Carl Clemons-Hopkins didn’t anticipate becoming a part of “Hacks” on HBO Max. The Atlanta-born actor, who uses they/them pronouns, said they were living in Chicago and sent in an audition tape for a mysterious (then-unnamed) show filming on the west coast, on a whim.
Their experience was mostly in theater, but once the pandemic began Clemons-Hopkins said they quickly realized it was time to look more into TV which could still film with strict precautions. Their audition was a hit with the show’s creators and the rest is history.
The show, created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky, stars Jean Smart as Vegas-based comedy star Deborah Vance and Hannah Einbinder as Ava, Deborah’s 25 year-old writing assistant. It profiles the awkward, prickly and at times outright insane relationship between the two women as one tries to revive a legendary comedy career in Las Vegas and the other attempts to break into the business. And Clemons-Hopkins plays Marcus, the buttoned-up and ever-so-subtly funny assistant to Vance.
Clemons-Hopkins told TheWrap they didn’t relate to Marcus’ character at all. Every choice Marcus makes in the show up until the very end of the first season revolves around what Deborah wants — where Deborah needs to go, what will make Deborah money. Even though other characters, like Marcus’ “water cop” boyfriend Wilson (Johnny Sibilly), try to get him to break out of his shell and put himself first, by the end of the first season Marcus is still struggling to stand up to his demanding boss.
Clemons-Hopkins spoke with TheWrap about their experience making the HBO Max show during the pandemic, the transition from theater to TV and what’s next for the “Hacks” characters.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What led you to working on “Hacks” for HBO Max?
I was rehearsing a play in play Chicago in March of last year with the plans of doing some other continuing working in theater. And then when all that got shut down, we got furloughed, I realized very quickly that film and television mediums were probably coming back sooner than theater.
Theater was my focus was my focus for awhile, it wasn’t until 2015 I thought about getting in front of the camera. Not to belittle it or anything, but this was the one audition I had and I was like, well, let me work really, really hard… I actually probably got to an overworked, overthinking place for a little bit. But I really am a big fan of the creative team. I didn’t know anything about the show or anyone who was attached to it which I think was helpful. I think I didn’t have any of that pressure going into auditions. And the auditions were just a series of Zooms that were from the comfort of my own home. I originally hated it because I thought there’s no people, there’s no connection, it’s not even a studio. But I had to put it out of my mind.
Did anything specific about the script or show pitch stand out or appeal to you?
Something I told Lucia (Aniello) a long time ago was, in my limited experience, I can count on one hand the amount of times I was in a production where I’m not either getting shot or having a threat of getting shot. And for me that was the win. I read the script, like oh, there’s a character, he’s black, gay, everyone knows that, they’re fine with that and he lives? Great. Because that doesn’t happen a lot. And what I love about the comedy is it’s not leaning on anything, it’s not trying to educate a certain generation. It very much talks about all the kinds of generational differences amongst the cast. It’s just, it’s really great to be reliant on character development and story and writing and content, and not having to rely just on teaching something or, here’s something that we’re going to try to address but we don’t really have any time to address it within 30 minutes.
Does being type cast like that happen a lot?
A lot. Before this, I did a TV something and another something where there’s a whole (shooting) standoff. I could go to my inbox right now and probably find four to five things within each year where (that happens). And don’t get me wrong, some of it is storytelling that’s very vital ad very important, and revelatory. But I’m also very aware that it’s not for my entertainment but better for the education of someone who looks like they’re oppressing me.
What was your experience working with Jean Smart?
She has no shortage of stories and experiences and she was just genuinely interested in our lives which is wonderful. She was forced to tell us about shooting ‘Mare of Easttown,’ and her telling that story between takes, it is so hilarious. And there was also a great deal of world events happening in 2020 too, I’m not sure if you’re aware. To discuss those things with someone who has a real, genuinely compassionate, and caring heart, it made it less of, oh we now have to experience and endure all this stuff in a place with strangers around depending on (us). I’m so grateful that I get to go to work with people like her and Johnny Silbilly and Hannah Einbinder and the creative team, who are also empathetic and lovely souls.
What do you think of Marcus’ character; do you relate to him?
Very little. In the sense of like, I think I would be this friend but as his friend, I probably would counsel against half the decisions he’s making. He works very hard, bless him. I’ve been playing him — and no one’s told me not to but I’ve been playing him kind of like a private school educated, possibly former young Republican. We introduced him as someone who clearly has no personal life.
Marcus definitely makes the decision of career (over love), and is full of conflicts about it. My personal hope is that he reconsiders love, or at least fights for it. This season has really forced him to be an active participant in his own life, so prayerfully he doesn’t keep running from it. And I’m always always always rooting for him and Wilson- would love to see more of “The Water Cop” again in season 2.
Do you have a favorite moment or story from filming “Hacks” season and what’s exciting you about season 2?
There’s a dinner scene (in episode 7) with almost all the characters and it took a day and a half to shoot and they were very long hours. But the humor at that table… It was like I just spent a day and a half in that room filming the dinner scene, there was a day and a half I spent laughing the entire time. It was also one of those sets where everyone’s funny, like the camera people were funny, the crew was funny. I think everyone found found humor was a coping mechanism, which is helpful. And I’m sure there are hours of Kaitlin Olson (DJ Vance) just being hilarious in everything she does.
Now that “Hacks” season 1 is complete, I’m mostly excited to continue the path of Black-and-Queer character exploration. It is still such a new world, and I’m looking forward to telling different stories. Honestly, at this point of Queer violence in America, my hope is the average viewer of this show has long since made up their mind on our shared humanity. I don’t think any one show, not even this one, can actively change a viewer’s mind at this point. At best, we can be entertaining with a few life lessons on the way.
Season 1 of “Hacks” is streaming now on HBO Max.