It’s highly unlikely that Hannah Einbinder will ever forget her auditions for “Hacks.” Not only did it land her the role of Ava opposite Jean Smart, but the entire process happened during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I went into a physical casting office in Santa Monica a couple days before March 13th, 2020, that initial COVID lockdown,” Einbinder tells me on the latest episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “I read with someone in the office and, a couple days later, COVID hit and I found out that I was going to do a callback, but that they didn’t know how it was going to happen. It took like two months for me to do a call back that I did over Zoom. It was all bizarre.”
She was eventually summoned for an in-person chemistry read with Jean Smart.
“It was a completely empty soundstage, dark with no lights and just two interrogation lamps and two chairs,” Einbinder says.
Not only did she and Smart have to sit 10 feet apart, but there was a sheet of clear plexiglass between them. “It was all bizarre, but the truth of it is it’s all I’ve ever known,” Einbinder says. “All I have ever known is this and COVID sets because I haven’t really worked in this side of the business until now. So, it’s all been this thing that everyone’s like, ‘This is crazy,’ and I’m like, ‘What was it like before?’”
I caught up with Einbinder, a Los Angeles native whose mom is “Saturday Night Live” legend Laraine Newman, over Zoom from her L.A.-area home. To hear us laugh out loud for what seemed like forever, listen to the end of the podcast because you have to hear what happens when we start talking about bonding over being Jewish.
What was the biggest change you saw in Ava from Season 1 to Season 2?
I think she gets past a lot of the initial growing pains and mistakes. We see her dealing with the effects of something that does happen in Season 1 in the beginning of Season 2, but from then on she really isn’t the center of conflict after it’s kind of resolved-ish. The plot is not hinged on something that she has done wrong. It becomes more about the work the two of them are doing and Deborah’s new hour. I think she does kind of get it together a little bit.
What was your first stand-up comedy show like?
My first live show was when I was in college and Nicole Byer came to my school and she asked if anyone from the improv team at our school wanted to open for her. I was on the improv team and I kind of just volunteered. I did eight minutes, probably, and I went to open mics around my school and just wrote and got a little makeshift set together, and then I opened for her for a theater full of my peers. Kind of nerve-wracking, but also kind of safety net type thing, but just nerve-wracking because I was like, “Oh my God, I love Nicole Byer. I can’t believe she’s letting me do this.” But I was hooked ever since.
You were in the improv group but didn’t think about stand-up at the time?
I love stand-up. I always have. I never really saw myself doing it and I never really saw myself doing comedy. I joined the improv team because I met a kid who just told me I was funny and suggested that I try out because he was the president. So none of this I had ever considered. I’m still very in my head as a person, neurotic Jew… but at the time, I was very young and just so much more in my head, so improv was not something that I was really strong at. But I loved comedy, and so stand-up, I was like, “You can prepare.” Everything is planned and it’s thoughtful and there’s no pressure. I started to realize that that was a better fit. As I did stand-up, I became better at improv because I had the safety net of good jokes to fall back on. Now I love improv a lot.
Did you have to come out to your parents as a comedian?
My parents have rightfully always been realistic with me about the nature of this business. I’ve been really lucky to have that feedback. They’re encouraging, but they’re more so realistic about it. When I asked my mom if I could do it, she was like, “You know, I don’t know. Good luck.” She’s like, “I think you’re funny, I love you, but it doesn’t always matter if you’re funny. There’s a lot of factors that go into someone being able to make a living in this business,” and for a while she gave me like the real tea. They have always been like, “I think you’re funny, but it’s not up to me or anyone else. You got to go out and do it.”
It’s Pride Month and you’re an out and proud bisexual. Was there ever a moment when someone said to you, “You know, maybe don’t do that so publicly. You’re going to start this career here; you might not want to do that.”
No. I’m really lucky to live right now where that’s not something that’s happening to me personally. I think it probably happens. I think for sure for people who are in super mainstream positions, like I know Kristen Stewart is probably a good example of someone who is in this super huge franchise and it’s the pressure to have “appeal”, mass appeal. I was lucky to start on a show where my character is queer and I’m working with artists and women and people who are embracing that. So I’ve been really lucky. I’ve also talked about it in my stand-up since the beginning. With stand-up, there’s no censor. My managers are really awesome, two really nice guys. They’ve always been really loving and encouraging. I’ve had a really charmed and privileged experience.
Was Ava always queer, or was she queer when you were cast as Ava?
She was always queer. It was in the character breakdown, which I was so relieved to see, because it was the first bi woman I had ever had an audition for.
Were family or friends nervous for you when they heard you doing it in your standup?
I’ve had experiences at shows. It’s mostly men being disgusting. But that has created a thicker skin for me. I’m very sensitive — a delicate flower — and I’m still that way, but stand-up has given me coping tools to deal with the outside, to deal with my non-L.A. bubble when I go on the road and I go to these places where I don’t live in this utopia. So that’s been a good and necessary tool, I think, for the career and the life I’ve chosen and been able to pursue. But I also come from a really progressive, liberal, Jewish, queer family. I have two trans siblings, my grandmother was an out lesbian in the sixties. That’s my world.
This Q&A was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview on “Just for Variety” above. You can also find it at Apple Podcasts or wherever you download your favorite podcasts.