In the second season of HBO Max’s “Hacks,” Hannah Einbinder, who plays Ava Daniels, the young, self-satisfied joke writer to Jean Smart’s seen-it-all Vegas comic Deborah Vance, found herself on an unusually pressurized night shoot. In the scene, Deborah, who delights in making Ava squirm, instead brings her to tears with a gesture of consequential generosity.
“It was in the wee small hours of the morning, as Mr. Sinatra says,” says the 27-year-old. “It ended up being really rewarding. But there was a lot riding on it. And, man, I don’t have a lot of stamina. That was tough for me.”
Along with her deadpan delivery, fleeting micro-reactions and slouching 20-something physicality, a case can also be made that her recent arrival to acting — Einbinder is, in real life, a working stand-up comic — is part of what makes her take on Ava feel lived-in, naturalistic. As for her dry comic timing, Einbinder, the daughter of “SNL’s” Laraine Newman, points to her upbringing. “It’s in my blood,” she says. “The way you got approval in my house was getting laughs. It was like our love language.”
When “Hacks” came along, you’d been auditioning for just a year. How nervous were you about going up for the role?
Frankly, I cared more about this audition than most. The material stood out to me as being of a quality that I hadn’t experienced as much. But I’d never gotten a callback for anything before this. I assumed it’d be like the rest. From start to finish, my approach was to have fun with the material. I didn’t really tell anyone about [the audition]. It just felt like another part of my day.
A day spent, one imagines, in a room filled with Zoomers in baggy vintage T-shirts and black Dr. Martens.
Actually, it was quite the contrary. A lot of really stunning, beautiful actresses surrounded me, and I was looking around like, “Oh, s—. I have no chance.”
The “Hacks” creators said you impressed them by, of all things, vaping in the middle of a scene. How did you come up with that specific improvisation?
There was a moment in the scene where I thought some sort of comedic element could go after the line itself. Then I imagined someone smoking. A sort of an inhale, exhale moment, like a rim shot to punctuate the line. I thought, “Why not?” So I went out and bought a vape that morning.
They loved it so much that Ava’s vaping was incorporated into the series. Talk about your first day as a novice co-lead opposite the incomparable Jean Smart.
I was just petrified, terrified. I felt like I had to try my hardest not to get fired because they were going to realize this was a huge mistake. I mean that genuinely. I continued to think that until we wrapped [Season 1]. Then I figured, “OK.” [Deep sigh of relief] “It’ll be way too expensive to reshoot this. I’m in the clear.” That had nothing to do with the conditions or circumstances. [“Hacks” co-creators Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello] were so supportive of me from the very beginning. It’s just in my wiring to catastrophize.
Has Deborah Vance’s struggle to stay relevant as she grows older made you contemplate your own future in stand-up?
I can tell you that I’ll always write my own material. If I ever thought, “Oh, I should get a writer,” that’s when I’ll probably stop doing comedy.
Stop? Why stop?
I’ve seen a lot of my heroes become angry old men wagging their finger at things they don’t understand. I hope to never be that way. The world is moving so quickly, I think I won’t be able to help but get left behind. When I feel that’s happened, I’ll respectfully take my leave. I don’t want to [stay in comedy] for the sake of having people look at me or for money or any of the things that keeps someone doing it. I feel lucky to be able to do other things within the realm of performance.
Does being an Emmy-nominated actor on a critically acclaimed series change the crowd that comes to your stand-up shows?
Well, it’s changed the crowd in that now there is one. [Laughs]
What about how an audience reacts to your material?
That’s something I’m constantly attempting to track. The material I’m doing now on the road was polished before I got “Hacks.” When I try to slip new things in, I can hear the difference. So I’ve been lucky to get an accurate read on my stuff. Tonight I’m going to be workshopping very raw, new material that I’ve just been writing. I’ll just go up with these ideas and rip them out. I expect it to go poorly. All comics bomb. It’s just a part of it. I think the first five minutes you’re up there, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that’s my favorite person,” and then that wears off. You know?
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