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Gaby Hoffmann on Girls, Dance Parties With Claire Danes, and Waxing for Veronica Mars

Gaby Hoffmann. Photo: Michael N. Todaro/Getty

We now know a little bit more about why Adam is the way he is on Girls: He’s had to take care of an erratic and disturbed sister his whole life. Playing the part of said sibling is Gaby Hoffmann, who portrayed a similarly troubled hippie-type character in Crystal Fairy and is best known for childhood roles in Sleepless in Seattle, Field of Dreams, and Now and Then. She and Lena Dunham met as kids — Hoffmann’s stepmom, artist Cindy Sherman, is friends with Dunham’s mom, artist Laurie Simmons — and reconnected as adults about five years ago. “We had talked about the show before it even started and there wasn’t really a place for me,” Hoffmann told Vulture earlier this month. Then last year, she got an e-mail from Dunham, who’d written Adam’s sister, Caroline, with Hoffmann in mind. “I said, ‘Of course I’ll do it.’ It was that simple.” We spoke to Hoffmann about her three-episode arc, dance parties with Claire Danes, and waxing for the Veronica Mars movie.

I have a fantasy that Caroline is secretly Crystal Fairy returning from Chile.
Yeah, they’re not unrelated, but I know for a fact Lena hadn’t seen the movie when she wrote the part. So she just had an instinct. There’s something about me that makes people think, Crazy character? Let’s call Gaby.

Do you think Caroline is mentally ill?
She’s struggling. I think mental illness is a slippery slope to talk about these days because people are overly diagnosed, overly prescribed, overly everything. I think that every young person is a little mentally ill, you know? If we’re not totally shutting down, we’re all a little bit mentally ill in our twenties and maybe into our early thirties. She is sort of searching for herself, and she’s doing it in a much more haphazard way than some of us. Clearly they had a weird childhood, those two.

She is sometimes a calm, centered person — and then she snaps.
When people are struggling, that’s a painful place to be in, to not know who you are and where you belong and what you desire. I think that you either can address it, or you can’t — even addressing it is too painful or scary — and she cannot. She does in her moments of tantrums, when she is desperately in need of love and some sort of anchor, and she looks to Adam for that — but the rest of the time, part of how she deals with being in that place is through this persona, this character she’s putting on of the very stable, spiritually inclined [person]. That’s part of her act, but I don’t even think it’s a conscious one.

She has a fight with Adam in a later episode where he brings up her brief stint as a midwife and she yells back, “It was a doula.” That must be based on you — because weren’t you a doula at one point when you weren’t acting?
[Laughs] Yeah, I actually think I added that line. There’s a lot of improv in Girls. Lena had written the midwife line and I thought that she was trying to make a joke about me and I was like, “You got it wrong, Lena, I was actually a doula.” And then she was like, “I didn’t even know that! I was making a joke about somebody else.” I was like, “Let’s make it a joke about me and I’ll correct him and say doula.”

Let’s talk about your dance scene with Alex Karpovsky. Are those your moves in real life?
I don’t dance exactly like that. But Lena and I have a mutual friend, the incomparable Claire Danes, who is not just an amazing actress but a really fantastic dancer, and Claire and I dance together, pretty seriously. And I think Lena was imagining some sort of strange combination of Claire moves plus me moves plus Caroline moves. I guess when I dance, and maybe specifically when I dance with Claire, it’s a bit more Dancing with a capital D than it is dancing at a club. That’s how Lena saw it, at least. I remember her saying, “You know how you and Claire can kind of dance? That’s what I was imagining.”

Where do you and Claire dance together — at house parties? At a dance class? Professionally?
Not professionally. At a party, in our homes, wherever. [In an intentionally dramatic, theatrical voice] Wherever we can! Wherever they’ll let us! We’re like, Let’s just go into a zone.

Did you really bite Alex Karpovsky’s arm in that scene?
Yes, and I made him angry. This happened to me twice, actually, on the set of Girls. I love Alex, we totally get along, but I accidentally, just in the heat of the moment, bit him too hard in rehearsal, and there was a little kerfuffle. And then in the fight scene with Adam Driver [which happens in episode five], at one point he put his hand over my mouth, and I accidentally bit it, and I think he got mad at me for a second. So I guess I have a biting problem. Alex actually wrapped many, many, many ACE bandages around his upper arm after we did our rehearsal because he was afraid of me. To the point that I was like, “Alex, that looks ridiculous, you look like a football player.”

Lena has talked about what a huge fan she is of This Is My Life [starring Hoffmann and directed by Nora Ephron]. She opened her tribute to Nora Ephron saying it was “the movie that made me want to make movies.” At what point in your life did you realize it was so special to her?
Well, she hosted a screening of it at BAM a few months before Nora died and invited me and I went. And I love that movie — I hadn’t seen it in a long time, but I always loved that movie and I think it’s Nora Ephron’s best film. So the fact that Lena had seen it was the only surprise there — because nobody did. The fact that she loved it was no surprise because I think it’s a real filmmaker’s film. Obviously, Nora went on to make very successful and good Hollywood films that reached a wide audience. But I think This Is My Life is that sort of more personal, more nuanced, smaller film.

Was the BAM event the first time you’d seen Nora in a long time?
I’d run into her over the years, but I hadn’t spent real time with her since I was a kid.

