Kathryn Hahn Dissects Midlife Motherhood in Tiny Beautiful Things

The actress satisfies her hunger for telling deeper stories about womanhood with a brand-new Hulu series.

by Max Gao

Kathryn Hahn
Photograph by Getty; image treatment by Ashley Peña.

Light spoilers for Tiny Beautiful Things ahead.

Kathryn Hahn is in the midst of another career-defining moment. After playing grief counselor Lily Lebowski on the aughts NBC crime drama Crossing Jordan and rising to prominence in comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Step Brothers, and Transparent, the prolific actress has blended wit with a knack for dramatic roles to command the screen for more than two decades. In recent years, however, Hahn has undergone a kind of professional renaissance, playing messy and complicated women in their 40s who are at the center of their own narrative.

“I don’t take it for granted that I am able to play these kinds of antihero parts, which have traditionally taken up male spaces,” Hahn tells W from Atlanta, where she has spent the last few months reprising her role as Agatha Harkness in a new MCU series called Agatha: Coven of Chaos (true to Marvel form, the actress can’t say much, except: “It’s fabulous. Anything you think you know about it, it’s wrong!”). “And that character happens to be a woman, happens to be in her late 40s, and happens to be all the things at once. So many other women are doing it—it’s not like I’m the only one—but I’m excited these opportunities are happening.”

Hahn’s latest role, as a floundering wife and mother who is given an opportunity to revive her once-promising writing career, fits in the same vein as her work in Prime Video’s I Love Dick and HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher. Created for television by Liz Tigelaar and based on the collection of essays by Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things follows Clare (Hahn), a struggling woman who reluctantly agrees to take over as the anonymous advice column “Dear Sugar” while her own relationships with her husband, Danny (Quentin Plair), and their teenage daughter, Rae (Tanzyn Crawford), fall apart. When she decides to tell stories from her own life to impart lessons to her readers, Clare is forced to revisit pivotal moments from her childhood through the present day, including the devastating and enduring impact of losing her single mother, Frankie (Merritt Wever), at an early age.

Hahn—a big fan of Strayed’s 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was adapted a couple of years later into the Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern—admits she had not read Tiny Beautiful Things prior to signing on to the project. But she found Tigelaar’s pilot to be both “painfully funny” and deeply human.

“What struck me was the radical honesty in those questions posed to ‘Dear Sugar’ and her decision to jump into it in a way that she’s not quite ready for,” she says. “I don’t have any social media, but it’s such a time of sound bites and rash Twitter meanness, and anonymity can be a shield for that kind of slicing divisiveness. And the writing in this book feels connective in a true, honest way.”

Tigelaar, an experienced screenwriter whose credits include Little Fires Everywhere and The Morning Show, says she knew Hahn was right for the role before their first meeting. “Everything Kathryn does is grounded in truth,” the writer adds. “That said, when she came onto our initial Zoom—full of love, with her hair tousled, giant glasses askew, and with about ten pillows stacked behind her—I texted the group [of executive producers], ‘Oh my God, she’s perfect. She’s Clare.’”

Kathryn Hahn as Clare in Tiny Beautiful Things.

Courtesy of Hulu

Hahn joined the show later in the development process, and is reluctant to take any credit for her work behind the scenes as a first-time executive producer. But Tigelaar says that, in addition to being “very involved” in the selection of actors, directors, and department heads, the actress always pressed the writers to think about “the call and response of the past and how the dual timelines merged” in the eight-episode first season.

“More than anything, she gave herself the freedom to feel Clare’s messiness and complexity,” Tigelaar explains. “We worked with a wonderful collaborator, Kim Gillingham, who’s an acting coach, and she told us we didn’t need perfection. Kathryn was fearless in bringing those parts of herself to the table, and it allowed everyone to be equally brave.”

Kathryn Hahn as Clare and Tanzyn Crawford as Rae in Tiny Beautiful Things.

Courtesy of Hulu

Hahn had a couple of workshops—one before and one during production—with Sarah Pidgeon, the actress from The Wilds who plays young Clare, to find any connective tissue between their versions of the character. But it soon became clear to both of them, Hahn says, that young Clare couldn't have any idea who she would become decades down the road, so it was not as necessary for them to discuss their own takes on the role ad nauseam.

Even at the end of the season, when both Clares share scenes reflecting on Frankie’s untimely passing, Hahn felt it was important for her and Pidgeon to have their own kind of “parallel experience.” They shot their scenes separately and the editors were able to put them together in post-production. In the earlier timeline of the show, Clare is “in such a raw state of grief, her mother had just died, and [my] Clare had 20 years of experience of how to defend herself and cope and find addictive, unhealthy, and healthy ways of burying that pain,” Hahn says.

Instead, Pidgeon shadowed Hahn for a couple of episodes, and the co-stars would send each other poems and music, which “was a beautifully nonverbal way of connecting,” Hahn says. “It didn’t feel like anyone had to match or mimic anything performance-wise.”

Kathryn Hahn as Clare and Quentin Plair as Danny in Tiny Beautiful Things.

Courtesy of Hulu

When viewers first meet Clare in the present, she is inebriated after attending a party at the nursing home where she works; then, she’s forced to break into her own house after her husband kicks her out. For Hahn—who says she felt immediate chemistry with Plair and Crawford to form the unit at the heart of the show—the raw, unfiltered nature of Clare’s family life will resonate with viewers, especially those who have been spouses and parents for a long time.

“Her biggest conflict with her daughter, Rae, is the pressure that she’s putting on her to fulfill things that she was unable to fulfill in herself,” Hahn explains. “Her daughter is going through her identity journey, and she is trying to keep up. [Clare and Danny] love each other so deeply, but they’ve just been on cruise control. He is sick of being second fiddle to her brother. She can’t quite let go; she needs to grieve her mom’s death and can’t figure out how.”

As she’s gotten older, Hahn says her hunger for telling deeper stories about womanhood has only grown—and she satisfies the appetite through long-form storytelling on television. It hardly seems like a coincidence, then, that her return to the medium has coincided with a growing wave of other seasoned actresses executive producing their own projects and making space to redefine what it means to be a woman of a certain age in this business.

Hahn discovered there is beauty in the unknown. “I don’t know a person on the planet that I particularly trust who says they have their shit together,” Hahn told reporters with a laugh during a Television Critics Association panel for the show in January. “We are constantly trying to figure it out, and that’s the beauty of any of these roles I’ve been lucky enough to play. The place that I love to be as an actor is between that catch in your throat of: ‘Is it going to be a laugh or a sob?’ I guess that place is called a ‘mess.’ But, to me, that’s just called being a person, and that’s my favorite genre.”

Tiny Beautiful Things premieres Friday on Hulu.