2018 Film Essays

You Gotta Act: The Extreme Sincerity of Meredith Hagner

“You Gotta Act” is a Vague Visages column on acting by Manuela Lazic.

What made Marilyn Monroe more than just another sex symbol — Hollywood in the 40s and 50s had plenty to offer — was her acting talent and its specific genuineness. However air-headed or calculative her characters were, Monroe portrayed them with total commitment, so unafraid of ridicule that she went beyond any accusations of parody. Say what you will about her hopelessly romantic singer and ukulele player Sugar in Some Like It Hot, Monroe respects her character and gives her exuberant girlishness and naivety her all. She turns what could easily have been a live Jessica Rabbit into a three dimensional character that you can find deeply silly but can’t help empathising with.

There’s something of Monroe’s unabashed authenticity and femininity to Meredith Hagner, the rising star of television and film who made me laugh more than any of her co-stars in TBS’s Search Party (and the competition was tough). In the hit show, the 31-year-old Hagner portrays Portia, an actress on the cusp of making a name for herself. The parallels between Hagner and Portia don’t stop there, and they are actually a way to get into Hagner’s still young career.

In the first season of Search Party, Portia gets a part on a cop show full of cliches and poor on emotional subtleties. Hagner herself made her start 10 years ago in the CBS soap opera As the World Turns, the third longest-running continuous daytime soap in American television history. She played Liberty Ciccone, and throughout her two years on the show, Liberty went through typically dramatic events: running a DNA test to prove who her father was, living the highs and lows of a forbidden teenage romance, getting pregnant, hesitating to have an abortion and to get the child adopted, then losing the baby when she crosses a field and gets hit by a kid playing football. Looking at Hagner’s work today, it is evident that her acting benefitted from this chance to play big emotions. “The job was a great learning experience,” she told Broadly. “It’s a skill to take not the best writing and make it interesting. When you finally work with incredible writers it makes your job easier.” The writing on Search Party is indeed some of the most exciting there is today. Portia, like all the other characters in the show, is a slightly exaggerated version of a certain type of millennial, but with real humanity: self-centered but caring, even if she tends to make a point of seeming extremely altruistic, ambitious yet insecure, a fashion victim but more than a dumb blonde — she is high-energy and always feels emotions at 100 percent. When Portia is upset by even the smallest things, Hagner plays up her disarray, with her already high-pitched voice getting tiny like a little girl’s and her face becoming the image of sadness itself. In a soap opera, this would be all that Hagner would need to do; in Search Party, she gets to also have genuine feelings and face extraordinary events where her reactions no longer seem excessive.

After a few bit parts in various TV shows such as the short lived Lights Out (2011) and CSI: Miami, Hagner was noticed by actor-director David Cross and cast as the lead in his independent film Hits (2014). She plays Katelyn, an aspiring singer living in a small town in upstate New York whose Madame Bovary-like delusions of grandeur lead to more and more degradation and fury. This role isn’t exactly comedic, but Katelyn’s determination to become famous by any means necessary asks of Hagner to be committed to seeming ridiculous. When she feels down, Katelyn loves to sit in her car and talk to herself as though she was answering questions on the Ellen Show, and in those scenes, Hagner reveals how talented she is at casual false modesty – a skill she will use to great effect in Search Party. Katelyn truly believes she’s got a chance, and Hagner manages to make her obvious bragging seem like sincerity.

Slowly but surely, Hagner’s career kept developing, taking her to more high-profile directors and more prominent parts. She appeared briefly in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man in 2015, but got a better chance to show her talent in Folk Hero & Funny Guy the following year, playing the third lead alongside Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) and Girls star Alex Karpovsky. Here, too, she’s an aspiring singer and guitar player but with real talent, and Hagner’s singing is genuinely impressive (she deserves to be in a musical film soon). With the character of Bryn, the part of the ambitious young creative is clearly becoming Hagner’s specialty and proves to be a good outlet for her capabilities: playing the striving independent woman creates a good contrast with her petite figure and cute blonde complexion (as well as her piercing voice) — she is Monroe’s Sugar for our age, as women no longer look for a rich man with a boat to feel complete. Bryn is also witty (as the current trend for American indie film about ‘finding yourself’ requires; see also The Big Sick) when an uncomfortable situation needs diffusing, but also the most honest of the band, and Hagner proves the most capable at enduring discomfort in a way that isn’t difficult to watch (Karpovsky struggles and, as the lead, makes the film a bit too unsettling). Acting requires the ability to take in even the most annoying of emotions, instead of avoiding them with coping mechanisms, and as Bryn tries to be accommodating for Karpovsky’s deep-seated insecurities only to an extent, Hagner lets her unease show truthfully. Just as she could cry on demand (convincingly) on her soap opera, Hagner can express embarrassment fully, never seeming to be “acting embarrassed.”

