Two-thirds of the way through writer-director Jill Soloway’s film, Afternoon Delight, there is a scene that begins with Rachel, the movie’s central character, played by Kathryn Hahn, toasting with her mom friends to “long marriages and children.” From there, drunker and sadder (and then drunker and sadder still), Rachel falls apart. Two lowlights: “Has anybody here wondered what their aborted children would be like?” and “I fucked the shit out of my twenties.” Rachel ends up sobbing about not having made any photo albums of her 5-year-old son, and ranting about her distrust of “the cloud.”
If Afternoon Delight — which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and then extends to more cities the week after — were a summer blockbuster, this part, which Soloway calls the “women and wine” scene, would be the extended sequence during which we see the destruction of famous American monuments (before the hero rises again).
It’s the equivalent leveling of Hahn’s Rachel in this funny/sad character-based movie. A monied wife and mother, Rachel has found herself at a sexless and bored crossroads with her app-developer husband, Jeff (Josh Radnor), and her career (none). She wanders the Eastside of Los Angeles wearing sweats that are this close to being pajamas. She’s a funny, middle-aged zombie hipster with almost nothing to do. Until, that is, she and Jeff and their friends go to a strip club, where she becomes obsessed with her young lap dancer, McKenna (Juno Temple). Soon enough, McKenna moves into their Silver Lake home, setting into motion Afternoon Delight’s very modern question: Can a sex worker save this marriage?
Having had a successful career as a television writer — Six Feet Under, United States of Tara, and many more — Soloway won this year’s Sundance directing award for U.S dramatic films for Afternoon Delight, her first feature. And Hahn, who has swiveled between dramas and comedies throughout her career, throws down here, giving a transformative and moving performance as the lost Rachel. I talked with them together last week over breakfast at Afternoon Delight’s press junket — the beginning of a long day for them that would end with the movie’s premiere. We did discuss the movie in full, meaning there are vague spoilers within. Afternoon Delight is an ideas movie, though, not, like, a whodunit: But if you absolutely hate knowing anything about plot and resolution, this interview isn’t for you.
Also, there is cursing.
You two didn’t know each other before, right? Even though it would have made sense if you had.
Kathryn Hahn: I feel like we know so many amazing human beings in common, and our paths certainly should have crossed many years before this. We live basically half a mile away from each other.
Jill Soloway: I did stare at you at the farmers’ market the morning after I saw you on Hung.
KH: Getting fucked from behind by Thomas Jane, pregnant? Fake pregnant?
JS: I saw you the morning after, and I was going to go up to you, but then I didn’t.
KH: There she is, ordering her tempeh. Trying to control those children. Yelling at her children to stop trying to drink that water from that gross urine fountain.
It’s a battle.
KH: It’s a TB battle over there. I also feel with Jill that there are very few humans, men or women, that are quite as — do-ers. She has an idea, and she fucking pushes it through. It’s so inspiring to be in that orb. She’s a generator. Because of her unbelievable passion —
JS: Anxiety. I’ve monetized my anxiety.
KH: Because of her passion, the people she surrounds herself with — it was such a quality crew and group of people together. This was going to happen the way that she dreamed it. I remember we were cleaning up after having a brunch, and she was really concerned by what paper plates Rachel would have. Because they went and got the wrong paper plates. And I knew exactly what she meant. They weren’t quite nice enough. You were enveloped in her confidence. It was like she birthed a fully formed —
JS: The movie was a birth. The movie came out of my vagina. It’s a very slickery movie. It’s like that week right before you get your period. And you feel slickery? That’s the feeling of this movie.
This story is going to do really well.
JS: You know when it’s really sticky? That’s what this movie feels like!
Kathryn, you’ve had an incredibly varied career. People tend to mention the comedies: like, Anchorman, or as Jill mentioned, Hung. But you were on Crossing Jordan for a long time.
KH: A million years!
This role is both dramatic and comedic. Where do you feel you lie as an actress?
KH: I wish I could say in retrospect that I plotted out this career in any way. Things just kind of unfolded themselves. But I also don’t think I could have played this part a decade ago. I don’t think I was ready. I always felt a little more confident theater-wise than film-wise. I feel like an impostor in the film world. I just don’t feel glam or polished or camera-ready. I knew this was always in me, and I just hadn’t had the opportunity. But this is my favorite kind of comedy, because it’s also crazy moving to me. Especially as a mom.
There’s a segment of the moviegoing audience that’s going to find Rachel —and Rachel and Jeff — to be familiar, and their lives relatable. And there’s a segment that might say, “Get a job, Rachel.”
KH: We talked about that. There’s a long line with privileged women, starting with Ibsen — or not starting. But it’s a long tradition of privileged women that because everything looks so perfect on the outside, there’s a luxury of looking at what’s underneath.
