“I Come From a Very Naked Family”: Gaby Hoffmann on Child Acting, ‘Transparent,’ and Why Nudity Isn’t Scary

AUSTIN, TX: “The bottom line here is that I’ve been incredibly lucky, and sort of fallen into one amazing project after another.” So said the actress Gaby Hoffmann near the conclusion of a one-hour conversation at the SXSW Film Festival Sunday, in which she walked through her fascinating career,  from the child-star mega-hits like Field of Dreams and Uncle Buck to her current stints on Transparent and Girls.

It was not a typical childhood. “I grew up in the Chelsea Hotel in the middle of Manhattan in the 1980s,” she explained, “and my mom is an amazing, radical, unique, out-there individual, so that was just normal. What’s radical and novel for somebody else, was just normal. I thought living in a suburban house with a white picket fence and my own bedroom was the most exotic, amazing thing in the world… until I actually lived in it, and then I wanted to get the hell out.”

In fact, Hoffmann joked, as she was raised by a single mom, an artist and regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory, “making movies is a little mainstream, actually, for our family. But very convenient if you’re living on welfare.”

She grew up on film sets, “raised by many, many, many people,” but treated it more as a child’s hobby than a future. “I didn’t think I would be an actor,” she confessed. “I didn’t think about the career. I mean, I was a kid. And from month to month it would change; I would come home and say, ‘I miss school, I don’t wanna do this anymore.’ And I would ‘quit’ and go back to third grade, and then that would get boring after like three months and I would say, ‘OK, I wanna make another movie.’ ”

Filmmaker Kat Candler and Gaby Hoffman at the SXSW Film Festival. Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
Filmmaker Kat Candler and Gaby Hoffman at the SXSW Film Festival. Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

Ultimately, in the course of “unpacking [her] relationship with acting,” she started to wonder if she should have been doing those gigs at all. “I was obsessed with this idea that had I not started acting at a young age, I would’ve discovered some other passion, and what was that? So I sort of tried to spend my 20s acting like a child and seeing where it led me… But in fact, I had accidentally stumbled onto the thing I was meant to do when I was a kid.”

However, Hoffmann spent a good chunk of her 20s wrestling with complicated feelings about her profession. “I would get these auditions,” she recalled, “and I would go into a complete spiral. I would have an anxiety attack. It started with ‘OK, there’s an audition for this thing. Do I wanna drive three-and-a-half hours into the city to audition for it? Even if I got it, would I even wanna be in this thing? Would I even wanna be in any thing? I hate this thing! But what else do I know how to do? How am I gonna pay the bills? Who am I? What is it? AHHHHH!’ And it would happen, like, once a week. For years.”

She finally reached an impasse, and decided that the only way to get her neurosis under control was to simply take a few months and say “yes” to the jobs she was offered and auditions she was put up for. And at that point, it all fell into place. “I do believe, if you can sort of open up your heart and open yourself up to something, it will have its way with you, in the way that it should,” she said. And it led her to really feel something for the profession, for the first time. “I felt like I’d never done it before. And I really hadn’t, as an adult, as the person I was becoming. So it’s still kind of wondrous for me.”

The key experience, of course, has been her supporting role in Jill Soloway’s Transparent – though when an audience member asked about the show’s Judaism, Hoffmann had a confession to make: “I’m not Jewish, which is a weird, dirty little secret… I grew up in New York City, so I’m Jew-ish?”

Nonetheless, when she met Soloway, they forged a quick bond over the material, and a working relationship blossomed. “There was a familiarity that Jill and I had immediately, and she started telling me about this idea that she had — because her parent had just come out, and she had seen me in Louie, and something had struck a chord. So we just had this lunch and she pitched me this idea, and I thought, ‘That’s an incredible idea. Nobody’s ever gonna let us do that, but sure!'”

Gaby Hoffman at the SXSW Film Festival. Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
Gaby Hoffman at the SXSW Film Festival. Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

They workshopped it a bit, shooting a few scenes guerrilla-style, and Hoffmann figured that was the end of that. “And then, within six months, Amazon was there, and she wrote a pilot, and there we were. I still can’t believe it happened.” In many ways, Hoffmann said, doing that show offers the best of both worlds. “We get to do whatever we want,” she said, almost conspiratorially. “Like an independent film, but funded by a big studio. We have the freedom, the creative freedom, of a small independent film — but we have all of this money, so we can do whatever we want. It’s kind of unreal!”

And the environment on that set, Hoffman said, is particularly enriching. She compared Soloway to Sebastian Silva, who directed her in Crystal Fairy, thus: “Jill Soloway and Sebastian Silva — and I don’t use this word lightly, because people do these days — they’re both geniuses. And what I mean is that they have a genius for this thing; I don’t think they know how they’re protecting the space. It’s just what they do, they kind of can’t help it. So if you can just trust it — and that’s hard, that’s really hard — if you can just trust it and give yourself over to it, you’ll be protected in that space.”

And sometimes protection is in order. An audience member asked if the sort of vulnerability Hoffmann has specialized in lately – which often results in doing scenes sans clothes – is scary, and her response was fascinating. “What’s scary for one person is not scary for another, right?” she said. “So it’s not scary for me to take off my clothes. What would be scary is if I had to do a Shakespeare monologue or something, honestly. I just happen to be very comfortable naked, I come from a very naked family. So that stuff is not scary for me… I don’t think it’s something any one person needs to do. If being naked is uncomfortable and terrifying, you don’t need to be naked to be an actor.”

But she’s aware of how the industry sees her, based on the roles she’s offered. “I feel like I keep getting asked to play people who are thought of either as crazy, obnoxious, or wild and out there. I’m afraid of what that means… I don’t think of myself as a provocative person.” But she likes playing the roles that she plays, and chooses them for the right reasons. “I don’t have an agenda, I’m just doing what feels good to me, and what feels right, and what’s interesting and provocative to me — which is not the same thing, I think, as what’s provocative to somebody else. To me, I’m curious, I wanna keep being involved in a conversation with myself, and an investigation about what it means to be human. That’s exciting to me, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be naked and loud and wild. In fact, I would love to explore it in a way that looks very different moving forward….

“I just keep listening to myself and what is interesting to me in the moment, and honestly not looking up a lot,” Hoffman concluded. “All I know is to trust myself, and if I try to make decisions for any other reason, it’s gonna be the wrong decision.”