In Elle.com’s recurring feature Character Study, we ask the creators behind our favorite shows to go deep about what went in to creating their memorable characters: the original idea behind them, how they were tailored to the actor and elements of them we might not see on the screen.
Minor spoilers for the Hacks season 2 finale below.
Ahead of the second season finale of HBO Max’s Hacks, we spoke to showrunners Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky about series co-lead Ava, a zennial comedy writer played by Hannah Einbinder who’s fired after posting a poorly-received tweet and forced to move to Las Vegas and write for Jean Smart’s veteran comedian Deborah Vance.
When they were first conceiving the show, the trio wanted to explore a specific generational conflict. “The idea was originally about Deborah and the idea of women of a certain age in the arts, but specifically in comedy, who just never had their due, and how younger people who wouldn’t have had the opportunities they have if it weren’t for the older women,” says Aniello. “That was kind of the idea of the origin of Ava… we knew that we wanted her to be somebody who had a lot to learn.”
Ava has a sharp wit and tough edges and over the course of two seasons, she changes and grows: Her humor remains but her understanding of others and ability to connect with them gradually flourish. “People seem to have such little empathy for a young woman who’s figuring it out. I think that that‘s really sad,” Aniello says. “Sometimes there’s male characters who are, I think, a little bit less dimensional, [but] are able to be kind of blindly beloved in a way that I wish people could feel about [Ava], as well. I hope they do.”
The three creators spoke with ELLE.com about bringing Ava to life.
What events or factors do you think led Ava to have these qualities of being potentially overly outspoken and finding it difficult to connect with people?
Aniello: That’s part of the reason that we wanted to, over the course of the series, explore more of her backstory and her home life, especially her relationship with her mom. We learn in the pilot that she, financially at least, supports or supplements her parents’ living. In that way, she not only has to get a job, but [we] also wanted to just say this is somebody who has a relationship, with especially her mother, that is fraught and she is disconnected from.
We also wanted her to be somebody who was lonely and I think we’ve also said in the past that she wasn’t very cool in high school. Somebody who really felt like a loser until she got into the cool comedy clique for a while and started being liked by those people. She really drank the juice of that. And it went to her head, and it went too far, and she kind of became an entitled-ish kind of person that eventually gets sent off into the outskirts of Las Vegas. I think that it’s an interesting place to meet her, as somebody who still had a lot to learn about the world and herself.
In the finale, we see how she’s developed a degree of dependence on Deborah. Do you think that’s a situation she’s found herself in before?
Statsky: I think you can definitely trace a line from her getting wrapped up in Deborah, and becoming so involved in that person’s world, which, granted, is something that happens a lot with famous people in their ecosystem, in general. That’s something we wanted to explore. But I think you can trace a line from Ava becoming so enveloped in Deborah’s world to the fact that she is someone who grew up with not a super strong home life and not a family connection that grounds her.
Beyond her deeper innate qualities, how did things like how she dresses and her mannerisms come into play?
Aniello: Her style is kind of in between my style and Jen’s style.
Statsky: Our costume designer, Kathleen Felix-Hager, does a terrific job, but there are a lot of things throughout the course of the series that either are mine or Lucia’s, that Ava has worn. I think she falls in the middle of the two of us, which, there isn’t even that far of a gap, anyway.
Aniello: I don’t know. You wear more high-waisted pants.
Downs: We got what we wanted, because we wanted, when we were first talking about her, to feel a little bit hard. And also to be really in contrast to Deborah Vance, who is all about animal prints and dressing that feminine way. Obviously, Ava has a more androgynous look, I guess more gender-neutral look, and that has to do, partly, with her generation and gender expression. She has a very different idea of what gender is, as a construct, than Deborah does. We wanted that to be reflected in her style and her mannerisms.
Were there any ways in which the character was tweaked when Hannah was cast or ways that she helped shape it?
Downs: Hannah vaped in the audition, and I think that that was one of the reasons we incorporated so much vaping. We were like, “That’s rad.”
Statsky: In the scene she auditioned with, she’s opposite Jimmy, [Downs’ character] and complaining about this situation she’s found herself in. After a very, kind of sad, woe is me line, she hit her vape really hard and it made us all laugh so much. It was just something that Hannah brought to the audition. So yeah, there’s countless things that Hannah has brought to the character and the mannerisms.
As far as tweaking, Hannah has such a specific cadence and speed at which she speaks. Guys, correct me if I’m wrong, but maybe we thought Ava would speak a little bit faster than she does. But Hannah has such a unique timing that it really made the character so specific and unique.
How do you think Ava found herself in comedy and why was it right for her?
Downs: The history of the character is that she got plucked off the internet and basically didn’t finish college because she got a job writing on a cool TV show. And I’m sorry, I don’t remember the rest of the question. One of the things that I think is most autobiographical about the show, I’ll speak for myself but I think Lucia and Jen will agree, is that comedy was the thing that made us feel connected to other people. When we were able to make sketches or make jokes with people, I’ll just say for me, as a little weirdo, it was something that really enriched my life and made me feel connected to people. We wanted to give that characteristic to both of these women, because in the end they’re both very lonely and it’s their sense of humor that turns the other on and really connects them.
How do you picture her early friendships, romantic relationships, and connections with people outside her family before we meet her?
Aniello: I don’t think that they were super deep. I think that they were a little bit based on the IMDb STARmeter. I think that is part of what made her so superficial, especially when we first meet her, is that she didn’t treat people super well and I think had a reputation for it. The reason she gets canceled for a tweet isn’t really true. She wasn’t the best person, and people didn’t really want to deal with her anymore. And so, something like that happening gave everybody an excuse to say, “Great, now we don’t have to work with this person anymore.” Because, she’s always looking over our shoulder to see who else is in the room who’s cooler than us. I think while she does say how she feels all the time, she’s willing to be vulnerable. That’s something I think she grows into as the series progresses.
Overall, what do you think her defining characteristics are?
Aniello: Redhead. Just kidding.
Statsky: Cool clothes.
Statsky: I think she’s very honest. I think she’s an honest person and pushes other people to be honest and seek that out.
Downs: I think she has a sense of what’s right. She has a strong sense of what’s right, at least to her.
Aniello: Whether she’s right or wrong all the time is debatable, but I think generally, she falls on the side of right. We love her.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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