There were only a few occasions when the famed self-portraiture artist Cindy Sherman took photos of someone else and, at just five years old, Gaby Hoffmann became one of them. In the portrait, Hoffmann remembers with a knowing snort, she was dressed as the devil. Posing for one of the world’s most famous photographers was no fluke: Sherman was Hoffmann’s stepmother (she married Hoffmann’s older sister’s father), and as a child Hoffmann would regularly run riot in her studio, throwing on costumes and playing with props. “Then when I was a teenager I lived with Cindy, and when Halloween came that’s where I would go to dress up. My kids now enjoy it. It’s a family resource!”
This might sound like a less than conventional way to get your hands on a costume come 31 October, but such a life was pretty normal for Hoffmann. Growing up in Manhattan’s bohemian Chelsea Hotel – also home to Patti Smith, Nico and Jackson Pollock – she was the daughter of Andy Warhol muse and actor Viva, who was on the phone to the artist when he was shot by Valerie Solanas. Family friends included Gore Vidal. That Hoffmann started appearing in television adverts at the age of four to help pay the rent is perhaps one of the least fascinating things about her early years.
As an adult, Hoffmann became a mainstay of the small screen’s most uncompromising shows, including Lena Dunham’s Girls and Joey Soloway’s Transparent. A long-deserved lead role is now on the horizon, with Hoffmann currently filming an as-yet-unnamed series about the LA Lakers basketball team for HBO. In it she will play Claire Rothman, the first ever female manager of a major sports arena, alongside John C Reilly, Adrien Brody and Sally Field, as well as newcomer Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson. The role called for Hoffmann, her husband and two children to move from New York to California, just two weeks before the US went into lockdown for the first time last year. “We just decided to commit to life in a strange, small town in Los Angeles,” says Hoffmann; the family embedded themselves in the mountain community of Altadena to achieve some semblance of stability.
Just before the move, Hoffmann had finished work on C’mon C’mon, the fourth feature from Beginners and 20th Century Women director Mike Mills. Rendered in elegant black and white, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio producer who looks after the young son of his sister Viv (played by Hoffmann) while she cares for her estranged, bipolar partner. The uncle and nephew relationship blossoms as the pair travel across the US, with Hoffmann’s tender scenes largely played out on the other end of a phone line.
As Viv, Hoffmann is again entrenched in a fragile sibling relationship, much like her characters in Transparent and Girls. “They felt like real people with lots of edges and corners,” says Hoffmann. “When I read the script, my son was not even a year old and my daughter was four, so I was as immersed in parenthood as ever, and I thought that it was maybe the best script that I’d ever read.” C’mon C’mon was also written by Mills, whose naturalistic approach appealed to Hoffmann. “It’s such a relief to read something that is about the actual life that I am concerned with and not some far-off fantasy,” she says. “Even though the details of these people and their lives are very different than my own, the sort of brushstrokes, the feelings are very similar.”
Since Hoffmann and Phoenix’s characters haven’t seen each other since their mother’s death, she asked if she could not meet Phoenix until they shot their first scene together. “I’m not a method actor at all,” she says, “but it added this charge to the moment.” Both are former child stars from a similar generation – Phoenix broke through in 1989’s Parenthood, the same year as Hoffmann’s film debut in Field of Dreams – so it seems strange that they had never run into each other before. “Well, we may have crossed paths on a darkly lit street in Manhattan,” laughs Hoffmann. “But I don’t spend a lot of time running around Hollywood parties, and I’m pretty sure Joaquin doesn’t either!”
Known for his intense approach to screencraft, in C’mon C’mon Phoenix seems softer, lighter, easier. Was he as heavy-going to work with as people might think? “Oh, he’s just a big sweetie pie!” says Hoffmann. “Unfortunately, we were more like two obnoxious 16-year-olds [on set] than intense actors taking things too seriously.”
Adding to the film’s realism was the lack of professional hair and makeup on set. “I absolutely loved the idea,” says Hoffmann, whose character Viv is that rare thing: someone in a movie who looks like a person you might actually meet in real life. “For a single mother who is an intellectual and academic who looks more or less like I look every day, it’s totally unnecessary. As an audience member I’m often so distracted by how perfect everybody always looks; they’ve just got out of bed and are feeding their five-year-old and look like they’re ready to hit the runway!”
C’mon C’mon marks seven years since Hoffmann’s last film role, in 2014’s Manhattan Romance. “I really love my job so much. I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I get to do this for a living, but I don’t want to do it that often,” she says with a chuckle. Such enthusiasm – albeit in spurts – is a marked change from how Hoffmann felt three decades ago. As one of the early 1990s’ most visible young actors, she followed the hit Field of Dreams with blockbusters Uncle Buck and Sleepless in Seattle, before fronting her own sitcom, Someone Like Me, at just 12.
But despite the ease and confidence in which she approached her work back then, it bored her. “I didn’t care about it at all,” she says. “I didn’t think about acting. I didn’t have any relationship to it. I loved being on movie sets, but the acting itself … ?” She first announced to her family that she would be retiring at seven, but soon ended up back in front of the cameras, only to step down again at 17. “I didn’t think I would ever return to it,” she explains. Instead she went to the liberal arts school Bard in upstate New York: “I was just interested in getting to college and becoming a teacher.”
If the stop-start nature of Hoffmann’s CV reflects something of a love-hate relationship with acting, over the past decade she’s made peace with it. A scene-stealing one-off role in a 2012 episode of Louie led to her revelatory turn as Ali Pfefferman in Transparent, the witty, LA-set show about a family dealing with their father’s transition. Running for four seasons, in 2018 the show fired its lead Jeffrey Tambor following two allegations of sexual harassment; a final series was replaced by a one-off musical special in which Tambor’s character Maura was killed off. “That show just had a sad, unfortunate occasion to end,” admits Hoffmann. “But it was its natural ending. It wasn’t the plan, but it’s what happened and that was fine with me.”
A bonus of moving to California is that Hoffmann is now within 15 minutes of Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker, who played her elder siblings in Transparent. In fact, they were all hanging out just a week ago. “We’re very much still siblings,” says Hoffmann, warmly. “We’ll be siblings for ever, the three of us.”
And next year, there’s another milestone on the way; the five-year-old devil in that Cindy Sherman photo will be turning 40 in January. “I’ve always been excited to be in my 40s. Even as a kid I had an instinct about it,” she says. “It seems quite clear to me that things just get better.”
C’mon C’mon is in cinemas from 3 December