Actor Kathryn Hahn Says The Best Part Of Her Career Came Post-Kids

Oct 24, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 12:35 pm

When Kathryn Hahn first moved to LA to become an actor, she started auditioning — but quickly became disillusioned.

"When I started to see the roles that were available to me, what I was being seen for, I definitely thought ... 'This is just such a small part of me that's being seen. I wish somebody could see more of what I can offer,'" Hahn says.

It wasn't until Hahn was in her late 30s and 40s that she finally began landing the roles she craved, playing complex women in TV series like Transparent and Parks and Recreation, and movies like Bad Moms and Private Life. Hahn notes that most of these roles have been with female directors and producers.

"The most complicated and messy roles I've been able to get have been offered through women," she says. "I'm just so buoyed and galvanized that the juiciest part of [my career] has been post-kids. ... I never anticipated that. So that's terribly exciting."

Hahn is currently starring in the HBO series Mrs. Fletcher. The show, which is based Tom Perrotta's bestselling novel, centers on a divorced woman who has a confusing sexual reawakening after her son leaves home for college.

"We were surrounded by an incredible group of women directors and writers and we had this amazing intimacy coordinator," Hahn says of her work on Mrs. Fletcher. "That was what made it attractive to me. It was finding a woman in her complete privacy of finding pleasure for just herself."


Interview Highlights

On working with an intimacy coordinator ahead of the sex scenes in Mrs. Fletcher

I'd never worked with [an intimacy coordinator] before, and I was a little hesitant at first, to be frank, because I thought it was going to be [another] voice in the way, in between the director and the actor ... and it was not that at all. Our intimacy coordinator, Claire Warden, what she did was she would take all of us — anyone that was performing in the scene and the director — she would have conversations with us ... would make sure that we were aware of what was on the page.

This is above and beyond the nudity riders or whatever that would have already been signed, but she would take us all and make sure that we were aware of what was on the page to be filmed, make sure that we were all OK with that, walk us through the steps, make sure that our boundaries — our personal boundaries — were in place for what we were comfortable with ... so that when we walked in together, we all knew that each other's needs and requests and concerns were heard. And then you could just get to the business of the scene so much quicker.

On wanting to be an actor from an early age

I loved the ensemble. I loved the feeling after. I loved the feeling right before — as awful as it was. ... I loved the feeling of being on stage ... in communion with the audience, I just loved that feeling. ... Even at very young age, I loved the feeling of something, like, heightened and holy — that's what it felt like.

On bad auditions earlier in her career

In my last semester at Yale, I would take the train in to 30 Rock. There was a Banana Republic at the base of 30 Rock. I would go into the Banana Republic. I would buy a suit, go up, audition for a pilot, go down, return the suit at Banana Republic ... and promptly get on the train and never get the gigs. ...

I had a really bad Woody Allen audition — that was just awful, horrible — for a play ... and I remember someone telling me that he wasn't going to look up and laugh. ... [It] was a long time ago, but I remember auditioning and it was true: He did not laugh at all. And not only did he not laugh, but he looked up when I just botched a joke so badly. It was awful. ...

The Coen Brothers. That was a heartbreaker. ... It was for A Serious Man ... and I was way gung-ho. ... I brought in a bag of props. It was too much. It was just way too much for the space and they were very polite and very kind. And I did not get the part.

On having kids in her mid 30s and being nervous about how it would affect her career

I'll never forget when I found out I got pregnant, I was on my way to work and I was, of course, thrilled, but I went to a Starbucks and I got a latte and I said, "Oh, I guess you better make a decaf," and I burst [out] in hysterical tears. ... I was on my way to a night shoot for a television show. ... I felt so young and old at the same time. You're never ready. I was so grateful, but ... as an actor, you're like, is this really gonna change [my career]? It was all so much. ...

We had had so much time solo. We'd lived in New York forever in our little studio. There was so much history behind us. ... Neither of us were anywhere near where we wanted to be creatively. ... I wish I could have looked back and told that 35-year-old crying in Starbucks, "You have no idea how exciting it's going to be on the other side!"

On the roles that she hopes to land when she's in her 50s

I hope that we keep exploring whatever these chapters are. I just hope that we keep lifting whatever invisibility shield is on all these chapters of just being a woman, like lifting the shame ... and just keep exploring it, because clearly there's so many, so many, so many more stories to be told and looked at with hopefully this degree of nuance, and clarity, and humanity, and complication and all of it. There are so many more stories to be told.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kathryn Hahn, stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which is adapted from the bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta, who created the series. Hahn is known for her roles in the TV series "Transparent" as Rabbi Raquel and in "Parks And Recreation" as Jennifer Barkley, an aggressive political operative. Hahn starred in the films "Bad Moms" and "Private Life."

