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Who is my character? Why does she say this line? What’s my motivation? These are valid, if not typical, Acting 101 probings. But as a certain actor so simply puts it, “Sometimes, you just need to walk in the door.” That actor is Kathryn Hahn, who is a great example of someone who does just that; she steps into frame and before she utters a line, you’re watching, just waiting for what she’s going to say or do.
That takes a rare kind of presence, one that for too long seemed to be hiding in plain sight. Hahn got her first real TV break when Crossing Jordan producer Tim Kring created the role of Lily Lebowski for her in 2001. A string of small but brilliant supporting appearances in comedy features like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Step Brothers followed. Luckily, a few sharp-eyed observers spied a keg of talent going largely untapped. In 2008, Marcia Shulman, then Fox’s head of casting, signed Hahn to a rare talent-holding deal. “She was doing the kind of comedy that reminded me of Lucille Ball,” Shulman said. “She is very approachable, she has a very positive, happy presence. She is a great physical comedian, and I think that is missing on TV.”
Shulman was right, but if anyone deserves credit for recognizing what others didn’t, it’s writer and director Jill Soloway, who gave Hahn her first lead role in the acclaimed 2013 film Afternoon Delight. As an over- achieving mom and housewife who finds a— let’s call it creative—way to deal with a midlife crisis, Hahn was able to show there were layers to the laughs. “…She has an incredible way into the kind of authentic realness that made the careers of women like Diane Keaton back in the 1970s,” Soloway told The New York Times. “The industry has never really known how to handle a woman like that—a woman whose beauty is so intrinsically linked to her unique character.”
Perhaps not fitting into a cinematic pigeonhole isn’t all bad. Hahn is one of the most game actors in the business, the personification of the acting ideal: free, open. She seems equipped to invest any character with warmth, sarcasm, humanity or a bit of ball-busting on an as-needed basis. While “free” could be an understatement for some of her roles in movies like We’re The Millers, Tomorrowland, Bad Words, and the upcoming Bad Moms, she’s just as good, if not even better, at caustic (Boeing-Boeing, her Broadway debut), grounded (Transparent) and…male (her role as Jennifer Barkley on Parks and Recreation was originally written for a man).
If you’ve seen her in any of these roles, you’d have a tough time buying that an artist so willing to “go there” with such complete abandon and utter lack of vanity was ever self conscious or timid. But growing up, Hahn was the girl who was always apologizing, saying anything but what she truly meant in order to keep people (mostly her family) happy. She’s said that being able to stand up straight, look people in the eye and command her own space remain a bit of a challenge, even today. But it does get easier once you realize that your gift is who you are, and who you are is pretty much all you need. If Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Hahn in the beginning, she’s shown them now—just about anything.