“Back in Vegas, you were on top. But with all due respect, I think that was just a hill. And now you’re climbing a mountain.”
If any of the quotable lines from “Hacks” were to epitomize the journey of Season 2, it would be that one. Writing assistant Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) says it to comedy icon Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) when the latter hits a rough patch on her tour. Deborah has left her residency on the Vegas Strip to work out new, gut-wrenchingly personal material on the road, but it isn’t quite landing. Enter that helpful metaphor.
The new season brings a welcome shift in both character dynamics and locale that introduces, among other things, new personalities, a lawsuit, and a lesbian cruise. The three-time Emmy-winning comedy series (including a leading actress win for Smart) feels even fresher and more hilarious now than it did during Season 1.
To talk about how they pulled it off—through bouts of E. coli, Matthew McConaughey movie binges, and charting material that hit closer to home—Smart and Einbinder sat with Backstage for their first-ever joint cover story. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
No one could have predicted the massive success of “Hacks.” What have been the most exciting and rewarding aspects of your time on the series so far?
Jean Smart: All last season, in particular, I kept thinking, We have nowhere to go but down. But no—it’s been just the way it should be. People at their best, no egos involved. The second season, of course, you always worry if it’s going to measure up to the first season; and it has. And the fact that the show was a critical success, as well as [having] unbelievable ratings—you usually get one or the other. It’s just been so gratifying and so much fun.
Hannah, what was your experience like auditioning for “Hacks” and going head-to-head with Jean Smart?
Hannah Einbinder: It’s a shock. It’s not typical. It’s insane, in a word. I was just so grateful, honestly, to come across a piece of material that was so funny and so good and so real to me—especially as a woman, and a queer woman. That was just kind of unheard of up until that point. I went in just happy to experience the material, to read it, to add my little spin on it, and do my little extras with it. Throughout the whole process, I really did not think that I would get cast in it. It was the pandemic, and I was just like, “Thank God I have something, a good piece of comedy, to interact with at all.”
Have you been auditioning more since the success of “Hacks”? How have you been thinking about what you want to do next?
Einbinder: Well, being directed and being on set with other actors and hearing their stories has absolutely lent itself to how I audition. Also, the fact that, for my audition for “Hacks,” I added a lot of little improvised bits—something that I would say to any actors reading this [is that] having an authentic spin on it, and if it is a comedic role, showing that you can add jokes and do comedy, is great. I think it might’ve helped me in the grand scheme of things. But I have been auditioning since, and it’s been really fun. I’ve just been able to be like, “Oh, yeah, more acting. Cool!”
Deborah is the latest in a long line of incredible performances for you, Jean—especially in the last few years, with your roles on “Watchmen,” “Mare of Easttown,” and “Hacks”. What makes you say yes to a part now?
Smart: It’s always nice to find something that you haven’t done before or a character that you haven’t played before. I’m from the theater, so I was used to playing all sorts of different characters from different periods and different genres. That’s something I always expected and hoped to get out of a career, and I’ve just been unbelievably lucky. This one just sort of ticked every box. It had everything. And Deborah’s so fun to play; she’s such a complicated person, and I just love how she’s so different with different people. I mean, we’re all like that to a certain extent, obviously. It’s just such a different relationship with every single person in her life. That’s been part of the appeal of playing her: I get to do it all.
Given your background in the theater, I imagine your acting process might look a little different from Hannah’s, who comes from standup. Do you discuss that on set—how you’re finding your way into your character, or what your scene partner needs in the moment?
“I think if you are as much your authentic self as possible, people sense that. It makes you a more interesting performer.”
Smart: We’re both a little more instinctive than that. I think we go with our gut. [To Einbinder:] I don’t want to speak for you, darling. To me, if I read a piece of material and I can hear the character in my head—literally hear their voice—then I know I’m on the right track. And if I don’t, I know it’s going to be a little harder. I just felt, somehow, that I understood Deborah. Parts of her, I don’t understand at all; but again, the bottom line is—and it sounds like actors being modest, but it really is true—that it comes down to the writing. And the writing has been a gift.