In "Mrs. Fletcher," Hahn plays Eve Fletcher, a divorced mother of a teenage son. In the first episode, she drives him to college and becomes an empty nester. Just before the trip, after gassing up the car, she goes to his bedroom where he's been sleeping off a hangover - and a shock to hear from behind the closed door that he's having sex with a girl, and he's giving her crude, derogatory sexual commands and calling her the B-word and a slut. On the drive to college, she tries to talk with him about how not to treat women.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. FLETCHER")

KATHRYN HAHN: (As Eve Fletcher) I guess what I'm trying to say is I think - there are things that you might say to a girl that could scare her without you even realizing it. I mean, look. I know you're not a virgin, right? You know, and I know there's porn in movies and, you know, all these songs about hos and b******. And, you know, that's - you know, that's what it is. So I guess that what I'm trying to say is I think one of the most important things for you to always remember, especially now, you know, in this day and age and in life, really, is that - you have to be nice to women. Do you understand what I'm saying?

JACKSON WHITE: (As Brendan Fletcher) Yeah.

HAHN: (As Eve Fletcher) All right.

GROSS: After dropping off her son, Eve returns alone to a big empty house. Kind of by accident, she finds porn on the Internet, including lesbian porn, and is surprised by how arousing it is. The series alternates between her story and her son's story. He's unprepared for social life in college, where women students he's meeting demand respect and are serious about consent and no meaning no.

Kathryn Hahn, welcome to FRESH AIR. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about how a woman like Eve would raise - could end up having a teenage son who's such a bro, beer-drinking, ogling girls kind of guy, treating them as sex objects. You know, just try to think, like, how does that happen when she's - when the mother is like nothing like that?

HAHN: Yes. I mean, I think it's despite her best, deepest intentions. I mean, I - you know, there's - not to put it all on this divorce that she went through - but he didn't have the greatest examples - male examples. And I think that in a time in which he could have had a lot more attention in terms of, like, his sexual development, he went right to the Internet. And I think she kind of lost him or lost that connection along the way, despite her best intention. I think the harder she went towards him, the more it pushed him away. And that was heartbreaking to me.

I think a lot of people can find that, unfortunately, really relatable. I mean, she really - that's like her worst nightmare. Of course, she doesn't think he's a horrible person. But she can also kind of see it. It's just, like, layers of denial.

GROSS: So Eve Fletcher, your character, is having a very exciting solo sex life (laughter) - her and the Internet.

HAHN: Finally.

GROSS: And she isn't really sure if and how she should extend that solo sexual life with Internet porn into the real world, and if she does - because she's finding this porn, and especially this lesbian porn, very arousing.

HAHN: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And how did you prepare for that part of the role? Did you feel like, well, it was your responsibility to watch a lot of porn...

HAHN: (Laughter) Terry...

GROSS: ...To get into character?

HAHN: I didn't feel like I had to watch a lot of porn. The porn, for her, was almost kind of like this Gandalf (laughter) for her kind of discovery. It's the most private, taboo thing - the most reckless kind of leap that she could possibly take and also, the most deeply, deeply private. And the avenues that she was - what she was able to see in that, you know, the glow of that computer screen.

So it wasn't about anything salacious or to show anything for anyone else's pleasure. It was for her own. And so that was a beautiful thing and a challenge to try to find is this woman in her completely private bubble. And we were surrounded by an incredible group of women directors and writers. And we had this amazing intimacy coordinator. That was what made it attractive to me. It was finding a woman in her complete privacy.

GROSS: What does an intimacy coordinator do on set?

HAHN: Well, that's interesting, Terry, because I'd never worked with one before. And I was a little hesitant at first, to be frank, because I thought it was going to be a voice in the way, in between the director and the actor, like another voice. And it was not that at all.

Our intimacy coordinator Claire Warden - what she did was she would take all of us - anyone that was performing in the scene and the director - she would have conversations with us on the eve of - no pun intended - but on the eve of whatever the scene was - and would make sure that we were aware of the - what was on the page. This is above and beyond, like, the nudity writers or whatever that we - that would have already been signed.

