Having the term "child star" forever attached to your name can often elicit sympathy, pity, and morbid fascination. But, don't go feeling bad for Gaby Hoffmann anytime soon. The actress, who grew up in the Chelsea Hotel (yes, she's basically the counter-culture version of Eloise) and starred in Field of Dreams, Sleepless In Seattle, and Now and Then, to name a few, is anything but damaged from her time in the spotlight. In fact, after a decade-long hiatus spent attending college and basking in the experimental glory of finding herself, she's headed back to Hollywood for her next act.
First up: Playing opposite Michael Cera in the adventure comedy Crystal Fairy. And, the FilmBuff-released indie family drama All That I Am is out on iTunes today (December 17). Hoffmann joins Christopher Abbott (yes, as in Charlie from Girls) to play the children of an absentee father who shows up a decade later on the eve of their family reunion.
We met up with Hoffmann to get the deets on her latest film and her rebooted career, but ended up picking her brain on the deterioration of the film industry and what it's like to do drugs on set with Michael Cera. Funny how things happen like that.
Tell us how you came across the script for All That I Am and what drew you to it.
"I've known the casting director forever and she asked me to come in and read for it. I really liked the character — sometimes it just comes down to whether I feel like I want to say the words. It's almost a guttural thing when I read the project. And, even if the project is great, if the character isn't getting under my skin immediately I know I shouldn't do it. I can't even tell you why it does or does not happen, but it just does."
Do you have to find something likable about the character?
"I don't know that you have to find something likable, but once you inhabit a character you always end up liking something about her. Even if she's awful, you develop an understanding and empathy. Sometimes, I just start being fascinated by them and it's hard not to start love them."
The theme of this movie — a dysfunctional family — is something that everyone can relate to. Did you bring any of your personal life to the character?
"I don't really approach working like that, but it's all there. I don't have a very methodical approach to acting since I never studied or trained...I actually think very little about it. But, then there is instinct and emotion, so all of my stuff is in there. But, I'm not deciding 'Oh, yes, I too have an estranged father and let me think about that and pluck something from that experience.' However, I can assure you that when it comes to the rage and the sadness, it's all a part of it."
Makeup by Adam Maclay.
Did you find yourself sympathizing with the father in the film?
"I did and I think that that's a testament not just to the writing, but to Chris McCann, who plays the father. Like I said earlier, we're all complicated human beings and even the worst of us can elicit sympathy if we're able to express our pain and explain ourselves. And, that character was giving the chance to do that. But, I was very moved by that performance. I felt sympathy for all of the characters in this film. All of the characters were assholes and I felt really badly for them. Which, actually, is how I feel about everybody in my family on a given night when we're all screaming at each other. We're all assholes and we're all suffering, but it's funny in the end — hopefully."
What made you connect with this cast and what was it like shooting together in upstate New York?
"I wasn't there the whole shoot, but we were all staying in this weird derelict hotel that used to be some sort of resort and is now just kind of crumbling at the seams. We were in the middle of nowhere and that's just my favorite way to make a movie — when you're all stuck somewhere together."
What was it like going straight into filming Crystal Fairy?
"Oh, the two movies were nothing alike. I might not have even been that much fun for All That I Am, if I remember correctly. I've recently started to theorize about myself that I might be a totally unconscious method actress where the character accidentally gets under my skin. I'll look back on filming and realize I was weirdly depressed during that time and it's probably because I was playing a suicidal depressive. But, Crystal Fairy was different. The character was literally letting it all loose."
Did you find yourself taking on some of her crazier qualities?
"I actually think I was just really myself. But, we were also just in a different zone because we never really stopped working. We were improv-ing and we were shooting sort of willy-nilly. We shot in Chile and were in the zone all the time, so they were pretty distinct experiences and it's funny that they were back-to-back."
Makeup by Adam Maclay.
There were some wild stories flying around about the cast actually taking the drug from the movie. Is there any truth to that?
"Yeah, it was mescaline. We filmed after taking it. We were gonna all take it the day before we had to shoot, but we lost that day. So, I shot my day first because my trip is by myself and I was sort of the guinea pig. I was pretty confident that the experience of working on it was going to be good and I didn't have much to do in the scene other than just roam around.
The boys did it the second day, but they didn't really get high. I took two doses because the first didn't seem to work, so I was pretty high. But, I was really weirdly present in the moments that I had to be. It felt like I could take on and off the cloak of the drug if I wanted to. And, you know, I've taken a lot of mushrooms and smoked pot a lot so it's not that different of an experience."
What are your most striking memories of your early career as a child actress?
"I mostly remember relationships. I just think about the people and moments with the people and the strong reactions that I had to the people I worked with and friendships I made. None of my memories are on set. I mean, they're on set, but they're not in front of the camera. I didn't really care about acting...I loved doing it, but it wasn't super important to me."
Does it even feel like that was you?
