How Kathryn Hahn Approaches Sex Scenes and Violence Onscreen: ‘Just Rip the Band-Aid Off’

Kathryn Hahn excels at playing women without boundaries. From the moment in “Step Brothers” that she mounted John C. Reilly in the men’s room and then proceeded to urinate standing up, Hahn won our hearts playing characters who speak their unfiltered minds — and performed an impressive amount of gymnastic sex scenes in the process. She’s been brazen, promiscuous, violent and drunk — and audiences have loved every moment of it. She even got away with the worst thing a character can do — killing a dog — in “WandaVision.”  

 “You really hope those scenes are early on,” says Hahn about overcoming inhibitions. She points to a moment in Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Lives” in which her character is cleaning her home while naked from the waist down. She then gets in a heated argument with her husband, played by Paul Giamatti. “I was very glad that we got that over with before Paul and I got to know each other,” she notes. “It just made it much easier than if it had been much later in the shoot. Sometimes it’s easier to just rip the Band-Aid off and get to it.”

Hahn has never hesitated to bare herself, physically or emotionally, and this paid off with an Emmy nomination for her soulful lead actress performance in the Hulu limited series “Tiny Beautiful Things.” The morning of the nominations announcement was a joyous one for Hahn, though tinged with some anxiety — in a matter of hours, SAG-AFTRA would go on strike. Variety’s Award Circuit podcast spoke with Hahn that morning; listen below!

“Tiny Beautiful Things” has one of the most unusual origin stories of any property. The series is based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 book culled from her Rumpus advice column “Dear Sugar,” which was later resurrected into two separate podcasts. Nia Vardalos previously adapted the book into a successful play and portrayed Strayed onstage. 

But the series, created by Liz Tigelaar (“Little Fires Everywhere”) creates a fictionalized version of Strayed’s story with Hahn playing a character named Clare Pierce. Clare’s past shares a lot in common with Strayed’s, including losing her mother at an early age, becoming a young parent herself and finding her life changed by becoming an anonymous advice columnist. The limited series focuses on a turning point in Clare’s life as the once-promising writer hits a low point, finding both her job and her marriage in jeopardy. Clare seems, at first, an odd choice to take over the advice column, considering her husband Danny (Quentin Plair) and daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford) are barely speaking to her. And yet it turns out her pattern of poor choices might just be the very thing that qualifies her to succeed at the job. 

Hahn had not consumed the other “Tiny Beautiful Things” media when the project came her way. “As an actor, you just face the script you have in front of you,” she says. “And that was my bible. I didn’t really need to use the source material because all I needed was what Liz and the writers had fictionalized and come up with.” 

After falling in love with the script, Hahn says she turned to the book and was floored once again. Strayed’s work has a reputation for making people cry. Hahn is no exception as she becomes teary discussing “Tiny Beautiful Things.” 

“I thought it was essential human reading,” she says. “That’s the kind of book that … you just take something new every time you pick it up.” Hahn adds that it wasn’t necessarily what she expected from an advice column.

“I’m a little bit adverse to cheese,” she notes. “There is such unflinching honesty in these responses and the way that she opens herself up and excavates herself to these letter writers.” 

As someone who has played many complicated women, Hahn was also excited by how raw and flawed her character was allowed to be. “You just feel nourished when you read her work. You just feel less alone, and you feel OK to be in the kind of messy, gross middle. If you peel behind of the surface of anybody, there’s always a disaster,” Hahn says. “We’re always kind of in process. And she just lets that be exactly what it is and exactly OK.”

Because Strayed was an executive producer and writer on the series, Hahn not only had ample opportunity to discuss the character, but even seek out some guidance. “To have Dear Sugar in the room, of course you’re gonna turn to her for advice,” she admits with a laugh. But she says she was mostly just impressed with Strayed’s kindness and her willingness to speak so frankly about her experiences.

One event that greatly informed Strayed was her grief over the death of her mother, which is also explored in her memoir “Wild,” later adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, an exec producer on “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

“We all have [something] that kind of calcified us in some way, whatever that was in our life,” she says. “And her sharing of that in such detail — her defenses around it and then her being able to see the light and the pathway through and her continued journey — it’s such a gift, her sharing of it.” 

In fact, Hahn says one of her biggest challenges in making the series was not being there for the flashback scenes with Clare and her mother. Sarah Pidgeon portrays the younger Clare, while her mother Frankie is played by Merritt Wever, who also snagged an Emmy nomination for her work. “I wanted to work with Merritt, I wanted to work with Sarah,” she notes. “It became very painful that there were kind of two movies happening — there was the flashback track and then this present track. We were kind of these ships in the night.”

Hahn has nothing but praise for Pidgeon, who seems to share not just the role but the soul of Clare with Hahn. “I wish I had an iota of her grace,” Hahn raves. She notes that for the first couple of episodes, Pidgeon was able to watch her and likely absorbed some mannerisms via osmosis. “But we really didn’t try to get too specific with it just because it would ruin a magic that I think was already just … there.”

Hahn says she is “forever changed by this experience of making this” series based on Strayed’s writing. “Anyone that’s had the pleasure of reading her work, I think you are definitely changed and moved in ways that you don’t anticipate before. I was just as taken as all of her other fans.”  

Also on this episode: We catch up with producer and 12-time Emmy winner Ben Winston, who’s still adjusting to life after producing ‘The Late Late Show with James Corden,’ while also enjoying his latest Emmy nominations, including for the Disney+ special “Elton John Live: Farewell from Dodger Stadium.”

Hahn’s interview was conducted before SAG-AFTRA went on strike July 14. 

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.

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