Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Mad Detective

Movies Features Philip Seymour Hoffman
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“Great art is about conflict
and pain and guilt and longing and love.”


—Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

IT BEGAN

the moment the film screened at the Telluride Film Festival on Sep. 2, 2005. Oscar buzz. By the time Capote played at the Toronto International Film Festival a week later, the buzz had become a roar. Philip Seymour Hoffman burst to the forefront of a pack of worthy Oscar contenders (Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line) that, in any other year, would’ve dominated festival chatter. When the film opened on Sep. 30, reviewers proclaimed Hoffman’s nomination a “foregone conclusion” and “all but coronated” him Best Actor.

On the morning of Dec. 13, the noise reaches a new pitch. Hoffman, appearing on the Today Show, learns of his Golden Globe nomination. Asked for his on-the-spot reaction, the actor fumbles for words. “It’s…” He raises his eyebrows. “It’s…” He shuffles in his seat, chuckling. “I just heard. It’s sinking in.” Award season has begun in earnest.

A few hours later, when he sits down to talk with Paste, Hoffman appears relaxed, though his hair is a bit disheveled from the knit cap keeping the blustery weather at bay. We’re in a sterile conference room in a photography studio, but he’s near his West Village neighborhood and seems eager to discuss his craft without being constrained to the sound bites, quips and personal anecdotes that don’t come easy for him. It’s a respite from a day of national TV appearances and abrupt phone calls to answer that mandatory question: How does it feel?

“The press, the media—it’s a whole other world. It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s different than anything I’ve experienced, for sure. The further I get into it, it’s a whole other thing. You really don’t know what you’re feeling about it. … You do get a little lost.”

GETTING LOST IN HIS CHARACTERS

is something the 38-year-old actor has excelled at for 15 years in more than 35 films. Until recently, he’s played mostly supporting roles, but that hasn’t stopped him from leaving indelible marks on audiences and critics. His big break came when he was pulled from his deli-counter job in 1992 to play opposite Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell in Scent of a Woman. He’d never again have to make sandwiches to pay the bills. While he went on to play significant roles in blockbusters Twister and Patch Adams, Hoffman earned notoriety for his portrayal of wildly idiosyncratic characters—from the gauche assistant hitting on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights and the forlorn masturbating phone stalker in Happiness to the transgender singer in Flawless. In 2002, Hoffman finally stepped into his first lead role with Love Liza, and the next year he followed with the titular lead in Owning Mahowny. There’s not a lackluster performance in the lot. “He’s ridiculously fun to watch,” enthuses director Cameron Crowe, who cast Hoffman as his mentor Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. “Hoffman has a mighty instinct for what makes people live, breathe, move and, most of all, think. It’s all there in his performances, with no strings showing.”

Hoffman’s recent evocation of writer Truman Capote reminds Crowe of seeing the actor first bring Bangs to life. “The first take we did was a master shot of Bangs walking up a steep hill with William Miller, just after they’d met,” he says. “Watching Hoffman walk up that hill—the very same hill I’d walked with Bangs 20-plus years earlier—I felt that chill from the actual day. It was also probably something close to what Bennett Miller must have felt on his first take with Hoffman as Capote. After all the talk and preparation, a screen life had begun. So generously true to the actual character, and yet wildly and originally Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

When Hoffman was offered the role of Capote, his initial reaction was that he wasn’t the right person to play the legendary writer, who had a thin frame, high-pitched voice and fey mannerisms. But he was intrigued by the idea of working with two friends he’s known since age 16, when he attended a summer theater program in upstate New York—director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman.

While reading the script, which centers on Capote’s research and writing of In Cold Blood and the impact his controversial choices had on his life, Hoffman connected with the character and story and knew he had to play the role. “It was very intriguing in a lot of ways, none really having to do with my recollections of Truman Capote, which were pretty basic. My interest has nothing to do with what people think it might be, about how he was a colorful character or the people he knew. It really was the story of an artist that was my age who was a little bit lost, not knowing what to do with himself. I felt this odd kinship with him and we probably have nothing in common. My assumptions are probably completely wrong. But that’s really what drew me to it, this idea that we were kind of the same age and I really didn’t know what to do here [either].”

