Philip Seymour Hoffman Still remembered today

September 2005 By Philip Berk

Before Capote, he was considered a character actor with a devoted but limited following.

His scene-stealing roles in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Boogie Nights made audiences take note.

But other performances went largely unnoticed.

It wasn’t until his schoolboy chums (director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman) suggested he play Truman Capote that he became a household name. 

“I was in shock. I’m 5’9” 220 lb. man. And when they offered me the role I was really big. My girlfriend was pregnant so we both got huge together. I was like 240 million lbs. I was literally this roly-poly guy.”

How much weight did he lose?

“I got as thin as I could and still have a fleshy face.”

The sacrifice earned him every possible accolade except one: the New York Critics opted for Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

I asked him where and how he found that character? 

“As I do on every project, you have to find your own voice and each time you approach something, you have to actually find out what your voice is again. At the outset you don’t know what the hell you’re going to do. You  really don’t. A lot of that is workmanlike, practicing the voice, and the physicality, but ultimately that in itself is a nightmare because it’s not acting. It’s not anything. It’s not going to get you there. You still have to find the intellectual logic of the character. You have to go beat by beat. What are they doing and why? It’s an endless exploration. That’s what you do. But how it happens, it happens in a room somewhere every day over a long period of time, where most of the time you’re failing and then eventually something clicks and what that is you can’t write it down. You can only say it. But it becomes a creative thing; it’s basically the idea, the formulas that you have, the exploration intellectually, emotionally, and historically, and then you have the technical stuff and how they become one is where the hard work is done.”

If that all sounds discombobulated, well it is.

Hoffman has never been particularly articulate, and if there’s one aspect of fame that makes him uncomfortable, it’s meeting the press. 

To get him to present the Best Actor award at the Golden Globes — I was president at the time — I had to enlist the help of Tom Hanks (they were shooting Charlie Wilson’s War at the time.)

Even then he showed up only to read the nominations and present the award.

After that he was gone.

So big deal. He doesn’t like to make public appearances.

Even at his press conferences you get the impression he’d rather be somewhere else, but he showed up last year to promote his three year-end releases, for which he was amply rewarded with Golden Globe nominations as both best actor (for Savages) and as best supporting actor (for Charlie Wilson’s War.)

Over the years he’s worked with the likes of  Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Cameron Crowe, Todd Solenz, and Anthony Minghella.

But of course it was Capote that made him a  star.

His other 2007 release Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens next month in Australia.

At his press conference for that he was decidedly  uncomfortable when asked about his “sexy” love scene in the film’s opening.

Did he mind exposing so much flesh? an admirer asked him.

He looked around in disbelief, wondering if he was in the wrong room.

And things went downhill from there?

Had he ever met Bertolt Brecht?

Again he couldn’t believe what he was hearing since he was born twenty years after Brecht died.

(In Savages the character he plays is writing a dissertation on Brecht.)

Things get a little more sensible when he’s asked if he had a good relationship with his father (both Savages and Before the Devil deals with that subject.)

“Savages is a very specific story about two (adult) children who are estranged from their father.” (Laura Linney plays his sister and Philip Bosco his father.) “They don’t have a real relationship with him and haven’t for a long time. They never really thought about taking care of him because I don’t think he really took care of them. It is far different from my experience. I have three other siblings. My parents have different levels of closeness with each of us, but I don’t think that would be the case with this family.”

He and his wife designer Mimi O’Donnell have two children, a son Cooper Alexander, 4, and a daughter Tallulah, 2.

 Has becoming a parent changed his life?

“Your priorities of working and time and scheduling change. Now it’s all about spending as much time with  them as you can.” 

And winning the Oscar, has that meant better script offers?

“I’ve been getting pretty good parts. But all those kinds of films I was saying yes to, before, right before, right around when the awards thing was happening; so everything that I could have wanted before and after the awards has been happening careerwise. My choices have been great. I feel very grateful and lucky to be given opportunities.”

Are there expectations from your handlers?

“I always have high expectations of myself; so I just try to deal with that more than what other people expect of me.”

Has he seen a jump in salary?

“I followed Capote with Savages, which was as low budget an independent film as they come so the paycheck was not there, but the work and the art’s there, and Laura’s such a great actress so that was all good. And that’s where I am.” 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is 83 year old Sidney Lumet’s best film in twenty years. 

What was he like as a director?

“He’s very giving of his time in rehearsal. He structures it very well so you get the most out of preparation in rehearsal with other actors. He’s very insightful, very caring, and hands on throughout the whole thing.”

He’s known to work fast. Was that a hindrance?

“He just wants to keep moving. I don’t think he believes in wallowing in anything. He understands that he needs to keep moving, keep working, and I liked that.” 

Both movies deal with father and son conflicts.

Did he see any parallel?

“I guess they both have issues with their father. That comes from neglect or abandonment or abuse as children. Where they differ is how they deal with it. One chooses to take a positive action, the other a negative one. You can see the different outcomes. But other than that, they’re two completely different people. In Savages Jon is concerned about the society he lives in. He’s very liberal, one of those real lefties. The other guy’s a right wing Type A personality, get it while you can, moving up, moving up. But the thing that joins them is this history they have with their fathers, which I think is painful for both of them.”

Did he think about his own parenting in making the two films?

“Well we’re okay so far, me and my son. I’d say we’re doing pretty good, but yeah parenting is tough.”

