TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Gaby Hoffmann, co-stars in the series "Transparent" and has had a recurring role on HBO's "Girls." We're going to talk about her work and her unconventional upbringing. Her mother was given the name Viva by Andy Warhol. Viva appeared in several Warhol films and was part of the group of artists, performers and outcasts that formed around him. Gaby Hoffmann grew up in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many writers, artists and musicians.
She started acting professionally when she was 5 and, as a child, had roles in "Field Of Dreams" "Sleepless In Seattle," and "Uncle Buck." As a young adult, she took a break from acting. Her recent work includes the films "Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus," "Obvious Child," "Veronica Mars" and "Wild" and an episode of "Louie."
Let's start with a scene from "Transparent's" new season, its third. Hoffmann's character Ali is having a relationship with Leslie, an older woman, who's a feminist professor and poet. They're keeping their relationship secret since Ali is one of Leslie's teaching assistants. One morning when Leslie is leaving for work, Ali, who is still in bed, confesses that she had a quick sexual encounter with another teaching assistant. After trying to read Leslie's reaction, Ali says this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
GABY HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I want you to be jealous. I know that we have our thing, and I totally appreciate your rejection of traditional romantic relationships from a sociopolitical standpoint, and I agree. But I just - I really, really like you a lot, and I don't like having to pretend, and I don't want to, and I just - I'm not comfortable with it, I realize. And if that's what you need, then I don't know what to say.
CHERRY JONES: (As Leslie) Oh. I didn't know that you felt so...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I do. I feel so.
GROSS: Gaby Hoffmann, welcome to FRESH AIR. (Laughter).
HOFFMANN: Hi. Thanks so much.
GROSS: Do you relate to that line, I understand your rejection of traditional relationships from a sociopolitical viewpoint? (Laughter).
HOFFMANN: (Laughter) Oh, sure. Sure I do.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you hear a lot of talk like that when you were growing up?
HOFFMANN: God, you know, I was actually thinking about more of my own adult life.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Take it, yeah.
HOFFMANN: I - growing up, you know, my mother was sort of post-relationship by the time I was born. She had a couple that were maybe behind closed doors, although we knew about them. But I didn't really grow up witnessing many relationships at work other than outside of my family, which I was privy to. I had - I was sort of raised by a lot of different people in a large, sprawling community of my mother's friends. And there were couples in that, but they were pretty stable.
GROSS: So describe your character of Ali on "Transparent."
HOFFMANN: Yikes. Well, I feel like when we first met her - now three years ago - she was sort of at the tail end of a long period of time of being very lost and even lost in the woods of being lost. Like, she didn't even know she was lost yet.
And then when we first met her, when I was first introduced to her, she was sort of tuning in to the fact that she was kind of lost, and it started to become uncomfortable. So I feel like we met her at that point, and she has, you know, in the three years that we've known her, started to attempt to become unlost. And that is - she's still in the midst of that journey, but it's becoming more focused, I think.
GROSS: Your mother, who went by the name Viva, was part of the Andy Warhol factory scene and was in several of his films. And you knew some of the Warhol people as a child, including Warhol himself. Several of the people who were part of the Warhol scene were trans or Q. But the language was different then, I mean, so they would probably be called transvestite back then. But I'm thinking of, like, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. Did you grow up thinking that being trans was just kind of an ordinary thing?
HOFFMANN: Yeah, you know, this is always a funny area that I have to talk to because I grew up - yes, my mother is Viva, and she was sort of out of the Warhol scene by the time I was born. But I did encounter a lot of that crowd, but I also grew up in the Chelsea Hotel in the 1980s, you know, in the middle of New York City. So what was - I hate this word - but, quote, unquote "normal" for me is what most people consider, you know, marginal and extraordinary in their childhoods. So I didn't think about these things as being anything other than what I encountered in my everyday life. I grew up with artists and drag queens and transvestites - as you're right, as they were called then - and these were just my neighbors and friends and the people who were raising me.
I watched a lot of television as a kid. And the suburbs to me, that was exotic. Like, a mom and dad who lived in the same house and, like, had jobs and cooked breakfast at the same time every morning and did laundry in a washing machine and dryer, like, that was, like, whoa. Who are they? (Laughter) How do you get to be like that? So, yeah, I still don't really know how to - I'm often asked - we were just doing a lot of press, and we were all asked, like, when was the first time you met a trans person? I'm just, like, what? I don't remember.
