Minor spoilers below.
In the new Hulu limited series Tiny Beautiful Things, Clare (played by Kathryn Hahn) is a mess, coping with the fallout of her decisions. Our first introduction to her is while she’s wasted in the back of an Uber on her way to break into the home her husband has exiled her from. Suddenly homeless, Clare camps out at her hospice care job where she is routinely reprimanded for bad behavior; she makes impulse romantic decisions; and she’s still carrying the festering grief from the loss of her mom and the unresolved familial conflicts of her youth.
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s book Dear Sugar, the show’s eight episodes feature Hahn’s Clare trying to put the pieces of her life back together—from her troubled relationship with her high-school-age daughter, to her buried writing dreams. The series flashes back and forth between her teenage years (where Sarah Pidgeon portrays a young Clare), which showcase her raw dynamic with her own mother (played by a gentle Merritt Weaver), and the present day, where she begins moonlighting as an advice columnist with dreams of being an author. Tiny Beautiful Things casts a spotlight on the idiosyncrasies of getting older, and the heat of living with grief and searching for closure. Clare—and the series—aim to show the depth of human nature where people can be both confident and contentious; brash though still loving.
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Hahn spoke with ELLE.com about embodying a different version of Strayed, how her own identity spoke to the character of Clare, and why she thinks advice columns are so powerful.
You’ve stated that you were really moved by the pilot and connected with the character Clare. What was it about her that you felt drawn to?
I’m always surprised, excited by, and turned on by a woman that’s my age who is allowed to be the hero of her story in a space that has traditionally been occupied by a man—to be given the opportunity and the chance is so rare. To be in a space of the “both and” and play a character that’s both sexy and a disaster; funny and mean; that’s flawed; that has got her shit together and that’s in total pain and trying on the surface to not be; that is in a marriage, but can’t quite get out. That can’t make a decision. That’s stuck. It’s all the crap that I feel like so many women, especially at my age, are feeling and I think if you poke behind the surface of anyone, they would say they feel the same thing.
I don’t know anybody whose life is perfect, and I think especially now, there’s so much artifice and so much that pressures us to think that we’re supposed to be something when we’re clearly not feeling that inside. That divide can make one feel really depressed. So I think any opportunity to show someone that we can relate to is moving to me because I feel like we’re getting further and further from that kind of radical honesty.
Were there any specific moments in either the book or the series that stood out to you and eventually made you want to sign on and embody this character?
In the pilot, Clare receives the mustard yellow coat from her brother that her mother had given her before she went to college. She didn’t want it and thought it was ugly, but her mom had worked really hard to get it for her because it’s practical and good for New York. Clare wanted her mom to return it and get her something nicer, and that was the last present her mom had ever given her in retrospect. It’s those little things that you say that you don’t realize could be “the thing.” Sometimes we live so in the future or so in the past, that it’s difficult to remember to live in the present, and I think there’s something about this series that does remind you to live in the present, and to use your past as a tool to learn and forgive and let go.
What conversations did you have with Cheryl Strayed specifically, given that the book is largely based on her own life?
Cheryl was an unbelievably generous, unbelievably compassionate soul through this entire journey for me. We didn’t have very many talks about this character because she had already been portrayed by Reese [Witherspoon] in Wild. It was very important to her that this not be another version of her life story, and that this be its own bird. There are definitely parts in her past, played by the remarkable Sarah Pidgeon as her younger self, that are important to her: she had always really wanted to be a writer, she suffered an unbelievable loss at a young age with the death of her mother, and she had struggled with a tough life at the beginning. Those were important to Cheryl and the rest was fictionalized from this amazing writers room that Liz [Tigelaar, the showrunner] put together.
What do you think it is about advice columns that make them so popular, especially for women?
Dear Sugar resonated with me because Cheryl Strayed’s responses are so radically honest. I think they touch and move people so deeply because there’s no hiding behind the Internet or social media. It is just the truth and that’s why it feels so radical. It also gives people a sense of healing and presence, and knowledge that your past can heal you.
The mother-daughter dynamic is a throughline of all timelines in the series. You’re a mother and a daughter yourself—how did your own experiences shape your performance?
It’s interesting because it all bleeds together all the time all the way through. There are a lot of women involved in Tiny Beautiful Things—producers, writers, directors—which I am so proud of, so there’s a lot of mother and daughter stories and work that came out. It’s gnarly and complicated and beautiful and healing through the making of this show. It was a lot of beautiful labor.
At the TCAs you mentioned that TV is where you want to be right now. What is it about this medium that is appealing to you at this moment of your career and life?
TV just happens to be the medium that is more excited to have me be a part of it [laughs]. But I would say that TV and streaming seems to be where I’m finding the juiciest roles, so I’m excited to go where the roles are.
Do you have a favorite memory, scene, or line from the series that has stuck with you?
There’s so many cozy scenes with Tanzyn [Crawford] who plays my daughter and Quentin [Plair] who plays my husband. They were very tender and funny and just, delicious. Any scenes with the family were really fun because we had a great rapport instantaneously and we made each other laugh off camera. That chemistry came so fast and it was a real pleasure.
This series is as much about grief as it is about closure. How did those themes resonate with you?
Closure is always something you wish for. Very rarely as humans do I feel like we get to actually experience what that is, so it felt very cathartic and I hope it feels that way for viewers. I hope that it inspires people to take those leaps into finding closure because it’s scary and it takes a lot of bravery, and a lot of people spend their lives avoiding it. We look to a lot of other things instead of facing it and I hope that this show inspires people to find that with their loved ones.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Radhika Menon is a freelance entertainment writer, with a focus on TV and film. Her writing can be found on Vulture, Teen Vogue, Bustle, and more.