Hacks Costume Designer Kathleen Felix-Hager on Making Jean Smart Look Fabulous as Deborah Vance

Hacks
Jean Smart (L) and Hannah Einbinder on Hacks (image via HBO Max)
Hacks
Jean Smart (L) and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks/HBO Max

Season 2 of Hacks just finished streaming on HBO Max last month, and once again, creators Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, and Paul W. Downs have outdone themselves regarding what happens with the relationship between Jean Smart’s aging stand-up veteran Deborah Vance and Hannah Einbinder’s younger and more idealistic comedy writer Ava.

Over the course of eight episodes, the two women hit the road to test out new material for Deborah’s impending comedy special, which lent itself to situations that often put the two of them at odds. It also meant that Deborah and Ava are in very different outfits from Season 1, which was set entirely in Las Vegas, and required the deft touch of Costume Designer Kathleen Felix-Hager, who received Primetime Emmy and Costumes Designers Guild nominations for her work on Season 1.

Before her stint on Hacks, Felix-Hager performed similar costume design duties on shows like Veep, Space Force, and Dexter, but Season 2 offered a lot more challenges, as she explained to Below the Line when we spoke on the phone a few weeks back.

Kathleen Felix-Hager
Kathleen Felix-Hager

Below the Line: Of all the work you’ve done, I’m most familiar with Veep, so was your connection with HBO what got you involved with Hacks, or had you worked with Lucia or Paul on something else?

Kathleen Felix-Hager: I had not worked with Luca and Paul before, but I’d worked with Morgan Sackett, who was the producer on Veep, and he’s also the producer on Hacks, and that’s how that introduction came about with me and Lucia and Paul and Jen Statsky, so that’s the Veep/Hacks connection.

BTL: I want to focus on Season 2 as much as possible, but before Season 1, what were you told about the characters? 

Felix-Hager: When I first was approached to do the job, I was given the first three scripts, and I read them, and I just was vibrating, how much I wanted to do the show. I was so impressed with the writing, and specifically how well these two women were written, women of completely different ages and points in their careers. I just thought the whole idea was just a mind field of deliciousness. I was so excited to be a part of the world. Also, Deborah Vance seemed like a real person to me, as did Ava, but I specifically was very clear on how I saw Deborah. When I presented those initial concepts to the showrunners, they were like, ‘Yeah, we love it,’ so that was good.

BTL: Had Jean and/or Hannah been cast already when you first got involved?

Felix-Hager: Yes, Jean had already been cast, and Hannah had just been cast when I was brought on board. I had worked with Jean once briefly. Jean had a guest spot on Veep, so I had worked with her on Veep. She played Tony Hale‘s mother on the show, so I had a little bit of an experience working with her. So that was helpful.

BTL: I don’t want to just assume, but I would think when someone gets to Jean’s age, they know what they like to wear and what they’re comfortable in, so how was it working with her on what Deborah might wear?

Felix-Hager: Great. I mean, initially, I showed her all my mood boards and thoughts about Deborah before [our] first fitting, and we discussed her a lot. We were actually on the same page. Deborah is very different from Jean, obviously. In real life, Jean is not as flashy as Deborah Vance, yet she loves all those things. If it’s shiny or if it’s sequins-y or if it’s leopard, Jean is all about it. We just sort of meshed from the very beginning about how we saw Deborah. We never wanted her to be a caricature of a Vegas comedian. We wanted her to seem like her own person, not derivative of anyone else, and hopefully, we achieve that. I think we did.

BTL: Definitely. She’s such a great character, and there’s a good reason why Jean won the Emmy last year, and maybe she’ll win again. Hanna’s character, Ava, is so different, because she kind of dresses down, and that’s her style. How did you work with Hannah on her look?

Felix-Hager: Hannah’s great. I mean, [dressing] Hannah was actually a bit trickier than doing Deborah at the beginning because Hannah is so specific and also very specific in the minds of our showrunners. She plays an LA comedian stand-up and that to Hannah isn’t actually real life. We leaned a lot on Hannah’s personal style, and then I brought in some elements of both our amazing showrunners, Lucia and Jen. The Ava character is pretty much a combination of Jen and Lucia in style, and Hannah’s style is sort of melded into one person. That was the approach for Ava.