HOFFMANN: You know, this was the world I grew up in.
GROSS: Let's hear another scene from "Transparent." And this is a scene from the first season. It's from the season one finale. And the family friends have been gathered together to sit shiva. That's the mourning ceremony when somebody in the immediate family has died. And they're sitting shiva for the mother's second husband. And you've just been told some surprising information from your mother.
When you were 13, you talked your parents into canceling your bat mitzvah. And now you've just found out that the reason you so easily convinced your father to cancel the bat mitzvah was that weekend he wanted to get away to a special camp in the woods where he could dress as a woman. So after you find this out, you confront your father. And your father is played by Jeffrey Tambor.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Hey, Dad.
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Hi.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) So mom tells me that you canceled my bat mitzvah so you could go to some dress-up camp in the woods. Is that true?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) No, no, not at all. No. It was a - I let you cancel it.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I was 13.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Honey, you canceled your bat mitzvah...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Thirteen-year-olds don't get to cancel bat mitzvahs.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pferfferman) Honey...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You canceled your bat mitzvah...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) ...We made an agreement. I respected your mind. I can't get you to do your haftorah. What do you want me to do, point a gun at your head? So don't be so self-centered. There's another world out there. It's not all me, all Ali...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) OK, right.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) ...All my feelings.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) In this room, I'm the one who's self-centered. That's...
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Well, I believe so.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Oh, that's good. That's rich because I don't need Judaism. Who wants to be Jewish? You know, who needs guidance in life? I mean, what on earth would I do with God, you know? So thank you.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You could keep your voice down, all right?
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Oh, keep my voice down, huh? Because that's family religion, right? Secrecy.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You're being just a little bit too much, don't you think? I mean, even for you...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Here's some money to go to college, but don't tell anybody. Don't tell Josh and Sarah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Oh, my God, Ali.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Why are you always pushing money on me?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Because, my beautiful girl, you cannot do anything. You know, you have so much more to say now than when I was writing your checks, giving you loans, which, by the way, aren't actually loans because you don't pay back [expletive]. Do you understand? Not one cent. I'm paying for your life.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I don't need or want or give a [expletive] about your money. You can't scream at me anymore because I'm an adult, OK? So there we go, it's settled, done.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) I have a question now that you're not on the payroll anymore. Do you like me? If I didn't give you any money, would you even talk to me?
GROSS: What a great scene (laughter). My guest Gaby Hoffmann and Jeffrey Tambor and a scene from "Transparent." What's it like for you to act opposite Jeffrey Tambor, who is himself not trans but such a - does such a great job in the role of Maura? I mean, he really transforms himself.
HOFFMANN: Oh, my God. Well, like anybody, I'm sure, who has the privilege of being an audience to Jeffrey's beautiful performances, I'm both crying and laughing over here at the same time, so let me recover. Yeah. I don't - I mean, I'm still, you know, gobsmacked and dumbstruck and baffled by the brilliance and beauty that he exudes when he is acting and otherwise, by the way. He's a pretty wonderful person.
What's it like to play opposite him? It's a great privilege to play opposite somebody who is that good of an actor and somebody who I love dearly. And it's weird when we see him as Jeffrey, honestly. I mean, he inhabits Maura so gracefully and naturally that when Jeffrey walks into the room, it's - we all - it's a little bit of a shock. It's a slight adjustment still.
GROSS: You know, listening to that scene makes me wonder, you know, because in that scene, Ali thought she didn't want boundaries when she was a kid. She wanted to be able to cancel her bar mitzvah. But in retrospect, she realized - she realizes she needed parental boundaries and wishes that she had them - that she had been forced to have a bar mitzvah and that she hadn't been abandoned by her parents on the weekend that was supposed to be her special weekend. She's left alone. You know, her mother goes one place. Her father goes off to this, like, trans camp. So when you were growing up, did you have boundaries? Did you have restrictions growing up in the Chelsea Hotel with your mother?
HOFFMANN: Yeah, I did. My mom could be pretty strict. I mean, once I got to the age where I was taking off and drinking and doing God knows what and getting into dangerous situations potentially, I mean - I never really did anything too outrageous, but my mother was quite strict around that stuff. The things she was concerned about make a lot of sense to me now, of course. She was concerned about my safety. She didn't want me to be in a car with a bunch of teenagers driving drunk - makes a lot of sense. She wasn't concerned so much about, you know, my behavior, you know, being appropriate or, you know, not being exposed to things that may be unsavory. You know, those things were - there were no boundaries around those things. But, yeah, she was a very concerned parent otherwise when it came to keeping me alive.
