ROLE OF A LIFETIME
How Kathryn Hahn’s Big, Loud, Messy Feelings Made Her Career
The veteran actress on the role of a lifetime in Netflix’s ‘Private Life,’ one that encompasses the bravery, vulnerability, complexity, and rage of a messily human woman.
When Kathryn Hahn was in kindergarten at St. Ann’s, a Catholic elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio, she was cast as Psalty the Psalm Book in a church play. She wore painted cardboard over silver tights, and sang a little song. A little song about psalms.
“Chew on that,” the actress laughs, chuckling her way into a snort. “Just let that sink in. P-S-I-N-K in.”
It’s a cute story, one we specifically asked for as proof that Hahn’s eventual career as a performer was the kind of destiny her parents could pick up on from an early age. In her case, it was apparently written in the scriptures.
But there’s something especially fitting about revisiting Psalty’s stage debut four decades later, as Hahn’s finest performance yet—and her coronation as one of Hollywood’s most unusual, but also most necessary leading women—hits screens.
On Friday, Private Life becomes available for streaming on Netflix. It’s the first film in 11 years from writer-director Tamara Jenkins, whose The Savages went from Sundance all the way to the Oscars in 2007. In it, Hahn plays Rachel to Paul Giamatti’s Richard, a middle-aged New York couple struggling to conceive their first child through IVF.
Psalty and Rachel—bear with me—are fascinating bookends to Hahn’s career thus far, especially as she talks about them, respectively.
There’s the lunacy and innate humor which defined much of her early career, which after Psalty, included her Cleveland Play House debut at age 9, her fourth-grade stint on the syndicated kids’ show Hickory Hideout, and then community stage work, her studies at Northwestern University, Yale Drama School, and finally, Hollywood.
A breakout role in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days led to a series of scene-stealing supporting roles in comedies, from Anchorman and Step Brothers to Wanderlust and We’re the Millers. In tandem, however, was a series of performances defined by extreme tenderness—How Do You Know, This Is Where I Leave You, Afternoon Delight—characters whose feelings were as big as the characters in her comedies were broad.
It would serve as a training ground for a string of attention-grabbing turns in recent projects: the series Transparent and I Love Dick with Jill Soloway, and now Private Life with Jenkins. These are characters who encompass the bravery, vulnerability, feminism, guardedness, sexuality, reservation, and complexity that all those previous roles exhibited individually, but which are rarely allowed to swirl together in one, messily human woman on screen.
Untenable feelings seem to coil inside her characters, but they don’t necessarily spring with that crisp, cathartic “boing” we’re conditioned to expect. Sometimes they kink, or the coil rusts. The emotions tangle, they fester. Instead of exploding, the whole thing just sits there, existing, to be dealt with. On screen, that helps Hahn approach the closest thing there is to a pure expression of id: the bull in a liquor shop that is Carla in Bad Moms, the feminist primal scream of Chris in I Love Dick, or the broken-and-bold existential warfare waged internally by Transparent’s Rabbi Raquel.
Her Rachel in Private Life practically crawls out and itches at the audience, veering between hopefulness and delusion in her unconventional attempts to have a baby (she enlists her step-niece as an egg donor). Each setback is a crack in her emotional shield, until they become fault lines she can barely withstand.
These are projects that, going back to Psalty the Psalm Book, have been important to Kathryn Hahn’s growth as a woman, too. They’ve helped her work through and articulate her feelings about being, as she says, “a recovering Catholic,” an angry woman trained not to yell, and an actress who, at age 45, has somehow managed to secure her place in the industry at her prime.
“I feel like I have stepped into myself in a more whole way,” she says.
When we ask Hahn how Private Life came to her in the first place, she lets out a deep, soulful sigh and launches into a four-minute monologue. It’s not rambling or meandering. She just remembers every detail, every step of the way, and every feeling she felt—a specificity in memory which is rare for her.
“I was sent the script, with zero expectations, knowing that it was probably going to be in the hands of a gazillion huge stars,” she says. “So I read it with full expectation that my heart was going to be completely broken.”
The title, Private Life, was so “beautifully, perfectly vague,” she says, that she had no idea what the screenplay was even about, other than it was written by Tamara Jenkins, who scripted The Savages, a film that is hallowed to her. And then she read it.
“My heart was on the outside of my body, and it was inside of that piece of writing,” Hahn says. “I just thought, ‘What do I do?’ Because I want it so badly, and I knew there was going to be a gazillion hurdles.”
Jenkins, Hahn says, didn’t know who she was, but agreed to meet with her at the urging of casting director Jeanne McCarthy. So Hahn bought herself a JetBlue ticket to fly to New York to meet Jenkins at her favorite Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side. Hahn went straight from the plane to dinner, where they shared a meat and cheese board and split a bottle of rosé. “It was very clumsy,” Hahn says. “I think one of us knocked over a glass. We didn’t even really talk about the script. We just kind of sniffed each other out.”
After dinner, Jenkins offered Hahn her office to record ADR dialogue for I Love Dick before she went to the airport. “I looked around her office and saw all the mood boards for the movie, and I tried to energetically leave my scent in there,” she says. “Like, ‘This will be mine…’ I tried to leave my juju.”