But she would take us all and make sure that we were aware of what was on the page to be filmed, make sure that we were all OK with that, walk us through the steps, make sure that our boundaries - our personal boundaries were in place for what we were comfortable with. And then she would be able to - so that when we walked in together, that we all knew that each other's needs and requests and concerns were heard. And then you could just get to the business of the scene so much quicker.

GROSS: Is the crew in on this discussion too or just the actors?

HAHN: What she - they're not in on those discussions, but what she will do is she will just make sure that the monitors are closed, that it's the fewest amount of people in the. Or she will ask us what - who we want in the room and make sure that it's just that amount of people, depending on what the scene is.

GROSS: So I don't know, it seems to me - and I don't know if you'd agree with this - that you're kind of part of the first generation of women who came of age with women screenwriters and directors - and, I mean, more than one or two, that you had a cohort. And you've worked with some of them. I mean, you've worked with Nicole Holofcener, Tamara Jenkins, to name a few. And I'm wondering if you agree with that, that you're part of the generation - one of the first...

HAHN: God...

GROSS: ...Or maybe the first that had a cohort of women writers and directors.

HAHN: Oh, God. I mean, that sounds terribly thrilling. I think I do feel like the most - that the most satisfying work I've done has been with women for sure, that the most complicated and messy roles I've been able to get have been offered through women. And it's not lost on me that it's, like, the most fertile chapter of my life has been with these women.

And it also is terribly exciting to me that it's older women - you know what I mean? - that it's not just women that are - you know, when I was a young actor, I thought that having kids would be - I was terrified to have kids. And it's...

GROSS: You thought it would end your career?

HAHN: Or - yeah, yes. Or change it, or I'd be stopped being seen or whatever. That - I'm just so buoyed and galvanized that the juiciest part of it has been post-kids. And not that that is even a choice for everybody. No one even has to have children. But it's just - it's - I think it's more of an age thing, that it can - it's the most satisfying. It's like, post-40 is just - I never anticipated that. So that's terribly exciting.

GROSS: So you're 46 now.

HAHN: Yeah.

GROSS: And some of the roles you've been getting in your 40s are about women dealing with fertility issues.

HAHN: Yes.

GROSS: So I want to play an example of one of those films. And this is "Private Life," which was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. And you play - you and Paul Giamatti play a married couple who've been trying for years to conceive. And you've tried, like, every kind of fertility treatment. And finally, your doctor says to you you should try an egg donor because none of these fertility treatments are really working for you.

And so in this scene, you've just left the office after getting that message from the doctor. And that is about the last thing that you want to hear. You do not want to use an egg donor. And you and your husband, played by Paul Giamatti, are having a quarrel about that. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIVATE LIFE")

HAHN: (As Rachel) We talked about this. We swore we would never do it.

PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Richard) No. You swore that you would never do it. I - (laughter) I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want to pressure you into something that you were going to have to live with for the rest of your life.

HAHN: (As Rachel) Wait. So all this time that I'm assuming that we feel the same way about this, you've been having secret fantasies about egg donation?

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) It's not a secret fantasy.

HAHN: (As Rachel) It is to me. I didn't know about it. I thought that we had decided together as a couple that we would definitely draw the line at science fiction.

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) It's not science fiction, Rach (ph). It's pretty primitive, actually. They do it with farm animals all the time.

HAHN: (As Rachel) Well, I'm not a goat, OK?

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Bad example. I'm sorry.

HAHN: (As Rachel) Oh, my God. You're, like, so gung-ho right now. It's like - it's freaking me out.

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) I am not gung-ho. I'm just pragmatic. Look, if we do another IVF with your eggs, we've got - what? - a 4% chance of getting pregnant? With a donor egg, we'd be going from four to, like, 65%. So I'm - the gambler in me just wants to put my money on the better odds.

HAHN: (As Rachel) Oh, my God. You're Guy Woodhouse.

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) What?

HAHN: (As Rachel) The husband in "Rosemary's Baby," John Cassavetes. That's you.

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Yeah, right. That - that's me, standing by while you're raped by a satanic demon. I am just suggesting that we listen to our doctor and look into all the options. We're already signed up for adoption. What is the big deal?

HAHN: (As Rachel) Well, for one, I'm not putting someone else's body parts into my uterus. Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Excuse me. Sorry.

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) I know it's more complicated for you.

HAHN: (As Rachel) Is it more complicated for you too?

GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Yes, of course it is. Yes. Yes. But you heard him. There's a lot of positives. You would get to carry the baby.

