With her first role, Hannah Einbinder became a sudden star. Even she’s shocked

You have to wonder: did Hannah Einbinder sell her soul?

In an industry where acting hopefuls spend years trudging from one Hollywood audition to another, praying to get a commercial to pay the rent and hoping against hope to get a bit part on an episode of a decent series, the ascending stand-up comedian and Los Angeles native hit the jackpot with her very first screen role.

Starring opposite the magisterial Jean Smart, Einbinder shares top billing in Hacks, one of the best series to emerge in the past 12 months. It’s a breakthrough seemingly beyond mere luck.

You’re telling me! I know, promises Einbinder, video conferencing in from the promotional campaign from the second season of Hacks. It’s such a beautiful blessing, a godsend. It was a combination of so many factors that led to this. Right place, right time, right role; the creators who made the show being comedy people like me, having backgrounds in live performances, Jean weighing in on the decision for who would play the part, and our connection right off the bat.

It should be noted that the 27-year-old is saying this while a smattering of brightly covered stars rest on her cheek and nose – they’re pimple treatments, she happily explains. Stardom hasn’t turned her head. Einbinder swears that a friend was recently asked to audition for a Hannah Einbinder-type, but the casting agents didn’t bother to ask Einbinder herself to try out. Now she’s showing me her recommendation from the bookshelf behind her – Melissa Broder’s novel Milk Fed – and checking her schedule for the rest of the day.

I have a show tonight. Half stand-up and half burlesque and stripping, Einbinder says, allowing for a lingering pause. I’m doing stand-up.

Einbinder’s Hacks’ character, Ava Daniels, shares her comic background but lacks the impeccable timing. Unemployed and chased out of Los Angeles after a questionable tweet at the start of season one, the comedy writer begrudgingly goes to Las Vegas to take a job interview with stand-up titan, Deborah Vance (Smart), who has been asked to freshen up the material for her long-standing and lucrative casino residency. The women clash, and keep clashing, but they also come to recognise how the other recognises their flaws. Their complex relationship is the fulcrum of a fierce and funny show.

When I got the audition for Hacks it was so overwhelmingly different than anything I’d read. I knew that it was going to be such a vivid, well-done portrait of Ava, of the cast, of their world. It was really immediate, Einbinder says. I was struck by the comedy right off the bat. And it was come for the jokes and stay for the heart. It really has that soul, it really has that beautiful wit.

Hacks ties together an anthropological understanding of the comedy business, particularly stand-up, sharp insights on commerce and gender, and a finely honed selection of supporting characters. A seemingly stereotypical part, such as Deborah’s raised-with-fame adult daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson), will provide comic leverage, but then subtly slip into acute insight. It’s not surprising that the series is the union of multiple creators: Broad City graduates director Lucia Aniello and writer Paul W. Downs (who also plays Deborah and Ava’s manager), and The Good Place writer Jen Statsky.

Deborah has a monologue in season one when she’s being interviewed in her dressing room and she talks about comedy being a love language and when you share a sense of humour with someone it’s intimate, Einbinder says. I think that monologue was inspired by the three of them and their friendship. It really is wonderful to watch them collaborate on the fly. They have a similar vision and a lack of any ego. They just want what’s best for the show.

Season two of Hacks, which is currently releasing two episodes each Friday on Stan*, sets Deborah and Ava on the road, as the former returns to touring and latter tries not to let rash decisions destroy their bond. The way their friendship is defined by Ava working for Deborah is part of the show’s contemporary resonance – there’s no gap between the personal and the professional. That kind of intertwining is a defining trait.

They’ve done a wonderful job of balancing the comedic and the dramatic, Einbinder says. For comedians that is how we experience the world. We don’t experience sad things or difficult things as being purely sad or difficult. As a defence mechanism we have to create some sort of joke to bring a little light to the darkness. We see that in the show.

From the first public steps of Hacks, Einbinder and Smart display a real-life connection that goes beyond merely being co-stars. Last weekend, 70-year-old Smart, who with this, Watchmen and Mare of Easttown is sublimely capping a four decades long career that includes Designing Women and Frasier, threw a birthday party for Einbinder. Their joint interviews are laden with funny lines and genuine affection.

We’re really close. It’s a credit to Jean because I don’t make new friends easily and I’m an introvert and can be shy at times, which I understand can be hard to believe, Einbinder says, but Jean is such a generous person and constantly reaching out to bring people in. I’ve benefited from that and it’s helped me do a little of the same with my own life.

Having made her American network stand-up debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in March 2020 (an absurdism-flecked routine that’s on YouTube), Einbinder’s comedic stand-up instincts now feed off her growing assurance as an actor. As the daughter of a comedy writer father and mother who was an original Saturday Night Live cast member in Laraine Newman, comedy is her heritage. But even she’s surprised by her career.

When I got managers and agents they suggested that it’s hard to make a living from stand-up and that it would help elevate that if I could write, direct, act or do another thing to become a, quote, multi-hyphenate, as we are called, Einbinder says. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try all of it’, and Hacks came along and it was perfect.

* Hacks is on Stan. Stan is owned by Nine, the owner of this masthead.

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