Interview: ‘Nate and Margaret’ Star Gaby Hoffmann on Acting, ‘Girls,’ Chicago

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CHICAGO – Few performers are lucky enough to make their big-screen debut in a hit movie, let alone two. In 1989, 7-year-old Gaby Hoffmann starred opposite John Candy and Macaulay Culkin in John Hughes’ “Uncle Buck,” as well as shared the screen with Kevin Costner and Burt Lancaster in Phil Alden Robinson’s Oscar-nominee “Field of Dreams.” Not a bad way to start a career.

Over the following years, Hoffmann has worked with acclaimed filmmakers such as Woody Allen (“Everyone Says I Love You”), Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) and Todd Solondz (“Life During Wartime”). She’s also made a number of TV appearances, and recently starred on the third season premiere of Louis C.K.’s revered sitcom, “Louie.” Her latest film is the award-winning indie, “Nate & Margaret,” which marks the feature directorial debut of Chicago actor and filmmaker Nathan Adloff. The film centers on an unlikely friendship between a 52-year-old aspiring stand-up comedian, Margaret (Natalie West), and a 19-year-old film student, Nate (Tyler Ross). Hoffmann plays Darla, the party girl who fixes Nate up with his first boyfriend, James (Conor McCahill).

Hollywood Chicago spoke with Hoffmann about her fascinating career, her experience of working in Chicago, her thoughts regarding the misogynistic state of Hollywood, and her desire to work on independent films. What initially made you decide to become an actress?

Gaby Hoffmann: Oh, I didn’t make a decision to enter acting. I was 5 years old and my mother made it for me. It was just the family business and we had a friend who was in the advertising world. We needed money and it was just a practical solution to paying the rent. Then it turned into something else.

Gaby Hoffmann stars in Nathan Adloff’s Nate and Margaret.
Gaby Hoffmann stars in Nathan Adloff’s Nate and Margaret.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures Had the acting careers of your mother, Viva, and older sister, Alexandra, served as inspiration?

Hoffmann: I was actually more inspired by my sister quitting acting and going to college to study writing. I followed in her footsteps and did it. My mom’s career is much more interesting to me now. When I was a kid, I didn’t really associate the two because the Warhol world and Hollywood had very little in common. I now recognize that my mom is a genius actress and was making—half the time terminally boring—but really interesting films that are much more exciting to me than the rest of the stuff that’s coming out of Hollywood. So I’m definitely inspired by my mother’s career as an actress and as an artist—she’s also a writer and a painter—and also as a filmmaker of sorts. It all makes sense now, but as a kid, I had no interest in having a career as an actress. I wanted to go to college and become a teacher. What attracts you to a particular film project?

Hoffmann: First and foremost, the writing. It’s really great if you like the people involved. These days, it’s sort of like a silent agreement between myself and the movie business. The only movies that interest me are the ones that are interested in me, so it’s easy to filter out [laughs]. I want to make work that is appealing to me, and that tends to be the smaller, less well-funded films, and a character that’s got something to it and is fun to play, like Darla. She was sort of outrageous and I knew I could get to be my most obnoxious self. Every project has its own appeal, but it’s primarily in the writing. If you don’t have good writing, you can’t really do much. One of your first films was “Uncle Buck.” What are your memories from that shoot?

Hoffmann: “Uncle Buck” was really fun. Mac and I were the same age, and I felt like I was just having fun with my friend. I remember John Candy’s presence much more clearly than that of John Hughes. That movie was playing video games with Mac and rejoicing in the extraordinary loveliness of John Candy, who couldn’t have been sweeter or more comforting. He was incredibly loving and any sort of paternal-type figure has been a draw for me, having not grown up with a father. So I really fell in love with him. Your first dialogue scene in “Buck” required you to say naughty words like “crap” and “s—t.” Was that awkward?

Hoffmann: No, no. Not when you grew up in my household. “Crap” and “s—t” would not even qualify as a swear word when you grew up with me in the Chelsea Hotel with Viva. It was small beans. Was it unusual to contrast your own life with that of the suburban kids you were playing?

Hoffmann: All I wanted to do was be a suburban kid. The second the opportunity arose when I got a job in California when I was 11 or 12, I begged my mom to pack up and move. We moved out there and I finally got my suburban dream with a white picket fence and a swimming pool and my own bedroom. That lasted a couple years and then I realized that I hated it and came back to New York for school [laughs]. When you’re a kid growing up in an apartment in Manhattan, the idea of a house with a staircase and a pantry is all very romantic. Why did you hate it?

Hoffmann: I was 14 or 15 years old and I wanted to be independent and the suburbs don’t really provide that to kids. People were weird in LA and I missed the energy of New York. Now I really love LA, but back then I felt out of place.

Gaby Hoffmann stars in Nathan Adloff’s Nate and Margaret.
Gaby Hoffmann stars in Nathan Adloff’s Nate and Margaret.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures You filmed the summertime coming-of-age drama “Now and Then” in Savannah, which apparently gave the cast and crew some unforeseen challenges.

Hoffmann: Yeah, it was really, really difficult [laughs]. I had a ball making that movie because I met my co-star, Christina Ricci, and we became very close. To me, that film was also about falling in love with someone, which was her. But the work situation was tough. The film was set in the summer, and we were supposed to be swimming and in shorts and running around having fun, but it was 40 degrees. It was tough, but I have nothing but good memories from that movie. Did the on-screen chemistry between you and your three main co-stars reflect your relationships offscreen?

