It's somehow fitting that Kathryn Hahn, an actress with a knack for cringe-inducing comedy, is the star of a new series, "I Love Dick," whose title makes everyone squirm.
"I love hearing men try to say it, because their voices get quiet and breathy at the end," says Hahn, nestled into a couch at a downtown hotel. The previous day, Hahn had visited "The Today Show" and mocked co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, who'd been barred by producers from uttering the double-entendre title out loud.
"So prudish!" she scoffs.
Perhaps, but then again, Hahn's standards are different than most.
Chances are if you've been near a TV set or in a movie theater in the last 15 years, Hahn has made you laugh-cry. That was her repeatedly jumping John C. Reilly's bones in 2008's "Step Brothers." That was her as Leslie Knope's nemesis, a $1,200-an-hour political operative, in "Parks and Recreation." And that was her again chugging an improvised White Russian straight from a milk carton in last year's "Bad Moms."
The 43-year-old is frequently described as a scene-stealer, a characterization that, while accurate, also speaks to the fact that it's taken Hollywood a long time to figure out what to do with her. If she's so good, then why isn't she the headliner?
"I Love Dick" represents a long-overdue breakout role for Hahn. Premiering Friday on Amazon, the series is based on Chris Kraus' cult favorite, autobiographical novel. She stars as a fictionalized version of Chris, a frustrated filmmaker who accompanies her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), to an artists' retreat in remote Marfa, Texas, and becomes infatuated with an elusive cowboy-sculptor named Dick (Kevin Bacon).
Following the 2013 indie film "Afternoon Delight" and the celebrated Amazon series "Transparent," it's Hahn's third collaboration with writer-director Jill Soloway, who co-created the series with playwright Sarah Gubbins. Typical of their work together, "I Love Dick" is a complex exploration of sexuality and intimacy that blends comedy and drama. It has Hahn feeling "très vulnerable," as she puts it. "We really looked into the abyss together. It just feels naked in all ways."
In Hahn, Soloway has found her muse. "She's as hilarious as Lucille Ball, but also capable of such depth," she writes in an email. This duality is evident in person. Warm and tactile, Hahn is both surprisingly earnest and hilariously irreverent, speaking of her gratitude in between riffs on her teenage fantasies about Amish boys. Wearing a casual dark blue dress and loafers, Hahn is pretty in a non-terrifying way, though with her piercing blue eyes and dark hair, it's easy to imagine her playing Melania Trump.
Hahn's big moment has been more than three decades in the making. First discovered in a youth theater program in Cleveland, she scored her first professional role in "Hickory Hideout," a children's show that aired on Saturday mornings and turned her into something of a local celebrity. She played a girl named Jenny who interacted with a pair of squirrels named Nutso and Shirley.
"The episodes were like 'Jenny Gets Braces' or 'Jenny's Parents Are Getting Divorced' or 'Traffic Laws With Nutso and Shirley'" Hahn recalls. "It was hilarious." (Yes, there are clips on YouTube.)
Hahn was a good student and a regular in plays at her Catholic school. (She notes that some of her earliest directors were nuns.) With two younger brothers, Hahn held her own with the guys. "It was like Fart City, U.S.A., in my house growing up," she says.
Her family shared a "tough, vicious" sense of humor, but performing onstage became her "way of being vulnerable." "I spent so much of my life pretending to be normal — Catholic family from Cleveland, couple's club at the church. I think underneath it I felt like so many of us, that I was putting a damper on this innate weirdness, that I couldn't really quite name or unleash."
She graduated from Northwestern and after a largely fruitless stint auditioning in New York, decided to enroll in the graduate drama program at Yale — a risky decision for someone then in her mid-20s, a.k.a prime years for most actresses.
"In my heart of hearts I knew that I wasn't really an ingenue and that my parts would be happening later," she says. "I never thought I'd fit in the kind of camera-ready, polished, beautiful box."
Hahn was more inspired by the kind of actresses the film industry rarely produces anymore — Shelley Duvall, Dianne Wiest, Diane Keaton. "I always liked messy brunets. Kindred spirits, I guess."
After Yale, she landed a role on the NBC forensic drama "Crossing Jordan." The series, which ran for six seasons, helped Hahn pay off her pesky student loans, but was not an especially rewarding creative experience. "To make a network show still feel like it has a creative engine, I'm always blown away by how that can happen." A small role in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" led to a streak of supporting parts in raunchy comedies, where she easily went toe to toe with the likes of Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell.
On the small screen, Hahn landed lead roles in a number of seemingly promising TV projects that quickly flamed out, including the Showtime series "Happyish" and American remakes of "Absolutely Fabulous" and "Free Agents."
Hahn sees "Afternoon Delight," written and directed by Soloway, as a major professional and creative turning point. Hahn played Rachel, an affluent Silver Lake housewife who befriends a young stripper (Juno Temple). With its gender-flipped take on the midlife crisis, the film earned decidedly mixed reviews, but Hahn's performance was almost uniformly praised. More critically, it marked the beginning of her partnership with Soloway.
"I had been grateful for but not completely satisfied by the work I was being asked to do on camera," she says. "I'd been living in dude comedy for so long, where you slip in and are funny but it's the dudes on the poster, the dudes behind the camera, the dudes holding the boom — which, listen, I love. But you feel held in a different way when the eyes behind the camera are looking at you as the 'the' and not the 'that.'"
Soloway then cast her in "Transparent" as Raquel, a kind-hearted rabbi who becomes enmeshed in the Pfefferman family's toxic dysfunction. It was a relatively quiet, reflective role for Hahn, whom Soloway refers to, only half-jokingly, as "Dame Kathryn Hahn." "I truly believe she's one of our greatest actors," she says.
"I like to write female protagonists that are deeply flawed and relatable — Kathryn is perfect in these parts; her ability to access vulnerability amazes me," says Soloway. "I teasingly say Hahn has a gift for creating the most beautifully awkward sex scenes — but it's true! Come to think of it, I may have manifested 'I Love Dick' purely so I'd have an excuse to keep shooting more of them."
The duo first began to discuss "I Love Dick" during long walks around Silver Lake, where Hahn lived until recently with her husband and two children. (They're now in Los Feliz.) While the title first jumped out at her "for all the mature reasons," she was drawn to playing Chris for somewhat loftier reasons. "There's something really galvanizing and powerful about this woman jumping into that want wholeheartedly and trying to name this aching, all-encompassing desire that she has, without any shame or apology."
Hahn just wrapped production of "Private Life," a film for Netflix written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, in which she plays a woman — another Rachel — struggling with infertility. She'll soon head to Atlanta to shoot the holiday-themed sequel to "Bad Moms," and she's talking to Soloway about returning to "Transparent." Making her long-ago decision to bypass ingenue roles seem prescient, Hahn has reached a point where she has the luxury of saying no to things.
"It's a heady time," she says.