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Meet the Actress Behind the Most Fascinating, Frightening New Character on "Girls"

Last night’s episode of “Girls” introduced the season’s most compelling new character: Adam’s sister Caroline, played by Gaby Hoffmann.  Caroline is half irresistible dynamo, half Victorian madwoman in the attic. She breaks glass in her bare hands and dances like a woman possessed. Many of her scenes are genuinely scary—as I wrote when I reviewed the show’s third season, her air of real danger makes an intense dramatic foil for the petty neuroses of the other characters. It’s a standout performance by Hoffmann, who began as a child star in the ’90s, appearing in such films as Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle, and then took nearly a decade off from acting. But in the past year she has had quite a resurgence, playing Michael Cera’s love interest in the independent film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Louis CK’s neurotic ex-girlfriend in “Louie.” Next up is an Amazon pilot called “Transparent” that airs in early February, about a father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender to his adult children.

Laura Bennett: I have to start by asking you about your dance moves in the birthday party scene. They are otherworldly.

Gaby Hoffmann: I just improvised it. I didn’t practice the moves at all. Because Lena knows me somewhat and wrote the part with me in mind, she poached a little bit from my real life. Lena and I are both good friends with an old friend of mine, Claire Danes. Claire and I had spent many a night on the dance floor together. I guess we have a certain style. Lena said, “you know the way you and Claire kinda dance like you’re in a modern dance class, not at a hip hop club?” So that is Caroline dancing, with maybe a hint of me and Claire.

LB: That is amazing. How'd you end up playing this part?

GH: I’d known Lena for years. Her mother and my stepmother are good friends, and we used to be at the same gatherings. We reunited a few years ago when we ran into each other at the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Festival, and we danced. Then Lena called me and said she’d written something for me, that she had something she’d like me to do.

LB: How much did you know about Caroline before you started filming?

GH: Lena just said, “This is Adam’s sister and I think you’ll have a lot of fun. She’s wild.” Then I read the script.

Lena and Adam and Jesse, our director, and I talked a little bit about their past, the general psychological tone and the dynamic between them. I think we decided they were from Ohio.

LB: I loved your guest appearance on Louie last season. What are Lena and Louis CK like to work with, respectively?

GH: Louis CK and Lena have one thing in common: they have sets that are a lot of fun as well as a place where you’re getting work done and taking things seriously. But Louie is doing a lot at once. He is the creator. He’s checking the camera; everybody is turning to him for guidance. The “Girls” set is much bigger, with many more people. The infrastructure is bigger. With “Louie,” it feels like a small independent film, but “Girls” is highly collaborative.

LB: How do you think Caroline fits into the world of the show? She seems much darker than the other characters.

GH: As much as these girls may hurt each other or annoy each other, or their friendships might ebb and flow, they all know, love, and trust one another. There is a sense of familiarity: “I know you, I trust you, we have a shared world.”  Their friends are going to be the bouncy castle walls for them. Caroline, despite the fact that she is related to Adam, who is still himself a little scary, is an unknown. She is very dynamic and kind of has a lot to offer as a mirror to Hannah—being older, being herself totally lost and on her own, being a total fucking narcissist.

She’s emotionally dangerous. She’s the kind of person who comes into the room and breaks something.

LB: That scene where she appears pantsless in the bathroom and then breaks the glass in her hand—

GH: I haven’t seen the episodes yet! 

I guess I’ll find somebody who has cable and see them at some point. I don’t have television.  I don’t want to have something that you turn on and suddenly it’s another person in the room. 

LB: This particular scene is pretty terrifying, almost like something from a horror film. What was it like to film?

GH: What I had in my hand was a prop, breakable glass. The fight scene [in a later episode] was the most emotionally draining. But I imagine for the viewer the glass-breaking moment is pretty intense. I found it a weirdly sweet scene. All I can remember is standing there and having Adam wrap me in his arms. I didn’t even remember being naked.

LB: Am I right to assume the body hair was real?

GH: You mean my pubic hair? 

LB: Yep. 

GH: Oh yes.

LB:  Wow. Impressive.

GH: Why thank you. I just came that way.

Nudity is not an issue for me and Lena knew that I presume when she wrote the part. Obviously Lena feels comfortable being nude.

LB: I can imagine that could be quite a re-introduction to you for people who only knew you as a child star.

GH: Oh god, I hadn’t thought about that. I guess so.

LB: How is acting as an adult different from acting as a child?

GH: It is very different. I don’t really consider myself as an actor the same person. I acted throughout my 20s kind of apathetically and ambivalently. I went to college and quit working. I studied anything and everything—my major was called multidisciplinary studies so it doesn’t really mean anything. I wanted to study literature and writing. Then Bush was elected, September 11th happened, and I decided to study political science.

I spent my 20s letting myself flounder. I really did not enjoy acting or feel comfortable doing it. I was obsessed with trying to figure out if I would have come to it as an adult if I hadn’t done it as a kid.

LB: How did you come to it as a kid? 

GH: It wasn’t my idea as a kid, it was my mother’s. I loved the social element. I loved traveling. I loved being on movie sets. I didn’t mind the acting. I knew I was supporting my family, but I didn’t think of it as a job. Even as a teenager I sort of took the whole thing for granted.

LB: So then you decided to take some time off?

GH: I was in a painfully uncertain phase for a very long time. My boyfriend walked to this spot in the woods where we lived and we were on the edge of a cliff and he said, you have to confront this. So I decided, I’m gonna spend a year trying to get jobs that are important to me and take it as seriously as I take everything else in my life for once. At that point I hadn’t really worked in over a decade. In that year I did [the independent film] Crystal Fairy, I did the “Louie” episode.

LB: I’ve read that you worked as a doula during your time away from acting, which is also mentioned on “Girls.”

GH: Yep, though I very quickly I realized I didn’t want to do it professionally. Being on call 24 hours a day is not a way I can live. I still love being at births.

But when I got back to acting, it was a strange experience of feeling like I’d come home and also that this is brand new and I don’t know anything about it. What felt like a burden before suddenly made me feel lucky.

LB: What would be your advice to today’s child stars?

GH: Oh no. After they’ve already started?

LB: Sure, or when they’re just starting out—would you warn them away from it?

GH: I really feel a lot for kids in the public eye today. I was never that famous. It’s so different now, the media. It wasn’t the monster that it is today. I would say take some time off. Whether it’s going to school or doing something else, or just hiding out. Take some time off in the really important years of adolescence and post-adolescence where you’re not working and not responding to the demands of the industry, and let yourself fuck up. Let yourself do whatever you need to do to figure yourself out.