HAHN: (As Rachel) Oh, whoop-de-do. What does that make me, the bellhop?

GROSS: That's Kathryn Hahn...

HAHN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And Paul Giamatti in a scene from "Private Life." So when you were in your 20s and wanting to act, did you think that when you were in your 40s, there would be roles like this of - you know, of women in their 30s or early 40s dealing with fertility issues in a way that so many women could relate to?

HAHN: No.

GROSS: Because so many actresses have thought, like, once you reach your 30s, or certainly by 40, your good roles are behind you.

HAHN: Exactly. No, I did not. I had no - you know, Terry, like, I - it's funny because I never thought of myself doing anything else with my life. I had no idea of what it would look like or how it would unfold, of course. Like, I never had any kind of grandiose, like, dreams of success or - yeah, I just knew - there was, like, never a question that I wasn't going to be an actor.

When I got to LA, when I started to see the roles that were available to me on what I was being seen for, I definitely thought - I knew that there was something, which I'm sure it - all actors have, is, like, you think, oh, I wish - this is just such a small part of me that's being seen. I wish somebody could see more of what I can offer. Like, no one is giving me this opportunity. Like, I just - it's, like, genetics or whatever. Like, no one is seeing the all of me.

And so I really didn't - I thought that it would have to take me to get back to the theater. I just wanted to get back to New York. Like, I just didn't feel at home out here, like - or in LA. Like, I just never thought that those roles would start to happen. So again, it has been a real crazy turn of events for me that this has even been able to happen.

GROSS: How old were you when you had your first child? And I'm wondering if, in your mind, there was an age that you thought would be, like, the right age, the best age, to have a child.

HAHN: I was, I think, 35, 30 - almost I think, like, 30 - maybe 35 when I got pregnant, I think, maybe 36 when I had him. And it took a second for us to get pregnant. It was definitely not as easy as we thought. And we - I was called a geriatric mother. I'll never forget that.

GROSS: By your doctor.

HAHN: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: Because you were considered at risk.

HAHN: Yeah, yeah, because I was over 35 and because I was a - yeah, over 35. And I'll never forget, when I found out I got pregnant, though, I was on my way to work. And I was, of course, thrilled. And I - but I was - I went to a Starbucks, and I got a latte. And I said, oh, I guess you better make it decaf. And I burst in hysterical tears.

GROSS: Why were you crying?

HAHN: (Laughter) Because it was just - I was on my way to, like, a night shoot for a show, a television show I was on. Like, it's all - my whole world, like - also, you just never - it was all just - I was - I felt so young and old at the same time. It - I - you know, you're never ready. I - it was like I was so grateful, but I was also, like, you know, an actor. And you're like, is this really going to change? Like, what's - it was all so much.

I'm so glad that we did it when we did. We have now two kids, and they're 10 and 13. And I just want to sob thinking about how fast it's going, Terry. I can't handle it. It's just too much. I mean, I cried when his umbilical cord fell off. I don't know what I'm going to do when he goes away to college.

But we were definitely ready when we - we had been together a really long time. And we were ready when we had him. But still, we were the youngest of our friends. Like, we were the first ones of any of our group, which is interesting, and we were, like, 35.

GROSS: Was part of your ambivalence when you finally got pregnant based on the fact that your body is part of your equipment when you're acting?

HAHN: Yes. I think so.

GROSS: It's one of your tools, and your body was going to be totally taken over and transformed. And you never know what your body's going to look like after a pregnancy.

HAHN: Well, it was never like that. It was never like, oh, I'm never going to get it back together. Like, it was never about that. I think it was because the longer we waited - and again, we were the youngest of our friends. We had had so much time solo. Like, we had lived in New York forever in our little studio we had, like, lived in. Like, there was so much history behind us, and it just felt very - it's huge. And the freedom - I wasn't exactly where - neither of us were where we - were anywhere near where we wanted to be, creatively.

And it was that feeling, I think, that on the other side - I wish I could have looked back and told that 35-year-old crying in Starbucks, like, you have no idea how exciting it's going to be on the other side. I just had no idea. I just thought, well, I don't know. Like, I just - it's (laughter) over. Or, like, that's what they tell me. Like - but I wish I could have, you know, told her, like, just relax. Like, it's going to be - it's actually going to be so much juicier on the other side. You have no idea.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathryn Hahn, and she stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher" that begins Sunday night. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kathryn Hahn. She stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which is based on the bestseller by Tom Perrotta about a divorced woman who has a confusing sexual reawakening after her son leaves home for college. She's best-known for her roles in "Transparent," "Parks And Recreation," "Bad Moms" and "Private Life."

