From starring in Cheryl Strayed’s 'Tiny Beautiful Things, 'playing an evil Marvel witch and raising a family out of the limelight.
With a career that spans a quarter of a century, Kathryn Hahn has no shortage of fans from her numerous scene-stealing early roles as the quirky best friend (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) or the co-worker (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). But that number has increased at least tenfold since she joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2021 in her standout role as Agatha Harkness in WandaVision.
But her growing popularity isn’t something that Hahn is dialed into, because the two-time Emmy-nominated actress isn’t on social media. Yes, it’s 2023, but Hahn has no Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts, so she has been relatively clueless that the internet has labeled this period when her star is on the rise, “The Hahnaissance.”
“The response to Agatha was so unexpected,” Hahn told Parade from the set of Agatha: Coven of Chaos, the sequel to WandaVision. “I had no idea. I had a Spidey sense WandaVision was going to land, but, for me, the response was really overwhelming.”
WandaVision, which blended the style of classic sitcoms with the MCU, was a delight to film for Hahn, because the series had so many “delicious, different decades to slip in and out of, and different genres, and different sitcom worlds,” so she didn’t hesitate when asked to reprise Agatha in a stand-alone project for Disney+.
But first, the Cleveland, Ohio-raised mother of two (Leonard, 16, and Mae, 13) with Ethan Sander, 50, turned her talent to the role of Clare in the limited series, Tiny Beautiful Things (April 7 on Hulu), adapted from a collection of essays by Cheryl Strayed from her long-running advice column “Dear Sugar.” Strayed, who famously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and wrote about it in her bestseller, Wild, has said that the character of Clare is who she might have become if she had never made the hike. Reese Witherspoon, who portrayed Strayed in the movie version of Wild, exec-produces Tiny Beautiful Things.
Hahn wasn’t well-versed in any of Strayed’s writings but was captivated by the distinct tone and grand ambition of the Hulu pilot script, which she says packed an emotional punch in the form of a half-hour TV show that’s neither comedy nor drama. And then she read the source material, Strayed’s book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice from Dear Sugar.
“I was like, Wait, it’s an advice column? And this advice column is something that I would have had on my nightstand and read in a heartbeat had I known it existed. Which I do now, and just pick up and read. I’m a big old cynic. I really am not into emotional heartstrings being pulled, but there is something about this that just felt so raw and to the bone. Just unfiltered, just light shined into your eye—there’s nowhere else to go but to the truth. I was really curious about jumping into the challenge of that.”
Hahn’s switch from supporting characters to leading lady began in 2013 when she was cast as Rachel, a sexually frustrated wife who goes to a strip club to try to spice up her marriage in Afternoon Delight, and winds up deciding to hire a stripper (Juno Temple) as her live-in nanny.
“It was a big [turning point] for me, a huge one,” the graduate of the Yale School of Drama says. “I grew up in the theater, so I thought you were supposed to be a certain way to be on camera. But I had no idea what was happening. I was trying to fit into a certain mold.” It was while filming Afternoon Delight that she learned that she could have the same freedoms in front of a camera that she could have on a stage, and something just clicked.
“I was like, Oh, you can be anarchic and in control of your narrative, and not one way or the other. All of the complexity of it and be funny still. There was such a freedom in that as a performer.”
Hahn ran with that newfound knowledge and the roles followed, allowing her to demonstrate her versatility and emotional complexity in both comedy and drama: Parks and Recreation, I Love Dick, Transparent, I Know This Much Is True, The Shrink Next Door, Bad Moms and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, among others.
And it’s a good thing the offers rolled in because there was never a plan B for Hahn.
“I would pretend to have a backup career, but it was almost like I was acting out fantasies of what those backup careers would be,” she admits. “I was like, Oh, I’ll pretend to be a marine biologist, but it was almost like another acting exercise. It was never, ever an option for me. There was no other choice.”
There may not have been any other option when it came to acting as her profession, but to achieve what she has, Hahn has made choices along the way, and she talks to Parade about the roads she has taken.
What are tiny, beautiful things? Are they moments in life?
They refer to things that Sugar wishes she could have told her younger self, which is that you have the right to tiny, beautiful things. There’s a scene where a girl offers a purple balloon to Sugar, and she didn’t believe she had the right to such a tiny, beautiful thing. And she didn’t feel like she was worthy of love, or of respect or attention or having a voice, or any of those things. She had such shame and grief that she wasn’t in a place to receive it. It was when she was older that she was able to look back and feel like she was able to have some sense of receiving it.
Now do I feel like the Clare in present day is able to receive it yet? No. But it is through the act of writing that we somehow transcend those beliefs we have about ourselves and find a bigger and more expansive version of ourselves. I think diary writing and journaling somehow unlocks something in ourselves, an inner voice that we are bigger and better than our own cases as humans or our minds can contain. I don’t think this present-day Clare feels deserving yet of any of those beautiful things, tiny or large.
