Why Jean Smart made her ‘Hacks’ costar Hannah Einbinder cry

Hannah Einbinder, comedian and actress starring in HBO's "Hacks," poses for a portrait in front of a faux bookcase
“I’d never seen anyone that feels like someone I know/am,” says Hannah Einbinder, here at the Hotel InterContinental New York Barclay, of her role as comedy writer Ava on “Hacks.” She was thrilled to get the role, “and then the panic started to set.”
(Michael Nagle/For The Times)

Desperation is a sweaty throughline in “Hacks,” the dark comedy from HBO Max. Comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) reluctantly hires writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) to punch up her act because she’s desperate to keep her Las Vegas residency. Ava, a self-absorbed Hollywood prodigy-turned-pariah thanks to an offensive tweet, takes the job because she has no other options. At the beginning of the first season, their disdain for each other is visceral, but by the finale, they have forged a tenuous friendship. Just in time for a big cliffhanger.

For much of the season, Deborah deals with Ava in a manner akin to Louis Gossett Jr.’s treatment of Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but with less warmth. After a particularly brutal exchange, a furious Ava briefly quits and dishes dirt on Deborah to strangers. Soon brought back into the fold, she realizes her betrayal may explode everything she and Deborah have worked so hard to create.

Einbinder, along with the show’s many fans, has to wait to find out what happens in Season 2. “I have no idea how that scene wrapped up, and I’m desperate to know,” she says.

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart in a scene from "Hacks."
(HBO Max)

In the meantime, the show has garnered 15 Emmy nominations, including a lead actress nod for Smart and supporting for Einbinder, her first — and her first role with a name. She had worked steadily as a comedian prior to landing the gig; her smooth, confident standup style is an act made more impressive when she discusses the extreme anxiety that bedevils her before every performance. “My nerves have become borderline unmanageable before I get onstage,” she says. “When I get my first laugh, they completely disappear.”

Einbinder, 26, wasn’t nervous auditioning for “Hacks” because she didn’t think she had a chance, even though she understood Ava implicitly. “I’d never seen anyone that feels like someone I know/am,” she says. She was thrilled to get the role, “and then the panic started to set in because I felt just a ton of imposter syndrome. That didn’t go away until the last week of filming, honestly,” in part because cocreators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky let her know that she had made them proud. “It turns out that that is all that matters to me. I didn’t want to let them down.”

Her relationship with Smart is equally important. “It is a known fact how supremely talented Jean is, but what is so precious and important to me, and such a gift that I’ve been given, is just to be in her presence and to learn how to be a better person from her. She’s so generous and loving and strong. She advocates for herself, but she also accommodates those around her in a really maternal way, and she’s so charming and lovely, everyone gravitates towards her. Of course, when I act with her, and when I watch her act, I’m taking copious notes, but who she is is so much more impressive.”

Their closeness created a painful dilemma for Einbinder. Shooting that big fight scene, Einbinder started crying during the first take, even though the camera was on Smart. “After they yelled cut, Jean said, ‘Sweetie, you’ve got to save it up, the camera’s not on you right now,’” Einbinder recalls. “But I love her, and she’s an angel, so it was really confusing, because you’re existing in this emotion as these characters who feel justified in their feelings, so it’s real, but it’s not. It was tough.”

Hannah Einbinder, comedian and actress
Hannah Einbinder, co-star of HBO’s “Hacks,” is photographed at the InterContinental New York Barclay.
(Michael Nagle/For The Times)

The series filmed during the pandemic, for which Einbinder was grateful. But she missed standup, and as soon as restrictions lifted to allow comedy clubs to reopen, she jumped back into performing. “I love the spontaneity of the crowd, how volatile they can be at times. It’s exciting and terrifying, and I’m sure I’m going to run into trouble later in my life because I’m releasing all this cortisol and adrenaline all the time, but it’s an incredible rush.”

Acting now holds its own equal and opposite appeal. “What actors and musicians have in common that comics do not is a purity of expression. A singer can sing ‘I’m sad,’ and a crowd is like ‘yes,’ and an actress can say ‘I’m sad,’ and the crowd is like, ‘yes,’ and a comedian says ‘I’m sad,’ and they’re like ‘no. How is your sadness like the DMV? List three reasons, seamlessly.’ I am, and comedians in general are, such emotional beings but there’s always this feeling that we must dress it up, so to just express yourself is exciting. I love it a lot.”

What’s more, playing the often-challenging Ava has made her more compassionate toward such people in the real world, “because I think there is always a reason that a person is difficult. It doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but now I immediately go to the place of ‘Uch, this person is hurt, and I feel really sad that they’re hurt and I wish they weren’t.’”

Sounds like she’s already prepared for when Deborah finds out what Ava has done.