So since you play a rabbi - or played a rabbi in "Transparent," which is the series about a family in which one of the parents is a trans woman who has recently transitioned. And the children and the ex-spouse, they're all trying to figure out how to recalculate, like, who this person is and what their relationship with them is. And of course, each person in the family is dealing with a lot of their own problems, anxieties, stresses, insecurities, sexual issues. You play a rabbi that comes into the family's life. Now, you actually went to Catholic school.

HAHN: Yes.

GROSS: Your husband is Jewish. So how much did you have to learn - (laughter) how much did you feel like you needed to know about Judaism in order to play the role of a rabbi?

HAHN: (Laughter) You know, it's interesting. I spent a lot of time with the rabbi Susan Goldberg. She was a - an enormous touchstone for me throughout all of it just as a person and as a guide. And I knew that I couldn't learn - intellectually learn everything that there was to know, but I knew just heart-wise and spiritually, like, I think that we were able to have - established such a connection when I spent time with her, I think there was such a - she has such beautiful eye contact, arresting eye contact in which you just feel so held and so seen. And so that was, I think, my way into Raquel and just stillness, which I don't have myself.

GROSS: No, your character doesn't have stillness. I wouldn't say your character had stillness.

HAHN: (Laughter) She has much more stillness than I do, Terry. No. Yeah, but Raquel certainly doesn't. It's a little of a restless wanderer, for sure. But I did find - I think just spending time with Susan was my way in, for sure.

What was so interesting or radical about it, and I think why I also love the hot priest in "Fleabag" so much, which I feel so bad he keeps being called the hot priest, but is that I think there is also - there's always something really interesting or kind of radical about seeing a person, a holy person or a religious person, just, like, brought down to earth or seeing them in all of their humanity and I - and with all their foibles.

And I think that was so - that was what was so interesting about Raquel to me. And so - that she was so crazily relatable. Rabbi Goldberg had talked with me about how people have a hard time relating to you as a religious person or a religious figure because you're so - somewhat so untouchable. And yet, you're just a person who gets mad at people and gets pissed at people and, you know, gets jealous, has all the feelings. And so that was a really interesting, really fun part to play, a really hard part to play. And boy, did I love playing with Jay Duplass. He's just so terrific.

GROSS: And he is - plays the sibling...

HAHN: Yes. He plays Josh.

GROSS: ...Who you have a relationship with.

My guest is Kathryn Hahn. She stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which begins Sunday night. We'll talk more after a break. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album featuring Dave Holland, Chris Potter and Zakir Hussain. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kathryn Hahn. She stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which premieres Sunday night. She's best-known for her roles in films like "Bad Moms" and "Private Life" and TV series like "Parks And Recreation" and "Transparent." When we left off, we were talking about playing a rabbi on "Transparent."

Since your husband is Jewish and you're from a Catholic background, I read that your children go to Hebrew school after school. How did you work out, like - because there's so many couples that...

HAHN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Are from different faith backgrounds and, you know, whether you practice your faith or not, when your spouse is of a different faith background, you have - if you have kids, you have to figure out, are they going to be raised in no religion, two religions, one of the two religions? Can you talk about how you figured out how to handle that in your family?

HAHN: Well, let me - I want to clarify. The Hebrew school is basically - in elementary school, there was a couple of parents. The couple of Jewish parents in our class hired, basically, a rabbinical student to teach them some Hebrew and - after school one day a week. So it wasn't, like, Hebrew school.

GROSS: Right.

HAHN: It was very scrappy, mom and pop-y (ph) - like, it was just a little teeny - like, maybe five kids. They go to a very small school, so it's, like, the five of them (laughter). So it wasn't - I wouldn't say Hebrew school. But yeah, we're trying. Like, you know, and it's - of course, the older they get, the more imperative it's seeming and the more their questions are. And he's becoming in the age of - to be bar or bat mizvahed (ph), and we're, like, trying to put something together so that he can answer and ask all of these questions.

And I read something recently that - it's, like, kids now - it's not like they even have a religion to rebel against like I did. You know what I mean? It's like, I at least was - had Catholicism to look back and say, no. Like, our children don't even have anything to turn back around and say, no. So it's like they're starting with - in kind of just swimming around in the abyss of, like - what is this?

GROSS: You mentioned you rebelled against Catholicism. At what age did you rebel against it, and had you...

