Stripper’s Delight: Kathryn Hahn, Hollywood’s most popular co-star, notches her first lead

Funny, sexy and very in demand

Kathryn Hawn in We're The Millers

Kathryn Hahn in We’re The Millers

When Kathryn Hahn studied acting in college—first at Northwestern, then at the Yale School of Drama—she had to force herself not to be funny. It didn’t always work.

“In Hamlet, I played Polonius, which was already hilarious,” she told The Observer in a suite at the Crosby Street Hotel. “It was very hard for me to not wink, especially during the death scene. It was hard for me to not tip it over to the other side.”

As a go-to casting choice for what lately sometimes seems like every director in Hollywood, Ms. Hahn no longer has to suppress her comic instincts—nor her breathtaking versatility.

In the past year or so, she has been seen as an unyielding campaign manager on Parks and Recreation, a sage maternal figure on Girls and a gun-loving Hillary Clinton aide on The Newsroom, three roles that inspired a Slate essay wondering how on Earth she wasn’t nominated for an Emmy: “Hahn is as fearless an improviser as her more successful peers, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. She’s enormously charismatic, with a smile as endearing as Julia Roberts’s. And she can play straight roles as readily as silly ones.”

In movie theaters, Ms. Hahn drew raves as an overzealous suburbanite with a secret sexy side in the recent Jason Sudeikis/Jennifer Aniston road movie We’re the Millers. And in her first-ever starring film role, she’ll play a married woman who develops an intense interest in stripper Juno Temple in Afternoon Delight, which hits theaters Aug. 30.

Ms. Hahn, in other words, is having a moment.

“There wasn’t a second choice for that role,” Millers director Rawson Marshall Thurber told The Observer. He saw her for the first time in Step Brothers, a raunchy Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly comedy. “She was the most inspired, electric comedian I’d seen come on the scene in years. New Line was not aware of how good she was, but I wanted her, Jen wanted her, and Jason wanted her. And they were with me, campaigning with New Line to get Kathryn the part.”

Ms. Hahn also just wrapped film s for directors Peter Bogdanovich and Jason Bateman and was recently announced as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s co-star in new Showtime pilot Trending Down.

We’re the Millers, which surpassed expectations with a $38 million five-day opening frame, stars Mr. Sudeikis as a marijuana dealer who hires a fake family, including “wife” Ms. Aniston, to help him move several tons of weed across the Mexican border.

Along the way, they meet RV enthusiasts Nick Offerman and Ms. Hahn, whose character is the sort of woman who uses the word “crumbums” unironically.

In one scene, Ms. Aniston and Ms. Hahn share an awkward encounter that includes Ms. Hahn grabbing one of Ms. Aniston’s breasts.

“My husband was like, ‘How was work today?’” Ms. Hahn recalled. “I was like, ‘It was fantastic.’ I love Jen madly, and filming this scene just made us giggle so much. It was hilarious.”

MS. HAHN’S NEXT FILM displays sides of her that audiences have yet to see. Afternoon Delight, written and directed by Six Feet Under screenwriter Jill Soloway, features Ms. Hahn in a role that is comedic, dramatic and sexual and explores the depths of a marriage in crisis (Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother plays her husband) and how we navigate the points in our lives that leave us feeling stagnant and lost.

Ms. Soloway first saw her when the actress bared all as a pregnant client of gigolo Thomas Jane in HBO’s Hung.

“She was pregnant and naked, and kind of sexy, and also a little sad, and hilarious, all in this one five-minute scene,” Ms. Soloway said. “It was one of those moments where I looked at the TV and thought, Who is that?”

Ms. Soloway compares Hahn’s performance in Afternoon Delight to those that drove intimate ’70s films such as An Unmarried Woman or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, films that explored their female protagonists’ inner lives.

“I was very surprised by her true acting genius,” Ms. Soloway said. “She reminded me of Ellen Burstyn, Meryl Streep or Dianne Wiest—flawed heroines who let their humanity come through. At its center, the movie is about the notion of the divided feminine—that inside every woman is many women. It’s about the complicated nature of real women, and what she delivers on is being able to live that wholly.”

Ms. Hahn said she’s not hired for her looks—a fact that can be hard to fathom while sitting across from her—but for her ability to convey manic abandon and quiet contemplation with equal fullness and believability.

“I’m not the most polished,” Ms. Hahn said. “I used to get into trouble with agents, because, as I was going to an audition, they’d be like, ‘Run a brush through your hair!’

“EVEN IN SCHOOL, I never was the ingenue,” she continued. “I was always grandma or the guy. This …” she said, waving her hand in front of her, indicating the entirety of her physical presence, “… was never my currency. So I got to screw with it, and I love that freedom. I would always rather have the makeup and hair people come in and mess it up a little bit more than make it neat. It’s never gonna be perfect. This is just who I am.”

Still, Ms. Hahn hadn’t planned on a comedic career, and her early resume, including a six-season stint on NBC drama Crossing Jordan, showed little sign of veering in that direction. But that changed when she secured a small role as a news assistant in the Will Ferrell film Anchorman.

She remembers the exact moment on the set of that film that made her realize the magic that was possible in comedy.

“Will started to improvise tongue twisters, and he, I remember—brilliant, brilliant—he just said, ‘The Human Torch was denied a bank loan.’ And I was like, uhhh!”

Ms. Hahn, instinctively mimicking her response from that day, inhales sharply. “Everybody died. We didn’t know where it came from—it was so specific—and he started laughing, as we all did, and I thought, that is the most genius. … I wanna be there. I wanna have my brain be able to operate in those ways, that [such a] perfectly formed thought would just spill out unencumbered. He is such a good person too, so it was like, oh, you don’t have to be a tortured nightmare to be a comedic genius. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Broadway audiences first caught a glimpse of Ms. Hahn’s own brand of comic genius in 2008, when she co-starred with Mark Rylance, Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Mary McCormack and Gina Gershon in Tony-winning revival Boeing Boeing. She aced a tour de force of physical performance that required the precise comedic timing of a Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. (The head of casting for the Fox network once compared her comic chops to Lucille Ball’s.)

“Every night, we’d try to screw with each other,” she said. “I had to do this thing where I’d flash Mark Rylance when I walked across the stage. That timing was crazy. It had to be [perfect]. After we got really on top of it, every time I opened my robe, I had something different on my crotch to make him laugh.

“One time, I had Bradley’s headshot there,” she said with a smile. “That made Mark break.”