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Leading Lady at Last – Kathryn Hahn

Kathryn Hahn tries to keep a straight face while talking about family road trips, off-the-wall comedy and reaching the top of the call sheet.

Author Erin Brady

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Thanks to appearances in “Parks and Recreation” and “Girls”—and memorable supporting parts in Step Brothers and Anchorman—Kathryn Hahn is well-known among comedy fans. This year, though, Hahn’s career has truly blossomed, with roles in four feature films, including a lead performance in Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, which won the directing award in the U.S. drama category at Sundance.

Hahn talked to Play from Vancouver, B.C., where she’s in the midst of filming Tomorrowland with George Clooney. She had to jump off the phone several times to shoot scenes, and at one point broke off an answer to describe being mic’d up, an interlude that, along with her remembrances of family road trips, reminded us why she continues to be one of the funniest actresses around.

You’re known mostly for your roles in comedies, but you’ve begun to score more dramatic parts. How does your approach change with different types of roles?
I guess it’s gig to gig. It all has to come from the same place. Obviously there are different motors that work, but I think it depends on the tone and the scale. It all has to come from “Who is this person?” It’s very hard to talk about acting.

What attracts you to a particular role?
Good writing and the other people involved, because you’re only as good as the other people you’re working with. I don’t shy away from the underdog or the people who walk a little bit off the grid.

Is it easier to play a character you can relate to personally?
I think it’s more difficult. It’s easier to work from the outside in. I love costumes and wigs. The kid in me loves playing pretend, but there’s something that is ultimately more fulfilling about playing someone who is connected to the inside.  

Your performance in Afternoon Delight, in which you play a frustrated Los Angeles mother attempting to save a troubled young girl, has earned some acclaim. How does it fit with your other roles?
For the fact that [director] Jill Soloway saw me for that part and decided to let me give it a whirl, I’m forever grateful. It’s a marathon. It’s one step at a time. That was an amazing experience. I’m fortunate that there’s work on the other side too. When you start out, for every gig you’re like, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Now, I’m able to look back and see that there’s actually a little bit of a body of work.

Have things changed for you following that film?
Everyone’s asking me to take my clothes off [laughs]. No, no. I was so happy for Jill at Sundance. That movie means a ton to me. At that particular moment in my life, as a
mom with young kids, it really spoke to me, and I feel like it speaks to a lot of women. It was big enough that it has changed my life as a performer and a human. It was an amazing three and a half weeks.

You made the movie in three and a half weeks?
Yeah, we used my own minivan. It was basically shot in the backyard. My husband and kids—every so often we would check in and be like “How are you?” because it was so intense. The whole ensemble just kind of hunkered down. More often than not, those are the experiences where you’re like, “I love my job and I’m so excited that I get to do this with my life and turn to my kids and say, ‘This is what your mommy does for a living.’”

Are you worried about your kids seeing your more racy work, like Afternoon Delight or Step Brothers?
[Laughs] They will never see anything I have ever done. I should just start telling them that I do something else.

Your characters can be over-the-top. How do you keep a straight face during an outlandish scene?
You bite your tongue so hard it bleeds, or you’re just so into the person that you’re playing, you’re so invested in what you’re doing and what you’re going for that it’s deadly serious business, and the stakes are high, and you’re not thinking about the comedy.

How would you describe your comedic style?
Catch as catch can. It’s like a person on a basketball court: I’ll just keep shooting baskets and every once in a while I’ll make one, but most of the time they’re gutter balls. Now I’m mixing sports analogies.

You have another off-the-wall role in We’re the Millers. How much of your dialogue was scripted in that film?
A lot was improvised. The script was hilarious, but we were open enough—sorry, I’m getting wired right now. Something very interesting is happening while we’re doing this interview. I’m getting wired for sound. A nice woman in canvas is about to tape a microphone between my boobs, as usual. It’s just another Friday.

The film largely takes place in an RV. Have you ever owned one?
My grandpa had an RV when I was growing up, much to my grandmother’s dismay. He decided that when he retired he just wanted to live out of an RV and travel the country and meet folks on the road. As a kid, it was really cool. He would park in our driveway and we’d go and have popcorn and hang out in grandpa’s RV.

Did your parents take you on road trips when you were a kid?
I have two younger brothers and I grew up in Ohio, so it was cheaper to just throw us all in the station wagon. My dad was always trying to get deals, so he would take an outboard motor with him, and then he would rent a little boat and we’d just go out on Lake Erie. We’d all have to sit at the front of it so we wouldn’t sink. Or, we’d go to ski resorts in the summer. There are a lot of pictures of us on empty ski lifts.

How have those experiences affected your own family vacations?
I love a road trip. That is quality time. You’re all just hurtling through space in a small metal box. You’re forced to just hang out with each other. But this year, we’re going on a beach vacation for the holidays. I’m very excited to sit on a beach and do nothing.

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