In Private Life, Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti portray a middle-aged couple struggling with infertility. The film paints a funny but unflinching portrait of the efforts to have a child, from painful IVF injections, to anxious adoption interviews, to the humbling search for an egg donor. Throughout the journey, they remain a unit. With their on-screen chemistry fully intact in the mahogany and red-velvet environs of New York’s NoMad Hotel, Hahn and Giamatti greet each other with a long embrace. They immediately fall into a couple’s rhythm of completing one another’s sentences when talking about their collaboration with writer-director Tamara Jenkins.
What attracted you to this film?
Paul Giamatti: I have known Tamara for a long time, and we had tried to work on something before and that didn’t work out. I wanted to work with her. Clearly, someone else didn’t work out, so she came to me.
Kathryn Hahn: [Laughs] She vaguely knew who I was. We had never before.
Giamatti: That’s bullshit.
Hahn: No, really. [Casting director] Jeanne McCarthy whispered, “Well it’s Kathryn Hahn.” And she was like, “Who?”
Giamatti: I’m not buying any of this.
Hahn: That’s her narrative. I read the script and I was huge admirer of The Savages. I flew myself to New York just to meet her for like an early dinner. We just sniffed each other out. We spilled wine. It was just kind of like a courtship. We kind of flirted.
I had to do temporary [ADR] for a show I was doing called I Love Dick. So she said, “Do you want to come up and use my office?” I went up to the office, where all the mood boards were up for the movie. Very evocative, moody photos. I just kind of like spiritually left my scent in the room. This was one of those parts that just never usually goes to this human.
Anyway, she put me back in a cab and I got on the airplane. I remember watching The Other Woman with Leslie Mann, but most of my brain was thinking about this movie. I wanted in so badly though. It took a while.
Giamatti: The way it was presented to me, she was incredibly excited about you going in. Then she put me on the phone with you. Do you remember that? You were like, “Giamatti, you doing a picture?” I was like, “Who the fuck is this woman?” I mean I knew you, but I was like, “Jesus Christ. She put you on the phone with me to convince me?” I was already going to do it.
Hahn: When it was all finally in place I had never met this human. We went to the same school.
Giamatti: Yeah, we went to the same drama school. Can’t you tell? Obviously the same fine institute of dramatic training.
Tamara Jenkins arranged for you to meet at Paul’s Brooklyn apartment as an ice-breaker. She offered to cook pasta. How was that meeting?
Hahn: She wanted to cook us dinner. She missed the actual meeting, and she was heartbroken about it.
Giamatti: I had to go get tomato paste…
Hahn: And we happened to meet in the lobby. Tamara was heartbroken.
Giamatti: It was one of those great things where we just started laughing when we saw each other. It was great. We didn’t even say hello to each other. I went and got tomato paste and went upstairs. Then we had a rehearsal.
Hahn: Tamara put her director hat on very subtly and then we read through the script. Then we got to look at a donor egg website together.
Isn’t this story drawn from Jenkins’ own life?
Hahn: She would say it’s more emotionally autobiographical than actually biographical.
Giamatti: Her husband does have one testicle, by the way. When you have a conversation with him, it comes up. He announces it all the time, so I feel comfortable saying he only has one testicle.
How did you prepare?
Giamatti: It’s so well written. It’s not like it was obvious— we had to work at it—but it was all right there on the page.
There’s a great scene where they’re in bed, arguing over sex, and you can feel the weight of the strain of infertility on their relationship.
Giamatti: That was the scene, to me, that when I read it, I was like, that’s unbelievable. To me I was just like she recorded somebody’s conversation and transcribed it. For me, I looked at that scene, and thought, my challenge here is to not get in the way of this; to just let it be what it is supposed to be. It was very delicate this stuff, I thought.
Hahn: The work I had been doing prior to this, there had been a lot of elements of improv involved. We would get to the set and then we would blow it up a little bit with the language. Paul was like, “Is there going to be any improv?” and [Jenkins] was like, “No.”
