‘Transparent’ star Gaby Hoffmann on nudity, child acting, and what scares her

Amazon premieres the third season of its Emmy winner Transparent tomorrow. It remains a marvelous show, full of great performances and imagery, though the different threads of season 3 don't tie together at the end quite as effective as the first two years did.

I'll have an episode-by-episode breakdown sometime over the weekend or early next week, after people have had a chance to watch the whole thing. In the meantime, here's a conversation I had with Transparent co-star Gaby Hoffmann, who as a child actress worked with some of the biggest movie stars in the world (Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle), quit the business to go to college and become an adult, then returned to acting a decade later. Between Transparent, Girls (where she plays Adam's erratic sister), and her movie roles, the adult Hoffmann has established herself as a performer utterly lacking in self-consciousness, whether she's exposing her body or the many flaws of her characters.

At press tour last month, we talked about what actually makes her uncomfortable as an actor, why she went back to Hollywood after 10 years away, and what drew her to playing Ali Pfefferman to begin with. 

At this stage in your career, are there things you're ever given in scripts that you question or worry about, or do you just go for whatever you're given?

Gaby Hoffmann: It's not so much to me about something being uncomfortable physically or sexually or anything like that. The only time I need to talk about something is when the emotional transition doesn't make sense to me, and that's usually like a three-second conversation with somebody, or I try a bunch of different ways, or we change it. There's nothing to be afraid of. I mean, there are things to be afraid of – like extraordinary poverty and suffering beyond anything I've experienced, and climate change, despots – but there's really nothing to be afraid of when your job is an actor and you're at work, if you're in a place that is safe and full of respect and love, which we are.

You've been doing this the bulk of your life. How much of the fact that you've been doing this so long helps inform that attitude?

Gaby Hoffmann: It's funny, I don't really think of myself as being… I did act as a kid, but I quit when I was seventeen. I really took 10-plus years off, and when I started again seriously in the last 5 years, I'm an adult, and I was a kid before, so yes and no. There's a familiarity, of course. I think it maybe more just has to do with how I was raised and who I happen to be and how I live in the world.

When you took the break to go to school and do everything else, was the plan to return to acting?

Gaby Hoffmann: No, I did not think I would return.

Why not?

Gaby Hoffmann: I never made the choice to be an actor. It just sort of happened to me when I was a kid, for whatever reasons that are irrelevant in this moment. I really enjoyed being on movie sets, and I had fun with the people, but I didn't really think about acting or care, or I didn't think I cared about acting. It wasn't until I was in college that I even realized how much I loved film and started to appreciate acting, this beautiful medium of artistic expression. All I wanted to do was go to college, and I thought I wanted to be a teacher.

How did you come back to this?

Gaby Hoffmann: A long, miserable road. I got to college in '99, and I went to study literature and writing, and so within a couple years we had Bush elected, 9/11, we were at war, so I was sort of having my political and spiritual awakening at the same time I was becoming an adult, and that's a lot of stuff at once. I became very focused on the state of the world, and I started studying that stuff more, and I just had a real identity crisis. I couldn't even really just study literature. I just thought, “God, the world is so f–ked up, and we all have to do something about it,” and I still feel that way, but I of course realize there are many ways in which we all can participate.

For a minute, I thought I was going to become an environmental lawyer, and I just was all over the place, and I couldn't figure out what I wanted, and I was obsessed with this idea that because I'd started acting at such a young age and I hadn't just bounced around as a kid, I (wondered), “What would I have discovered about myself, my inner passion, if I wasn't acting?”

I then went around for many, many years, trying to do that, and I spent my twenties not really participating in the work force in any real way. I acted a tiny bit, but that was just because it was the only way I knew how to make money, and I sublet my apartment and lived in the woods and just tried to figure out who I was and what I wanted, what my real desire was and not just what I was used to doing, and it was a really confusing and painful, but really rich and amazing time. I got into cooking and I went and cooked in Italy. I became a doula for a while. I built stone walls one summer, and I read a lot, and I swam a lot, and I spent a lot of time thinking.

