Kathryn Hahn has added another emotionally complex character to her filmography with Tamara Jenkins‘ “Private Life,” in which she plays Rachel, one half of a married couple in their 40s desperate to have a baby. For the film, Hahn earned a Gotham Award nomination for Best Actress.
Hahn recently talked with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble about what made her gravitate to “Private Life,” how she was able to personally relate to the film and her instant chemistry with her onscreen partner, Paul Giamatti. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Kathryn Hahn, what drew you to the film “Private Life”?
Kathryn Hahn: Oh, so many things, but the first and foremost, it was the writing. Tamara Jenkins, who wrote the script, she also wrote “The Savages,” which I’m an enormous admirer of and also “Slums of Beverly Hills,” she just has a way of honing into the absolute atom of truth in the middle of every moment or character so that every laugh, every catch in your throat is so perfectly earned and so incredibly specific to that person. She just doesn’t give up. She just has such incredible integrity as a writer. She just doesn’t give up until she’s kind of excavated, I suppose, every nook and cranny, every possible moment. So as an actor, to be handed a script that is that cooked, that’s that fully baked is such a rarity and such a gift.
GD: What is the truth of Rachel?
KH: The truth of Rachel is that she’s a woman in her 40s that is a writer and an artist. She’s kind of lived her whole adult life in the same kind of rent-stabilized apartment with her partner, husband, Richard, who’s a playwright and an artist as well. I think the last two decades kind of flew by. They’re freelancers. They never really had insurance, all the things they thought were gonna happen for them, all those dreams when they were in their 20s, all of a sudden they turn around and they’re in the same exact space, but nothing has shifted for them, dream-wise. I think that their fertility is a perfectly biological concrete way, a metaphor, for the emotional infertility that they’re also going through as well. It’s existential what the two of them are going through as a marriage and humans and also she can’t have a baby. It’s the absolute worst. She thinks that that’s the hole that needs to be filled and they’ve been at it for so long that they don’t even really remember who they were before trying to have a baby. They can’t even really picture it anymore. They’ve just been at it for so long. They think that that’s going to be the answer. She’s feeling incredibly betrayed by her own biology and by what she was told in all of her feminist writing classes back in college that she was in somewhat control of, that she should be able to make decisions about her fertility and then all of the sudden it’s clear that the body’s in charge. I think the truth of her is that she is for real aching and for real lacking. She thinks that the baby is going to be the thing. She’s also really lucky in that she has a partner to go through it with.
GD: Like Rachel, you are an artist, but unlike Rachel, you have had children. How did those two things sort of inform how you approached the performance?
KH: I think having children, in this particular career for this particular human, my real creative life on camera didn’t really start happening until after I had them, for some reason. I think for me, for this person, everything became much less precious. I had much less of a perspective. I had a real big case of the “fuck-its” once they came along and I think because of that, the more interesting work started to come towards me. For Rachel, because I think that she just feels betrayed by her work life, her fertility in all ways, not just her biological fertility, but her creative fertility, I think nothing is quite producing. So I think that she just feels infertile in all ways. Tamara and I always talked about, “It’s biblical! Rachel’s in the Bible!” Paul and I, we kept talking about, I can’t remember when at some point when we were making this, he always talked about “Waiting for Gadot” and I was like, “Exactly.” And then I at some point, I keep having these echoes of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” too, of the two of them with this imaginary baby in their tiny, overstuffed rent-stabilized apartment with all of these books and all of this dust and all of these dreams that they had and these beautiful vibrant minds that are just somehow trapped in amber.
I’m not sure if I’m exactly answering your question (laughs). But I do think, to answer the question how I approached it from those different places, I think I certainly know what it is to feel ache and to feel longing and to feel like there’s a space unfilled or to feel like there’s a hollowness. I totally know that feeling and to lean into that, for sure. I also happen to be at an age where a lot of my friends, I’m an actor and an artist and a lot of my friends have decided to wait to have kids later in life and start families later in life. I’ve seen a lot of them have a lot of success with assisted reproduction and a lot of friends not have success, and a lot of friends have fertility issues. So I have been able to see that as well, just to soak it in. Also just to be around Tamara. Tamara, who wrote and directed this, would not say that this is an autobiographical film but she would I think say that it’s emotionally autobiographical. She went through a version of this after “The Savages,” which was the last film that she made. She and her husband did. She has a daughter who’s almost nine, but they went through versions of this event. Not in any way the same, in any way. But she knows there’s emotional truth to it. I think just also being in her space, I wouldn’t say I’m playing a version of her, but kind of are.
GD: What’s your favorite moment from the film?
KH: I think my favorite is the last shot. There’s a lot but I think that sticks out to me. There’s a couple, actually. But that sticks out to me because the last shot when the credits are rolling and we’re both sitting in the same booth and we’re waiting in expectation for a potential birth mom to walk through the doors and into our lives, and there’s a little bit of hope and a little bit of resignation and so many things going on. I think why I love it is because it’s why the movie moves me, is it’s not really about a baby. It’s not really a movie about having a baby. It’s about this marriage, that it’s the act of him getting up from one side of the booth and joining me on the other side. That’s actually more important than whether or not she walks in through the door in the end, if that makes sense.
