‘I was very shaky when I started acting’: Hannah Einbinder on Hacks, standup and sexual identity

Interview

‘I was very shaky when I started acting’: Hannah Einbinder on Hacks, standup and sexual identity

Hannah Einbinder

After building a career in comedy, the 27-year-old landed her first screen role in the series about the relationship between two female comics. And after being twice nominated at the Emmys, she is finally starting to believe she is doing a good job

There’s a scene in series two of Hacks that Hannah Einbinder can’t bear to watch. In it, her character Ava is in the crowd as her boss – storied, old-school comedian Deborah – performs a standup show aboard a lesbian cruise. Deborah arrives on the stage dad dancing to Pharrell’s Happy (“Oh no, she’s doing Ellen,” Ava sighs), before proceeding to comprehensively bomb, offending everyone in the audience and riling the captain’s wife (who she assumes is married not to a woman but a man, because of course only a man can captain a ship). “God, it’s painful – it’s really cringe to watch,” says Einbinder. “So tough. I feel for her because I know just how it feels.”

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks

Einbinder is living what she describes as an “incredibly meta” existence. As well as performing her own standup comedy (she’s on tour in the US when we speak, with a stint in London on the horizon), the 27-year-old stars in a series that revolves around it. Hacks centres on the unlikely bond between Ava – a down-on-her-luck, entitled millennial comedy writer – and Deborah (TV veteran Jean Smart), an equally down-on-her-luck, Joan Rivers-esque comic inching closer towards retirement with every hokey gag she performs on stage in Las Vegas. Together, this oddest of odd couples attempt to revamp Deborah’s tired image from QVC saleswoman back to comedian, while interrogating the misogyny and double standards that have underpinned her career. Of course, it wouldn’t be as moreishly watchable – and critically acclaimed – as it is if there weren’t several bumps in the road, from ill-advised email exchanges to human ashes being accidentally thrown in the bin.

The series has recently been renewed for a third season, and been nominated for a glut of Emmys (17 this year alone, including a second supporting actress nod for Einbinder), with critics praising its complex, complicated women. And, like all the best comedy about comedy – from 30 Rock to BoJack Horseman – Hacks shows the dizzy highs and wretched lows of making other people laugh. “These characters take two step forwards and one step back,” says Einbinder. “They’re two flawed people, which only drives the plot forward … Ava is growing rapidly as a human being and having to learn a lot of tough lessons via Deborah.”

Hannah Einbinder at the Ice House comedy club in Pasadena, LA, in 2019

When I speak to Einbinder, she’s standing outside her home in Los Angeles, plumbing issues having temporarily relegated her to the garden. She’s softly spoken and wry, and far less highly strung than anyone who has seen the series might expect (she has previously quipped that the only traits she shares with Ava are “cystic acne, red hair and no upper body strength”). She pulls her Wayfarers up now and again to make eye contact, although the mid-morning sun bounces off her phone camera.

The daughter of the original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman and her former husband, the actor Chad Einbinder, she had what she describes as the “incredible privilege” of being raised in LA. While humour was an important part of family life (“everybody in my family shares the various multiple insecurities that makes a person need laughter – need to be validated through laughter”, she says), the entertainment industry was more of a background hum than something she focused on. Instead, inspired by news pundits such as Rachel Maddow, Einbinder studied journalism at California’s Chapman University. “I was on a lot of [the attention-deficit drug] Adderall. And I would read the newspaper cover to cover,” she says. “I had gone to high school around the time of Barack Obama’s presidency, and it was a very exciting time here. I was full of hope.” Now, unsurprisingly, it all feels like “a lifetime ago. Another planet!”

Halfway through college, Einbinder stumbled into performance. She had stopped taking Adderall, which had also made her feel inhibited and “mildly sedated”, and started taking her material to open mic nights. Of the clips still available online, skits about Osama bin Laden (is he actually … attractive?) and parodies of 30s film noir stand out, Einbinder’s polite veneer giving way to increasingly oddball character comedy. “I enjoy sprinkling character work through a set where my voice is naturally low and monotone,” she says. “It’s my way of breaking the ‘me’ up for a viewer who is like me and maybe needs a little extra stimulation.”

Naturally self-deprecating, with a self-professed tendency to bat away compliments, she guesstimates that 90% of her gags didn’t land in those early performances. Even so, she plugged along, sometimes doing three gigs in one night in the early days while working as a barista by day. “I had such a hunger for [performing] and I romanticised that – there’s a lot of romanticisation of pain in standup, especially among young comedians. And obviously the capitalist machine fosters that …” She pauses. “You could call it work ethic, but it’s really just a survival tactic.” Breaking through is, she says, “right place, right time. A lot of things need to align.”