Clare lost her mother while she was young, she married young and now she’s on her second marriage and she’s having problems. What about this Clare spoke to you?
I love the idea that we contain all of our past selves all the time. And that the older we get the more our past selves start rising to the surface because, of course, we don’t heal our younger self as we’re living it. It takes a long, long, long time to even realize what has been hurt or broken. And sometimes it is in becoming a parent, it’s in becoming a partner, it’s in becoming an employee, it’s in our relationships with others that we realize what it is in ourselves that needs healing. And so that was really compelling.
There’s such a contrast between Clare’s ability to give advice to other people and her inability to fix her own life. Is “Dear Sugar” a place to face her history and turn her experiences into empathy for others?
I think “Dear Sugar” is a culminating event. When we find Clare, every aspect of her life is starting to fall apart. Her job, her marriage, her relationship with her daughter and her relationship with all of her coping mechanisms are falling apart. And the things that she used to use—hanging out with other people, alcohol, her sense of humor, all those things—are not working for her anymore.
And so, the thing that she used to love more than anything, which was to write, is the thing that sustained her when she was a child when her mom was alive. Her mom’s belief in her and support in her becoming a writer has been hibernating for so long. And so, when this person from her past comes out of the woodwork to say, “Write this column for me anonymously,” like a volcano, it erupts something in her that she didn’t realize had been so bottled up.
So all of these things that she’s been sitting on, all of these feelings that had been pent up, erupt out. So, of course, stuff is going to start to erupt that she’s not in control of. I think why so many people have responded to Cheryl’s Sugar—and I think why I responded to Clare’s Sugar—is that these are advice columnists that don’t really have the answers.
They both don’t know what they’re talking about, but what they do have, what they can speak to anonymously is their truth. And so, people as readers can feel the truth. There’s something unflinchingly honest about their truth that is a relief as a reader to hear. And I think that’s why people respond to the advice. Which is not even advice, it’s just active listening really, in word form, that happens to include stories from their life.
This project was conceived by women and written and run by a woman with other women executive producers. Was that essential?
Yeah, it was very important we had women directors. It was very important that it be a woman at this age in her life. Because I think that there is also a scarcity of projects in which a woman is going through this particular portal into a different phase of her life, a woman that has been told that you’re supposed to be a certain way and she’s bottled up so many things for so long. And at a certain point, the point of entrance between what you’re feeling and what you’re supposed to present to the world, it becomes untenable. And I think that that’s why it’s such a relief to have this kind of outlet.
When were you bitten by the acting bug?
Honestly, I think, from kindergarten. I took a little class at Saint Ann’s, which was my elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio. Then I convinced my parents to let me take classes at the Cleveland Play House. I was what was called a “Curtain Puller.” I never actually got to pull any curtains. I took classes there every Saturday and I just knew in my bones; I just knew that that’s what I was going to do.
How incredible to have that certitude at such a young age.
And it was nuts because I didn’t know how or what it would look like. I just knew that’s what it was. I didn’t see myself winning awards or anything, I just saw myself acting. I just knew it.
Your determination led you to some of the best acting programs in the country. You attended Northwestern and Yale School of Drama. What did it take to make that happen? Your parents obviously weren’t familiar with the acting world.
No, and they were very up front with the fact that if I wanted to go that I would have to get there myself because we didn’t come from a family that was able to afford those kinds of programs. And so, I had my eye on the prize. I knew that I had to get really good grades in high school to get myself into Northwestern and to get scholarships. My parents contributed as much as they could, but I mostly got scholarships and a ton of student loans and got myself through Northwestern.
Then the same thing with Yale. I didn’t go there right after undergrad, which most students do. There were a couple years of odd jobs and non-paying acting gigs. It was mostly because I just wanted somewhere to act that I got myself into a master’s program. I remember somebody saying, “You’re missing out on your ingenue years if you go to Yale and spend these three years.” I was like, “I’m not an ingenue. I don’t care. No one’s hiring me, I would rather be acting.” I knew I was moving away from the traditional Hollywood path, but I didn’t care. I was rehearsing Shakespeare at two in the morning with other ragtag misfits.
You moved to New York for a little bit, and you worked odd jobs. Ethan Sandler, 50, who you met at Northwestern, went with you but you were not yet married. Was he also trying to get acting jobs at that point?
Yeah, he was working at a Starbucks, and I worked as a receptionist at a hair salon right after Northwestern. We lived in a one-room studio where you open up the door and hit the shower. We would get in fights. Basically, I kept being like, “When you shave, you have to rinse out the hair before I try to clean the dishes.” We only had one sink. It was that kind of an apartment. I look back on those days, though, so fondly. That was the New York of my dreams.
