Gaby Hoffmann on Girls, Growing Up in ’80s New York, and Her Amazon Show Transparent

Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Gaby Hoffmann’s friends like her a little crazy and very naked. Her director pal Sebastian Silva cast her as a radical free spirit in last year’s Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus, and Lena Dunham turned her into Adam’s disturbed sister Caroline on Girls. In Amazon’s new comedy from Jill Soloway, Transparent, Hoffmann plays Ali, a lost soul whose father Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) is about to come out as Maura. We talked to the actress about how her new show feels like destiny and why she doesn’t understand the national fixation on her vagina.

Just as the chatter about your vagina has quieted down, you’re naked again in the first episode of Transparent.
I’m just very comfortable with nudity. For me, it’s normal [laughs]. I do think we could use a little bit of relaxing in that area in this country. It’s very odd that we have such an easy relationship to violence in this country and we’re still shocked by the female figure. We’re shocked to see bush. I hope that changes. It’s a part of life.

Ali seems to be as uninhibited as the other major characters you’ve recently played.
She’s pretty uninhibited. She’s very different from those characters, but she’s very much unapologetically herself. It seems to be what people write for me [laughs]. I guess people think of me as the girl who can do crazy.

The last time we see you on Girls, Caroline tells Hannah she’s having Laird’s baby, which is scary to think about.
Lena sort of jokingly said on set to me one day, “I think you should end up with Laird at the end of the season.” I have a memory of me saying, “Oh yeah, she sound get knocked up.” I don’t know if that’s where Lena got the idea or if we both had it, but I definitely wasn’t surprised to see it happen. It was funny.

Will we see Caroline again?
Oh, I’m back this season. I’m shooting some stuff now.

That’s great! Are we going to meet Laird Junior, too?
I don’t think I’m at liberty to say [laughs].

So you played pregnant on Girls, and in the just-released Rosemary’s Baby–with-lesbians indie-horror Lyle. And now you’re very pregnant in real life. Think the universe was trying to tell you something?
I don’t know if the universe was telling me something or if I was telling the universe something [laughs]. I’ve been very excited to have children for a long time. It definitely added an interesting twist to the night we screened Lyle at Outfest and I got up to do the Q&A and I had this huge belly no one was expecting. It creeped everybody out in the best way.

Did that affect filming on Transparent?
Well, we didn’t write it into the show. We don’t shoot in a very traditional way, so there were no large purses or grocery bags or hiding behind furniture. Luckily, my character Ali is a bit of a slob and just a little depressed, so I wore a lot of big shirts. I also hunched a lot and walked differently and sucked my damn belly in. It was kind of silly at the end. My stomach is huge now.

What was it like seeing Jeffrey as Maura for the first time?
I got to the point pretty quickly where seeing Jeffrey as Jeffrey was strange. Maura seems like the natural state of Jeffrey to me. He inhabits her so beautifully and dynamically and gracefully that it’s actually weird just to see Jeffrey dressed as a man in his shorts and glasses. That’s what seems off.

Jill said she wrote the part of Ali for you after seeing you in Louie, but that you didn’t know each other. How’d you first meet?
I got an email saying there’s this woman, Jill Soloway, and she has a film at Sundance, and she’d love for you to come see it and she’d love to meet you. I said, “Great,” and I went to go see Afternoon Delight, and it was great. A couple days later we had lunch. I think within five minutes, we were both crying.

About what?
I don’t know! We just got into it. We sat down for lunch and we were in tears immediately. I just felt as if we’d known each other forever. At that lunch, she pitched the idea for Transparent to me. She talked about the feeling of the family. It was all just so organic and natural and obvious. Right. Yes. As if it was something I’d already known, and it was amazing. I also of course thought, Great! Who will ever let us make that show? Before we knew it, we’re making it. That just seemed unbelievable to me, that we were gonna get to do this thing. The rest of it unfolded, like, it exposed itself to us. It was magical coalescing. The actors, we’re all just like, Okay, guys, here we are. We’ve clearly been on our way here for awhile. It sounds like I’m into wizardry, but that’s sort of how it all feels. It still feels a little unreal.

Your character’s experimenting with her gender. Jill described her as genderqueer.
Ali’s trying to find out who she is. She’s very smart, but she’s a little bit stunted. We’re finding her as she’s trying to find herself, and I think she’s just lucky enough to be living in a world — her family, her community, her era — where her gender is part of that exploration. Gender is part of a larger quest.

Is the hair part of her journey?
Well, my short hair was sort of an accident [laughs]. It accidentally got cut between the pilot and the season. I went to somebody to just get it trimmed, and they took like five inches off. They just did it. Oh, well! So then we made it part of the story.

Jill’s made it a point to hire transgender people at every level on this show, from the writers to the crew to the actors. All the bathrooms on set are gender-neutral. It’s all pretty exciting to see. I’ve certainly never been on a set like this.
The amount of attention and sensitivity and education that we’re getting in terms of specifically the transgender community is great, and certainly that’s new to me. But it’s not incredibly unfamiliar. I grew up in downtown New York in the '80s. I have a friend who grew up with me, and she puts it well. She says, “If you grew up where we grew up, if you weren’t an artist, a drag queen, queer, or a drug addict, then you were the freak.” I grew up in a world where I guess what is considered unusual or abnormal for the rest of America was very much considered the norm.

Transparent will be available exclusively on Amazon Prime. Have you started educating your friends on how to find the show?
I don’t yet know how to find the show! I don’t myself have Amazon Prime yet [laughs]. I was like, Amazon Prime? Who has Amazon Prime? It turns out everybody. They all know more than me, and they’ll probably educate me.

This article originally appeared in the August 25, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.