A lot of the times Rachel is talking to McKenna, it’s clear that McKenna has no idea what she’s talking about. Has Rachel always been like this? Or has her life kind of gotten away from her?
KH: I think there was definitely a turning point with her son in school. But I don’t think motherhood fit the way she had read about in all the books.
JS: I love the idea that there is no aspiring left; they’ve made it. If you’re not aspiring at all to anything, she’s got this life that, on paper, she should have everything. Two years ago, Jeff said to her, “Guess what? You can do anything you want right now.” So of course she said, “OK, I don’t have to work. I can just stay home with my kid, because that’s a privilege.” Experiencing that as a supposed privilege, and recognizing a year in after the house is decorated, and another year in where now the kid doesn’t need you for many hours in the day — now what? It does allow the opening up of a great emotional story. She’s blinded by this idea of, “Oh, I can save her.” And it works as such a perfect metaphor to be saving a part of herself.
KH: Their marriage is also in a place where they could just cruise — my favorite of expression of Soloway’s is “there’s that cruise control.” They could be this way for years and then just blow up, just implode. Silently get a mediator.
JS: I love you. I called a mediator.
KH: She definitely puts a bomb in their house.
Is there something in particular about McKenna, or could the stripper have been anyone? Whoever gave Rachel the lapdance that night — is that who would have been living in their house?
KH: I think there was something in this girl. Visually, I love that she’s, like, this cupcake, this little frickin’ creampuff, in the middle of all this red and dark. She’s a child. There’s something innocent about her, and she smells so good. There’s also just an optimism about her that you would not expect, and wouldn’t see in the eyes of somebody who had lived in it for a little bit longer.
JS: If you look at the script, it says during the private dance, “Rachel cycles through feelings of wanting to rescue her, wanting to be her, and wanting to fuck her.” It’s all three of those things. The idea that all three of those were happening at once, it had to be McKenna because she embodies those things. Even Juno, sometimes you look at her, and you’re like, “You’re a kid. You’re not even 22. Let me go and buy you a doll.” And sometimes you’re, like, “What would it be like to be that fucking hot? I want to be you.” I remember once we were on the set, and it was, like, “Oh my god, you’re so fucking sexy.”
What kinds of conversations would the three of you have about the Rachel/McKenna dynamic?
JS: I remember when the three of us went out to dinner for the first time. And I watched you guys connect. They loved each other, like, instantly. They went outside —
KH: I fell in love. We had a bad-girl cigarette. We were, like, we should put that in the script.
JS: I took a picture of them outside of Café Stella, smoking. It was so cute. I think that you guys had that connection: I love you, I want to take care of you, I’m your mother, I want to be you, I want to fuck you.
KH: Immediately! It was a real safe, amazing relationship. Who would have thought? We fell madly in love. The three of us did, though.
How close are Rachel and McKenna to having sex in the movie?
KH: There’s a deleted kiss. Because of the scene that’s in there right now that I think says so much, and I think isn’t so on-the-nose, the massage scene — that’s not strictly a sexual scene. It’s sensual. But it’s more about something else. I think rightfully the kiss would have made it more about a lovers’ breakup. And it’s more complicated than that.
Why does Rachel stop herself from kissing McKenna? It’s obvious that she wants to.
JS: In the massage? I think it’s only obvious to lesbians.
KH: Do you really think so, lady?
You throw her onto the bed.
JS: It’s not because she’s going to make out with her. Some people see that. But not everybody. She’s just too uncomfortable. The way we worked that scene is that she thought she was dying, she has to push her off of her because she couldn’t breathe. I think she’s so in her body, and so loving being taken care of — she’s being mothered and she’s being enveloped in the feminine: It’s too uncomfortable for her. Early on, somebody read the script, a producer, and said: “You need to choose. Is this movie about motherhood, or sex? Pick one.” And I said: “If I pick one, the movie won’t work. It must be about both at the same time, all the time.”
Kathryn, it’s an incredibly brave performance. I assume there were times when you felt uncomfortable.
KH: I don’t know what you’re talking about! But that’s kind of the glory of the three-and-a-half week shoot — there was no overthinking of any of those scenes. And the hard ones, the sex scenes, were all kind of one-and-a-half days at the very end. Which was awesome, because we were just on delirious fumes at that point. There was no preciousness about it.
What were the parts that you found to be difficult?
KH: Oh, I would say the eyes-open orgasm at the end. On top of Josh Radnor. In a nude thong.
JS: By the way, we realized that the brand of this movie is “Funcomfortable.”
KH: That may be the brand of my Spanx that I have on right now, too, guys. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s hour one!
Jill, were there hard moments for you in terms of comfort?
JS: The movie became more intense and real as we shot.
