Reel Life

Dynamic Duos: Jill Soloway and Gaby Hoffmann Are Ready to Inhabit Your Brain

The creator and star of the buzziest pilot of the season discuss their new Amazon show "Transparent," as well as female empowerment, wardrobe malfunctions, toppling the patriarchy, casual nudity, and the phone call that is about to change their lives.
Jill Soloway, left, and Gaby Hoffmann in Soloway's office in Los Angeles
Jessica Chou

To spend a morning with Jill Soloway and Gaby Hoffmann is to feel inspired, enlightened, and even a little revolutionary. At least that’s what Pret-a-Reporter discovered after we met our dynamic duo in Soloway’s cozy Silverlake office just two days after the Oscars, where they were winding down from the weekend’s festivities but gearing up to resume work on one of the most highly-anticipated projects of the new year, Amazon’s new original series Transparent

Soloway, who until recently was mostly known for her work as writer/producer on hit series like Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, has come into her own as a formidable director as well, first with last year’s acclaimed indie film Afternoon Delight, and now Transparent, part of Amazon’s new slate of original pilots, whose future hangs in the balance as viewer voting closes and an outpouring of critical and popular support all but guarantees the show will be picked up for a full season. The half hour dramedy follows the complicated lives of a Los Angeles patriarch and his three adult children, and co-stars Hoffmann, a familiar face to anyone who was watching movies in the ‘90s. The child star of Field of Dreams, Sleepless in Seattle and Now and Then is enjoying a career renaissance, with a lead role in 2013’s Sundance hit Crystal Fairy and memorable guest appearances on TV’s Louie and Girls. Though Hoffmann lives most of the year in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (and worries about missing her shifts at the Park Slope Food Co-op when she’s not), she could not look more at home than she does curled up under one of Soloway’s many blankets, while just overhead hangs the storyboard charting her Transparent character’s evolution throughout the season – presuming there will be a season, of course.

As assistants flitted in and out of what is not only Soloway’s office but also houses two of her “associates” upstairs (she refrains from using the word “writers” until there is officially a show to write), Preta spoke with these two formidable talents about a woman’s artistic vision, the power of streaming content, what style really means to them, and why “Gaby Hoffmann’s bush” is taking over the internet (yes – we went there.)

Tell us about the Independent Spirit Awards. You were both nominated, right?

Gaby Hoffmann: Yeah. We were a table away from each other in the back right corner where all the people that weren't going to win were seated.

Jill Soloway: Did you go there knowing that you weren't going to win?

GH: Totally.

JS: You did?

GH: It would've been silly if I had won over Cate Blanchett. It would have been embarrassing. I would've been like, “Are you people on fucking crack?”

Gaby, you wore something amazing to the awards.

GH: Thank you! My good friend Rachel Comey made that. I did my own hair and make up, if you couldn't tell. And I ripped my dear friend Rachel Comey's very nice outfit because I put it on and then realized that I couldn't sit down in it. It was too tight on the thighs. So I was sitting like this the whole time [legs squeezed tightly together] and I had another outfit in the car, which I changed into.

JS: I was wondering…

GH: Rachel was like, “You better make sure you can sit down in that,” because I have a tiny waist and then an ass and thigh. But the pants were huge on my waist so I thought, “Oh, these are a little bit big, even.” And then we were leaving and I was like, “Shit, I just realized I never sat down in this.” And I sat down but we were literally walking out the door and it was, like, seams pulling. Of course I wasn't even wearing underwear. I was like, “Thank God I'm not gonna win.”

Let’s talk about your new Amazon pilot, Transparent. First of all, congratulations. Knock on wood, but the feedback is amazing.

JS: I think Buzzfeed just tweeted, “Best pilot of 2014.”

GH: Nice!

JS: How do they know? What are they comparing it to? 2014 just started. But we'll take it. It's only March, but that's fine.

How has the vetting process been for you? Is it strange the way that Amazon does it? Is it fun? Do you feel like you're out promoting it a lot?

JS: Yeah. It's been totally, crazily, ass-backwardsy perfect. Especially for Gaby and I both coming out of Sundance and having movies there, where the whole time you're asking, “Who's gonna distribute it? Will people ever see it? Is there a way to get a groundswell of excitement around any of this art without an intense distribution platform, which would mean a huge sale?” I don't think we realized what it would mean for everybody to be able to see it at once over the course of a weekend the second it was released.

GH: It was overwhelming. It was so exciting. I've never experienced anything like that.

JS: It was so fun. She didn't even have Twitter. She's like, “I better get on Twitter.”

GH: I still don't have Twitter!

JS: You’re not on Twitter, but Gaby, your bush is. Somebody took the name “Gaby Hoffmann's Bush” and is tweeting.

GH: Well Jill told me that last week so we looked it up to see what my bush was saying and it had said nothing and it had no followers.

