Former child star and current indie darling Gaby Hoffmann is nominated for not just one but two Emmys this year—for her guest stint as Adam’s very pregnant sister on the finale of “Girls” and her starring role as Ali Pfefferman, the youngest daughter on “Transparent,” Amazon Studios’ award-winning breakout hit. Both roles are technically comedic, but what’s fascinating about Hoffmann’s work is how she’s able to imbue so much spirit and tragedy into both roles. As she told me, Hoffmann didn’t audition for either role—the creators both had her in mind, and in the case of the much larger role on “Transparent,” Jill Soloway actually wrote Ali for Hoffmann. It’s not hard to see why. Hoffmann has a lot of personality, and it bubbles over into everything around her—even just her conversation with me. When I spoke to her, she was at a kiddie pool with her young daughter, who she was pregnant with when she filmed “Home Birth,” the season four finale of “Girls.” It led us to an unexpected discussion about parenting—which is a topic close to the heart of “Transparent”—as we discussed her upbringing in the Chelsea Hotel, dating Carrie Brownstein on-screen, and her decision to use her “heart and stomach” to guide her acting process.
You’re known and now Emmy-nominated for playing memorable and unique roles. How do you choose these parts?
These last few years, it’s all been very organic. These characters have just come to me. With Jill [Soloway, creator of “Transparent”]—Jill had reached out to me when I was on my way to Sundance a couple of years ago. We had lunch and she talked to me about this idea of “Transparent.” She was just conceiving it. We played around with it a little bit before she even had a pilot written. We immediately, of course, fell in love upon meeting. That was it. She wrote the pilot and we set off. She saw me in something and had a feeling and acted on it. She was right—we kind of come from the same wheelhouse.
And similarly, I’ve known Lena [Dunham, creator of “Girls”] forever. She had talked about wanting me to be on the show and then she conceived of this character for me, or I was the right match, or whatever. With “Crystal Fairy” I had loved Sebastian [Silva, writer and director]’s work and met him working and sought him out. We did another little project together, and then he called me one day and was like: “I want to make this movie about Crystal Fairy. You have to be Crystal Fairy!”
So I’m not exactly choosing the parts. They are choosing me, and it’s based on people knowing me. It’s all very much intuitive and organic. I think the characters I can inhabit most interestingly and honestly are the characters people think of me for. It’s not like I have an agenda. I don’t think anybody would ever cast me in the girlfriend role! or the sex symbol! It all sort of worked out as it should.
What is it do you think that they see in you, that you bring to these roles?
You’d have to ask them, honestly. I think that I was lucky enough to be raised in a way and in a place—I grew up in New York and came to the Chelsea Hotel and was raised by a fairly outspoken radical person. Living in the world in a way that might seem to others outside of the box or nonconformist—I was just raised outside of that box. To me, inside of the box is what is bizarre. I feel very privileged to have grown up that way, because it’s been easy for me to be myself or whatever iteration of myself I’ve been in the world, because there’s no transcript. My mother forges the path of unique and completely honest—to a fault, at points—of self-expression. I think I’m very comfortable inhabiting characters who also live on the margins in that way, behaviorally.
You’re now a mom yourself.
Yes. If you can’t hear, I’m at a kiddie pool.
I believe you were actually pregnant for the “Girls” season finale, “Home Birth,” where you play Adam’s sister Caroline giving birth—and there’s something very aggressively funny about it because she’s so confrontational with her labor and with her pain. What was it like playing that knowing you were about to give birth?
I was about eight months pregnant, so I was very close. It was a lot of fun. I actually had a home birth—but done right. Meaning, done safely, and when done safely home births are actually safer than hospital births. I am very obsessed with birth. I have been to a lot of births prior to getting pregnant and did a little training as a doula. I’m sort of obsessed. And I’d been very excited to give birth for many years. It was really fun to do a dry run of it. Obviously the circumstances were fairly different, and I was playing a character in a certain, specific scenario. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of giving birth, of labor, I think it looks and sounds the same no matter who you are, more or less. I loved it. My boyfriend was worried that I would get so much joy that I would bring on actual labor, but I kept in check just enough so that didn’t happen. It was so much fun, honestly. If we think about acting as sort of trying to get in touch with real and basic, true, fundamental emotions, being able to act that, there is nothing more primordial and fundamental than giving birth. It was really fun.
One of the things that is so compelling about these two roles in particular, and you are Emmy-nominated for both of them, is that both characters have this raw intimacy to them. They’re both strange and sort of outsize, but you bring a lot of tragedy to them, too.