HAHN: Oh.

GROSS: ...Ever been serious about it?

HAHN: I mean, I had a big crush on Jesus for sure when I was (laughter) - back when I was in fourth grade. He might have been my first crush. But I think - I don't know. I mean, I remember a nun coming up and asking me, what did you say? When I was repeating - I thought it was thank speedy God when, in fact, it was thanks be to God because I heard it wrong because I'd just been saying it over and over again.

I think I took it very - I was very, like, dramatic and passionate about it when I was very young, and, you know, I think it was very, like - I just kind of had that kind of romanticism. You know, you're supposed to wear a little bride outfit when you get your first communion, and that was very complicated for me.

GROSS: Why was it complicated?

HAHN: Well, I was just was - you're wearing a bride - you're dressed like a little bride, and I would wear my outfit to play dress-up in after I had my first communion. You know, it's just - it's complicated, and...

GROSS: You mean that kind of marital mix of the sacred and the secular.

HAHN: Completely. I was like, I got a veil to play dress-up with out of this. It was just - the whole thing was just very weird. And I also took it very seriously, though. Like, I really - I knew it was very - now I was very responsible that I got to get the Eucharist every Sunday.

And I knew there's a lot of good out of it, and I really liked it - as bored out of my mind as I was, I liked going to church every Sunday. Like, I liked seeing everybody there, and I liked the community feeling of it. And I knew it was important my family, but I also knew it wasn't, like, that deep. Like, in our - you know what I mean? In our house, it was just kind of, like, more social.

And then it kind of just started fading. When I went to college, it wasn't, like, a part of my life anymore. I have - you know, I have - a lot of my family is gay, and they couldn't get married. And the - you know, there's - things started to become very clear to me that there are things that I did not agree with. And as much as I loved being taught by nuns and I loved the nuns at my high school and they were very smart, amazing women, a part of the idea that that church structure that I was just like - that I was like - it's not for me.

GROSS: Were your parents OK with it when you left?

HAHN: Yes. It wasn't like I formally was like, I'm turning my back. Like, I - you know, I still take my kids to mass just to show them because there's - it's beautiful. Like, there's parts of it that are really beautiful. But I will never forget taking my son when he was - I can't believe I'm saying this, but I took my son - he must have been, like, 7 maybe 6 - to see the inside of a Catholic church.

And I - you know, I grew up with that image of Jesus on the cross, and it's pretty graphic. You know, I didn't even see it - I don't even see it anymore because it's kind of - I grew up with it. And it's pretty graphic, and I don't think - maybe he was younger. But he was nudging, you know, pulling at - I was talking to someone. He was pulling on my jacket, and I was like, what's up? And he said, mom. And I was like, what's the matter? And he said, why is that Native American nailed to that cross?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HAHN: I was like, oh, my God. I have so much explaining to do.

GROSS: It must have been so strange for you to have to explain the crucifixion. It's...

HAHN: Yes. Out of nowhere, yes.

GROSS: ...Part of what you grew up with. Yeah.

HAHN: Yes. It was - there was a lot of explaining to do, yes.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathryn Hahn. She stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which premieres Sunday night. We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD & BILL EVANS' "CATCH A RIDE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Kathryn Hahn. She stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which begins Sunday night. She's also known for her roles in "Transparent," "Parks And Recreation," "Bad Moms," "Private Life" and other TV series and movies as well.

You knew you wanted to act when you were very young, and you got involved with the Cleveland Playhouse, which was regional theater in Cleveland.

HAHN: Yes.

GROSS: And you, as - when you were young - you could tell me how young - you were a Curtain Puller. So tell us how old you were and what it means to be a Curtain Puller.

HAHN: I was a Curtain Puller at the Playhouse starting at around - in around kindergarten, I started taking classes there. And I - a Curtain Puller is what, much to my chagrin, is just in name only. It had been an actual curtain-puller back in the day, but it was - it just became - that's just what they called the young kids' company there now.

And I'm - it's - I think also just my - saddens me to say, I think that that original space is now, I think, part of the Cleveland Clinic. But to - it was the most - talk about a holy space and became kind of the holiest space for me. It was those - that series of buildings. In downtown - you know, east of downtown Cleveland, there was a few theaters there that were just the most perfect places in the world to me.

I know it's, like - every Saturday morning for most of my childhood was spent there, just, like, with a scrappy group of actors, just in our bare feet with, like, long toenails, just, like, on naked stages just making stuff. And it was butted against - the theaters were butted against an old Sears I think, I believe it was - like, an old Sears department store.