GROSS: Well, I think we have to take a short break here, so why don't we do that and then we'll be right back. My guest is Gaby Hoffmann and she co-stars in "Transparent." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gaby Hoffmann, and in "Transparent" she plays Ali Pfefferman, one of three siblings. Until you were 11, you lived in the Chelsea Hotel which is a famous or infamous hotel depending on how you look at it. Were there famous people living there when you lived there? And you lived in the '80s. Right?
HOFFMANN: Yeah. I was born at the beginning of 1982, and we were living there. And we were there until I think - yeah - in '93. Well, Patti Smith recently told me that she changed my diapers.
GROSS: Oh, really?
HOFFMANN: Patti Smith was still around in the early years.
GROSS: That's something that really comes with bragging rights (laughter).
HOFFMANN: Yeah. I mean, I had no idea. So I was quite touched and tickled that she remembered that. The - most of the really other than Patti, most - we're not actually on a first-name basis (laughter) other than Patti Smith, excuse me. Most of the, you know, really famous people had already left or died, but they're the people that I knew well and that I spent I spent a lot of time kind of cavorting with were famous in my mind. Everybody was a real character, you know, they may not have achieved worldwide fame, but almost every tenant - permanent tenant at that point was an artist or writer, a musician. So there were a lot of wild numbers.
GROSS: Did you think of your mother as a real character?
HOFFMANN: My mother is a real character, yeah, yeah. And I did think of her that way. She's unabashedly herself and very outspoken, and, you know, wonderful - mostly wonderful ways. But her character Ness was very much a part of the culture of the Chelsea and so very much central to my childhood an experience there. So Stanley Bard who owned the Chelsea and ran the Chelsea would call myself and my sister before me into his office on the way to school at 6 or 7 and say you've got to talk to your mother for me. I can't take it anymore, You know, so we weren't protected from her...
GROSS: Because she was behind on the rent?
HOFFMANN: If she was behind on the rent, it was for a good reason usually because something wasn't being fixed. But whatever the grievance was at that particular time, she didn't protect us from the everyday reality of our lives, you know, nor did anybody else in the community. So I knew my mom was a character, you know. And thank God she is. I mean, I couldn't be more - feel more grateful to be raised by a, quote, unquote, "a character."
GROSS: She was named Viva by Andy Warhol. What was her persona as Viva?
HOFFMANN: She's still Viva, and I believe that her persona was just herself. She's pretty much on display in the few films, the few Warhol films that she was in as herself. She is a genius talker and storyteller, and she's exceptionally beautiful and wild-looking, so Andy was quite smart in just recognizing what she had to offer just being herself, and so he put the camera on her and let her go. And she has a monologuing genius, a rant genius - she's a genius at the rant. So her persona is her.
GROSS: Growing up in the Chelsea - I mean, the Chelsea was - is a hotel, not an apartment building. I don't know if it was converted or not. I've never actually been to the Chelsea. But did you have, like, a hotel room or several rooms like an apartment?
HOFFMANN: So the hotel was maybe 50 or 60 or 70 percent apartments and otherwise hotel rooms. So there were rooms that were just like any old hotel room. And then there were full apartments with kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms and living rooms. So we had a one-bedroom apartment on a floor that had maybe a handful of single hotel rooms, one of which we took over in the middle of the night with a hammer to make our apartment bigger.
GROSS: (Laughter) Is that why you were called down to the landlord?
HOFFMANN: Actually, we didn't - this is insane. We didn't get in trouble for that. I don't know how. It was - I was 10 years old. So my sister, who's 11 years older than me, had already moved out. But, you know, for most of my childhood in the Chelsea, we all shared a bedroom, my mother and my sister and I. And it was quite small, so we had bunk beds. And then my mom had a queen-sized bed or whatever, which occasionally was in the living room.
But either way, I didn't have my own room. And one night I was upstairs at our neighbors, who were sort of like my second family. And my mom called me down about 10 p.m. It was - I don't know, it must have been a Saturday night - and I got downstairs and she had the music blaring. I think we had two records at the time, and one was a Beatles record. And she hushed, hushed - ushered me in with - handed me a hammer and had drawn an outline on the wall of our bedroom and said, this is the door. This is the door to the other room. And we knew that other room well because it was a hotel room that had been occupied by a woman who became a friend of ours. When I was a little girl, I would go over there and hang out. So we knew exactly what it was over there. And we started smashing the wall down.