They weirdly have a lot in common. With Ali I have a more intimate and entangled relationship because I’ve spent more time with her. Life is, of course, both tragic and funny. We are finding her in a rich little pocket where those things are really intersecting. Because the comedy and her missteps and her self-destructive, wild behavior is born out of this desperate place. This place of emptiness and disconnection and uncertainty, the misery of not really knowing who you are in the world. Of course that’s always changing and evolving—and if it’s not, that is miserable also. But when we meet her at the beginning of season one, she is really at the tail end of this period of paralysis. She’s starting to unwind and act out and unfurl. It’s messy and it’s thoughtless at first, but it starts to find shape in her searching. The search itself is becoming more focused and considered towards the end. She’s not just blindly acting out and hitting walls and acting unconsciously. She’s starting to open her eyes to what she’s feeling, and why she is feeling that, and what she needs. That is where we are going to find her in the beginning of season two, and it gets really interesting from there. It continues to be both tragic and funny because she is living life pretty honestly, in all of its messiness. That’s what is really fun about her.
Sorry, I’m so distracted by my baby right now. She just started crying. Now I’m so distracted by my child. Hold on, let me grab her. My mother is here visiting and I’m like here, you watch the baby, but I’m like hmmm, I’m going to watch you watching the baby and now it’s just like hnnnngggg. [Hoffmann gets her daughter.] Okay, I’m back.
I don’t want to focus too much on your kid, but after talking about your formative childhood—now you have your own daughter, you’re probably thinking about how to give her the upbringing that you want her to have.
What was great about my childhood—it was truly complicated as is everyone’s—but I think what was great about my childhood and what we hope to be able to duplicate is my mom raised me just as her herself. She didn’t try to outsmart herself or follow somebody else’s guides, she just became a mother and folded that into how she was going to live her life. I think the best thing you could do for your children is be yourself as best you can. Be honest about who that is in all of the good, bad, glory, and hardship. I’m just approaching parenthood that way. I’m just going to continue to try and be myself as best as I can and react to my child with as much honesty as I can and not try to figure out what equation will foster the best outcome for her.
That’s so close to the themes of “Transparent,” which is about this parent deciding to be as honest as possible with their children.
Yeah. We talk about it a lot. Our parent is only really starting to be a good parent after she becomes Maura. She is finally able to look at us and be there for us and offer us the love that we needed and she wasn’t able to before because she wasn’t herself in the world. It’s impossible to be there for somebody else when you are folded up into a corner of your true self. It’s very much related.
I know that Jill came to you with the idea for Ali, but it sounds like she wrote the character afterwards with you in mind for it. Do you have a sense of how much was you and how much was this other character in her head?
She wrote the part after having met me. She wrote the part for me. But I think she already conceived of this family. And myself and Amy Landecker and Jay [Duplass]’s character Josh, I think we are all—we all represent in the little bit of autobiographical-ness that is in the show. We all represent shades of Jill at different points. We are all also absolutely distinct from her. But yes. I think that Ali was, in her original conception, some version of herself at some point of time. Then she saw me and met me and it came to life for her in that way.
Now there is weirdly no difference between all of us and our characters. It all seems so magical and it all seems… kismet. Every single person who cast us has said this character couldn’t have existed without you, even if it might have at some moment. The writers all know it so well and they are writing for us. Now it’s so witchy that it’s hard to even make the distinctions.
Did she see some of herself in you?
We recognized something in each other when we first met. We are very different, but it was an immediate, “Oh. I know you.”
I saw in the trailer for the upcoming season is that Ali is going to be starting a relationship with Syd Feldman, played by Carrie Brownstein. Can you tell me about what it was like working with her?
It’s a real dream. It’s so easy because I love her and we’ve become good friends. The acting part of it and especially the relationship part of it has been really seamless. We have great chemistry. We have a lot of fun together. There’s a lot of love and it’s just really easy. We get in the same room together and it’s just sort of there. This happens to be true a lot on this set.
Did you have a crush on Carrie Brownstein in Sleater-Kinney, like everyone else in the world?
I’m always late to the party. I was really out of it. I’m at least 10 years behind the times. I of course knew of Sleater-Kinney, but I had actually never seen them or heard them. I honestly didn’t know much about Carrie until I met her. I had never seen “Portlandia.” I know what she looked like because I do live in the world and I have seen a poster before [laughs] but I was only able to develop a crush on her once I had met her. Then I got to see her play in Sleater-Kinney and now I get it. Yeah. [Laughs.]
