Correction: An earlier caption accompanying the photo of the “Transparent” cast misidentified Hari Nef. This version has been corrected.
VENICE, Calif. — Apropos of nothing, Gaby Hoffmann.
Hair like Lady Godiva, gaze like the Good Witch. Gaby Hoffmann as a tweenager in 1995’s “Now and Then,” beating up boys on Christina Ricci's behalf, falling into a storm drain as Thora Birch sobbed. Gaby Hoffman on “Girls,” having a weird, hilarious earth-mother home birth in the bathtub. “She’s transfixed me since the day we met,” Lena Dunham emails when asked to talk about Gaby Hoffmann.
Or: “I remembered her from all the HBO movies I used to watch as a kid,” says Jay Duplass, who plays her brother on “Transparent.” He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to take the role until “Gaby called me, and she was singing, she’d made up a song, and it was like, ‘Come down, come down to L.A.’ ” And so he did.
“People will come,” Gaby said at the end of 1989’s “Field of Dreams,” because she got it. She understood the whole darn meaning of it all, even before Kevin Costner did. That was one of those things that always seemed to be true about her, from her presciently mature child-star days to the fierce, scene-stealing presence in her adult work.
So one day, we decided it might be nice to take a walk with Gaby.
“I'm normally the least busy person I know,” she says, leaving a coffee shop near Venice Beach, pushing a big stroller, wearing a T-shirt silk-screened with Bernie Sanders’s face. “But she and I have been alone for the past month, which is great, but usually I have a partner so it’s been particularly wackadoo. . . . I’m also baby-brained out; I haven’t slept much in 15 months. I used to be able to do this because I had a brain like steel — it was annoying how much I couldn’t forget things — and now it’s like I suddenly have Alzheimer’s. The sleeplessness is proven; it eradicates your memory. It’s scary when you read what sleeplessness does to the brain, to know that’s what’s happening to you and you can’t stop it, it’s kind of like performing a slow suicide on your . . .”
She’s walking with the baby: Rosie, 15 months old, newly introduced to refined flour. The dad is Gaby’s longtime partner, Chris Dapkins, a cinematographer who has been absent because he’s filming for the Sanders campaign, which was fate, because Gaby and Chris had just been looking at each other and thinking, “We should be in Iowa,” and that very day, Gaby got a call from a friend at the campaign inviting them to go there. It would be the first time she’d been to Iowa since filming “Field of Dreams” nearly 30 years ago. The campaign asked whether she wanted to go visit The Field, just as a way to get out of Des Moines, but it was too far of a drive.
“. . . kind of like performing a slow suicide on your own capacity to think,” she finishes. However, “I also happen to have an extremely easy child and an extremely easy life. I’m not ignorant about that at all. . . . I barely have to work. I get paid very well. If I did need help, I can afford it. I’ve been living like a [expletive] bourgeois single mom since we got here, like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go grocery shopping, I’m going to get take-out at a fancy place.’ ”
She maneuvers the stroller up a side street into a small gated park, where she reaches into the basket under the stroller and pulls out a miniature stroller for Rosie to play with, and also a paper bag from the coffee shop. “Oh, look, Goose! You’re going to have a croissant! A croissant, what a treat!”
A word about Gaby, because Gaby is also apropos of everything, for a certain lost generation of American adults. She was never a Winona Ryder, the talisman for Generation X. She was a few years too young for that, and a few years too old to be Amanda Bynes, or whomever the millennials had.
At 34, she is the benefactor of the “between people.” She made movies that the between people cared deeply about while growing up. Try to find a woman in her early 30s who did not see “Now and Then” in a theater.
And then she disappeared. She went to college and studied political science and then apprenticed with a chef, then became a doula and moved home to New York — all of this in an attempt to make sure that she went back to her childhood acting career by choice, not habit. Only then did she return to the screen, to take on a series of roles that represented the 2010s’ messy excavation of such topics as beauty, societal expectations, sexuality, gender. (“I started calling her Moppa, like Momma and Papa,” her “Transparent” character explains, clarifying her father’s male-to-female transition for the show’s other characters.)
Off-set, “Gaby is everyone’s universal big sister,” says Amy Landecker, who plays Gaby’s sibling on “Transparent” and is actually several years older.
“If I believed in past lives, I would tell you she’s been around a really long time,” says director Lesli Linka Glatter, who cast Gaby in “Now and Then,” the sappy, irresistible coming-of-age drama in which sensitive Gaby grows up to be Demi Moore. There was something “raw and honest” about her that helped turn the movie into a cult classic.
