I happen to be of a mind that Kathryn Hahn is a national treasure whose true potential as an actor has only been sampled and not yet fully realized as yet. My guess is that will change considerably in the next two years. A Northwestern University theater undergrad, followed by Yale Drama School, Hahn is best know for her comedic work, first in smaller roles in such films HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS, WIN A DATE WITH TED HAMILTON! and the first ANCHORMAN film, which is the first place I remember spotting her as one of the office pool workers who is inspired by Veronica Corningstone to reject the male-dominated, sexist workplace environment.
As much as Hahn has embraced and excelled as a great comedic actor, she's never completely lost the connection with more dramatic parts. In the same year, she appeared in both STEP BROTHERS and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. She followed up memorable supporting roles in HOW DO YOU KNOW, OUR IDIOT BROTHER, WANDERLUST and a recurring role on one season of "Parks and Recreation," (you may notice that those last four credits also co-starred her pal Paul Rudd) with an exceptional performance in AFTERNOON DELIGHT playing a woman at odds with her desirability when she feels her husband doesn't want her any longer. Last year, Hahn killed it in WE'RE THE MILLERS, played the wide-vagina wife of Nick Offerman, and as Ben Stiller's flaky sister in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. She also is a regular voice actor on FX's animated series "Chosen" and has appeared several times on HBO's "Girls."
And we haven't even talked about her stellar lineup of upcoming works, including the Peter Bogdanovich-directed SQUIRRELS TO NUTS; THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU from director Shawn Levy; Brad Bird's mysterious TOMORROWLAND; and a recently announced starring role in M. Night Shyamalan's SUNDOWING.
The reason for us setting down at SXSW Film Festival recently was to talk about her current release BAD WORDS, co-starring and directed by Jason Bateman. Hahn plays the self-loathing (at least sexually) online journalist Jenny Widgeon, who is attempting to figure out why Bateman's Guy Trilby is attempting to steal a national spelling bee away from children by winning it himself. It's not her most glamorous role, as she readily admits, but it is one of her more interesting characters, as we begin to sense the desperation in her connection to Trilby and this story.
Hahn was as pleasant and charming as I'd expected her to be. We didn't have a great deal of time to talk, but I feel we crammed in a great deal of material in a short period. With that said, please enjoy my chat with Kathryn Hahn…
Capone: I’ve been such a great admirer of your work for so many years.
Kathryn Hahn: Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you.
Capone: And you went to Northwestern right?
KH: I did. For theater undergrad, yeah. You get a BS, much to my fathers delight. He thought that was hilarious. But you get a Bachelor of Science.
Capone: I went to Medill [Northwestern's journalism school], that’s why I brought it up.
KH: Oh, you did? That’s a fantastic journalism school. I love Northwestern. Do you still live in Chicago?
Capone: I do.
KH: No way. I have not been back. I met my then boyfriend, now husband, back then. We’ve been together for a gazillion years. Yeah, I have a great fondness. But I have not been back.
Capone: I'm surprised they haven't tried to get you to come back to marshal the homecoming parade or something.
KH: [laughs] I just have never been able to. Exactly. I missed all the reunions. When we had the premiere [of BAD WORDS] on Wednesday in LA, one of our producers from Focus, Jeff Brody, is a pal from Northwestern too. So we made the premiere look a little bit like a NU reunion. It was so fun. I invited all my pals from Northwestern, so we could see each other. It was really fun.
Capone: That’s awesome. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a lot of the questions you’ve been asked about this movie…
KH: "How strong a speller are you?"
Capone: Well no, that would be Jason. I was thinking they would be about the sex scenes, because they’re so terrifying. What is the key to a good janitor closet sex scene?
KH: You have to be like completely uninhibited. What helped about that scene is it was a practical location, so it was an incredibly small space. There were like six people wedged in there. I had a monitor right by my head.
Capone: So, it was an actual closet? It wasn’t like something built?
KH: It was an actual closet at the Sportsman’s Lodge, yeah. There was just enough surrealism to let you jump off into the beautiful abyss. And also, we both felt it just needed to appear as real as possible under the circumstances.
Capone: Who came up with the catch phrase of the year?
KH: "Don’t look at me"? That was Andrew [Dodge], our amazing writer. That was all written into the script, her every so often saying, “Don’t look at me.” It was pretty much almost word for word until we got to when she looses it for a second, and then they have to try and get back on the bus together. That whole thing was us, which made us laugh very, very hard.
Capone: The film is so much darker then I would have guessed. There’s something else going on here that’s much more serious. We begin to realize how broken everybody in this movie is. What is motivating your character to document this train wreck?