Unfortunately, I smashed my thumb, and there was a bit of an interruption. We had to go to the hospital. But we came down, finished the job. And there was a door about 2 inches into the wall. We opened the door. We changed the lock on the other door that went to the hallway. And then I had my own bedroom. It was so exciting. We didn't get in trouble. We got to keep it.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Were there other kids in the Chelsea when you were growing up there?
HOFFMANN: Yes. Yes. My best friend, they lived above us. We lived in 710. They lived in 810. She was less than a year older than me, Talia (ph). And her mother was my godmother. They were - she and my mother were very good friends. And so, you know, the hallway between our two apartments in the staircase was almost an extension of our apartments. I lived between our two apartments. And our bedroom windows were - you know, hers was right above mine and we had walkie-talkies.
So, you know, growing up in the Chelsea was - it's funny 'cause, you know, everybody thinks of it as this wild and probably inappropriate place to raise a child. But it was actually, I imagine, the best place in all of the city to be coming of age as a kid because it was almost like a little culdesac. It was a community in and of itself. It was like I lived in a little suburban neighborhood in the middle of New York City because I could run around barefoot or, you know, completely independently from a very young age in the safety of this building where I knew everybody and where I had friends on every floor and I knew the bellmen in the lobby. And there were other kids around, and their apartments were like extensions of mine. And the hallways were our playgrounds, you know? I learned to rollerblade in the hallway and unicycle, and I smoked my first pot. And so it was kind of amazing place...
GROSS: You were young when your first - smoked your first pot if you moved out when you were 11.
HOFFMANN: Aww, dang it, Terry. You got me.
HOFFMANN: I did. I tried - there was a slightly older girl who lived across the hallway, and she took me down to Union Square when I guess I was 11 - 10 or 11. I just wanted to rollerblade at Union Square. But she bought some pot, and I did try a puff. But I didn't then start smoking pot.
HOFFMANN: I just tried it.
GROSS: ...Probably a good thing that you did not smoke it seriously then.
HOFFMANN: No, no, I never had any problems with that stuff. I was - like my mother always said, you know, if it was around I would try it, but I never had a habit.
GROSS: My guest is Gabby Hoffmann. She co-stars as Ali in the Amazon series "Transparent." Season three is now on Amazon. After we take a short break, we'll talk about becoming a child actor and more recently being eight months pregnant while filming an episode of HBO's "Girls" in which her character Caroline is giving birth. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Gaby Hoffmann. She co-stars in the series "Transparent" as one of three siblings whose parent is transitioning to female. The third season is now on Amazon.
Hoffmann has had a recurring role on HBO's "Girls" as Adam's sister Caroline. Her recent films include "Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus," "Obvious Child" and "Wild." She also co-starred in an episode of "Louie." When we left off, we were talking about Hoffmann's unconventional childhood, growing up in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel. Her mother co-starred in several films by Andy Warhol who gave her the nickname Viva.
So I read that your mother was on the phone with Andy Warhol when he was shot by Valerie Solanas. Is that true?
HOFFMANN: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Did you meet him?
HOFFMANN: I did. I met him a couple of times. I don't have real vivid memories of meeting him. Honestly, my most vivid memory is probably from a photograph. There's a photograph of me at 2 or 3 holding a blow up Dalmatian dog that I know was a gift from him. So I have this memory of him giving it to me, but I think that's sort of a made-up memory based on seeing this photograph. And then I do remember quite vividly going to his funeral, which was in 1987 I think, so I was 5.
GROSS: What do you remember about the funeral?
HOFFMANN: I remember the dress I wore. It was the first fancy dress I had. It was black velvet and had a white lace collar, and I was very excited to wear it. And I remember falling asleep in the booth at the restaurant afterward. Remember that cozy feeling when you're a little kid and you get to just lie down and sort of hear the murmur of the adults just above you? So, you know, pretty self-centered memories.
GROSS: You were a child actor. You started acting when you were how old?
HOFFMANN: Five or 6.
GROSS: OK. So that's that's really young. Was it your idea of your mother's idea to do that?
HOFFMANN: It was not my idea. My sister who's 11 years older than me had expressed a real interest in it, and she had started acting before me. She was in a Wim Wenders movie with my mom.
GROSS: Which one?
