. I know whatever they have planned is going to be so great, and so right for these people.

AVC: This is all very exciting for you, but also probably pretty nerve-wracking. How are you dealing with the wait before the ceremony?

HE: You know, I got to tell you, I don’t feel a lot of pressure only because I never expected to even be nominated in the first place. So I’m so thrilled by that and just really happy for the show and everyone else who’s been recognized. So I feel pretty cool about it. I’m really proud of everyone and you know, all the other shows that are nominated are shows that I have watched and love. I just feel like it’s a celebration of all of everyone’s work. I’m trying not to be too anxious about it. I will be anxious about having my picture taken and things like that will be terrifying. But other than that, just hoping to have a good time with friends and new friends.