There was such a freedom in that because the language was so perfect and specific and so beautiful. The script was such a beautiful piece of writing.
Giamatti: We didn’t even sit around and talk about it.
Hahn: No, we just found each other. If we had talked about it, it would have popped it. I would just inhale and exhale, and there would be Richard. I found her in him.
Giamatti: I would just be guided by what I had to do for her. I mean, it was like there was only one performance.
Hahn: It was embroidered.
Giamatti: Like there was one character, the way she wrote it. When I saw it on the screen, I remember being incredibly moved by how much you and I are always together. And I didn’t even realize we were doing that. Most of the time—except when we fight we were separated, right—we’re together. I didn’t know they were doing that. I wasn’t even thinking about how they were shooting that. It was really wild.
You had 30 days to shoot.
Giamatti: It was unbelievable; a sprint. Which was good because it all contributed to what we’re talking about. I just couldn’t think about it. No room to think about it.
Tell me about Kayli Carter, who plays Richard’s niece; a college dropout who plays a central role in her aunt and uncle’s quest to have a baby.
Hahn: There was another performer that had to exit because of scheduling stuff. But luckily for us in the end, because they discovered this amazing human.
Giamatti: I can’t imagine that character being portrayed by anyone else, you know?
Hahn: Tamara’s a sorcerer when it comes to casting.
Do you feel like the film has entered the culture? It’s a tough topic that doesn’t seem to come up organically in conversation. Has this film opened the door?
Giamatti: My god, I feel like people talk about it all the fucking time.
Hahn: You do?
Giamatti: I do. It’s painful, but I just feel like, in my life, I encounter more people than I would think I would know who are going through it.
Hahn: We’re at that age. I’ve never had this many eyeballs on something this fast. Usually we would have to wait until it got a video release. It takes a second for a movie of this scale to land with people. So, this is crazy for this immediate response.
What surprised you when you saw the film?
Hahn: I would say how little I thought of the actual baby. It was so much about the baby project than it was about the baby. Had I stopped and actually thought about the baby, I would have lost it because there was so much loss attached to it. It’s like they almost forgot who they were before this project.
Giamatti: They haven’t been able to reproduce in any way. They’re not creating anything in the world. Her book is getting fucked up, I’m not a director. They’re not procreating in any way. It’s like, yeah, I’m making pickles now. I’m not directing theater.
Hahn: It’s like a metaphor for mortality.
Giamatti: I said in the middle of it, I was like, “This is Waiting for Godot.” That’s what I thought when I finished it. It’s like they’re always going to be there, in some way. They’re always going to be waiting for something. Just imagine the [baby] comes. What are they thinking? The kid is going to solve what? What’s it going to make better?
Also I felt like, as the guy, that’s the only thing he has. He doesn’t have to deal with all the biological shit. So the existential thing—that’s all the guy gets. Just the angst and without any of the biological hell.
The strength of their relationship is remarkable, though. All these disappointments could tear a couple apart.
Giamatti: That’s the point, yeah.
Hahn: Paul, I had such a realization about those two dogs, too. What losses they had represented.
The family portrait of Rachel and Richard sitting on their couch, flanked by two giant dogs?
Hahn: What is interesting is that somebody has sent to me these pictures that look exactly like that, with the couples and the two dogs. It’s heartbreaking. My heart is like, there are so many couples going through that.
Giamatti: It’s a tougher movie than I think I imagined it was going to be. That surprised me. She made it a harder, tougher movie. I think both of us would oftentimes want to get a little bit more mushy in it, and she was like, “Eh. You can’t get emotional like that.”
Hahn: All those losses. It was very hard for me not to want to fall into him.
Giamatti: I think the film was more emotional because of that. These guys don’t get to release it. I remember once I kissed you at some point and Tamara was like, “No. I only ever want to see you guys kiss once.” She was very specific about it.