Ontario, Canada, 2005 — Hannah Coffey and her cousins assemble during a family gathering. They are not playing video games nor watching television. They are filming another comedy sketch.
What Coffey lacks for in size she makes up for with bright eyes and a radiating on-screen energy. In one particular scene, Coffey becomes Lily, a character who is the director/producer of a new horror film featuring a killer bulldog. Coffey takes charge of the scene with a jet black wig, loud Southern drawl, and witty lines. All of this is improvisational. Coffey is nine years old.
New York City, New York, 2018 — With eyes still bright, Coffey strolls the streets of Manhattan. She has lived in the city for three years.
Coffey suggests meeting at a small Turkish restaurant she has never been to but always passes on the way to her nanny job.
“I’ve slept on the streets 4 or 5 times now,” says Coffey, twirling her curly auburn hair between her fingers.
She reassures that this is not due to a lack of money but for a deep desire to see the show that fuels her dream to be an actress: Saturday Night Live.
Coffey grew up watching SNL in the small town of Kenilworth, Canada—a rural community Coffey refers to as a “village” when discussing its population. Due to its minuscule size, Kenilworth did not have theaters for Coffey to perform at, which is why she performed incessantly with her cousins at family functions before she attended high school.
“I knew she was good from early on,” says James O’Connor, a cousin Coffey oftentimes performed with.
A recorded comedy sketch still of Coffey (left) and O’Connor (right).
After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City where she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. There she met her best friend and scene partner, Kimmy Dunn.
Dunn has worked frequently with Coffey and says Coffey really does her research when it comes to nailing a role. “It’s nice to work with her because she educates herself in the play, the performance or the characters,” says Dunn.
Through working with Coffey, Dunn has been able to see the comedic, silly side to Coffey, one she did not notice at first glance. “She’s super funny but in the sneakiest and slightest way,” says Dunn, pegging her as the female version of Paul Rudd’s character in I Love You, Man: a little quirky and quiet, then randomly hilarious.
Because of Coffey’s strong passion for comedy and improvisational theater, Dunn says she has found a new love and appreciation for the genre.
Coffey has also dived into the genre of drama since moving to New York. Tribeca Film Institute Filmmaker Lola Kenet cast Coffey as the lead in her coming-of-age narrative short about a teenage girl living in New York City. “I found that she understood the character very well and put a lot of effort into the role,” Kenet says. “She was a pleasure to work with.”
Like the story of Kenet’s film, the story of Ladybird—a 2018 Oscar nominee for best picture—resonated with Coffey in a personal way, which made it easier for her to understand the protagonist, who also wanted to leave her quaint hometown for New York City in order to chase after a dream. Sitting in the movie theater, Coffey found herself wondering if Ladybird was actually written about her own life.
While Coffey has taken on more dramatic roles recently, she wants to ultimately focus more on comedy, including writing her own comedic material. Coffey has taken improvisational classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade—an improvisational and sketch training center—and hopes that taking more classes at the center will help her hone her writing skills.
According to Coffey, she can’t see herself doing anything else aside from acting. Acting gives her the flexibility to be anyone she wants to be.
“I get to live these different lives for just a brief moment of time and I can get a glimpse into different lifestyles…I think that’s what really attracted me to it,” Coffey says. “Just the idea that I don’t have to choose one thing that I have to be or want to be. I can go and become a completely different person, and the next day I’m back to being Hannah.”