Gaby Hoffmann (right) poses with her Transparent co-stars Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker
It’s been a standout year for Gaby Hoffmann, who at the age of 32 is suddenly the center of attention—thanks to much-talked about roles in season three of HBO’s Girls, the indie gay horror film Lyle, and Amazon’s critically-acclaimed dramedy, Transparent, about a transgender parent coming out to her kids. In the latter, Hoffmann plays Ali, the gender-queer daughter of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) who is on her own (sometimes drug-induced) journey of self-discovery.
It may seem like a breakout moment for Hoffmann, who has been working since she was 5, but she doesn’t consider herself a child star. “Honestly, it was just an easy way to make money for my family,” she says. “We had a friend in advertising. He put me in a commercial. We were broke.” She felt joy being on set, but says she didn’t have an intense desire to act. “I wanted to go to college and be a teacher.”
After being a favorite daughter in films — Field of Dreams, Now & Then, and Sleepless in Seattle — Hoffmann drifted away from acting only to pick up parts “to pay bills when I needed to.” The eventual transition back the set is similar to the “lazy default reaction to becoming an adult” Ali is going through on Transparent. Hoffman’s character is trying out different things and running into different walls. The ambivalent approach has led to a state of arrested development that also handicaps her ability to find herself. “She’s sort of paralyzed,” Hoffmann explains., referring to how Ali’s forced to examine her own self after Maura comes out as a transgender woman. “I think it’s just a very organic part of her journey to find out who she is. The gender stuff is just part of it without her moving toward that specifically.”
Although Hoffmann’s expecting her first child with her longtime boyfriend, Chris Dapkins, the part hasn’t prevented her from exploring her own gender and sexuality. In fact, she says it’s part of the fluid nature of who she is and how she relates to Ali. “The gender-queer part of her character feels very natural and not a huge stretch from how I sort of experience my own gender,” she says. “Part of being a woman for me is that I get to play with my gender and my sexuality whenever I want. I wake up some days and put on outfits like this, and other days I wake up and put on my boyfriend’s clothes. There’s no moment of even decision-making for me. In that respect, I have a lot in common with Ali. We’re both coming from a world that’s incredibly liberal and incredibly accepting, and we can kind of do whatever we want without it being a huge leap or statement — without it being risky or scary — so I didn’t even have to think about it.”
While Hoffman finds comfort in such roles, audiences may find all the subsequent nudity unsettling. In Transparent, Hoffman — who was very early in her pregnancy — has a threesome with two other men. “I said out loud that morning: ‘I wonder if I’m the first person to ever do a threesome scene who’s pregnant.’ ” (For the record, Hoffmann says her mother is the one other person she knows who has.) In her two of her other buzziest roles, as Caroline Sackler on Girls and in 2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, she appeared completely naked. “Nudity, in and of itself, is not anything that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know if people write the nude scenes for me, or if I’m attracted to those parts, but I think whoever is comfortable enough with that, it’s sort of — I don’t want to say responsibility, but we can kind of use a little easing up in that area.”
As for being a mother, having a child hasn’t swayed her views on nudity. It’s only affected how she’s filmed while naked. “On Transparent, we had to cover it up, because I’m not pregnant on the show,” she explains. “But I am pregnant on Girls. And there is no covering that up.” The transition from one set, where her character is depressed and covered in big shirts and is hunched at the shoulders, to the next is just part of the journey Hoffmann enjoys. “It was kind of fun to go from that to Girls, where I just have to be blatantly pregnant and really let this thing hang out.”
Hoffmann shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. This year, she appears in Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar hopeful, Wild, and the indie rom-com, Manhattan Romance. Plus, she’ll be very pregnant on the new season Lena Dunham's hit HBO series. If there’s another conversation she can impact, she hopes it’s the current media conversation surrounding transgender issues — one that’s been addressed by the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, and its lead star, Jeffrey Tambor, a cisgender male playing a transgender woman. The show added transgender writers and producers to its crew and set up gender-neutral bathrooms on set.
“Certainly our relationship to this community that’s in desperate need of some respect, and compassion, and understanding, and a voice has changed our culture [on set],” Hoffmann says. “I hope it changes [others]: It’s well overdue.”