Q & A: ‘Free Agents’ stars Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn

Hank and Kathryn talk about why they came back to TV, working together and if Hank’s role in The Birdcage was really based on his Grandmother

The great Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn are starring in NBC’s new romantic comedy, Free Agents. Set in a public relations firm, the show is about two co-workers who try and redefine their relationship after hooking up with each other.  

Along with his film resume (The Smurfs most recently), Azaria can still be heard voicing several characters on the long-running animated series The Simpsons, but “Free Agents” is his first series since Huff.

Hahn has been doing some great work in supporting roles in movies (Our Idiot Brother and How Do You Know) but she might be best known for her role in NBC’s Crossing Jordan.

I talked to both Hank and Kathryn in a conference call where they talked about why they came back to TV, working together and if Hank’s role in The Birdcage was really based on his Grandmother.

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Free Agents airs on Wednesdays at 8:30/7:30c on NBC

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

It’s been a while since have done television. Well, Hank you still do the voice on The Simpsons but what brought you both back to television?

Hank Azaria: The script and the – John Enbom. We love to party down both Kathryn and I. And it was a tough decision for both of us because of the schedule. And we weren’t really looking to do something like this right now but we just kind of couldn’t ignore how good the material was and how fun the people seemed to be.

And it seemed like a really worthy good shot at the very least we would have a lot of fun doing and we have.   Kathryn Hahn: And as, you know, I – we both have young children and the schedule is relentless and so it’s definitely not the beggars can be choosers in any way.

But I was not – I was definitely not thinking about network — that kind of the schedule.

And, you know, like you said John Enbom and then also just Hank just that he said yes to this I knew that there had to be something incredible – incredibly special because it took a lot to get him to come back to television in this form.

And so I was just – the fact that he had vouched for it was a huge proponent of my decision.

Hank Azaria: I didn’t have that luxury of me saying yes first so I felt safe.

You’ve both appeared on Broadway. Any plans to go back?

Hank Azaria: I would love to do Broadway again. I would – I’m sure Kathryn would too right? You have – you loved it didn’t you?

Kathryn Hahn: Oh my God I cannot wait to go back. I can’t wait. It was a yes, it was such a beautiful year. But again it’s a huge amazing commitment and chunk of time.

You know, we have kids and yes, I can’t wait for the thing to come around that’ll bring me back because I also love that city so much.

Hank how do you relate to Alex through your personal dating experiences?

Hank Azaria: Oh my goodness well I’ve been divorced and I had to get back out there be single again and do some of that in the genuinely miserable state where you really do wonder what the hell is going on.

And you feel like they’re, you know, trying to have casual conversation with someone you don’t know on the surface of the moon or something.

And so I know what it is like to, you know, be really either elated or completely depressed within two minutes of a date, you know, in your middle-aged. So, you know, I bring quite a lot of personal experience to it — more than I care to.

Kathryn, were you at all nervous when taking on this role?

Kathryn Hahn: Yes I was – it was – it’s not an easy fit in a really great way. She’s a challenge.

I’m a person that just wears my heart kind of on the outside. It’s a strange expression. But she – I think this person is so bottled up and just and so closed off from her emotional life that that’s been a real challenge to kind of find, but a delicious one because I think it’s a very, a great place to start comedy-wise is somebody that’s kind of a well of untapped emotions.

Obviously the two of you film a lot of scenes together. But how is it to go from, you know, just the two of you and then jumping to other scenes with the rest of the incredible cast?

Hank Azaria: It’s great. You know, we’re still all learning each other. It’s almost like I, you know, to use a sports analogy it’s like a team trying to find their chemistry with each other.

You know, it takes a little while to gel, you know, like it didn’t happen overnight in Miami for, you know, Lebran and Wade and Chris Bosh.

I mean so you have to sort of the uses some of these rhythms and it’s – but it’s really fun to do. I mean they’re all really wonderful and we’re really lucky on this one.

I’m just curious if you could talk a little bit about the style of comedy and maybe how it compares to some other things you’ve done?

Kathryn Hahn: It’s a – it’s a different kind of comedy then, you know, I feel like the pilot it’s so interesting. Like we – the pilot kind of sets this very grounded foundation I think that is now going to enable us to go kind of off into a surprising comedy, just comedy I think moments and scenarios.

