Documentary explores career of former Lansing actor Jim Hoffmaster
Bridgette M Redman
When Jim Hoffmaster left Lansing in 2001 for Los Angeles, he was pursuing a dream that many claimed was a pipe dream, especially for someone already in his 40s. However, compared to the hurdles he’d already overcome in his life, age was a minor barrier.
He’s returning to Lansing in early November to attend the East Lansing Film Festival which is screening a new documentary about his life and career. “Acting Like Nothing is Wrong,” directed and conceived by Jane Rosemont, a Detroit native who lived in Lansing and East Lansing for many years, is a full-length film that explores both the mental health challenges that come from a childhood filled with abuse and the reality of being a working actor in Los Angeles.
Rosemont and Hoffmaster met when he was working for Schuler Books in Okemos, a meeting that would eventually lead to the multi-year collaboration creating a film that just won an Impact Award in October when it got its world premiere at a Los Angeles film festival.
Hoffmaster went west to become an actor. He spent 11 seasons on the series “Shameless” playing the role of Kermit and made appearances in such shows as American Gigolo, Better Call Saul, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, American Horror Story, Austin & Ally and many more.
The documentary, though, was born from Hoffmaster’s earlier years. Hoffmaster grew up in foster care where he was physically, sexually and emotionally abused. His stories fascinated Rosemont, who describes her childhood in a large family as very happy and filled with laughter.
After seeing another film about foster care, Rosemont, an award-winning photographer and the director and creator of “Pie Lady of Pietown,” a documentary short, realized that Hoffmaster’s story should be made into a film and she wanted to be the one who did it
While there are many heavy moments in the film, whenever it got too heavy, they would insert a dance number. Hoffmaster loves to dance and throughout the film he dances in many locales. Santa Fe Reporter reviewer Alex deVore wrote, “’Acting Like Nothing is Wrong’ is a tough watch in some respects, but one that thankfully emerges to a place of sincerity and hope.”
The film was shot in many locations, including several places around Lansing. Lansing locals Jane Zussman and Bruce Bennett both appear in the film and Matt Ottinger was among many who provided archival photos as did Schuler Books & Music. Other scenes were shot at Hoffmaster’s high school in Durand.
Zussman, who describes herself and her husband Mark as “pseudo-relatives” who have kept in touch with Hoffmaster through weekly calls since he left Lansing, said Rosemont interviewed a lot of theater people in the area about Hoffmaster’s days here where he performed for Riverwalk and the now-closed Lansing Civic Players among others. She directed him many times and acted alongside him. She said she’s proud of him for being so persistent in a town where it is hard to make a living.
“He’s had a certain amount of success,” Zussman said. “You can’t say he’s a quote unquote star, but that’s one of the things that is in the film—the idea of him growing up under difficult circumstances and believing there’d be some kind of redemptive third act where he becomes a wild and wonderful success. That’s the way the story should go, because we read all the stories. But things don’t entirely turn out that way.”
Reality, Zussman said, ends up being a combination of sad and light-hearted events and continuing to try until something works out. The film also shows how acting was a great avenue for Hoffmaster to travel, Zussman said.
“Performing has always been something Jim was good at, something where he got the attention that maybe he didn’t get growing up,” Zussman said. “I kind of think that life is a bad improvisation and you’re always bumbling through your life. But we have the chance in theater to practice, practice and almost get it right. We like to be on stage because it’s the closest we can get to making our stories work the way we planned.”
Hoffmaster said many people had told him that he should write a book about his life, but he was waiting for that third act Zussman talked about. When Rosemont approached him about doing a film, things clicked and he was willing to take the risk of putting his life out for public consumption. However, he wanted the film to be about more than just his childhood, which is partly how the film grew from a short to a full-length film.
“I’m asking about all these stories about when he was a kid and he said, ‘that was a long time ago, Jane, I kind of have a life now. I did this little acting thing,’” Rosemont said. “In the very beginning, it was going to be a short film about foster care, less than about Jim, but that changed quickly.”
She discovered that his childhood and his current life and career were linked and that what he went through then continues to affect what he does today. The film explores his struggles, whether professional or personal, and what it means to live a life with mental health challenges. The film contains interviews with other character actors where they talk about the challenges of finding work in Los Angeles and what it means to be a working artist.
Zussman said she first learned about Hoffmaster’s foster care history over ice cream after a show. She said she admired him for going through what he went through and creating the life that he has. Early on, he had one very good foster mother who was good for him and advocated for him, especially with those people who tried to insist that he had mental and learning disabilities. However, he was then moved around to other families, frequently facing abuse.
“It’s not easy being bounced around like that,” Zussman said. “He’s smart. He’s a good communicator and a good actor. He can really tap into some of those difficult emotions. Whatever the hurts of his past, he can channel them the stage. That and he’s also just funny.”
The film will be shown during the 25th Annual East Lansing Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 2 to 10. “Acting Like Nothing is Wrong” will be screened on 6 pm and 9 pm Nov. 10 at Studio C in the Meridian Mall. The 6 pm show is already sold out.
The day prior, Zussman is planning to hold an open house for the people who know him to come and see him again.
Rosemont was excited for “Acting Like Nothing is Wrong” to be shown in East Lansing, its fourth appearance after screenings in Los Angeles, Santa Fe and St. George, Utah.
“I know there’s so many people who adore Jim, it’s going to be really good for them,” Rosemont said, “And ultimately, for him to see how much he matters to people. He’s already made a difference.”
Hoffmaster said that Lansing will always be special to him because it is there that he decided to become an actor.
“However much of an actor I am is whatever natural talent I have plus Lansing,” Hoffmaster said. “There was a really vibrant theater community and eventually I was able to be in about everything that was available to me at the time. I did some stuff at the BoarsHead, some stuff at MSU and a lot of community theaters. The biggest association I have with Lansing is theater and the friends I made from it.”
He added that Lansing was the only place where he had a day job that he really liked—the ten years that he worked at Schuler Books.
“For the first time, I met actual intellectuals and I realized, oh, I’m not nearly as much of a brainiac as I thought I was,” Hoffmaster said. “It was a lovely, lovely environment and books and bookstores figure into the film, which is fun.”
While Zussman hasn’t yet seen the film in which she is listed as appearing first, she does think that Rosemont really gets Hoffmaster. She sees the parallels between Rosemont’s career as a photographer and a filmmaker. Her photography, Zussman said, always finds the unusual shadows and she picks subjects that others might walk on by.
“That’s what she did with Jim’s life. She looked at what was kind of a mess and thought, I can make art out of that,” Zussman said. “She gets Jim on whatever mysterious level you need to want to spend three or four years making a film.”
Zussman thinks that Rosemont has managed to make a film with universal appeal.
“It’s about carrying on and everybody does that in their own way,” Zussman said. “Not everybody was a foster child, but everybody has things that don’t go according to their storybook plan. We carry on and keep going. Jim says that even though there are some dark parts in the film, it’s ultimately encouraging and leaves you on a well, what’s next kind of note.”