EXCLUSIVE: Why There’s No Such Thing as a Small Part for ‘Feud’ Scene-Stealer Jackie Hoffman

by Leigh Scheps 8:50 AM PDT, April 19, 2017
Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita on FX's 'Feud: Bette and Joan.' Photo: FX

When Jackie Hoffman signed on to play Joan Crawford’s housekeeper, Mamacita, on the FX anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan, she thought the part would be just opening the door to the actress’ Hollywood mansion to say, “Can I help you?” What the longtime working actress -- you’ve seen her in everything from The Addams Family on Broadway to Hulu’s Difficult People -- didn’t realize was she was about to be labeled as the “breakout character” and “scene stealer” by executive producer Ryan Murphy himself.

It feels great,” Hoffman tells ET during a break from rehearsals of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Broadway musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel opening April 23 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre -- the same evening as Feud’s season one finale. “My agent said, ‘[I’ve] managed to take a very little thing and make it into a big thing.’ So, I’m thrilled that is what happened. I’ve always been the queen of small parts. There were no small actors, only small parts, but that’s because I’ve taken them all.”

MORE: 'Feud' Star ALison Wright Finally Gets Her Turn to Shine

Feud tells the story of how the rivalry between two of Hollywood’s iconic leading ladies, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) began on the set of the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Hoffman, 56, who once performed at Chicago’s iconic Second City improv theater and is known for her comedic chops, explains her interpretation of Crawford’s housekeeper, Mamacita, is a straightforward one. “She’s got an undeniable deadpan quality to her, which is great because I’m used to playing it huge in the theater. It’s kind of cool to play it very subtly,” Hoffman says of her standout performance.

“It was a very intense experience and we both really got into it,” Hoffman says of some of the more violent scenes with Lange. In episode six, their relationship is pushed to its breaking point -- literally -- when Crawford starts throwing things at Mamacita’s head. While filming, one of the vases -- made of sugar glass to look real -- accidentally hit Hoffman. “[Lange] did nail me in the shoulder blade at one point, so I can’t say that was fun,” she recalls. “[She] had this incredible reaction where she was really crying, and I’m up the stairs crying myself because I got hit in the shoulder blade.” But the episode’s director apparently enjoyed it. “[Tim Minear] was like, ‘That was great, we love that reaction!’ I was like, ‘You guys, I just got hit in the shoulder blade.’”

MORE: Why Susan Sarandon Finally Said Yes to Bette Davis

By the time Hoffman started filming episode seven (directed by Helen Hunt), the script for which called for more vases thrown, she was already a pro at ducking for cover. “I was kind of more scared because I knew what I was coming back for,” she recalls. Hoffman says there were eight breakable sugar glass vases on the prop table, which meant they could shoot the scene up to eight times. “[Hunt] had me do more of a variety. My first choice was to be more angry and over the top. Then she said, ‘OK, now I want you to contain [it].’”

Mamacita is more than just a human target for Crawford’s tantrums. On the show, the housekeeper is a voice of reason in Crawford’s often chaotic world conflicting opinions, even helping the actress find Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? “It was pretty outlined in episode four where [Mamacita] spends the little off time she has to do research in the library and see what’s going to happen to the female population,” she says of Mamacita, who has been dubbed a feminist in her own right by audiences and Hoffman alike. “She was just amazed at how this country affords people and women.” Hoffman believes Mamacita sees the power in women and their potential after having nine children and a career of being a personal assistant. 

From left to right: Ben Crawford, Emma Pfaeffle, Kathy Firtzgerald, F. Michael Haynie, Alan H. Green, Christian Borle, Trista Dollison, John Rubinstein, Ryan Foust, Jackie Hoffman and Michael Wartella in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Photo: Joan Marcus

From Mamacita to “Mama-sweeta,” Hoffman has recently been crafting clever nicknames for herself based on the day and activity. During Passover, she called herself “Matzoh-cita.” On Twitter, it’s #MamaTweeta, and now that she’s Mrs. Teavee, the mother of one of the five children to win a golden ticket and tour Willy Wonka’s (Christian Borle) candy factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s “Mama-Tvita.”

“I can’t believe that after reading the book as a little kid and seeing the film, who would know that almost 50 years later I would be killing myself getting this thing on stage,” Hoffman says. She’s been part of the musical’s inception for nearly a decade, starting with several early workshops. The current stage version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a modern update of the 1971 film starring the late Gene Wilder. Instead of being obsessed with television, Mrs. Teavee’s son, Mike (Michael Wartella), can’t take his eyes off his iPad, ewears colorful headphones and films everything on his phone.

MORE: Christian Borle Is Busying Finding His Version of Willy Wonka

“It’s a very cool idea. One of the lines I wrote for the production was when Augustus Gloop [F. Michael Haynie] meets his fate and Mike starts filming it. I say, ‘Mike, stop filming other people’s tragedies.’ So, we address the lack of empathy that kids have now because they’re always on their phones. They have no human communication,” Hoffman says of the changes, which also include numerous references to President Donald Trump.

Of the references to Trump, “they’ll stay because they’re very subtle and they’ll work either way,” Hoffman says. “There are things that aren’t specifically indigenous to Trump, but to describe the out-of-control kid, it’s like a bonus for people who get the references and for people who don’t -- they’ll just think I’m talking about my kid.”