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Interview: Jackie Hoffman Looks Tough in Tattoos — and She Feels Tough Too

The one-of-a-kind comedian talks about her role in the new rock musical The Tattooed Lady.

A treasure of the New York stage, Jackie Hoffman has made audiences laugh in such shows as Hairspray, Xanadu, The Addams Family, and Once Upon a Mattress, as well as in her many nightclub acts, where her acerbic delivery cuts through the air like a well-honed knife.

Now, Philadelphia will witness Hoffman's signature talent, albeit in a very different type of project: Max Vernon and Erin Courtney's rock musical The Tattooed Lady, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. She plays Ida Gibson, a fictionalized version of a seminal sideshow artist of the 20th century — and yes, much of Hoffman's body is covered in (fake) tattoos. TheaterMania recently spoke to Hoffman about why she loves this challenging new musical, whether she feels the need to be "Jackie Hoffman" in every show, and what it's like living with her many tattoos offstage.

Jackie Hoffman (center) in the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of The Tattooed Lady
(© Johanna Austin)

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What was your first reaction to being offered this part?
My reaction was "who did they ask before me?" and I discovered there were several people. So, I was torn about saying yes, but then Max wrote all these beautiful emails to me. He said it would be like Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, because it's "acting." And it is. And that's the last time I do this.

You don't really mean that, do you?
It is exciting, but this show might kill me. The tech and preparation were exhausting because the piece is so new, and every department wanted their input, so every day, it was "Do we change this, do we do that?" And now, even though we're up on our feet, we're still trying to find out what's good and what's not. I do know from our early previews that it's a people-pleaser!

Ida is an amalgam of some real women from history. Were you able to do any sort of research on them?
Like any good actor, I googled them, and there wasn't much out there. So immediately I thought, "How do I make this role more personal?" Ida is someone who hides her past and tortures herself daily with moments of hating who she is. And I know that person. Perhaps because I was raised as an Orthodox Jew, I understand all about shame, confusion, and inner conflict.

Do you ever feel like you have to give your fans a little "Jackie Hoffman" no matter what the role? Is there any of Jackie in Ida?
One day, I was discussing with our director, Ellie Heyman, if we want "Jackie" in the show, and she said yes! And the part has a lot of rage, snarky remarks, neurotic tendencies, so it's all worked out. And the older Ida is appalled about New York City in 1980s and how bad it's become, and that's something I can relate to. The city, especially the theater district where I live, has changed for the worse lately. It's why I am taking so many gigs out of town.

You've said you found it unbelievable to read "Jackie Hoffman is starring in a rock musical." Do you not like rock music?
I do. When I was younger, I was a major rock 'n' roll kid. I discovered the joy of doing bong hits in high school and listing to the progressive rock bands of the time, like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I am the youngest of four, and I got to hear everything from the Beatles to Alice Cooper thanks to my siblings. That is the one – and I mean the one — thing I am grateful for from them.

You've been physically transformed for other parts. but this is on a whole new level. Is the tattoo process difficult?
It's kind of like when you get highlights at the beauty parlor, where they put these strands of foil on your head and you sit under the dryer for a while. It's a painstaking, long process. Thankfully, the tattoos are just press-ons, but you have to wait an hour for them to dry. They last a few days, though. What the costume person told me is to shower in the tub, with your back against the water, since they're only on my chest and arms. The only issue so far is that washing my hair is tricky.

Do you act like a different person offstage with these tattoos on your body?
I do feel tougher, even though I usually forget I have them. I complained to my hotel about their housekeeping, and they gave me a gift basket. Now, I know why. So, now I feel I can go into any director's office and just ask for any part I want! Who is going to say no? Watch out, Kathleen Marshall.

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