That’s so sad!

JS: Gaby Hoffman's bush was smart enough to get a Twitter account without her knowing.

GH: My bush is smarter than me. I've been told by many people that if I had a Twitter account I would be making five hundred thousand dollars more a year.

JS: Is that true?

GH: Yes.

JS: How does that work?

GH: I don't know. It's so disgusting. I don't even want to get into the details. But even not being on Twitter or anything it was still exciting and overwhelming for me.  I sent out a mass email, which I have never done before, ever, with the link.

JS: Thank you for that.

GH: Everybody was so shocked and excited that I sent something out saying, “Look at what I've done,” because I've never done that before, and everybody watched it. Hundreds and hundreds of people within twenty-four, forty-eight hours, and loved it. And it was the most heartwarming, special - I'm using the silliest words I know - exciting, overwhelming thing.

So you're basically waiting for a phone call at this point?

JS: Yeah, waiting. I was at Sundance with Joe Lewis from Amazon and I was like, “All I want is one thing: that when you pick it up that I find out in a way where I can actually do a happy dance and really celebrate.” I want it to be definitive and I want to be able to actually jump up and down. And then I told a friend of mine and he was like, “Oh, so your main concern is that Amazon stages the news in a way that can be optimal for you emotionally?”

GH: But what would the circumstances be that would be the opposite?

JS: Kind of what’s happening now, that the feeling is seeping under the door like a gas and we're sort of getting the feeling that it's happening but we don't really know when.

Who are your first two calls when you find out?

GH: That's a good question. I feel like you, Jill. You're my first call.

JS: Yeah, I call Gabs, like, “It's happening.” And probably my mom and dad.

What was the process like casting Gaby?

JS: I was sitting at home watching Louie, the episode where Gaby just talks the whole time and he's like, “Eh?” And I was like, “Who is that? I love her. I want her to be my next protagonist. I want to write something for her.”

GH: Lucky me.

But you were aware of who Gaby Hoffmann was?

JS: I was but I wasn't the generation to actually be watching you as a child star.

GH: I was past watching me as a child star.

But you must have seen Sleepless in Seattle, Uncle Buck…?

JS: Actually…

GH: You didn't miss much.

What do you mean? Those are the iconic films of our time!

GH: I mean when my movies were coming out I was too old to be watching them. I was watching Pulp Fiction when we were making Now and Then. I didn't care about Now and Then, you know? So God forbid you were watching them.

JS: Louie was kind of my first big hit of, “Oh my God, who is this woman? That's Gaby Hoffmann. Oh yeah, she acted when she was a kid. Oh yeah, she was in those movies.” But I didn't have the child Gaby in my head.

Which was probably helpful.

JS: Which I think was helpful. I think it made me think you were older. Like when I found out you were 30, I thought you were 35 maybe. I thought we were maybe the same generation. Now we realize that there is enough of a generation that I could be her mother so sometimes I pretend to be her mother.

Aww.

GH: Lucky me, right?

JS: Sometimes I have the thought, like, “I only had sons. I don't have any daughters.” And then I'm like, “Oh, but I have spiritual daughters.” Gaby is my spiritual daughter. She's my soul daughter.

Did you write the role for Gaby?

JS: Totally, 100 percent. Heard her in my head talking. So we met at Sundance, I saw the Louie episode and I emailed my agent directly afterwards. And then a week later I think I got the schedule and saw that you were going to be there for Crystal Fairy. I was like [gasp], “Gaby's gonna be at Sundance. I need to meet her.” I emailed my agent, they hooked us up, we arranged to get together, we had sushi on Main Street, we cried.

Was it love at first sight?

JS: It was love at first sight. It was deep into the festival, it was very emotional.

GH: I'd been hung over for a week.  I do remember that within five minutes we were crying, but I don't remember about what.

JS: We were crying and sipping miso soup. It was so cozy.

Jill, I'm wondering, since most of your career was in TV and then Afternoon Delight came out and was one of the most well received indies of last year, why did you want to go back to TV?

JS: I don't see any difference anymore. I just look at the incredible privilege of an audience giving me their brain for half an hour or two hours and saying, “Okay, Jill, I will see what you see for a half an hour.” That's the hugest gift. To me, TV now is like a ten-hour film, or in this case a five-hour film broken up into ten half hours. And I'll just take as much of that brain space as I can get. I love when women go and see my stuff and they're like, “I got to watch Afternoon Delight and just sit in the driver's seat of the protagonist Rachel and know that I was well taken care of in the hands of your vision for what it means to be a human woman in the world.” Just that is so different for so many women because they are so used to being seen by men in media. So just to feel like they are the seers instead of the being seen, instead of, “Are you pretty enough, are you good enough, do you register as attractive to whoever is holding the privilege at the moment?” Just to throw all that stuff away and allow women to feel like they're the subject in the story instead of the object…that's my vision as an artist. And the fact that most people are watching Afternoon Delight on iTunes?

