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Actress Kathryn Hahn.

Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

Kathryn Hahn likes her characters messy. “I love meeting someone in a moment of tension, of discovery in herself,” the actor, 45, says by phone from Los Feliz, the Los Angeles neighbourhood where she lives with her husband of 16 years, actor Ethan Sandler; their two children; plus two dogs, a rabbit and a hamster. “I love when you’re not sure if someone is going to burst into hysterical tears or hysterical laughter. Where you think, ‘What is this person feeling? I know she’s feeling a lot, I know I’m witnessing a seismic shift, and I’m so curious as to where she’s going.’ I lo-uh-ove that.”

Hahn has a face built for expressiveness, flashing from serenely beautiful to squishy with laughter or smeary with sadness. On screen, she’s not plagued by vanity – she not only wears her characters’ awkward moments in her body, she revels in them, as if she’s made of elbows. “I hate it when I feel self-conscious,” she says. “That’s why I’m not comfortable getting my photo taken. I don’t like the feeling of it, that gaze on me in that way. I like listening to other actors, and I like moving. My early head shots were bad news.”

On the phone, she exudes joy and best-friend warmth, and you can hear her native Midwest in her husky voice (she was born in Illinois and raised in Ohio). Ask her a decent question, and you also can hear how happy she is to dig deep, to root around in herself for the answer.

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“I like contradiction,” Hahn says. “I don’t go around quoting [the philosopher] Alan Watts all the time – I wouldn’t want you to think that – but he says, ‘I am under no obligation to be the person I was five minutes ago.’ I love that quote. I think it’s a great thing to live by, a beautiful place to be, as an actor, as a human.”

It’s been a huge pleasure for me to watch Hahn’s rise – from the sidekick parts that she made far more interesting than they were written in comedies such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and the two Bad Moms films roles that ask for more of her. The first time she made me sit up straight was Afternoon Delight (terrible title), Jill Soloway’s debut feature. Hahn plays the lead, a bored wife and mother who takes a lunge toward kindness that rattles her life. Near the end, when her character makes a raw confession about the pinball-machine scene in The Accused, Hahn’s delivery practically seared my skin.

She was equally nervy as the rabbi Raquel Fein in Transparent (the scene where her boyfriend, played by Jay Duplass, wants to go to a party even though she just had a miscarriage is a stunner), and as a frustrated artist in I Love Dick. In both, she gets to be angry without being a bitch, and we know how rare that is.

I ask Hahn if she has a sense of what directors turn to her for, and she lets out a long, “Ahhhhhhhh,” while she considers her answer. “I think I go for it,” she finally says, laughing. “I work hard. If I’m your cup of tea, I’m your cup of tea, I guess.”

Is she ever scared of being too raw? “No,” she says immediately. “Uh-uh. I trust the group I’m in. I trust the things that are being said, how they’re going to land.” She also gravitates more toward female filmmakers, but she feels “that’s a two-way street. They gravitate more toward me, too.”

Hahn’s latest role, in the Netflix film Private Life, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), asks for all of her, and she delivers. (It drops Friday.) She plays Rachel, a writer mired in the fertility-industrial complex, as she and her husband, Richard (Paul Giamatti), try to have a baby by any means necessary. Jenkins wrote it as a buddy movie, sending two equal characters down a bumpy road, only the end goal is parenthood instead of say, a bank heist. It’s sad/lonely/funny, specific and humane.

“I’m crazy proud of it,” Hahn says. “But the thing I’m most proud of is that I can hardly remember what I did. I remember Paul – Paul’s face while we’re fighting, Paul across the table from me in the diner. I learned so much from watching him. I feel like this on-screen marriage we found together is so deep.”

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They actors hadn’t known each other before, and didn’t have a lot of prep time. Their first meeting occurred in New York, where Hahn was doing Bad Moms press “for a second.” Jenkins manoeuvred them all into having dinner together. “Tamara invited us over to Paul’s house” – Hahn lets out a peal of laughter that ends in a snort – “which is so Tamara. ‘We’re going to Paul’s and I’m going to cook you dinner.’”

Jenkins whipped up a pasta ragu, they drank some wine, and then Jenkins made Hahn and Giamatti do the dishes while she watched. “It was awkward and odd, but also very casual and mellow and subtle,” Hahn says. “We laughed through it and made fun of it, but I think it helped. We had the same dumb sense of humour. It was like we’d known each other forever.”

Hahn’s adventures in fertility were simpler than her character’s, but no less profound. “I knew I wanted kids, but it was vague. Like the way I wanted a kitten,” she says, laughing. “And even when I had my son, it took a second – it didn’t feel like I thought it would feel. I thought I’d feel this for him and he for me, why isn’t it connecting like I thought it would? I felt all the feelings of failure at first. Then suddenly it was, ‘Oooof.’ Your heart is outside your body.”

Having children is “an ego-destroyer,” Hahn says. “Your perspective, your priorities shift. You can’t be as precious about things you thought were important. I think it helps you become a better listener, and then you become a better actor.

“It’s no small thing that I’m doing the work I’m most proud of after having two children,” she continues. “I’m really thrilled about that. I hope that young actresses can see and listen to that, that this is the most creative time in my life. I can do a wide range of parts. I feel the most creatively fulfilled.”

She’s thrilled to be doing this kind of work with these kinds of women, telling these kinds of stories. “But I’ve always got ants in my pants,” she says. “I always have. I want what any actor wants. I want juicy, contradictory, messy. I want complications. I want imperative stories.”

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I hope she makes a mess of them.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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