HOFFMANN: "The State Of Things." Before I was born - just before I was born. And I think she really loved it, and she wanted to pursue acting. And she had a career until she went to college. So it was weirdly, you know - it was kind of just what we did. Like my mom acted, my sister acted. And then we had this friend Jane Lancellotti who worked in advertising and she suggested, you know - we never really had much money. My mom was a single mother, and she, you know - she was a freelance journalist and worked occasionally. But we were always struggling financially, so it was kind of just a good idea for some quick, easy money, I think. I don't think there were grand plans for me to have a career as an actress, and I certainly don't think I was even really aware of what that meant. But she just thought like, oh, we could try to throw her in a commercial and that's some - and that just turned into this other beast very quickly.
GROSS: What was the commercial you were in?
HOFFMANN: So the first commercial I was in was a Teddy Ruxpin commercial, and I got a Teddy Ruxpin doll bear. I don't know if...
GROSS: I don't know a Teddy Ruxpin.
HOFFMANN: Oh, my God, Terry. Teddy Ruxpin was a talking bear.
HOFFMANN: He was a fairly large stuffed bear, but he wasn't soft so that kind of sucked, and you put a cassette into his back and he talked to you.
HOFFMANN: And that was real - that seemed really exciting. And then I think I did one other commercial for cereal. And the only thing I remember about that is that I wasn't allowed to have sugar cereal. We didn't have things like Pop-Tarts or fluff. You know, I would go to school with my, like, English muffin, my soggy English muffin with cream cheese and be like do you want to trade that for your Fluffernutter? And I was, you know, always rejected. So I was asked to be in a commercial and all I remember is that I said to my mom that I felt that it was really dishonest to try to sell this product to my peers having never tried it, so I was allowed to get one sugar cereal before shooting the commercial.
GROSS: (Laughter). Well, what did you eat?
HOFFMANN: I got the - I think I got the fun pack, so I could try them all. I think I talked my way into the fun pack (laughter).
GROSS: So you ended up in some major motion pictures like "Field Of Dreams" in which you made your movie debut. Let's hear a scene from that.
HOFFMANN: Oh, my God.
GROSS: Yeah. So you play the daughter of Kevin Costner's character who gets a message that he should build a baseball field on his farm, so that players can play again, including dead players like Shoeless Joe Jackson. So he builds the baseball field, plows under his corn. And in the meantime his brother-in-law played by Timothy Busfield comes over and says like this is ridiculous. The family's going to go broke. You got to give up this stupid baseball dream. And so he and Kevin Costner and his wife were having this big fight about it, and you're sitting there and you chime in and you speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIELD OF DREAMS")
HOFFMANN: (As Karin Kinsella) Daddy, we don't have to sell the farm.
KEVIN COSTNER: (As Ray Kinsella) Karin, please. Just wait. Wait.
HOFFMANN: (As Karin Kinsella) People will come.
COSTNER: (As Ray Kinsella) What people, sweetheart?
HOFFMANN: (As Karin Kinsella) From all over. They'll just decide to take a vacation, see, and they'll come to Iowa City. They'll think it's really boring so they'll drive up unwanted paths like buying a ticket.
TIMOTHY BUSFIELD: (As Mark) You're not seriously listening to this are you?
COSTNER: (As Ray Kinsella) Yes.
BUSFIELD: (As Mark) Wait a minute. Why would anybody pay money to come here?
HOFFMANN: (As Karin Kinsella) To watch the game. It will be just like when they were little kids a long time ago and they'll watch the game and remember what it was like.
BUSFIELD: (As Mark) What the hell is she talking about?
HOFFMANN: (As Karin Kinsella) People will come.
GROSS: I love how you're getting drowned out by crickets or whatever in the background. You're so adorable in this. Did this movie make any sense to you when you were 5 or 6?
HOFFMANN: Oh, I don't remember thinking about that. I - you know, I had a lot of fun making movies when I was a kid because making movies is fun and being on a movie set is fun. And I really, you know - I played with - I loved that movie because I loved playing with all the baseball players. You know, I had a huge crush on two of them - one including Ray Liotta who I was convinced was also in love with me. We would play cards. We would play catch. I didn't think about what we were doing. You know what I mean? I didn't read the script and contemplate whether or not it was going to be a good film. I just had, I guess, a natural talent for it, although listening to that clip makes me think otherwise. And I just enjoyed - I was a very social kid, you know. And so I didn't - I don't even remember, like, seeing the movie. I don't think I thought about it.