BTL: What was the direction for Season 2 with them leaving Vegas and going to all these different places? Do they have fewer clothes with them for this road trip?

Felix-Hager: Ava brings less clothes with her. Deborah doesn’t because she has a tour bus that has an amazing closet, so she just has everything she needs on that tour bus. But also, we changed up her on-the-road show look, because her show in Vegas was a certain aesthetic – very glitzy and sequins and flashy. The material she’s workshopping on the road this season is way stripped down and much more raw, so her costumes on the road reflect that. She’s in very simple pants and camisoles, and then we have this lovely array of bedazzled and subtly sequined blazers that we use for that. That was fun to sort of figure out what her look on the road was going to be.

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Image via HBO Max

BTL: Has Deborah worn the same outfit more than once from episode to episode? Even in Season 2?

Felix-Hager: Pieces. Like she has a closet of pants and things, but she puts together things. She hasn’t repeated anything head to toe.

BTL: For each episode, how do you decide what she’s going to wear on stage or offstage when she’s not working?

Felix-Hager: It depends on the script. I do have big settings with Jean at the beginning, and then, depending on the script, certain requirements. On the road, we also sometimes tailor what she’s wearing to the city she’s in, like she goes to state fair one episode, so she’s got some cowboy boots and some velvet cut-out and denim situation happening that’s sort of the place in the US that she’s in at the time. I just had a lot of fun this season thinking about Deborah Vance out in the world with real people. There was one specific episode, the cruise episode, which I knew she was going to be… Deborah Vance in cruise wear was making me salivate. I was so excited about it. That was very episode-specific, those looks, which was very fun to do.

BTL: You guessed which episode I wanted to get more into, but I’ll get to that. How far in advance do you get the script for each episode so you can figure things out and how much prep time do you need for each episode?

Felix-Hager: When we started Season 2, I had the first four episodes, and we also cross-boarded, which meant we shot bits and pieces of all four episodes consecutively, which was a lot of clothes…  and a lot of clothes. I had that in advance, and then, I have to say the writers are really good about, if we don’t have full scripts, at least I had outlines or concepts. They were very good about giving me a heads up about like, FYI, in Episode 5, there’s a dress that Hannah tries on in a dressing room that had to be very specific, because that same dress was going to be something Hannah showed up with at the end of eighth [episode]. Things like that I knew, so that was also very helpful in helping me find things and just make decisions about pieces.

BTL: How big a team do you have for the show? Obviously, when you have Deborah performing in front of an audience, you have a bigger team in costumes, as well. 

Felix-Hager: I think I had a consistent team of about eight costumers and then my supervisor, and then when we had big days with a lot of extras, we had extra help, but I have quite a big crew.

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Laure Metcalf on Hacks (image via HBO Max)

BTL: I also want to ask about the character Weed, played by Laurie Metcalf, one of my favorite characters, who is only in two episodes, sadly, but she’s so great.

Felix-Hager:  I know — everyone loves Laurie!

BTL: I had to do a double-take because I didn’t recognize her at first. ‘Wait, is that Laurie Metcalf? I guess it is…’ How did you work with her to create her character’s look?

Felix-Hager: In the script, it says that she’s just like a road dog. She’s tried and true, been a roadie for her whole life and sort of gruff. When I spoke to Laurie, I had an idea, and we meshed very well in the fitting, I’ve actually worked with Laurie before. I had done Getting On with her, and she was so great. She was like, ‘Okay, I need a big man’s watch, and Weed doesn’t change her clothes. She just wears the same clothes.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, for two episodes, you’re wearing the same clothes?’ She goes, ‘Yup, I’m never changing.’ I mean, she sleeps in the chair, and the whole thing made sense for the character, and I loved her costume. All Laurie’s stuff was vintage finds, so that was fun. 