I eventually realized that I wasn't giving up this acting thing for some reason, and so I should just dive into it, and so I spent a year saying yes instead of saying no. I had this aggressive, bizarre relationships with it, so I thought, I'm just going to give as much attention and curiosity to acting as I did to like making my coffee in the morning and see how that feels, rather than resisting it and angsting, and it turned out it felt great.

I talk about this with people who acted as children: Sometimes they feel like what they were doing then is basically same, and their instrument didn't really change as they grew up. Others don't at all. Do you feel like what you were doing 20 years ago has any connection to what you do now?

Gaby Hoffmann: I don't know. I don't really think about it. Yeah, probably, because I did not train, I didn't tune my instrument differently in those ten years, (but) I must have had some natural ability to do what I was doing. I haven't gone back and looked. I'm sure that I'm not great, but I wasn't paying much attention to it then, and I don't pay much attention to it now. I think about it, and I'm curious about it in an active way when I'm not doing it, and I wasn't then.

When I'm doing it, I might as well be in a blackout. That's probably similar as to then. I probably wasn't as free then. I probably was thinking about it a little more, because I was a kid. I was being told what to do all the time, so I think I probably had less agency.

Do you remember times when  the script asked you to do something back then, and you said, “I don't know that I want to do this”?

Gaby Hoffmann: The only thing I really remember was really struggling in Field of Dreams and Kevin Costner get very frustrated at me, and I couldn't get this speech, and I remember thinking, “Well, that doesn't help. That isn't going to help.” No, I don't really remember. I think I just did it, and it was fine.

What about Ali made you say, “All right, I want to do this part?”

Gaby Hoffmann: I didn't even meet Ali before I said I wanted to do the part. I met Jill at Sundance, and she told me that her parent had just come out and she wanted to write a show about it and that she thought that I should be in it, and I said, “Well, that sounds great, and you're great, and if that ever happens, count me in.” I was sort of in before Ali had been written. It was Jill.

When you finally got the script or were told more about the character, what did you make of her initially?

Gaby Hoffmann: I was excited by her, because she is a beautiful combination, especially when we first met her, but she's getting more interesting to me over time. She was then a really beautiful combination of somebody who had a very strong and distinct personality and seemed to enjoy it, and also was completely lost and had no idea who she was and what she wanted. That's kind of a fun dichotomy to play. She's constantly experimenting.

She sheds identities like snakes shed skin.

Gaby Hoffmann: I have a snake living under one of my windows in my house who has molted three times this summer. Yes, and that is an example of a thing that initially I was like, “This is a leap.” You know, when you asked about the things that make us uncomfortable, that's something that rationally and logically I can't try to figure out, how somebody “transitions” so rapidly and so drastically, but I don't worry about it now. I have so much  trust in Jill and our writers and our editors that I know that the emotional narrative will work in the end, and I just have to play each moment honestly even if the getting from A to B doesn't totally make sense initially.

It's interesting that that's what would give you pause. Because a lot of times I will talk to actors, and a lot of the things that you're asked to do here and on Girls and other parts you've done in the last few years, that's stuff that people say, “I don't know that I want to be that naked on screen,” or “I don't know that I want to have the character necessarily come off as this damaged or as abrasive,” and that's just water off a duck's back for you.

Gaby Hoffmann: I don't think people should do things that they're not comfortable with, unless they want to stretch themselves in that way and challenge themselves. I happen to be extremely comfortable naked. I come from a very naked family, so that's just something that's not a big deal for me. I don't think it means anything other than that.

It's fun to play somebody who's kind of struggling. Playing the pretty, quiet girl next door, that's f–king boring. I'm happy to take on the crazier, more damaged roles. I'm interested in acting because I'm interested in exploring humanity, and we're all nuts, we're all damaged, and we're all gorgeous, so anything less than that is dishonest to me.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com