It’s safe to say that society as a whole has never talked about Kathryn Hahn more than they have during the past few weeks. Not when she was a series regular for six seasons on cable. Not when she was getting Oscar buzz for a critically adored Sundance drama. And certainly not when she was the lead of her own HBO series (which she also produced).
Thus is the power of “WandaVision” and the MCU at large. The fandom is so fierce, the viewership so broad, that virtually every actor — lead or supporting — gets their time to shine. After seven long weeks waiting for Hahn’s nosy neighbor Agnes to turn into something more, boy did she ever.
And Hahn delivered.
Of course, she always does. There is not a “bad” Kathryn Hahn performance out there. When polling the IndieWire staff for their favorite roles, some bad movies were tossed out, but not bad performances. The fact she can build someone’s most cherished performance within a stale comedy or inept drama is just one more testament to the power of Hahn.
So while it’s beyond great to see the Northwestern grad finally transition from cult favorite character actor to beloved household name (she even has her own merch), one still has to wonder: What took so long? Hahn has been dazzling, day in, day out, for nearly two decades. She’s been the scene-stealing supporting player more times than one can count, and her leading turns have drawn effusive praise. Some of her projects are artistic indies, yes, but she’s also been a key part of major hits like the “Bad Moms” movies, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Step Brothers.”
More to the point, a lot of what people are responding to from Hahn in “WandaVision” stems from her rich history of past performances. Respect must be paid to those toils and triumphs that weren’t as well seen, yet remain instrumental to Hahn delivering that scene and that look and that laugh. Unlike the magic Agatha conjures, Hahn’s enamoring spells didn’t come out of nowhere. So as MCU geeks and indie film fans unite as one to ring the Hahn victory bell, check out the video above and let’s look back on how we got here, what we — well, some people — may have missed, and where the re-Hahn-aissance can go next.
To think: It all started with a puppet show. OK, OK, I’m not going to go back that far into Hahn’s thespian origins, but before her trio of big screen romantic-comedies — “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and “The Holiday” — Hahn got a marathon education in professional acting via “Crossing Jordan.” The NBC crime drama starring Jill Hennessy lasted six seasons and 117 episodes, including 45 entries in the first two years alone (which also featured co-star Mahershala Ali as well as Damon Lindelof in the writers’ room).
As Lily Lebowski, Hahn was part of each episode’s case story as well as serialized plot points that ran for years, so she got to play romance, comedy, and layers and layers of drama. Hahn developed Lily from an intake secretary to a grief counselor, and her character’s absolutely wild relationship arcs (her mom was really her aunt, she broke off an engagement but had her ex’s baby) provided plenty of tricky tonal challenges for the young performer. But it was the sheer workload thrust upon Hahn from a brutal broadcast shooting schedule that helped hone her already evident talents. If it does take 10,000 hours of work to become an expert, Hahn put in hers during “Crossing Jordan.”
Soon after the show wrapped, Hahn embarked on what could be called her life’s work: deconstructing the myth of the simple suburban housewife. Over the years, Hahn played best friends, moms, divorcees, artists, writers, swingers, and now, a witch, who were one way or another trapped by their domestic duties. And slowly but surely, she busted them out.
First, there was “Step Brothers,” an iconic comedy for many old millennials, featuring Hahn as Alice, a wife stuck in a loveless marriage with Adam Scott’s ultimate douche-bro hubby, Derek. (“Dane Cook! Pay-per-view! 20 minutes!”) Hahn’s performance is best remembered for a scene where Alice finds out John C. Reilly’s Dale punched her husband in the face and, infatuated by the one man to stand up to Derek’s bullying, throws herself at him. Alice’s slow escalation from confirming what happened to a crying, screaming, make-out confessional is a thing of beauty, and the rest of the movie lets her play off that moment to delightful extremes.
“Step Brothers” gave us Hahn Unleashed, and yet that very same year saw her playing a similar character completely straight. In “Revolutionary Road,” Hahn is Milly Campbell, the happy-on-the-outside next-door-neighbor to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s rebellious couple. As the “Titanic” co-stars fight over how to escape their suburban nightmare, something rattles loose in Milly; she’s made a home there, and she’s convinced herself she loves her housebound life of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. But Hahn makes it clear that’s all a protective facade, in moments as small as a scared glance to her husband and as big as a cathartic bedroom breakdown.
Over the next few years, Hahn left the suburbs for a few swings at the big time. She took up an artistically lucrative collaboration with her “Anchorman” co-star (and future MCU partner) Paul Rudd, with out-of-the-box character roles in films like “How Do You Know,” “Our Idiot Brother,” and “Wanderlust” (playing dreadlocked and un-dreadlocked hippies in the latter two, respectively). Then she landed a lead role across Hank Azaria in the short-lived NBC sitcom, “Free Agents,” as a PR rep trying to move on from the death of her husband. While the series was nothing special, it marked a minor culmination for Hahn, who up to that point had guested on three go-nowhere sitcoms and starred in two failed pilots. “Free Agents” wasn’t what set her up for “WandaVision’s” era-hopping sitcoms, it did help her build up a wealth of experience in the genre.