But that's where, like, the props and the costumes and the set department was, so - and also where, like, the greenroom was, where you - there was a couple of vending machines. So my mom would give me, like, five bucks. And I would - not kidding, my snack would be, like, a Snickers bar and a Pepsi.

And I would just explore this kind of abandoned Sears department store on our breaks between classes and then go take acting classes. And it was the absolute - it was the greatest - I mean, it really - honestly, there was like - it was almost, like, felt like it was, like, decided for me, not by anyone in my life but just, like, by the universe. Like, it was just that was what I was going to do with my life.

GROSS: So how old were you when you started doing this?

HAHN: Like, kindergarten, maybe first grade.

GROSS: Wow. OK. That's...

HAHN: Yeah, really young.

GROSS: ...Really young.

HAHN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you like being on stage in front of people?

HAHN: It always terrified me. I never had the, like - have to be on stage. It still terrifies me. But it was like I just had to do it. I loved the ensemble. I loved the feeling after. I loved the feeling right before, as awful as it was. I - and I loved the feeling of being on stage in the - weird choice of words, but in communion with the audience. I just loved that feeling. Even at very young, like, it just - it felt very - I loved the feeling of something, like, heightened and holy.

GROSS: You were a regular on a children's show called "Hickory Hideout" that...

HAHN: Talking about heightened and holy.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. It was produced out of the Cleveland NBC affiliate and shown on a lot of...

HAHN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Other NBC stations. Would you describe the show and your role in it?

HAHN: Oh, please. It was called - yes - called "Hickory Hideout." And it was a - about a (laughter) - a clubhouse in a tree in, I think, the Metropark in Cleveland. And it was about two squirrels named Nutso and Shirley Squirrely. There was a puppet called Know-It-Owl, who also lived in there. And it was a couple of adults and a bunch of children that would kind of use it as their clubhouse. And I played a character named Jenny.

GROSS: I thought we should hear a clip of you. And I...

HAHN: (Laughter) Oh, should we? (Laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. And I think you're around 12 or 13 when this episode was made. And so you're talking to two squirrel puppets.

HAHN: Yes.

GROSS: And the squirrel puppets are worried about getting a new baby sister or brother.

HAHN: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

GROSS: And they're ready to run away. OK, so here's Kathryn Hahn and two squirrel puppets.

HAHN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HICKORY HIDEOUT")

HAHN: (As Jenny) What's all this stuff?

NANCY SANDER: (As Nutso Squirrely) Oh, we're running away from home.

LINDA WELLS: (As Shirley Squirrely) Yes. We don't want a baby.

HAHN: (As Jenny) Oh, now wait a second. You're just going to love having a new baby brother or sister. I just came from - back from Pam's (ph) house, and she wants you to come over and meet her new baby sister. You'll just love her. She's so cute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As Dwayne) No. I want that crayon there.

HAHN: (As Jenny) What's going on in the hideout?

SANDER: (As Nutso Squirrely) That's Kathy (ph) and Dwayne (ph).

HAHN: (As Jenny) Oh, that's right. Kathy was going to let me come and watch her babysit so I can learn.

SANDER: (As Nutso Squirrely) Ha. You'll learn all right. You'll learn you'll never want to be a babysitter.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did your parents feel about you becoming, like, a professional actor as a child?

HAHN: I mean, it was like - I think my sweet late great Aunt Betty, who was the greatest, would always take me down to - and sit there just in the dark in the - just back in the dark and knit while I would do these scenes with the puppets. And she was very proud. And my parents were - I can't - I mean, I think they were - you know, they were tickled by it. I think they thought it was hilarious.

And I certainly felt very professional and very proud. I took it very, very, very seriously. And I knew they had kind of found me through the Cleveland Play House, so I was very proud of that. But at that - you know, I - and I think I - yeah, I took it very seriously. Like, I remember there was an episode in which - it was like Jenny's parents get divorced. And I really had - I really did a lot of, like, emotional digging...

(LAUGHTER)

HAHN: ...For sure.

GROSS: You went to Yale School of Drama in your late 20s. And I may be wrong, but I think that most people who go to Yale School of Drama do it...

HAHN: No, you're right.

GROSS: ...Like, right after college or, like - yeah.