Choosing roles has always been difficult for Hoffman, but this trait has become even more pronounced with age. “It has to do with certain parts or certain stories that you’ve probably done or were of interest to you when you were in your early 20s,” he explains, “and you really could give a flying f—— about them now. When you really realize that, it’s a wild thing. You’re like, ‘God, I really wanted to play that kind of role when I was 24.’ I run screaming now. So you know what you don’t want to do.

“[But] what you do want to do is still this foggy thing. The pieces just come together and you start to feel right about something. It’s a combination of something in the story and in the character.” Finding that intimate insight, as with Capote, is the key. “Usually, there’s something about it that’s probably not of interest to anyone but yourself.”

Having found a personal angle into Capote, Hoffman began five-and-a-half months of preparation. Reading, listening to and watching whatever he could (especially the Maysles brothers documentary With Love From Truman, filmed around the time of In Cold Blood’s release), he sought to get at the core of the writer, to “find the nuts and bolts of his life.” Even now, Hoffman isn’t sure he succeeded; Capote remains “very, very elusive.”

“There were so many things and it was never quite really nailed down even when we were shooting,” he says. “You could say he was Machiavellian and he was very manipulative. But you couldn’t just be those things because there’s something else. And it’ll drive you mad, because there’s always something else. And you think, he was very kind but you couldn’t just do that either.” Most people, Hoffman says, have a trace of that complexity, but you can usually find a core to build a character on. For Capote, Hoffman finally imagined it as his childhood relationship with his mother and his fear of abandonment. “He would never be left alone again, that was his bottom line. Once that was dealt with, you started to see how he could be all of those things at once because he had to be.”

Only after coming to this tentative understanding did Hoffman delve into the physicality of Capote. “It wasn’t until maybe six or eight weeks [prior to shooting] that I really began to get glimpses of Capote in Phil,” Miller says. “He would surface for moments here and there.” Even during the first week of filming, Hoffman struggled. “The shoot did not get off to an easy start. He always told me that when he starts shooting a film he feels like he’s drawing with his left hand.” By the second week, the director says, Hoffman had a breakthrough and emerged convincingly as Capote.

“Film is a very uncomfortable medium for an actor,” Hoffman says, contrasting it with theater (where the Tony nominee continues to act, direct and serve as co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company). “It’s just not conducive to doing what actors do. The first few days of shooting are like you just getting over the fact that you’re there. These people and the camera over the shoulder and the light and the boom—you’re just going crazy trying to find some kind of center of relaxation and then you can get into a rhythm and it can be very satisfying. If you do good work and it’s on film, that’s a very satisfying thing.”

Finding that rhythm in Capote required Hoffman to remain physically in character even during down times on set. “It was so different from how I am that it was important for me to stay there,” he explains. “If I laid it down, I wouldn’t want to pick it up again.” Did Hoffman find maintaining such foreign mannerisms and vocal nuances distracting from the role’s other requirements? “Oh, God yeah,” he exclaims. “You’re alone in a room and acting very badly and foolish. But you just keep going at it. I heard Joaquin had to sing those songs [in Walk the Line] and I just think, ‘F——!’ Think of the days he spent going, ‘I’m going to have to play like Johnny Cash.’ That’s heavy. Some days, you’re just, ‘Oh my God, this is f——ing hard.’ You just throw your hands up, but you just keep coming back. A lot of actors do it though, and when they do it, it’s pretty special.”

For Hoffman, achieving this level of performance is an all-consuming chore. Crowe recalls the actor’s intense focus on the Almost Famous set. “Whenever a take was done, on went Hoffman’s headphones and he was able to drown out the white noise of production. His head was facing down in concentration and all I’d hear coming from that headset was the hum of Lester’s voice.”

Hoffman says he tries to dial down this intensity at the end of the day, to treat his role as “just a job.” But his passion for his craft and his deep union with the character made it difficult. “You keep thinking about it,” Hoffman says. “Why does he do that? You keep thinking and thinking; you keep finding out more and more. And whenever you find out something, it always opens up another question. It’s like being a detective. Acting is like you’re this mad, crazy detective, and you’re on the search for a secret. You’re on the search for information, knowledge, experience. And you’re searching, you’re searching. And that’s hard to shut down.”

