Jackie Hoffman had never met Jessica Lange before their pairing as inseparable housekeeper Mamacita and movie star Joan Crawford in FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan (Sunday, 10 ET/PT), so she sent her an email before shooting started.
“I said, ‘I’m Jackie, and I’ll be playing your maid. I look forward to having you throw (stuff) at me,’ ” Hoffman tells USA TODAY during a break in rehearsals for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a Broadway musical that begins previews Tuesday.
When they finally met, she says, Lange hugged her, thanked her for the email and, “next thing you know, I’m unzipping her dress, bringing her coffee and she’s yelling at me (as Crawford). It’s just crazy,” but Lange was “incredibly cool.”
In an eight-episode production that has plenty of marquee names, including Oscar winners Lange and Susan Sarandon, who plays Crawford rival Bette Davis, Chicago Second City comedy troupe alum Hoffman is getting noticed for her breakout performance as Crawford’s stoic sidekick, whose job description might more aptly be “cleaning woman, friend, husband, father and mother,” Hoffman says.
Critics have praised Hoffman’s performance and executive producer Ryan Murphy, also behind American Horror Story and American Crime Story, received the ultimate fan thumbs-up.
“I always know I’ve done my job when people tell me that they’re going to go as one of my characters for Halloween. I cannot tell you how many people have told me they’re going to go as Mamacita this year,” he says.
Hoffman, 56, a theater, TV and film actress who plays Mrs. Teavee in Charlie, Rachel Epstein in Hulu’s Difficult People and Esther in Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, appeared in an earlier (and short-lived) Murphy comedy, NBC’s The New Normal. But she auditioned without his knowledge for Mamacita, a real person whose name, bestowed by Crawford in a Latin-izing fervor after a trip to Rio, belies her origins as a German immigrant.
“Jackie’s audition was by far the best. She just got the jokes,” Murphy says. “She knew Mamacita was comic relief, but the funny thing was, Mamacita never thought she was funny. So, everything she says is just a dry, throwaway line.”
Hoffman’s role was expanded during production, he says. “I don’t know how many scenes there were where Mamacita isn’t scripted, but we’re like, ‘Let’s just throw Mamacita in there and see what Jackie does, even though she doesn’t have any lines.’ Jackie would steal every scene.”
In Feud, Mamacita cleans Crawford’s mansion but also accompanies her to restaurants and the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 cinematic pairing of Crawford and Davis that ramps up their Oscar-worthy clash.
She’s promoted to agent, of sorts, in Sunday’s episode, directed by Liza Johnson, as Pauline (Alison Wright), the assistant to Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich, enlistsMamacita to recruitCrawford for a film she wrote and hopes to direct. Mamacita, who immediately supports Pauline’s ambition, shows a depth and a feminist spirit sometimes hidden in a character whose stone-faced reaction to Crawford’s drunken rages provides some of Feud‘s best comedic moments.
Hoffman says she’s grateful that women have more opportunities in Hollywood than they did in the 1960s, noting Murphy’s hiring commitment for writing and directing roles, but says “there’s still a long way to go.”
What about the quickly approaching Charlie opening? The Queens-born actress interjects: . “I can’t think about it. I get a little vomit-y.” (Who’s better, Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka? “Oh, my God, do you have to ask? It’s Gene, but I love Depp. He can do no wrong.”)
And when asked if she prefers stage or screen, Hoffman delivers a response that would have made Crawford and Davis proud. Theater offers “the thrill of a live audience,” she says. “But after climbing up 10 flights of stairs to get to my dressing room, there’s also the thrill of sitting in a chair and having people bring you lattes all day. Everything has its charm.”