Gaby Hoffmann on child stars and coming back to acting on her own terms
Gaby Hoffmann stars in two films premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival (June 13-23 in downtown L.A.) — Crystal Fairy, co-starring Michael Cera and directed by Sebastian Silva, and Goodbye World, co-starring Adrien Grenier and directed by Denis Hennelly. Hoffmann was a child actress, with featured roles in classics like Sleepless in Seattle and Field of Dreams. More recently, she’s starred in Silva’s HBO Go series The Boring Life of Jacqueline and the upcoming independent film Burma, plus had recent guest spots on The Good Wife and Homeland. Below in a post as-told-to EW’s Laura Hertzfeld, Hoffmann shares her story of how she’s returned to acting in a serious way after a long break, plus her advice to young actors.
When I was a kid I wasn’t making my choices based on anything other than “Did I want to work that day?” or “Did being in school sound more fun?” And I don’t remember ever reading a script and thinking “Is this going to be a fun part to play?”
I started working because we didn’t have any money, and it was a really easy solution — a surprisingly easy solution — to that problem. It wasn’t something I asked to do or had any aspirations about so I wasn’t honestly putting that much thought into it, other than how I felt from one day to the next.
I do remember when I was seven or eight saying “I really miss school,” and my mom saying “Oh yes, you should go to school instead of doing this hideous, disgusting movie business. Go back to school, we’ll figure something else out.” And then I went back to school and a few months later I was bored and said “Oh, let’s go make another movie.”
When I was a teenager, I was a little more interested, but I was still pretty sure it was just a means to an end. All I wanted to do was go to college and I thought I would never go back to acting.
I was never that famous but I do think going to college and really getting away from the business and taking a true break is incredibly, incredibly important if you start acting at a young age. It’s a risky thing to do. Kids I grew up with, friends of mine who were actresses, some of them finished, some of them worked through college, a lot of them made it work. It definitely affected my career, but I didn’t really give a s–t. But these young actresses who don’t take a break –- I actually think it’s criminal. I don’t think it should be allowed for people to start working at a young age and not take the time to just be living as themselves in the real world, especially now in this new age of new media and the obsession with celebrity. I think it’s a real crime.
I went to school to study literature and writing, even though I didn’t end up really doing that in the end. I thought I would be a teacher, but I didn’t really think about it in any practical way. We didn’t sit around the dinner table talking about life plans. My mom grew up in a strict Catholic family and moved to New York and became part of the Warhol factory. So she wasn’t really living by the book — and I certainly wasn’t thinking “I’ll go to college because that’s a reasonable thing to do so I can get a degree, so I can get a job” — that wasn’t it at all. I just wanted to go, live in the dorm, go to class, and read. I wasn’t thinking about what that was going to lead to. But I did really think I’d love to teach.
For the first few years after college, I was very ambivalent and very confused about working. I started missing acting when I was in school and I realized after being in the business after however many years that I was really interested in film. My senior thesis was a documentary. By the time I graduated from college I thought I was going to make films, and my interest in acting was there, but kind of confused. And I then spent years really not working. It wasn’t that I was deciding not to work but I wasn’t deciding to work and I was depressed and confused and needing a real time out. I did a couple episodes of shows that I’d not even seen, I needed the money. I did a couple plays that I couldn’t really tell you the plot. I was not engaged.
Then a couple years ago I decided to really focus on it and spend a year actively engaged and making real choices and trying to get jobs that were interesting to me and see how that felt so I could decide and make a choice one way or the other. And at that point it really turned around and I started discovering myself as an actress as an adult. None of the work in my 20s I was present for. It was just something I did my whole life without thinking about it. I made this movie called Burma and I just felt a real ground shift. It wasn’t all in one full sweep, but it was an interior shift in myself.
A few years ago I went to Sundance for a day to see a friend’s film and we got there and it was crazy and horrible and we were going to leave right away and we were getting in the car and I said: “This is silly. We’re both filmmakers, we’re at Sundance, we should go see at least one movie.” So I flipped through the catalog and the only thing that really stood out to me was this movie called The Maid and I said “that’s what I want to go see.” Somehow we got in and it was this spectacular movie. It was one of the few moments – every so often every 100th movie that you see you think “Oh my God, yes, I want to be involved in movies. If people are making movies like this, I want to be involved.” A year later I got a call asking me if I spoke French and I said no, but I was so curious and the trail led to Sebastian [Silva] who had made The Maid and he was making an HBO Go series in New York. So I said “Yes! I speak French, tell them I speak French!” I went in and auditioned and some how I convinced them to forego the need for fluent French. So Sebastian and I made this project together for HBO Go and became friends. Then he called and said: “Do you want to fly to Chile and make this improvisational road movie where we drive through the desert and take drugs with me and Michael Cera?” And I was like, well, obviously. I’ll parachute out of the airplane. So that’s how Crystal Fairy came about.
This filmmaker [Silva] has revalidated an interest in filmmaking for me. Of course that was internally. Externally, I was broke and couldn’t get a real job to save my life. But I realized that I have to work and this can’t be an experiment. Now I make choices based on both of those things. Sometimes it’s for the money because I gotta pay my rent and I’ve decided that this is my career and I’m no longer paying my rent by any means like I did for 10 years. But then sometimes you think you’re just doing it for the money and then you have a more meaningful experience than you’ve had in years. And the rest of the time I’m looking first and foremost for great writing. And then the people involved. Or the character. It’s always the time and the place you’re in. It’s always a long weird list of reasons, for me at least.
As for the L.A. Film Fest, I love the group of people I made both of these films [Crystal Fairy and Goodbye World] with and am just looking forward to celebrating with my friends.