“People tell me I’m nothing like my character, thank god!” actor Meredith Hagner laughs. We’re speaking over Zoom a few weeks before the fifth and final season of Search Party premieres (January 7 on HBO Max) and the character in question is disillusioned millennial Portia Davenport, one-quarter of Search Party’s central crew. Inadvertently proving her point, Hagner is fiddling with her Zoom settings so as to not see herself while she talks, whereas Portia would probably rather let her own face fill up her screen.
Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, Search Party revolves around a quartet of millennials played by Hagner, Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, and John Early. What started with four 20-something narcissistic Brooklynites in a misguided search for their missing college acquaintance has become a sprawling character study of interlaced courtroom debates, kidnappings, murders, and cults.
Following the explosive cliffhanger of season four, this final season will see Hagner surrender even further to the darkest depths of her character. “I feel like I’m in The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hagner quips. “It was really fun this season playing what [Portia’s] version, in the first episode, of rock bottom is—her light has actually burnt out.”
After season five re-shoots the week before we chat, Hagner is more than happy to wax lyrical about Bliss and Rogers, whom she calls “geniuses,” and the alchemy between her fellow co-stars that is “such a gift.” She is especially gleeful regarding her darling Portia. “I’m not ready to let her go; that’s why I’m soaking up this time to get to talk about her,” Hagner confesses. “She’s been such a joy to play. I joke that she’s a cautionary tale of a path I didn’t go down. There are shadow bits of myself in her, as in any character, that are really cathartic to play.”
From the show’s pilot—in which Portia’s costume came from Hagner’s wardrobe—to its thrilling final season, Portia delivers some of the show’s most hilarious lines. However, she is no joke to Hagner. “She’s such a follower, such an optimist, she’s so disillusioned, she’s a satirical parody of a narcissistic millennial—but she’s still a real person to me,” Hagner explains.
Citing Florida socialite Jackie Siegel from The Queen of Versailles and the qualities of some people in her life (who will remain unnamed) as the inspiration behind Portia’s quirks, Hagner’s journey to Search Party also imbued her with a framework to root for Portia: “There’s so much to mine for me from being an actress who was struggling for ten years, of just that desperation and how easily it is to completely abandon yourself to get validation.” Hagner’s start saw her study at New York’s The Barrow Group Performing Arts Center while she appeared in daytime soap operas. She compares this early acting experience to how she learned to play the guitar: beginning on a “really crappy old steel-string” before graduating to a beautifully tuned instrument that “felt so much easier to play.”
Hagner’s breakout opportunity arrived with David Cross’s comedy-drama Hits, coming aboard after Brie Larson dropped out of the project. Her work since—including indie fare such as Palm Springs, Ingrid Goes West, and Horse Girl—sees the actor drawn to grounded satire (she’s a self-professed Alexander Payne fan) and playing women who evade caricature while wrestling with the dimensions of femininity. These are complicated portrayals where Hagner balances her “experience of being a woman in this misogynistic culture” with playing a character “who doesn’t see any of the issues in the system from which she comes from.” Most of all, though, Hagner notes she’s “enjoying this stage of playing characters who take up space.”
In the gap between filming Search Party seasons, Hagner starred in Clay Tarver’s buddy comedy Vacation Friends opposite John Cena. After the pandemic halted the film’s production for nine months, she returned to set seven months pregnant. “It’s a really fun Easter egg,” Hagner laughs. “There are a couple of scenes where they tried to hide it. In one shot I’m in a bikini, the next I’ve got a sarong on and there’s a basketball under my dress.”
During her second trimester, with work on pause, Hagner and husband Wyatt Russell took the opportunity to venture on van life expeditions. The couple brought Carnella, their Mercedes Sprinter van renovated with a retro interior, for their trips up the coast of Oregon, through California and across Utah. “When I was pregnant we couldn’t do our normal, me jumping off of cliffs into rivers and mountain biking in crazy places, but it was still really special,” Hagner remembers.
Welcoming her first child, Buddy, into the world during a pandemic involved layers of unprecedented firsts stacked on top of one another, yet Hagner says he’s quickly become the driving force behind her adjusted work mindset. “He gets me so clear on the work that really gets me excited because if it’s going to take me away from this person who I love being with more than anything on Earth, I want to go do something that thrills me,” Hagner smiles. “It sounds so cliché, but it’s true: I understand all the clichés now.”
At this point in her career, Hagner finds herself drawn to opportunities with a dramatic bend. She notes that “finding filmmakers and auteurs that you totally align with” has become key with her upcoming projects. Vince Vaughn’s AppleTV+ show Bad Monkey is one. When asked what drew her to the show, her answer is instantaneous: writer Bill Lawrence, creator of Ted Lasso.
Also on the horizon for Hagner is Baby Ruby. The upcoming film from playwright-turned-filmmaker Bess Wohl sees Hagner in a dramatic turn beside Kit Harington and Noèmie Merlant. “Hands down one of my favorite actors I’ve ever worked with,” she says of Merlant. “She’s one of the few actors where you have no option but to lock in with her because you just don’t know what direction she’s going to go in. It’s so fun, I was like ‘How do I work with her again on something?’”
Once we finish fangirling over the lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire actress, the conversation returns to Search Party’s finale. “After fifty episodes with people that you really love, we have this coziness now,” Hagner remarks. That, in part, is what makes season five so incredible. The core cast is reunited, having been separated in season four; their brunches are back on, and the sharp essence of Bliss and Rogers’s writing is as intoxicating as ever while they bid farewell.
Letting Portia “exit with a bang,” Hagner professes that Search Party’s finale “was a real exercise in having fun knowing that as long as it’s grounded in the story and you’re playing the stakes, it’s going to work,” before adding, “Knock on wood!”