GH: Right.

JS: You go through all that cinema to get back to a place where people are consuming it in their living room.

And Gaby, you were a film actress for almost all of your career. Was TV a choice?

GH: You know, I saw Viola Davis on the red carpet, and somebody asked her that question and she just had the only real response there is to have, which is, “I'm an actress. You go where the work is.” There is very little difference between being on the set of Veronica Mars versus being on the Girls set, you know? The money, the support, the creative expression, the talent, it's all the same across the board. And the one thing about television is, as you're saying, for women? It's the place to be. I mean there are really very few roles for women in films in which you can also make a living. There’s plenty of great independent films to do but you can't support yourself making independent film as an actress. You could in the ‘90s, but now you have to make television, which is great because television is great.

Jill, a lot of your work is exploring families and those dynamics and relationships. So I'm wondering what it's like to be part of your creative family, which Gaby can probably speak to now pretty well.

GH: We use the word “family” to describe this group of people more than anything else right off the bat. I don't see much distinction between Jill on set and Jill in her home. People in and out, the most inviting, hospitable, generous, relaxed…Within an hour of being at Jill's house the first time I was making myself a drink and people were taking naps on the couch. There's a real sense of, “Come on in and get cozy and be yourself.” And everybody has a voice.

JS: I think ten years ago I would've felt like, “How am I ever gonna be a director? I'm gonna work, work, work, work, work, work, work. And then I'm gonna think hard and then I'm gonna tell everybody how things should be and they're gonna listen to me.” And now that I am a director I have this giggly, childlike secret of like, “Oh my God, it's the funnest thing in the world.” I just hire people who I'm kind of in love with. It's like, you get married, you don't really get to make out with new people anymore, you don't get to have sex with new people, you don't really get to have intimacy with new people, you just have to be married. Art making is a way to have all kinds of intimacy and laughter and joy and collaboration with more people, with new people. I literally just feel like I am picking four amazing friends and we're sitting on the floor playing as kids. And that to me has been one of the biggest things I've learned over the past decade, that the general feminist ethos has been, “We can do what men do. Let us do what men do. We can do it better than men.” But I have this thing of, “No, we actually have something totally different.”

GH: Yeah, totally.

JS: And our power lies in not imitating their methods at all, ever. Our power actually lies in bringing a motherliness to the work environment, which is that the process is more important than the product, and to create a space where things can happen, a place of safe boundaries and acceptance, which is kind of feminine. And that within that, this incredible power happens that makes art that resonates.

Let's talk about costumes on the show. I'm curious who your costume designer is?

JS: Her name is Marie Schley. And she's amazing.

What was the thinking about dressing Gaby's character, Ali? She’s not very comfortable in her body in the pilot.

JS: Because the show is about gender, we really wanted Ali to be the person who walks that gender queer line in terms of the kids. I think Josh is a Silverlake producer dude and it's pretty clear who he is. And Sarah is like Silverlake mom with money and time. I think that's its own very special look. But with Gaby’s character, with Ali, when we made the character boards, a lot of stuff was just t-shirt and shorts.

GH: Or jeans and flannel shirts.

JS: We wanted to play with her boyishness because I think upon Dad's revelation, this inheritance of gender queerness is something that we really want Ali to take on the most. So if you looked at the boards closely, you'd see she's got three episodes where she gets very fem.

With her newly toned body?

JS: She's already got the perfect body. I was literally thinking of putting her in a fat suit so she could lose weight.

GH: In dressing her, I wanted to just feel schlumpy, a little uncomfortable. That feeling when you're a little depressed and you look the same as you do otherwise but you don't quite feel right. When I see the pilot I feel like I look drastically different than I look in Girls, which was a month before or something, so I guess I did unconsciously gain some weight. But I think it's less about the weight and more about the way she feels and just the way you walk or hold yourself.

We spent a lot of time on our Girls podcast talking about Caroline Sackler's outfits. That episode in the cemetery where you’re wearing pantaloons with a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt was amazing.

GH: Oh yeah. It's amazing how, not being a trained actor, or somebody who has ever really thought about it until recently, but how much your costumes help. Put you in this outfit or that outfit and you just suddenly are inhabiting your body differently. Once I got in those clothes with Ali, I just felt her. And yeah, the Girls costumes…it doesn't get much more fun than that!

So Gaby, about the whole nudity thing...

GH: Let's talk about the bush!

JS: They were told not to bring up your bush. I told them.

GH: No?

JS: No, no, I'm just kidding. “This interview was scheduled with one condition only and they've already…”

We're doing the best we can! You've done nudity three times recently, correct? I’m afraid to Google these things…

JS: If you did you would find a very prolific Twitter account. Non-prolific.