You’ve performed Shakespeare and yet at the beginning of your professional career you did so many comedies. Is that because you have a great sense of humor?
I definitely didn’t go the sketch comedy route. SNL wasn’t a route that called to me. Stand-up didn’t call to me. But I was always, I guess one would say, the class clown. I was never “the most graceful one” in the class. But I still didn’t see myself as a comedian, I just saw myself as an actor, wanting to play all the parts. When I thought of “actor,” I thought of someone that was in a company that was able to play Ophelia and then do a musical. An actor, to me, was somebody that was able to play a variety of different genres, to be able to switch between comedy and drama.
An actor was somebody for whom the script was everything. Everything that one needed was in the script. And so, it was interesting for me after Yale to have my first job be on Crossing Jordan, which was a whole world of like What? I was so grateful for the job because I had so much debt, and also, I had so many teachers on that. I was cast as the quirky person in the morgue, so it was kind of funny but kind of not. I learned so much from that.
But the comedy, I think I just started leaning into where I was cast. It wasn’t conscious, it just was, I guess…this class-clown part of my personality is who I am, my DNA. I don’t know. My family is very funny. My family has a wicked, wicked sense of humor, everybody on all sides. I’m in awe of how funny they are. It was like you had to keep up because everybody was just very funny.
Glass Onion went to the top of the Netflix charts. It’s an ensemble movie. Do you recall a favorite day of shooting or a favorite scene?
Talk about going back to your roots. That [shoot] felt so close to those amazing Cleveland Play House Saturday mornings of being in a rep company or being in awe of looking at a rep company. That came so close to that feeling of an ensemble, it really and truly did. What [director] Rian [Johnson] and Daniel [Craig] created with this group of people was as good as it gets. It just felt so welcoming and warm. Because of the nature of it—especially for that big last scene which took a while to shoot, and we were in Belgrade for a lot of it—we really did have a green room that we all were in until they were ready to shoot. And so, in between setups, we would just all be together. We were either playing chess—Leslie [Odom Jr.] taught me how to play chess, everyone else seemed to know it—or we would play guitar and dance or do yoga.
They would say, “Okay, we’re ready for you,” and we would all go out and we would be there to support each other for each other’s coverage. It was magic. There were so many favorite days. I think there were some days in Greece, some evenings in Greece, when we were all on those steps together, that were pretty magical, too. The air was so perfect and to see all of us in those amazing clothes designed by Jenny Eagan, that was all just magic.
You and Ethan Sandler married in 2002 and you have two kids, live in Los Angeles—and yet we never see you in paparazzi pics. Does having a more normal home life give you what you need to then go out and act?
I don’t think of it that consciously, but I think that it must be because I feel like I’m just still the same [at home and at work]. I always want to feel that same feeling whenever I’m working on anything, which is I always feel we’re in a circus together. I love the feeling of the circus; I love the feeling of a crew. I just always feel like we’re all in it together making the thing together and I never, ever would want that feeling to change. I’m excited to be able to just have opportunity. But then, like anybody, I still feel like I could be a receptionist at a hair salon at any moment. I think everybody feels the same way.
You met your husband in college. You’re still with your original agent. There’s a strong loyalty vibe there. Is that a reflection of who you are?
It sure sounds like it by the evidence. If we would take that evidence, I would hope that that seems to be absolutely a running theme, yeah. My original agent and I, we grew up together. And, yeah, my hubby and I grew up together too.
Why are you not a fan of social media?
I just have never really found it necessary for myself. I have really good friends that send me very funny things, or very newsworthy things, if they find something interesting. It’s not like I don’t read the news. I get it. I know what’s happening, but I just don’t need to engage in that way to find myself grounded as a human.
My kids have it. I’m certainly not keeping them in mom’s dark ages. I’m never going to say never ever because I don’t ever want to pin myself down the way that social media seems to do to people. I want to keep flowing, so who knows? But right now, it seems to be I have not had an urge, I’m okay.
It’s important for people [to use] in their jobs. I totally understand that. I completely get it. I’m kind of old school in that I don’t want to be defined by a sentence I put out there or a thought I put out there. But I completely get it that people need to use it and I understand it.
HAHN’S HOT LIST
Favorite food or meal Right now, it is watermelon. I can’t get enough of it. But I also really, really love just spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Currently watching I’m watching Aftersun. That movie just blew my mind. I can’t believe it was that woman’s [Charlotte Wells] first feature. It is extraordinary.
Would love to work with Oh, gosh, there are so many humans that I really love. I’m going to say Noémie Merlant, the woman from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.