From indie cred to Marvel icon: Kathryn Hahn on playing WandaVision's Agatha Harkness, her standout roles
I was so turned on by the ambition and had mad respect for the fact that it is a superhero story that is ultimately about grief, said the actress of the Marvel show WandaVision.
The interview includes spoilers for the entire season of WandaVision.
Longtime devotees of Kathryn Hahn’s work will go out of their way to tell you exactly where on her singularly unpredictable career trajectory they first took note of her: whether it was in an early breakout role like Crossing Jordan or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; on an unconventional TV comedy like Parks and Recreation, Transparent or I Love Dick; or as a liberated suburbanite in an indie feature like Afternoon Delight or the HBO miniseries Mrs. Fletcher.
But Hahn’s bandwagon has surely grown after her turn on WandaVision” the Disney+ series whose finale was released Friday, in a role that caught the attention of her faithful acolytes and the unconverted alike. She played Agnes, a suspiciously nosy neighbor to Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in their sitcom reverie — who turns out to have been a powerful and malevolent witch named Agatha Harkness.
It’s rare for an actress with Hahn’s particular pedigree of standout performances in smaller, quirky projects to have found her way to the monolithic Marvel franchise — even rarer for her to have ended up with her own irresistibly catchy theme song. But it’s a role that Hahn played to the hilt, earning attention, praise and a series of internet memes.
In a video interview Friday, Hahn was still surprised to have had the opportunity to play in a superhero universe and was bracing herself for what life would be like outside the world of WandaVision.
“I’ve been in these smaller projects — barely any makeup, pared-down clothes,” she said. “So it was very funny at the end of this to be like, how am I going to go back to domestic fight scenes in parking lots? It’s going to be so weird. Because the scale of this was so much bigger.”
Hahn spoke further about playing the wicked witch of WandaVision, the experience of making a Marvel-size television series and the perspective it has given her on her career. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Before you made WandaVision did you have a burning desire to make a big-budget superhero project?
Oh, for sure. There was something about being thrust into the air, about fighting in the sky and working with wires. I had a very small part in Tomorrowland, and Keegan-Michael Key and I spent a lot of time with stunts. I have such reverence and respect for that world. I actually did trapeze for a little bit as a hobby — which went nowhere fast.
When was that?
That was when we first came out to LA. We found a trapeze school. I just screamed the whole time; right off the bat, you just have to leap. But it was so fun. So there was something that I loved about the idea of someone with superpowers in plain sight and the metaphor of using your powers for good.
Did you have any concerns that taking on something like WandaVision would diminish your indie cred?
I really didn’t because I feel like I’ve had such a bananas career anyway. I’ve been able to do Bad Moms and Step Brothers; I’ve been able to swing all over the place and flex my muscles. I can tread lightly on the gas pedal or push down on it. And each gig, to me, comes from the same source; it’s just whether or not I find the bird I’m playing interesting or not. I don’t want to put that judgment on it — of what’s cool or what’s not. I’m kind of too old for that.
What specifically appealed to you about WandaVision?
I was so turned on by the ambition and had mad respect for the fact that it is a superhero story that is ultimately about grief. And that there are so many women involved. And I love a witch, I really do.
How much of the Agnes — or, should I say, Agatha — character had already been figured out when you were approached to play her?
They pitched it all to me. I had dipped my toe in it with Spider-Verse [the animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in which she played Dr Olivia Octavius], which was so fun. Then I met with Marvel in a general meeting, and it was just a couple days later that they called me back to meet with Matt Shakman [the WandaVision director] and Jac Schaeffer [the creator and showrunner], and they had it all laid out. I had never heard of Agatha Harkness in the comic books, but they gave me a bible on her, and I went down a deep dive. And I was titillated by the ambition of it. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t quite see it. But I thought that if we could pull it off, it would just be so thrilling.
In the comics, Agatha Harkness is often depicted as a classic old crone type of witch. Did you think this is how you’d be presented in the series?
No, it made me laugh. I loved that Agatha was like, "I’m going land in this world, and I’m going to be the age of 47." I imagined that she really enjoyed sticking around and being in these sitcoms. She’s been flying around for a couple of centuries without a coven before she revealed herself, and she’d love to have a friend for a second.
There’s a kind of acting that you’re doing in the sitcom segments of WandaVision that’s very heightened and over the top. Where did that come from?
My husband put it perfectly. He was like, "Seeing you in the sitcom portion of the show, I saw the you that I saw in college. I haven’t seen that part of you in so long — just you, hamboning it." It was so fun to be able to let go in those ways. At the end of every episode, we would try to shoot a little extra portion of it for the theme song [the 'Agatha All Along sequence]. So I could play directly to the camera, and that would always make us laugh so hard.
It was also very interesting because [in the sitcom homages] we were all putting these roles on, on top of who we really were. It was so interesting to get to the last couple of episodes, where you see our true selves, who were actually very done-up and very big. And it felt very vulnerable to be at that scale. Those scenes between Lizzie and I, before Wanda embraced herself as the Scarlet Witch and she was still in her sweatpants, I think Agatha and Kathryn were very jealous.