Like I think you needed to ground these people first before they can do what we know we can do and like our wheelhouse comedy-wise because the cast is so genius.

And John Enbom is such an unbelievably funny writer and true writer, but yet he’s able, you know, we’re able to do these very surprising and hilarious things.

So I think it’s extraordinarily funny. It’s just the right amount of lowbrow and highbrow that is – that just hits me right in the funny bone. Hank?

Hank Azaria: Yes it’s based on, you know, it’s definitely starting with reality. And the emotional and the logistical reality of these people’s lives especially Alex and Helen’s and the reality of there where they are emotionally.

And then still starting from there, you know, Phil Rosenthal is a good friend of mine who ran Everybody loves Raymond for years.

And the way he used to describe it was the big rule is you just can’t take the train to crazy town is the way he described it. You can’t be funny for funny’s sake. You try to get as (farsticle) and outrageous situation as you can but it always has to be believable and based in real character motivations and what people would really do. So it’s hard. It’s hard to write it’s hard to execute, and it’s hard to get the right tone. But, you know, it’s a good – it’s a worthy effort.

Kathryn, you’re such a scene stealer in all the movies you do.  And now they’re really going to know you. How does it feel to finally break out into the lead?

Kathryn Hahn: Well it’s so easy because I – maybe I’m just as in denial as Helen but I really do feel like it’s another amazing gig. And I’m surrounded by this incredible it just feels like an ensemble to me.

So I can’t quite see it as lead or else I think I that would put a weird thought in my head that would take me away from actually just doing the job.

You know, I just want to show up and be as true to her as possible and to be able to work, you know, with Hank.

And so I thank God have someone to play with that’s as open and effortless as I like to work.

Like I just – it feels really, really freeing. And she’s a different part. It’s not like, you know, if you definitely not as broad as some parts.

So it’s been really fun to try to find the comedy because God knows I did write a book called Making Faces with Kathryn Hahn. And this is definitely – it’s been really fun to find. It’s funny.

With PR, how involved like are you in your own PR through the years? And did you talk to, you know, publicists or your people to like research the roles and that type of thing?

Hank Azaria: Well, you know, that’s separate from getting roles really. You talk – you whine at your agent about different roles you want to do.

And with PR, you know, I’ve gone in and out. It’s something that, you know, PR you definitely have to make peace with.

Most actors if you really gave them the choice they would say I just don’t want to deal with it. But you absolutely it’s a big part of our business and you have to at least have some working knowledge of it and understand that it’s necessary.

And, you know, as important as the work you do as an actor is how you participate in promoting it.

And so, you know, and promoting yourself. I mean it’s just that’s the way it is. You can’t deny it. I try to keep a watchful eye on it without getting obsessive about it is what I’m trying to say.

Kathryn Hahn: I mean it’s like I mean I’m such a grandma. I don’t even I don’t tweet, I don’t have a Facebook page. I mean I’m so like but I will say having gotten this job I work with a really great PR firm only like when, you know, we’re ramping up for certain jobs.

So I don’t need to go to part – it’s not like I need one all the time because I have no, you know, I have no life.

Like I don’t need to get invited to (place) but – earn swag. But I but I have had a lot of empathy watching her through this process because you really do as (appearances) they really do kind of just – they’re themselves, like their self is so hidden, like they’re so about the person that they’re representing that it’s been interesting to watch like just how much BS they have to just swallow.

I would be – I mean myself I would be the worst. Like I was the worst waitress, I would be the worst – because I can’t – I have no poker face.

So I it’s been very interesting to a lot of empathy for someone that just, whatever kind of day they’re having they have to put completely – you know, actors can be such whiners. It’s been really interesting to watch her through this.

I just have a very puzzling question. I’m wondering if it’s true. I read somewhere that Agador Spartacus’ accent really came from your grandmother?

Hank Azaria: That is pretty true. I actually worked on a Guatemalan accent and then was pretty meticulous about it and sort of had it narrowed down to two different sort of versions of the voice and the character and then picked one. And then not long into rehearsing I realized I sound exactly like my grandmother. I could have just skipped all of that and just based – and then I did and I kind of embraced that. She was a very loving maternal sweet woman.

And my character in the Birdcage was so Faye and so feminine that it gave me very specific way to be sort of mothering and girly.

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