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Interview: I Know This Much is True’s Kathryn Hahn

by Charles Trapunski

This is one of those rare interviews in which we’ve greatly admired the performer for decades. If Kathryn Hahn is in something good, she makes it great; if she is in something great, she makes it outstanding. But then Hahn has gone and done it, which is that she makes us appreciate her even more, as we spoke to the remarkable performer recently over the phone from her home in Los Angeles.

We blazed through her work in the HBO Limited Series I Know This Much is True, in which Hahn’s Dessa more than holds her own opposite two great performances by Mark Ruffalo. The Derek Cianfrance adaptation of the Wally Lamb novel absolutely needs to seen. We re-watched her transformative performance as Mrs. Fletcher, another HBO series and book adaptation. Hahn may not have been the actress we envisioned when the book was being brought to the screen, but the series takes on a life of its own, and she, again, completely nails the role. In the animated Apple TV+ series Central Park, again, she crushes it, and also holds her own while singing. If you’re not already watching these shows, we’re absolutely sure that you can begin, (I Know This Much is True is currently airing). Don’t just take my word for it, as Hahn was gracious in a massive way, even differing slightly in a polite way. She was an incredible interview from start to finish.

The following is a condensed and edited version of my one-on-one phone conversation with the singular Kathryn Hahn of I Know This Much is True.

Brief Take: In I Know This is Much is True, your character, Dessa is like a memory in a lot of ways, drifting in and out. The first scene in which you appear, and I noticed this only in a second viewing, you are surrounded by red and Mark Ruffalo is bathed entirely in blue. Did framing and colour by Derek Cianfrance very much inform the piece?

Kathryn Hahn: Well, first of all, that was very astute and of course absolutely intentional. I remember when Kasia (Walicka-Maimone), our amazing costume designer, we were having our fitting and she was like: “It was very important for Derek for you to be in red”. He just knew that he wanted to have it running through visually, for those very reasons, I think for the audience to hold on to Dessa through it, because as you said, she was going to be kind of bobbing in and out and so much in memory and as a kind of visual holder for her as well. I had not read the book before getting this job and I read it and the adaptation in about a week before meeting Derek and this is actually while I was doing Mrs. Fletcher. And I knew this job would be starting soon after I would wrap Mrs. Fletcher, so a part of me was like: “Och!” because I knew it was going to be so heavy and I had been looking for something maybe a little lighter [laughs] after making Mrs. Fletcher, but then after reading this I knew that I just wanted in—terribly after reading the book. It hit me so hard in my solar plexus, this material. I have a history of mental illness in my family so it hit me on a personal level, and then I also knew that the chance of working with Derek and Mark would be kind of a bucket list scenario and I knew that they would both bring such empathy to the material.

I knew that walking into Dessa, I think because of my own personal experience in my family with mental illness, I knew this kind of caretaking on a personal, visceral level—this kind of helplessness and kind of almost paralyzation, because as much as I think that Dominic is trying to help Thomas, you know that line: “You don’t give up on the ones you love”, that applies from Dessa to Dominic. I think that in so many ways, she’s been trying to take care of him and she just won’t give up on him after, even after all of that shared trauma, she just can’t, she just sees the goodness in him, and I just knew that walking into this that it wasn’t going to be a light affair for sure, but I knew that it was going to be such a satisfying one. And I knew that with those two at the helm that it was going to be a really deep one and it did, of course, did not disappoint at all, it was both of those things. It was one of the creative highlights of my career for sure to be in the ring with those guys.

(Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO)

BT: In terms of the presentation of the series, Dessa feels at a slight remove. Did you have the opportunity still to completely immerse yourself? 

KH: I did. And it was difficult in a part like this because when you’re bobbing in and out and I was traveling back and forth to New York from where my family is in Los Angeles, so it’s hard to sustain that intensity when you don’t have a ramp, as it were, if I wasn’t in the bubble. Also, when you don’t have that momentum behind you, I think sometimes that roles are acute. Like work is accumulative, when you have all those days of work behind you, it informs what you are doing, so that was difficult, for sure.

