Paul W. Downs interview: ‘Hacks’ co-creator and actor
Not that anyone’s keeping count, but Paul W. Downs may just be doing the most on “Hacks.” The Emmy winner co-created the HBO Max comedy with Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky, serves as showrunner, executive producer, director and writer, and stars as Jimmy, the harried manager of Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), and straight man to Megan Stalter‘s spacey Kayla. For Downs and Jimmy, their roles give them unique vantage points inside and outside the “Hacks”-verse.
“I think all of us [in the writers’ room] approach it from story first,” Downs tells Gold Derby (watch above). “We know the tentpole moments of where we want the story for Deborah Vance to go, and so we then figure out the arc for each other character, so it’s not like I’m sitting there trying to come up with a set piece for Jimmy to do. But it is helpful to be the actor because in the room I can improvise dialogue and just become the character.”
Jimmy, of course, is the “cornerstone” of the Deborah-Ava relationship since he’s the one who suggested Deborah hire a writer in the pilot. “He’s really the reason they’re together, so he acts as a go-between, is often put-upon by those clients,” Downs says. “He is the voice of reason and often the voice of the audience, especially in playing the straight man to Kayla.”
While he could’ve simply remained just that, Season 2 offered quite the journey for Jimmy. He got an incredibly brief respite from Kayla as his assistant until an ill-timed comment to rival Janet (Ming-Na Wen) forced him to take one for the team (the team being Deborah Vance) and take Kayla back, which also rendered him stuck in a 52-week anger management course. By the end of the season, not wanting to give up on Deborah and her special, Jimmy pulled a Jerry Maguire and quit Latitude to start his own firm, with Kayla following him out the door. Deborah’s special went off without a hitch — except for that audience member who had a heart attack and died, but no one knows about that because Jimmy lied to everyone.
SEE ‘Hacks’ co-creator Lucia Aniello explains Season 2’s less is more approach and teases Season 3 surprises
“What was really fun about Season 2 was that — whether it was his Jerry Maguire moment where he quit or that moment during Deborah’s special taping when he screams, “He’s OK!” — there were a couple moments where he got to be the character and sort of do stuff that maybe wasn’t always the voice of reason, stuff that was maybe a little less reasonable. So for that, it was very fun. It was a really, really fun season,” Downs states. “He’s in a tricky position because he’s left this company. Deborah really needs a management firm behind her at this moment in her career. Obviously there’s the Janet character who is on his heels, so it’s definitely a moment where he needs to save his own ass, but also he ultimately does it for Deborah because nothing kills comedy more than a medical emergency.”
Season 3, which is in production, will have a one-year time jump “to give some distance to everybody and to also do something new.” As Aniello previously revealed, Deborah and Ava will both be doing well after the former fired Ava to let her pursue greater career opportunities, while Jimmy and Kayla have, indeed, started their own firm. And Kayla sorta got what she wanted. “They’re partners, but she’s also an assistant. She’s a co-founder and assistant to Jimmy,” Downs shares.
“You do get more backstory than you’ve ever gotten on Jimmy. You really have a deepening of the Jimmy and Kayla relationship. Like I said, they’re out on their own and it’s a really tough business and they’re trying to keep their heads above water,” he continues, adding that the SAG Award-nominated cast will be together a lot more than last season, when people were in mini pockets while Deborah was on the road. “It dovetails a lot of our characters’ stories. We really get to see the ensemble together more. We’re back in Vegas. You get to see a dynamic from Deborah you haven’t seen because her special was successful. She’s getting a new level of relevance she hasn’t had in quite a long time, so there’s a lot of perks and a lot of pitfalls that come along with that.”