For Hoffman, the difficulty of playing Capote was only approached by a few of his theater roles. “There are some parts like this one that ask something of you that… they kind of make you a little crazy, make you a little mad,” he says. “You’ve got to be vulnerable and a little bit raw in a way that’s not healthy. As a person, you just don’t expose yourself in that kind of way, but in acting you do. In a role like this, there’s just something 24/7 about it. This guy existed in such a needy way that it was just impossible to protect—and ultimately that was his protection, but it wasn’t mine. Acting is tough—acting is a very hard thing to do well.”

This inner exposure sent Hoffman into a protective shell on the set. “‘Intense and to himself’ pretty well describes it,” Miller acknowledges. “He emanates a vibe that warns people to stand back. He appears extremely unapproachable.”

It was a new side to his old friend, but Miller understood. “Phil really needed to be very vulnerable and exposed, and I think that’s an uncomfortable place to live for six or seven weeks. People who were on the set watching us work together, naturally, gave us space and didn’t make a lot of eye contact. As a director, I think it’s very important that the right atmosphere exists on a set for actors to do what they need to. In this case, what was required was a very hushed, minimal set. Not one person more than needed to be there. There’s nobody on set that’s going to be distracting in any way.”

“Directors need to be a lot of things—incredibly open, malleable, strong, specific,” says Hoffman. “But also they need to be a protector. They need to be somebody who’s there between you and whatever else, so you can do what you need to.

“It’s very important for a director to not be a wise-cracking, smartass cynic. I like hanging out with people like that, but as a director, no. I look for a lot of love for acting, and a lot of love for great story and character. And you can see that—the joy that’s in that. [But when] you come to a director who’s not like that and who’s always trying, it’s awful. You wonder if they really care. Who wants to go tell private things about yourself in front of somebody who might not f——ing care? Or who does care but doesn’t have maturity enough to let himself be needy or be vulnerable. Directors need to be very, very human.”

Earnest, passionate, human, with a deep love for acting, character and story—sounds a lot like Hoffman. Perhaps he’d care to direct. “It’s not one of those things I would just do on a lark,” he responds. “I would have to have something inside that said I’m the one that needs to do that story. And I would want to know every aspect of making that film. I would want to know how to shoot it; I would want to be making those decisions, collaborating in a way where I felt like I had some kind of knowledge and intelligence about how to tell a story with cameras and lights.”

Hoffman learned more about these aspects of filmmaking on Capote, where he served as producer. But he’s always been interested in how the pieces fit together beyond his role. Otherwise, he says, “you’re acting in a selfish manner where it’s just about me trying to be great in a role. You won’t be an actor very long, or you won’t be a really good one very long. You have to have something driving you that’s thematic because that’s going to be the thing that’s gonna push you through to the other side. You’ve got to be thinking, ‘What’s this about? What’s this saying? What am I part of?’ And when you really have that strong in you, it impassions you. That’s what Capote did. I had a lot of hard days on that film. But it kept me going because I knew that there was something special about this picture. It was beyond me just playing this part well. I knew I needed to play it well for the film to work, but ultimately the tale is going to be the most potent thing. The tale and all the things that the story is doing.”

WHILE FILMING ALMOST FAMOUS,

during Hoffman’s first monologue as Lester Bangs, Crowe cranks the music to convey the scene’s energy, as he’s continually done to prepare his actors since Jerry Maguire. Hoffman immediately stops the take. “What are you doing?” he asks. It was the last time the director would use the technique on him. Hoffman laughs at the memory, but says he understands what Crowe was going for and that he’s one of those passionate, un-cynical directors he loves. “But turn it off, because I’ve got something going myself.”