Hoffmann: What was happening offscreen was a little bit different. It was more like me and Christina sneaking off and smoking five packs of cigarettes and going to see “Pulp Fiction” six times in a row on a Saturday [laughs]. So our coming-of-age looks a little bit different than their coming-of-age. What led you to become involved in the Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You”?

Hoffmann: The decision to say yes to that project was the easiest one I’ve ever had to make. Even at 13, I was a huge, huge Woody Allen fan. My mom had only nice things to say about working with him. It was the easiest, most pleasant job I’ve ever had in my life. A Woody Allen movie is an anomaly in the moviemaking world. You get to work at 9am and you’re done by 5pm because he’s going to a Knicks game or he’s going to play jazz. It was easy as pie and I got to visit Paris and work with lovely, lovely ladies like Natalie [Portman] and Natasha Lyonne. Was the cast aware prior to filming that it was going to be a musical?

Hoffmann: Yeah, they did tell us at some point. The only thing I remember happening was someone telling me, “Either you or Natalie will have to sing a few lines in the movie. Which one of you wants to do it?” I said, “She can do it if she wants,” because I was always made fun of for being tone deaf. I passed the reigns the her, which I think she was happy to take, and I’ve always regretted it. I didn’t actually get to sing in the movie. In Sarah Kernochan’s 1998 film “All I Wanna Do,” you play a rebellious student at an all-girls school who has no problem standing up to authority. Did your character’s attitudes reflect your own?

Hoffmann: I don’t really remember that movie. I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I did go to a school in California where I had to wear a uniform. That was part of my suburban dreams, and I think I had a very similar reaction once I got there, which was, “What is all this conservative nonsense bulls—t? Get me the hell out of here.” I got into trouble at school and wore my skirt too high and all that fun stuff.

Tyler Ross, Gaby Hoffmann and Natalie West star in Nathan Adloff’s Nate and Margaret.
Tyler Ross, Gaby Hoffmann and Natalie West star in Nathan Adloff’s Nate and Margaret.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures It was ironic how your 1999 film, “Coming Soon,” which took a comedic yet honest look at female sexuality, had to fight against an NC-17 rating, whereas “American Pie,” which was released the same year, got an effortless R.

Hoffmann: Oh my god, I wasn’t aware of that. We’re still dealing with the same things 15 years later. Men talking about sex and being crass is perfectly acceptable and women talking about it is taboo and makes people uncomfortable. We’re still a really misogynistic society, and that’s reflected in the movie business as it is everywhere else. I thought “Bridesmaids” was funny and great and smart, but it certainly shouldn’t be heralded for being so brave. Men have been making movies with people s—ting and vomiting and talking about dirty stuff forever. I’m glad that we’re finally allowed to do the same thing, but there’s absolutely a double standard. It’s just relentless. It seems that Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” is currently exploring the same issues that “Coming Soon” had tackled back in 1999.

Hoffmann: I’m friends with Lena, and I think what makes her show so good—I’ve only seen a few episodes—is that she’s frank and honest, but she’s also incredibly intelligent. She’s very, very smart and is a very good writer. That’s what it takes. It takes a genius, and she really is a genius. That’s what it takes to make that material work, and the same goes for Kristen Wiig. It takes the highest quality of that kind of thing for it to become acceptable whereas any Joe Schmo can make a movie about guy sticking their d—ks in pies. I’m thrilled that that’s the case—I’d rather have the high-quality, super-talented ladies blowing up instead of the douchebags [laughs]—but they are exceptions to the general rule of the boy’s club that is Hollywood and its audience. But it does seem like tides are changing. How did you become involved in “Nate & Margaret”?

Hoffmann: I got a call from my manager saying that I had been offered a small part in a small film. I read it and thought the script was really well-written and charming, and that my role would be fun. I was nearing the end of my time in Rome, where I had been participating in a cooking program at the Alice Waters Academy for a few months. I was really missing movie sets, not that I’ve spent an incredible amount of time on them in the last ten years, but I was in this new collaborative work environment of the kitchen, and when I got a perfectly lovely, well-written little script, I thought, “God, there’s nothing I would rather do than fly from Rome to Chicago and go have some fun with these guys.” I just had a sense that they would be fun, and I did indeed have a ball with them. What was it like returning to Chicago all those years after “Uncle Buck”?

Hoffmann: I don’t even remember going into the city when we shot “Uncle Buck.” We were living in the suburbs and the studio was in the suburbs. It was also winter and really frigid. My experience on “Nate & Margaret” was lovely. I was staying at a gorgeous spot right on the lake and I had a couple days off so I really got to explore the city. I rented a bike and rode it around town. I took the L and rode it every way you could possibly take it. I went running on the lake, and I soaked up as much of the city as anybody could in two days and I really loved it. The guys took me out one night, so I got to really experience Chicago as an adult. It was a fun trip, and the movie is wonderful. I’m really happy to have been a part of it.

‘Nate and Margaret’ stars Natalie West, Tyler Ross, Conor McCahill and Gaby Hoffmann. It was written by Nathan Adloff and Justin D.M. Palmer and directed by Nathan Adloff. It will be released on DVD on August 28th. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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