After dipping her toe in prestige TV projects like “Girls” (as Katherine, who hired Jessa to nanny in Season 1) and “The Newsroom” (as Will McAvoy’s gun-toting date, Carrie), Hahn began her first “breakout” phase in 2013, thanks to a few lead roles and a slew of projects. She starred in Joey Soloway’s Sundance feature, “Afternoon Delight,” earning better reviews than the movie by playing — you guessed it — a well-off, stay-at-home wife and mom; this one, though, takes in a homeless stripper (and sex worker) in order to spark her dormant sex life (and life in general). The movie didn’t get much traction, but Soloway won the Directing Award at the festival and would soon bring Hahn into the Amazon hit, “Transparent.”
As Rabbi Raquel Fein, Hahn earned her first Emmy nomination (and last to date). Her quiet, graceful embodiment of the spiritual leader helped show her range, as “Transparent” unspooled shortly after her finely honed, high-comic turn in “Parks and Rec” (working with Rudd again) as well as her even more outlandish supporting role in the surprise hit, “We’re the Millers.” So much of Raquel was built on restraint; she was a character who knew better — she had the spiritual wherewithal to lead her synagogue, she had the humility to question her impulsive desires, and she just knew better in general than her impish, immature love interest, Josh (Jay Duplass). Yet Raquel was also the cool teacher, the best friend you wanted, and an easy character to fall in love with. Hahn made her that way with equal doses of nuanced control and joyful abandon.
Soon after her high marks for “Transparent”, she landed a co-lead role in Showtime’s “Happyish” series, but it was another supporting role that really got people’s attention. IndieWire’s own Kate Erbland called Hahn’s “Bad Moms” turn “revelatory,” and reviews like hers spotlighted a shift in the actor’s star power: Kathryn Hahn wasn’t just getting a nice mention here, or a kind word over there; she was making headlines. For The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “If I could write sonnets, I would write one about Ms. Hahn, whose timing — she finds depths in that little pause before a joke crests — can turn laughs into howls.” In Slate, Dana Stevens said, “Kathryn Hahn, too often a utility player in other people’s movies, gets a chance to take up more screen time than usual, and makes the most of every minute.” Whether critics liked the movie or not, most responded to Hahn’s commitment to her character’s outsized antics, and audiences turned out to the tune of $113 million in domestic box office.
After she nabbed a critically acclaimed starring role opposite Kevin Bacon in Soloway’s next Amazon series, “I Love Dick,” Hahn’s onscreen “best friend” phase was over — but her clear value as a collaborator was more evident than ever. Whether it’s her experience, her elasticity, or just her ethereal Hahn-ness, the actor gets called in, again and again, by a number of high-profile colleagues. Soloway worked with her in “Afternoon Delight,” “Transparent,” and “I Love Dick.” Her long-running collaboration with Rudd has already been established, but their shared “Parks and Recreation” connection in Adam Scott dates back to “Step Brothers” and “The Greatest Event in Television History.” Plus, she co-starred in both of Jason Bateman’s directorial features, “Bad Words” and “The Family Fang.”
The list goes on, as does her best work. 2018 and 2019 delivered the one-two punch of “Private Life” and “Mrs. Fletcher.” The former, another Sundance premiere, lit up Park City with rave reviews that bred a Gotham Award nomination and Oscar buzz. The campaign never got much traction, but those who saw Tamara Jenkins’ masterful look at how the struggle to have children can affect a relationship will never forget it — or Hahn. Summing up her incredible range, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote, “Hahn, firmly established as one of the great seriocomic actresses, transitions from high-strung hilarity to utter heartbreak at a moment’s notice, and is equally believable at both ends.”
Then came “Mrs. Fletcher.” HBO’s seven-episode limited series let Hahn stretch just about every acting muscle she’d built up, balancing physical gags, repressed desire, and casual charm to go beyond deconstructing a suburban mom to actively assembling a whole person. As in many of her parts, Hahn exudes compassion for Eve Fletcher, building affection in her early, more timid scenes with a potent mix of embarrassment and resolve; she lets the audience see the real Eve in private before slowly drawing her two personas together by series’ end. At the time, I said I could have watched 100 episodes of “Mrs. Fletcher,” and while I still wish HBO would bring Tom Perrotta’s self-adaptation back for Season 2, it’s a testament to Hahn that so much of this doubly awkward coming-of-age story is that endearing.
As for “WandaVision,” you can’t comb through Hahn’s filmography without noticing that so many of her roles are sitcom roles. Half of her best work is on actual sitcoms, even if some are untraditional, while the other half see her crafting a character through situational comedy. Sometimes she’s the lead (“Mrs. Fletcher”), sometimes she’s the wacky supporting player (“Parks and Rec”); sometimes she’s serious (“Transparent”), sometimes she’s singing (also “Transparent”); sometimes she’s going big (“Bad Moms” and “Step Brothers”) and sometimes she’s super-nuanced (“Private Life”).
Kathryn Hahn was primed to play Agnes because she’s already played every version of her: nosy, rowdy, dutiful, hurt, scared, and all the rest. But she was also ready for Agatha because she’s been the secret weapon waiting in the wings so many times before, and she’s always ready to steal the show. So let’s not ever forget it.
(Next up: Hahn will be seen in the Apple TV+ limited series “The Shrink Next Door” opposite Will Ferrell and — guess who! — Paul Rudd. And for those of you who only clicked on this to see a list of Hahn’s best performances, here ya go. If you read this far, you earned it.)