I had one of those electrifying moments watching TV last year. I was watching a scene in which the actor was knocking me out -- so much so that I felt compelled to do an IMDB check to find out whose work I was admiring.
The episode I was watching was the season 3 premiere of LOUIE, and the actor -- who seemed very familiar to me -- was Gaby Hoffmann. The same Gaby Hoffmann who was so memorable as a young actor in FIELD OF DREAMS, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE and UNCLE BUCK.
Gaby has already been on set for several days of shooting, and she's been absolutely brilliant as new character Ruby Jetson. I have an incredible eye for spotting talent that much more successful and talented people discovered 20 years earlier.
(Just this week The New York Times Magazine ran a fascinating feature about Gaby's life and career.)
The Chelsea Hotel Had Its Own Eloise
According to family legend, there was a snowstorm on the night in 1982 when Gabrielle Mary Antonia Hoffmann — Gaby — was taken home from the hospital to her mother’s apartment at the Chelsea Hotel. Of course Hoffmann did not yet know she had been born into downtown New York artistic royalty. Her mother, Viva (née Janet Sue Hoffmann), is an actress who appeared in Andy Warhol’s movies and who lived at the Chelsea with Gaby’s 11-year-old half-sister, Alexandra, her daughter with her ex-husband, Michel Auder, the French video artist who later married the photographer Cindy Sherman. Later, Hoffmann came to call Auder her dad and Sherman her stepmother.
Hoffmann’s actual father was the actor Anthony Herrera, best known for playing the “As the World Turns” villainus majoris, the kind of bad guy who died over and over, only to re-emerge a year or so later. Her family once sat for a portrait taken by the photographer Claudio Edinger. In it, a naked, chubby infant Gaby is standing on the lap of her unsmiling, beautiful mother. Alexandra stands behind a TV. On the TV screen is Hoffmann’s father, Herrera, acting in his “As the World Turns” role. He was never really a part of Hoffmann’s life; she doesn't remember meeting him until she was 5. She does remember that she found him intimidating and never liked spending time with him.
Her mother co-wrote a book, as yet unpublished, called “Gaby at the Chelsea,” a riff on “Eloise” at the Plaza. Instead of making rich-girl mischief like Eloise, the Gaby in the storybook would undertake uniquely downtown adventures, like finding a vial of crack in the stairwell. In Hoffmann’s real life, she grew up in a bohemian demimonde filled with writers and photographers and experimental artists. Viva and her daughters led a scrappy existence in the Chelsea; Gaby remembers how, on her way to school every morning, the hotel manager would pull her into his office and give her the same speech: “ ‘I don’t want to have to kick you out, but tell your mother she needs to come up with the rent.’ ” Of her childhood, Hoffmann says now: “We lived in a classless society. We’d spend a summer at Gore Vidal’s house in Italy, but we were on and off welfare” when she was a baby. That ended for good, though, when Hoffmann became an actress at age 5 and, a year later, a 6-year-old movie star.
A family friend who worked in advertising had suggested that Gaby try to get some commercial work, and she was immediately successful. She later moved on to roles in films like “Field of Dreams,” “Uncle Buck” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” becoming one of the most recognizable child stars of the time. A precocious actress (and adorable talk-show guest), Hoffmann possessed the kind of arresting vivaciousness and cheerful, un-self-conscious moxie that acting coaches can’t teach. With “Now and Then” (1995), she sealed herself in the coming-of-age movie canon; to this day weepy women approach her to tell her how much that movie meant to them.
Then, when Hoffmann turned 17, she did what so few in-demand actors do: She disappeared. She took the portion of her earnings that had been kept aside for her as part of child-labor laws, and she went to college to figure out what she really wanted to do with her life. Her acting career has been mostly dormant — until this year. She’s currently starring in several movies making their way through festivals, including “Crystal Fairy,” a Sundance favorite that is scheduled to open this weekend. She appeared memorably in the first episode of the third season of “Louie,” and coming up, she has a multiepisode arc in the third season of “Girls.” But she’s also finding that the acting industry she left behind is very different now. As is New York City. As are the prospects they can offer, even to someone who was once downtown royalty.
A few months ago, I sat with Hoffmann, who is now 31, on a lumpy queen-size mattress in the upstairs bedroom of a rented brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. She was wearing an old greenish nylon nightgown, a striped wool cardigan and a pregnant belly prosthetic that itched badly. She was resting between takes of an episode of a Web series she’s starring in, “Lyle,” which has been described as “a lesbian ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ” and which is scheduled to make its debut later this month online. She plays the Rosemary.
