Gaby Hoffmann is Captivated by “The Stuff of Life”

Gaby Hoffmann
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Gaby Hoffmann, the indie film darling who got her start in big-budget comedies like Uncle Buck and Sleepless in Seattle and later experienced a resurgence when she appeared in shows like Girls and Transparent, stars as Viv in C’mon C’mon, premiering in theaters November 19. The film goes like this: while his mother Viv (Hoffmann) travels to Oakland, California to take care of her unwell husband (Scoot McNairy), Jesse (Woody Norman) tags alongside his uncle Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) to New York, and later on a work trip to New Orleans for an audio-based journalism project. In typical Mike Mills fashion, the film follows the main characters as they tenderly untangle existential queries about life, the planet, and growing up. The two of them, formerly estranged, form a tight bond with the wide-eyed nephew, who asks his uncle all of the questions a young child might have about the world—and the uncle, understandably, has a difficult time answering.

As Hoffmann put it in a recent phone interview with W, the film asks questions that are “the stuff of life.” Here, Hoffman discusses her involvement in C’mon C’mon, as well as her opinions on the evolution of child actors in Hollywood today (she should know—Hoffmann got her first screen credit when she was just seven years old).

How did you get involved with this film and what was the origin story behind you working with Mike Mills?

He just reached out to me and asked if we could have dinner and talk about a project. We had a very epic, wonderful dinner together one night in Brooklyn—it felt like we’ve been friends forever and it certainly seemed like our worlds crossed over in so many ways. Over the decades, we kind of just missed each other at every turn. We began a conversation about life and parenting and art that I just wanted to keep having. Then he sent me the script and it was also about all of those things, and this life that we are living here and now, which is so much more interesting to me than what a lot of other films being made are about, which is some other version of some other reality. Which is cool, you know, to each their own. But to me, the questions and the ideas that are brought up in this movie are the stuff of life. And I’m very interested in here and now.

“The stuff of life” is such a good descriptor for the subject matter of Mills’s films. I felt there was some thematic overlap between C’mon C’mon and 20th Century Women, especially the mother-son bond at the center of both films.

I often say that when I first read the script, it felt like some kind of cousin—a probably much better written cousin—of something I may write. Even though the details are all very different, the larger emotional and psychological brush strokes were there. Because I am a mother, I have two kids, and that is the bulk of my life and the entirety of my heart and priorities. So at times we talked about her feeling too much of just the mother. There were earlier versions where Mike and I were saying, every note that we hear from her is her being a good mother or trying to be a good mother.

How did it feel to embody the mother figure in this film, which is seemingly such a protected archetype in his work?

I was thrilled to be playing a mother concerned with the well-being of her child. But we did talk a lot about making sure that she wasn’t just that. She is a dynamic person behind all of that. That’s a fascinating thing to think about; when you are concerned with being a good mother or parent, which she clearly is, how does that relate to your full self? Who is the woman compared to the mother? Is that the same person? Are there parts of the woman that don’t make it into the role of mother? Are there are parts of the role of mother that aren’t true of the woman?

You have been an actor since you were a very young child, but in working with Woody Norman, who plays your son in C’mon C’mon, is there anything you observed about this new generation of child actors that is different from when you were a child actor?

I can’t speak to his generation. I can only speak about him as an individual. I will say that working with Woody was a real joy, not just because he’s an excellent actor and a very smart, funny, wonderful, kind person. But also, he’s clearly an actor. That’s why he’s there. A lot of child actors are there for other reasons, and that can be really hard to see. It’s most evident in the relationship they have with their mom, or the relationship the mom has with the larger set. Woody has a really fantastic, wonderful mom, Vonda, who helped to make clear that he was there for all the right reasons. She was protecting him as an individual and against the larger forces around, but also protecting his space as an actor and respecting that. I hope that’s true of his entire generation of child actors. I doubt it is, but it certainly was true of him.

Your character in C’mon C’mon feels less eccentric than some of the other characters you’ve played in the last decade, like Caroline on Girls or Ali in Transparent. Do you find yourself moving toward or away from certain types of characters? Do you have a pull toward a certain type of woman that you like to play?

The only pull I ever feel is toward interesting writing. Good, rich, real, interesting writing. That can be used to draw any character. I mean, everybody’s interesting in my mind, if you get to know them. I’m not looking to play any specific type of person, I’m looking to play people who feel complex and real and dynamic, like we all are. I don’t care too much about the specifics as long as I’m aligned with the general gestalt of the project. I don’t wanna run around shooting people’s heads off, you know?

What professional accomplishment do you feel most proud of as an actress?

I don’t think of things like that, I guess. I’m just very, very, very happy to be part of a film like this. It’s adding something positive in helping us to navigate what it is to be alive, and trying to be loving, compassionate, thoughtful individuals. I’m happy this movie exists and I’m proud to be a part of it, but I guess I don’t think of it as an accomplishment. Maybe I have a funny relationship to that word. I feel like I just started acting, honestly. In a strange way, I feel like I’ve just begun and whatever accomplishments there are, are ahead of me.