Actress Kathryn Hahn has been working steadily for over a decade, appearing memorably in everything from HBO’s “Girls” as Jessa’s nanny client to Sam Mendes’ devastating drama “Revolutionary Road,” opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It wasn’t until last year that the 40-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate was given a chance to shine in her first lead role in Jill Soloway’s indie drama “Afternoon Delight.”
Since her breakout turn in Soloway’s Sundance award-winner (Soloway won Best Director), Hahn has been more in-demand than ever, stealing scenes from Jennifer Aniston in the surprise comedy smash “We’re the Millers,” playing Ben Stiller’s goofy sister in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and acting opposite Jason Bateman in the actor’s directorial debut, “Bad Words” (out this Friday). She also shot Showtime’s pilot for the Philip Seymour Hoffman-starring potential series “Happyish,” before the actor’s passing.
In “Bad Words,” Hahn plays Jenny, an online reporter tracking the progress of a mean-spirited 40-year-old (Bateman) who finds a loophole in the bylaws of The Golden Quill
Spelling Bee and decides to hijack the competition for reasons unknown. Indiewire sat down with Hahn in Austin during the SXSW Film Festival, where “Bad Words” screened.
Are you and Jason buds?
Yeah, we’ve known each other socially. I’m in love with his wife. She’s like, the coolest woman. And we have a lot of friends in common so, we’ve known each other since then.
Was that tough going? Playing the level-headed one next to Jason’s venom-spewing monster.
That was kind of the beauty of this part for me. I love that she is almost the straight woman to him, or the source of reason — which is ironic, because she’s such damaged bird. But that’s also what I love about this film is that it celebrates the underdog. Everyone that you meet is a little on the fringe. It’s a society that’s a bit misfit-based. Which I have a deep fondness for.
Why is that?
I think most creative people would say probably relate to the misfit, the underdog.
From what I’ve seen of your work, you embrace the buffoon.
Well, when they keep the bar really low on camera, then off camera I look amazing.
Do you have a favorite insult of Jason’s from the movie?
Ah yes, I think when he calls Rachel Harris’ character, the enraged mother, when he insults her post-childbirth vagina, when he calls it a distended gray elephant’s trunk. That was very vivid and it’ll be a long time before that’s out of my mind, that image.
Do you have a potty mouth?
I do, yeah. I love a “fuck” every once in awhile. Just in practice and as a word. That’s me, mother of two, proud mother. But we don’t at home, obviously. So there’s just a lot of me in the minivan with the windows up, just swearing, in LA.
How young are your kids?
Four and seven.
You’re not going to let them see “Bad Words” for a few years, I’m guessing.
A couple years, yeah. Well holidays next year, we’ll see. If they’re good.
You were sensational in your first on-screen lead role in last year’s Sundance winner “Afternoon Delight.” Have you felt a change in how casting directors see you since that first premiered?
That movie, for all of us that worked on it, we walked out of that experience changed and broken open, and the bar was just raised. It was three and a half weeks, which was incredible how much we were able to investigate in that amount of time. Creatively, I hadn’t been asked that as an actress since probably graduate school. I will forever be grateful to Jill Soloway for seeing me for that part.
And yes, I don’t know if it’s the external world, but certainly internally I feel like a different performer, a changed performer. It seems like the path is now towards that kind of work.
You’ve been everywhere since, appearing in “Bad Words,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “We’re the Millers” and on TV. Do you feel like you’re experiencing a high point in your career?
It feels different. A lot of thrilling things have happened since that, abd it’s a path I’m really excited to keep exploring. Also, you have such a short amount of time on this planet, I’d love to just continue. I’m so grateful and lucky enough to keep working — I would also love it to be something that is challenging, something that I can really investigate, jump into, expose myself, and not just in like a naked way, ’cause God knows… a few more years of those left. But it’s hard, when you get a taste of it, to go back to what you were used to before.
Has your method for how you go about selecting projects changed since “Afternoon Delight”?
I’m certainly not in a place yet where I’m fielding phone calls, but like I said, the bar now is somewhere different. And I don’t feel like I just have to do best friend parts anymore. I’m beyond it, just age-wise. But yeah, a POV, not just a sounding board, a real full human. I love inconsistency, I love mystery, I love figuring out “what does that person want?” when it’s not very clear. I like sophistication. I love being challenged by actors that I respect, and dig, because I feel like everything you need is in that person, and it can be the most amazing script and the most amazing part, and if you’re not challenged, inspired, in love with the person that you’re with, it’s gonna make it impossible.
I’m sure you had that in Philip Seymour Hoffman when shooting the pilot for “Happyish.”
How devastating was his loss to you?
The pilot was obviously the least of it. But yeah, as awful as you can imagine. I will never forget the three weeks that we spent together, making whatever it… It was a long process, but when we finally got to make it. That also changed me, as a human and as an artist.
Working with him? How so?
[long pause] He was… I’m trying to be very careful to articulate. He was the bravest, the most open. His soul was on the outside of his body. And he loved actors, he loved actors. And it didn’t matter where you were in your career, he was there to make you feel comfortable, the best that you could be. He was an extraordinarily talented, beautiful human.
“Bad Words” marks Jason’s directorial debut. Do you see yourself ever following in his footsteps?
Yes! I mean, I think that I will. I’m waiting for the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night that’s like, “This is what I have to say.” And it’s in there, it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m very excited for that moment.