As the crew began to fill the rented birthing tub for the climactic delivery scene, Hoffmann caught up on her e-mail by tapping on an iPhone that has seen better days: the screen is cracked, and parts of it are held together by blue duct tape. I asked her what kind of iPhone it was. She answered, “A broken one,” laughed and went back to typing. A minute later, she looked up and, apropos of nothing, said, “I love Beyoncé,” to the room, which included two actresses, also checking e-mail on the bed, and another actress reading Proust. Hoffmann had everyone’s attention. “I do. But I was walking down the street and saw this huge billboard for the documentary she made about herself called, ‘Life Is But a Dream.’ Underneath the billboard is this homeless guy, then there’s me with $2 in my bank account, and I’m thinking, Life is but a dream? I mean, I love you, B, but really?”
Hoffmann doesn’t really have just $2 in her bank account. More like $4,000, “which is a lot,” she tells me later. “I know that. It’s just not that much if you don’t know where the next $4,000 is coming from. I have a teacher friend who gets nervous when there’s $200 in her account. But at least she knows that in a week, she’ll get another paycheck. I have no idea.”
For this Web series, she agreed to a payment of $25 per day, though later when the producers found they were underbudget, they upped her to $100 per day. So you might say money isn’t a priority.
She sighs and throws her hair up into a bun.
A word on her hair: It’s big and brown, with a few gray strands now salted through, and there is just so much of it — a wall of hair. When she runs her hands through it, it stays where she leaves it. It is huge but obedient.
Once you absorb the vastness of her hair, her eyebrows are not without context. They are hairy dashes that knit and weave and bob in the most exaggerated form of whatever expression she’s making. They underline the rivets on her forehead that are, as she enters her 30s, a result of all this lifelong expressiveness.
And she’s not, you might say, as image-conscious as most actresses her age. At one point she told me a story about something that happened to her at Sundance while she was there with “Crystal Fairy.” In the movie she plays a wandering hippie, and she spends a good portion of the movie naked. At a party following the film’s debut at Sundance, two women approached her to compliment her performance and then ask how she’d gotten the merkin — a pubic wig — to adhere. “No,” she explained to the two women. “That’s just me. I’m a human. I have hair.”
Hoffmann doesn’t think it’s fair to compare her with the typical modern child star, or the modern survivor of child stardom either. “I was never as famous as all these kids,” she said. “There was no social media. We weren’t celebrity-obsessed as a culture. I feel like these kids are under a crazy microscope; they’re basically brands. And they eventually implode and act out. They need a break, and they’re not getting one.” For all that her family depended on her talent and skill, Hoffmann never felt that she couldn’t walk away from acting; she never felt that she was less important than what she could help provide.
Claire Danes, with whom Hoffmann became good friends as a teenager, suggests, counterintuitively, that it was actually the permissiveness of the environment that saved both of them. “Growing up in downtown New York City in the ’80s, we were ensconced in art and progressive thinking,” she says. “Our parents all experimented with raising us in a fairly loose, unorthodox way. A huge emphasis was placed on creativity, and our artistic efforts were never dismissed as childish. There was a sense that we — kids and grown-ups — all had the potential to make something of value. Our drawings were not simply destined for the refrigerator. We never felt patronized.”
People often associate child stars with overbearing stage mothers, but Hoffmann says that wasn’t the case with her. “It was because of who my mother is that I ended up living a life surrounded by extraordinary people, all of whom have played a major part in who I am today and why I turned out the way I did.” Still, she recognizes that her kind of childhood would not be possible today. “The amount of energy you need to output just to survive in New York takes away from your ability to be an artist,” she says. “It was a very conducive place for artists when I was growing up, and it’s now definitely not. The city has been completely taken over by the rich — even parts of Brooklyn. Everyone’s been driven out of SoHo, and even the places they found after SoHo.”
Two nights later, over dinner at Lucien in the East Village, she said more simply, “I hate money.” She didn’t think about money much in her 20s, she says, but now the house she bought in upstate New York has been sold, the money from her child-acting days is gone and she’d like a home, some stability, all while pursuing projects that interest her. She hates that all her stuff is in storage.
Earlier that day she had two auditions, one for a TV pilot. She’s done TV before; she even starred in a sitcom back in 1994, but it takes a minute for her to remember its name. (“Someone Like Me,” and it ran for six episodes.) She rarely thinks about her earlier career. She hasn’t seen those movies in years.
She has nothing against TV per se, but committing to a pilot is like agreeing to marriage after one date. Still, she has to think about her future. She sighs and eats a French fry. “Who knows if I’m going to have any Social Security or health insurance? I should just take whatever money I can get whenever I can get it. Let’s not be stupid, right?”
