Gaby Hoffmann, a three-time Emmy nominee, rose to fame as a child actress in films like Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle. Her mother, Warhol superstar Viva, raised her in New York’s fabulously seedy Chelsea Hotel. Yet somehow she still turned out more well-adjusted than Ali Pfefferman, her soul-searching character in Transparent.
In the new fourth season of the Amazon streaming series, Ali tags along with trans parent Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) to Israel, where—spoilers ahead!—she begins to seriously question her own gender identity.
Luckily, thanks to her unconventional upbringing, Hoffmann has plenty of personal experience with queer exploration.
Poor Ali is still struggling to get her shit together. How would you sum up her journey in season 4?
We don’t address the Trump election directly in this season, but that feeling of anxiety—what is this world I’m living in, and who am I in it?—has reached a fever pitch for her.
No surprise that she leaves the U.S. and heads for the land of her ancestors.
She just has to get the fuck out. She’s searching for God, herself, authenticity, and an understanding of what’s really happening in the world. She’s still self-involved and worried about who’s retweeted her, but there’s less navel-gazing. She’s looking up, asking questions, diving into a scenario that’s as complicated as anything, so she can place herself somewhere.
She happens upon an LGBT-inclusive group of activists in Israel. What does she gain from that encounter?
It’s the first time she’s met people who are activated by something outside of themselves. They have a purpose that’s not just fulfilling some desire. Ali’s so empathic and smart, but now she’s freaking out, she’s realizing she doesn’t know shit, and she needs to start knowing something.
There’s a scene this season in which the Pfeffermans try to define Ali behind her back. Maura swats away labels, saying, “She’s just not comfortable being a woman.” How do you see Ali’s sexuality and gender identity at this point?
She’s clearing the slate. She’s obsessed with the binary, and the Israel-Palestine conflict is one example of how that can destroy a spirit. In her quest to explore who she is, she wants to break down the walls of identity that have been built, biologically or culturally, and that have defined her for years. Nothing feels right, so she’s doing away with all labels and starting from scratch. I don’t know where she’s headed, but I don’t think that’s the point right now.
Ali has a great line that sums up the season and the world at large: “Arabs and Jews, blacks and whites, men and women—fuckin’ binary everywhere you look, screwing things up.” Do you battle the binary in your own life?
We’re all warriors right now in a world where people are being pitting against one another, for any goddamn reason anybody can think of. So, yeah, I think that’s the work of our time, and certainly of my generation.
While navigating Ali’s journey this season, did you have conversations with showrunner Jill Soloway, who identifies as nonbinary, or other genderqueer writers and consultants on the show?
Oh, we’re all in conversation all the time. It’s an endless, exhaustive conversation. [Laughs] We say a lot of words as written, but the script is often more of a suggestion and a starting point for a conversation amongst the actors, writers, and producers.
Do you feel a responsibility to represent the genderqueer community?
Yeah, but it doesn’t feel distinctly different than the responsibility I felt playing Ali in the previous seasons. I’m still just playing a person. My responsibility is to be honest. If I can represent a person who is genderqueer or exploring those issues with honesty and integrity, soul and heart, then I think I’m doing the community justice.
Ali’s journey of self-discovery has involved hooking up with many people across the gender spectrum. What’s it like to play such a sexual magnet?
That’s so funny because I’ve never thought of her that way. I’ve really only had one sex scene, but I guess there has been a lot of kissing and sexual energy. It’s just acting. But, I mean, I did get to make out with people like Carrie Brownstein and Cherry Jones, so of course I’m very proud and impressed with myself.
Did you have a similar period of experimentation?
Oh, yeah. When I was a teenager, the first week I had sex with a guy, I also had sex with a girl. I’ve never really had a relationship with a woman, but I’ve certainly had lots of fun sexual dalliances with women. I grew up in New York City in the ’80s, so I never saw the big deal with that fluidity. I was like, “Sure, sex with you, sex with you…” I’ve basically been married for 11 years now—we’re not married, but we have a child—so those times feel long ago. But I’m still very attracted to women.
You famously lived in the Chelsea Hotel, a haven for artists and bohemians, until you were 11. What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
The same as my introduction to air, food, and water. I mean, I went to elementary school in the West Village on the corner of Hudson and Christopher streets, where there was also a gay porn shop.
You should really write a book.
I know, I know. I’ll do something someday.
Shortly before Transparent began, you won an Outfest Award for playing a lesbian mom in Lyle, a 2014 riff on Rosemary’s Baby. Was that your first queer role?
Maybe, yeah. I didn’t even think of that in terms of playing a queer character. My friend Stewart Thorndike said, “Do you want to make this movie together?” It didn’t occur to me as anything different than what I’d been doing.
You starred in the 1995 coming-of-age classic Now and Then, which has a huge lesbian following.
I didn’t know that. That’s so interesting.
Now and Then screenwriter I. Marlene King, who went on to create Pretty Little Liars, intended the tomboy—played at different ages by Christina Ricci and Rosie O’Donnell—to be a lesbian, but the film studio het-washed the character. Isn’t it time for a totally queer remake with you as one of the adults?
That’s hysterical. Well, you know what? Lesli Linka Glatter, who directed Now and Then, is also a huge director and producer now—she’s a Homeland exec. So this remake could actually be a big deal!
Transparent season 4 starts streaming September 22 on Amazon Prime.