In HBO’s “Hacks,” Las Vegas stand-up legend Deborah Vance and struggling 20-something comedy writer Ava Daniels reluctantly meet. After trading caustic barbs, the pair form an unlikely partnership and their generational tension gives way to a begrudging respect.
The characters’ chemistry propelled the show to a total of 15 Emmy nominations, including nods for both of its leads, Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder.
Einbinder, who's nominated for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series, weighed in on why their relationship has viewers hooked, in an interview with TODAY.
“They complement one another so beautifully,” she said. “They exhibit a very classic dynamic that we haven't really seen between two women before, and frankly, I think they are both compelling, funny, interesting people.”
The 26-year-old actor said what initially struck her about Ava was her sense of humor.
“The original audition sides that I got contained her joke about killing herself on ‘Watch What Happens Live,’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘She gets it. This is my kind of gal.’ That struck me instantly, and I was like, ‘OK, I need to do this.’”
Another quote from the show that resonated with Einbinder was “there is no line,” which she said is her philosophy on comedy today. After Ava tells Deborah the joke that “crossed a line,” thus ruining her career, Deborah responds, “Oh, honey, no, there is no line. It’s just not funny.”
“I really believe that there is no line as long as you're not punching down and coming from, like, a good place,” she said. “You really should be able to joke about anything, but people often blame sensitivity when really the issue is that their jokes are not good enough.”
Einbinder said she and Smart talk all the time, and called each other “kind of instantly” after the Emmy nominations were announced last month.
While she calls working with Smart, 69, “an acting master class,” what she learned from the veteran actor “goes far beyond acting.”
“It centers more around being a good person and a lovely light in the lives of other people,” she said. “That's really what Jean is to me and, I know, to all of us on set.”
Smart even called Einbinder the night before her screen test, which she thought was a lovely gesture.
“She just said, ‘You know, we're going into maybe, like, an intimidating environment tomorrow with the COVID protocols and everything, and I just want to let you know that we're going to have a lot of fun and I'm really looking forward to it,’” Einbinder recalled. “And she didn’t have to call me, you know, that's not standard, but she just made me feel comfortable and safe.”
Einbinder recalled a recent conversation about Smart with the show’s cinematographer, Adam Bricker.
“He said the second he met Jean, she drops to her knees and pleaded, ‘Please shoot me in soft light,’” she said. “She just immediately made a joke, and immediately put herself in a position where she didn't even give him time to be intimidated by her. She just welcomed him into her friendship circle, as she did with me, as well. She goes out of her way to make other people feel comfortable, so that you're able to really do your best work and be your most comfortable self. And she doesn't have to. She's an icon, and she still is such a selfless angel and just cares about making other people feel comfortable.”
While Einbinder loves the characters’ razor-sharp zingers, she also loves “the more sincere, emotional beats” — for example, when Deborah begins opening up to Ava as they sit outside the plastic surgery spa in episode six.
“That was really exciting to shoot because Jean and I really fell totally in love, pretty instantly into shooting, and it was nice to see our characters catch up to some of the closeness that we actually share,” she said.
Einbinder finds Ava relatable as “a person trying to be better, but a person who is young and so they want their growth to be a lot faster than it is.”
“I think one of the premier characteristics of being young, at least in my experience, is intellectually understanding a lot of the changes that you need to make, but having trouble putting action behind them all the time,” she added.
The show has been praised for its portrayal of Ava as a bisexual character, and Einbinder said the response has been “really, really nice.”
“It is everything that I hoped for, because I know that people who are queer and kind of like in a sort of middle place within queerness don't have a lot to point to in the film and TV world, and so I know how desperately I needed it, and so I'm just glad that other people got it too.”
Einbinder, who has also made a name for herself as a rising stand-up comedian, comes from a talented family: Her mom is “Saturday Night Live” alum Laraine Newman and her dad is comedy writer Chad Einbinder.
“I think humor was definitely a huge part of our shared language at home,” she said. “In terms of what my mom taught me about comedy, it didn't feel like there was any active, formal doling out of wisdom; it's just sort of like she led by example.”
“Hacks,” which premiered in May, has been renewed for a second season, and Einbinder hopes to see more from standout characters such as Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Damien (Mark Indelicato), Josefina (Rose Abdoo), Kiki (Poppy Liu), Kayla (Megan Stalter) and Jimmy (series co-creator Paul Downs).
She also has a potential storyline in mind for a dream guest star.
“It would be cool if (Lady) Gaga was doing a night in Vegas or something and Deborah knows her,” she said. “Like, I would love to see some connection between some sort of other musician headliner person who's in Vegas. And Ava’s freaking out and Deborah’s obviously like, ‘Stop acting like a hillbilly.’”