Veteran actor Christopher McDonald is enjoying a busy year amid Marvel and HBO productions and now awards consideration.  His performance as Marty, the complexly layered hotel owner in HBO Max’s award-winning comedy series Hacks, has earned the actor his first Emmy nomination. 

As Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series,  he’s finding more fans recognizing him for the latest role as opposed to his globally known work in comedies like Happy Gilmore.  

Hacks earned a total of 17 Emmy nominations this year after winning three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing and Directing in a Comedy Series and Lead Actress in 2021. 

The hit series explores the mentorship between stand-up comedy icon Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a legendary Las Vegas comedian in need of a shake-up, and an opinionated young writer named Ava (Hannah Einbinder). It also reunited McDonald with Smart after they appeared alongside each other in the legal drama series Harry’s Law starring Kathy Bates. 

The second season continues to explore the long-running relationship between MacDonald’s casino owner and Smart’s aging star as they mix very real feelings with petty, often competitive banter. 

“Jean is very expressive and brilliant,” McDonald shares. “In the first season, her husband passed away unexpectedly, and I would hold her in my arms before we would go into a scene, and then she’d turn it on like a light bulb and just be funny and charming.”

McDonald, who also recently appeared in Fx’s American Crime Story: Impeachment, will next be seen in Marvel’s Secret Invasion series opposite Samuel L. Jackson, Emilia Clarke, and Ben Mendelsohn. The series is undergoing reshoots in Europe, with details about the story slowly filtering through the online fandom.

McDonald spoke with Awards Focus about finding out about his nomination on a plane at LAX, sparring with Jean Smart, his thoughts on Deborah’s and Marty’s complicated friendship, and teases his role in Marvel’s Secret Invasion.

Christopher McDonald and Jean Smart in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photos by Karen Ballard

Awards Focus: Hacks received a total of 17 Emmy nominations this year. How did it feel to be recognized for your role as Marty?

Christopher McDonald: Well, it’s interesting. There was no celebration other than the fact that tons of calls were coming in. I was flying back from the East coast, and I didn’t even know it was the day of nominations. 

We landed, and the pilot said we didn’t have a gate and would be waiting twenty minutes on the tarmac. So, I took my phone out, turned it on, and there was an avalanche of messages saying, “Call me! Call me! Call me!”

So that was a shock, and I had to sit on it a bit because I was in an airplane, but it still didn’t hit me until twelve hours later. 

I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is the first time I thought the performance would be worthy of it, but I never really pursued that kind of world. It’s not really why I’m in this business. I love to act and what I do, but at the same time, am I going to push myself, get a publicist and do that whole tap dance? So it’s such a fantastic honor, and I’m just living in gratitude and over the moon about the entire thing. 

AF: The show did incredibly well at the Emmy’s last year, winning three awards. Was there a different atmosphere on set coming into season two?

McDonald: It didn’t get too crazy, but the celebration was pretty big. I’m a guest star, so I kind of pop in, put the monkey wrench into the works, and then dash out. But I was delighted for all the people nominated. 

The bottom line is being on a hit is a great sign. Oh my god, people love this show! 

It was so funny, I got stopped on the street yesterday, and the woman went on and on. I told her she was so sweet, and she said, “I just love you, Marty.” [laughs].

AF: It’s been 25 years since Happy Gilmore was released and it continues to gain a strong following. Fans of the film love to quote him and I’m sure you’re recognized often from that role. Was that surprising to be recognized as Marty?

McDonald: It was a shocker at first. If you walk in New York City, you’re going to get all kinds of things. 

Walking down the street, it’s always Shooter [McGavin]. I get that every day when I’m out because of the iconic-ness of the role in the film. It’s generational now because it plays on the television in a loop. People love to hate me in that movie. 

But it is being recognized now as Marty that’s a joy. It’s people responding to the show, and it’s just so wonderful. 

AF: Most of your scenes in the series revolve around Marty’s relationship with Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance. Have you worked together before?

McDonald: I go back with Jean. We did a great series where Kathy Bates was the headliner, Harry’s Law, and Family Law before that. I was a series regular, and Jean came on and guested and just killed it. I found her so great and talented and fun. 

I had no doubt at all that she could pull this off. Then you see the work she was doing in Mare of Eastown playing a grumpy old grandma from the Philadelphia area. Then she’s playing a multi-gajillionaire, stand-up comedian living in Vegas. She can do anything.

AF: The relationship between Marty and Deborah is so fragile. When you think they’re back on track, Deborah is either blackmailing Marty, or he is taking away her stage. What were the conversations around Marty’s reaction to Deborah because he never gets so frustrated that he becomes a villainous character?

McDonald: The first thing I was told was that they’d been friends forever and lovers on occasion. They’ve hooked up between divorces, but they’re business friends first. Ultimately that bleeds over into real personal chemistry with anybody you’re close to for so many years. 

Marty turns the knife a little when he tells her that he needs Friday and Saturday back and then turns around and says he’s getting remarried. So this is shocking to Deborah because of our history.

The very end scene of the first season was what got me because she says to Ava, “You can’t quit. You’re too good. I need your company.” It happens again this season when she lets Ava go. It’s all about love. 

I wanted to make sure I had that upfront with her, and that was the challenge in those scenes to see that there was an underlying history, chemistry, and a genuine love for each other. 

Christopher McDonald in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Courtesy of Warner Media

AF: What’s it like sparring with Jean Smart in your scenes together. Do you have a lot of rehearsal time, or is there a more organic flow to see where the scene goes?

McDonald: We run the lines and then sit down at the table while they’re lighting the scene and play with it to the point where it’s the most real for both of us. In that last episode in season two, I know she’s going to ask me for the hotel, and it’s a really beautifully written scene. There were so many things unsaid that were hiding behind us. So we get the beats, and then we go for it. 

Jean is very expressive and brilliant. In the first season, her husband passed away unexpectedly, and I would hold her in my arms before we would go into a scene, and then she’d turn it on like a light bulb and just be funny and charming and making each other laugh. 

AF: The scene in the final episode after Deborah wins the auction to blackmail Marty is so beautiful because she thinks she’s moving pawns in place to get something from him. But Marty reveals that he would’ve given her the venue anyway if she’d just asked. Do you think their friendship will always be transactional, or could it be something more?

McDonald: I think it plays better as a give-and-take and like a cat and mouse because it keeps her on her toes. I don’t mind being a character that makes her do that. I hope in season three that she could be back in my hotel because I love that she’s back in Vegas. Actors never know until the last minute, but I hope there’s a lot more time with that relationship because that’s where her love is.

AF: You also have a role in Marvel’s upcoming series Secret Invasion, which is currently doing reshoots and will air in 2023. Can you talk a bit about starring in a big-budget studio series and what it’s been like sharing scenes with Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn?

McDonald: I have to tell you, it checked off so many wishes off my bucket list. First of all, working in the Marvel universe and working with great actors is so wonderful. What I can tell you about my character is that he can sneak in and out of any storyline in the Marvel universe. 

The director Ali Selim is fantastic, and it’s a delight to play this storyline because it’s really, really good. We’re actually heading back to London on Tuesday to do additional scenes. They’re doing reshoots in a way that’s making the story better. Apparently, there’s a new writer in there. He’s amped it up, and the series is going so much deeper than before.