Einbinder: That’s true. And the size of the role allows you to really sink your teeth into the emotional realities of your character. We get so close to these people, to the point where the substitution method is not super necessary, because you know this person intimately. You’ve spent, at this point, a couple of years with them, so their reality is easier to step into in those more emotional moments. The comedy is kind of instinctual and on the page, as Jean said. But when you are doing heavier scenes, for me, I feel it between the two people. I don’t need to, like, go somewhere else as much. Although on Season 1, when I was unaware that I could do that and I thought I had to go somewhere else, I did watch Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar,” when he’s getting the messages from Earth. That made me cry a lot. And then I went on set and I was like, “OK, let’s do it.”
Smart: You know, you reminded me of Matthew in a couple scenes, and I now know why.
The inspiration behind Ava? Matthew McConaughey!
Smart: The fun thing, too, about getting the chance to do a role for more than just an episode or two is your audience gets to know you, so they can almost predict how you’re going to react in a certain situation before you actually do it. It’s sort of like when you watch one of the really good classic sitcoms—say, like, “Frasier”—where the characters, everything they said and did was so organic, and the audience got to know them so intimately. They would have so much fun because they’re so invested in the characters.
Both Deborah and Ava find themselves at a professional and personal crossroads that they’re navigating together. Were there ways that either of their journeys—of rejection, aging, and self-discovery—parallel your own careers? And did that at all help you relate to where they were?
Smart: I think it’s very different for female comedians than actresses, because they’re always going to need old actors. No one’s going to say, “Well, you’re not relevant,” because somebody has to play those parts. And that’s very different, I imagine, in comedy, where they can write you off as being out of touch, like they do with Deborah. That’s got to be a very scary feeling. But for an actor, the types of roles you’re going to get are always going to evolve. Hopefully, I’ll be doing this until I look like Maggie Smith.
Einbinder: I have been so incredibly lucky to come up in comedy post–#MeToo, and come right out of college and starting to do open mics and make my way through the scene in a pretty quick amount of time. I have had such a charmed career thus far. What I would say was similar was: Ava has this issue with a tweet [that gets her in trouble], and she can’t find work. When the pandemic hit, the only thing I had to my name was my standup, and that went away in an instant. Very literally, “Hacks” was the thing that was my beacon of hope. So, coming to the Deborah Vance universe was, for me, Hannah, so similar to Ava coming to the Deborah Vance universe within the show—because they both have nothing, and they come to this place and they have everything again.
Did Season 2 pose any new challenges?
Smart: For me, the biggest challenge this season was that we were on location almost every day instead of on a soundstage, where everything is much more controlled and your days are much shorter. That was, to me, the only thing that made it a little bit more difficult: being an hour away from whatever location we were shooting on that day, whether we were in Long Beach for a few days, or Anaheim or the Grand Canyon.
Einbinder: I’ve gone on the record about this: I got E. coli in the Grand Canyon, so I’d say that was probably a challenge for me. I’d be interested to see if the viewers can spot them, but there are a couple of scenes where I am just really on my last legs there.
Smart: I felt so bad for you. Oh, my God.
Hannah, in what ways do you think “Hacks” has enhanced your sensibility as a comedian?
Einbinder: Acting has really opened the floodgates for my comedy, because it has allowed me to go, “Oh, there’s nothing too big or [too] out-there.” I’ve always felt that standup is a medium that should be open, and that there should be other elements of other styles of performance mixed in. But it’s given me the skills to really flesh that out in a more detailed way. It’s been a true gift for my standup.
Jean, how has playing Deborah made you a stronger performer?
“Acting has really opened the floodgates for my comedy, because it has allowed me to go, ‘Oh, there’s nothing too big or [too] out-there.’ ”
Smart: One of the most fun elements, of course, is doing the actual standup, because [the creators] made a point from the beginning to say, “This isn’t about her standup. This is about a woman and her relationship with this other young woman,” which is exactly what it should be. But I must say, I have really, really enjoyed doing actual standup in front of audiences—even though they were paid to laugh!
