The past few years have been good ones for Gaby Hoffmann, the ‘90s child star (Field of Dreams, Uncle Buck, Now and Then) who grew up in Manhattan’s storied bohemian Chelsea Hotel with her mother, Viva, the outrageous Andy Warhol actress. After a long, post-collegiate break from acting, Hoffmann found her way back — in the weirdly delightful 2013 indie flick Crystal Fairy — and, recently, guest-starring as wacky Caroline on HBO’s Girls.
But she’s received the most acclaim for playing Ali, the endearingly confused (occupationally, sexually, and gender-wise) Pfefferman sibling on Transparent, Amazon’s five-Emmy-winning hit about a closely knit, dysfunctional Jewish family in L.A. whose father (Jeffrey Tambor) transitions from a man to a woman in later life. With the first episode of Season 2 already online and the rest debuting Dec. 11 — be prepared for some very intriguing flashbacks to 1933 Berlin! — Hoffmann met up with Yahoo Style in a café near her Brooklyn apartment, where she lives with her partner, cinematographer Chris Dapkins, and her 1-year-old daughter, Rosemary. Doffing her chunky knit wool scarf and tucking into a croque monsieur while wearing an off-the-shoulder fuchsia sweater, she talked about her problems with untrammeled capitalism, how having a child has forced her to be hopeful about the planet’s future, and how Transparent has conferred upon her just the right amount of adult-star recognition.
Yahoo Style: So, first of all, can we talk about that long, stunning, multilayered opening scene of the new season of Transparent? It feels like all the dynamics about to play out over the season are hinted at in that one take.
Gaby Hoffmann: When I saw the first cut of that episode with the seven-minute opening scene, I was like, “Yes, we are doubling down this season — we’re going in!” That scene is very reflective of how the show is made. That scene took up a tiny space on the page of the script, but we shot it with lots of improvisation three times and Jill was just like, “Go, guys!” And the moment where the photographer calls Maura “sir”—
That’s the best moment of the scene.
It was a genuine mistake on the actor’s part, but Jeffrey Tambor turned it into a total moment. That’s the magic of our on-set environment. The scene really needed to turn in that moment, and I think the actor made an unconscious choice that moved it forward. That’s what happens all the time with that show. That’s what the energy was like literally the first day the five of us [in the main family] met for a reading. Jill put these different pieces into the story and then it all just worked, so that even an actor like the photographer on set for a day can tap into it. Some scenes we improvise heavily, others we follow the script closely — there’s no rules.
It’s the most authentically and unabashedly Jewish show I’ve ever seen on TV. Are you Jewish at all?
No! None of us in the main family on the show are Jewish except for Jeffrey and Judith [Light]. But I grew up in New York, so I’m “Jewish.” [She makes air quotes.] Our neighbors upstairs in the Chelsea Hotel were from Israel. I went to temple and spent the high Jewish holidays with them. So, please! I grew up in Manhattan. I’m not like [going into wide-eyed voice], “Ooh, what’s this?” Still, I’ve learned a lot on the show. In this coming season, Ali hosts a Yom Kippur ceremony. That’s the highest holiday.
So, let’s talk about Ali. What’s in store for her this season?
In the first season, she was coming out of a very long period of paralysis. Now she’s having an awakening. She’s agitated, on a quest for herself, going back to school, starting to pursue who she is in her gender and sexuality, in her family, and within Judaism. She’s digging in, but she’s still acting out and being messy!
Are you like her in any ways? Could she be your friend?
[Pause] I love her. I love playing her. It’s hard to imagine her as a friend. Friend-wise, on the show, we only see her with Syd [played by Carrie Brownstein], and she doesn’t treat her that well. She’s loving and empathic and capable of being a good friend, like her siblings, but they weren’t parented. They don’t know how to function in the world. They don’t know what it means to love someone else, except within the culture of their own dysfunctional family. But now, with Maura becoming her true self, she’s starting to love her kids. And Ali’s just waking up from a lifelong slumber.
She’s got a very interesting, helmet-like hairdo in the first episode of the new season, not to mention her big man’s necktie.
Yeah, they told me to get an undershave, which I guess is a very popular style now in L.A., and then they styled it for me. Ali’s style last season was very depressive, slouchy, slumpy. This season she’s more exploratory. She’s trying things on, literally and figuratively.
How would you describe your own style versus Ali’s?