Hoffmann followed her sister to Bard College, then spent her postcollegiate 20s trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She interned with a chef in Italy; she trained to be a doula after helping deliver her sister’s kids. She and her former boyfriend were living in a vintage trailer in the Catskills when Hoffmann realized it was time to find a creative direction in her life. Acting kept pulling at her, and she became consumed with understanding why. “I was obsessed with figuring out if it was something I would have come to as an adult on my own,” she said. “And it was almost like I couldn’t do it until I answered that question.” She continued: “It was just always like a total existential crisis when I would get an audition, and it was torturing me. I couldn’t commit to any other line of work because I wasn’t willing to take myself completely away from the acting.”
Eventually she gave up on finding the answers but not on acting. She decided to dedicate a year to saying yes to every audition but to picking only projects she liked and found artistically fulfilling, at least while her money held out.
During our dinner, Lucien Bahaj, the restaurant’s owner, saw Hoffmann across the room, sat down and ordered a bottle of wine for the table, his treat. He asked about her family. Behind my head was a framed picture of Michel Auder. Bahaj told Hoffmann he’d closed the Pink Pony, the nearby cafe he owned. The news made Hoffmann wistful. She’s been a little out of touch with the goings on of the city and had no idea. The last time she was at the Pink Pony, she had a fight with someone and stormed out. God, can’t anything remain as it was?
No, as it turns out. Hoffmann’s world has shifted seismically since she was the alt-Eloise at the Chelsea Hotel. Anthony Herrera died in 2011 from cancer. Michel Auder and Cindy Sherman are divorced. Viva lives in Palm Springs now. There’s a Whole Foods on 14th Street. The Palladium is an N.Y.U. dorm called the Palladium. Times Square is so bright and shiny that you can practically see it from space. Nobody has pubic hair anymore. And the Chelsea Hotel, a onetime stalwart symbol of all that was great and dirty and scrappy in this city, has been sold, and Gaby Hoffmann can do no more than squint through the dirty windows and scaffolding to see what used to be her home.
A month after “Lyle” wrapped, Hoffmann was in Los Angeles for a few meetings and auditions, driving around in a friend’s BMW. In the cupholders were the remnants of a green shake and a pack of cigarettes, but at lunch at an Iranian restaurant in Santa Monica, she expressed concern when I ordered a second Diet Coke. “That stuff kills you, I think,” she said.
She wore a green silk dress and tortoiseshell glasses that she took off every few minutes, sliding them onto her head, a dam to hold back that torrent of hair. Though in June she finally found an apartment in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, she says she loves Los Angeles. “I feel like everyone here is so creative,” she told me. “They think up a project, and the next thing you know, they’re doing it.”
Sebastián Silva, who directed “Crystal Fairy,” fell in love with Hoffmann when she auditioned for a recurring role on his HBO digital series, “The Boring Life of Jacqueline.” Silva was looking for actresses who could speak Quebecois French, but was willing to settle for traditional French. Hoffmann showed up but admitted she didn’t know French at all. “She was so loud and kind of aggressive even, it threw me off,” he said. “I thought she was too much for me. I didn’t know what to do with her.”
So he hired her. And when Silva set out in 2011 to film “Crystal Fairy,” a biographical account of a road trip he took 12 years before in Chile to drink the hallucinogenic product of the San Pedro cactus, he had only one actress in mind for the free spirit of the title role. He contends that Hoffmann could tweeze her eyebrows, shave her armpits and act like everyone else, but she would never be able to quash her essential Gaby Hoffmann-ness, the thing that made the director Stewart Thorndike write the role in “Lyle” just for her, or that makes people like the writer-director Jill Soloway seek her out without a project in mind, just in hopes that they’ll find something to do together.
“She inspires that in people,” Soloway says. “She’s got this fast-talking-but-intellectual, unfolding, unraveling adorableness.”
Silva puts it more bluntly. “She’s an anarchist,” he says. “She could be wearing a Cinderella dress, and she would still be a mess.”
He understood just how well she’d embody the role of Crystal Fairy, an openhearted young hippie who feels like a welcome remnant from a different time. There’s a lot of press on “Crystal Fairy” about the drugs — it’s true the cast drank the San Pedro during filming — and about the nudity in the film, but the real magic of the movie is in Hoffmann’s performance. Crystal Fairy, it turns out, is the perfect role for her.
The newest PCHers tyfyt
Glad to see the James Franco role is only a cameo. I think that's where my excitement level went to a 9, but then the next day it was back to an 11. ;)
She's supposedly playing a suspect in the murder of Logan's girlfriend, so we'll see.