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'I Never Set Out To Be An Actor,' Says 'Transparent' Star Gaby Hoffmann


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Up next, we have Gaby Hoffmann who co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" and has had a recurring role in HBO's "Girls." When we spoke in October, we talked 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." We started with a scene from "Transparent's" latest season, its third. Hoffmann's character, Ali, is having a relationship with Leslie, an older woman, who's a feminist professor and poet played by Cherry Jones. 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.


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. And - 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: 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: 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: 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.


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 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.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actress Gaby Hoffmann. She had an unconventional childhood. Her mother was nicknamed Viva by Andy Warhol and was part of his circle.


GROSS: 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. 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 the people that I knew well and that 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 and 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 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. 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, she 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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. I just tried it.

GROSS: That's 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: 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: My interview with Gaby Hoffmann was recorded in October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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