But I think that it was because—and it’s a testament to Mark and Derek and their power and their specificity and their incredible generosity—that I was able to drop back into it so easily every time I landed. And also to the specificity of this script that it was incredibly powerful and very easy to be able to jump right back into those depths—and they’re not fun places in which to be, but we knew that we had to just go there! And they scheduled it really well, we knew that we had to rip the band-aid off some really hard scenes all at once and yeah, not fun places in which to be at all. There’s a scene when they lose the child and we shot those scenes in an actual little house that had been set up for us, that we had gotten to put our fingers all over and move furniture around and set up the nursery the night before, so it’s like really, really heavy. We knew that we wanted to get in there as deep as we could, because it mattered. I also think that there’s something about the character of Dominick who thinks that he’s cursed and things happen to him but he can’t see that he can’t have…he’s just so burdened by trauma. He can’t get out from underneath it and he can’t see that there’s this woman next to him that is forced to pull him out of the muck into a place of joy, I feel like it’s just so human. I think just so many people are consumed by family or legacy, just drowning in co-dependency, like they cannot see what belongs to them and what is theirs. He thinks that he has to carry so much that does not belong to him.

Anyway, this is like a two, threefold answer, but I’ve given it all to you at once, Charles.

(Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO)

BT: This story in a couple of ways departs from the novel on which it is based, though author Wally Lamb is part of the creative team. You had spoken about reading this book and the adaptation, and that affected you to a great degree. How did this process translate in terms of capturing the specific beats of the series?

KH: In this adaptation, it’s a sizeable novel, it’s an incredible novel, it’s like 700-some pages and it’s impossible to put every single…there’s a gazillion satellite beautiful storylines that happen. And impossible to put all of them, such as Imogen (Poots)’ character (Joy Hanks) has a huge background story, there’s a lot more of every character in it, and what I think of which I am most in awe in terms of this adaptation was what Derek distilled was the feeling. You feel…when I read the book and when I read the adaptation, I felt the same thing. Even though I wasn’t reading everything, even though every storyline wasn’t the exact same, it’s the same feeling. You’re just in the same mind as Dominick was in the book and I think that is the thing for which I am the most impressed.

BT: Let’s now move to Mrs. Fletcher. This is a moving, challenging and hilarious series and a great book by Tom Perrotta, but feels like its own story. Aside from I Love Dick, this is the sole project where you are listed as a producer. What is the importance to you of adapting Mrs. Fletcher from a book to a series?

KH: Yes, seeing this adaptation become such a living, breathing organism of a television show of any kind. Of course it starts to transform when you get the real bodies in there and you see what each director of each episode is bringing to this thing, it starts to become something else, and it’s a process of letting go of anything preconceived and letting it be, and I think that it did start to take on this other shape, and to Tom (Perrotta)’s credit, he was so available to watching it transform and explode into this other shape. And yeah, I think that it was an inevitability as to who it was, like he cast me as Eve and it started from there, in the transformation process, whatever he had had in his mind and from there, it started to evolve into this other thing, and he was a really great collaborator and a great listener. We had an amazing group of women directors and I think that it was a big exercise in listening, because that book, and he would say the same thing, the reason that I found that book so compelling was that Eve was written in the third person and her son is written in the first. And it did take a second to really…she wasn’t as easy to get squirrelled into because she was written at a distance and it really took a second to kind of like sit in the seat of her, because she was written a little bit afar. To his credit and to the credit of the amazing writers and directors, we all really figured it out together.

BT: The final episode is entitled ‘Welcome Back’, and refers to your character’s reemergence as much as your son’s return home from an unsuccessful first year of university. By the end, you are no longer even named Mrs. Fletcher.

KH: I know! But that is like a moniker onto which she held, but that’s the whole beautiful thing about even the title of the book, which is Mrs. Fletcher, that’s a moniker that’s not even hers, like she’s been divorced 10 years, like that’s an identity that doesn’t even belong to her anymore and onto which she has been holding. Yeah, I love that too.

