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Best Performances: How Feud: Bette and Joan's Jackie Hoffman Found Mamacita's Quiet Power

The star made the most of her small part

Joyce Eng

TVGuide.com's Best Performances series focuses on stand-out actors and actresses from the past year of television. Whether they made you cry, laugh or a mix of both, these are the performers -- and characters -- we won't forget, all year long.

When Jackie Hoffman got the part of Mamacita, Joan Crawford's (Jessica Lange) maid on Feud: Bette and Joan, she had a few concerns.

"Of course I'm an actress and I think about petty things like screen time and a limited role and how many episodes will I be in and how long will I be in L.A. Do I rent?" Hoffman tells TVGuide.com with a laugh. "I said to my agent early on, 'I'm gonna be sitting on my ass for three months and I'll say, 'Yes, ma'am,' and open a door.' And they said, 'Probably!'"

She did those things -- and more. A living embodiment of the ol' "There are no small parts, only small actors," the longtime character actress made maximum impact with minimal screen time as Joan's tightly wound right-hand woman. Stern, loyal and as quick with a zinger as she is with a curt reply, Mamacita was an indispensable part of Joan's life -- and as it soon became apparent to Ryan Murphy & Co. during production, to the show as well.

Hoffman, who previously appeared in Murphy's The New Normal and is currently starring in Broadway's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, wasn't originally supposed to be in all eight episodes. But they liked Mamacita and Hoffman's plainspoken, deadpan performance so much that it was expanded. "They were gonna give her an arc," she says. "And I said, 'I don't want an arc if it ends early. I'd rather have a straight line and just do it all!'" She got the best of both worlds, appearing in the whole season and getting a storyline, too -- one involving some far-flung vases.
Feud: Bette and Joan: How Ryan Murphy's grandmother inspired the finale

It would've been easy to simply portray Mamacita as a submissive servant. And while she was obedient, diligent and catered to Joan's whims, Mamacita suffered no fools. Maybe it was the German stock or the fact that she had already raised nine kids, but in Hoffman's hands, Mamacita was a perfect encapsulation of infinite patience, vexing exasperation and tough love. She was Joan's surrogate parent, keeping her in line but not hesitating to let her know when she crossed it.

That becomes very clear in the sixth episode, "Hagsploitation," when Joan throws herself another alcohol-fueled pity party after a humiliating press tour for Strait-Jacket. As always, Mamacita calmly tries to make her see the upside of things and right the ship.

"What I liked about it is ... it comes in with tenderness," Hoffman says. "I remember the writer teaching me the term 'jiggity jog,' that I'm taking her home, that I'm nurturing her, that it's almost like a mother with a child. 'No, see, this is a nice thing. Look at the nice thing. Look at the flowers.' Almost like you're handling a crazy, drunk child. And that tenderness turns to that ugly episode."

Jackie Hoffman and Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan

Jackie Hoffman and Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan

Suzanne Tenner/FX

Joan hurls a vase at Mamacita, barely missing her before colliding with the wall... and Mamacita cracks. She openly chastises Joan for the first time, telling her, "The next time you throw something at my head, I leave you," which turns out not to be an empty threat.

But even when Mamacita's angry, she's contained -- a stark contrast to Joan's over-the-top theatrics. Hoffman, who has an improv background, underplays the reprimand with controlled, unsparing poise and resolve that in many ways is more frightening than if she had exploded with rage. The employee has one-upped the master.

"I thought that would be the one place that would be appropriate for her to lose it," Hoffman says. "But even in Mamacita losing it, it's not like Jackie losing it, which would be incredibly high-pitched, only-dogs-can-hear-shrieking hysteria. This is as loud as it's going to get [with Mamacita]. Then you know she's really angry. She had a lot of power, I thought, that way."

Hoffman did almost lose it -- with tears -- during one vase-tossing take. Eight sugar glass vases were on hand for the scene, the filming of which Hoffman calls "bone-chilling."

"There was take where Jessica did nail me in the shoulder blade and then I go up the stairs after I say, 'You are blotto.' I didn't cry until I got up to the top of the stairs. 'Don't cry. You're Mamacita. Don't cry.' So I got up to the top of the stairs and was crying and then I heard, 'Cut! Great reaction, Jessica!' And she was horrified because she knew she had hit me," she recalls. "Yes, there was some good acting, but for terror, I didn't have to go far."
Feud: Bette and Joan stars reveal their favorite burns

Mamacita leaves Joan in the next episode after another vase toss, but returns in the finale to care for her. (In real life, Mamacita stayed with the Oscar winner through the early '70s before leaving because, yes, she was tired of having things thrown at her.) Hoffman is not surprised by Mamacita's devotion to Joan or their close-knit bond that transcended a your average boss-servant relationship. Mamacita was all Joan had, and she knew it, but it wasn't all pity.

"I think Mamacita was an early feminist. I think she saw how powerful women can be. I think that's another reason why she supported Joan so much," Hoffman says. "I think that it was on so many levels. I think that I was worried about her, I knew she was alone, I knew she really didn't have anybody else. She was aging and ill.

"I remember Jessica actually mentioned to me, 'Why would you come back?'" she continues. "And I'm like, 'Would you shut up? I'm coming back!'"