You felt that while you were filming it, that the movie as you conceived it was changing?
JS: After the women and wine scene. I felt these real performances in here will not work with the really broad silly shit. This is the least funny version of the movie.
At that point, our interview got interrupted — we continued the conversation on the phone a few days later.
When we last talked on Monday, we were about to begin discussing the women and wine scene.
KH: We went to this amazing house in Hancock Park and blacked out the windows. We started at 9 in the morning — like, banking hours. Jill set up two cameras. And it was kind of broken naturally into three levels of imbibement and unraveling. We did maybe two or three takes at each stage that went 25 minutes long sometimes. Jill got us in a circle before we started.
JS: A Madonna circle. Like Madonna’s dancers. I was polishing up on my Cassavetes techniques, and I was reading this book that came with the Cassavetes box set. And he said, “If I don’t have a take that plays over the course of 10 of 12 minutes, then I don’t have a take.” And I was, like, “What!” I was so moved by the notion that he would look for the things that would play for 10 full minutes.
KH: It was literally the dreamiest.
JS: It was just so fun. When I think about those five women, I think of a wrestling announcer going, like: “Hahn! Watkins! St. Clair! Mumolo! Nakamura! The monsters of comedy!” I think that women are mostly the one funny woman in the scene, or the one woman in the scene. But to have five women where whoever has the ball knows how to fucking score was amazing.
KH: Jill set this environment for people also to go to a crazy dark place. Michaela improvised a monologue that had us all in tears. Jessica St. Clair moved me. Everybody.
JS: We just lost our shit, Kate. We lost our minds. I sat in the other room watching it on the two monitors and I kind of didn’t know where to watch. I was, like, “I am watching the best television show or movie I have ever seen in my life and I am never going to call cut because this is the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Tell me about the ideas you were trying to get across in that scene.
JS: I wanted it to be an aria; I wanted Rachel to have her aria. I think of the structure of this movie — a heroine’s journey — as a spiral, a series of circles. She’s just spiraling down, she’s circling the drain. I knew I wanted it to feel bloody. You know the rotor, that ride where you stick to the wall because it’s going so fast?
Everybody pukes on the rotor.
KH: Oh my god, I remember somebody puking on the rotor and it went right back up in their face.
JS: That’s what I wanted it to feel like. When you’re on the rotor, and somebody pukes, and it flies back up in their face.
When you think about the current state of women’s conversations in pop culture, particularly about sex, was this a deliberate attempt to do something different?
JS: There are three post-feminist topics in there that are incredibly dangerous to discuss. One is rape. One is consent — what is consent? Another one is abortion. Did we have ‘em? If we did, did we think of those experiences as producing actual souls of real people that we can now ask about? Just being able to toss in these topics of conversations for feminists without having to say, “This is the answer.” I really hate when somebody goes, “Oh, now we know why Rachel is so upset: because she had an abortion” or “because she was raped.” It’s like, nah, she wasn’t raped: She had the same kind of sex that all of us had in college. And the abortion, it didn’t scar her. It was the experience that it didn’t matter: that she just got lost watching All My Children. “This thing happened to me. I barely remember how it felt. I do remember watching All My Children and One Life to Live.”
This movie is about to be in the marketplace where lots of people can see it. But first, there was Sundance, and showing it to audiences there.
KH: This movie was so precious, and it was such a vulnerable thing to feel like a piece of something that wasn’t just ours anymore. We’d all gone home, and I got the call on Saturday, my phone just blew up with texts and emails about Jill winning director. And I burst into hysterical tears; I was so excited.
JS: I tell people that being at Sundance was like being in a dryer with a shoe. Sometimes the shoe gets you in the head, and sometimes — you get to just be in the dryer. There’s the super-high highs of the amazing premiere, and then getting clunked in the head with the shoe by a couple of dudes out there who were willing to tell us we weren’t as fucking awesome as we thought we were. I think there are some straight, white males who are part of the dominant culture who aren’t used to seeing anybody who isn’t them have a story. You throw in some period blood, you throw in some Accused fantasies — people get pissed. You throw in a stripper who doesn’t die for her sins, you put in a wife who doesn’t need her husband to save her — this movie would have really satisfied a lot more people if Jeff had found a way to make it all OK. There’s none of those things that usually make people comfortable in these kinds of stories about the divided feminine. Rachel wasn’t punished; McKenna didn’t kill a child accidentally. Everybody kind of got out OK. I mean, Lena Dunham just gets hate mail all day long on the internet. I think that’s a problem for women artists and writers. For me, it was just an education in growing up, like, fuck all that. We did it right for us, we made a movie we were really proud of. The director’s award was just a validation: We made something important.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Also, Jill Soloway and I know each other through friends and we both live in Silver Lake!