BT: You are always incredible at building characters. What was your starting point for Mrs. Fletcher, for Eve?

KH: I think it was the title, but then moving backwards into the script. He gives so much in that book and in that source material. There’s so many women that I know and that I love and that I am, somehow that have been raised to be good girls and to live between a certain set of lines and not deviate outside of them. I certainly am not anymore, but I certainly remember being in high school and in college, even, what one is allowed or not allowed to do. And I think that she’s trying to not cause waves, just live a quiet life, wear what is not going to be pointed out, wear what other people are wearing, wear her hair the way that people are wearing their hair, just get out unscathed. And I think this was my starting point for her and to have that Pandora’s box of Internet porn [chuckles] as it were, would kind of be, we’d always laugh and call it the Gandalf, like have it be her Gandalf into this world of possibility into things that she never thought were…not being about porn, per se, but having that be the Gandalf into this world of identity and possibility, that she didn’t think was allowed or open to her.

BT: In Mrs. Fletcher, your response to your sexuality acts a counterbalance to Brendan and his toxic masculinity, in the way that he acts toward his girlfriend in the opening episode. Do you feel like you win at the end of the series?

KH: Well, I certainly didn’t feel like I won at the end. [laughs] I mean, definitely, because of what he had seen. I would have loved to have seen that next breakfast table scene, that scene at the breakfast table between the two of them, but I did, and it’s hard because I wasn’t there, so I have no idea as a character what he was going through, because as a character I wasn’t there, but I think certainly at the beginning, what I had heard through the door, his girlfriend and how he treated her, knew that he was definitely not on the right path and felt very helpless to do anything about it, for sure.

BT: What was your experience voicing Paige on the Apple TV+ series Central Park?

KH: Oh, I loved it! I loved that group of people and those singers, those voices are extraordinary. I had worked previously with Loren Bouchard on Bob’s Burgers a couple of times, so I know and adore him, and I love Josh Gad. And when they asked me, zero hesitation, the chance of doing a musical is something that I had never really done. But again, I feel like I do not shy away from a challenge, Charles, I was very excited to do it. And yeah, it’s the dreamiest! My kids can see it, they can’t see much that I do. [laughs] I was very excited that they could watch it and I was excited to show a strong Mom in a show, I love Paige so much! I really could not be more proud.

BT: Your body of work is incredibly fascinating. I greatly enjoyed your film Private Life, as I did with Mrs. Fletcher, these projects are open in terms of what’s being presented. Do you look for these type of responses to your work?

KH: Well I would hope that people would get to enjoy a project, to enjoy anything that’s being viewed. I hope that they would see it because they want to watch it and because they want to feel something. They want to experience what it is to be human, like that’s why I watch anything is because I want to feel human. I want to feel empathy, I want to feel connected, I want to feel a minute of catharsis, I want to laugh, cry, all the stuff! You know, all the stuff.! My favourite kind of stuff as a viewer are the things that hit the sweet spot right between a comedy and a drama, or the stuff that you just feel, like I love a horror movie, because I love the big feelings. And I miss being in a movie theatre because I miss that big communal feeling of everybody being like: “no, no, NO, NO!”.  Like I love that stuff, the inappropriate responses because everybody’s laughing, because everybody’s scared. I love that feeling. I just hope that it’s a feeling of connectivity that you’re not alone when you’re watching…anything.

Also, as a woman in my mid-40s, I hope that any time you see anybody on a screen that that’s a representative of somebody. I hope that seeing anybody of my age experience life as a human, it’s an empathy maker. Hopefully we get to see more and more representations of humans on screen and those become empathy machines. And hopefully people don’t just look at people on screen that look like them.

The finale of I Know This Much Is True airs Sunday, June 14 on HBO and Crave. New episodes of Central Park are available on Fridays on Apple TV+. All episodes of Mrs. Fletcher are currently available on HBO and Crave. 

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