GROSS: So you said you didn't read the whole script. Could you read yet?
HOFFMANN: Yeah, and I maybe did. I'm just saying I wasn't making choices...
GROSS: Right. Right.
HOFFMANN: ...From that. You know, I - it was, I think, you know, usually my mom would probably say, you know, they want you to be in this movie. I would probably audition. I don't remember auditioning for that. I must have. It would mean that we would have to go to Iowa for three months. And if that sounded fun, we would do it. Oftentimes, it didn't. I remember, you know, on many occasions saying like I'm pretty - I'm kind of into this third-grade class. Like, we're learning to knit. I really like the teacher. There's a cute girl that I'm going to become friends with. I don't want to leave, and I would stay in school. And then something would come up that I would say, oh, that sounds fun. We can go. You know, I made choices like a kid, like do I want to be able to go to that sleepover party on Saturday or does it sound fun to go off for a month and, you know, live in this whatever condo? Did it have a pool - number one question. OK. Let's go.
GROSS: So I think it's time for us to take another break. If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Gaby Hoffmann and she co-stars in "Transparent." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gaby Hoffmann. She co-stars in "Transparent" as Ali Pfefferman, one of the three siblings in the show.
So after this really, you know, good acting career as a child, you retired from acting temporarily at age 17. Why did you want to give it up then?
HOFFMANN: I always was planning on giving it up. I didn't - I never set out to be an actor. I mean, again, my mother presented this job by job to me at the time. And if it sounded fun, I would say yes. And if it didn't, I would say no. And I always knew, since I was I think 7 or 8 years old, that it was a means to an end and that I wanted to go to college.
And I kept doing it through my teenage years, even when my mom was sort of not involved in the decision making because it was fun and it's what I did, and my friends did it and whatever. But I always knew the second I could go to college - I was obsessed with going to college. I was obsessed with going to Bard College. And, you know, I was just doing that until I could get there.
GROSS: Bard is kind of like an arts-oriented college, isn't it?
HOFFMANN: Yeah, it's a very liberal liberal arts school, small, in upstate New York.
GROSS: What did you study there?
HOFFMANN: I went to study literature and creative writing. I was following pretty directly in my sister's footsteps, who also went to Bard and also studied literature and creative writing. And, you know, I pretty much wanted to be my sister. But as I got older and became more familiar with myself, it made sense for me, too.
But quickly after arriving at Bard - I went in 1999. So very quickly, Bush was elected, and we were at war. And I became more focused on the state of the world. And I was studying political science and environmental studies, and that was sort of my focus for a while. And then I had a very confusing, disorganized path through school that resulted in my making a documentary. But I wasn't a film major. And you could kind of do that at Bard. So I didn't have a major in the end. I was what was called a multidisciplinary student.
GROSS: How did you return to acting after leaving it behind?
HOFFMANN: So, yeah, I graduated from college with this small - I had started to think about this huge force that had, you know, been in my life since I was a kid that I had just completely dismissed forever, and that was, of course, acting. And I became quite focused on this pursuit of - what would I have discovered about myself, what would have been my passion had I just been, quote, unquote, again this annoying word, a "normal" kid, as if acting had been this kind of grand distraction.
So I sort of set out to do that in my 20s, as if I could sort of undo the last 15 years of my life. And I had, for various reasons, the ability to sort of opt out of the workforce and sort of the mainstream pursuit of life that most people, you know, have to do once they graduate from school.
I didn't really have any money, but I had an apartment I could sublet and I could do acting jobs every once in a while and make a little bit. And my boyfriend and I spent, you know, many months a year up in a trailer in the woods where he's from and sort of checked out.
And I just sort of meditated on who I was and what I really wanted out of life and tried different things, you know? Nothing ever seriously, but like I got really into cooking. And I went to Italy to cook for a while, and I became obsessed with childbirth and started working a little bit as a doula. And I built stone walls one summer. And I was just trying to sort of block out all the white noise of career and money making and all that stuff and get to the essence of, quote, unquote, "who I was and what I wanted to be and do."
But the acting thing had this grip on me that kept me from really pursuing anything. Like, I knew I wasn't going to, like, go back to school or, like, pursue a career full-on because I just couldn't give it up, even though whenever I did it I hated it.
GROSS: You hated acting?
