In the palatial home of Deborah Vance (Smart), the veteran comic faces off with Ava (Einbinder), a writer in need of a job.
Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) is a pro and a diva in equal measure.
We meet her on the new HBO Max dark comedy Hacks, as she tries not to embody the title. She's a comedian who's had a Vegas hotel residency for decaes, and some of her jokes have been around just as long. She's not packing in the crowds like she used to, and hotel owner Marty (Christopher McDonald) wants to cut her weekend dates to make way for some fresh talent.
Her manager, Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), thinks she could juice up her act by hiring a young, hip writer — and as it happens, a young, hip client of his needs a gig.
Said writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), was a rising star with an overall deal who made the wrong joke on Twitter and is now persona non grata in Hollywood. Jimmy ships her to Vegas to work for Deborah, and the first meeting does not go well. Insults are hurled, jokes are punched up, and the two women are forced to realize they might need each other.
The series is created and written by Broad City alums Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky and executive-produced by those three along with Emmy winners Michael Schur, David Miner and Morgan Sackett.
Smart, who plays Deborah with a fierce and weary bravado, is also a pro. But she's no diva. She has amassed three Emmys and six nominations so far; standout roles include Special Agent Blake in HBO's Watchmen, Dr. Melanie Bird in FX's Legion and of course, Charlene Frazier Stillfield in the CBS hit Designing Women.
Einbinder has been doing stand-up since she left college in 2017, starting at open mics. This is her first acting role. "Every actor is going to hate to hear that," Smart notes, laughing. Once they see her in the part, they'll get over it. Maybe.
The two stars were interviewed separately. Smart spoke by phone on a Saturday, her only downtime while finishing up filming. She was also reeling from the recent death of her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, on March 18.
Understandably, she didn't want to talk about her loss, except to say, "My husband was one of the sweetest, most talented, most hilarious people I've ever known in my life, and it's really, really hard to lose him, especially when I was just feeling so on top of the world with the show and everything. So, I just am brokenhearted that I can't share this with him." And then she went to work.
Einbinder asked to be interviewed via Zoom. "It's just nice to connect — it feels more like what we would do pre-pandemic," she explains, adding that this was her first interview ever. The books on the shelves behind her were arranged by color. When asked why, she sighs. "It was a lonely first couple months of the pandemic. A lonely couple months. I could have done it several times. I could have done different nations' flags."
Okay, a hacky question to start us off: what drew you to Hacks?
Hannah Einbinder: I assumed that, like every other time I auditioned for anything, I wouldn't get it. But reading the sides, this was the first time I saw someone I knew — and that's no shade to any other sides that I ever got.
But I feel that Paul, Lucia and Jen and I all exist in this similar community within comedy, and we see people like Ava all the time. Maybe we were people like Ava in our beginnings, when we were less emotionally intelligent and less self-aware.
It was a great piece of comedy. I didn't know this was possible. I mean, I've seen it onscreen in movies and television shows that I love, but I didn't know that it would ever come into my life in that way. So, I auditioned, and [affecting a smarmy voice] the rest is herstory.
Jean Smart: If I'd picked the next project for myself, I couldn't imagine anything better than this, for so many reasons. First of all, I'm home for dinner every night, and it's brilliant writing, and everybody's so nice; they treat me like a queen.
When I was a kid, one of my fantasies was to be a stand-up comic. I wanted to be Phyllis Diller. In seventh grade I went to a costume party dressed as her. So that checks off one box, even if it's not in real life.
You get the fantasy of a stand-up without the terror.
JS: It's the best of both worlds.
Hannah, your stand-up is striking. It's so polished and confident, and you started only a few years ago. Is that confidence an illusion?
HE: I am such a neurotic Jew, and when I am onstage and in that performance space, I'm truly allowed to exist outside of my head and more in my body, which is something I don't experience often in my life. So it's a nice thing, and I am addicted to it. It is risky, too, because it doesn't always go well. But for the chance to feel good and confident, I will gladly risk feeling pain.
What was it like to do a chemistry read with Jean Smart?
HE: She is everything you would hope she would be — and so much more. First of all, she called me the night before the chemistry read. Total strangers and she called me and said, "You know, because of Covid, it's going to be less personal. I just wanted to say, I saw your stand-up and I think you're great. I want to wish you a really fun time, and break a leg."
The chemistry read was, in a word, electric. For me. I'll speak for myself. It was on a soundstage, and it was pitch black except for the lights on the two chairs. I was really glad she called me, because if I had just walked in, it would have been really intimidating.
She made me feel what she continues to make me and everyone in the cast feel, which is safe and loved and elevated. I love Jean; she's become family to me. What I've learned from her goes way beyond acting.
Well, it can only go downhill from this job!
HE: Every single person on the set says, "It's never like this." The makeup and hair people say, "You never work on a show with someone who's as much of a giant as Jean who isn't difficult." Everyone on our set is nice and funny and cool.
JS: I treat Hannah's character so horribly, but we're laughing all day long while we're shooting it, because it's so much fun. The people that have come together, it's just a dream. I feel extremely fortunate.