Jenkins put her in a cab. Hahn watched The Other Woman on the plane back, still buzzed off the rosé. “I just remember all these weird specifics,” she says. Time passed, and then Jenkins met up with Hahn in Los Angeles. They walked around the reservoir with Hahn’s new rescue dog, Jerry. Soon after that, she was cast.
“It was a stars-aligning thing that just doesn’t happen in the life of Kathryn Hahn,” she says.
The last time we saw Kathryn Hahn, we were bundled up and losing our voices. It was the second satellite Women’s March in Park City, Utah, two days after Private Life opened the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Hahn and Jenkins were gripping each other as snow fell around us and Gloria Allred led the crowd in a chant: “Resist! Persist! Insist! Elect!”
It’s a backdrop of anger and action that’s become a bit of an annual tradition, coming a year after Hahn and I met at Sundance the morning of the first Women’s March to discuss the feminist anger of I Love Dick. “I was raised to be polite,” she said at the time. “I did all the proper gender and performance classes at Northwestern. I did all the steps to be the proper feminist. The polite feminist. We can’t afford that now. It’s not a time to be polite.”
This time when we talk, it seems that Hahn has moved past any struggle to find her voice. “We were babies!” she wails, alluding to how much has happened in so little time between that I Love Dick conversation and now. Now it’s about using that voice.
“I have a lot of rage right now in my belly,” she says, bringing up the fact that the very morning we connect, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault by a second woman. She speaks about her rage in quintessential Hahn-esque terms, which is to say exceptionally earnest and with slightly goofy terminology—“absolutely bonkers,” “completely bananas,” “shitshow times”—but with no doubt of the clarity of her emotion.
“I know where my heart stands and what I’m trying to do and I know how imperative November is,” she says. “I’m fighting the good fight over here on the ground, for sure.”
She’s gained a lot of perspective lately. Part of that is an involuntary byproduct of bearing witness to the insanity of the world around her. Some of that is the general self-reflection of a woman in her forties. And much of it, too, is directly related to playing Rachel in Private Life.
She was away from her husband, Ethan Sandler, and her kids, Leonard, who was born in 2006, and Mae, who followed in 2009, for most of the film’s 30-day shoot in New York. After shooting each night she would go to her rental on the upper Upper East Side, nestle into bed, and watch YouTube videos published by couples about their own IVF journeys. Some were triumphant. Some were heartbreaking. All of them seemed to be set to some sort of treacly, vaguely sad music.
“I would watch them and they would just seep into my bones,” she says. “For some reason I needed to fall asleep each night watching these journeys.”
Obviously, this affected her as a mother, first and foremost by reminding her to be grateful. “My kids didn’t come very easily to me,” she says. “But they certainly came easier than so many couples. I do not take that for granted in any way.” But it is also made her a little angry, or, maybe more measuredly, frustrated.
“I think a lot of women are sold a bill of goods about their fertility, where you think you’re in control of your fertility in your thirties,” she says. “And it sucks that our chief money-making years line up with our most fertile! It really, really sucks. It just sucks! And then when you’re finally ready to have your babies, it’s like, well, it doesn’t happen as easily as maybe you’ve been told. And it costs a shit ton of money. And no one tells you when to stop. And how could anybody tell you when to stop dreaming? For anything!”
She poses the question again, this time to herself.
“How did I connect to that being a mom?” she says. “I certainly know what it feels like to ache for something or long for something. I certainly know what it feels like to have a dream, and then all of a sudden you turn 40 and look down the barrel and think, oh Jesus, that doesn’t look like what I thought it was going to look like when I was in my twenties. That sucks! Then you readjust. We all do.”
We talk about how different the roles she’s playing now seem to be from the ones that launched her career, which she attributes to being in the next chapter of her life. “I think in my twenties, those were the parts that I could handle,” she says. “I wasn’t ready for anything else. And these are the parts I can handle now.”
It’s a remarkably healthy way to look back at a time when, as people who have been through their twenties can remember, is usually defined by yearning for more, feeling entitled to more, and dealing with exasperation when they don’t achieve more. Hahn, who, should it need to be reiterated, graduated from Yale Drama School and honed her chops working at the Williamstown Theatre and rehearsing Maria Irene Fornes plays until two in the morning, felt that.
It’s the “monster of the business” that threw her when she arrived in Los Angeles, she says. But working with Soloway and Jenkins in recent years, and beginning work next month on Mrs. Fletcher, a HBO series she’s starring in from writer Tom Perotta, has, she says, bridged the divide between her creative life and her work life. Suddenly, a “Kathryn Hahn role” seems to mean something different.
She’d do a Bad Moms-style role again at the drop of a hat, she says. But this is her sweet spot. “I still can’t believe it,” she says. “And, by the way, I think it’s kind of incredible that this is all happening post-children for me. I do not take that lightly.”
So how to describe this time in her life, then? She sets herself into another giggle fit, snorting again as she delivers her apologetic preamble: “Not that I quote Alan Watts on a regular basis…” she says, before quoting Alan Watts. “He has a great quote that’s like, ‘You are under no obligation to be the person you were five minutes ago.’ I’m kind of like living for that as a performer and as a person right now.”