Hacks star Hannah Einbinder recalls the moment 'sparks flew' with costar Jean Smart
Early in their careers, many actors will do work as background extras. Perhaps land a small nameless role if they're lucky. Maybe even get a five-word line here and there.
Not Hannah Einbinder, a comedian who went directly to the big leagues for her acting debut. And not with just any project, but with a buzzy HBO Max dark comedy, starring opposite none other than Emmy winner Jean Smart. No big deal.
In Hacks — from creators Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, and Lucia Aniello — Einbinder plays Ava, a young comic who's trying to prove she's not one of the titular amateurs after she's been canceled for a single controversial tweet. In an attempt to salvage her career, she reluctantly accepts a gig to write for veteran stand-up comic Deborah Vance to help inject some new life into her longtime Vegas residency, where the icon is losing audiences — and, in turn, show dates.
What ensues over the course of the 10-episode first season, which has its finale Thursday, is a generational clash, made all the more complicated by Deborah's ego and Ava's equally bombastic attitude. But Ava passes Deborah's many tests — securing her some elusive antique salt and pepper shakers, archiving Deborah's decades' worth of material, revealing the machinations of Deborah's resentful daughter, helping her recover from cosmetic surgery — and eventually earns her trust and respect.
Here, Einbinder — who knows a thing or two about what's funny given that her parents are Saturday Night Live legend Laraine Newman and comedy writer Chad Einbinder — tells EW how she landed the role (and the thing Smart did to put her at ease), how she is and isn't like Ava, and why she agrees with Deborah that "there is no line" in comedy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You grew up in a creative showbiz home. Did it feel like fate that your life would lead to a career in comedy, or were there other things you considered?
HANNAH EINBINDER: Growing up, I did not consider much of anything in terms of my future. I was kind of a bad kid and was just, like, very high, so I didn't really consider much. I read the newspaper back to front every day, so I was like, "Maybe I'll go into journalism," but that was as far as I got in terms of a plan or any sort of future forecasting.
But I think humor has always played a part in my life just to, like, entertain my parents or maybe distract them from something — like, "I have a ton of homework, but I'm gonna basically be a clown to avoid that." So I guess, in retrospect, that maybe points towards a life like the one I live now. But I'm not one of those kids that was like, "When I was 11, I heard Steve Martin and…" I mean, I heard him later and he's a hero of mine, but it doesn't feel very planned to me at all.
Were you actively looking for something in scripted comedy? How did it come to you?
I feel so lucky. It's unbelievable to me every single day. I was doing stand-up in L.A., where I'm from, and I got agents through that, and then they were like, "You should try to act because we can't really take a percentage of drink tickets or beer, because that's what you're being paid in." And I was like, "Hmm, I suppose I understand this." And then for about a year I just went on various auditions, and to be 1,000,000 percent honest with you, I didn't feel like I was connecting with a ton until this role came around because [Ava] felt like someone I really knew.
I was so excited because I was used to like, "Oh, I will put myself on tape for this and then nothing will come of it, of course, and this is a big part of acting." And that's fine, and we respect that — it's the game and we love it. But I saw this and said, "Wow, this is a person I know. This is a queer character I'm into. And she's funny and I love it." I auditioned right before the [pandemic] — maybe March 9 or something. And then this became something I obsessed over — because comedy was gone, and I'm a stand-up, and so I was unable to do that and didn't know when our industry was coming back — and it was like my only creative prospect for a while, aside from writing. So I really got into this, and then we did the callback over Zoom, and then Jean and I did a screen test in L.A. at a later day. Sparks flew. And here I am with you.
What do you remember about finally meeting Jean, when the sparks flew?
Well, because she's literally the classiest woman on planet Earth, she called me the night before and said, "Hey, I know with COVID it's weird — it's gonna feel kind of surgical in a sense — and I just wanted to call you and say I think you're great and we're gonna have a lot of fun and I just want to introduce myself." And that's Jean. She just made me feel comfortable from the start, and I think that set me up to feel good about that day.
You mentioned you felt like you knew Ava. Where do you feel like Hannah stops and Ava begins?
We have some surface-level similarities, but I think we are fundamentally different in that Ava doesn't really have much of a filter, and she is stubborn in a way. In every argument I'm like, "Definitely, totally see your point, I could be wrong, I could absolutely be wrong," and I'm neurotic and overanalyze every word that flies out of my trap. But Ava doesn't seem to do that. She really just lets it rip. She's just a freewheeling girl.
That's interesting because just saying anything is what gets her in trouble — for example, with that tweet she puts out. And Deborah, in the pilot, says "There is no line, it's just a bad joke." Do you agree — is there a line, or is Deborah right?
Deborah is 100 percent right. What Ava did was, she punched down in that joke, because she was in an emotional place because she felt like there was some hypocrisy and injustice going on. So I believe that there is no line, but I think the standard is higher, and people who are the butt of jokes are sick of hack s---. Excuse my language. Am I allowed to curse?
Well, f--- yeah then. Because people who are the butt of jokes are just done with the jokes they've heard a million times. And I only speak for myself, but I have been the butt of many, many jokes in other comedians' acts indirectly just based on them talking about a group that I may belong to, and if it's something I've heard I'm like, "Ugh, you're so bad. Just be smarter and better." So if you got something new, babies, say it. But you better be ready for the consequences because it's not like we're not laughing because we're uptight — we're not laughing because you're boring.
And what is considered funny is different for everybody. Ava doesn't really find Deborah to be that hilarious, but as she digs in and starts going through the archives, I think it's fair to say Ava sees that it's not about Deborah's inability to be funny, but more so just that Ava thinks the jokes are tired. What were you excited to show in terms of how their styles or taste in comedy differ, or are even alike in unexpected ways?
The way those two different approaches mesh is that — and this is so, like, an American football answer — but, like, it's got heart. The heart is the angle for them, I think, comedically talking about their truth and pain and things like this is really a much more interesting approach than what Deborah was doing when Ava started working with her. Because that's safe and that works, but it stopped working.
No more audiences.
Right. Exactly. Pentatonix are moving in fast. So that becomes where those two different approaches and styles fall to the wayside — when the heart is explored.
These two are really good at pushing each other's buttons, which they seem to find out really quickly. When I talked to Jean several weeks ago, she said about Ava, "I'm absolutely horrible to her, but let me tell you, the two of us have fun." So how did the two of you go about building that dynamic?
Well, my approach in our friendship and on screen is, I'm just trying to make Jean laugh.
Doesn't she have a great laugh, by the way?
Aah! It's the best feeling, making her laugh. She's a comedian, she really is. It just feels like winning the lottery, and my approach to our work is just trying to meet her standards. So the development of our dynamic was me and her going back and forth off screen and just really joking around. And then we got really close. Humor feels like the way to the truth… I hate to sound corny, but it's the way to the heart because eventually the jokes are about deeper stuff — it's reflected in the show — but art is imitating life in this case, I think.
We eventually get to the point where these two do start having fun together. They do some edibles at one point. Those seem to be the fun moments when the two of you get to really let loose, and it's a delight to watch.
I'm so glad you enjoyed it. We weren't able to socialize the way we would have in a normal world, but it just makes me so excited for a — knock on wood — second season because it's such a fun dynamic, [and] we were so desperate to socialize and have a bit of fun, so when we're acting we're kind of like partying. Obviously, we're not taking actual drugs, but we're lettin' loose.