INTERVIEW: Gaby Hoffmann's 'Crystal (Fairy') Method
Sebastián Silva's Crystal Fairy was the first film I caught at the Sundance Film Festival, and by the time I left Park City, I still hadn't seen a performance that measured up to Gaby Hoffmann's stunning, ego-free portrayal of that movie's title character. Hoffmann first appears onscreen dancing with goofy abandon and spouting New Agey talk that leave little doubt she will be the butt of the movie's jokes for the next hour and a half. But then she steals the show by literally and emotionally stripping herself naked over the course of the film, revealing her character to be much more complex, damaged and vulnerable than those first scenes suggest.
At the film's Sundance premiere, Silva said that his movie, which is based on a real-life encounter, is "about the birth of compassion in someone's life." Although it's actor Michael Cera, in the lead male role, who undergoes that emotional transformation, Hoffmann plays the part of catalyst with such heartbreaking authenticity that I couldn't help but take that roller-coaster ride, too.
Hoffmann's performance is all the more remarkable when you consider that Crystal Fairy was almost entirely improvised and shot in 12 days in Chile while Silva was waiting for production to start on another movie he brought to Sundance, Magic Magic.
A New York native, Hoffmann, 31, has quite a bit of experience with iconoclastic personalities. She is the daughter of Warhol superstar Viva and grew up in Manhattan's fabled Chelsea Hotel. In the interview below, she talks about the non-conformist surroundings of her childhood, filming Crystal Fairy while tripping on mescaline, and how her experience on the set reaffirmed her commitment to acting after 10 years of soul-searching, following performances in Field of Dreams, Sleepless in Seattle, You Can Count on Me and The Man Without A Face.
Movieline: You told me earlier that you were overwhelmed by Sundance audiences' response to Crystal Fairy and your performance. What kind of feedback have you been getting?
Gaby Hoffmann: People really love the movie and the character — the [smiles] titular character I created which is kind of a first experience for me — at least as an adult. I mean, I made a lot of movies that people loved when I was a kid, but I didn’t have any real relationship to them. I had fun making them, I loved the people I worked with, but I wasn’t conscious of anything I was doing, you know? I didn’t even realize that I was interested in film until I was in college, and since then, I’ve had a very uncertain and sort of lost decade. And this is one of the first things I’ve worked on since I decided I really wanted to keep exploring acting as the person I am now.
How did you come to be cast as Crystal Fairy?
I had seen The Maid here at Sundance a few years ago. I was here for 24 hours. I wanted to get the fuck out of here the second I got here. My boyfriend at the time and I drove here from L.A. to support a friend’s film. We saw it and were about to drive back when I said, ‘This is really stupid. We’re both filmmakers. We should see a movie.’ So I flipped through the book, and I picked out The Maid. I knew nothing about Sebastián. I’d never heard of him, but we went to see the The Maid, and it was a really important moment for me. I’d been questioning my interest in acting, and I thought, God, if people are making movies like this, I want to keep making movies. I’ve also wanted to write and direct movies as well as act in them, so it was what needed at that moment. Maybe one out of every 50 films I see does that to me. The rest make me think, What the fuck are we all trying so hard to do this for?
Anyway, when Sebastián took part in the Q&A, I just — he’s the most charming, lovable man in the world and I fell in love with him. But I didn’t meet him. Cut to a year later. I got a call from my agent. Once again, I was at the point of thinking, I don’t even know if I want to act. I had been exploring other things. I was getting into cooking and thought I wanted to be a chef. I spent my 20s doing what I think people do when they’re teens, feeling out what I really wanted out of life.
Just wait until you hit middle age.
Oh, good. I hope it happens over and over and over again. It’s difficult but wonderful. So I was having another moment of like, Oh, God, I don’t even really know if I want this, when I got a call from my agent saying: “You’re fluent in French, right?” I’m not, but I should be. I’d just been engaged to a Frenchman, so everyone thought I should have gotten that much out of it. But something clicked, and I said, “Why?” The trail led back to Sebastián. He was making a web series for HBO called The Boring Life of Jacqueline. And I’m like, “You don’t understand. This man made the best movie of the last decade. Get me in the room.” I really do think that The Maid is one of the best films of the last decade, by the way. So I got in the room, and somehow convinced Sebastian to hire me even though I’m not fluent in French. And we made the series together. Michael [Cera], who’s also a huge fan of The Maid, is in it, too. He has a cameo. So that’s where we all met. We shot in New York and Sebastian and I became good friends.