The incident recalls one of Hoffman’s pet peeves from working with certain directors. “Some people, right before action, they’ll be like [he leans in and whispers in imitation]—‘You’re tired, you’re sad, your wife just died, you’re bleeding from your ass… Go!’” Hoffman recoils, throwing his hands up. “I’m like, ‘No. Stop, stop.’ It immediately draws me out of any focus I had and I’m just me in a room with a camera, wanting to laugh. The same thing with the music. It just takes me someplace that’s how I would react to this music. When you’re playing a character, you’re playing aspects of yourself pertaining to another person. It’s you and you’re personalizing. But you’ve already done this kind of work on it, so you know what’s propelling you into the scene.”

He may be drawing on his own characteristics, but Hoffman so consistently imbues his characters with their own identity that his own seems lost. As we talk, I search for signs of recognition, something from one his characters that’s really just part of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but there’s nothing. Certainly, he bears little resemblance to Capote, the actor’s natural weight restored (he reportedly lost over 40 pounds for the role) along with his beard, ?yaway hair, slapdash dress and bushy eyebrows snaking over his glasses. It’s also hard to see the cocksure Freddie Miles (The Talented Mr. Ripley), the timid but ever-caring Phil Parma (Magnolia), the officious enthusiast Brandt (The Big Lebowski), the awkward Scotty J. (Boogie Nights) or—thankfully—the creepy loner Allen (Happiness). All I can glean is a strange combination of Lester Bangs and Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton—like them, he’s passionate about his art, his craft, his industry, but he speaks (minus the Lipton hyperbole) in the restrained tones of an academic. Bangs’ passionate rants and punctuated gesturing and pacing are replaced by subdued reflection, Hoffman’s hand on his chin or covering his mouth as he alternately leans in or kicks back, relaxing.

Hoffman is accustomed to the searching stare, the one that says, “I know you from somewhere.” It began with Scent of a Woman and got worse with Twister, Boogie Nights and Happiness. But it took him several years to figure out why people were staring. “I started to freak out,” he says, showing his New York colors. “You have no reference at all. If someone stares at you in life, it’s for a reason. Either it’s because they know you, or they’re daydreaming and they don’t know they’re staring at you, or they have a f——ing problem with you. It’s one of those three things; it can’t be the fourth one. It can’t be because they recognize you from somewhere, or else you’d know them. I would almost want to say, ‘What the f—— are you staring at? You got a f——ing problem?’” He laughs. “How embarrassing. I’m so glad I didn’t.”

The celebrity lifestyle isn’t something Hoffman has ever really sought. He loves talking about his work—he says he’d be a teacher if he couldn’t act—but he’s guarded about his private life. “Someone said, ‘I’ve heard you hate the press,’ but I don’t feel that way at all,” he explains. “I enjoy myself actually. There’s a certain level of us, here, talking about the process of what we do and maybe it will be of interest to somebody. It would’ve been of interest to me when I was 20 years old. That’s what I was soaking up—these ideas, these theories, these ways of looking at things that excite people. And that’s cool. It’s art, people talking about art. But there’s a whole other side that is not that. Sometimes it’s cloaked as that, and then the cloak is ripped away and you see its [true] intent. So if you don’t have to be around it, you’re not. And it’s not gonna be something that I’ll lose sleep over or feel bad about.”

Of course, promoting a picture demands a certain acquiescence to being a public figure. “I’m definitely not the most uncompromised person in the world,” he adds. “I’m not avoiding it very much at all right now. And I’m not all that comfortable with it. I do try to hold onto the fact that I love the movie and I do feel strong about the film. So I’m not bothered by talking about it or pitching it or going on the Today Show like I did today or doing whatever needs to be done.”

As for the Oscars, Hoffman says he’s trying not to think about it. It’s hard to get your head around the whole thing—or, at least, winning. “Not winning is what every actor knows, and it’s comfortable,” he says. “Not winning those things—I could deal with that. Winning would be the thing. What would that be? I don’t know what that would be. I don’t know if it would change anything. I don’t know what it would do. It’s something you have to find out.” Hoffman pauses before adding, “If called, I don’t want to make too big an ass out of myself.”

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Hoffman what advice he’d give an actor trying to play Philip Seymour Hoffman. He sits back and ponders this a while, then finally—belying an hour of discussion on the travails of acting—he answers: “I don’t work nearly as hard as you might think.”

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