Actors tend to trade in affect, and yet during a recent Zoom interview with Jezebel, Gaby Hoffmann did not seem fazed by very much as it pertains to her decades-long career. The 39-year-old actor began appearing in commercials at age 4 and went on to feature in some of the big hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s: Field of Dreams, Now and Then, Uncle Buck, and Sleepless in Seattle, to name a few. She drifted in and out of acting, sometimes staying away for years, only to return and start churning out memorable projects in the past 10 years. These include Amazon’s Transparent, Sebastián Silva’s 2013 film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, and Mike Mills’s C’mon, C’mon, which is currently in theaters. In C’mon, C’mon, Hoffmann plays Viv, an overworked mom who relies on her brother Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) to look after her son Jesse (Woody Norman) as she tends to her troubled ex. It’s among Hoffmann’s most natural and soulful performances and has already attracted Oscar buzz, as well as a Gotham Awards nomination for Outstanding Supporting Performance.
She isn’t sweating it, though. “I did not even know what the Gotham Awards were, which is not because they’re not a wonderful, prestigious thing, I’m sure,” she explained, before articulating why she wished awards shows didn’t exist. She also discussed how she has seemingly avoided the pitfalls of many other child actors, her disdain for social media, and her intuitive approach to acting. “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” she told Jezebel. Well, she could have fooled us! All this and more in the transcript of our interview below, which has been condensed and edited.
JEZEBEL: What attracted you to this role and movie?
GABY HOFFMANN: My relationship to it began with a dinner with Mike, and it was just the beginning of what I think will probably be a lifelong friendship. I was sort of in from the get-go after that dinner. Then I read the script a couple of days later, and the script was more of that: Talking about the things that I think about and that I spend my time doing and wondering about and striving toward and struggling with. And so that’s interesting to me. So it was an obvious choice.
Did you have specific feelings about playing a mom onscreen?
Yeah, that was exciting to me. I am a mother, and that is what I’m doing with almost every second of almost every day. I feel very privileged that I get to spend all my time doing that. It literally is the entirety of my life, so it’s thrilling to be able to bring that to work and kind of work with it in a new way. And again, just be in conversation about it with somebody who is as thoughtful about it and as interested in it as Mike is. The beautiful thing about making a movie about the things that your life is also a lot about is you’re spending even more time and attention in new ways on the things that you care about. So it inevitably just deepens and enriches everything, both the work and the life.
I read that Mike likes to have his actors improvise. How was that for you?
We improvised a little bit, but not a huge amount. I’m really used to improvising a lot, so it felt like less than I’m used to, actually. But that wasn’t in any way predetermined by Mike. It just sort of happened naturally. We also did a lot of kind of reworking of the dialogue beforehand or while we were shooting it. If I tripped up on something—“This doesn’t feel quite natural”—Mike always was open to, “Well, how would you say it?,” or, “How do you hear it?” Then there were little bits of improvisation here and there. There was some of the montage stuff where it’s all improvised.
The montages seemed to capture in you in real arguments. Where did the intensity come from?
We were having real arguments. All of the stuff with Scoot [McNairy], who plays my ex-husband Paul, we actually really played them. We played like long, big, beautiful scenes between he and I. Those were all improvised. That’s true. We knew that we were only going to use a couple of seconds here and there, but it was really important for us to have this big, full, rich experience so that those two seconds were effective and had that feeling. All that there was between us that you don’t see on screen is sort of heavy in the air, so for those two seconds, you get that big punch to the gut and heart of what’s really going on between them. I really have to attribute all of that to Scoot. I mean, he’s an incredible actor, and it was so fun and such a privilege to play with him. And he came with so much. Like, I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s really much easier for me to do what I’m doing when I get to work with these incredible actors because I just have to respond. It was just there for the taking. And then I guess there was a fight scene with Joaquin where we also only see a couple of seconds. I think that was pretty much all improvised. It was the same thing: We just got into it and played a whole big real scene and Mike took a second or two out of it that was pregnant with all that we had done around it.
When you say you don’t know what you’re doing does that mean acting is strictly intuitive to you? Are you at all a craftsperson?