“Transparent” is a comedy technically, but it’s a very textured show. Then it certainly seems with your guest spots in “Louie” and in “Girls.” Would you say you are drawn to comedy? Maybe the awkwardness of it appeals to you? Those are definitely two awkward shows, I think.
I don’t know why I keep getting cast in comedies! I’m not necessarily seeking them out. I don’t think of myself as being that funny. What Jill says about the way she writes and approaches it is she says just write normal stuff, write light, and then have funny people say it and it’s funny. I guess that means she thinks I’m a funny person, but what I think from it is that if you are actually writing life for real and getting into the nitty gritty of stuff, it’s fucking funny. It’s awkward and painful and heartbreaking, but it’s also really fucking funny. People in their real dynamic in life and their habits, and in their space where they behave in their natural habitats, it’s funny. That’s [when] we aren’t adhering to the larger social agreements — what’s appropriate and what isn’t. That stuff is just really funny. I guess I’m drawn to good writing. I’m drawn to what is honest. I can’t pull it off otherwise because I’m not a good enough actor to take something that is not honest, that is not well-written and make it feel real.
You’ve been acting your whole life—there was a hiatus for a bit, based on what you’ve told me about how roles come to you, it seems like acting is this really organic process for you. There are other working actors for whom it’s a very—there’s a lot more regimented decision-making that comes into play. You’ve tapped into a nice energy there.
I do see it that way. I have only really enjoyed it and have been successful at it when I’ve approached just from a purely instinctual place. Not just the work itself, but my whole career. I didn’t really think I would grow up to be an actor. I think when I went to college I kind of quit the business and had other plans. I didn’t seek it out as a kid. It was all through accidents. Then when I re-found it--I sort of spent my 20s struggling with the question of it and really didn’t want to do it and didn’t enjoy it, but I couldn’t walk away from it, and that was a more rigid and intellectual approach to it. It was miserable. It was only when I turned towards it and decided to approach it like I do most everything else in my life, which is from the gut, that I started to really enjoy it and also then find these parts for me that are really perfect fits. It’s also a dream to go to work with people that you not only respect and think are talented, but also love and find great friendship in.
I don’t know what my process is other than trying to listen to my heart and stomach tell me when I read a script or meet someone. That serves me well. That’s true for showing up at work and actually playing the part. I’ve never had to do much research. I’m sure if I played a Nazi soldier in the 1940s Berlin it would be a different story. But I’m very interested in psychoanalysis and I love thinking about the psychology of a character and thinking about that and getting into that. Then I’m just trying to be there and listen and be relaxed enough to let something happen that is not rigid. It’s just the only way I know how to do it. Look at Meryl Streep. She’s as good as it gets and she’s incredibly well trained, and I think she has a very different process. She gets to place that is the most free and the most natural. That seems really interesting and fun for me. I just have no fucking clue how to do it other than just blindly diving in and trying to keep my eyes and ears open.
You said you weren’t sure why people cast you. From my perspective, the reason that people cast you for these roles in particular is that you seem to have an ability to channel a lot of comfort with being fringe onscreen. You often represent this alternate version of being a woman in the world, and there’s something really inspiring about it.
Thank you very much. I don’t know what people think of me, and I’m not on social media or anything, so I’m not really involved in that conversation. But I hear about it from people like you. I’m flattered by that, and I’m happy that maybe there is a shift happening. I don’t exactly think of it as bravery, because this is honestly just who I am and how I’m comfortable in the world. I don’t inhabit the world as a woman in the way that I think has been prescribed over the last couple of decades. I never have. I didn’t grow up in a way that would have led me towards that. For me, I’m not conquering any fears. It doesn’t feel brave because it’s truly how I’m most comfortable in the world. I’m very happy that it’s resonating with people, because I think women need to feel emboldened and comfortable in the world however makes them feel comfortable. If that’s hairless and dyed and tanned, then great. I don’t feel comfortable with my armpits shaven, but I like to shave my legs. That’s my relationship to body hair, and that’s how I want to be able to in the world. The more freedom that women have to express themselves in all shades and shapes and colors, that is to me—if we are talking about feminism on this sort of superficial level of what we look like—that’s true feminism. There is no one way to be a woman. It’s all valid. It’s all real. It’s all feminine. It’s all womanly. If I’m helping other people to find out what that means for them, and making it cool to look other than what you might see on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, then I’m all for that. I certainly think it’s to each their own. That’s the real lesson. To each her own. That’s what is really sexy and really empowering, when every woman is able to be their true selves in what they say, in what they do, in how they look, and the choices they make.