‘Feud’ star Jackie Hoffman on being a character actor: ‘Aging isnt as frightening for us as it is for the pretty people’

Jackie Hoffman steals the show as Mamacita.
Image: Kurt Iswarienko/FX.

Youd have to possess a pretty colorful character, not to mention some serious acting chops, to steal scenes away from Jessica Lange while she’s channeling screen diva Joan Crawford. Fortunately, Jackie Hoffman has both.

From the moment she makes her first appearance in Feud: Bette and Joan, you cant take your eyes off Hoffmans tightly-wound but infinitely patient Mamacita Crawfords sternly Teutonic live-in housekeeper, valet, mother confessor and all around Gal Friday, who is never far from the movie stars side and always faithfully and fiercely on her side, even when Crawford believes no one else is.

Mamacita is, delightfully, a true-life construct: Anna Marie Brinke was Crawfords German-born maid/personal assistant, hired shortly before the actress began mounting her planned comeback in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Brinke came recommended by her own daughter, one of her nine children and a maid to a Westhampton neighbor of Crawfords: she impressed the star with her preference for scrubbing floors on her hands and knees over using a mop.

According to Crawford, the Latin-flavored nom de guerre was bestowed upon Brinke because the actress had just returned from a Brazilian vacation in Rio de Janeiro and obsessively added a -cita suffix to everything upon her return. Mamacita would remain in Crawfords service, often contentiously, until a fateful moment in 1974 when she decided to return to her native Germany because she was, as her grandson later related it, tired of having things thrown at her.

Hoffman has a work ethic to rival the real Mamacitas. A veteran of Chicagos fabled Second City comedy troupe who headlined many solo shows, she went on to become an award-winning force off and on Broadway, with star turns in productions including The Sisters Rosensweig, Hairspray, Xanadu and The Addams Family, with occasional forays to Hollywood for film and TV appearances in the likes of Kissing Jessica Stein, Garden State, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and 30 Rock.

And, as Mashable learned during our freewheeling conversation with the actress, in sharp contrast to Mamacitas minimalist approach to communication, shes a conversational tour de force as well.

You had us at hello with Mamacita.

Does Mamacita ever say hello? I dont think hello is a word that comes out of her mouth.

What got you excited about her when the role came your way?

Oh my lord have mercy! First of all, the audition material was so secret that all the names were changed, so they didnt use the name Crawford, they didnt use the name Mamacita. Then I found out later what it was and I had bought, in my 20s, a copy of Joan Crawfords [1971 advice book] My Way of Life, and the gay man inside me, pardon the expression, knew exactly what it was and fell in love with it.

I remember her talking about Mamacita, and then when I heard the characters name is Mamacita, at first I was a little freaked out, because I said, Oh my God, Im playing a Hispanic woman! And then I remembered I was, like, Holy crap Mamacita! Oh my God! There are no adjectives to describe how I felt at that point, just with the whole thing. I still cant get over it.

I was looking up some information on her, and Mamacitas German maiden name was in fact, Hoffman.

Yes, it was, spelled the Jewish way with two Fs and one N. Which is comforting, because I like to think she was Jewish because if not, judging from her age, she was a Nazi.

Did you go on treasure hunt looking for more bits and pieces of information about her once the job was yours?

Im not that dedicated an artist. My treasure hunt consisted of hitting a key on Google and looking at My Way of Life and just making it up on my own.

When you thought about who she was and how you wanted to play her, what was the key into her? When did that big lightbulb go off over your head?

I dont know the lightbulb may still have not gone off. I took German, clean, and putting up with Joan Crawford, and that was all I needed to know.

Youd read Crawfords book had you been a little bit of a student of her at any point?

Im more of a slob, but I remembered things like packing with tissue paper in the sleeves, and if I ever made a dinner with like fish and cauliflower, I always remember, [imitates Crawfords voice] Dont put two white foods on the same plate. Then, whenever I take a picture, I remember from reading this in her book: Always look up and to the right. So I am a student of Joans.

Mamacita is not wholly a broad comic caricature, but theres something inherently funny when we meet her, just in juxtaposition to Joan Crawford.

Right. I think she provides a relief from the intensity of those two dames.

It must have been fun to figure out the rapport with Jessica Lange, and get how they were going to coexist and be codependent together.

Yes, as Jessica got more comfortable, she got more abusive, unfortunately! So youll see that as we unfold. Like, Oh, this is an actress I can fuck with.

Did you give it back?

I set a boundary.

We do learn that theres more depth to Mamacita than we might have guessed early on. How quickly did you know that about her and were able to prepare for?

I knew going in that she was a human being and she had to be fully rounded. Im cheap whore of an actor: Im barely in this episode. What the fuck? But yeah, theres such great writing on the show, and the wardrobe is genius, the wig was genius, the writings great, and that all helped a lot.

What do you think her function in the story of Feud is, ultimately?

She kind of plays a husband/friend/sounding board for Joan. Shes probably the only person that Joan really is herself with, and really tells the truth to. So we learn a lot about who Joan really is through Mamacita, I think. Theres a couple of episodes where shes wasted and says that Im the mother she never had, and youre the only friend Ive had. It gets really, really touching near the end. Like the last scene we shot together, it was just beautiful. So I think Joan shows her a side that she doesnt show anybody else. So it helps to tell the whole story.