HAHN: Most people go when they're, like, ingenue. Right, exactly. No, I knew going in - like, I remember somebody saying, like, you're missing out on all your ingenue years. (Unintelligible) and I was like, I'm not an ingenue anyway, so it doesn't matter. Like, and I just knew that I wanted to go. I just was like - I had been working at a hair salon, which was a ball but clearly not what I wanted to do. And I was doing summers at Williamstown, which I loved.

But, like, I just was tired of struggling. Like, I just was - it was a constant - you know, it was those years in New York, where you're like - I would just walk to the get the backstage. You know, whenever it came out on Wednesdays or something, like, be circling my - back when - you know, you'd get the backstage paper for the auditions. And I would be, like, circling them. And I didn't have an agent. I didn't have - like, nothing was happening. It was, like, a lot of, like, no-pay jobs.

Like, it was like - and I was just tired of struggling. But, again, I just knew that there was nothing else. I just had no doubt in my mind. I wouldn't even explore another question of a job. Like, there was no other job. So I just was like, OK. I'll just take out, you know, a ton of debt. And I'll just go to try to get into a grad school somewhere.

And at least I'll have, like, three years (laughter) until the character roles start coming in. And I'll just have, like, three years of at least being able to just take a breath and just work. And...

GROSS: Did it work out how you wanted it to?

HAHN: Well, I just remember I did a play there, this Jon Robin Baitz play. I wish I could name - remember the name of it, and - but anyway, he talks about having a rigorous and monastic experience. And I just feel like that's what it was for me at Yale, like, where it was just - I didn't have a television. I lived in one room. Ethan stayed back in New York and kept our apartment, and I would take the train back on the weekends. I'd just hear, like, next stop, you know, Stanford, Conn. I loved how they said Connecticut.

And I - it was - yeah, that was the best. We would be rehearsing at 2 in the morning, and I'd get up and get my muffin and my iced coffee and watch my beautiful classmates perform scenes in - for roles we'd probably never get in real life. But it was just, like, a chance to, like, work out, and I - every time I got a piece of pizza, I remember my best friend Dara and I would look at each other being like, oh, my God. In five years, this piece of pizza will have cost us $28. But it was like - it was just so worth it because we were - it was just like - I just knew that was the only time in my life I would have a chance to really just do that.

GROSS: So then you had to go on auditions. What were some of your worst?

HAHN: I had so many, but I mean, I also remember even in my last semester at Yale, we would go literally from - I would take the train in to 30 Rock. There was a Banana Republic at the base of 30 Rock. I would go into the Banana Republic. I would buy a suit, go up, audition for a pilot, go down, return the suit at Banana Republic and then get on the train and go back, promptly get on the - and never get the gigs, but...

GROSS: Why did you need a suit?

HAHN: You know, because it was, like, all those pilots where you had to, like, look polished, and I just didn't have any of it, you know? I had nothing. I just remember my agents running, like, yelling after me down the hallway, run a brush through your hair, before I would go on any audition because I would just not - just, like, deodorant everywhere. There were so many. I had a really - I just remember I had a really bad Woody Allen audition that was just awful.

GROSS: What was that?

HAHN: It was horrible. For a play - it was for a play, and I remember someone telling me that he wasn't going to look up and laugh, that he just wouldn't laugh at all, that he was just going to stare down. And I just remember he'd stare down at his - this was years and years and years and years and years ago, but I just - you know, pre- (ph), I mean, you know, whatever. It was just, like, a long time ago, but I remember auditioning, and it was true.

He did not laugh at all, and not only did he not laugh, but he looked up when I just botched a joke so badly. It was awful. It was just red-face awful, and I was like, well, there's that. There's that. And then there's so many of them. The Coen Brothers - that was a heartbreaker. Yeah, it's like the more I want something, Terry, it's...

GROSS: Wait. What happened with the Coen brothers?

HAHN: You're like, stop it right there.

GROSS: Yeah. Stop it right there.

HAHN: I - it was for "A Serious Man," and I just...

GROSS: Oh, I love that film.

HAHN: Oh, me too. It was amazing, and it was - it's an incredible film. And I was way gung-ho and, again, should have used - should have learned from my stillness what I learned from stillness. And I did not, and I brought in a bag of props, and (laughter) just - it was too much. It was just way too much for the space. And they were very polite and very kind, and I did not get the part.

GROSS: Kathryn Hahn, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

HAHN: Terry, a dream, really. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Kathryn Hahn stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which begins Sunday night. After a break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review an album by a band that includes Dave Holland, Chris Potter and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORACE SILVER'S "OPUS DE FUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.