Do you feel like she helped shape you the way Lena does? You were so young when you worked together.
When we made This is My Life, I felt very close to Nora. I really loved her and she was a wonderful director; I was madly in love with her. She’s hard not to fall in love with if you’re in the same space as her.

Rita Wilson is on Girls, and you were in two movies with her [Now and Then and Sleepless in Seattle]. And there’s a scene in an upcoming episode where Adam brings home a framed eighties picture of Tom Hanks. Have you noticed he’s having a hipster resurgence?
You know, I don’t really know what’s going on out in the world; I’m not really clued in at all. I’m not on social media, I don’t watch TV, I’m really out of it. I just discovered Adele, basically. So I don’t know that that’s happening with Tom Hanks, but that’s great if it is, and I will tell you: I might not know what’s happening out in the world, but I must just be internally cool, because my 10-year-old niece and I had a sleepover a few weeks ago and we watched Big and I was like, Holy shit, this movie’s incredible and every adult should have to watch it once a month. Tom Hanks is amazing. Why aren’t we screaming about this from the rooftops? So I did know it in my gut.

How are you liking Adele?
Oh, she’s so good!

See what you’ve been missing?
Who knew?! No, I used Adele as an example but I’ve known about her for a couple of years, I have.

Oh, good. But you keep a very slim pop-culture diet. Is that a like a philosophical life choice?
No, and the truth is, I don’t think it’s great. I don’t like having to engage with the phone and the computer a lot, and I’m not interested in social media. However, I regret that I am cut out of a lot of stuff — I’m not not interested in pop culture. It’s like I’m living on a slightly parallel planet. The amount of stuff that I want to do in a day is a tiny fraction of what most people are doing in a day. I just don’t want to take in and absorb and process as much as everybody else. I like to sort of slow things down a little bit.

So, I’m loath to bring up your pubes, because I think I know how you feel about people bringing them up, having read your Crystal Fairy press — like, Why is it even a topic of conversation? But I’m wondering if there was a discussion between you and Lena about showing them, in light of that previous experience?
Nope. It was written into the script. I’m sure Lena said when we were at the read-through, “How do you feel about that?” or something, and I was like, “It’s funny, let’s do it.” I’m sure there was some exchange like that — I don’t remember it. But she wrote it in the script and I had certainly nothing to say about it.

Do you think it’s some sort of statement?
I’m not making a statement. If Lena is, we didn’t talk about it. I would imagine Lena’s relationship to her making statements is so much more complicated than I can even imagine given what the conversation has been for the last couple of years, with her and nudity and all that stuff. I do think this culture could use a little bit of a, you know — I think everybody would be served to relax a little bit about nudity and things related to nudity and get off everybody’s back on that subject, and maybe look at everyone’s relationship to violence, for instance. So, if I am contributing to a sort of opening up of that and a look at maybe reorganizing our puritanical views on that shit, then I’m happy to be making that statement. But I’m not doing anything in my acting work as a political statement.

One of the best things you’ve said about Girls and nudity is how it’s condescending to say it’s “brave” for Lena to be naked.
Yeah, I guess people kept saying to me that my performance in Crystal Fairy was so brave because of the nudity, and people kept referencing Lena when they would ask me the question, having no idea that I was doing Girls or that we were friends or anything, and I just found myself biting my tongue, rolling my eyes again and again: Oh, Lena and I are brave because we don’t fit some idea of quote-unquote beauty in this era in this country. And it’s kind of, yeah, offensive. I mean, I’m not offended myself; I’m offended when I hear people say it about Lena. Because I think Lena’s gorgeous and I don’t think people are saying the same thing when Jessica Alba or whoever strips down, because she conforms to what we decided is beautiful — and that’s the implication for me in saying that Lena’s brave or that I’m brave because I don’t have any plucked this or skinny that or I don’t know what.

Lighter subject: Veronica Mars. What’s your role?
It’s a new character, she wasn’t on the show. She is a suspect. I play an obsessed fan of the murder victim, a pop singer. And I’m a little unstable and whacky. So I’m not evil. But I’m nuts.

The important question: Do you show your pubic hair in the movie?
I am absolutely naked in every scene of the movie. No, I’m just kidding. I don’t show my pubic hair in the movie, but funnily enough, there was this line in the script that I open my legs, I’m wearing a miniskirt, and I expose my underwear and crotch to one of the characters. So I actually waxed my bikini line for that, because I determined that this character would not have pubic hair. But I know for certain that you don’t see anything and it was a total waste of a wax and I fucked up my pubic hair for it. I’ll tell ya, I don’t get it. I don’t know how people do this waxing thing. Now I just have all these bumpy ingrown hairs.

It’s still not okay?
I mean, I could really get into this: I was like, “This is hideous! How do people do this? It’s red and bumpy and now it’s growing in.” And somebody was like, “You just wax it again. Your skin has to get used to it, wax it again.” I just wanted it to grow back but it was so ugly, so I tried to wax it again. It’s finally back to its normal state and it’s fine, but I honestly don’t know how women manage this. Maybe it looks okay for a day, but otherwise, it’s growing back in or red and bumpy. What’s the point? It’s a mystery to me.

Gaby Hoffmann on Girls and Her Dance Moves