"No, it doesn't feel like it was me at all.... I mean it was, of course. But, I was five when I started and really stopped when I was 17, so I hadn't really yet developed my personality as an adult. And, I didn't really care about acting. I wasn't particularly interested in it. I liked making movies because I liked the social element and I had fun doing it. But, I didn't really even think about it as a 'thing,' it was just sort of what I did. It took me a really long time to sort out all that stuff during my twenties, and now I feel like I'm a different person and acting feels like a brand new thing to me. What I was doing then has nothing to do with what I'm doing now."
What do you think the biggest differences are between the acting industry of your childhood and the industry now?
"There are so many. Well, you could make a really decent living being an independent film actress in the '90s and now you cannot. Obviously, the evolution of the film industry in terms of digital media is massive and huge and really exciting. I'm really into it. Though Hollywood is in the saddest state it's ever been in in terms of the films it's producing and the demands that it's putting on itself, I think that's a bubble that's going to pop soon. Hollywood was making films when I was young, and now they just make cartoons and comic books. So, it's been really strange and sad to see that happen, but like I said I think we're sort of at the bottom."
Ideally, where would you like to see the industry go?
"You know, I was just watching Terms of Endearment, and I was thinking that Debra Winger was the woman. She was the Hollywood female star. I won't name any names, but we know that that's not the case now. She was an actress and they made movies about people and relationships and life. And, that's what I would like to see more of. I would like to see money being put into that stuff. I feel really hopeful and excited."
Makeup by Adam Maclay.
How do you think you would have fared if you had been a child actress today instead of the '90s?
"I think the same, because I would have had the same mother. And, she is more powerful and her force is more widely felt than even that of Hollywood. So, I think the effects of being raised by my mother would have overwhelmed even the hideousness of what it means to be in the public eye today. And, I was never that famous — the two worlds didn't even compare. I will say that I am grateful, though, that it's not happening to me today. I feel really bad for all these kids."
What made you decide to quit acting and go to college?
"I always wanted to go to college and acting was a means to an end. I wanted to do normal things; I thought that I would be a teacher. But, then I just really started missing acting when I was in school...I was really in denial about that. It was post-9/11, Bush was President and I thought I was going to save the world. I thought I was going to become an environmental lawyer, but then I realized I could barely even take the SATs. I can't go to law school.
"I just started really missing [acting], but I didn't know if it was something that I was missing because it was what I knew or if it was something that I was actually interested in. So, I took about 10 years to answer that question and I was obsessed with figuring out if I would have come to it on my own had I not been thrown into it as a child. And, then I realized that I could never answer that question and it was irrelevant. I spent my twenties letting myself flounder because I needed to and I just didn't care about anything."
What does floundering mean to you?
"I just was lost and I let myself be lost. I didn't force myself to confront and answer the question about acting, but I wasn't present at all. It was very uncomfortable and I was not the happiest person. My boyfriend, literally, had to walk me to the edge of a cliff and force me to figure it out. And, he was right and that's when I decided to spend a year focusing on acting as seriously as I do on everything else in my life. Then it was two weeks later that I started making All That I Am."
Did your career start snowballing once you got back into it?
"To me, more or less, there's no formula. But, the second I turned myself toward it, it just made sense. When I was at war with the idea of acting all those years, none of it was easy. Even if I wanted it, I couldn't have gotten a job. Now, I just feel supremely lucky that I get to do something that I like so much."
Makeup by Adam Maclay.
You're a born and raised New Yorker — what is your opinion of the city as it's changing?
"That's similar to the great decline of Hollywood. It's very sad to me what's happened to the city. Nobody that I grew up with can afford to live here any longer, none of the neighborhoods that I grew up in are recognizable, every time that I see a Starbucks it makes me want to cry. Manhattan and beyond is a playground for the rich and that's all it is, it seems.
"The strength of its character is great and I still love it and I hope that we will come out of this phase. But, I don't really see the city that I grew up in and that I feel formed who I am. That being said, I live in Brooklyn. I love it. I still consider this my home. I'm trying to just not take it all so seriously, but really recently I've sort of been hit with another wave of resentment."
Did you read The New York Times piece following the homeless family in Fort Greene?
"About Dasani? She lives around the corner from me. I mean, I'm one of those white people who lives in Fort Greene. And, I can't afford to live in the neighborhood that I grew up in...I can't even really afford to live in Fort Greene. I don't want to live in Manhattan, frankly. But, even if I did, I couldn't afford it. I didn't grow up with a lot of money. I don't have a lot of money now. And, I am made uncomfortable by the wealth that surrounds me here — and in Fort Greene — to a large extent.
"So, yeah, that article was really devastating and obviously I can't relate to the circumstances of her life, but I certainly think about wealth and class and poverty in this city. There's no excuse that a city that generates this kind of revenue — that has this much money — should not be taking care of its citizens. I don't go to great lengths to do much about it, I hate to say, but I certainly try not to participate in the ways in which the city is supporting those great discrepancies."
Makeup by Adam Maclay.