A year later Sebastián called and said, “You want to get on a plane to Chile and play this woman in Crystal Fairy where you take a road trip through the desert with Michael Cera and take mescaline and there’s no script and you have to leave in four days?” And I said, “Are you kidding? You know, I’ll parachute myself there. Whatever you want.”
And that’s what we did, but even though I trust Seb as a filmmaker and as a person, we had little preparation time and none of us had done improv. I really had no idea if we’d pulled it off until I got here and saw the movie with a thousand people. And it has been really cool.
You really did pull it off.
I’ve never had this experience of communing with people in this way. To have woken up one morning in Chile and thought, I really want Crystal Fairy to have these elements. I want these things to come across to the audience about who she is. And then, all these months later, to have people come up to me on the street here, like 60-year-old men, and say, “She was all of those things” — I’ve never had this experience as an actress.
Is Crystal Fairy entirely your creation, or did Sebastián give you some direction?
There were biographical things about her that he told me. You know, he’d actually had this experience with this woman, so, I don’t want to reveal too much, but elements of the character, like the story she tells at the end, are factual. But, for me, it was more about taking those facts and making her dynamic instead of one-dimensional and cliché, which she could easily have been.
You had never improvised a performance before, right?
I did this weird James Toback movie [Black and White] that was improvised, but I barely participated because I wasn’t – because it was a James Toback movie and because the Wu-Tang Clan was getting us stoned without our knowledge. But, no, nothing to this extent, and certainly nothing that I wanted so much to make work. Crystal Fairy was one of the first movies I did after I recommitted to the idea of acting. Like two months before Sebastián called I had this moment with my then boyfriend on the edge of a mountain cliff where he said, “This is driving you crazy. You have to figure out if you want to do this or not.” I had spent 10 years painfully struggling with this ambivalence and really not doing anything about it. And I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna just spend a year committed to the idea of exploring it.” So, I wanted to succeed for Sebastián and for the film, but this was also one of my first opportunities to see how I felt about myself as an actor and if I enjoyed the work.
How long did you have to figure out how you were going to portray Crystal Fairy?
I think it was like a week before I got on the plane to Chile that Sebastián told me who she was. And that was like a four-minute conversation. He was in Chile. I was on another movie set. And all he did was say, "Go buy some books about 2012 [Ed.Note: more specifically, about the end of the Mayan calendar] and get on the plane." So I did. We spent a week in Santiago in pre-production. And I say pre-production in quotes because we were all living at Sebastián’s parents’ house. Sebastián wasn’t living there, but the brothers and Michael Cera and I were. Tt was the house where The Maid was shot, and the boys would sit out back playing guitar and singing songs on this beautiful patio and the music would stream in through the open doors. And Sebastián and I would sit at a desk and I would draw Crystal Fairy’s weird drawings in her book.
So, those are your drawings in the film?
Yeah, I made that whole book. And read this book about 2012, and I talked to Seb about Crystal Fairy. I would tell him, “Never let me go too far. Don't let me try to make her so funny that I lose sight of who this person really was. She was a huge influence in his life. He had a very emotional experience with her.
Did you and Michael Cera discuss how you would interact in the film or were you both just reacting to each other?
We didn’t really discuss much. I mean there was an outline and every scene had some moment that led us to the next place, that gave the movie its narrative arc. And I remember being very concerned and voicing again and again that, you know, let’s make sure the scene’s not just about that one thing. We have to also be having a moment together and a conversation and let’s let it go. So, we did discuss that to some extent, but we didn’t do any real improv crap. We didn’t do any rehearsals in character. The boys had been living together for months because Michael had been in Chile learning Spanish for Magic Magic, so they had a whole thing which worked perfectly because I was really the outsider. And I just had a real easy time with them. Those boys, the Silva boys, they’re magical. That whole family is, as is Michael Cera. So it was pretty easy to slip in and find the adventure on film. And we had the opportunity to shoot everything because we were doing digital. It was like we improv'd the improv, if you know what I mean.
You grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, which, I imagine, was full of characters like Crystal Fairy. Did you use anything that you encountered during your childhood in your performance?
I definitely grew up around a lot of characters. I’m trying to figure out how to say this articulately, but I also spent 10 years before making that movie going to college and really struggling with myself and experiencing a lot of depression and having a real breakdown of ego – which I never even thought about before then. My mother is the sort of a person who has no boundaries and no filter. She also has a big ego but it’s a very unique one. And I grew up with lots of artists in an environment where conformity and the norm were totally not what anybody was after. So, while the character of Crystal Fairy is not me at all, elements of who she is are very comfortable territory for me. I wasn’t exactly drawing on specific people but rather the world I grew up in, which was a world about individuality and expression and people being themselves at any cost. I don’t really see the point to living any other way.
How would describe Crystal Fairy to someone who hasn't seen the movie?
I think she's living with a lot of fear. You don’t really realize this until the end of the movie, but she's having a post-traumatic stress moment, and I think she's created an alter ego to escape a wound that she never processed. So she’s actually putting on a character. At the end, she sort of reveals who she really is and why she’s on this trip, which, I think, is one of escape.
I found your performance remarkably ego-free. I never felt like, hey, that's an actor up there playing Crystal Fairy.
In all honesty, I don’t really know how to act in any other way. I’ve never studied acting. So, when I have a piece of material in front of me that is not well written, I don't think I'm very good because I'm not a trained actor. I can’t really come around the back. I have to have an entry point that feels real. It doesn’t mean the character has to be like me, but I have to find something in the role that I can make feel natural. Otherwise, I don’t really know how to pull it off. It’s limiting. There’s a lot of work I don’t think I can do. If the writing is there and the intention is there, and the filmmakers are after something that is honest and real, I think I can go anywhere. I’m not afraid of revealing anything. But I don’t know if I’m good at acting.
You said earlier in the conversation that doing Mescaline was part of the plan. What's like to act while tripping?
Yeah. I really wanted to do it. I’m not a method actor at all, but I like taking mushrooms and I’m comfortable with it. I knew that whatever happened it would work. But people were uncertain if it was too much. First, we thought well, let’s all do it one day off camera and see how it goes and how we feel about it. And then we’ll decide if we want to shoot like that. But we didn’t have that day. We lost that day actually because we broke our Epic camera and it was the only Epic in Chile. So I was the guinea pig. In the movie, the boys are all together when they trip, so it was like, “Okay, should we try it with four people at once or should we try it with one person?” And I said, “Let’s do my day first,” because I just knew it would be okay. My dose was weak, so I had to take a second one even though it was so revolting, but I really loved it. I was totally present in the experience of the making of the movie, and I felt like it was subtle enough that I could step in and out of it.
So you are tripping on camera?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And I felt like it was a tool that I could choose to pick up and use when I wanted. I never felt like, “Oh my God, I’m tripping and I have to make a movie.” I felt like I could totally step out of it and be like, “Okay, Sebastián, what’s going on? What do we need to do?” And then I could step back into it and just go with it. And, you know, there’s like hours and hours of footage that you don’t see because it was like a 10-hour trip and we were in that desert the whole time. It was great, but it was subtle.
So, thanks to your experience with Crystal Fairy, you are rededicated to making a career of acting?
This is one of many experiences I’ve had this whole year that, yeah, has led me to a place where I know that I want to keep going. A month ago I was like trying to get hired as a bartender.
You also said you were thinking of becoming a chef. Did you study a particular cuisine?
You know, I never really thought I was gonna be a chef. I just started really loving cooking, and I was spending a lot of time being very domestic and escaping from the world. I went to the American Academy in Rome to do this program that Alice Waters set up there called the Rome Sustainable Food Project. It was a three-month internship where you’re cooking traditional Roman cuisine. I love that food, but I love everything. And I definitely don’t want to be a chef.
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