Whenever Jackie Hoffman’s name appears in a Playbill or open credit sequence, I breathe a sigh of relief. Phew…now I know I’ll be entertained. A lot of pressure to put on a performer, I know, but she never disappoints. From TV roles to Tweets, on Broadway and in cabarets, her quick wit, characterization, and candor bring in the laughs. No matter the size of the audience, no matter the medium, Hoffman has always delivered. Of course, Hoffman’s performance as Mamacita on Feud: Bette and Joan was no exception, earning her much deserved acclaim and hopefully an Emmy nomination. Anyone who’s seen the show can testify to Hoffman’s comedic genius. Known for typically playing staple, big, brash characters, Hoffman’s turn as Mamacita flips the script as she shares the screen with two other larger than life women, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange—who plays Hoffman’s boss—as Joan Crawford. Even in moments of subtlety, Hoffman still manages to be the scene stealing comic relief she’s famous for. Add performing eight nights a week in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway to the equation and its clear, no one can serve up laughs better than Jackie Hoffman.
When did you catch the comedy bug?
Oh my God. I would have to say it was the “show biz ham” bug a lot earlier than comedy bug. My parents didn’t take me to my first Broadway musical till I was 11. I remember a play that I saw also around that time—10 or 11 they started taking me to stuff. I think the first play I saw was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Joan Blondell—who was portrayed in Feud—was in the lead. It affected me so deeply. My first musical was a revival of No, No, Nannette. The “performer-ham” bug though, I remember that. I remember being an asshole who had to be funny. That started around five.
Did anyone or anything inspire you during the time you were developing your own comedic sensibilities and were beginning to pursue comedy as a career?
That was all the years I spent at Second City, too. That helped me hone my voice. It helped get me out there on stage with a slew of incredibly talented people who were funnier than I was—some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. They really keep you on your toes comedically. I found that when moved back from Chicago and Second City to my native New York and started working with a gay theater company called TWEED Theaterworks. They would feature all of these drag queens like Lypsinka and Charles Busch. When I found the gay audience, that helped me zero in on who I was.
What were some technical things you learned at Second City that you feel helped set you up for success?
I think to be funny because you’re funny, but always play the truth. That’s something that Ryan Murphy also instilled in me much later. Your partner can only make you better. Don’t be in competition with your partner. That certainly comes in handy when you’re playing scenes with Jessica Lange.
I feel like journalists keep asking you about what it was like to work with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon on Feud, but I want to know about your individual experience. Can you talk about creating Mamacita?
I felt kind of like an island. Feud focuses on these two powerhouse women and I’m this external floating yet important piece, especially in terms of maintaining one of them and keeping one of them together. I was afraid the role would just be a lot of opening doors for people and handing beverages and leaving. There were many scenes of me opening doors and handing beverages, but then as it kept developing and I found the gestalt of what she was doing and who she was, it was really cool to see it grow. Even being with Jessica [Lange] the first time, it was like we had always been together.
Did Mamacita’s on-screen presence grow as you were shooting and or was it already written into the season?
I think through the series. They were writing stuff till the last minute. It wasn’t like eight episodes were written. She was originally going to be a recurring character. But then Ryan Murphy, bless him, made her a regular character. I guess as people were responding and they saw what she was bringing to it, they created more of an arc for her. That was really great.
There wasn’t a ton of information about Mamacita out there besides little things in Joan Crawford’s biography. How did you use your imagination and the TV scripts to fill in the gaps and flesh this woman out?
It sounds very shallow and external, but the externals help: the wig, the costume, the glasses, what I felt in my gut about the accent. Ryan helped me by saying, “She’s German. Everything should be done with a sense of purpose.” And the script. The answer’s always in the script.
You’re pretty famous for going off-script too though and improvising, at least in the Broadway community, because during The Addams Family run you’d always come up with a new joke that would make your cast mates break. Have you had the chance to do that in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
With this one my hands are a little more tied. Everyone in the building is disappointed. The doorman when we first moved into the theater asked, “Are you going to improvise?” Jesus. It’s become this big expectation. I think we’ll get some down the road. There’s a lot of technical stuff that can go wrong. One night it did go wrong and Christian [Borle] and I had a chance to have some fun. We can only hope that down the road more stuff goes wrong.
My son Mike Teavee was supposed to disappear and the elevator that’s supposed to make him disappear didn’t work. We were just talking and bantering. Christian said to him, “Just jump down and pretend it happened. We had a lot of fun with it. Bethenny Frankel from The Real Housewives of New York was in the audience that night. So I said, “Maybe we should watch The Real Housewives instead.” Stay in the moment and acknowledge what’s in the room has always been a valuable lesson.
Do you have a specific pre-show routine?
Pace back and forth nervously, do vocal warm-ups, try to drink water. At the top of the show they sing “Candy Man” and everyone on our floor opens their dressing room doors and we all sing the last note really badly off-key.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Ugh, God. Can you tell how I like this question?
Yeah it can be a mixed bag of how people respond to it.
I’m a very negative person. I can’t say my advice is to give up. So I’ll just say, say yes to everything and go anywhere it takes you, as long as you’re doing something.
Maybe this is a more concrete question: what’s your advice for comedians working to develop their individual voice?
Don’t be afraid to be who you are, which is really advice for me. With Twitter and everything being public, I’ve been called on the carpet a lot of times. It’s a culture where there’s a lot of self-righteous ignorance going on. People are very easily offended. Don’t be afraid to offend. ♦