The most ubiquitous woman on television now has a leading role to call her own.
Kathryn Hahn made her mark in supporting roles on everything from Girls (that was her as Jessa’s employer in season one) to Parks and Recreation (as a cunning, hyper-competent campaign manager). On the heels of a strong supporting turn as a savvy rabbi on Amazon’s Transparent, Hahn is finally taking the lead in a sharp cable series built around her wit and her spiky chemistry with co-stars, on Showtime’s Happyish.
On Happyish (created by the essayist Shalom Auslander), Hahn plays Lee, a woman whose creativity and zeal for life feels somewhat thwarted by her status as a relatively new parent. Her husband (played by Steve Coogan) feels the pinch of parenthood and diminished ambition in different ways, thanks largely to the young guns crowding him out at his advertising agency. Coogan and Hahn’s chemistry defines the show, which may come to those who’ve followed the show’s protracted production history as a mild surprise: It was originally cast with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died after filming the pilot episode.
But Hahn stuck with a show that’s become both her coming-out as a female lead and a labor of love. The actress, who’s also appeared in films including We’re the Millers, Step Brothers, and the upcoming Tomorrowland, spoke to TIME about the process of finding herself as a leading actress, how she builds chemistry with co-stars, and how motherhood made her a better actress.
TIME: As a parent, is this role, as mother searching for an elusive sense of contentment, relatable to you?
Kathryn Hahn: It’s absolutely relatable to me—I still pass by a mirror and think Who is that? I feel so young on the inside and being a parent—at least for myself, it made me feel younger, at first. You feel so helpless with so much beyond your control; you read everything and try to shower your kids with love, but there is an element of overwhelmingness to that love and how little one knows. [For Lee,] there’s a part of her that still is absolutely trying to figure out who she is. That’s not even a gender issue. It’s just human experience. It’s hard to turn around and think This is the middle of it.
You’ve always been prolific, but over time, your roles have gotten bigger and bigger. Has this coincided with coming to know yourself better?
Absolutely. It’s not conscious: I can’t say that I planned anything. The work that I’ve done certainly has to do with it, knowing myself and what I can bring to the table. I’d never been asked to do these kind of roles before having kids, which must have something to do with knowing myself as a person. I’ve said this before—I’ve never felt like a movie star. And I’m not. I’m a working actor. I had just kind of done as much as was necessary for these very fun supporting parts, hopefully from a place of truth. They certainly didn’t ask for all of me, and I didn’t have all of me to bring to the table.
Do you think you could have handled roles the size and prominence as your Happyish turn had the opportunity been available to you in your youth?
I would have no idea! I don’t know! My gut is like, Of course! but then I think, I don’t know. I don’t know—I’m a messy work-in-progress as a human, like we all are.
I dont know if I could have. I don’t think I had the self-confidence. I felt, still, somewhat more confident on a stage. Being in front of a camera was somewhere I was not supposed to be. I grew up watching the beautiful people, who were so talented, and I thought… I just never felt like I could stand and be okay with having a camera in my face. I always would start to ham it up. It’s only because I’ve gotten filled with such gratitude for what I’ve been able to do and who I am that I can stand there [in character]. This is me. This is me and this person.
Is it hard to get into, and out of, character when you work as prolifically as you do?
I’m definitely trying to—which is something I never ever had the luxury of even considering—trying to take a second between each one. I would say yes to everything, because I have a gazillion crazy, talented, creative friends, and if they ask me to do a guest spot on their show, I’ll do it. But I’m trying to be more careful. It depends on what it is. I just want to be rested creatively before I start something, which is a luxury I never expected.
After Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the show was put on hold for quite some time. Were there moments you considered dropping out?
I loved Shalom Auslander. It’s all because of him. It was an awful time. It was hard to see clearly, because I was so invested in Shalom and we’d been through so much together. My initial reaction was “It’s us. I believe in you, Shalom!” There were moments when I said to myself “What’s happening?” I’m so proud I stuck with it, that I stuck with Shalom. It’s been a life-altering part, and it’s gotten richer in so many ways.
It sounds like Shalom was something of a lodestar in a chaotic process.
[Shalom’s] got an amazing, dark, specific worldview. He’s a peculiar bird, and that’s what makes him so delicious, because he’s so completely himself. He wrote every single episode. He didn’t have a writing staff. This is the first time he’s written something scripted. It was an incredible gamble for all of us, him included. The pressure of working with him and going through this process was the best. I learned about myself because there were no other cooks. Showtime let Shalom be Shalom. That direct line of communication was so awesome and helpful.
Do you worry about taking on a show this risky now that you’re, happily, so established in your career?
I feel like I’m in untested waters. As grateful as I am to be a working stiff, even if I was more well-known, I wouldn’t want to do jobs because I thought they could be safe. I would never want to. That’s the point. I believe in Shalom’s writing. The show had a solid vision and voice. Nothing is neutralizing like getting overloaded to death by a gazillion people, but this is what he set out to do.
How do you create chemistry with all of the many actors you’ve played opposite? It’s hard to believe you’re automatically clicking with everyone you work with.
It takes a ton of time, because the first couple times at bat with anybody, it’s going to be a sniffing-each-other-out period. Sometimes, it can be like, we over-laugh at each other to build each other up, to make a safe space, trying to create that even if it may not be to the benefit of the scene or necessary. Sometimes it’s instant and sometimes it takes a second. That’s just time. I’ve never had an experience where I’ve had no chemistry—for the most part, I’ve been able to work with people I really dig. I hear nightmare stories and I almost wish that had happened to me, just so I’d have the story.
How was it with Coogan, specifically?
He’s so delicious. We became instantly fraternal, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is perfect for their marriage. He’s so game and so smart. My big hurdle was the intimidation factor: I’d just seen [Coogan’s movie] The Trip. I felt like a ratty-haired mess next to him. By the end, though, I just couldn’t wait to get back into the ring with him.