Kathryn Hahn has been a much-admired actor’s actor for years. The 48-year-old wife and mother of two has done standout work in art house indies (Afternoon Delight, Private Life), in big-studio comedies (Step Brothers, Bad Moms) and on Peak TV (Transparent, I Love Dick). But nobody — least of all her — imagined that this would lead her to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it did when she was cast as the nosy neighbor Agnes — who turns out to be more than meets the eye — on the Disney+ limited series WandaVision, for which she has received some of the best reviews of her career and her second Emmy nomination (four years after her first, for Transparent), for best supporting actress in a limited/anthology series. She recently sat down for THR’s Awards Chatter podcast and reflected on learning to improvise with the Frat Pack, cornerning the market on sexually daring parts and landing the role she was meant to play… all along.
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You can listen to the episode here. Highlights — lightly edited for clarity/brevity — appear lower on the page.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Where were you born and raised, and what did your folks do for a living?
I was born outside of Chicago but raised in Cleveland Heights, a suburb on the east side of Cleveland. My mom was a stay-at-home mom until she started working in a Montessori School in an administrative capacity. My dad was in advertising, and then he had his own business called Ohio Computer Ribbon and Supply.
I know you started acting professionally at a very early age. Do you remember how you realized that acting was something that appealed to you?
My uncle Paul, who recently died, was really my shepherd into this world. He took me to see my first opera, which was Hansel and Gretel, the Engelbert Humperdinck opera. We all remember — anyone that has anything to do with the performing arts — that first feeling of being transported. I remember being blown away that Hansel was played by a girl, and by the Wicked Witch. I couldn’t understand the language but I knew, of course, the story. And I was just so moved by the power of the music.
That’s cool exposure at a young age, but it’s a long way from being on TV at the age of 12. How did you wind up with a Saturday morning children’s show?
When I was in kindergarten, I started taking acting classes after school. I was a Curtain Puller at the Cleveland Playhouse—
When you say you were a “Curtain Puller” there, you don’t mean you were literally pulling the curtains, do you?
That was the program. Back in the day they would really pull the curtains, and I was really bummed that I was not asked to. (Laughs.) But when I was there, somebody from the local television station came and I was asked to audition for a local show called Hickory Hideout, which was a puppet show. Well, I shouldn’t say it was a puppet show — there were puppets in it.
Who were you in this?
I was not a puppet, and I was not a puppeteer. I played a young woman named Jenny. Jenny had a lot of questions, and so she would ask her friends Nutso and Shirley Squirrely, who were puppets, about things like parents getting divorced or braces.
Were you the envy or the target of your peers?
I don’t think anyone [at school] knew what the heck was going on. Sometimes I missed Catholic school on Monday afternoons. And I still begged the nuns to let me be in basketball, even though I never could play the game. I would still go to practice because I just wanted to be social. I wanted to have some grounding factor with my pals in school. But I definitely felt like I had this other life.
What did your parents make of this? Did they think it would continue to be your direction?
We didn’t have a ton of money. I did make a little bit of money from the show; it wasn’t a lot, but it was more than from babysitting. My parents were very clear that they didn’t have money to send me anywhere but to a state school, but I really wanted a great liberal arts and theater education. I worked my ass off in high school and I was like, “I’m going to get a scholarship, and I’m going to go to a great school.” And I did: I got myself to Northwestern and had a shit-ton of debt. But it was an amazing education.
Your major was communications.
There wasn’t a conservatory program. I had a very well-rounded undergraduate experience. I had the best of all worlds; I was able to have the whole gamut, in terms of a liberal arts education, but I could still be rehearsing Fefu and Her Friends at 2 in the morning. I really took advantage of my time there.
That was where you met your husband, right?
Like I said, I took full advantage. (Laughs.)
You came out of Northwestern and quickly went to New York, where you had a bit of a rude awakening, right?
It was really rude.
You had a day job at a hair salon and could get away and do off-off-off-Broadway plays, and Williamstown Theatre in the summer, but you weren’t making a real living from the acting. And at some point you thought, “Maybe I should go back to school?”
I remember somebody telling me, “You’re going to miss out on all your ingenue years if you go back to school!” My income came from the hair salon, and I remember writing [my future husband] Ethan an IOU for 1,000 bucks so that I could go to Williamstown. I couldn’t have afforded it. And he’s never cashed it. (Laughs.) But yes, those were the most creatively fulfilling parts of the year, honestly, because it was like, I finally found a creative home. I think I did seven summers there. When I was looking to go to Yale to get an MFA, I had a few summers at Williamstown under my belt, and I was just done with being a receptionist. I knew it was going to be insane — I still hadn’t really paid off Northwestern. But there was no option for me. Like, this is what I’m doing. It was just bullheaded. I would rather be rehearsing at 2 in the morning again, and I just wanted to get back into that space.
You came out of Yale with your MFA, and you crossed the radar of Tim Kring, who was doing Crossing Jordan, an NBC police procedural. Was it exciting to be asked to do screen acting?
I had gotten the national tour of Proof around the same time as Crossing Jordan. I got out to L.A. — it was supposed to be just a three-episode thing, and it became this beautiful, really beautiful family in which to land out there.
