Kathryn Hahn has long excelled in supporting roles (Girls, Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation), but at last she’s front and center in Showtime’s Happyish. Created by novelist and This American Life contributor Shalom Auslander, Happyish follows disgruntled advertising exec Thom Payne and his artist wife Lee, played by Hahn. In the pilot, the role of Thom belonged to Philip Seymour Hoffman, but following his untimely passing, the show was eventually reworked for Steve Coogan. Hahn also plays love interest Rabbi Fein in Amazon’s Transparent, a role she says she studied for with a real “rad” female rabbi.
What drew you to Happyish?
They gave it to me to read and it was a trope that felt familiar to me. This work life, what happens after 40—it was so specific and so unlike anything I had read. It almost felt like I was reading a graphic novel, it was so Technicolor. I loved Lee Payne, the wife. It was everything I wish I could say out loud. Then I read Shalom’s book, his memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, which is extraordinary, and it just gave such a context for him and what he’s personally like. I just wanted in. I just wanted to sit around in that brain for a while.
Philip Seymour Hoffman played the lead in the pilot. How did you cope with losing him and then returning to make the show with Steve Coogan?
It was incredibly hard. When it happened, doing it again was the last thing in anybody’s mind; I couldn’t imagine it. But Shalom and I kept talking because we’d just been through so much together and there was really no one else in our lives that could fully understand just what that experience had been. He was very clear that there was still so much to say with this show and that Showtime still believed in it. I guess my way of coping was to throw myself into getting this made, without even really thinking about what it was going to be like to get in the ring with somebody again in those scenes. When we found out that Steve expressed interest it felt very right, because it felt so different in the way that it needed to be. It wasn’t until the first reading that I felt, “Oh, this could be a little bit harder than I had thought.” But then very quickly after that it was just getting into it with Steve, like when we actually were face-to-face in our underwear, basically there was nothing else to do but be in the moment and be grateful that we had a chance to go at it again. I can’t describe it. It was just like a different production of the same play.
Had you been a fan of Steve Coogan?
I have seen The Trip, which is extraordinary. We were also in a movie together, Our Idiot Brother, but we didn’t share any scenes together. Before Happyish, Steve said, “Promise we’ll be tough on each other. I promise you we’ll push each other to places we haven’t been able to go to.” So I felt very inspired and safe too. He’s a gem, and it felt very fraternal very early on. We just got into such a relaxed place, knocking at each other’s doors and making funny jokes. You need that feeling of safety whenever you’re walking into an onscreen marriage as loving and long as Lee and Thom Payne have.
Would you say cringe-making boundary-pushing humor is your personal style?
I’m a recovering Catholic girl from Cleveland—offending somebody is not comfortable! I don’t mind a dirty joke, but it’s hard to say something that could be taken certain ways. I get a little bit nervous; that’s just who I am. So I think that that’s the excitement. I read (Auslander’s) writing and I think, “Oh, that’s so true, but is everybody going to get it?” and then he’s like, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess who cares?” That’s an awesome lesson.
You also play Rabbi Raquel Fein in Transparent—when you read the script did you have any idea what a huge deal the show would be?
Yes! Well, yes and no. Yes, because I knew Jill (Soloway) was a force to be reckoned with from making our movie together (Afternoon Delight in 2013). When you’re in the eye of the Jill hurricane it just feels like you’re making something really honest. I just felt I could do no wrong and that was really exciting. That material is so beautiful and it’s so personal. It’s also just a case of lightning in a bottle. It was a magic group of people—everybody in that show is so extraordinary. When she told me about the part, I would have done anything. I just believed in Jill Soloway.
Will we see you in the upcoming second season of Transparent?
I’m in it and we start the end of June. I only know scant details of what happened to Rabbi Raquel and Josh. I’m so excited. There’s a woman rabbi I’d been studying with and she’s just the best. You just can’t be a lady rabbi and not be rad.
Lee seems quite close to who you are personally—do you feel that?
I feel like she’s in there, but I definitely wish that I had her honesty myself, so it’s been very empowering to jump into her. I feel like absolutely she’s in there, like it must be dying to get out of me, that energy, so maybe that’s why she feels close to me.