GD: It makes you stick around for the credits, too. You see more of the credits.
KH: Everybody needs to see who the second second was (laughs). It does always just kill me to see them sitting in that silence.
GD: With the film, was there any particular surreal or special moment in making it?
KH: This was a pretty holy shoot. I had never met Paul before doing this and it felt like we had known each other for our whole lives. We’d gone to the same drama school. He’s a few minutes older than me, but we had never met before. There was something in our chemistry. We instantly fell into the same dumb jokes and I mean, we’re just cut from such the same cloth, in terms of just actors. When the cameras were rolling, there was something that was just… All I needed was in that beautiful face of his. I’ve been such an enormous fan of him forever and it just felt like family when I looked into his eyes. it was something that I could never have anticipated and Tamara is really a little bit of a sorcerer in putting us together, because it felt like, “Of course.” I never really felt that kind of instant chemistry with somebody. It just felt like we had known each other our entire… it really did. It just felt like fraternal and that we were at war together. That was really blessed, and especially on a shoot like this where it’s this short and this rigorous and this cold, all this stuff, that that you didn’t have to work for, it felt like all we had to really do together, which was really difficult, was to try to do these beautiful words justice. But at least we didn’t have to worry about the heart between us because that was just there. It was really weird. I mean, it was such a pleasure to just watch him work.
GD: What was the biggest challenge for you as an actress in this role?
KH: It was hard for me to keep optimistic, if that makes sense, to keep hopeful. It was really difficult. The couple gets a lot of pieces of bad news one after the other in the top of the movie, and it was very hard for me. It’s hard to roll your sleeves up and just keep pushing forward. There’s something of resilience in this couple, like in a Don Quixote, is that the reference? Quixotian?
GD: I thought you were gonna Wile E. Coyote who keeps on going for the Road Runner even though he’s always failing!
KH: That’s fine! That works as well! It must come from the same thing. It must be. It was hard. I wanted to just burst into hysterical tears. It was hard not to be sentimental. Emotionally it was like I just kept wanted to fall into it and it was Tamara who kept us in check because she really kept pulling us back from it. Everything in me just wanted to fall into the experience of this loss. It’s such little deaths that they experience, this couple, and she just kept pulling us back from it. The comedy, ‘cause it’s also a very funny script as well, and a lot of people have asked, “How did you modulate,” and that was nothing that we really had to worry about. That was really not our business because it was just in the writing of it, but for me, the trick was trying not to sink it into a really dark drama. It was very hard for me to not fall.
GD: In this film, but also in some of the television work you’ve done, some of the other film work you’ve done, you’re often straddling that line between comedy and drama. Do you find that they’re different gears that you switch between? Do you approach comedy and drama similarly?
KH: I think I have to approach everything in the same way, and if I don’t, and there’s some stuff that I haven’t, then I can always smell it afterwards. I can always see it, where I know that I’m just playing the room rather than the scene, if that makes sense. So I think that if I don’t, I just have to connect it to really deeply with who I am and what I want and that all comes down to the script. I always get in trouble if I look outside of those things and then you just show up and then you just have to surrender. “Surrender Dorothy!” into the eyeballs of your scene partner. You just receive and you can’t expect anything. You can’t want a reaction, you can’t want to receive anything, you have to just receive. That, I think, works for both. Is there more gas in a different kind of comedy than this kind of a comedy, that’s a little more delicate? Yes. There’s definitely more gas you put on something like “Bad Moms,” for example. There’s definitely a little more gas on the pedal. If that rubber band is not taut inside from what I’m trying to get on the outside, then it always feels really thin to me, if that makes sense.
GD: What do you think the overriding idea or theme or just what do you think audiences should take away from this film when they’re walking out of the cinema?
KH: I think it’s resilience. I think it’s optimism. Tamara has called it, there’s like a happiness but it’s kind of a muted happiness at the end. I think it’s like a love story and I know that sounds macabre, to be talking about infertility in that context but I really do think that there is something existential about it, about a portrait of a marriage that’s able to endure something like this and to be able to go through it together. It’s not just Rachel’s infertility saga. It’s also Richard’s. They’re able to go through it together. I really believe in them.
GD: Well Kathryn, it’s been so great to talk about a film that channels Don Quixote all the way through to Wile E. Coyote. All the best with the award season that’s coming up and congratulations for the work with “Private Life.”
KH: Thank you, and congrats on your beautiful purple sweater as well. It’s fantastic.
GD: I do what I can. This is a Target item, I believe.
KH: Oh, it’s fantastic! Happy Holidays. Happy grading of whatever papers you had to do. A pleasure talking to you, Matt, as usual.