HOFFMANN: So - yeah, I mean, I wasn't being offered anything good 'cause I had walked away from my career. And every time I got an audition, it would be this, like, miserable spiral into a total existential crisis. And, you know, we'd be up in this spot which is many hours away from the city, and I would get a call like do you want to audition for, you know, "SUV"?
And I would think, oh, my God, OK, do I want to get in the car and drive three and a half hours to audition to this? Would I even - even if I got the part, would I want to do that? Absolutely not. OK, but if I don't do this, how am I ever going to make money? I don't have any money. I've got to do something.
And then I would just have a total breakdown. And this happened, like, probably once a week. So, you know, eventually my boyfriend, who was supporting me through all this and bearing witness to it, sort of challenged me and after dinner one night walked me out to the field behind our place and said, like, you're driving yourself insane. And you've got to confront this acting thing in one way or another, whether it's, like, going to acting school or doing something completely different. But - so I made a choice in that moment to say yes to everything for a year.
GROSS: What did you say yes to?
HOFFMANN: I just had been so resistant to it and, like, begrudgingly maybe going on some auditions and then begrudgingly doing these jobs and hating it and saying no to all this other stuff, even though I hadn't really - you know, no money and no leverage. And so I just thought like I'm going to open up to this, you know? I'm going to say, yes, not just verbally, but with my body and with my soul and heart and see how that feels. And if after a year it still doesn't feel good, I'm going to put it to bed and pursue another life. And the second I made that choice, I got a role in a film that was kind of a good part and meaty and juicy see. And then that led to a couple of other things and things started to feel really interesting, and I got really curious about it. And I was really enjoying it. And, you know, that was just a few years ago.
GROSS: So where does "Girls" come in?
HOFFMANN: I went to see the opening night of the BAMcinemaFest and Lena came up to me on the dance floor in my memory, and we had known each other as kids because my stepmother, which is not the technical term for her but - is as an artist and Lena's mother, of course, is an artist and theyre good friends. So we knew each other as kids and hadn't seen each other in many, many years, but - so she came up and we reconnected. And then, you know, she - I think "Tiny Furniture" was premiering that - at that festival maybe even that night.
GROSS: That's the film that you made before "Girls."
HOFFMANN: Yes. And then we were just reconnected. And so when she was making "Girls" and she was putting "Girls" together we tried to see if that, you know - we wanted to do something together. And we tried to see if that was going work. That was going to work, and then a couple of years later she just called me and said I've written this part and I - you know - will you come and play?
GROSS: So after being unsure for a long time whether you actually liked acting and wanted to continue doing it, when you came back to it and started getting roles like the role in "Louie" and like the role on "Girls" and "Transparent," what did you like - what do you like now about acting that you didn't realize was part of acting before?
HOFFMANN: I still don't quite know exactly. I don't - I know that - I know what I love and the experience I'm having now and have had. And mostly it's, you know, I get to go to work every day with really extraordinary people, and our job - and very few people can say this - my job - I am paid to dive deeper into my own humanity and do that with other people in collaboration. You know, when you're working with the likes of Louis and Jill and Lena, people who are really in it to get to the funny, real, tragic, painful truth then it's almost like a spiritual experience. Like, I don't really know what I do. It's almost like I go into a blackout when I'm acting. I just know that it feels really good. You know, when you connect and you find it, so I still am trying to answer that question for myself.
But I am every day curious about it, and I'm listening to myself and to all of these other people and the writers and everybody I'm collaborating with and responding. And I don't know what - where that's going to lead to me. And every day I sort of discover more about who I am and what about acting turns me on, but also just who I am and how I feel about the world. And there's nothing sort of more exciting and energizing to me. So ask me again in a few years because I'm just starting to really think about it.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to ask you again in a few years.
GROSS: Well, I think we have to take a short break here, so why don't we do that and then we'll be right back. My guest is Gaby Hoffmann, and she co-stars in "Transparent." We'll take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Gaby Hoffmann. She co-stars in "Transparent" as Ali Pfefferman, one of three siblings. And in "Girls," she plays Adam's troubled sister Caroline. There's one more scene I want to play.
GROSS: I'm going to play a scene from "Girls," and this is your first appearance on "Girls" as Adam's just really unstable, troubled sister Caroline. And so in this episode - this is episode 3 of season three, Hannah, played by Lena Dunham and Adam played by Adam Driver are living together in Brooklyn. And Caroline is in distress and she calls Adam out of the blue and asks if she could come over. Adam tells Hannah that he's not happy about this. This is not a good thing. And you come over and you're obviously in distress because of something that's happened with your boyfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) I mean, I guess I should've known what was going on from the beginning, you know? He had so many pets, and he was so good to them. How can a man who loves animals with such a haunting totality just turn around and brutally rebuff me?
LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) It doesn't make sense.
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) It's shocking.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) It is.
ADAM DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) So I don't [expletive] get it. He just dropped you by the side of the road?
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) Yeah, right to the guardrail. Go, he said. I'm saving you from me. I hitched to the nearest bus station, and a very sweet sad-eyed clerk took pity on me and gave me a ticket. Thank God.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I am so sorry this happened. I really am.
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) Thank you so much. You're so sweet. I promise I won't avail myself of your hospitality for very long.
DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) [Expletive] no. You're not availing yourself of it at all.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Adam, we have a spare room. We're happy to have you stay with us for as long as you need to...
DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) No, she can't. You're not staying. You can wipe your nose with some toilet paper, then you can get lost.
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) I understand your frustration with me, Addy (ph). I really do. But I have nowhere to get lost to, OK? I'm unemployed and homeless. I got fired because apparently nobody trusts a young beautiful teacher. They only want old stinky ones.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Horrible double standard in our culture.
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) Believe me, this is the last place in the world I want to be.
DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) Obviously, it's not the last place because you're here, even though I told you you're never welcome to stay with me again after you tried to euthanize grandma Helen.
HOFFMANN: (As Caroline Sackler) She asked me to. She said she was terminal. I'm sorry that I believed our dying grandma.
DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) There's not an [expletive] chance in hell, Liney (ph).
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So that's a scene from "Girls" with my guest, Gabby Hoffmann. Are there people you could draw on to play this character?
HOFFMANN: Sure, sure. I don't think about that, though. I I don't model - I don't consciously model a character on any individual person. But, you know, they're all swimming inside me. All the people that I've come across in my life, I think, are all swimming inside me.
There's a really amazing story that I heard Oliver Sacks tell once about a woman with a severe and specific form of Tourette's who would have to mimic every single person that she encountered. So if she walked down the street, especially a crowded street, she'd be constantly taking somebody and mimicking them. And she would get full of these personalities very quickly, so she would have to duck into a private place in an alleyway or somewhere where nobody else was passing and regurgitate all of the people, all of the personalities that she had just absorbed.
And I think about that all the time. I don't think I have that severe form of Tourette's, luckily. But I do think that there's something about getting to play these extraordinary characters that calls upon all of the various people I've, you know, sort of absorbed into my cellular makeup over the years. And they find their way out in a - some sort of, I don't know - what? - unconscious way when I'm acting. But I don't think, oh, she's a lot like so-and-so.
GROSS: Your character on "Girls" was pregnant. Were you pregnant at the same time? Because I know you have a 2-year-old.
HOFFMANN: Yeah, my character got pregnant before I got pregnant. But by the time we were shooting the scenes where I was actually showing, I was pregnant. And certainly in the labor scene I was quite pregnant.
GROSS: So that's really your baby that you're carrying. It's not a pillow in your shirt (laughter).
HOFFMANN: No. And in the birth scene, the birth episode I'm in, I'm totally naked laboring. And I was eight months pregnant, so I had a real belly, a real baby in that real belly.
GROSS: So you had studied for a while to be a doula. What was your own birth like?
HOFFMANN: My own birth - I had a home birth. Actually, my partner Chris, he was nervous when I went to go shoot that labor scene because I was eight months pregnant, you know? So I was really close. He was really nervous that I was going to get so into it that I was going to bring on labor prematurely...
HOFFMANN: ...Because I was so excited about going to the birth scene. Like, I had been looking forward to and obsessed with giving birth for so many years that I was like, oh, my God, I get to go pretend, you know? And he was just like just take it easy. So I had that trial run, and then my own birth came a couple of months later. And I actually had a successful home birth, unlike poor Caroline.
GROSS: Gaby Hoffmann, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
HOFFMANN: Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure.
GROSS: Gaby Hoffmann co-stars in the series "Transparent." Season three is now on Amazon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be writer Jonathan Safran Foer. His new novel "Here I Am" focuses on a Jewish family in which the marriage is falling apart, the son is preparing for the bar mitzvah he doesn't want to have and Israel is facing possible disruption. The novel wrestles with questions about the pursuit of meaning and happiness and the place of Judaism in the life of a secular person. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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