At a swanky Beverly Hills hotel on a recent late Sunday afternoon, actress Kathryn Hahn sits down for her last interview of the day at the Captain Fantastic press junket. We’re set up for a conversation in a hotel room that must have doubled as the day’s makeshift production office because there are about a dozen monitors stacked in the room. But Hahn doesn’t mind the surroundings. She plops herself on one end of the couch, game for our chat about movies, motherhood and kids—especially in light of her roles in Captain Fantastic and the upcoming Bad Moms—and about how a chance meeting at an L.A. farmers market changed her life.
After what must have been a long press day, Hahn comes across as down-to-earth and funny, but proves she’s no pushover either, evidenced when production guys enter the room to start breaking down the equipment. After the first couple times (it’s distracting), Hahn dons the mom pants—and voice—to put the kibosh on the interruptions. “Sorry, I wanted to crack the whip for you,” she says, cognizant of the brief interview time. So we get back to the business at hand, discussing Hahn’s role as Harper in the family relationship drama Captain Fantastic. It’s a relatively small role, but Hahn says she wanted it badly. “When I first read this script, I was so moved by it, the story as a whole, that I really wanted in anywhere. I really, really wanted to be a part of it.”
Written and directed by Matt Ross and starring Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic focuses on a father who raises his six children off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Ben is a rigorous teacher who ensures that the kids are both intellectually and physically fit. When the family is forced to leave the wilds, the modern world challenges his idea of parenting. Ben’s sister Harper (Hahn) welcomes her brother and his family, but neither of them can fully understand the other’s life choices. Harper protects her kids by cushioning the truth in euphemisms, while Ben is direct to a fault. Captain Fantastic paints a complex picture of parenting; Ben is a fallible protagonist who believes he’s acting in the best interest of his kids, while Harper and her husband Dave are the flip side to the three-sided coin that is child-rearing.
“I have two kids. I’m a mom, and I know that feeling of wanting to hold on to their childhoods so tightly, knowing that the inevitable is going to happen,” she says.
“That’s such a bittersweet feeling,” she adds. “I also knew in talking with Matt, I really wanted this part. I just wanted to play with him and with Viggo. And I also knew that when I talked with him that Harper and Dave, played by Steve Zahn—who’s amazing and a doll—that they’d not be caricatures, that they’d not be the ‘comedy rest stop’ on this trip… that they’d be actually full, and deep, and offer a compelling argument and not just be a sounding board for [Ben’s] ideals.”
When it comes to her own approach with her kids, ages 6 and 9, Hahn freestyles it like most do. “I don’t even know what I would say my parenting style is,” she says. “It’s like a day-by-day: ‘Are you breathing?’ at the end of the day.”
“I remember as a new mother, feeling so overwhelmed by the societal expectations,” she says. “It was the blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, the advice… the perfection. Not only do you have to be a totally present mother but then you have to bake homemade stuff [for school], and it was just too, too much. So I’d always felt ‘less than’ and always felt like sweating. Or that I was trying to put something on… on top of something that my gut was telling me, ‘I don’t know, this is actually getting in the way of your connection with your kid.’”
In the upcoming Bad Moms, out on July 29, Hahn plays the reckless, single mom Carla, who joins forces with friends (played by Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell) to battle the queen mother of PTA moms, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate). “It’s a completely different swing for sure, but equally as satisfying,” Hahn says about the two projects. “Emotionally, it feels so good to have a cathartic ‘fuck you!’ to the expectations. It felt really, really good.”
Hahn, the self-ascribed “funny girl” growing up, channeled that comedy talent through acting, first in local productions in her hometown of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, then as an undergraduate studying theater at Northwestern University, and eventually at the Yale School of Drama. “I wanted to be a New York theater actress. I love theater,” she says. When we comment on the prestige of both those schools and her training, she counters with another descriptor: “Expensive… I was drowning in student loans!”
Luckily, to pay off those loans, Hahn got the role of Lily Lebowski on the NBC procedural drama Crossing Jordan, starring Jill Hennessy, right out of grad school. (She married her co-star, Ethan Sandler, in 2002.) In the popular series, Hahn’s character was the kindhearted, and often lighter, relief to the uber-serious storylines. For a while thereafter, she became known for her funny sidekick roles in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers and others.
Although her career was in a steady upward trajectory, it moved into hyperdrive after writer-producer Jill Soloway (Transparent) saw Hahn with her kids at a local L.A. farmers market. “She had just happened to see me in an episode of Hung, the Thomas Jane show, in which I played a very pregnant woman who was very horny.” Soon after that farmers market encounter, Hahn found herself in a meeting for the lead in Soloway’s directorial feature film debut, Afternoon Delight, about a frustrated wife and mother who adopts a stripper as a live-in nanny. “I did a Skype session with her for Afternoon Delight after I’d read it, and I wanted it so badly,” she says.
The Skype meeting must have gone well. Not only did Hahn get the role, Soloway also wrote the part of Rabbi Raquel Fein for Hahn in Amazon’s critically lauded show, Transparent. “It started with Jill. She saw something in me that nobody else had allowed to be seen,” Hahn says. “I’m forever grateful to that awakening with her in Afternoon Delight. That was such a huge turning point of what I knew that I had in me, but I knew hadn’t been asked of me.”
The creative collaboration between the two women continues. Hahn recently finished shooting the pilot for Soloway’s next Amazon project, I Love Dick, with Kevin Bacon and Griffin Dunne.
Wrapping up our interview in Beverly Hills, we ask Hahn to reflect on her career thus far, and she says something that seems as applicable to parenting as it does to working in Hollywood: “Just enjoy the ride, and I wish I could have said, ‘Just stop giving a shit.’ It’s such background noise. It’s all nonsense at the end of the day…. So much of what other people think is just out of your hands and not your business. I wish I’d spent a little less time using my then-pliable twentysomething brain on that stupid stuff.”
With that, we walk to the elevator together, and Hahn gets off on another floor to join her husband and kids, whom she brought along to enjoy the hotel’s pool and other amenities on the hot day—a totally cool mom move in our books.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.