KH: I think she really really has aspirations to be a writer.
Capone: You can’t even keep a straight face when you say that.
KH: I know. And she’s obviously got incredible self-esteem and boundary issues and is like completely unethical. No, there’s no ethics. I think that this is not where she would love to be. I think she wants to be a writer, like a novelist, and I just don't think she’s got that creative soul yet.
Capone: Her questionable ethics are only surpassed by her fashion sense.
KH: Yeah, she’s got a well-honed look.
Capone: How long did you take to hone that look?
KH: Not very long. April Napier, our amazing costume designer, who I went to for the first fitting, and it was like [Gasp.] I think she had a couple trays of glasses, and those were the first ones, and then it kind of went from there. I grew up loving Hal Hartley movies, and I feel like she has this very romantic vision of being a Hal Hartley heroine, but just hasn’t moved on from it. But I think it’s also like something like a frozen collegiate look that she just grabbed onto and is not letting go. I feel like she smells like mothballs.
Capone: Do you think she cultivated the look to appear professional or look serious?
KH: She’s like an artist in her mind. She’s a creative writer. And so I think that that is her, yeah, that’s her safety. That’s her armor, her look, you know what I mean? She thinks she looks real cool, and she’s her own self. And like you said, the movie celebrates the misfit. Nobody in this movie is at the cool kids' table, nobody, which I love, because even in this specific world of the spelling bee, the social dynamics are fascinating. And the politics, yeah.
Capone: She's all about self expression then.
KH: Oh, I think it’s absolutely a self expression, yeah.
Capone: Why is it so funny--and it is funny here--to mess with kids the way you mess with kids in this movie?
KH: And it’s so not fair. It’s so not an even playing field. But you know, those kids give it as good as they get. The casting of this is so extraordinary. [Casting director] Nicole Abellera did such an extraordinary job, and every time I see the movie and those kids, they’re so confident. Yeah, it’s relentless, because he’s a frozen child, Guy Trilby. He’s a big baby on that stage. What’s so awful about it, when I saw it last night I was like, "He’s brilliant," the character not Jason Bateman. He’s brilliant, he’s obviously getting through this on merit alone, and yet he can’t stop himself. There must be something in him that doesn’t trust it because he has to resort to this… He could just stand there and win, but he doesn't believe in himself, so he has to have these ridiculous tactics to try to kick kids off.
Capone: Speaking of which, I used to think I knew what the line was, and then a couple ketchup packets pushed the line past where I could accept.
KH: How fantastic was that young woman?
Capone: Oh, she’s great. The look on her face…it’s almost like watching a documentary what she does
KH: I know. Because [Jason] was a child actor, and because he’s been doing it so long, I think he knows how to talk to young actors, all actors. Those kids were just walking on that stage. They just were remarkable to watch. I wish I had like half the poise.
Capone: You’re in a very fortunate position, able to go back and forth between comedy and drama. I saw AFTERNOON DELIGHT last year and really liked what you did with that. How have you managed to do that in a world where everybody just wants to pigeon hole you in terms of casting?
KH: AFTERNOON DELIGHT was a big turning point. I’ll forever be grateful for [writer-director Jill Soloway] seeing that in me, because I grew so much as a performer and as an artist, and Juno Temple is so extraordinary in it too. So I feel like that was a shift, but I’ve always been able to go back and forth, because I’ve always loved auditioning. If you look at the body of work, it’s hard because a casting person might think, "She takes these big swings, she's in broad comedies." But I think when you get to go in and show somebody what you can do, it’s in there. And that’s how I was trained. I did a lot of training to be able to move between the different genres. I love that. That’s the good stuff of being an actor. And not just genres, like mediums. I love theater as much as film as much as television; it’s like I just want to follow the really fun roles that I can just chew on.
Capone: At what point did decide you'd let Paul Rudd be in all of your films?
KH: When he started just riding my coattails?
Capone: Exactly. When did he latch on to you?
KH: When he would swim like a school of fish just behind me. That’s embarrassing. “Paul, you’re a handsome, good-looking kid, you can do it on your own.
Capone: “You’re embarrassing yourself, Rudd.”
KH: [laughs] I know. I love working with him. Well, that whole group. The comedy world is so inclusive and generous. When you’re looking at each other across the abyss of an improvised or largely improvised film, you're in a cloud of nothing, and you have to create something. You really want it to be with somebody that you trust that’s standing there that you know is going to pick up what you drop and vice versa, and I think you just want to work with good people.
Capone: I think that's our time. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk.
KH: Oh, my gosh. A pleasure. Nice to meet you finally.