On Hacks, Hannah Einbinder plays Ava Daniels, a once rising star in the world of comedy writing who finds herself canceled -- and thus, thrown into the service of veteran comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart). The pair develop a relationship that swings between friend and foe, and it's this frisson that gives Hacks its funniest sparks (and even a dramatic slap).
In the real world, Einbinder is a comic herself with no major acting experience prior to Hacks. And now, Einbinder, 26, is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actress. She finds this sudden rise in Tinseltown "hilarious" and at times bewildering. She admits to having fought off "fear and anxiety" about her performance, particularly in the first season of filming alongside a longtime professional like Smart.
It was her LGBTQ+ castmates, whom she warmly calls friends, that helped her get through the toughest moments. Every working day, "I knew that I would be met with support, because I knew that specifically, my queer cast members and my queer family on set are able to facilitate that innate trust that I feel was palpable," she says. "It was a gift every day, truly. I never take it for granted."
Another major asset? Her castmates helped her fight off impostor syndrome -- specifically because she observed many of them battling it themselves. At first, she was incredulous that they shared this struggle. "I see how marvelous they are and how unique they are and how no one on the planet could ever do what they do. I hear their insecurities and it puts mine into context," she observes. "I just go like, But you're perfect. How are you worried about this? You're killing it. Again, that helps me to look in the mirror and go, Oh OK, maybe that's the case for me too."
Smart, a revered actress who has worked in TV and film since the '70s, has also been a valuable mentor for Einbinder. Every day alongside her -- the pair share a slew of scenes, and their relationship is the heart of the show -- is a thespian master class. "I really just study her face, and I've learned much of her natural essence she brings into her character," says Einbinder, who tries to "mimic" the way Smart infuses her role with complexity. In addition to acting techniques, Smart taught Einbinder to be more assertive off-screen.
"I have a lot of trouble asking for anything, because I'm scared that it'll mess everything up for everyone," she says of her insecurities. "Even little things like scheduling...the business of it all. She's empowered me to use my voice on things in a loving and respectful way, which I think is so important going forward as a young person in this biz."
Einbinder, who is bisexual, also credits her success to the writers -- many of them queer themselves, she attests -- who contributed to the three-dimensionality of her character. "The writers gave me the gift of Ava as a fully realized, gorgeous, vivid, imperfect human and I feel so happy...because when I read this audition, I sat up and I was like, Oh my! I was shocked." Einbinder had only been auditioning for roles for about a year before being cast as Ava, but she recognized how special it was to find a fully realized bi role in a TV landscape still rife with tropes and bi erasure.
And Einbinder knows the power of representation. "When people see characters and they get to know them, then they feel like they have someone in their life who is queer who they love...and I think that makes change," she asserts.
Not everyone is a fan of Ava. She can be entitled, messy, and opportunistic. She does, against better judgment, betray her boss and collaborator on occasion. Einbinder acknowledges that the character is imperfect, but she credits the harsh response online from some parties to a general "lack of grace" toward female characters -- particularly queer ones. "I think a lot of straight male characters are given the grace to be imperfect, and flawed, and serial killer protagonists, or your Don Draper, who we love. But I think that it's important for Ava to exist because it's just normalizing the flawed, vivid reality of us as human beings," she observes.
Of course, Hacks knows all about the double standard toward women in the entertainment industry; Vance fights against the oppressive patriarchy in nearly every episode as she tries to assert her voice as a female comic of a certain age. In one memorable scene in season 1, she goes head to head with a chauvinist comic in a club with a history of sexual harassment. Thankfully, Einbinder says she never encountered too much misogyny as a female comic, although she has conversed with women from prior generations who recounted to her "the most horrific, disgusting things you can imagine."
"Because I came up in comedy post-#MeToo, that fear [of accountability] had seeped into the men around me, which I'm so grateful for," she says. "Really, I've had incidents, sure. We all have. But I really was lucky to be embraced by a scene of alternative comedians who were queer, who were women, who were people of color. I found this alternative scene where there were people like me, and that's the scene I came up in."
The Los Angeles native -- who it so happens is also the daughter of Saturday Night Live royalty Laraine Newman -- credits comics like Jared Goldstein, Christine Medrano, Theresa Bateman, and Matt LeGrand with showing her the ropes when she first took the mic. With them, she experienced stand-up comedy in basements, art galleries, coffee shops, backyards, and comic book stores -- alternative spaces outside the traditional comedy circuit that were also safe spaces for marginalized voices. "When these patriarchal establishments, straight institutions, don't let us in, after a while, we just make our own space. I think we're better for it," she says.
Einbinder sees "survival" as a key element of queer comedy. And she finds it "ironic" that the trend in mainstream comedy (ahem, Dave Chappelle) is to target transgender people in sets. "All of these male comedians coming after the trans community? I find it so ironic that they believe that they're being reprimanded because [they believe] people can't take jokes," she says. "It's actually the opposite. It's that jokes aren't of the quality that meets our high standards, because we are such good judges of smart comedy and what the words are actually saying."
"I promise you, the offense is that you think that's comedy -- that's the offense," she says.
Hacks, of course, does offer that safe space where queer people can be hilarious -- and just be themselves without worrying about the world's unfunny, anti-LGBTQ+ vitriol. Einbinder hopes that vision becomes a gift to the show's fans. "I just want to say how important it is that they all feel a little bit of joy, and if Hacks brings joy, that's the purpose of this work," she says. "If I had any part of that, I feel so honored."
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This article is part of Out's May/June 2022 cover story, appearing on newsstands May 17. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. And don't miss season 2 of Hacks, premiering May 12 on HBO Max.