Which role is easier to play? The good son or the evil one?

“I don’t think of him as bad. I think of him as taking an action that’s disrespectful of his parents. I don’t think he sets out to kill anybody. As Sidney said, the situation dictates what the character will do, and that’s what the film is really about. He doesn’t start out as a killer. He never killed anyone in his life.” 

Is it easier to play the good guy?

“It’s just another thing to solve as an actor. It’s not easier. It’s a different character. You’re looking at different questions (you have) to ask. How do you create a character that builds towards a murder when he starts out as a person who’s never done that, never could imagine himself doing that. How do you get that character to a place where he’s capable of that. I  looked at the other character in the same way but taking a positive action.”

Besides acting in movies he devotes much of his time to live theatre. 

I can remember the year he won the Golden Globe  he had to interrupt a commitment he had made to the Sydney theatre company run by Cate Blanchett and her husband.

Does he have any comment about criticism leveled against them by Ron Moody?

“I don’t know a Ron Moody. There’s an actor who spoke out and kind of quit the company. If that’s who he is, I don’t agree with him. I love Andrew and Cate. I think they’re very talented and serious theatre people. I don’t know about the politics down there; so I hesitate to talk about it. I went down there as a hired hand. I directed a play. I think Andrew and Cate are wonderfully talented; they have a long history in the theatre, and I think they’ll do a great job.”

He too has a theatre company, the Labyrinth. How much time does he devote to it?

“I’m just a director there. We work at the Public Theatre in New York. I direct a play almost every year. Once every couple of years I act in a play. I am going to direct a play in New York in February.” (It hasn’t been reviewed yet.) “When I’m not making films that’s what I like to do. I actually spend more times doing that than making films.” 

Does he ever take time off?

“I take a month here, a couple of months there. I’m looking forward to my next break; I’ve been working a lot lately.”

What would a day with his children be like?

“When you play with a child that day could be anything. Children want to do anything; so I’ll play with my boy and my daughter in many many different ways depending on what strikes their fancy. All that kids want is for you to be there for them, focussed. And that’s good stuff.”

Tamara Jones both wrote and directed Savages. 

Does that make it easier for the actor?

“It’s good because she’s very connected to it in a very personal way; so she’s very specific with us, very supportive that way. It was very helpful. She knew what she wanted, and that’s always helpful when what the director is doing means a lot to them. It makes a big difference. I thought the writing was terrific. One of the best scripts I’ve read.” 

He has two older sisters.

How difficult was it playing siblings who don’t get along?

“When you’re working on a part you don’t think about yourself, you think about other people’s lives, humanity in general. It’s not therapy. I don’t think, ‘Omigod I am going through this thing.’ I’m an actor I have to do this job. I look at my life to inform what I do, but I don’t depend on that.”

His next movie is the film version of the prize winning Broadway play Doubt. The author John Patrick Shanley is directing; it’s his maiden effort.

Is the author the best person to direct a film? 

“Well, I’ve worked with a lot of people who wrote their own screenplays and directed it: Paul Thomas Anderson, Tamara Jenkins, the Coen Brothers, on and on. It’s a very common thing in film. I think he’s going to do a really good job. It matters a lot to him to do a good job, and I’m hoping for the best.”

Although both of his performances have received acclaim the Academy chose only to nominate him for Charlie Wilson’s War.

What was working with MIke Nichols (the actors’ director) like?

“I worked with Mike six and a half years ago when he directed me in The Seagull. Sydney and Mike are both very intelligent, highly skilled, wonderful people. They’ve been around a long time in the theatre and in film, and they have a lot of resources. They know how to deal with actors, and they now how to tell a story; they know how to talk about humanity and to be very insightful, and they’re also both very funny. They’re a lot of fun to be around.”

Does Mike give much direction?

“It depends. He has his opinions, and he definitely is going to give you an idea of what he wants if he feels that what he’s seeing is not right. But he has a lot of trust. He’s big about the casting, and he trusts the people he’s brought in to do the jobs. If you’re struggling he’s the best guy to have there because he’ll be able to help you.”

Two years ago when he was still basking in the glory of the Oscar, I asked him, What was it like going to every award show and winning every time?

“It was surreal. I went through a lot of different feelings. Up until that point I never really won any acting awards. I had been nominated for a lot of things but never won. So it was like, I got to have a year where I experience that.  And that was a good thing for me because now that I’ve experienced it, it will be a good reference for the rest of my life.”

Can he remember the first time he wanted to be an actor?

“It was when I was eleven or twelve, when my mom first took me to the theatre. It was this regional theatre in Rochester (N.Y.) where I grew up. I would go with her. I saw a lot of plays, not musicals or anything like that. I saw Arthur Miller, new plays, mature stuff, and l just loved that. I could not get enough of it. I thought it was the most incredible thing in the world, but I had no inclination about wanting to do it. I just wanted ti be an audience member. I thought, oh God if every week of my life I could come and sit in the theatre and watch a play, things would be good for me. Only when I was older in high school did I start auditioning for plays. And that because I had a neck injury and I couldn’t wrestle anymore or play football, the sports I was doing. Later at  seventeen, I realized this is something I actually can do;  so I went to college for it.  But there’s a big part of me that still enjoys just watching. For me great live theatre is still the best thing of all.”