We were doing a big dinner party scene, and I was looking down the table at all these amazing actors, and in particular at these three young actresses, Hannah and Poppy Liu and Kaitlin Olson, who play my writer, my friend and my daughter. They are so different, they are such amazing actresses, and they are so hilarious — just the funniest women I've met in my life.
And if I didn't think they were so brilliant and love them so much, I'd be grinding my teeth thinking, "I'm about to be upstaged big time."
Deborah Vance is smart, funny, sharp, wounded, generous, cheap, entitled, hard-working, stubborn, proud — what am I forgetting?
JS: Everything you listed is pretty accurate. I was just thinking yesterday that she has such a different relationship with each character in the show. It's bizarre. I guess we're all like that to a certain extent in real life, but she is to an exaggerated extent.
She can be terribly rude and dismissive to one person and be incredibly loving and generous to another. Then, when she's around Marty, the wonderful Chris McDonald, she becomes girlish. Who is this woman suddenly? She's kind of coy and flirtatious.
Except when she's mad.
JS: She personifies three very famous sayings: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," "Living well is the best revenge," and then my own personal one, "Less is less."
As for Ava, she's smart, talented, wounded, self-absorbed, not self-aware — what else?
HE: Chaotic. She's a little messy. She wants what she wants when she wants it. That's not how life works, girlfriend. She's an uncompromising person who’s being forced to compromise. She starts off as someone who is always in a state of motion. She's not able to slow down and appreciate the people in her life, and sort of gets by on charm.
Jean, is Hannah as open and direct and blunt as Ava?
JS: She's pretty direct, but I don't want at all to imply that she's ever impolite — she's one of the sweetest people in the world. She's funny. She sees everything through a quirky, humorous lens, and she's very, very smart. I just adore her.
HE: Ava doesn't have a filter, and I am constantly overanalyzing every word that escapes my lips, so I think we are very different in that way. I identify with Ava in that she is a version of me that is scarred and putting up a wall.
For a long period of my adolescence, from 13 to maybe 20, I was like Ava, because I was hurt and scared. So, I have empathy for her, and I expect more of her. I know she's capable of more. I think everyone is.
Do you wish you were as open and direct and blunt as Ava?
HE: There are characteristics of Ava that I do value, because I tend to want to make everybody around me comfortable, and I think that's a nice thing sometimes, but I'm relentless about it.
Jean, are there any parts of yourself you see in Deb?
JS: I think she's funny, and I enjoy that part of her very much. And she accesses her emotions in a way that I do, although I'm much nicer about it. [Laughs] I think of myself as an extremely kind person. I wouldn't describe Deborah that way necessarily, although she's capable of great kindness and even unselfishness, but those [occasions] are few and far between. But when they do come, they're very big.
Like giving someone a car.
JS: But then she wants the change for her Diet Coke!
And she's friendly to the people I'd expect her to ignore or dismiss, like the Vegas showgirls and her stagehands.
JS: Because she knows how hard they work. She respects that. She can be horrible to people who she thinks aren't holding up their end, but to anybody who's a working stiff, her hat's off to them. If she's really upset, she's capable of taking it out on people, which is a very bad quality to have. But they have created a person who's very three-dimensional; she's not just an entitled cliché.
I'm guessing Phyllis Diller was an inspiration. Anyone else?
JS: I always use the script as an inspiration. If I read a script and I don't hear the voice in my head, I know I've got a harder road ahead of me. She was one of the characters that I read where I thought, "Yeah, I know this person." Also, it's so important to [credit] everybody on the crew, all the people who contribute to your performance, who never get the accolades particularly.
We have a set designer, Jon Carlos, who is such an artist. The sets are not only beautiful, but the detail in them is astonishing. He does it, I'm sure, partly to please himself, but also for me.
For instance, the plasterwork around the wainscoting in one room was sort of a leaf pattern and another shape, and he said, "Look closely... what does that look like?" I said, "Oh my God, it's a tongue!" He said, "In one scene you described yourself as a mouthy broad, so I thought it would be fun for you to have that." I was speechless.
Our DP Adam Bricker is the reason the show looks so beautiful. If I look good it's because of him, our costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager, my hair artist Jennifer Bell and my makeup artist Keith Sayer.
The first meeting between your characters devolves into a huge fight. Why does Ava take the job?
HE: She has no other options. She can't work in L.A., and she doesn't have any meaningful relationships. All she has is her work; that's all she's ever had. I think she gets to a point where she wants to quit, badly, but there's no other choice. She has to get hazed a little bit and eat shit. The only way up is through.
Why does Deborah stop Ava from leaving?
JS: She sees an audacity in this girl that she kind of likes, or at least responds to. She thinks, "I have to see what this girl is all about. I have to see if this is going to work at all." Because for one of the very few times in her life, she's scared of losing everything she's built.
Deborah gives a powerful speech to Ava in which she says her career just keeps getting harder. Jean, do you agree?
JS: I can't relate personally, but I think it's true for most females in the industry. I, for whatever reason, have been exceedingly fortunate at this stage of the game, and I don't take that for granted. When I was younger, casting directors didn't always know what to do with me, which was not helpful. But being a character actor — or being versatile, let's say — is always going to be a boon.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021