Oh, please. I’m not equipped to describe my personal style. It’s obviously not as wackadoo as Ali’s.
So, speaking of parenting — were you parented well?
It was just my mother, my sister, and me in the apartment, but I had a larger world outside that was raising me. I had a pretty amazing, wild, radical mother!
Did you have any idea growing up in the Chelsea Hotel that you weren’t having a quote-unquote normal childhood?
Everyone I knew was having an unusual childhood. We were all the children of artists, growing up poor but wildly rich in culture. The Chelsea Hotel was really cozy. I’d run around barefoot and smoked my first pot in the stairwell. It was a whole little world unto itself. My mother was good friends with [avant-garde filmmaker] Shirley Clarke, whose whole apartment was black and white. She had a Felix the Cat obsession. I told myself recently that if I’m going to go on living in New York, I have to stop mourning the loss of the way the city used to be. It’s too painful to do that every day.
Do you have any resentment toward your mother for putting you into showbiz at an early age?
No. The last thing my mother was was a stage mother. We had a friend in advertising who suggested I do a commercial, and it just built from there, organically. My mother would call the police because she thought we were overworked on the set! I called the shots. If I said, “I miss school,” she’d say, “Yep, you’re right, enough acting, go back to school.” Also, I loved being on movie sets. It’s not like I was laying brick. I was traveling around the world making movies.
But then you didn’t act in college or for a decade after that.
Yeah, I found my way back to it. I didn’t know that I really loved it until I turned about 30, and then it seemed that as soon as I realized that, just the right parts started coming my way. I feel incredibly lucky having this job now. I’m not working on anything other than Transparent. My partner and I have a 1-year-old baby, Rosemary. That’s where all my time goes when I’m not shooting.
What’s it like being a mother?
I’ve never been more present with anything than I am with her. There’s not a lot of time to reflect; you’re just in it with them. It simplifies things a little bit, even though even before I was a mother I didn’t care that much about what you’d call BS or nonsense. And with the way the world is now, there’s something about having a kid that’s an inherently hopeful act. You can’t just throw up your hands and say, “Oh, the world will be over in 50 years.” You have to start coming from a place of activism and hope. I’ve been obsessed with childbirth for a long time. I was there when my older sister gave birth. I studied as a doula for a while. I couldn’t wait to give birth. Your body — your periods, your tits, cramps, hormones — it’s all for this purpose, to do the very hard work of bringing your child into life.
Speaking of childbirth, your character on Girls recently almost gave birth in a bathtub until the gang rushed you to a hospital. What’s working on Girls like versus Transparent?
I’m rarely on the Girls set, but it’s really fun. Girls is like a Saturday barbecue with your friends, while Transparent is like going home to your family for Christmas — or Hanukah! It’s so much more complex and dynamic. It’s so nice to be part of a show that is fostering compassion and love, because we’ve been sold this American dream centered on greed and wealth. Bernie Sanders is right — people don’t understand what socialism really means. They think it’s a choice between Cuba or Russia and the way our country is now. And that’s destroying our country.
You are very intellectually and politically engaged. Is acting enough for you?
I feel really lucky and privileged to have this job where, when I’m not working, I can be with my child. I don’t have to be back on the set right now till February.
You’ve probably become much more recognizable on the New York streets since Transparent and Girls. What’s that like after years of post-child-star anonymity?
I do get recognized more now, but not egregiously. It’s very subtle and pleasant. My baby and Transparent debuted at exactly the same time, so I’d be walking around the neighborhood with her, already blissed out, and people were coming up to me, crying, telling me how much the show meant to them and thanking me. It was really quite lovely and intimate, because people are usually watching the show with their laptop in bed. And I’m already the kind of person that is always trying to engage people or get a smile out of you on the subway.
So, what’s a perfect New York — or Brooklyn — day for you when you’re not working?
There’s many versions of that! What’s the season? I mean, bike riding was once part of it, but not since the baby. I don’t know, maybe go to a really good Thai place in Queens, maybe go to the movies or theater, walk through Prospect Park, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Just last night was great. I saw a Laurie Anderson performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I love that feeling of walking back home through the streets of Brooklyn after a good performance and you feel like the world has been cracked open and you’re actually sharing the air with strangers, that wonderful injection of humanity at its best. That is, until you turn NPR back on and get slapped across the face.