All photos by Alice Baxley

Actress Meredith Hagner on Becoming a Rising Comedy Star

We met up with actress Meredith Hagner to talk about her kombucha-stocked fridge, bad spray tans, and her break-out career.

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Nov 21 2016, 4:02pm

All photos by Alice Baxley

You've seen Meredith Hagner before; you just may not realize it. The up-and-coming actress has appeared in "I-know-I-recognize-you-from-somewhere" roles in Veep, Louie, Royal Pains, Men at Work, and Woody Allen's Irrational Man. But this year, Hagner is poised to break out in a major way with TBS's highly anticipated new series Search Party—a dark comedy about a group of directionless millennials who latch on to the mystery of their college classmate's disappearance. The series is executive-produced by the cult-comedy hero Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) and created by the emerging indie directors Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss (Fort Tilden). Hagner's performance in the series is alternately hilarious and touching, and one that is sure to earn her attention and praise.

Hagner's onscreen presence is a mix of Meg Ryan's early-'90s charm and Jane Krakowski's off-kilter comedy, with a dash of Anna Faris's unfiltered ballsiness. And yet these approximations still don't quite capture Hagner's sparkling wit, which was on full display when I met her at VICE's offices in Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

She emerged from a photo shoot downing the last of a ginger-flavored kombucha. "I've actually recently become a nightmare and have started to stock my fridge with kombucha—who am I?" Hagner said with a self-deprecating laugh. "I went to somebody's house recently and there were stocked beverages, and I was like: 'That's the goal.'" In fact, ginger kombucha may be a better metaphor for Hagner's personality than any of the aforementioned actresses: She's bubbly and complex with a delicious bite.

But before she became a rising comedy star with a kombucha-stocked fridge, she was just a teenage theater geek living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Even then, Hagner was in command of a precocious talent—and it was actually a performance in her high school musical that led to her first professional gig.

"A writer had seen me in a play at my high school," she said, recalling her move to New York City. "He had written this musical for the Fringe Festival in New York, and he was like, 'I want you to be a part of it.' I was 17 and got paid like $800."

"I lived in a really bad part of Brooklyn," she said. "The choreographer of our play found me a roommate, but she was a 70-year-old woman named Rosie, and I lived in her guest room. By the end of the summer we were really close. She always said, 'I'm you're Brooklyn mom.'"

Hagner put off college in an effort to launch her acting career. But her first months in New York were anything but glamorous. "I passed out fliers in Time Square—that was my day job. But I looked like a teenage runaway and people felt really bad for me, so they would take them," Hagner said, laughing.

Soon she said goodbye to her 70-year-old roommate, quit passing out fliers, and decided to attend college. She was accepted into the musical theater program at the Boston Conservatory but found herself uneasy with the school's cookie-cutter of instruction. "It was like, 'Be like Kristin Chenoweth' as opposed to 'Be your own person,'" she said.

She decided against the Chenoweth-doppelgänger approach to stardom and dropped out of college after six months. In that time, she had scored an agent in New York and was auditioning constantly. She returned to New York, this time determined to stick it out and stay. After a solid year of waiting tables, Hagner landed her first break: a starring role on the soap opera As the World Turns. Like Julianne Moore, Parker Posey, and Sarah Michelle Gellar before her, Hagner got her start spinning soap opera straw into gold.

"The job was a great learning experience," she said. "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."

Hagner played Liberty Ciccone, a character who goes through the typical soap opera drama-coaster—complete with arrests, leukemia scares, and, of course, a teenage pregnancy. The latter represented the most absurd storyline Hagner ever had to tackle with a straight, tear-stained face.

"My character was pregnant, and the writers didn't know how to wrap up the story," she said. "I think they were just like, 'We don't wanna make her have a baby and do the baby acting.' So my character just got tackled by a random football player. I was just walking through a park, and I was tackled and lost the baby."

Hagner may have lost her soap-opera baby, but she gained a serious career boost from her performance on the show. Absurd storylines aside, the role earned her a Daytime Emmy nod ("I like to whisper the 'daytime' so you just hear 'Emmy,'" she joked). But while she was nominated for dramatic acting, her red carpet moment wound up being straight comedy. "I got this spray tan, and before the event my friend was like, 'Meredith, I think you're a little orange.' I was like, 'Sue, that's not how it shows up on camera, OK?' But I was so wrong. I looked like an Oompa-Loompa."

The nomination garnered enough attention to let her break out of the world of soaps. She began booking small roles on dramas like CSI: Miami, In Plain Sight, and The Following. But because of her soapy past, Hagner was shoehorned as a dramatic actress. "I was the rape victim on every procedural," she said with a faux-weary sigh. "I did a lot of crying."

It wasn't until the comedian David Cross cast her in a film he was directing that she felt that someone understood her as a comedic actress. "David Cross really gave me an opportunity with his movie Hits," she said. "That was a very creatively satisfying job, working with people I really admired. I think that's a thing with so many actors, you really need a director that gets you to give you a platform."

"David got me," she said, "and he gave me an opportunity to play a character that had so much humor and nuance, and I'm grateful to him because that opened the door to so many other things."

One of those things was Hagner's starring role in TBS's highly anticipated series Search Party. Charles Rogers (the show's co-creator) saw Hits and asked Hagner to audition for the character of Portia. The role was uniquely suited to Hagner's talents, requiring both a comedic sensibility and dramatic chops. Portia is a self-obsessed actress, and Hagner's portrayal brilliantly satirizes the archetype of the narcissistic millennial while infusing the character with unexpected warmth.

"The story and the arc of Portia is so dynamic," she said. "There are some moments that are so broad and comedic. [But later in the season] she deals with really big, dramatic things, and it actually gets pretty sad."

"I love playing these kinds of characters that are overly confident and big and yet, deep down, are insecure and sad," Hagner said. "I like being able to laugh at certain insecurities you may have in your life, then put that into a character. I wouldn't say I'm like Portia, but there are definitely exaggerated insecurities that I have that we share."

Hagner's character, like others in the show, skewers the ridiculous aspects of what it means to be a millennial. Yet for all the outsize comedy in the writing, there is also an underlying melancholy and loneliness. It's an impressive balance, and Hagner credits the shows creators for crafting such indelible characters.

"Charles [Rogers] and Sarah [-Violet Bliss, co-creator] write these hilarious, exaggerated characters dealing with experiences that a lot of millennials have had, but they infuse humanity into them," she said. "I hope from watching you realize, 'Oh, these are kind of ridiculous people that go through things that I've been through. I can actually see myself in them regardless of how [exaggerated they might be].' You see Portia being overly confident on the scene in New York. Then you see her stripped back when she's in her apartment eating ramen, being like, 'What am I supposed to be?' I think that's an experience that a lot of millennials, especially in New York, have had."

Though Hagner drew on her own early years of struggle in New York for the role, she has clearly come a long way from the 19-year-old passing out movie fliers in Times Square. Hagner has already accomplished much in her short career, and she's just getting started.

Watch Now: The First Episode of Search Party

Sponsored by Search Party, a New Original Comedy Series on TBS that follows the mystery of a lost soul and her group of self-absorbed friends searching for a college acquaintance who's gone missing. You can watch the entire season of Search Party starting Monday, November 21st @11/10c on TBS.

This article was paid for by TBS and was created independently from Broadly's editorial staff.