Was there a moment during the production of the series that the size of it all really hit you?
In terms of when I definitely felt like, "Oh, this is a different rodeo"? It was very hot when we were shooting some of the big finale scenes. My costume was a lot of fabric. And we were doing some stunt work, and they suggested something for me called a cooling suit, which I had no idea what it was. But it’s something that you put underneath your costume that has, like, tubes of water. And then my dresser, this amazing woman, Beth, she would follow me around with, basically, a gallon of water, and she would pump freezing water into this vest with these tubes on between takes so that I wouldn’t pass out. And I thought, "Wow, I’ve never had this on any other gig."
When did you learn that Agatha would have her own theme song?
Oh, I knew about it from the beginning. At my first meeting, they were like, "You’re going to get a theme song." And I was like, "I’m in." And then they were like, "Are you down with singing it?" It was like, "Yes." I had no hesitation; I was so excited. I was a child who grew up with The Munsters and The Addams Family. And it took half an hour; that’s what’s so crazy about it.
Does the fate that Agatha meets at the end of WandaVision — to have to return to being Agnes for some unspecified period of time — really seem like a punishment?
I actually don’t think, ultimately, that she minds it. She needed to rest for a hot second. She’s been very restless. I think she was very lonely for a very, very long time. She loves having the companionship — loves the mailman, loves Ralph, loves Dottie. For the moment, I think she’s actually OK to just loosen the corset and sit and have a muffin and a latte.
Was it meaningful for you that WandaVision told the story of several women, including Agatha, Wanda and Monica Rambeau, which is not common in comic book adaptations?
That’s also one of the things that was a big turn-on for me: how many women were involved in it, and it wasn’t shying away from feelings. It wasn’t just action right off the bat. Wanda’s superpowers are coming from her feelings. There’s something I loved between the relationship of Agatha and Wanda. We talked a lot about Amadeus and Salieri, in terms of their relationship; Agatha wishes that she could make the kind of music that the Scarlet Witch just had naturally. For someone that has spent centuries studying this, to meet a young person to whom it comes completely naturally, it’s maddening, and you want to know why.
Despite her ulterior motives, Agatha could be a helpful therapist to Wanda at times.
I think there was that sense. I felt that very strongly too, at the end of that, there was a possibility that we’d join up — that she’d collapse into my arms, and we’d fly off together, which I kind of wish would have happened — or she would just hand it off to me.
This show has brought out a lot of affection from fans who say they want to see you in something of your own, created specifically for you. Is that still something you yearn for: to be the leading player with your name above the title?
I mean, I feel like I have been afforded those opportunities. I’ve loved those projects, whether or not they’ve lasted past a season. [Laughs.] I’ve definitely learned a mad ton through them and hold them so dear to my heart. It’s been a second away from my children and my family, and so I’ve had to carve meaning out of every single one. I don’t know if I yearn for it or if I’m just open to it. Whoever I’m supposed to play next, whether or not she’s the lead — I don’t know if she’s supposed to be or not, but I can’t wait to meet her.
Has your experience on WandaVision and the reception it’s received made you more ambitious for whatever you want to do next?
It’s so weird, I think, because of the pandemic. I’ve been in lockdown. I’m just with my family, and my Wi-Fi’s in and out, my kids are in school, and I’m not on Twitter. I just have been enjoying watching it every Friday night, and the making of it was so surprisingly deep for me. The fact that it’s gotten this kind of response — which I kind of knew it would get, just because of how special it was. But I don’t know. I don’t particularly feel like, "Ahh, here it is."
Like, this is the thing you were meant to arrive at?
Yeah, exactly. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m just sitting in my bedroom, basically in my pajamas. But I’m tickled by it. It’s super flattering.
If you get offered another script and you see that, once again, you’re the sidekick or supporting player to someone else, will you think, 'Here we go again?'
It think it’ll be totally dependent on what the thing is — if it’s a juicy filmmaker, juicy piece of writing. I still hold Private Life to my heart so dearly, and that experience of working with Tamara [Jenkins, the film’s writer and director] and Paul [Giamatti, her co-star]. I still hold I Love Dick to my heart so dearly. I never would’ve thunk in a million years that this part was in my cards. And there’s so much more to mine there.
Will we see more of Agatha Harkness in the Marvel universe?
I have no idea. They keep it really tight.
Well, if it’s something you want, I hope you get that opportunity.
Oh, me too. I want to. Now that I have a taste of it, I’m like, "Ahh." I really, really love it.
Do the memes help at all? If people in the industry see them, do they want to give you more roles or pay you more money?
AMy friends and I were laughing because, a million years ago, on my IMDb page, it said, "Kathryn Hahn, known for her over-the-top facial expressions." And we were like, "Whoever wrote that has been playing a real long game." How could they have ever known, years later, that that was the meme that was going to come out? I was like, "Kudos to whoever wrote that."
Dave Itzkoff c.2021 The New York Times Company
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