Now a fun one: What is one comedic screen performance that every actor should see, and why?
Einbinder: I’ve got to say Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber.” Or, honestly, “The Mask.” [His] canon is worth visiting, I think, because it just emphasizes the importance of the physical instrument.
Smart: Two of my favorite comedy films are “Midnight Run” with Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro, and “Mousehunt” with Nathan Lane. Christopher Walken has a hilarious cameo in it. If you haven’t seen those movies, those are two.
“Mousehunt”—I’m not sure if it’s technically a deep cut, but that seems like a movie that wouldn’t be on my radar for: You should watch this as a reference point for a great performance.
I’m telling you, it is funny! I was doing a Broadway play with Nathan years ago. My oldest [child] was about 10 or 11 years old back then, and he wanted mice, so we had a couple of pet mice. And then we also had mice in the apartment that were, like, street mice. We’d set a couple of traps in the kitchen. I thought, Really weird—I’m buying condos for his pet mice, and I’m trying to trap these other street mice that would kick my mice’s asses if they ran into them. And at the same time, I watched this movie, because I thought my son would like it. I ended up thinking it was very funny! And also “Stuart Little.” We watched “Stuart Little” that summer a million times, and Nathan Lane does the voice of the cat. So it was the summer of Nathan Lane and the mice.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give your younger self?
Smart: For me, I would have said: Don’t be constantly worrying about what it is that they want, because if you find out and develop what’s unique about you, that will eventually pay off.
Was there a learning curve there—a turning point where that crystallized for you?
Smart: Not necessarily. I think it was a gradual dawning in my mind. I mean, when you look at huge movie stars, they are not—with a few exceptions—typically beautiful, typically handsome, typically this, typically that. But there is something about them. There’s something about them that makes you want to watch them. And I think if you are as much your authentic self as possible, people sense that. It makes you a more interesting performer.
Hannah, how about you?
Einbinder: I fear that, maybe, I am currently the younger self that needs advice. So I guess what I would tell myself when I first started doing standup—which was not long ago, about 2017—is not to get frustrated during periods of writer’s block. That only makes it last longer. Embrace every element of the creative process when you are harvesting the work and when you are planting the seeds.
Do you have any tricks to overcome writer’s block, or is it just kind of a waiting game?
Einbinder: You cannot feel frustration or anger around it. You’ve got to let it go, and you’ve got to get another hobby. Focus your time and energy into something that has nothing to do with your work at all. I know Jean has her garden and her “she-shed,” which is her version of a man cave. I have my little fascination with fungi—mycelium mushrooms of all sorts. And so you just pick up a little thing that you really love, and you distract yourself and live your life—because that’s where the ideas come from.
Smart: I had no idea you were growing fungus at your house.
Einbinder: I’m a mycophile, Jean, and it’s time you knew.
And one final question: What is your favorite thing about each other’s performances on “Hacks”?
Smart: I constantly marvel at Hannah being so incredibly in the moment. You never get the sense that she’s planned something out. She’s simply reacting to what is being said or what is happening at the precise moment. And the fact that she already has that is incredible, because as an actor, that’s the best thing you can have. You have to constantly kind of refresh that and not pull out something from your bag of tricks.
Einbinder: Thank you!
Smart: Well, it’s true.
Einbinder: And the thing I admire most in Jean’s performance here and in everything I’ve seen her in is the duality. No emotion is one- or even two-dimensional. It is always three, four, five, six. The levels and layers that exist in every moment—such is life, right? It is such detailed work, and it is something that only a natural actor can do. It’s something I try to emulate as much as I can. It is so cool to watch, and it’s also such a mystery. I’m like, “What is—how is she doing that? Geez.”
Smart: Thank you, honey!
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of Backstage Magazine.
Photographed by GL Askew II on 05/24 in CA. Styling by Kevin Ericson and Micah Schifman. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.