‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ Star Kathryn Hahn on Her Approach to Hulu’s Limited Series: “We’re Going to Bring Our Full, Messy Hearts to This”

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For the fortunate ones, Emmy nomination morning can be filled with mimosas, oversize bouquets and a nonstop parade of drop-ins, calls and congratulatory texts. But when The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Kathryn Hahn shortly after she was name-checked as outstanding lead actress in a limited series for her work on Hulu’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her reality looked a little different at that moment. “I’m sitting in a red zone with my hazards on,” says the veteran star with a laugh, downplaying the danger of L.A. traffic. “This is so awesome and so bananas.”

It’s also a first. Though the recognition marks the 50-year-old star’s third Emmy nomination, it’s the first time she has been singled out as a lead performer after two supporting nominations, for work in Transparent in 2017 and WandaVision in 2021. And she achieved this with a limited series that Hahn says has “forever changed” who she is, thanks in large part to the material, the cast and her team of A-list collaborators. Tiny Beautiful Things, an eight-episode series, is based on the collection of essays from best-selling writer Cheryl Strayed and adapted by creator and executive producer Liz Tigelaar. The credits also feature Hollywood heavyweights and Strayed adaptation alums Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who snagged Oscar nominations for playing a daughter and her deceased mother, seen in flashbacks, in 2014’s Wild, from filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée. The series casts Hahn as Clare Pierce, a struggling writer who is tapped to take over as the advice columnist Dear Sugar. While she dishes out sage advice to readers, Clare attempts to get ahold of her home life, which is in a shambles with her marriage teetering on the brink and a roller-coaster relationship with her daughter.

With hazards still flashing, Hahn safely recapped her Tiny Beautiful Things journey to THR.

Congratulations on your third Emmy nomination. You’ve been down this road before, but I would imagine it must feel pretty special to be recognized for Tiny Beautiful Things.

Oh, yeah. This is a particularly poignant one for me. This was a job that asked something of all of us — the actors but also the writers, directors and producers — beyond what we had anticipated or had been asked before, certainly for me, anyway. With the remarkable Cheryl Strayed and her generosity, you just want to step up to the plate for her because she’s been so generous with her life for so long, in allowing us to feel less alone as humans, thanks to Dear Sugar, Wild, and all her work.

We all talked about how this show, at a certain point, was going to be kind of an act of service because that’s what Sugar ultimately is, and how her columns brought about empathy, which also makes us feel less alone. You think that you’re the only one feeling something or that you’re the only one experiencing the impossible, and she is there, in all her nakedness, helping you realize that you’re not alone. I remember reading the pilot — the adaptation was written by Liz Tigelaar — and being so blown away by it. It’s remarkable, and on the page, it’s not exactly what you would expect after reading those columns. You wouldn’t expect this to be the natural way to adapt something, by using the back-and-forth with the flashbacks. It was hard and it was juicy and it was fulfilling and it was fun. It was all the things that it is to be a human being, which is exactly, I think, what Cheryl and Liz wanted from the beginning; to make sure that Cheryl felt seen and heard.

What was the biggest challenge for you in bringing this to life?

So much of it was what grief does to a person over an amount of time, and how that affects you if you haven’t fully processed it and how it manifests in your life. I worship Merritt Wever and I really wanted to work with her. I also love [co-stars] Sarah Pidgeon and Owen Painter, and at a certain point it started to feel like there were two movies going on in one, with the past version and the flashbacks and then there’s me, in the present. Not to use horrible language, but it was a real mind-fuck. Like, my mom has died and, of course, I’m feeling these feelings. I’ll never get to play with Merritt [who plays her character Clare’s mother], and it felt like there was this constant shift between these two distinct stories where it was my past, so I felt it and understood it, but I wasn’t experiencing it.

I could see those scenes on the call sheet and know that my mother’s dying scene was being shot that day, so I would send it so much love. They’re all such extraordinary performers — I mean, they’re unreal — but it was this very trippy feeling to be seeing it from a distance, which is exactly how Clare, in the present time, would be experiencing it because everything was in the rearview for her.

Shan (Elizabeth Hinkler) and Clare (Kathryn Hahn), in Tiny Beautiful Things.

Shan (Elizabeth Hinkler) and Clare (Kathryn Hahn), in Tiny Beautiful Things.

Elizabeth Morris/Hulu

How did you prepare?

We had this amazing workshop at the beginning. We didn’t have very much time together, all of us, to build these relationships. I was able to find this chemistry very quickly with Quentin Plair, who plays my husband, and Tanzyn Crawford, who plays my daughter. They’re amazing performers, and we felt like a family very fast. We kept talking about how we were going to bring our full, messy, messy hearts to this and that it wasn’t going to be the cleanest or cutest version. It certainly wasn’t for Clare, in the present, because she makes some really horrible decisions. The trick was to not overthink it and just let it flow.

This was just difficult material. I also think it’s remarkable material. Liz and these amazing writers wrote something that is completely singular, very juicy and distinct. It was a hard pleasure to work on this, and I’ll say it again: I really am forever changed. I want to shout out the three amazing directors we had on this — Rachel Lee Goldenberg, Desiree Akhavan and Stacie Passon. They were incredible shepherds through this; they were really doulas for us, taking us through this experience.

Everyone is a child of somebody. Everyone has a mother, and everyone has suffered some sort of impossible loss in their life. We’re all looking to feel not alone. With those tenets, this dear group of people were able to make something remarkable and I just feel like I am in service of it. I’m in awe of the work that everybody did on this show.

Given that things are likely to be on hold as a result of the strike, what does your schedule look like for the summer and fall?

For the summer and fall, I am going to be a mom. That’s my number one most important thing. We just came back from a holiday, and we might go and see some family back east in Ohio. My daughter is about to go into high school, so I’m just planning on being a mom. This has been a busy year and I got to do this amazing show, and after we wrapped, I went right into [Marvel/Disney+’s WandaVision spinoff series] Agatha: Coven of Chaos. It was an awesome experience, but it meant a lot of time out of town, so I’m just excited to be home for a while.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This interview was conducted before the July 14 launch of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ Star Kathryn Hahn on Her Approach to Hulu’s Limited Series: “We’re Going to Bring Our Full, Messy Hearts to This”

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