It comes through that Mamacita really cares for her, and wants to protect her.

Yes, she does. I would think I would have some love for her, to put up with all of the shit that I put up with.

Throughout your career, have you seen Hollywood or celebrity-type figures with this kind of person at their side? Has that been a reality that youve noticed?

Oh wow, what a question! I know Ive seen people with posses and entourages. I just remember, one of my first movie events was the film I did in, like, 2000, Kissing Jessica Stein, and I remember this woman walking around there was an actor, a very talented actor named Scott Cohen in that movie, and he had this woman going, Hi, Im Scotts publicist

Oh my God, really? People had people around them. The very first pilot I did, like in the mid-’90s, people said My assistant. Im like, Really? Really? You have a personal assistant? So its just a phenomenon that I still cant get over.

Youve had a tremendously prolific career, but I imagine you havent had to deal with the genuine burdens of fame, a lot of the BS that people have to deal with because of a super high profile.

Yeah, thats kind of you: nobody knows who the fuck I am enough to make my life trouble.

Is that the best way to do it?

Its mixed. I did this film I got replaced on with Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, and I saw the press literally chase them like Dodi Fayed and Princess Di though the tunnel, like, on foot. Im like, Holy crap! The shit they have to deal with. So I would imagine its kind of a mixed blessing. I get letters from 13-year-olds wanting a Playbill signed by people more famous than me.

You have some substantial stuff in Feud. Tell me what that was like to be able to dive deep. She doesnt disappear often. Shes always kind of right there.

God bless Ryan [Murphy] and Tim Minear and Gina [Welch] and those writer/producers, man. God bless them! Because … as there were plenty of days where Im opening doors and handing people beverages, and I was like, Fuck this! Then Im the maid! It could have been like that.

But theyre so smart, and they so want to get their message across, and I was honored, especially like, I think this interview coincides with episode 4, which is where Im encouraging the lovely Alison Wright, about her script, and telling her about the future, about women in cinema, and women in media. Im so honored that I got to tell that message, that I so badly, of course, want to tell. Its an important thing that has to be told.

Look what happened: its turning around a little, but here we are 50 years later, and still no one gives a fuck. Its still such a male world. To be part of Team Ryan Murphy, whos doing everything they can to fight that, is just such a great thing.

It really is shocking how much this fifty-year-old story is resonating, especially here in L.A., where people are watching the show and seeing women literally facing some of the same problems as they were in 1962 Hollywood.

Right. Thats how it was so kismet, because Jessica and I, we both wanted to tell that story. And Jessica and Susan, like, they have careers like Crawford and Davis, where they were like, Fuck you, and they kept working. But both Jessica and Susan were like incredibly, breathtakingly beautiful. For beautiful women, usually youre just, like, fucked. Its over. But they got past it. They went beyond it and they conquered.

When youre in the ugly, unfuckable category like I am, well, We didnt want to fuck her when she was younger, so we might as well hire her when shes older. I think character women at least have that, not that there are many roles. Aging isnt as frightening for us as it is for the pretty people.

Have people in the industry been that crass to you in those terms, in the way that, say, a Jack Warner expresses himself about how he feels about Crawford and Davis?

No, nobody says the word unfuckable, but we know thats what its all about. I put things in the crudest terms. Im the Jack Warner, really.

Have you noticed how popular Mamacita has become? Shes all over the Internet.

No, I have no idea. Im not all over the Internet. I look at my three Twitter followers, and a couple of 15-year-olds are like, Go, Mamacita! I have no idea.

I think the phrase that they would use is breakout character.

Thats excellent. Yes, on Twitter, I call her MamaTweeta.

You got to step back into mid-century Hollywood for a bit what was the best part of that experience?

The whole thing was like a five-month gay mans orgasm. I kept emailing my friends like, Im not allowed to show you anything, but trust me… We werent allowed to take pictures, but even like a jar that they put cotton balls in every object, it was just a breathtaking world. Every costume, the attention paid to every detail, and the beauty. It was ridiculous.

My filthy fingerprints are on every object and every item of clothes because I kept touching everything. Look at this! Look! And, when this was done, I was like two years old. So it would rush like, Oh my God, my mother had something just like this and I remember this when I was a little girl So it had that also.

Everybody in Hollywood is lining up hoping to work with Ryan Murphy right now. He and his team are championing these stories about women that other people seemingly arent telling. Were there any other interesting discoveries about joining Ryans troupe?

Wow that may be too intelligent a question for me! It was a great lesson. Im always huge [in my performance]. Im really theater folk, and Ive done film and television work, but its always like, Bring it down, bring it down, bring it down. And Ryan, from day one, hes like, No, dont make it that cartoony. Shes German, she has purpose and this is just from handing a Pepsi bottle to Jessica for four hours.

He really was reining it in, and you saw that, even larger-than-life characters like Crawford and Davis, theyre people, and he wants everybody to be really real, and I think thats one reason why the things he does are so effective. He really comes from a place of truth. He really made me a better actor for it.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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