Which Gaby understands, even though the movie didn’t mean to her what it did to so many women her age.
“I was too old to appreciate it when we were making it. Christina Ricci and I met on that movie and became inseparable . . . and we spent our weekends going to see ‘Pulp Fiction’ and smoke cigarettes in the alley. We weren’t watching ‘Now and Then,’ let me tell you.” Anyway, she says, people’s relationship to celebrity have changed since she was younger, now that everyone watches shows on their laptops.
In the park, she pauses. “I’m sorry, I just realized the gate is open.” Gaby jogs past the other parents to shut the gate, and after a little playing, Rosie has decided that what she really wants is to nurse. “You want booby? Okay, we’ll go sit over on the bench and you can have booby.”
Gaby tucks up her T-shirt and sits on a bench. Her daughter nurses, and Gaby elaborates on laptops. “I did get in a thing where I was binge-watching ‘Enlightened’ in bed and I thought, ‘Oh, I see why people do this. It’s kind of cozy and great,’ and I fell asleep basically with Laura Dern’s face in my face. And when I woke up and turned on my computer there it was, frozen — Laura Dern, whom I truly, truly love and always have. . . . And then that night I was at the Chateau Marmont, of all places, and up walks Laura Dern. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I was just in bed with you!’ And I threw my arms around her. We laughed and that was it.”
“I had this thought, driving home” after a late work night, Gaby says, walking again past Venice’s canals. “And there were all of these people waiting outside to get into a bar, and there were no girls dressed warmly enough. I was as tired as I’ve ever been, and I thought, that looks so miserable. Why wouldn’t they just be asleep right now, if they could be asleep?”
She wonders out loud about the mating rituals of younger people and if this is just about her getting older. “And is the idea that if you’re showing skin, you’re going to have more sex? Because let me tell you, you can be warm and have sex. Also, you could wear shoes that are comfortable and have sex.”
Physical appearance has never particularly interested her. “As an actress, vanity is your enemy. If you’re thinking about how you look, you’re not going to give a good performance. Once I realized — hmm, I guess I’m not that vain, it’s like something I wanted to protect. I can’t imagine anyone could give the full dynamic performance they’re capable of and still be vain.”
She steers the stroller toward a farmers market, swerving past a cyclist, approaching a raw foods stand. “Can I have one tempeh? This is great baby food,” she says to the woman behind the counter.
“I didn’t intend to introduce food so early, but she became very interested at about 5 months, and I just gave her whatever sort of nutrient-rich food I had. Her first food was smoked trout.” Rosie gnaws on the tempeh and Gaby sorrowfully tells a man with a clipboard that she’s not registered to vote in California. “If you tell parents there’s a right way to do things, they’ll spend untold amounts of money out of fear that they’re doing things the wrong way. . . . It’s all meant to disconnect them from what their bodies were meant to do anyway. We have a maternal instinct. It’s in our DNA. It’s in our cellular makeup. It’s — ”
“I love your shirt,” a passerby calls out.
“Thank you, I’m on my way to Colorado later to help him,” she calls back.
“Speaking of Bernie, this is the whole problem with America, and the way our culture has transformed in order to serve the whole profit-seeking corporations. Our own inherited knowledge is completely questioned.” Corporations, she says, “have to make us feel afraid and weak.” Now that she’s talking about Bernie, whom she loves, she’s also talking about how angry she is with the media — she thinks it’s biased toward Hillary Clinton and misleads voters.
“I happen to have an immense amount of time to read on my own, but most people have five minutes in the morning with the news on, or they have the radio, and those minutes are being controlled by the people” — her voice rises — “who are trying to preserve their own . . . wealth” — her voice rises — “at the expense of hundreds of millions of people and the planet.”
A man pushing his own stroller tries to get past on the sidewalk; Gaby stops and waves him ahead. “Go ahead. We’re slow, and I’m angry all of a sudden.”
She puts her hand on our arm, apologizing for the outburst, and it’s exactly how you want an interview with Gaby Hoffmann to end, with an emotional outburst and a social justice rant and a partial hug. And now the walk is ending, too, because we’re back at the coffee shop, and she does, in fact, have to get on a plane and go to Colorado. Feel free to call her with any more questions, she offers.
“Are you working on anything,” we ask, besides the next season of “Transparent”? It’s the question that must be asked of all celebrities in all celebrity interviews.
“Oh.” She laughs. “No.”