Paul W. Downs interview: ‘Hacks’ co-showrunner
In the first season of HBO Max’s “Hacks,” stand-up comedian Deborah Vance, played by Emmy-winner Jean Smart, closes out her Las Vegas residency and plays her final show. “Hacks” co-creator, co-showrunner, executive producer, writer, director and co-star Paul W. Downs describes Vegas as Deborah’s “fortress,” one that the showrunners wanted to force her to leave in Season 2. Deborah hits the road to test out new material on tour in the new season, a situation that makes Deborah a “fish out of water” and “a big fish in a huge pond,” providing ample new opportunities for comedy. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
At its heart, “Hacks” is about the tumultuous relationship between Deborah and her writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a relationship the series makes even more complicated in its second season. Downs says the new episodes “allowed us to really evolve their relationship and deepen what we see between them.” Confining the two characters in a car and a tour bus as they travel cross-country, Downs explains, is a “crash course to get to know each other better” and “be vulnerable with each other.” “They really need each other, especially when they’re out in the middle of nowhere,” he adds.
WATCH our exclusive video interview with Emmy-nominee Carl Clemons-Hopkins about “Hacks” Season 2
Downs directed two of the eight episodes in the new season, and his choice of which episodes to helm behind the camera boils down to the logistics of the shoot schedule. Since Downs stars on the series as Deborah’s manager Jimmy, he occasionally has to direct an episode in which he stars. “All power to the actors who direct themselves,” he says, sharing that he prefers to direct ones in which he has little screen time. His experience in front of the camera does help when he directs: “I’m so lucky that I know what it’s like to get direction,” Downs notes, adding that as a performer he knows how to convey that “music and that rhythm and that timing” of a joke just right.
On screen, Downs’ character Jimmy handles a lot of headaches, from his lovably incompetent assistant Kayla (Meg Stalter) to missteps from clients like Ava. Downs thinks Jimmy copes by doing “a lot of self-soothing,” and since he’s an Los Angeles baby that probably entails “a lot of acupuncture. He gets a massage every now and again, he does a ton of therapy.” Downs describes his frequent scene partner Stalter as a “live wire,” and he and fellow writers Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky “write toward her strengths” as a performer.
For the first season, Downs won the Emmy for writing along with Aniello and Statsky. He describes that experience as “so surreal,” revealing that although they had a little comedic bit planned if they were to win the trophy, they were “honestly shocked” by the result. Looking back on that win now, he says the victory is “so gratifying” and he feels like they’re “cheating that we are writers and we are writing about two comedy writers.” As for his favorite episode from the new season, Downs has a hard time deciding between the season premiere and the season finale, the latter of which features “a lot of great turns.”