Clare, played by Kathryn Hahn, leans against a blue car.

How Hulu’s Tiny Beautiful Things Celebrates the “Beautiful Mess” in All of Us

By Zach Johnson

Based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling collection, the Hulu Original Tiny Beautiful Things—premiering Friday, April 7, with all episodes—follows Clare (Kathryn Hahn), a floundering writer who becomes an advice columnist while her own life is falling apart.

When audiences meet Clare, her marriage is on thin ice, her teenage daughter (Tanzyn Crawford) is icing her out, and her once-promising writing career is non-existent. So, imagine Clare’s surprise when an old writing pal asks her to take over as the advice columnist Dear Sugar. Strayed was just as surprised when real-life columnist Steve Almond offered her the very same gig years ago, when she was feeling much like Clare. “I wrote him a little fan letter saying, ‘I think this is great, but I wish you’d write it more,’” Strayed recalls. “He [later] got in touch with me and said, ‘I’m writing the column, but you’re Sugar. 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.’ That pretty much described my writing career up until about then! And so, I said yes—and it became one of the most important yeses of my life. The beautiful thing about being paid nothing for your writing is that you can do whatever you want to do. And that’s what I did. I wrote the Dear Sugar column with all my intelligence, love, and humanity.”

Because Strayed’s columns had already been adapted into a book, a play, and a podcast, showrunner and executive producer Liz Tigelaar wanted to take a different approach for the series by treating it like “a nonlinear memoir.” In the early days, Tigelaar recalls, “I started to think, ‘What would it look like if Cheryl had never hiked the Pacific Crest Trail [which inspired her best-selling book, Wild]? What would it look like if Cheryl had never become the writer she always wanted to be—that her mother hoped and believed she could be? So, that started the foundation for building Clare.”

Clare, played by Kathryn Hahn, looks at her daughter, Rae, played by Tanzyn Crawford, who is covering her eyes. They are both lying on a blanket, outside, at night.

As such, much of Clare’s story is inspired by Strayed’s own. “The seminal experiences in Clare’s past were so important that they did, in some ways, have to match my life,” Strayed says. “From the beginning, we knew Clare isn’t going to be Cheryl, but many of her most important experiences—beautiful and ugly, painful and true—had to be mine. 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 world environment like I did. Those are the things that made me, and those are the things that made Clare. Those pieces really did come from my life.”

Hahn found it easy to relate to Clare, calling herself far from perfect. “I don’t know a person on the planet that I particularly trust who says they have their [life] together. I think it’s an evolving process, being a human being,” she says. “We are constantly trying to figure it out. That’s the beauty of all these roles I’ve been lucky enough to play. It’s that journey we’re all on. This is the sweet spot for me. The place I love to be as an actor is in between that catch in your throat: ‘Is it going to be a laugh or a sob?’”

Sarah Pidgeon, who plays Clare in flashbacks, says getting to develop the character with Hahn was a dream collaboration. “I was lucky to be on set and see Kathryn embody Clare,” she shares. “It was like a cheat, seeing this incredible talent [at work].”

Young Clare, played by Sarah Pigeon, holds her baby daughter in one arm and a piece of paper in the other. Behind them are several unopened moving boxes.

Tigelaar says Hahn and Pigeon “so bravely inhabited” their shared role, especially after working with Kim Gillingham, who founded Creative Dreamwork as a way for artists to practice creating with the unconscious. “Kim said something in our first workshop that stuck with me the whole time; it still makes me want to cry. She said, ‘This show is not about perfection. This is not about you being perfect or playing these roles perfectly. Bring your mess. Bring your broken hearts.’ And that just embedded in me. This isn’t a portrayal of perfect people.... You can feel two completely opposing things at once equally and hold them. And I think that’s what the show is about. It really is both/and.”

That ethos is evident in the way Clare connects with her readers, her family, and herself. “Whenever we’d be on set, debating a scene at the last minute, we’d be like, ‘Wait, what is this about? Is it this or is it this?’” Tigelaar recalls. “[Ultimately,] we’d be like, ‘No, it’s both. It’s everything all at once. I think there’s a difference between being messed up and being a mess. We brought our own messiness, and that’s what everybody drew from. To me, that’s what made it so deep, and brave, and powerful.”