Kathryn Hahn on Finding Her Strength to Play Difficult Roles

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Kathryn Hahn I Know This Much is True HBO
Kathryn Hahn in 'I Know This Much is True'

One of the most thoroughly dog-eared and well-worn books on our shelves is I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. This heart-shattering novel – which was recently adapted into an HBO series starring Mark Ruffalo and Kathryn Hahn – follows the life of Dominick and his mentally ill twin brother Thomas. Neither knew their father while growing up, and his identity was a secret their mother took to the grave. 

Before their mother dies of cancer, she gifts Dominick the mysterious memoir of his grandfather, written in Italian. He attempts to get them translated while she is alive, but she passes away before the translation is complete. The memoirs run parallel to Dominick’s own story of coming-of-age, heartbreak, loss, and divorce, but plays a significant role in helping him navigate his own healing as he comes to terms with the traumas of his past.  

In the HBO series – which is available to watch exclusively on OSN Streaming in the region – Hahn plays Dessa Constantine, Dominick’s wife, who divorces him after their lives are destroyed by the unexpected death of their infant. The role of Dessa is played with ferocious empathy and vulnerability by Hahn, whom we’ve loved through her careful choice of both comedic and dramatic roles and her brilliant appearances in Bad Moms, I Love Dick, Transparent, and Mrs. Fletcher. An emotionally daunting role, Hahn relates the difficulties of playing this fragile, beautiful role in an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair. Listen in.

Kathryn Hahn and Mark Ruffalo HBO
Mark Ruffalo and Kathryn Hahn | Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Did you know the book before this came to you?
No, I’d heard of the book, but I had never read it. So, when I got the call to meet with Derek [Cianfrance], it was quite a week. I devoured the book in a week and all of the adaptation, so I really did get to sink into his world before meeting him. 

When I walked in to see him, it was a very strange feeling because it had been like a week-long I Know This Much Is True sabbatical, and it had seeped into my bones already. I kind of felt like that first time I was meeting him as Dessa and I’d never had that experience with a character before. But I just fell into the whole world. 

I imagine the opportunity to work with Mark and be directed by Derek was a big draw?
Yes, I love Derek’s work. Blue Valentine just blew my mind and it harks back to the kind of movie-making I love from the 1970s – actor-driven, performance-forward, deep, true, complicated human feelings. I just knew it would be a dream as an actor to work with the two of them. 

Mark is one of those rare beings. He’s just an actor through and through. I knew that working with those two was not going to be creatively disappointing for sure, and I was right – it was just a thrill. You know it was a real privilege to watch them work together – they just worked so beautifully together.

They both have Italian-American backgrounds, which feeds into the story of this family, and that’s really interesting.
Yes, and that’s kind of what appealed to me about this material, not only because there were some personal ties to it but also because it is so much about family and forgiveness and what we inherit from our family.

Having read the book and then the screenplay very close together, would you say that it’s a faithful adaptation of the novel?

Yes, I would say that he is faithful to the heart of it, to the guts of it, for sure. There are so many scenes when you read the book that are imprinted on your brain and I did feel that from seeing this – and the experience of making it – that it felt very true to the feelings of the book. It’s a daunting piece of material to adapt; it’s a huge novel, and I think Derek did such a gorgeous job boiling it down to the essential and I think the feelings are the same, and that is really difficult to achieve. The feeling I felt when I read it and when I watched it was coming from a very similar place and I think that is no small thing to achieve.

Did you get the chance to meet Wally Lamb?
No, I didn’t get the chance to meet him. I know Mark and Derek spent some time [with him] before production, but I don’t think he came to set. 

How did Derek approach filming? Did he want to get you all together before you started filming so you could talk it through? 

Yes. There wasn’t a lot of pre-production time for this and we did kind of have to find a history in a very short amount of time, which is any actor’s job, really. 

I felt so empowered, by both Mark and Derek, to find Dessa on my own. You know, Mark and I spent some time together, we kept in touch via text a lot. We definitely made sure to keep that bond and that heartbeat between Dominick and Dessa going. I will say that Derek is really hands-off when it comes to his actors. He will propose something and then let you go off with it creatively. Both Mark and Derek were both incredibly welcoming, and that was really important, too. 

What was that like, finding Dessa as a character to play?
You know it was difficult because she has such a well of forgiveness and she is such a good person [laughs]. Ultimately for me, it was about thinking of a family. For Dessa, Dominick is family and she saw his goodness underneath. 

Kathryn Hahn and Mark Ruffalo HBO
Kathryn Hahn and Mark Ruffalo | Photo: Courtesy of HBO

There’s a wonderful scene after Dessa has been away and is reunited with Dominick and he tells her that he’s had a vasectomy. It’s a key scene because there’s a chance that they can survive the tragedy of the loss of their child but when he tells her, it changes everything. What was it like to film?
That was very early on for me. It was brutal, really. We had spent a few days in that house together and we had to cover a lot and that storyline is pretty brutal. That’s the ultimate betrayal for her, of course, because there’s no going back after that. It was an awful space to be in as an actor, but it’s also exhilarating. Derek made it very intimate – there was just the DP (director of photography), a sound person, and Derek, Mark and I and it was a very tough day.

One of the reasons this piece is so satisfying is that it’s about human connections and feelings.

Like you say, it’s rewarding to work on such great material, even when it’s emotionally draining, but can you leave it behind at the end of the day’s filming?
I know what you mean. I’m definitely not one of those actors that can turn it off and leave it on the set. It’s a large part of your life and I learn something from every role that I do, about myself as a person. That’s one of the reasons – if not the main reason – why I love this job. With this, I was out of town, and that helped because I wasn’t going straight home to my two children. I kind of had time to debrief [laughs]. 

It’s that feeling that you have to jump off of a cliff with somebody, emotionally, and it does feel like a cathartic release. It’s about feeling human, and one of the reasons this piece is so satisfying is that it’s about human connections and feelings. That is satisfying. But bizarrely, for such heavy storylines, the vibe on set was great. It was like we couldn’t believe we were getting to make it, and there was a great energy and it felt very light on set. When we got down to work, we got down to work, but it didn’t feel heavy on set at all. 

The production had a six-week hiatus so that Mark could prepare to play Thomas. What was that like? 
Well, for me I was basically done when Dominick was done. So when Mark said goodbye to Dominick, he basically said goodbye to a bunch of people in the cast because there wasn’t that much overlap. But I saw photographs of his transformation and it was pretty stunning. And I don’t just mean the physicality, his eyes were completely different. He was a different human being, and it was spectacular. 

Could I ask you to sum up the experience of working on I Know This Much Is True
This was a pleasure from the beginning to the end. It was a privilege witnessing Mark putting it all on the line and that was an inspiration. And to be able to work with Derek, who is such a generous soul, was just wonderful. This was a deep one for sure. And I hope that people can find comfort in watching it because there is something deeply, deeply human about this story because it is about family and connection, whether it’s a blood connection or not, and I think there is something deeply satisfying about it when you watch it and you do feel less alone.

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