You were there for six years and 104 episodes—
A long-ass time. I don’t think I’d ever do it again, to be totally honest. Thank God this group was as awesome as they were. You know, we got married with this group, I had my first child with this group. I had a blast and hold them very dearly.
In the midst of that, you began getting movie roles, often as the BFF to the protagonist. It must have been exciting to be in movies that everybody was seeing, but if that had been all there ever was, would it have been disappointing?
At the time I was so thrilled. I was trying to hit the mark and say the line. But I didn’t feel that other level, like something else was happening beyond the page, ever. I felt like I was checking off a list of what the scene required. It didn’t feel magical. And I was wondering if that was going to happen in this medium for me. It wasn’t really until I worked on Step Brothers. Even though it was a comedy, it felt anarchic. I felt like I was given so much trust. I felt so empowered to go there with John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell.
Years before Step Brothers, in 2008, was Anchorman, in 2004. It wasn’t a substantial part, but that was the beginning of being in that comedy circle, right?
It was, like, four lines. But I would just hang out on set and watch them work because I couldn’t believe what I was able to watch. I’ve never seen improvising like that on a set.
Did you think of yourself as a comedic performer before getting in with those guys? Had you done improv?
I mean, not well. There was a group called Project Lemon Jello at a boys school in Cleveland and I dipped in for a second. I would not say I was a studied improvisor. I never thought of myself as a comedian. I can go off if I know the script and who I’m playing really well. The people that can go from nothing? I’m like, “Your brains are blowing my mind.”
Back to Step Brothers: You played a woman named Alice who initiates a relationship with John C. Reilly’s Dale after Dale punches out her husband, and she ends up having sex with him at a family dinner and in the bathroom. You were encouraged to run wild at the audition, right?
There were a couple of auditions, but the one that sticks out to me was with John. Our audition went to the weirdest places. It went on for so long! It was a detailed murder and cover-up of her husband, played by my dear friend Adam Scott.
Just to speak to your range, the year you did Step Brothers you also made your Broadway debut inBoeing-Boeing, which won the Tony for best revival. Is it bittersweet that success on the screen has kept you from doing more theater?
Yes, very bittersweet. My son was not even 2 when I did Boeing-Boeing. It was perfect timing then. I’m dying to do a play again, but it’s difficult now that my kids are in school.
The first project I had the opportunity to interview you for was Afternoon Delight. How did you and your most frequent collaborator, writer/director Joey Soloway, cross paths?
Joey apparently saw me at the Silver Lake farmers market after seeing me on HBO’s Hung.
Soloway won the Sundance directing award in 2013, and Transparent started streaming in 2014. How quickly did that come together?
Right on the heels of it. Joey’s parent came out during the making of Afternoon Delight, which led to Transparent.
In the middle of Transparent‘s run came another project with Soloway, I Love Dick. You play a frustrated filmmaker infatuated with a sculptor portrayed by Kevin Bacon. It premiered at Sundance and was beloved by critics, but Amazon pulled the plug after one season.
I know. I think there was so much more story to tell. I am satisfied with it; looking back now, we could reframe it as a limited series. I really loved that experience. I loved [director] Andrea Arnold. I mean, what a bunch of filmmakers and artists!
Whether it’s the projects with Soloway or HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher, you’ve played a lot of sexually daring parts that not everybody would have agreed to. How did that happen?
One just led to the other. There was no big game plan. I was certainly excited to walk into a chapter in which these parts were available.
You had been a part of the Marvel universe vocally, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but how did you become a live-action character in one of their projects, with WandaVision?
Talk about not knowing what the future is going to hold! My manager set up a general meeting with Marvel. At the end of the general, they walked me down the hall to meet Matt Shakman. He told me he was directing a series for Disney+. Right on the heels of that, they asked me back to pitch a part in the show. That was it, it was so weird. I couldn’t in my childhood dreams have imagined a part in this universe that would have been more fun.
Have you ever been asked to play a character who is so “big” at times, and also has so many different things to do?
No. It felt like I was back at Williamstown doing summer rep. There was always something really fun to play around with, and the scale was really fun, especially having played such neurotic birds for a chapter there. It was so much fun to be able to go back to that scale and not be embarrassed about it. That smallness is in there, but that I could be that big for a minute was so fun. And to work with those actors! I’m sure you know this, but we shot that first episode in front of a live studio audience.
That’s like doing theater, right? And since that was the first thing you shot, I would think that having real-time feedback from the audience gave you a good sense if you were going too big or not.
The script was so brilliant. The jokes really felt old-fashioned, and I was like, “I wonder how this is going to land on set, because today’s audience … I don’t know how this is going to work with them.” And they were right there with us. I don’t think we were doing too much winking — we played it pretty straight. I was so impressed with Paul Bettany’s physical comedy, and I was so impressed with Elizabeth Olsen. The fact that we had a rehearsal period so that we were able to walk into this feeling like an ensemble that started this journey together with a curtain call… the whole thing was so moving. This was a surprisingly deep experience for me.