More television roles followed, but Search Party, starting in 2016, offered Hagner the part that truly put her on the map. Like Katelyn in Hits, Portia wants recognition and her colorful wardrobe/personality make that abundantly clear. She is overly friendly to everyone she meets, yet Hagner portrays that kindness as utterly honest. One of the greatest pleasures of watching Portia is in trying to understand this immaculate generosity and good spirit: it clearly comes from privilege, from being a beautiful white girl living in New York City, and from having rich parents as support while trying to make it as an actress. Despite those obvious advantages and the disdain they can rightly make viewers feel towards Portia, Hagner doesn’t play her as a caricature. Portia is blind to her advantages because she has never known anything else, and that doesn’t make her a bad person per se. She deserves respect even as she constantly reveals her ignorance. As the show progresses, her image of the perfect, radiant young woman is complicated by revelations about her disdainful mother and her struggle to be respected in her job: it turns out that Portia, too, has known pain, even if not as much as most people. And when Dory (Alia Shawkat) gets her and their other two friends mixed up in a mysterious and traumatic story of disappearance, Portia’s sincerity and good heart comes through to make her ever more compelling. Behind the perfect glee and openness that she offers up to the world, Portia is a truly caring friend and only wants what’s best for everyone, never double-crossing others to get what she wants (unlike some of her friends).

Hagner made another particularly strong impression in the same line as Portia with a small part as Charlotte in the 2017 Sundance darling Ingrid Goes West. In the first few minutes of the film (and in its highly effective trailer), she is the first victim of the unwanted attention and hunger for fame of Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid, who goes through Charlotte’s Instagram feed to see countless images and videos of her #perfect wedding reception and starts crying uncontrollably. Hagner is heard on the soundtrack reading the captions on Charlotte’s photos, her girly voice perfectly suited to this vision of the ideal ceremony. Hagner looks like a Disney princess in her wedding gown and with her genuine commitment to utter bliss. Pretty, petite and blonde — her voice almost caricaturally feminine — Charlotte resembles Search Party’s Portia and Hagner proves that she has found her niche in the part of the “perfect woman,” playing the role with such sincerity that she makes the unreal character fully-fleshed out, instead of unbelievable and ironical. Charlotte may be going too heavy on the hashtags and online displays of gratitude, but she is a truly happy bride and Ingrid’s anger at her for not inviting her to her celebrations therefore appears completely unreasonable.

This image of the ideal yet sincere young woman keeps following Hagner. In 2017 as well, she appeared in the highly stylized music video for the song “Rich White Girls” by the American alternative hip hop duo Mansionz, playing one such rich white girl. Constantly smiling as she exercises and lounges around her mansion, and even when hanging herself, Hagner is more parodic than ever, yet her performance remains committed and saves her character from complete ridicule, making the video aptly unsettling (this is alternative hip hop, after all).

YouTube video

Most recently, Hagner had a small part in the Netflix romantic comedy Set It Up as Zoey Deutch’s engaged roommate. While Deutch’s Harper struggles with her assistant job and growing feelings for fellow assistant Charlie (Glenn Powell), Hagner’s Becca has the ideal set up herself. When she gives a typically cheesy toast to her engagement party, Hagner nevertheless brings a much needed breath of realism and honest acting to the film. Her few interactions with Deutch create a sense of a long-lasting friendship between the two women because Hagner doesn’t impose any quirks or wits on her scene partner, unlike Powell and Deutch who do so throughout the film — apparently, rom-coms are supposed to be quirky, which means they have to feel unreal and be populated by socially awkward robots. Hagner takes the genre more seriously. Instead of accentuating artificial traits to become a character that can be defined with simple adjectives (Charlie is witty, arrogant, closed-off; Harper is nerdy, self-deprecating — in other words, a true Manic Pixie Dream Girl), Hagner lets Becca be more human by truly connecting with the actors around her.

This year, Hagner is slated to appear in the action-comedy-thriller The Oath alongside, amongst others, the hilarious and talented Tiffany Haddish. It will be interesting to see how Hagner’s total sincerity will match with Haddish’s similar shamelessness and wit, which she demonstrated in Girls Trip last year. In any case, here’s to hoping that Meredith Hagner will continue to make us laugh while taking her ludicrous characters seriously for many more years, just like Marilyn Monroe did before her.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.