I wish I was a craftsperson. Every time, I’m like, “This time I’m going to figure it out! I’m going to try to do some sort of preparation.” I don’t think any actor, Yale-trained or otherwise, would say that they figure it out at home and then they go to work and they do that. Of course not. They will all probably say they throw it out the window and just be in the moment, but all that work they did before informs them, or it’s something to fall back on if they can’t find it in the moment. So I’m always like, “Yeah, that sounds good. It’s something to fall back on if I can’t find it in a moment!” Or like, all this preparation, that’s going to support the instincts…but I never do it, I can’t do it, I don’t know how to do it. I just keep doing the same thing, which is just showing up and hoping something good happens.
It seems like you avoided typical child-actor pitfalls. Why do you think you did, compared to so many others?
Today and for the last 20 years, the internet seems to play a huge, huge, huge role in it. I know it’s not popular to have sympathy for famous rich people, but I feel an incredible amount of compassion and heartache for people who have grown up in not just the quote unquote limelight, but in the internet age. It’s ruthless, it’s disgusting, I think, the way that people are treated. These are kids, teenagers, adolescents just struggling like the rest of us and getting torn apart for doing it. My heart breaks for them.
I think when I was a kid, I was not interested in being an actor at all. I was just waiting to go to college and never thought I would act as an adult. I liked making movies because I liked being on movie sets, because movie sets are fun and despite our terrible reputations, actors and filmmakers are usually really wonderful, smart, funny people who are interested in humanity and what we have to share with each other. I liked it, but I wasn’t pursuing it. It was just kind of a small part of my life, really. So I don’t know if that had something to do with it.
You’re not on social media now right now, right?
Is that for that very reason? The meanness?
I’m not interested in that at all. I don’t know how people find the time. Occasionally I feel like, “Wait a minute. You had a performance? I didn’t know about it!” “Well, it was on Facebook.” I’ve certainly missed out on some wonderful things, I’m sure, but I just do not want to spend any more time looking at screens. The emailing and the texting is enough for me. I’ve got people in the flesh around me—my kids, my husband, my community, my friends—that I’m interested in and I don’t even see my friends enough. So I’m not going to spend time looking at what other people are seeing.
And I do think that the internet at large, of course, technology at large but definitely social media is just a robber baron of our attention. And I won’t be participating in that.
You have a Gotham Awards nomination for this movie. There’s been Oscar buzz. Do you care?
You know, this is a really tricky one. I am not comfortable with this subject! I did not even know what the Gotham Awards were, which is not because they’re not a wonderful, prestigious thing, I’m sure. I just don’t know what’s going on. I don’t pay attention. I’m not on social media. I don’t really know what’s happening in the entertainment world.
The awards thing is tricky. I think the awards thing is really problematic. I do not like the competitive nature of it. I think it is bizarre and just creepy and problematic that people have to campaign and that there’s big money behind that. So what about all of those incredible performances and films that have been made that don’t have that kind of support behind them? The idea that there’s a best or one performance, it seems antithetical to me to what the whole endeavor is about. At the same time, I’ll be the first one weeping when when somebody I admire wins an award. I like the celebration of each other and work that has been done. I understand it’s part of the business side of it.
I wish they didn’t exist. I’ll say that. I think it’s distracting. I think that things cease to be about the work we’re making and start to become about the winning of these things and the competing and the race and the money spent and all of that. I just feel like, “Oh, okay, we could put all that energy into just making another good movie.” But I also want to participate in celebrating this movie and helping in whatever way I can to get it in front of the most eyes and hearts and souls. So if this is the game, okay.
It sounds like it’s more about the art for you than any of Hollywood’s attendant obligations.
I mean, look, I’ve been to some award shows. I have fun. It’s a night out. I love wearing high heels and never get to wear them in my life. I put on my heels. I have a couple of drinks. I see some people that are funny and fun. I have a little dance. It’s fun. But I think far too much importance is attached to it. I’m always like, “Can’t we just, like, go to a big party and toast each other and walk around saying, ‘I loved what you did! I loved what you did. Isn’t it great? We’re all doing cool stuff.’ Let’s have a toast and then go home.
A socialist approach to awards season…
I mean, that would be the really interesting conversation to have about it. How is this whole thing connected to this sort of corporate capitalist system that clearly is not working for most of us, even including me. Even though I’m doing very, very well, I still find it soul-sucking. So yes, it is part of the larger problem, and hopefully we’re evolving beyond all of this.