In the world of Hacks, which is now airing its second season on HBO Max, the protagonists Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), legendary stand-up comedian, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), lowly joke writer, are more alike than they would care to admit. Deborah is the elder stateswoman with impeccable animal-print style and Ava is the messy bisexual with her foot constantly in her mouth, but they both will do anything for a laugh. If anyone stands in contrast to them, it’s Marcus, played by Carl Clemons-Hopkins, the CEO of Deborah’s empire, whose dense deadpan indicates that he takes his job very seriously.
In the first season, Marcus lets his shell crack a bit when he starts to date Wilson (Johnny Sibilly), the man who was antagonizing Deborah about water usage on her palatial property. But Marcus’ fear of opening up gets the better of him when he refuses to go on vacation with his new boyfriend. Now, Marcus is reeling, spending all night at clubs where he doesn’t fit in and adopting an adorable puppy that he has no real desire to care for. While Deborah and Ava are out on the road, he’s been figuring out his shit back in Vegas. It doesn’t go well.
Clemons-Hopkins, who is nonbinary, has transformed Marcus from a side character into another one of the lost souls at the series’ centre. They muster Marcus’ intensity and the joy that begins to peek out. Thrillist spoke with the actor about the show’s queerness, that little dog, and game-night gays.
Thrillist: There’s an alternate-universe version of Marcus that is not at all this character. He could have been just the hard-nosed CEO of Deborah’s business, but he’s evolved in such a fascinating way. How did you participate in that evolution?
Carl Clemons-Hopkins: I remember [co-creator] Paul [W. Downs] specifically said, “We’re going to be going a bit into his personal life, just so you know.” I initially thought, “Oh, sure, okay. Maybe it’ll be something outside of work. Great.” And then we got through the first season, and then I realized, oh, this is his first heartbreak. This is his first relationship. He’s already someone who doesn’t process feelings very well. He’s already someone who doesn’t have any friends, I mean real friends. And outside of his mom and his aunt, he doesn’t really see reflections of himself. He’s so focused on work, and this one thing, he doesn’t get the benefit of being included in any of his communities, really. He’s not actually seeing reflections of himself racially. He’s not actively surrounded by other queer people outside of work.
So it’s been really interesting delving into the mind of someone who isn’t dealing with their feelings, doesn’t have support for the feelings around them. And is in their first heartbreak. It’s what’s been the catalyst of all of these, as you said, evolutions in the second season. And it’s been really fascinating to at least try to do justice to him.
Can you expand on the idea that he doesn’t have a queer community outside of work? Because his work community is queer, and I think that’s so great about the show: Queerness is just so inherent.
Well, and what’s great is in this season that work community is actually getting to speak with each other. We saw the seeds of it toward the end of last season, but definitely this season-Ava, Damien [played by Mark Indelicato], Marcus-the team is actually forming in a way where they’re actually interacting with each other, actually having parts in each other’s lives, which is something that Marcus definitely didn’t have before. I mean, keep in mind, he just stopped trying to get Ava fired. She was not someone he saw at all. So the fact that that relationship and those relationships within that work community are starting to really become invested in is the beginning of that community for him.
Marcus is also exploring the queer community in Vegas, going out to clubs.
Honestly, if you want my take of it, he’s a game-night gay who tried to be a party gay and he’s very clearly wonderfully, beautifully a game-night gay. And not that the two don’t ever intermingle, but I think some good friends, some good sweaters, some good wine and some good games would really be all he needed and more.
I wanted to ask you about the sequences with the little dog.
The puppy. I will say my heart stopped for that poor puppy…
Oh, that puppy. Oh, that puppy. Dogs and Adderall, not a good mix. Who knew?
What were those scenes like? And what was Marcus trying to fulfill with this puppy?
It was very much an acquisition of convenience out of lack of acceptance or being heard or what have you. It was very, “Oh, I’ll put all my feelings into this puppy.” And then you realize that you were not equipped to care for this. So it was like the heartbreak you never needed on top of the heartbreak you didn’t expect, on top of the heartbreak that you’re living. But I will say it was some of the most balanced days because it was the cutest, sweetest little puppy. When you’re not in temporary peril, you’re happy. So it really worked out. Outside of what we were there to do, it was some very happy days.
Can you talk a little bit about Marcus’ isolation in the first bit of the season? Most of his other colleagues are on Deborah’s tour bus, and you don’t decide to come along until the end of the fourth episode. Even in the club scenes, there’s loneliness.
In a lot of ways, Wilson was the prince who broke the spell because he was hyper-focused, isolated when he’s alone, isolated when he’s not alone, but this hyper-focused being, in many ways to avoid any of the many things that life will challenge you with, especially if you have the nerve to be not in the majority.
But it’s also a very real thing that we as humans will do sometimes when we are trying to avoid situations or trying to prove that we’re better than a pervading feeling. There’s definitely some depression there. There’s definitely maybe some manic depression there. But it was, again, something that having a puppy on set helped a lot. That was a highlight.
Later in the season, you get to interact more with Ava and Damien and Deborah. What was the feeling when you got to get on the bus?
Those were relieving. And we of course didn’t shoot in order, but most of the later episodes were shot later in the season. And because a lot of the more difficult Marcus moments were toward the beginning of the season, it was kind of a, “Oh great, this is wonderful. This is a lovely reprieve from previous focused emotions.” So, that was nice. I really enjoyed it. And it is a lot closer to the actual working relationship I have with these individuals, which is brilliant, fun, and just amazing.
What is the dynamic like between all the younger people and Jean Smart?
What I will say is, on a set we’re all actors in this green room at this ungodly hour trying to get this one shot. That said, she’s so phenomenal and so dynamic, and such an incredible leader. Such an incredible artist that, I’ll speak for myself, I’m learning from her every day. Grateful to have the opportunity to learn from her every day. We are all at different points in our career. None of us are Jean Smart, so there’s always something to learn. There’s always something to glean, even if it’s a way to take direction, a way to ask questions, a way to interact with people. It’s been a real blessing to have her leadership.
Are you rooting for Marcus’ relationship with Wilson?
Always. I’m always rooting for more time with Johnny Sibilly.
What about in the context of Marcus’ emotional state?
Without giving anything away, what I will say is, first and foremost, I’m always rooting for Marcus. If that includes Wilson, that’s wonderful. But I’m really rooting for Marcus to continue to come into his own, to possibly get some office space outside of a house. I’m rooting for him to experience his life as opposed to isolating himself from it. And I would love if that included Wilson, because that seemed like a someone who could really care for him in a very real way. But first and foremost, I’m rooting for Marcus.
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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.