Kathryn Hahn Stars in New Limited Series Produced by Reese Witherspoon

Reese Witherspoon adapts another of author Cheryl Strayed's poignant tomes in 'Tiny Beautiful Things', casting Kathryn Hahn as an advice columnist whose life is in the process of imploding

Reese Witherspoon adapts another of author Cheryl Strayed’s poignant tomes in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Cheryl Strayed is world-renowned for her bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which in 2014 was adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon. But prior to her career as a novelist, Strayed was the woman behind a popular advice column called “Dear Sugar,” which she wrote anonymously until 2012.  

In the TV adaptation of Tiny Beautiful Things, based on Strayed’s third book and own life experiences, Kathryn Hahn plays Clare, a floundering writer who is offered an advice column at a time when her life is falling apart. The way “Dear Sugar” comes into Clare’s life is not far from reality. “I had been reading my friend Steve Almond’s column, but I didn’t know he was writing ‘Dear Sugar.’ I wrote him a little fan letter saying, ‘I think this is great, but I wish you’d write it more.’ A lightbulb went off in his head and he got in touch with me, and said, ‘Will you take it over? The thing is, it doesn’t pay anything. Nobody reads it, and it’s anonymous, so you will get no credit for your work’—which pretty much described my writing career up until about then,” recalls Strayed. “I said yes, and it became one of the most important yeses of my life. I wrote the ‘Dear Sugar’ column with all my intelligence and love and humanity. I put everything into it.” 

Though a fan of Wild, Hahn had not been previously familiar with this part of Strayed’s professional life, until the pilot written by Liz Tigelaar came her way. “I was so moved by the writing of Liz’s,” says Hahn. “And then, when I read the source material that was simply questions and answers, there was such a heart in there. When I saw that Liz had adapted that into this, I was incredibly moved to ask to be a part of it.” 

While the series draws on Strayed’s own life, part of the adaptation process meant separating the real-life author from the protagonist of the show. “Whenever you’re adapting something, especially something that’s already been adapted. This was a book. This was a podcast. This has been a play—[you ask,] ‘How are we going to make this its own thing, and why does it need to be adapted?’ ” muses showrunner and exec producer Tigelaar. “I started to think, what would it look like if Cheryl had never hiked the Pacific Crest Trail? What would it look like if Cheryl had never become the writer that she—that her mother—hoped and believed she could be? That started the foundation for building Clare.” 

That said, many of the pivotal turns that shape Clare and her crises come from Strayed. “We knew that seminal experiences in Clare’s past did have to, in some ways, match my life, because in Tiny Beautiful Things, the advice I give as Sugar, very often [were] stories from my life,” Strayed explains. “Clare isn’t going to be Cheryl, but she had to have a mother who died young of cancer like I did. She had to have had gotten married scandalously young like I did. She had to have grown up poor and working class in the rural environment like I did. Those are the things that made me. And those are the things that made Clare.”   

To portray a character trying to find her centre, Hahn and The Wilds alum Sarah Pidgeon, who plays a younger Clare, were asked to bring their own struggles to the project. “We had these creative workshops with this wonderful woman Kim Gillingham. Not only did she help create a language between Kathryn and Sarah, Kim said something in our first workshop that just stuck with me the whole time, which was, ‘This show is not about perfection. This is not about playing these roles perfectly. Bring your mess. Bring your broken hearts,’ ” says Tigelaar. “We brought our own messiness, and that was what I think everybody drew from as artists. That’s, to me, what made it so deep and brave and powerful.” 

Tigelaar also praises Hahn for not portraying a TV version of a human, but a relatable person—something the actress does not find much of a stretch. “As an actor, I’m not one of those that can just easily compartmentalize or leave it at the door. It all bleeds in, in a beautiful way for me,” she says. “As an actor, all I needed was in those pages. What that evoked [in me] were in those pages. I don’t know a person on the planet that I particularly trust that says they have their s*** together. It’s an evolving process being a human being, and the beauty of these roles I’ve been lucky enough to play is that it’s a journey that we are all on. The place that I love to be as an actor is that catch in your throat of, ‘Is it going to be a laugh or a sob?’ I guess that’s called ‘mess,’ but, to me, that’s just called being a person, and that’s my favourite genre.” 

Tiny Beautiful Things premieres Friday, April 7 on Disney+