Hannah Einbinder and Lorenza Izzo in Hacks

Things did indeed start to align in 2020. Einbinder made her television debut as the youngest comic to have performed on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show and she then landed the part in Hacks. It was her first acting role, and one that many other professional actors had auditioned for, but it didn’t go to Einbinder’s head. “I was very shaky when I first started acting,” she says. “I had no barometer of whether or not I was doing well. My barometer used to be whether or not people were laughing, and then when you’re acting, they’re recording sound, so everyone has to be quiet. That was a bit of a mindfuck. It went against everything every instinct that is wired within me, but I’m starting to finally believe that I’m doing a good job.”

Einbinder does more than merely a good job in Hacks, as she conveys the peaks and troughs of Ava’s existence. She embodies the pain of becoming persona non grata in her industry (for tweeting a joke about a rightwing senator) and the joy of steering Deborah away from trite one-liners to something more substantive. In season one, the process of cataloguing Deborah’s archive leads Ava to better understand her boss, and see her as a trailblazer rather than a has-been – and a hack. Their relationship is often – at least at first – based on barbs and put-downs, but there is also something pure about it, cutting across seemingly entrenched generational divides. After all, Einbinder explains, it’s not as if it’s as simple as young comics being on the right side of history compared with their older counterparts.

“I know a ton of comedians who are in their 50s or up who are still really good – their quality hasn’t waned as a result of their age, because they’re intelligent, and they understand the intent of their jokes. In some cases, people get older, and they become the old man or woman yelling at the new generation. And that absolutely happens. But I think you are either devoted to an interesting take – and one that doesn’t punch down – or you’re not. I know people who are incredibly young, who are ignorant and offensive and bigoted, and use standup as a vehicle for that bigotry.”

Watching the show, the quasi-mother/daughter relationship between the leads (Smart is 70, the same age as Einbinder’s actual mother) fizzes with the kind of chemistry that can surely only be rooted in real life. “Our actual relationship has only positively affected our on-screen one, and you know … I really love her,” says Einbinder. “I don’t have to go anywhere else [to portray those emotions]. When things are heartbreaking, it’s easier to imagine because of the depth and importance of my relationship with her.”

Little, you might imagine, could be as heartbreaking as filming a funeral scene together not long after the death of Smart’s husband, Richard Gilliland. “Jean is the toughest,” says Einbinder. “She really put the crew and the cast and the production first, and thinks nothing of it. She pushed through for as long as we needed to finish the shoot, so that she could then go in and take her time. But I mean, watching her that week was,” Einbinder takes a long pause, sounding emotional. “She’s just really incredible, and very strong”.

As well as being funny and touching and sometimes downright silly (not least when Ava and Deborah bond over weed edibles while the latter recovers from plastic surgery), Hacks has gained acclaim for its rounded cast of queer characters. These include the perennially put-upon business manager, Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), who is trying to run his own life and Deborah’s, and Ava herself, who – like Einbinder – is bisexual, and schools Deborah about the need for nuance when it comes to sexual identity. “I think there are only a handful of shows that have even attempted to portray bisexuals as being humans worthy of love, and humans whose identities are seen as valid and accepted,” says Einbinder. “It is a dream as a queer person to be able to be a part of that representation that I’d loved to have seen growing up. It’s been such an affirming thing for me as a queer person to see this experience reflected … I could not have thought of a better gig. When I got the audition, I thought, I’m not going to get this, but I can’t wait to watch it – I just really love it.”

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks

Despite starring in a show that often shows the total horror of standup, and where a bad set can truly make Einbinder’s – and the audience’s – skin crawl, you get the sense that it has only made her fall further in love with live performance.

“I love an intimate crowd,” she says. “I’ve had to perform to utter darkness, when they turn the lights on you and you can’t see a single face in the crowd – it’s terrible. I find that unless I can see the whites of people’s eyes, I don’t really feel like I’m doing the thing.”

While Deborah’s trip to the cruise ship eventually devolves into a back and forth of heckling and offence, Einbinder happily tends to have an easier ride on stage. “Since Hacks, a lot of people just yell out nice things,” she says. Despite her self-effacing tendencies, as she heads off to call the plumber Einbinder sounds proud of herself – and maybe just a little relieved.

Hacks is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, HBO Max in the US and Stan in Australia. Hannah Einbinder is at Soho Theatre, London, from 26 September to 8 October