BTL: That may be why I liked her. I’m a black T-shirt and jeans kind of guy, and though I do change every day, I have a similar fashion sense as Weed. Because Season 2 is out of Vegas and each episode has a different location, Deborah is dealing with different audiences in each location, so what’s involved with dressing them?

Felix-Hager: We had to be really specific, and part of the costume design [is], everyone wants to talk about the principal characters. Of course, that’s obviously important to telling the story, but just as important, especially to this season, was [that] we paid really close attention to all of our background artists. They help tell the story of place, of where we are. We were all over the country in the story, so we were very specific about pulling very regional-specific clothing for people, so that was actually really fun.

BTL: I assume it was still shot in the same general area, rather than actually traveling around the country?

Felix-Hager: No, I think there was a second unit that did a lot of the driving shots and the drone shots overhead of different places in the country, but we shot in and around LA, Long Beach, Pasadena, wherever we were, and then we did do a brief shoot actually in Sedona, where the crew went to Sedona with Deborah and Ava.

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Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder on Hacks/HBO Max

BTL: Let’s talk about the cruise, because that is such a huge episode on every level between all the extras with everyone wearing swimwear and evening gowns, but also the fact that cruises were shut down due to COVID and took longer to get back up and going again.

Felix-Hager: There was so much discussion about that episode and so much change that happened around that episode. Initially, we were all supposed to, as a whole company, get on a cruise ship and shoot on an actual cruise ship at sea. Because of COVID and different restrictions and different surges, it kept changing. We actually shot on a cruise ship that was docked down in Long Beach, but we were on the actual ship. Some of the interiors Alec designed different places, but we did shoot on an actual boat, and they did go out in the water on that dinghy shot. That was such a fun episode to do. It was a lot of work. I mean, all of those extras were incredible. It was fun to dress everyone. One of my favorite costumes of all of Season 2 is when Deborah and Ava walk on the ship initially, and Deborah is in that amazing light pink and light blue duster with the prints and the big pink hat. It just made me so happy.

BTL: With the background actors, do you give them direction for them to bring stuff from their own wardrobes on what’s appropriate for the scenes?

Felix-Hager: Everyone is told what the theme is and what we’re looking for, pieces to bring, but we pulled a lot of things ourselves because we want to be able to make the environment look like, it really would. I’d say it was about 50/50. We dressed about 50 percent, not head to toe, but sometimes we would dress people head-to-toe, sometimes we’d give them pieces, [and] sometimes people would come dressed with great things. We definitely give direction, and you always want to have backup in case people don’t show up with exactly what you want. Then when everyone was dressed, we would do big lineups of all those women to make sure everyone looked good, and no one is in the same color as Deborah Vance and all those kinds of things. It’s a big process, but rewarding.

BTL: I was pretty amazed that the second season of Hacks came out almost exactly a year after the first season, which may be common for network sitcoms and such, but not for something as expansive as Hacks. And I think both seasons have been fully made during the pandemic?

Felix-Hager: Season 1 we shot in the fall of 2020. It was crazy to work [at] the height of a global pandemic — it was uncharted waters for all of us, but we did it. I think part of why it felt so amazing was because everyone was so grateful. I was also so grateful just to be doing something so normal and something that I loved in such a crazy time. When we got Season 2, we were still under the same protocols. We started fairly quickly after we wrapped — maybe four months after we wrapped Season 1, we started again on Season 2 — very, very quick, and we still had COVID protocols. We were all being tested. It wasn’t quite as intense, but we were still working in COVID times, which is crazy.

BTL: It’s quite a testament to Lucia, Paul, and Jen as directors and showrunners that they were able to create and maintain this level of quality for two seasons all through COVID. Have you heard anything about when prep might start for Season 3?

Felix-Hager: As of this morning, I don’t think there’s an official Season 3 pickup, but I would be very surprised if it didn’t happen. We’re all just sort of waiting to see and keeping our fingers crossed. (Note: The third season announcement for Hacks came less than 24 hours after this interview was conducted.)

The first two seasons of Hacks are available to watch on HBO Max. You can also read our interview with Production Designer Alec Contestabile.