GH: Actually my bush is very shy, it turns out. It doesn't say much.

JS: Yes, opened an account and never followed through.

Each time the nudity does seem appropriate for the character, as it does in the Transparent pilot. What was the conversation that you guys had about it? I'm assuming that there was one? Or no?

JS: I don't think there was.

GH: I think Jill just right away knew me well enough to know that it wasn't an issue. Nudity to me is not a big deal and never has been and never will be. I think if we had a relationship to nudity and sex in this country that was a little bit more laissez-faire, as opposed to the one we have toward violence, we'd all be a lot healthier and happier. I think if an actor or actress is uncomfortable, then absolutely they shouldn't do it. I happen to have grown up in a very naked family in a very naked way. It's just a huge part of life.

Do you spend any time thinking about grooming habits for a particular character?

GH: I think we did have one conversation where I said, “Should I get a bikini wax?” Which I had just started experimenting with for work, and I still don't understand how you make it look right because I'd rather have hair than a stubbly, red, bumpy thing, which I still have because once I did it for that somebody said, “Just keep going.”

It’s a vicious cycle.

GH: It's a fucking disaster! I mean I'll do anything for a part that makes sense. It's not a political statement. I'll shave my armpits or wax my pussy or shave - what do you do with your eyebrows? Pluck your eyebrows? If it makes sense for a character. But who has the time to keep up with all that stuff? I don't even have a very full life. I'm mostly unemployed and have no kids. But I don't want to spend an hour a week grooming my pussy. I think that everybody should do with their pussy as they want to - in the bedroom, in the waxing room, you know? Whatever makes you happy and comfortable. So hopefully bush equals peace and love.

We should get t-shirts made: “Free the bush!”

GH: Yeah!

Thank you for answering that.

GH: Sure.

JS: “Should we ask the bush question or shouldn't we? We have to.”

Looking ahead: Gaby, you have a bunch of movies coming out this year, right?

GH: I am in a bunch of movies that are coming out this year. I wouldn't say that I have them. They're not mine. I have a very small part in a lot of movies this year.

Veronica Marsis coming out in two weeks?

GH: Is that true? I didn't know.

Well we have a lot of rabid Veronica Mars fans in our office so there's a lot of chatter. How did you get involved?

GH: I auditioned for that part and got it and did it. It was really fun, a great group of people. I had just discovered that playing broad comedy is really fun, being somebody who thought I could only do subtle and natural. It turns out I can be big. So that was really fun and exciting. I feel like I have just discovered myself as an actress in the last couple of years because I'd pretty much stopped from seventeen to thirty and wasn't paying attention from five to seventeen. So every time I have a job it's sort of like, “Can I do this? What will I do?” So that was a major discovery for me actually, having a great time playing that character.

Will Caroline Sackler return to Girls next season?

GH: I don't think so. Caroline returns one more time this season for a moment, a very brief moment. It's funny.

And Jill, what are you doing now?

JS: Just waiting for the phone call. I just sit in a chair and wait. I sit in the dark and wait. Just trying to get ready so that if the phone call does happen we're ready to jump right into it and hopefully have more episodes ready to download in August.

Can you explain what wifey.tv is?                          

JS: Yeah, you know, toppling the global patriarchy through an adorable female-friendly brand that actually…we don't really know what it is. My friend Rebecca and her husband Craig are both crazy internet tinkerers and entrepreneurs. And we came up with this tagline about Wifey, which is “for women who are aspirational about ideas instead of things.” Can you monetize not selling things? We don't know.

GH: Yes, let's hope.

JS: We want to curate a world of internet video that's already out there about things that inspire women to think and talk and not be in relationship to their fear of not being hot enough, fear of not being pretty enough, fear of not being cute enough, fear of not being nice enough, whatever it is that most media engages women in - be thinner, be prettier, be a better mom – all these ways that women’s fear gets in the way of them just being.

GH: Can you change the name to “Just Fuckin’ Lay Off?”

JS: Fuckin’ Lay Off!

GH: Just fuckin’ lay off each other.

JS: With Wifey we're realizing that it's not about being a wifey, it's about having a place online that is your wifey so you can go there…

GH: I've always said everybody needs a wife.

JS: Yeah, it's like a wife. You go there and it's stuff that takes care of you. It's none of those fear videos. And hopefully, ultimately, making our own content, owning something for myself that can be, instead of making content for other people, owning something for myself. So it's a brand, it's a network, it's a studio, it's a website, it's a production company and it's a megalomaniacal vision for changing the world.

GH: Well it seems like we've all realized long ago that “stuff” doesn’t make you happy, so it only makes sense that we should be catching up with that. You know?

JS: But what about this column? Isn’t this column about fashion? I feel bad.

GH: It’s about style, which is different.

JS: Okay, it’s about style. Style is about making yourself happy.

What do you think?

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