For many people, the struggle of trying to have a child can more often be a source of grief than laughter. But that is the very axis around which the Netflix film Private Life revolves, to great effect. In it, Kathryn Hahn plays Rachel, who has tried to become pregnant by nearly any means possible and is therefore navigating an "assisted reproduction roller coaster," as the actor explains in W's annual Best Performances issue. The result is a revelatory performance, though that shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed Hahn's prolific career. Here, she explains why she thinks she is "accidentally funny," reveals her favorite karaoke song, and even explains why Timoth´ee Chalamet's face drives her wild.
How old were you when you decided this is what you wanted to do with your life?
Honestly, I think I was in kindergarten. I remember seeing a play and realizing that was what I wanted to do. I remember always wanting to retreat to my room or somewhere private to play pretend by myself.
Were you always funny?
You'd have to ask my family members, but I'm sure that I was not. I think I was always the class clown. My family is very funny. The dinner table was a tough room. But I never would feel confident doing stand-up or improv. I'm always in awe of improvisers that make something out of complete nothing. I need something to hold on to, or else I'm like, "Uhhh..."
What was the first thing you auditioned for that you got?
Probably a musical at the Cleveland Playhouse called Sneakers. I remember it was back when the Cleveland Playhouse was a rec company, so it was a lot of local actors who we would see in the same shows over and over again. I was in a group called the Curtain Pullers at the Cleveland Playhouse; I always thought I was going to be able to pull the curtains, but I never did. I was really bummed about that.
How did Private Life come to you?
I'm such a huge admirer of [writer-director] Tamara Jenkins’s. Her writing is so extraordinary and so specific. I just feel that she keeps excavating to the heart and the truth of every moment. My favorite thing as an audience member and as a human being and as a performer, is that sweet spot where you think, "Am I going to burst into tears or am I going to start hysterically laughing?" It's that catch in your throat, that messy humanity that she is able to capture.
The movie is quite autobiographical. Did you find that comforting or difficult?
I would say the movie is more emotionally biographical than actually biographical. I know Tamara and her hubby went through a version of it, but I would say I'm not playing Tamara. The character that I play, Rachel, is going through an assisted reproduction roller coaster. There are a lot of hormones that are not her own racing through her body.
You and Tamara look like you could be related.
It's not conscious, though. It's so weird. She has a very specific way of speaking. She has a very specific POV. It was a very small film. I guess I just started taking on her POV, for sure.
What I think is so interesting about the way that you approach comedy is that you don't treat it like comedy. In other words, you approach it almost like it's drama or just like it's life, so to speak. You're not playing it as comedy so much as it becomes comedic because of the situation.
I think it goes back to your question at the beginning in terms of do I think of myself as funny. I think I'm accidentally funny more so than thinking of it as a craft. I’m in awe of those comedians that know how to hit it again and again and again. I think for this particular performer bird, I have to root it in the same thing no matter what it is; the rubber band has to be taut to who I am and what it is that I want. It always comes from the same muscle. Then you arrive on the day and then you have to throw so much of it away and just receive.
Have you always been good at physical comedy?
Again, no. I would say that it seems so accidental to me. I just have to go for something. No matter what the material is, I like the feeling of having no stone left unturned. I hate the feeling of, "I wish I had tried that,” or “I wish I asked for one more take,” or “I wish I had a chance to ..." Certainly I will try it all, or at least ask to, and sometimes politely be turned down.
What is your karaoke song?
I have so many. I like some Rihanna, “Take a Bow.” I like a ballad. I like Sheryl Crow, “Strong Enough.” It's a beautiful song to me. I like “Miss Independent” by Ne-Yo. I love, love, love karaoke.
Where was your first kiss?
Cloak room, fourth grade. Oliver Dunford. I'll never forget it. He really didn't see it coming and he rebuffed it with a vigor. He recoiled and basically ran out. I was like, "Well, that didn't go as I had thought. I misread the signs." He looked like the greatest American hero but in miniature. He had a beautiful, beautiful blond curls.
What was your favorite event on your birthday?
Maybe I was 12 or 13, my mom took myself and six girlfriends to an Applebee's and we had a lunch. It felt very grown up. I think my girlfriends and I had two or three Laura Ashley dresses that we would circulate. I wore one of those three dresses to lunch, I'm sure. We kept using the same three dresses over and over again.
What was your favorite Halloween costume that you ever had?
I was a tooth fairy for many years because my mom spent a lot of time making it and then she just kept pushing it on me. It's basically your standard princess costume, but then you hold a wand with a tooth on it that's coated in foil, which is a bummer because you've got your bag of candy and then you also have to hold a wand with a tooth on it or your mom will be upset.
Who was your cinematic or television crush growing up, or now?
I just recently met Willem Dafoe. I know this is a fucked up thing to say, but I really did love him in Wild Heart. Lauren Dern was a cinematic crush. I had cinema crushes on so many women. Who right now is a crazy cinematic crush? Timoth´ee Chalamet just destroys me. That face is just so killer.
What is a skill that people would be surprised to know that you're good at?
I'm an incredible organizer if anybody needs something. I like a clean space. Throwing shit out gives me such joy. My kids sometimes feel a little bit gaslit though, so I have to watch it. They're like, "Wait, what happened to that?"